By REMY SISK
“I just wanted to make a feel-good family film that’s set in the heartland.” That was the only aesthetic desire film producer Milan Chakraborty had when determining the shooting location for his upcoming film “Produce”. Chronicling the homecoming of an alcoholic baseball player, the movie was supposed to be filmed in Chakraborty’s native Indiana town of Terra Haute. However, due to Indiana’s cancellation of a film tax credit, Chakraborty and his production team found themselves scouring the usual southern locales of Atlanta, Austin, Nashville and Louisiana to no real excitement. It was not until Chakraborty was in Louisville earlier this year for the Derby that he drove past Slugger Field and realized, “this is where we have to film this movie.” Six months later, the producer has found himself once again in Louisville, this time in full-fledged production on “Produce”.
Although he was immediately smitten with Louisville, the decision of course was not solely in the hands of one producer; the script, additionally, was set in Los Angeles, which only made Louisville even more of a stretch. In the final days of deliberation, however, Chakraborty received a call from Mayor Fischer who welcomed the crew to Louisville and gently encouraged it as production headquarters. After talking for forty-five minutes, Chakraborty claims the team simultaneously realized “this is the kind of community we want to film this in.” The kindness and generosity shown by the few people the team had already met was only amplified when Chakraborty arrived in town eight weeks ago.
Coincidentally – or not so coincidentally, as Chakraborty has learned “in Louisville, there are no coincidences.” – Chakraborty had previously met Gill Holland four years ago at the Sundance Film Festival; thus, the producer found himself in town with a very important host. While learning about the city and exploring its character and charm through nights at Garage Bar and afternoons at Please & Thank You, Chakraborty began to truly embrace the community and meet various city figures who would later become important in production. “You’re a friend first here,” he says. “In Louisville, people don’t size you up right when they meet you…it’s nice to know there’s still people like this, which is easy to forget when you’re based out of New York and LA.”
The warmth and geniality of the community has further presented itself to the team on location. As filming is taking place primarily in St. Matthew’s and Anchorage, Chakraborty has discovered one of the greatest nuances of Louisville: it is a small town and a big city all in one. “I mean, we’re out filming at the Anchorage Fire Station, and it’s like this wonderful little small town, but then you have these other areas of the city that are totally different.” While scouting locations for “Produce” Chakraborty has noted to himself that a producer could shoot any kind of movie here due to the ubiquitous idiosyncrasy and character that is inherent in this city. “Outside of Churchill Downs, Louisville hasn’t really been established, but there is so much potential here.”
Chakraborty is already starting to capitalize on that potential by casting a local unknown actor in one of the central roles. Twenty-one year old David DeSanctis is a Louisville native with Down Syndrome who plays a grocery store employee nicknamed “Produce” in the film. Befriended by Calvin, the alcoholic baseball player protagonist, Produce unexpectedly helps turn the athlete’s life around. Before casting DeSanctis, the production team launched a nationwide search that included everything from observing acting classes for those with Down Syndrome in Los Angeles to blind Googling. While the hunt was on, Chakraborty met with several Down syndrome organizations in Louisville, and one of them, Down Syndrome of Louisville, suggested the team meet with DeSanctis, just in case they did not find anyone in their casting search.
An active member of the Down Syndrome community of Louisville, DeSanctis has a rich history in public speaking around town. It was in fact his significant involvement in organizations like Down syndrome of Louisville and Best Buddies that brought him to the forefront of the acting search. In an example of another “non-coincidence,” one of David’s golfing partners through Best Buddies, Chris Taft, happened to sit next to Chakraborty on a plane, and when the subject of the film came up, Taft could only say “there is this kid you have got to meet. He is the one for this part.”
Over pizza at The Mellow Mushroom in St. Matthew’s in early September, Chakraborty and DeSanctis met for the first time and clicked instantly. Although he has no acting experience, DeSanctis claimed he was born to act and would absolutely blow the part away. Entirely won over by DeSanctis’s disarming personality, Chakraborty returned to LA to finish the casting process. Despite the fact that the production team saw countless actors with Down syndrome – each of whom was marvelously prepared and talented, according to Chakraborty – it still seemed as though DeSanctis was the right choice for the part.
Coached by a team of professionals including locals Carly Stotts and John and Missy Hillock, DeSanctis made it through several rounds of auditions that included everything from dancing to prepared readings from the script. While making tremendous improvements with every round, DeSanctis proved to the casting team time and again that he was a capable young man, full of potential to become a truly great actor. Due to DeSanctis’s “x-factor” as termed by Chakraborty as well as his promising auditions, the production team cast him in the role and surprised him by announcing the decision in front of a crowd of thousands at Down syndrome of Louisville’s Walk for Independence.
Although his parents believe otherwise, DeSanctis insists he was not surprised by the news. “I was just like this when I heard,” DeSanctis exclaims as he thrusts his fists in the air then quickly pulls them back down in a motion of victory and triumph. “The reason they chose me over all the others is the personality. It’s not about the acting experiences; it’s about personality.” David’s mother, Julie Wallace, agrees and contends, “he’s an outgoing kid with a fun personality and that just really showed…to everyone. I mean I was surprised just because he doesn’t have any acting experience, but Milan believed in his personality.”
After a week of filming, DeSanctis is more assured than ever that acting is what he wants to do with his life. “Not a job,” he says sternly. “A lifelong career.” While Produce may be the perfect opportunity to launch DeSanctis into the life he dreams of, he remains cautious and has several jobs lined up to fall back on once shooting wraps at the end of this month, which may not be so bad as DeSanctis laments how the lifestyle of an actor has led to a newfound dependence on coffee.
As filming continues, DeSanctis continues to amaze his colleagues and act as a reminder for the true meaning of this film. As much as Chakraborty is out to make a great family film, he is also working to reduce the stereotypical perceived limitations of those with Down syndrome. “We’re not in it for the glory or credit; we’re in it for awareness and advocacy,” the producer says. “The quote – or sentiment I guess – that we get over and over from parents with children with Down syndrome is ‘my son or daughter has made me a better person.’ Not a better father or mother but a better person. And I hope there is always room for this idea in the cultural zeitgeist.” Chakraborty is certainly working toward making “Produce” a major player in this national conversation, as the National Down Syndrome Conference has already invited Produce Films, to attend next year’s conference to speak about the film and show clips. Chakraborty hopes it will be the comi-con of this film in that it will help the film attain the attention it deserves as not only a heartwarming story but also a symbol of acceptance, equality and hope for those with disabilities.
Wallace has similar feelings. “The fear is though, there won’t be more people with Down syndrome.” With medical improvements ever on the rise, parents have become more and more aware of their child’s condition prior to birth, which can lead to abortion. Entirely incredulous at this trend, Wallace argues, “these guys bring so much to people’s lives. I mean, they make life for us, and our family has experienced so many wonderful things because of David.” She, as well as Chakraborty, is fully optimistic that this film will reintroduce this issue into the cultural conversation and help undo stigmas that are thankfully already fading.
“I hope someday, the thought will be why can’t this be a character with Down syndrome,” Chakraborty wistfully ponders. All too often in Hollywood, this major subculture is overlooked or ignored, and “Produce” aims to change this. On shoot in Anchorage, Chakraborty watches DeSanctis and thinks, “he’s just another character. There’s things he can do and things he can’t, but that’s just human beings. His compassion wins the day.”