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Stories from SXSW: A Small Indie Film Makes Its Debut

The SXSW Film Festival has joined festivals like Sundance and Tribeca on a list of places filmmakers look to premiere their films. Nearly three hundred films screened at this month’s event, ranging from short animated works such as The Wonder Hospital, to feature length documentaries like Where Soldiers Come From to big name Hollywood thrillers like Source Code starring Jake Gyllenhaal.

For many directors, SXSW presents an opportunity not only to screen their films, but to screen them for their first public audiences.

“When you’re really thinking of your film and how will this film eventually make it to theaters,” says actor Michael Cuomo, “where you begin the process is the most important, because once you grant that U.S. premiere to a festival, it’s gone.”

Cuomo plays the lead in the new feature film Happy New Year, directed by K. Lorrel Manning, which premiered at SXSW in the Narrative Feature Competition.

Happy New Year explores the physical and emotional wounding caused by war from the perspective of Sgt. Cole Lewis, a U.S. Marine who was severely injured on his fourth and last tour of duty. Lewis is recovering in the psych ward of a run down V.A. hospital and becomes a champion for the other wounded soldiers, who liken the hospital to prison or 1970s-era psychiatric facility.

Happy New Year Trailer from Happy New Year Film on Vimeo.

Happy New Year was first conceived in 2007, when Manning wrote and directed a one room, two-man, 25-minute play by the same title starring Cuomo, based on an interaction he had had with a veteran who was struggling to readjust after combat.

“I had the opportunity to meet…an Iraq veteran turned policeman, who had just gotten back about a year and a half before. And we had a very intense conversation about how difficult it was for him to re-acclimate himself to civilian life and deal with life now, having gone through what he’d gone through. It was pretty hard for him and that conversation really inspired me,” recalls Manning.

He sent the script to Cuomo, a friend and actor in New York.

“I still remember receiving the play initially and reading it on my couch,” says Cuomo. “I was reading it on a computer and I got to the end of it and I thought something was wrong with my computer because the screen was all fuzzy and I tried to do a couple of things and nothing worked. I went to the bathroom and realized I had been crying but I didn’t even know. And that’s when I knew that this was a piece that I was completely affected by and also terrified of from an acting perspective because I’d never done anything like this.”

Michael Cuomo and K. Lorrel Manning at SXSW

After the play was produced, a group of mothers of then-deployed soldiers urged Manning and Cuomo to turn it into a short film. Once that was in the can, producer Iain Smith asked the pair if they were interested in expanding the story to a feature length film, a journey that turned into a three-and-a-half year process.

To flesh out the material, Manning and Cuomo conducted a series of three-hour long group sessions with veterans from the Afghanistan, Iraq and even Vietnam wars.

“The first hour was very casual, very cool, the guys wouldn’t really open up at all. And then we showed them the short film and they were very moved by it. And by the second hour, they started to open up a little more. By the third hour, you couldn’t shut them up. It was very therapeutic for them, as well as it was for us. They were telling things that they’d never told anyone.”

They used what they learned to help develop the other characters: other soldiers, VA personnel, and Sgt. Lewis’s parents.

“We went on a campaign to interview veterans from various wars and really used that to add more texture and context to the actual characters, but also for ourselves, to just really have this in our bones,” says Cuomo.

Now that the film has premiered and is on its way to the festival circuit, Cuomo and director K. Lorrell Manning are hoping their film will reach select theaters nationwide.

The crew has embarked on a grassroots campaign to screen the film to veterans and military service members. The day after the world premier, the team showed “Happy New Year” to a group of Texas soldiers and their families and followed it with a Q&A.

But they’re also hoping to reach a civilian audience. Cuomo says choosing to premiere the film at SXSW will impact the film’s lifespan from here on out. “These other festivals look at this as a bit of a check mark. This film has passed a certain level of testing, it’s one that we should be taking seriously now.”

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