Director John Nava knows his way around poker tables. He once sat at one with a chef, a Mafia boss, an Elvis impersonator and a Stanford student and he put all his money in on one bet. He lost.
The Stanford student who won got up and thanked him for paying for her textbooks for the year, cashed in her chips and left. His misfortune led Nava, who has worked at Sigona’s Farmers Market in Redwood City and Palo Alto for 37 years, to write the script for The Biggest Game in Town about a bunch of colorful poker players trying to defeat the best player in the country with every cent they could muster—and more—on the table.
Nava pitched it to Gilroyans L. Mattock Scariot and her husband, Nils Myers, whose 152 West Productions has made corporate and children’s movies for the past decade. They loved it, and the trio, all in their 50s, went all in on their biggest dream, devoting two and a half years of weekends and $30,000 of Nava’s money into making it.
From the applause and howls of laughter during its debut Saturday at Monterey’s Golden State Theater, this time Nava won. They sold more than 600 tickets at $30 each and got it viewed by buyers from some big film festivals.
“In a way, everybody who’s in this movie is the biggest game,” said Nava, who was raised in Morgan Hill and lives in Hollister. “We’re an indie film that cost $30,000 and we’re going to festivals competing against movies that are going to be $200,000 to $1 million. We’re real indie and everybody who was in it donated their time and no one got paid.”
In keeping with the poker theme, Nava bought the camera used for the film with winnings from a poker game a week before shooting began. He
In his off time working in produce, Nava, a film devotee who made the western Handsome Stranger 22 years ago, created demo reels for aspiring Hollywood actors in San Francisco. He would write and direct the clips and each of them got jobs. One of them, Eric Zivot, who played in an episode of the TV show Jag and was in movies, Mob Story in 1989 and The Alarmist and Two Voices in 1997, returned to the Bay Area to take a leading role in The Biggest Game.
The other actors are locals who perform like seasoned pros in the movie. Morgan Hill’s Steve Caposio is a natural ham who showed his bacon as the winner of Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen earlier this year. The movie’s lead, Jayson Stebbins, is simply stunning. He’s a Morgan Hill mortgage broker with a lot of local community theater experience, who comes off as an everyman schlub with million-dollar dreams and 10 cents to his name. He is like a mix of Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller.
Joe Barra, who played the casino manager, was an insurance broker for State Farm, and died before the movie came out. An accomplished theater actor, his dream was to make a movie, and he did. Nava paid tribute to him during the premiere.
When Scariot told the audience at the premiere that she wouldn’t choose Hollywood’s best over the actors they had, you can believe it. Although you could also see this script, with its wry, dark humor, being picked up by Hollywood and brought to the cineplexes everywhere. The movie has the wackiness of The Hangover with some of the tension of Ocean’s 11. That’s no surprise given that Nava’s two favorite movies are The Wizard of Oz and the Godfather. He has allusions to both in this.
The decision to risk it all on a dream resonated with Scariot when she read Nava’s script. Its lead character, Atticus Cane, is a disappointed, but hopeful, 40-something on a quest to compete in a legendary poker game started by the “original Texas gamblers,” spoken to him in reverent tones over the years by older pal, Manfrotto.
Many poker nights with the guys later, the desire to play at this high-stakes game, with a $100,000 buy-in becomes an obsession for Atticus, consuming both his waking hours and subconscious.
“Everyone in the film is Atticus—we are all in our 40s and 50s—and we all have that dream of making it in Hollywood, so I felt really tied to that character,” Scariot says. “I think most middle-aged people feel that at one point in your life, you say: ‘I just have to take a risk, I’ve just got to do it. I’ve got to just put it out there and see what happens.’”
Nava says the bedroom conversations between Atticus and his wife about chasing the big time poker dream echo the ones he’s had with his own wife about chasing his dream of making films.
Reviews from those leaving the premiere, which included food and a band with an Elvis impersonator, were positive.
“It’s exciting to have Gilroy folks actively involved in the arts and putting something together,” said Gilroy City Council member Roland Velasco. “There’s a lot of Gilroy people here that came to show their support.” While he only plays poker himself every once in awhile, Velasco said it was “fun to watch the dynamics between people—and that is what you saw in the film.”
Robert and Sarah Caposio, the son and daughter-in-law of one of the film’s highlights, the irascible, “Diamond Dave,” were ecstatic after the film. “We thought the movie was hilarious,” said Robert. “I was laughing the entire time.”
Sam Bozzo, longtime community supporter and member of the advisory board of Pinnacle Bank, gave it a thumbs up. “What a wonderful undertaking and there was such a cross-section of people involved,” he said. Steve Caposio chartered a bus to bring friends and family to the premiere.
South Valley residents worked for free and donated locations to the movie. Fox Creek Ranch in Hollister let the crew film a western dream sequence there. While others were asking $25,000 to write a score, San Jose musician David Santos traded two months of work for fruit and cheese. Morgan Hill developer Frank Leal donated locations and helped feed the crew.
Artist Heather Apgar, 17, made one of the movie’s posters. The other was made by Ralph Noe, who also plays witness protection killer Vic Manfrotto.
“This is really a case of a community coming together and sharing everything they have to make a movie,” said Nava, who spent three hours of his “glamorous” day after the debut cleaning the theater, while other cast and crew were at a party.
“That’s the other side no one sees,” he said. “After the show everyone leaves and it looks glamorous, but we have to stay and clean the trash.”
Scariot and Myers of 152 West Productions have made a name for themselves with professional and inspiring corporate videos for the likes of Sigona’s Farmers Market, Jabil Trinidad, Dental Concepts and Cal State University.
They met in Southern California, where Myers was a film student and Scariot a costume designer. When they had children, they decided to move back to Gilroy, where Scariot was raised. The kids are grown now and her son, who works at the House of Bagels, has a sandwich named for him. Scariot is also on the city’s arts commission and has been working to grow the Gilroy Arts Center. They also run a summer program that teaches kids how to make movies.
While hitting the big time with the film would mean Hollywood, said Scariot, an invitation to appear at a film festival or a good placement on a streaming service like Hulu or Amazon, would also be terrific.
“The key is to get placement in the front of streaming services like Amazon, Netflix, Hulu. [Otherwise] it can just disappear,” she said. “If we go to film festivals and win awards they would market it better and get that better placement.”
There is also hope that if The Biggest Game in Town wins enough favorable exposure, distributors would be interested in 152 West’s previous titles. Currently one of their films has an agent and is distributed overseas.
“It would be great to be in the theaters,” she said. “That would be winning the biggest game in town.”