During the pandemic, Waterford’s Alex Molina left New York – where he was pursuing his life as a theater actor – for what he planned to be a two-month road trip that would take him back to the Northeast.
Once he arrived in Los Angeles, however, he decided to stay.
“Obviously there are bonuses like the ocean and learning to surf and (I have) a good number of friends here,” Molina says.
But it was especially the fact that his friend Sean Perry, who had moved from New York to Los Angeles, had offered him a film project.
Now that film, titled “Dash,” is complete — and has been picked up for the Cinequest Film & Creativity Festival, which USA Today once called “the best film festival in the country.”
Due to the pandemic, Cinequest has made this year’s festival a mix of virtual and in-person events. Molina and Perry will be present in person in August in Silicon Valley, but “Dash” is also available online until April 17. Visit https://creatics.org/cinejoy/. The “Dash” team will host a virtual screening party at 9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on Friday; visit https://creatics.org/cinejoy/screening-parties/join.
“It’s very exciting and overwhelming and fun and crazy – all of those things,” Molina says.
Both Perry and Molina were producers of “Dash”, which Perry wrote and directed and in which Molina stars.
It is a unique piece that takes place inside a car. The final result lasts one hour and 45 minutes.
Molina, whose day jobs are tutoring and catering, says making the film was an intimidating experience that was a bit magical when it all came together.
“Right from the start, we realized we were trying to tell a story with very limited resources. We knew we didn’t have a lot of money and we didn’t know a lot of people in LA. Within these constraints, (we had to) try to be creative and try to tell an engaging story. Every challenge that came up felt like the project was going to fall apart, but somehow we were able to keep moving forward,” he says.
They couldn’t have a crew because they couldn’t afford one, he recalled. This is what led them to opt for the single-shot format. They mounted a camera eight inches high and nearly two feet long on the hood of the car. All the action takes place in this single image. The hope was, says Molina, that it would “make the audience feel like they’re stuck in the car with the story and feel all the tension”.
Molina — who focused on soccer in high school and college before trying acting — plays the protagonist, a rideshare driver who leads a double life. He is a well-meaning person who nevertheless lies to people to protect himself and please others. He finds himself in a bind where he needs quick cash to maintain his double life – and decides to sell drugs to do so. As expected, everything begins to fall apart.
All in time
Doing a one-take production takes a lot of planning. Molina and Perry began by writing out the timing for each scene; “Dash” involves picking up and dropping off around 10 people over the course of the movie. If a scene was two minutes long, they would determine which general area they needed to drive in, then they would choose a section to test. They would walk the possible route over and over again to get an average time and see if it matched the number of minutes it took to read the scene.
They also had to decide if the drop-off and pick-up points told the story accurately. If it was a moody character entering and exiting the vehicle, for example, it would try to find a dark, moody location.
The car used in the film is borrowed from New London native Billy Satti, who now lives in California and works in a school district there. He and Molina briefly met when Molina was a student at the University of Connecticut and Satti was still in high school; they became friends when they both lived in New York. Satti let them use his Hyundai Elantra for “Dash”.
For the March 2021 shoot, Molina drove Satti’s car, where all the scenes take place. When Perry wasn’t acting (he had a cost-cutting role), he was in the lead car ahead of the Elantra, along with the sound designer, stage manager, and producer. They had video and audio feeds so they could monitor the progress of filming. Molina wore a headset so he could hear any instructions they might give him—to defrost the rear window, for example. (They removed the windshield wipers so Molina wouldn’t accidentally hit the switch that starts them and messed up the socket.)
In addition to these two vehicles, two others served as shuttles to pick up and drop off the actors where they needed to be.
“Every day was great. The more we invested in the project, the more we learned – ‘This is going to be cool, this is going to work.’ And then every other day we were like, ‘This is the worst project in the world. I don’t know why we are wasting our time!’ laughs Molina.
After about 10 days of rehearsal, they started filming. They gave themselves three chances to get it right; they couldn’t try more than that because the cost would have been too high, says Molina. (The budget cap for “Dash” was around $7,000.)
The pressure was to make sure everything was going well and that, say, an hour into shooting, you’re not the one missing something.
“That pressure – oh man, that made my heart beat out of my chest like you wouldn’t believe,” Molina says. “Having only three tries, and there are so many unforeseen variables, even though we’ve tried and planned so much – you just have to keep your fingers crossed and hope.”
Avoid the red light
A particularly perilous moment came when Molina saw a red light go on, and he knew that, if he had to stop for the light, the filming moment would never get back on track. But he had no way of communicating to the lead car that they had to turn around before the intersection to meet the schedule. It was the second night of filming, after failing to get a finished product on the first night.
“Anxiety just runs through my veins, and I play too, so I stay cool and act with Sean, and try to solve problems. What are we going to do? The only thing I can do is to turn on my high beams to get their attention (in the lead car), hit my left turn signal and cross my fingers, so I kept doing this repeatedly while playing in the scene. … All of a sudden, (the lead car) pulls that right U-turn before crossing the intersection. Inside, I’m screaming and I’m so happy. But my face is impassive because I can’t break character,” Molina says.
From football to theater
During his high school and college years in Connecticut, Molina was not known as an actor but rather as a football player. He was a receiver at Waterford High School and the University of Connecticut. After graduating from UConn in 2010, he was working as a personal trainer when he decided to audition for a play with Chelsea Players in Norwich. He landed that role in David Lindsay-Abaire’s “A Devil Inside” and followed it up with a Flock Theater production of “Little Women.”
He then played professional football in Denmark for two seasons before becoming more serious in his acting career. He returned to the United States and attended the American Repertory Theater Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University.
During his final years in New York, catering was his “survival job to make ends meet” as he auditioned for acting roles. He was in the children’s musical “The Light Princess” off-Broadway. He also did a few regional shows.
Just before the pandemic hit, he took part in a new musical, “Love and Yogurt” by Aaron Morill. The hope was that the off-Broadway development/showcase production would lead to a larger series. And although the showcase in New York took place, the theaters subsequently closed due to COVID. The show is still in development, now called “Food Fighters”, but Molina obviously won’t be involved since he’s in LA.
Molina calls “Dash” the start of his career as an independent producer, under Molina and Perry’s newly created SPAM Pictures banner. He says he was lucky to be associated with Pennsylvania-raised Perry, who made movies most of his life.
“Right now, because I’m also the producer of this movie (as an actor), I’m trying to find a way to get this movie into more people’s homes and (in front of) more people’s eyeballs. of people, so I went to work trying to establish myself as a producer and do this type of work,” he says.
Molina says he would, however, like to get back to work in the theater.