While discussing “Pacific Coast,” his first feature-length film, Beacon Hill resident Mark Kiefer readily admits that Liam, one of its central characters, has a personal epiphany that mirrors Kiefer’s own decision to pursue a career in moviemaking after spending the past 25 years as an economics and management consultant, specializing in the transportation, aerospace, and defense industries.
“I started on my own creative journey later in life than I might have wanted to,” said Kiefer, who also chairs the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission. “In large part, I didn’t have the courage to leave a steady job, and that’s sort of what informed Liam’s character. It felt like now or never. You just get comfortable in a good, solid career, and you never have the courage to leave it.”
Over the course of its one hour and 27 minutes, “Pacific Coast,” which Kiefer wrote, directed, and produced on a shoestring budget, tracks a road trip that Liam and his younger brother, Taylor, take from San Francisco to Los Angeles to help move their father into a retirement community. Liam work at a tech-firm and makes a comfortable living, although this comes at the cost of him abandoning his long-held dream of becoming an actor. Taylor, in contrast, is seemingly “drifting through life and doesn’t have his act together,” said Kiefer, but his insouciant manner belies an underlying deeper wisdom. Along the way, Taylor convinces Liam to muster up the courage to pursue a career in acting in earnest, even if it means leaving behind an established career.
“[Liam[ is more successful and more responsible, but Taylor is the wise one,” said Kiefer. “Even though Taylor is not as materially successful as his brother, he may be better at life. He lives his life in the moment and doesn’t care what other people think of him.”
Taylor is thoroughly unconcerned with status and would rather spend this time surfing than preoccupying himself with material pursuits, said Kiefer.
In writing the “Pacific Coast” script, Kiefer drew on his lifelong passion for movies and moviemaking, which was first ignited in him as a child when he saw a documentary on the making of the original “Star Wars.”
In the film’s opening scene, an Italian poster for the first James Bond movie, 1962’s “Dr. No,” is visible in Liam’s home. “Back to the Future” and “Shawshank Redemption” are both quoted during Kiefer’s film, and a humorous conversation between Liam and Taylor revolves around the origins of the name of an iconic “Star Wars” character.
And while “Pacific Coast” doesn’t contain any direct homages to other films, Kiefer said the story combines elements of two of his favorite genres – the road movie and the buddy flick, respectively.
Kiefer watched “Easy Rider” – the 1969 counterculture classic with two hippies traveling on motorcycle to New Orleans for Mardi Gras – on TV as a child, and that road movie made a lasting impression on him, which is evident in “Pacific Coast.”
On the topic of buddy flicks, Kiefer said he has a special affinity for films from that genre where the characters are at odds, or “frenemies.”
“Midnight Run” – the 1988 actions comedy that pitted Robert DeNiro against Charles Grodin – ranks among Kiefer’s favorite buddy flicks, along with 2018’s “Green Book,” which tells the story of a Black world-class classical pianist who is paired with an Italian-American former bouncer from the Bronx as his driver for a concert tour of the Deep South in the early ‘60s.
As Kiefer points out, in both “Midnight Run” and “Green Book,” the respective pair of characters become friends over the course of the two films, and Kiefer used a similar structure in defining the relationship between the two main characters in “Pacific Coast.”
“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” the classic 1986 comedy directed by John Hughes, provided further inspiration for Kiefer, with the titular character ultimately drawing his much-more repressed friend, Cameron, out his shell during a day trip to Chicago.
“Ferris is clearly the main character,” said Kiefer, “but Cameron has the arc and comes out in a different place.”
Kiefer described the common thread that runs through all of three of these buddy comedies as “one character has an arc, and the other character is the engine that moves the story forward.”
Said Kiefer: “I’m really motivated by that kind of structure. It’s a great way to balance the two main characters. You need to make them two halves of one person. It allows them to share the duties normally performed by one character.”
While Kiefer said he drew on his own life experiences for the “Pacific Coast” script, he added that the relationship between himself and his younger brother, Jonathan, doesn’t mirror the relationship between Liam and Taylor portrayed in the film.
(Mark, who in addition to “Pacific Coast” has made more than 50 short films, made his first foray into filmmaking in around 1995 when he lent his Jonathan a hand in making a short while Jonathan was attending film school at Boston University.)
The “Pacific Coast” shoot took place over 21 days between mid-September and October of last year, but as Kiefer points out, many days were only partially devoted to shooting due to scheduling constraints or the availability of certain cast and crew members. The film’s shoot was broken into three sections, comprising two weeks in California; two days in New Hampshire; and five days in Boston. The shoot was finished over a “pickup day” in December, said Kiefer.
As is often the case with many road movies, the scenes shot in California were concentrated in a “more compact geographical area than what’s in the story,” said Keifer. The distance between San Francisco and Los Angeles – the respective start and end points of “Pacific Coast” – is around 400 miles apart, so Kiefer admits to taking some geographical liberties with the shoot, like filming a beach scene set in Santa Barbara on San Francisco’s Funston Beach. Like the beach in Santa Barbara, Funston Beach is lined with cliffs, giving it a similar appearance and making it a fitting substitute for that locale.
Another scene at a guru’s house set in Santa Barbara and the opening scene at Liam’s San Francisco home were filmed in Marin County, located just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco.
Gypsy Place, a coffee shop located in Cambridge’s Central Square, which Kiefer described as “very fun and crunchy” and reminiscent of a coffee shop found on California’s Central Coast, substituted for a California coffee shop where Liam and Taylor dine enroute to Los Angeles.
“You have to find places that work for the scene – sometimes they’re in the real location, and sometimes, they’re in someplace completely different,” said Kiefer.
Scenes with Liam and Taylor in the car were filmed in Somerville against a green screen, with backgrounds shot in California added during post-production to depict the changing scenery.
A scene set in a bar was also shot on green screen, with an actual L.A. bar allowing its interior to be used as the backdrop. This proved to be a far-more economical approach than flying cast and crew out to California, paying for their accommodations, and renting the bar out for the shoot.
“We saved a lot of money,” added Kiefer. “People were very generous with their time. Some people worked for free, and some worked at a discount.”
“Pacific Coast” also took full advantage of the significant talent that the Boston area has to offer.
Liam McNeill, who portrays ‘Liam’ in the film, is from the Boston area, while Taylor West, who portrays ‘Taylor,’ was born in the Boston area and lived in New Hampshire before relocating to California.
Ross Levanto, a former longtime Beacon Hill resident who now lives in the South End, also makes a memorable turn in the film as ‘Cousin Jack.’
Smaller parts went to local actors, while Kiefer also drew heavily from the informal troupe of actors who have populated Kiefer’s short films.
“It’s a testament to the fact that there’s a lot of local talent in the Boston area,” said Kiefer, “and we were able to leverage those talents to great effect in the movie.”
Kiefer is also encouraged that many of the cast members have already expressed their desire to work on his next film.
“That’s a great success in its own right,” he said. “ Hopefully, the next one will be bigger and better, and hopefully, we can work with some of them again. And if someone on Beacon Hill wants to be involved in the next one, I’d love to meet them.”
Kiefer is now working on a few future film ideas, although it’s now unclear which one will take precedence.
“I’m working on a few ideas, but it’s a matter of which one I can get going first,” he said. “There are a lot of fits and false starts. You have to try to assemble some resources, and whichever one gets going first is the one you end up doing.”
Kiefer will be screening his short film, “Fish Tale,” at Nantucket Shorts, a short film festival coming Oct. 8 to Nantucket.
The film was both filmed on and inspired by Nantucket, said Kiefer, and tells the fictitious story of the ghost of Ernest Hemingway returning to the island where he got his literary start at age 11. Hemingway’s ghost has returned to Nantucket to haunt an attic, where he discovers the ghost of Herman Melville has already set up residence.
Another of Kiefer’s shorts, “Or, the Whale,” will be screened on Oct. 27 at the Lake Placid Film Festival in Upstate New York. Like “Fish Tale,” this short, which was also shot on Nantucket, is another work of humorous historical fiction that “imagines how the American edition of “Moby Dick” got its awkwardly long full title.
Meanwhile, Kiefer is now trying to bring “Pacific Coast” to a wider audience.
The film has been screened at three festivals so far this year, including the Los Angeles Comedy Film Festival, the Silicon Beach (Calif.) Film Festival, and the Woods Hole Film Festival.
“We has a really successful screening at the Woods Hole Film Festival on the Cape in August,” said Kiefer. “They did a great job promoting the film.”
“Pacific Coast” also benefitted from word of mouth, he said, with the film creating a buzz at the festival.
The film also had an invitation-only screening over the summer at the Capitol Theatrein Arlington. Kiefer sent out around 500 invitations and followed up with recipients on Facebook and Instagram, as well as by sending some reminders. In the end, about 100 people showed up for the screening.
“There was a lot of hustling to get people to come out and see it,” said Kiefer. “The challenge is getting the movie in front of people. Like any business, the marketing is a huge challenge – to make some aware of it, let alone watch it.”