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“How Do You Know If the Festival is a Scam?” Martha Shane on Narrowsburg

Richard Castellano in Narrowsburg

A well-meaning regional film festival can be welcoming and tightly curated—a true community endeavor. A bad one can be a deceitful scam. Such was the case with the Narrowsburg International Independent Film Festival, founded in 2001 by a couple from nearby New York City. 

Things didn’t start out so rocky. After a successful first year and an inaugural picture show in the books, the husband and wife wanted to expand upon the event (and the town’s exposure) by featuring its setting and community in a low-budget indie, Four Deadly Reasons, about the mafia invading the town. Its star? The festival’s co-founder, Richard Castellano (no, not that Richard Castellano), and its producer, his wife Jocelyn. Casting locals in supporting roles before subsequently asking them for financial assistance, the Castellanos were set to premiere a rough cut of the community-funded film during their festival’s second edition. What premiered was 15 minutes of poorly edited footage featuring none of the footage (or people) filmed in the small town. When the screening ended, Richard and Jocelyn had disappeared almost as fast as the money they had fraudulently stole. The Narrowsburg International Independent Film Festival was dead in the water.

What became of the couple who hoodwinked a tight knit community out of fame and fortune is the basis for Narrowsburg, Martha Shane’s new documentary that’s equally about a small town’s need to exorcise and rewrite its troubled narrative. Shane, who began working on the project in earnest about a decade ago, tracks down the troubled couple who sought a Music Man-inspired con, discovering warning signs that were apparent before things really hit the fan. Her documentary is also about the innocent naivete that runs wild in independent filmmaking and how that can be easily preyed upon by a couple of “big city goodfellas.”

Before the film’s local premiere at DOC NYC, I spoke with Shane about the lengthy origins of her documentary, whether she feared her film (like Four Deadly Reasons before it) was ultimately cursed and the need to be cautious of nefarious film festivals with exorbitant entry fees.

Filmmaker: While horror stories of the Narrowsburg Film Festival’s doomed, tumultuous history have spread locally over the years, personally speaking, your film served as my introduction to this short-lived festival and its shady past. How did it originally come to your attention?

Shane: In a very funny way! My film’s co-producer, Dan Nuxoll, runs Rooftop Films in New York, an outdoor screening series that also offers additional resources and equipment for filmmakers. Several years ago, Dan had rented some equipment to this woman who went by the name Marie Castaldo. She was running her own local film festival [the Queens International Film Festival] at the time, but  Dan never received payment for her rental fees. I was enlisted to help find where she may had gone off too, but she had disappeared. She stopped returning emails and her phone number was disconnected. All throughout, we were reaching out to people who knew her to ask “Where’d she go?” 

Filmmaker: What was their response?

Shane: “We don’t know where she is, but she owes us a lot of money as well, so if you find her, please let us know.” This woman had left a trail of scams behind her while simultaneously running a film festival! Once we put those pieces together, our initial question was, “Why would someone run a scammy film festival? What would be their motivation?” After some additional research, I discovered that Marie, under a different alias (Jocelyn), had previously run a film festival in Narrowsburg in upstate New York. That’s when the themes of her story began to surface, and I became interested in exploring the power of cinema and the line it draws between ambition and delusion. That was really crystallized in her “Narrowsburg episode,” and I felt a film about her past was possible.

Filmmaker: How did you ultimately locate her? There are various rumors on the internet about how she was deported back to her native France.

Shane: Without giving away too much about my film, let’s just say some things eventually caught up with her and she landed in jail. I wrote her a letter while she was detained and she wrote back: “I’m going to be leaving soon for France, but if you’d like to contact me, here is my email address.” We had a long correspondence once she was back in France and living with her children. She agreed to participate in the film because her children urged her: “You should tell your side of the story and put this episode of your time in the United States to rest.” That’s why she agreed to participate and I felt very lucky that she was willing to.

Filmmaker: At one point in the film, you sit down and interview her hotshot husband, Richard Castellano. He passed away seven years ago, however, so I wanted to ask if he was the first interview you did or if there were numerous other reasons for the film’s multi-year journey to completion? 

Shane: The first piece of footage I shot was in 2009, crazily enough. At that point, we had conducted a few interviews, but we didn’t have access to Jocelyne or Richie yet. It wasn’t until 2012 or 2013 that we filmed Jocelyne, and then Richie came about because we felt if we were to have one, we needed to have the other. He was very difficult to track down. 

Filmmaker: Why was that?

Shane: I think people were after him for money he had owed, that kind of thing. People always wanted to kill him. While he covered his tracks well, we were eventually able to find him. 

A big reason for the film taking so long to see the light of day was it was really difficult to fundraise for. It’s difficult to fundraise on any doc project, yes, but this one was specifically about people being ripped off in the film community. That was a hard pitch to funders: “Well, the film is all about people getting scammed when they put money into a movie, but hey, you should totally put money into my movie.” It was a strange, surreal situation but I’m sure other filmmakers who’ve made films about filmmaking have had a similar experience. 

It was through that process that the focus moved from Jocelyn’s past in Queens (and the focus on Jocelyn altogether) to more of the town of Narrowsburg itself. That perspective shifted while we were working on the film and after I had begun to wonder, “Is there some kind of curse that I’m unaware of?” Four Deadly Reasons (the gangster movie Richie shot in Narrowsburg) had experienced its own share of problems and I was beginning to wonder if the curse of that film had been passed on to mine, and eventually someone else would come along and make a film about me failing to finish my film, and the cycle would continue forever and ever. By screening at DOC NYC and a few other festivals, I’m finally ending the curse.

Filmmaker: Was there a hesitancy from the Narrowsburg locals about descending about this small hamlet to revisit a sour point in their history?

Shane: It was a very mixed response. Narrowsburg has one of the highest concentrations of great storytellers I’ve ever encountered and there were definitely a number of people who were like, “Yeah, I totally want to tell this story and can recall everything about it.” These were often the people who hadn’t lost money in the whole experience and could thus see some of the good that came out of it. People like Zachary Stuart-Pontier (who was basically a kid when it all happened) had a very nuanced view of the past and even took away something positive from the experience. The harder people to gain access to were very reluctant, because they had been scammed by this couple and had lost money to them. There’s a ton of shame that people experience when an incident like this happens to them. It was brave of them to be willing to come forward and tell their story. They had hoped other people would see it as a cautionary tale, I guess.

Filmmaker: As much of the film is about an event that happened almost 20 years ago, did you have to revisit Narrowsburg often, or were you primarily there for interviews and various shots of Main Street?

Shane: I made a number of trips there, sometimes just to get a few extra shots. It’s so close to New York City [where I live] that if I needed to get a pickup line or something like that, I could get there fairly regularly. The first time I went to Narrowsburg was around 2009 and I’ve been visiting off and on for about 10 years, which is crazy to think about. I’ve seen the area change a lot over that period. It’s got a cool restaurant now, and it’s always had a great art scene.

Filmmaker: In the interviews you conduct for the film, you have the men and women speak to you (positioned off-camera), while their faces are simultaneously being projected onto screens and the walls behind them; it’s like an art installation/interrogation. What was your strategy in presenting the testimonies this way?

Shane: Because our co-producer runs a film festival, we had access to a ton of projectors and equipment that allowed us to play around and experiment. Countess documentaries choose not to experiment with their interviews (there’s a rampant conservatism there) and we wanted to do something new. The fact is that every interview set-up you see within a documentary is manipulated by the filmmaker. That’s obvious. Regarding the angling of our camera and the amount of light we used, by choosing a very dramatic style, we drew attention to the fact that there was a manipulation taking pace. We’re very upfront about that and it’s very obvious that we’re making cinematic choices. Thematically, it plays into this idea of everyone wanting to be in the movies. You see first them in front of the camera, then you see the movie version of them projected elsewhere.

Filmmaker: Your film features candid archival, BTS footage of Castellano’s troubled Four Deadly Reasons film shoot. How did you realize that footage even existed, and how did it help to fill in the gaps of your documentary? 

Shane: By talking to people involved with that project, I eventually learned of its existence. The archival component, in all aspects, was a big part of what made me shift my vision away from Richie and Jocelyn and toward the people of the town. There was the archival footage that’s BTS of Four Deadly Reasons, sure, but then there’s also archival from the film festival itself and the various people who attended. I loved the process of talking to people, with them eventually realizing, “Oh, somewhere I have these old digital Super 8 tapes, maybe I can find them.” I’d go through them for three or four hours and it’d mostly be of a family vacation, a trip to Disney World or something, but at the end there’d be ten amazing minutes from the Narrowsburg Film Festival that I could use. I love the texture of the archival footage as it really places the viewer into that moment in time. It brings the story to life in real time.

Filmmaker: There’s also the footage of Richard’s various professional film work in movies like Analyze This and cheaper gangster films. His acting reel of macho, tough guy roles are at times spliced into your film, drawing parallels between his on-screen persona and his more personal one.    

Shane: The parallels between Richie’s real life and the characters he played in his films were numerous. It was really fun to go through and see how we could use the clips from the movies he’d been in to illustrate the true story we were trying to tell. In a lot of ways, my film was an experiment in using that fictitious material to tell a true, documentary story.

Filmmaker: There was an article published in The Hollywood Reporter last month about how under-the-radar festivals can occasionally prey on unsuspecting, struggling filmmakers. Without naming names, have you had any experiences like that? Are there key warning signs to be aware of for a festival that doesn’t appear legitimate?

Shane: I personally have been very lucky throughout my festival travels. For example, I haven’t shown up and found out the festival was in a hotel basement or anything like that. But I did think it would be funny if my Narrowsburg documentary played as many scammy or borderline-scammy festivals as possible. How do you know if the festival is a scam? Where is that line? These are really fascinating questions to me. I think that there are people who build careers from playing scammy festivals. They might have a film that plays a semi-real, semi-scammy festival and then someone else sees a picture of them on the red carpet or in front of a step-and-repeat and they get another job out of that, or can make another film as a result. Where that line is is really fascinating to me.

Filmmaker: The Tusten Theater in Narrowsburg was where much of the original film festival took place. Have there been talks of a local premiere? I know it’s not much of a cinema anymore, more of an active event space, but is that a possibility? Your film’s concluding moments allude to a new film festival taking place.

Shane: For about ten years after the Narrowsburg Film Festival disaster, no one could say the words “film festival” in Narrowsburg without being kicked out of town. After that period of grieving and PTSD had passed, a new festival was started by an amazing programmer, Tina Spangler, the Big Eddy Film Festival. We actually screened there this past September. We had two screenings, one in this event space called the Narrowsburg Union and then another smaller screening in the aforementioned Tusten Theater. I was freaking out a bit because I’m in the theater watching my movie in the Tusten Theater and seeing images of the Tusten Theater up on the screen and the whole thing was a little surreal. Narrowsburg is still a very small town. According to Wikipedia, the population is 422. That’s the last official number I’ve seen and I think 400 people saw the movie over that weekend in September. So it was amazing and fun to have everyone who lives there able to see it on the big screen. 

Filmmaker: And I’m sure you promised each of them roles in one of your future projects.

Shane: Oh my God, yes. I said, “This movie is going to make you all millionaires, so get ready.”

Filmmaker: I’m glad to hear that the area is getting a new lease on life and rewriting the narrative, if you will.

Shane: Definitely. It’s brought real healing to the whole idea of film festivals around town.

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