Director Andrew Pilkington Calls the Shots
At twenty-two, Andrew Pilkington is determined to make it in movies. Like most directors, he likes to call the shots. And like many, he’s confronting a unique set of obstacles.
Andrew Pilkington surveys the scene from his chair in a friend’s house in Wayland, Massachusetts. He’s borrowed the location for the filming of A Killer Serve, a movie he wrote and is directing. It is the biggest independent film to date for the twenty-two-year-old URI film studies grad, funded by donations from friends, family and a social media fundraising campaign.
The dark-haired young man with the goatee is quiet, smiling, watching crew members scurry about the dining room, setting up a shot that will take hours and result in about a minute of on-screen footage.
As the lead male character, I’m ready for my close-up. I’d met Pilkington a few years earlier, told him I was a part-time actor, and had gotten a small role in another of his films, Good Friday, shot at URI, a film about student government unrest.
Pilkington calls “Action.” We film, and though it goes smoothly, we film again. And again. Lights are adjusted, sound tweaked, camera angles changed, props returned to proper spots, breaks taken for the sounds of planes overhead to ebb and a quick-moving thunderstorm to rumble away. Hurrying up to wait is part and parcel of the movie-
making business and requires immense patience. Which Pilkington has, chatting with cast and crew.
I play a retired hit man, now with a wife and kids, forced back into service by my old mob boss who threatens harm to my family. We switch rooms, doing a dramatic scene in the kitchen where my anger toward my boss on the phone builds into an explosive rage.
We film multiple takes, and when the scene wraps, Pilkington beams and laughs “I love it!” and, in his excitement, practically pitches himself out of his chair.
A motorized one. With big wheels on it.
Pilkington has cerebral palsy, his body movements hard to control, his speech difficult to decipher until you get to know him. He directs from, and lives much of his life in, his wheelchair. This is his third independent film. At Wayland High School, he once wrote a 130-episode TV pilot, though only one got made. He typed all that as he types everything — scripts, texts, emails — with his nose. He edits film with his amazingly adept right foot.
Not a bad life for a guy who damn near missed having one at all.
Pilkington was not breathing at birth in Newton-Wellesley Hospital, his tiny body gone gray, says his mother, Deborah Ciolfi. After he did breathe, he was quickly baptized. Ciolfi and her husband, Chris Pilkington, were given a lock of his hair and rosary beads. He was taken to the neonatal care unit at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
“He was a mess,” Ciolfi says. “He was on life-support machines and intubated, and a tube pierced his lung. The first two weeks were touch and go, and the first forty-eight hours alone were a question of whether he’d live or not.”
He did. He was released on Valentine’s Day, sent to his then-home in Charlestown, Massachusetts, with parents who knew nothing about caring for a child with immense needs. They quickly learned. They still care for him, hand feeding him and helping him use the bathroom and bathe, aided by the personal care assistants who populate his life.
“It wasn’t until he was about nine months old we got the diagnosis of cerebral palsy,” Ciolfi says. “They hadn’t known what it was, and said we wouldn’t know until he reached his milestones or didn’t reach his milestones. We’d heard brain damage, and we ultimately got a diagnosis of spastic quadriplegia.”
It was a slow, arduous process but there were telling signs in the boy’s fragile body.
“There was intelligence in his eyes,” she says. “You’d ask a question for yes and no answers and he’d lift his eyebrows, you’d get this look. He could communicate with his smile marvelously.”
“I swear,” jokes Chris Pilkington, a health care executive, “his first words were ‘quiet on the set.’ ”
As he grew, Pilkington’s parents had his vocabulary tested. He couldn’t respond, but testing showed he was receiving nicely, his “reception off the charts,” Ciolfi says.
He was creative as a child, using toys to set story scenes and create tiny movie sets.
“He couldn’t manipulate his toys to set them up, so he had his slaves do it,” his father says with a laugh.
“Yeah, like me,” adds Joe Bushee, Pilkington’s lifelong hometown friend who’s been in all his buddy’s productions.
Another slave was Grace Pilkington, his kid sister, whom he dubbed Bam Bam. She would move a sofa if he wanted to make room for his toy movie scenes with big brother ordering her around.
“He didn’t get into filmmaking until he was a teen,” Ciolfi says. “But he was creative, writing stories before that. He and Grace wrote a book once that she illustrated and we published on the computer. It was a pretty creative story about a Lego guy who was the hero and invaded Barbie Land. ”
“He’d protect me from doctors. He didn’t want them touching me,” Grace Pilkington says. “He’s a good big brother.”
Scenes from A Killer Serve.
“I’ll break some ankles with my wheelchair,” he says at the thought of anyone hurting his sister. “I’ll kick ass if I have to. She’s my baby.”
Deborah Ciolfi is a tough, no-nonsense sort. And a fast walker. One day, shooting a scene in their backyard that calls for me to move quickly away from my mob boss, I’m not doing it fast enough for Pilkington. He tells me to “walk like my mom.”
I have no idea what he means. He calls her over. She takes me aside and walks me briskly through the yard. Ciolfi, a financial adviser, once worked for a company where she hired people. She’d first take them for a walk, figuring if they walk slow, they work slow.
We reshoot the scene. With my quick mom-walk. Pilkington is pleased.
It’s that toughness, combined with maternal protection, that makes Ciolfi wary of her son wanting to be in show biz, with his goal of becoming a TV writer. It’s risky, she says, as he enters a job market brutal for anyone, let alone someone in a wheelchair. And she knows the business: Ciolfi served as a financial planner for the Sundance Group, the parent entity of the Sundance Film Festival, where she’s taken Andrew for many years.
“He’s been in a protected world, a closed community,” she says of his home life and the supportive environment of URI. “Yes, the world is his oyster, but it’s not a nurturing, caring world. You have to take a lot of rejection. It’s hard to emerge from college and get a job if you’re able-bodied. You have to be tough.”
“Mom,” her son groans from his wheelchair, accompanied by an eye roll. “I’m not a baby.”
“I know you’re not,” she says, her worried look melting into a small smile, as she adds, “he has the mental toughness and drive to make a go of it, that’s for sure.”
Pilkington’s presence on set is professional — and occasionally mischievous. If a scene tickles him, he’ll let out a snort or a giggle, forcing us to stop and shoot him a “What the hell?” look before resuming action. He apologizes, face erupting into a smile before we continue. Making movies is fun, and no one seems to have more than he.
We shoot in Narragansett one hot summer day by the seawall, no easy feat given the people who stop to watch, wondering if we are anyone famous. They realize we aren’t and move on. While much is planned, sometimes it’s improvised. We decide to shoot up the street at a gift store. Pilkington sends in Bushee, his assistant director, to ask permission. The clerk calls the store owner, who is nervous because I’d said it’s a film about a killer. Bushee smoothly lies his way through it, telling the owner it’s actually just a cop movie. She acquiesces and we get the shot.
The film, A Killer Serve, is based on a short story, “A Killer Overhead,” by Bob Leuci, one of Pilkington’s URI professors, a former NYC cop now living in Rhode Island who also writes crime stories. Pilkington adapted Leuci’s story as the movie, setting Newport as a backdrop and filming several scenes there, including in front of the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
A few years ago, Pilkington also made Suburban Kings, a film about white gang violence in an upscale community. He didn’t like how it turned out.
“It came out terrible, worst film I’d ever seen,” says Pilkington, who counts among his favorite movies The Godfather and Goodfellas. “I lied to my cast and said we had to redo a few scenes. So we redid the whole thing.”
He got his love of film watching TV as a kid, favoring “Boy Meets World,” “The West Wing,” “ER” and “Monk.” It was from that last show, about a germaphobic detective, he once toyed with the idea about being one.
“In middle school, I started my own detective agency,” he says. “I’d go find stuff for people if they lost something. Then I realized I liked TV more than being a detective.”
Jim Mullane is the TV/production teacher at Wayland High School, where Pilkington learned filmmaking and where he once asked why the school didn’t offer a movie class. Mullane thought it a good idea and got approval for one. Pilkington then wrote a movie and directed it.
“That started our honors script-to-screen class,” Mullane says. “I give Andrew total credit for that. If he hadn’t opened that door, it would not have happened.
“If you put a goal in front of him, he doesn’t figure he can’t do it,” Mullane says. “He just figures out how. You’d think sometimes people with a disability might go into a shell. He went the other way.”
At URI, Pilkington was a Harrington Ranger, a group of student ambassadors in the Harrington School of Communication and Media, of which Tom Zorabedian is assistant dean. He supervised Pilkington for two years — and ended up learning from him.
“We were setting up an open house once and there were about four of us trying to figure out a video display,” Zorabedian says. “Andrew said, ‘Did you plug in such-and-such wire?’ We hadn’t. So he joked, ‘How many URI professors does it take to show a DVD?’
He’s a charming guy, always laughing. People like being around him, and he’s such a worker,” Zorabedian says. “One time we had a video that needed editing and I asked him in December to do it over Christmas break. A day later he had it done. His so-called disability is secondary when you work with him; you don’t even think about it.”
Pilkington took two summer classes in film at UCLA with Jordan Moffet, a writer for TV and movies. In Pilkington, he sees unlimited potential in a limited body.
“When I was his age, I hadn’t written a thing,” Moffet says. “He’s not only writing but directing, using a camera, all those things that are hard to learn, and he uses his nose and foot, which makes it harder. My sense is the sky’s the limit. With his talent and determination, he’s got a good shot at making it in this business.”
Few at URI know Pilkington better than Leuci, who had him in seven classes.
“He’s very sensitive and in some ways naïve,” Leuci says. “He’s very honest and upfront but the rest of the world isn’t. He says he knows that but is shocked by dishonesty, misogyny, racism. That all surprises him.”
Leuci says from the outset Pilkington was the brightest kid in class, hands down. “He understood everything about the material and he’d help me. He’d email me and say I’m not explaining something right or going too fast, not giving students a chance to get involved. I was taken aback at first. Then I realized he was right.”
Like any college kid, Pilkington partied plenty at URI. One night his friends thought it would be funny to roll him over a speed bump. He went airborne, crashed to his back, and as his friends got him up, campus cops pulled up. They heard his slurred speech and asked how much he’d had to drink.
“I said ‘I have cerebral palsy, I always talk like this,’ ” Pilkington says, laughing at the memory. “They felt bad and left, but in reality, I was stoned.”
A guy in a wheelchair with cerebral palsy has limited dating options, Pilkington readily admits, saying he’s gone out a few times, including with one girl who said she loved him after the first date and wouldn’t leave him alone.
“I was like ‘Whoa, not so fast,’ ” says the young man who on Facebook can often be seen in photos with beautiful girls.
One time at URI, a friend got into a fight that Pilkington tried to break up, finding himself on the floor, the fight continuing around him.
“I thought ‘I’m gonna die,’ ” he says. “But then all these pretty girls rushed over and asked, ‘Andrew, are you okay?’ I looked up and said, ‘I am now.’ ”
Pilkington and I take a stroll through downtown Nantucket, where his family is on summer vacation. The fabled cobblestone streets make for rough rolling in his motorized wheelchair. But he doesn’t complain, clattering over them, garnering worried stares of occasional passersby. Sometimes he jets ahead, leaving me far behind, laughing as I catch up.
He talks easily about his “situation,” as he calls cerebral palsy. He doesn’t have it so bad, he says.
Scenes from Suburban Kings.
“My CP is mild, many others have it much worse, they can’t move at all, or breathe or eat,” he says.
When I ask about his childhood, his smile turns wistful. “When I was younger and saw kids walking and running, I went through disability depression,” he says, “wishing I were like them.”
He overcame it by becoming their friends and they his supporters. Like Bushee, his best friend of all.
“I’ve known him since the first grade,” Bushee says. “When I first saw him, I thought, ‘Okay, here’s this other kid, just like any other kid.’ ”
Pilkington used a walker at the time, one he dubbed Herbie, after the movie about a VW that magically moved on its own.
“He liked the same things I did, we had the same interests,” Bushee says. “In elementary school, he created something called Pilkington Ball, and I’d get out of class to go play with him and about six or seven other kids.”
In high school, they worked together in the TV and movie program. Bushee attended Boston College, but after graduation they reunited to work on films. Bushee was a crack dealer in Suburban Kings who gets killed. In A Killer Serve, in addition to being assistant director, he has a minor role as a punk who gets a bullet in the head. From me.
“I’ve worked on four productions with Andrew, each one gets better exponentially,” Bushee says. “I know for a fact that our friendship will go to the end of time. We’ll get old and senile and die, but until then, we’ll be friends and no matter what I’m doing, if he asks me for help, I’ll be there.”
I go to Pilkington’s home one Sunday to watch the Patriots game with him. He is a total sports animal, with three fantasy football teams. He’s been on the field at Gillette Stadium, on court at a Celtics’ game (where he once got a pair of sneakers from the team owner), and has ridden the Zamboni at Boston Bruins games.
He gets so energized watching the Patriots game, his father moves a table so he can roll around the room, his right foot — the one he edits with — stabbing the air, screaming approval or disgust depending on the tone of the play.
I watch him edit some of our film, a daunting task with more than 2,000 clips to mesh into a final product. His foot flows over the joystick on the floor, and with his nose, he types file names onto each clip. He hopes to release the film in early 2015, premiering at Coolidge Corner Theatre in Boston, where his other work has played, and possibly New York City. He will enter it at film festivals where someone in power may notice his work and cut him the break he needs.
At the wrap party after filming ends, we eat and drink and carry on, postponing the moment of parting, not wanting to let go of this most remarkable communal experience that movie-making is. When I leave, I lean to hug him in his chair. He’ll have none of it. He forces himself to his feet, unaided, throwing his skinny, strong arms around me in a crushing embrace.
“I may be drunk,” he says, nearly in tears. “But I fucking love you, man.”
His situation is the hand life has dealt him. And this is how he chooses to play it: Full out, game on, every day. His ultimate goal is to be a multiplatform content provider. He may attend grad school, and try to find a job editing or filming or reading scripts, doing whatever anyone getting into the business must do. He just wants to get that talented right foot in the door to show people he can do it.
“Cerebral palsy isn’t my identity,” he says. “I am my identity.”