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Alumni Filmmakers Dive Deep

Dramatic short film by UVA alumni gains accolades at world premiere

Director of photography Matt Boyd (foreground) and co-director Gabriel Baron (background) on the set of Waking Marshall Walker.

Thomas Canalichio (Col ’03) and Giorgio Litt (Col ’03) met as first-years at the University of Virginia while performing in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, but it was later in Los Angeles where the two pooled their dramatic arts talents.

Their short film, Waking Marshall Walker—featuring UVA drama professor Richard Warner and actress Sarah Drew (Col ’02), a star on ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy—recently made its world premiere at the Sonoma International Film Festival, where its popularity earned it a third screening.

The 15-minute drama tells the story of widower and vineyard owner Marshall Walker, who comes back from the brink of death, after an out-of-body experience in a limbolike realm, for a second chance at a relationship with his estranged daughter.

The story theme emerged after a friend of Litt’s phoned him just after the death of her mother, with whom she had a strained relationship. “She called me from the living room of her deceased mother’s empty house,” says Litt, writer and co-executive producer. “I could immediately tell she was filled with regret that it was too late.” The dramatist in Litt was struck by the emotional weight of the situation and he became obsessed with the idea of what if it was never too late?

UVA drama professor Richard Warner plays the title role.

“We began thinking about those moments in life where you think it’s too late, and we wanted to tell a story where someone jumps at that last chance,” says Canalichio, co-executive producer.

A short film format makes it hard to be direct when specific story lines are mystical or magical, but the directors hope that the subtlety and symbolism open viewers to feel something powerful.

“This is our first film, and we wanted to create a high-quality production, so we treated it as if it were a feature, but on the scale of a short,” Canalichio says.

Filming took place at Chappell Vineyard in Mariposa, Calif., near Yosemite National Park. Litt had spent months location-scouting when he spotted the Victorian home’s wraparound porch with vine rows near the house.

Sarah Drew (Col '02) plays Marshall Walker's daughter.

On the first day of November filming, serendipitous snowfall brought in fantastical elements for the afterlife realm, but then melted for the second and third days, when the vineyard popped back to life.

The two whirlwind filming days were collaborative and fun, remembers Drew, who recalls “incredible meals that felt like family gatherings … we all sat around chatting and laughing and enjoying one another,” she says. “We had a blast on set working off of one another and pushing each other to go deeper.”

Both Drew and Warner play emotion-packed roles. “It’s a very challenging script for the guy doing Marshall Walker—he has to take an amazing journey in a short period of time,” says Warner.

To fund this relatively high-budget short film, the production team crowdsourced family, friends, alumni and friends of friends; Canalichio and Litt also invested money of their own.

The investment paid off. During the premiere in Sonoma, Warner recalls experiencing “that wonderful quiet you get in the theater when people are doing deep listening and are held by the suspense.” Afterward, Litt found a woman who’d stepped outside to call her 73-year-old father—the most heart-warming response and compliment to the film they could have gotten, he says.

From left: Giorgio Litt, Gabriel Baron (director) and Thomas Canalichio at the Sonoma International Film Festival

After their success at Sonoma, they submitted their work to every major film festival in the world. Next up is the Corti Da Sogni Film Festival in Ravenna, Italy.

Canalichio and Litt—who founded the film’s production company, Soul of Wit Films—also have plans to expand their film into a feature-length version that dives deeper into the family’s backstory. “People responded in such a way that it would be crazy of us not to develop it into a feature,” says Litt, who credits the UVA’s drama program with teaching him stagecraft, lighting design, costume design, how to build sets and theater history.

“[At the time] I didn’t understand how much of that would prepare me for making a short film,” says Litt, who reconnected with Drew in Los Angeles, where Drew gathers UVA alumni once a month to sing through a musical. Warner was Litt and Drew’s acting professor at UVA. “He was the first mentor to really teach me how to dig deep and find truth in every moment as an actor,” Drew says.

Such connections last for life, says Warner, who has taught at UVA for more than 30 years, “The [UVA] film and theater network is growing every single year and they stay together and work with each other.