Manuel Crosby and Darren Knapp graduated from Calaveras High School 18 years apart, but their mutual love of filmmaking brought them together in the county fairgrounds parking lot.
Crosby was studying film at the University of Southern California and Knapp, a meat cutter at Treats True Value General Store in San Andreas, had a decade of real-life experience under his belt creating short films in the Mother Lode region.
They were helping their mentor, longtime filmmaker and Calaveras County Public Access TV Manager Ed Lark, shoot the 2011 county fair when they began chatting about a western movie they’d both enjoyed.
“I felt an instant connection,” Knapp said.
The two shared a “do-it-yourself” mentality when it came to filmmaking and, for Crosby, Knapp made him realize what was possible through passion and grit. Soon, the pair was making movies together—roughly half-a-dozen to date—in their native Valley Springs and throughout the wild landscapes and intimate communities of the Sierra Nevada foothills.
“I was going to film school, but I most looked forward to coming home and making movies with Darren. I felt like I was learning more than I was going to school,” Crosby said. “There is no better education than attempting.”
The duo describes their filmmaking style as a revival of the character-driven American indie movies of the ’90s and early 2000s—inspired by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, filmmakers who picked up a camera and made cinematic magic happen, regardless of budget.
“You can feel this electricity coming off of those films. A lot of those directors came up through Sundance,” Crosby said. “We never expected to get into Sundance.”
Yet their 103-minute-long feature film “First Date” won the hearts of programmers at the illustrious film festival and was selected out of thousands of submissions to be featured in the 2021 lineup. The movie follows shy highschooler Mike (Tyson Brown), who buys a beat-up ’65 Chrysler to take his crush, Kelsey, (Shelby Duclos) on their first date. However, the young couple is thrust into a wild night of misadventure in a dark comedy that encompasses teen romance, coming of age and “shoot ‘em up” action.
The film includes a large cast of more than 20 main characters, all of whom were cast from the Sacramento and Mother Lode region, including Shari Schweigler of Copperopolis, and former Calaveras County residents Sara Garcia, Graham Green and Dave Reimer.
“Our objective was to make them all interesting,” Crosby said. “Even the guy who comes in and says a couple lines.”
The film was produced by past county resident Lucky McKee, a professional filmmaker since the early 2000s, and included key crew member Andrew Hobgood, who lives in Valley Springs.
The setting for the film was conceptualized as a fantasized version of Valley Springs, with film locations in Valley Springs, Angels Camp and Amador County.
Crosby and Knapp hatched the idea for the script one day over breakfast.
“I was having car problems and complaining about how when you buy a used car, you never knew what kind of life the car had or (the owner) had before you got it,” Crosby said.
The pair had a storyline written within 24 hours.
“That’s how we knew we had to make the movie. It was like a lightning bolt hit,” Crosby said.
Filming of “First Date” began in the summer of 2018 and was finished in spring of 2019, just beating the COVID-19 pandemic, which would have derailed the production, according to Crosby.
Crosby and Knapp had their hands in every aspect of the project, editing scenes during breaks at their day jobs and working around the clock to make their vision a reality.
But help was plentiful. The community was generous in offering up their homes, properties and businesses for filming. Lark and Sarah Lunsford from Public Access TV, as well as others, were happy to lend a hand. From its start to its blazing finale, “First Date” is a homegrown achievement.
“A lot of people assume if you want to make a movie, you need to be in L.A., hire people in L.A. I feel proud that we showed how many talented people were around here,” Crosby said. “I don’t think either of us have ever believed you need to be in Los Angeles to make movies.”
“First Date” is sold out for its premiere digital screening in the virtual Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 31, but viewers can sign up for the second screening on Feb. 2. Viewers can vote in the audience choice awards in the NEXT Section, which spotlights up-and-coming filmmakers making bold, original choices.
Although “First Date” is not yet rated, its co-directors recommend against children watching it due to adult themes and graphic violence.
“The finale of the movie is pretty awesome,” Knapp said. “Just trust us on that. You will not be disappointed.”
Tickets start at $15 and can be purchased at tickets.festival.sundance.org.