Davis teens produce full-length Vietnam War film

Davis Senior High senior Gabriel McKinney and Da Vinci senior Christopher Monheit plan an undercover rescue mission in a scene from “Unforgotten.”
Davis Senior High senior Gabriel McKinney and Da Vinci senior Christopher Monheit plan an undercover rescue mission in a scene from “Unforgotten.”

They were born decades after the conclusion of the Vietnam War, but a band of Davis teenagers have produced a full-length film chronicling the experiences of three American soldiers on the front lines and their loved ones on the homefront.

“Unforgotten,” is set to premiere Saturday at 11 a.m. at the Davis Varsity Theatre. The film was directed by recent Da Vinci Charter Academy graduate Andre Martinez, who calls himself a history buff and supervised 60 Davis community members who rallied around the movie’s production over more than 18 months.

The majority of contributors, including more than a dozen actors, were Da Vinci and Davis Senior High School students.

War scenes were filmed on the rural outskirts of Davis around County Road 29, while other locations included the UC Davis Airport and Davis Senior High weight room.

The film operated on a budget of $900 from Martinez’s personal savings. The largest expense was realistic Vietnam-era costumes, managed by Da Vinci junior Claire Michael, at around $400. Props, including Airsoft guns spray-painted to resemble M16 rifles, and the cost of renting out the Varsity accounted for the remaining budget.

Between students’ extracurricular activities and class assignments, Martinez’s cast and crew spent six to seven hours a day shooting on weekends.

“Toward the end of production, often we worked after school which made it a challenge to find a balance while honoring everyone’s commitments,” Martinez said.

After transferring from Davis Senior High to Da Vinci after his junior year, Martinez found Da Vinci’s project-based learning model – and lack of assigned homework – conducive to his project.

Ethan Ireland, a film industry professional and former Da Vinci film instructor, offered his classroom and time to oversee cast auditions, all the while working with Martinez on his directing.

“I remember thinking, ‘Well, this is ambitious,’ ” said Ireland, who’s worked on dozens of feature films, as well as television productions such as “Hotel Impossible” and popular YouTube series “Smosh.” “The likelihood of him actually pulling (the film) off was so slim, but I thought I’d help him and see what would happen.”

As the project moved forward, Ireland brought industry professionals – from lawyers to location managers – into the classroom to expose Martinez to the various elements of filmmaking.

“It was very rocky at some points, as you may expect from a production made by a bunch of teenagers,” said Da Vinci junior Connor Judd, who played a soldier in one of the film’s leading roles while balancing soccer training and serving on a school drama club board.

Despite interpersonal and scheduling conflicts, Ireland saw Martinez rise to the occasion as a leader and director.

“I’m astounded,” he said. “Andre managed to do what, in (my) professional opinion, is impossible.”

Ireland believes the finished product will serve as an excellent jumping-off point for Martinez, who will begin film school at Loyola Marymount University this fall.

“I would hope that this would get the attention of the local film community, and they would in turn make a point to support one of the most promising filmmakers,” said Ireland. “Based on his professionalism and skills, we might be looking at the next J.J. Abrams or Steven Spielberg.”

Martinez hopes Saturday’spremiere will lead to further showings of “Unforgotten.” Ireland plans to connect Martinez with industry leaders and discuss distribution options with companies like Netflix.

Tickets will sell for $5 at the door at the Varsity Theatre. Copies of the film will be available for purchase.