You may have seen northern Scottsdale resident Amanda Melby Crisalli on the small screen in several commercials for McDonald’s, Priceline, Courtyard by Marriott and more.
Or maybe you’ve seen one of the 28 short films she has produced through her Scottsdale-based acting studio, Verve Studios.
But from April 12 through 14, the local writer, director, actress, producer and Arizona State University faculty associate will appear on the big screen in her first feature film, “Raising Buchanan,” debuting at the Phoenix Film Festival at the Harkins Scottsdale 101 Theaters.
Crisalli plays the protagonist, Ruth Kiesling, in the film she produced with fellow local award-winning writer and producer Joe Gruberman.
Rocky Mountain Emmy Award winner and Tempe resident Bruce Dellis wrote the comedic screenplay and directed the film.
“I knew I wanted to do a comedy, and most of the things I tend to get cast in are dramas because I can cry,” Crisalli laughed. “Bruce writes great comedy, writes really smart, witty, educated comedy.”
Crisalli has worked with Dellis on a number of short films, and when she decided to produce her first feature film, he was the person she wanted to work with.
“Raising Buchanan” tells the tale of a woman, Ruth, who steals the corpse of one of America’s worst presidents, James Buchanan, in hopes of scoring a large ransom – only to find out no one has any interest in getting him back.
“I loved the character,” Crisalli said. “She’s ridiculously flawed and she makes decisions based on some flawed thinking … The character had some tragedy in her past and so you see where she went wrong on a lot of her decisions and how her life has turned. But, ultimately, she’s just trying to survive.”
Crisalli and Dellis began working on the project in 2013, and by 2015, they had a solid working draft of the screenplay. Crisalli then raised money for the film, and shooting began in 2017.
The film has a large cast, with 28 speaking parts, including Emmy-nominated and Tony Award-winning actor René Auberjonois, who plays Buchanan.
Auberjonois, who is best known for his roles in “The Patriot,” “MASH,” “Benson” and more, spent five days filming in Phoenix.
“The script is outrageously funny and courageously insightful in its way,” Auberjonois said in a prepared statement. “The role is one of the most challenging I have had in a long career, but I’m psyched to sink my teeth into it.”
Crisalli said Dellis wrote difficult monologues for Auberjonois.
“[Auberjonois] is really top-notch and super prepared. He came in and just knocked him out of the park, take after take,” she said, adding, “he is the loveliest human being you will ever meet in your life.”
The cast also includes national and local talent, including M. Emmet Walsh, Terence Bernie Hines, Steve Briscoe, Jennifer Pfalzgraff and Cathy Shim, who plays Ruth’s best friend, Meg.
“I had never met her before,” Crisalli said. “I talked to her on the phone, and we clicked right away. She’s really funny in the movie, and we look like we’ve known each other for decades.”
The “Raising Buchanan” production crew, however, was 100 percent local.
“I hope people see there’s good work being done here in Phoenix,” she said. “We’re not particularly known for being a mecca for filmmakers here, but there’s a lot of really talented people that live in and work here.”
The crew includes Director of Photography Bret Kalmbach, Production Manager Shelly Boucher, Production Designer Vicki Xericos and Costume Designer Nola Yergen.
Twenty-eight interns from surrounding colleges and universities also participated in the production.
In addition to its local crew, “Raising Buchanan” was filmed in and around the Valley and Prescott.
Scottsdale-specific locations spotted in the film include Verve Studios, a Dairy Queen on Scottsdale Road and two private homes.
Outside of Scottsdale, other filming locations included Tarbell’s in Phoenix, Sunny’s Diner in Tempe, the Mesa Public Library and Lilac Bakery, also in Phoenix.
“We were there [at Lilac Bakery] for probably four days,” Crisalli said. “That was our little donut shop where my character is supposed to have worked.”
Filming took 30 days, and Crisalli said Dellis even made changes to the script up until the day they began filming.
“He wrote me a brand-new speech to learn at the end of the movie,” she said. “Part of that is because the film is about a president and the running joke is that Buchanan is the worst president in history, and so we felt, based with on what’s happening in the world these days, we needed to change a little bit of the language.”
Crisalli also found the scene where she had to play the cello at Goldwater Lake in Prescott particularly challenging.
“They wanted to actually record my sound as we were doing the scene, so I think that was probably the most challenging for me as an actor because I had to do two different things: act and play my cello at the same time,” she said.
Though described as a dark, quirky comedy, the film does have a deeper message.
“The message of it is you have some choice about your destiny and your legacy, and it’s not too late to reverse course if you need to reverse course,” Crisalli said.Crisalli added that this film was a dream come true for her to make, and in the end, she’s proud of the finished product.
“I’ve been working a long time to be able to make a feature film, and it’s not an easy thing; so, I’m grateful to the people that came on and said ‘yes’ and were a part of it,” she said.
If you go
2019 Phoenix Film Festival
When: April 12-14
Where: 7000 E. Mayo Blvd.
Tickets: $15 for a single ticket to $450 for the platinum pass