Director Anthony Lucero confers with actress Diana Elizabeth Torres as they shoot a feature film at Coach Sushi on Grand Avenue
I live a couple of blocks from Grand Avenue, which passes through two Oakland City Council districts, as well through as the town of Piedmont.
It stretches through residential neighborhoods and commercial areas full of lively shops and restaurants until it morphs into an onramp to the Bay Bridge. It’s also one of the streets that borders Children’s Fairyland. So I think I speak for many of us when I tell you it’s a big deal when an independent feature film is shot in our neighborhood.
“East Side Sushi” is the story of Juana, a working-class single mom who’s determined not to let anyone stop her from achieving her goal of becoming a sushi chef. The film is shooting in three locations on Grand Avenue: Coach Sushi, Mijori Sushi and The Working Body Fitness Studio. All of these merchants are being hugely generous with the use of their space. Other locations throughout the city include Fruitvale, Piedmont Avenue and KTOP’s studios at City Hall.
I was lucky enough to sit in on Day Three of 23 planned days of shooting in Oakland, held inside the Coach Sushi restaurant. It was a tight fit, with 20 crew members crammed into a small space to shoot a single scene, in which Juana enters her new place of work.
During my day on location, I learned that every member of the cast and crew is working for free - or next to nothing - to make the project happen. Director and Oakland native Anthony Lucero chose not to shoot the film in Los Angeles. He said he believes that Oakland is a hub for food and culture and its diversity is unmatched.
“Why not film here?” he reasoned.
Lucero, who spent four years researching and writing the story, is a graduate of San Francisco State University’s film program; he worked as a commercial editor for several years before moving into the visual effects world. His résumé includes work for George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic and Tippett Studio on films such as Star Wars - Episode I, Pirates of the Caribbean, Iron Man and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn.
Eventually, he lost interest in the majority of films coming out from Hollywood and turned to both watching and directing documentaries. But he dreamed of making a feature film.
“I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and I look around me and see a multitude of cultures and often wonder why all of these people are not represented in film," he said. His response: “Make films with multicolored and multi-cultured people - and, of course, keep the story engaging.”
Diana Elizabeth Torres, who plays Juana, is from Mexico and now lives in Los Angeles. She’d been in Oakland for only two days when I met her at the shoot. She told me she adored sushi even before she had to learn how to prepare it for her role in the film. Although she is glamorous in her other Hollywood work (a “Got Milk” commercial with Salma Hayek, for example), for this film she wears no makeup. She says she doesn’t mind
“I’m representing a real and strong woman," Torres said. "She’s determined to take a risk and is very brave.”
The film’s production crew went online to raise money for props, costumes, housing, set decorations and other essentials. But when I met Anthony he told me they still hadn’t found a way to pay for food for the crew for the 23 days of shooting.
Since I know how wonderful Grand Avenue merchants are, I made a few phone calls to my friends in the ‘hood. Amanda at Ozumo came on board, as did Amir at Bacheesos, Mark and Barbara at Sidebar, Charlie at Boot and Shoe and Regina at Sorella di Zza’s. Even though his Chop Bar restaurant isn’t on Grand, owner Chris stepped up, as well. Helping sign up the merchants is the effervescent Elida of Galleria Scola, also on the avenue. We hope other Grand Avenue food purveyors also will join the cause.
Because that’s what makes Oakland special. Yes, we’re diverse, but we’re also a pretty tight community and we welcome creative projects, especially when they cast our city in a positive light.
And who knows? Maybe some Oscar night we’ll celebrate the success of a film that – though it lacked a big budget – boasted a big, open heart.