Maybe not everybody has dreams of making a movie when they grow up, but George Dondero sure did.
Now, 40 years after he used to watch second-run films at the old Aven Theater on North Street, today known as the Raven—films like Enter the Dragon, Bugsy Malone, Tommy—Dondero is blushingly proud of his first feature, War of the Wills.
The 110-minute film, available on Amazon Prime Video, is a dark comedy about family members with a family secret. Made on a $20,000 budget in Sonoma County, and starring someone very familiar to Healdsburg theater-goers, War of the Wills represents the culmination of a lifelong dream for Dondero.
“It was one of these things where I kept saying, I want to do this,” said Dondero, 54, who has been running the independent commercial film company Sonoma Film Works for the past decade, doing video production for clients such as Sonoma County Tourism and various wine brands.
“Then I realized the only thing that’s stopping me is me,” he revealed.
War of the Wills concerns a father and son, both named William (Will Jr. and Will III), who have an antagonistic relationship but are forced by circumstance to spend a month living together in the family house following the death of William Sr., aka Grandfather Will.
Not surprisingly, the dearly departed left a (wait for it) will that required the two to spend those fateful 29 days together before either of them can inherit the family fortune. If War of the Wills were a full-blown comedy, one might say “mayhem ensues.” But instead it has elements of the supernatural, gaslighting and sadism along with the comedy.
“I don’t want to say that it’s like Arsenic and Old Lace,” said Dondero, “but I think that’s one of those films where everything’s funny, but yet we have people dying and poisoning other people.”
The house is a colorful, ramshackle Victorian in Petaluma, where cast and crew spent two weeks filming the movie in mid-2022. Another location is Café Moto in Windsor, and a third is the El Pueblo Motel in Sonoma. So it’s a Sonoma County movie through and through.
Will the Father is played by Steven David Martin, the artistic director of the Raven Players, in his first film role. As anyone who has seen him on the Raven stage knows full well, Martin is an actor’s actor, alternatively subtle and larger than life, and his performance here is appropriately scene-stealing and rewarding as he drives the movie’s energy for almost its full length.
“We’ve known each other for a long time and talked about doing a movie together for almost as long,” said Martin of Dondero. (Martin is busy preparing to direct a Mardi Gras version of The Comedy of Errors, to play free in West Plaza Park in late July.)
Martin, who took over as artistic director with the Raven Players in 2014, has a lengthy career on the regional theater stage, but surprisingly this is his first film. “George was fabulous, a generous and supportive director/writer and great to the actors, always asking and encouraging our input,” he said.
In the film, Will the Son is played by Kot Takahashi, a Santa Rosa actor who lost his Coffey Park home in the Tubbs Fire. It was while working on a documentary with Creative Sonoma that Dondero first encountered Takahashi.
“I saw him on camera and I was like, ‘This kid has got something. He’s handsome, he’s smart, he’s got a lot of charisma.’ And I was like, ‘I want to make a movie with that guy,’” he recalled.
Dondero and his partner, Bethany Browning, wrote the script after COVID quashed their earlier plans to make a larger film, with many characters and locations.
“Two months into COVID, I realized that it’s not going away anytime soon,” said Dondero. “So I said, let’s figure out something that is one location with as small a crew and cast as possible.”
He started writing the script, with Browning finessing its structure and plot points. Before 2022 ended, they had a movie and called upon the talents of its all-Sonoma County crew and their own years of experience.
The whole process took about two years, from writing the script to completing the edit. Then came the hard part: finding a distributor.
“I was banging my head against the wall trying to get this released, so I didn’t have to do it myself,” Dondero said. “I was just hoping that we could get a little more exposure, a bigger release with bigger PR.”
Finally, just this past March, he and Browning decided they just needed to handle the distribution themselves. As a writer, she had used Amazon’s Create Space platform, which allows writers to self-publish and builds on Amazon’s huge marketplace to find buyers for almost anything. And that’s why one can find War of the Wills, the first film by George Dondero, Healdsburg High Class of 1987, for rental or purchase on Amazon Prime.
The future filmmaker moved with his older sister and mother to Healdsburg when he was four. “I always wanted to leave Healdsburg,” he said frankly. “When I was a kid, Healdsburg was a different place. There were no hotels; it was a very small town, very rural. It just wasn’t what you see today.
“And as a kid who wanted to experience something different and wanted to go into film, I needed to leave,” Dondero continued.
He left as soon as he could to go to SRJC and later join the military, then to San Francisco State, where he studied animation. He and his wife separated, and he raised their two sons while growing his career in documentary film. Dondero and Browning now live in Occidental.
Though Dondero couldn’t wait to get out of Healdsburg, something about those long-ago afternoons at the Aven Theater has stayed with him.
“I just instantly was taken by being in that dark room and having the whole world wash away,” he recalls, “having these stories just wash over me. I loved being in that movie theater.”