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Grief and Loss - Reflections from Film Producer Tony Gapastione

grief last chance charlene partnership stigmatized losses series Feb 13, 2023
Grief and Loss Interview

Interview by Yahdav & Hanlon / Interviewee Tony Gapastione

Grief is complicated, and sometimes grieving stigmatized losses such as death by suicide can add extra layers of complexity to one's grief. Some hesitate to tell others how their person died, in fear of a judgmental or hurtful response. And all grievers we have worked with grapple with the "what if's"- wondering how this loss could have been prevented. Tony Gapastione, CEO of BraveMaker, produced his amazing feature film, Last Chance Charlene, to "make space for many to laugh, cry and experience hope as they make sense of their grief (and find permission to do so)." You can read more about the film here.

We were honored when Tony reached out to us to collaborate on this film, to provide grief education and co-create a workbook to accompany the film. It is inspiring to see how he values providing resources to his audiences, to people can dive deeper and be supported as they explore difficult topics such as grief and racial inequities. Tony is an incredible person, and we are excited to share him with you in this interview. 

About Tony Gapastione: 

Tony has worked on stage and in front of the camera acting, in print and film for thirty years. Originally from Chicago, Tony grew love for acting through theatre and now lives in Northern California as a SAG-AFTRA actor and filmmaker. His first feature film, Last Chance Charlene, was screened at the Cinequest Film Fest April 2022. 

Tony loves creative collaboration behind the camera writing, producing and directing. See his IMDB.

He loves storytelling and started a non-profit film organization, BRAVEMAKER, to support, celebrate and equip filmmakers, actors and brave storytellers of all kinds. They host monthly film screenings, panel discussions and an annual film fest in Redwood City, California as well as hosts a live Youtube show every Wednesday talking to makers all around the world.

Behind the Scenes with Tony

Yahdav & Hanlon (Y&H): We’d love to learn more about you starting BraveMaker. Please share your story and inspiration.
Tony Gapastione (Tony): I had been acting for about twenty years. I felt that I was constantly waiting, hoping for someone else to book me, give me opportunities. I had hundreds of auditions where I heard nothing. There were also many callbacks where I was the “2nd choice,” and heard “Sorry you came close.” It can really mess with your confidence and mental health. Around the same time I was feeling unsatisfied and antsy at my current job of twenty years. I was a pastor in a church. I loved my job in a lot of ways but felt I hit a ceiling and my gifts/skills/abilities were not being utilized or stretched where they could be. I also saw systems, theologies and practices that were broken in which I was trying to help evolve but was hitting too many walls (I address some of those things in my film, Last Chance Charlene). Some of it was the way suicide was addressed in my faith community, others of it was a lack of intentional work around racial justice and LGBT inclusion and rights. It seemed best for me to leave. I like change and risk so it seemed like a great time to launch something new. Around the same time I had been attending the Sundance film festival in Park City, Utah and had been incredibly inspired with that experience and wanted to bring my friends there to which many said, “It’s too far, too cold and too expensive.” Lightbulb moment. I could create something I loved for the people and community I loved and that’s where BraveMaker was born. I wanted to start an organization where I could lead and make my own stories that would also do good in the world impacting issues of justice, diversity and inclusion. And we’re not in our fifth year. It’s a nonprofit, so it takes a lot of work, fundraising, volunteers and community partnerships. I’ve been telling people lately I’m grateful to be living my dream …and living the dream takes a whole heck of a lot of work.

Y&H: We’d also love it if you could specifically share your inspiration behind writing Last Chance Charlene.

Tony: I had been trying to make a feature film for years. I had been quoted in the millions (anywhere from 1-3 for the multiple projects I had written. I started to get close on two films that all of a sudden came to a halt in March of 2020. We all know that fateful date. Later in 2020 I picked up the fundraising mission again for one of those big budget films. Still a slog. No one wanted to invest in me (this has been a growth edge for me, investing in myself!). So at one point in November I sat down and started writing a film that would be the cheapest thing I could execute. And I would star in it. I’d call it LAST CHANCE CHARLIE and it would be about a person trying to break into the entertainment business while trying to mourn a loved one to suicide. Then later it hit me in another way, local actress Allison Ewing, who I had been working with on my other film, should be the lead, not me. And I started rewriting in December. Finished in January of 2021. Did a table read, got feedback, rewrote some more and put the production date on the calendar: June 2021.

Y&H: How has grief shown up in your life?

Tony: I feel numb a lot, honestly. When I give myself time to lean into the sadness I also find myself wanting to get busy to avoid it. When my grandmother died in October 2012, I was knocked out, it felt like. I remember the exact moment I got the call, I was in my driveway. The phone was at my ear and my legs buckled, I couldn’t stand up. Just fell to the ground. Occasionally I’ll feel like that. I just can't’ hold myself up. The farther I get from that date, the less those overwhelming emotions overtake me. But sometimes I find myself thinking about her and wondering what it would have been like to still have her in my life. I love looking at old photos and remembering her. I’m also learning, thanks to [Yahdav & Hanlon} you all, how grief shows up in many different ways for many reasons. I’m recognizing grief due to pandemic trauma, grief due to the aging process, my parenting, and all sorts of sources.

Y&H: How do you think grief has affected you and how you relate to people personally?

Tony: I’m still dealing with the trauma of how people in my life responded/reacted to my grandmother’s suicide. So there was the grief of her death and then the grief of how others reacted. I have so much more understanding (and hopefully grace) now. I think before I experienced this type of death in my life, I didn’t know how much support people need when they lose a loved one. We expect someone to move on pretty quickly. We are lucky if we get three days off from our jobs for “bereavement.” That’s what I got. And I was expected to come back to work and be productive. I remember feeling very foggy. Now, the way I relate to people who have lost loved ones is more understanding and patient, at least I hope. I have friends who are still suffering great feelings of loss, years after the death of a loved one, and I can fully understand it. It’s truly a miracle how we are ever able sometimes to move forward. Note the language. Another thing I’ve learned. We don’t have to “move on,” but somehow we have to learn how to “move forward.” However slow, moving forward can happen. And everyone’s pace is different.

Y&H: What is something you learned about grief that was totally shocking to you?

Tony: What is something about grief that you wish you knew previously that you know now? The language I use now is someone dies by suicide. I have healed so much from this perspective. It helped me forgive my grandmother and not hold resentment towards her. She felt hopeless. She was sick and dealing with so much that she could not cope. She is not a villain. She did not commit a crime and she is not “doomed to Hell” no matter what people’s theology tells them.

Y&H: What community and individual needs do you feel that Last Chance Charlene/BraveMaker is satisfying?

Tony: What gap in support are you striving to fill? Holding space for conversations is very important to me. Also, acknowledging the harm faith institutions, and judgemental dogma has imparted on those grieving, especially to the survivors of those who have taken their own lives. There’s a subtle message faith communities push out that sometimes overshadows our need to grieve, to be sad, or quiet. It’s good to celebrate the life of our loved ones. It’s good to remember and it’s good to retreat, find quiet time, talk to no one when we need it. I think I have a new outlook on death. We all die. We do. And it can be scary, sad, confusing…all emotions that are OK that I fear have been overshadowed with trite sayings (that we should avoid like the plague) “God got another angel,” "They're in a better place,” “It was God’s will,” etc. And those are just the niceties people say that can be harmful, let alone the time somebody told me my grandmother was “in hell” because she “committed the mortal sin.” I swear, the gall of some people to look you in the face and confidently act like God, like a judge, thinking they know where someone is in the afterlife is just wild. So, I’m trying to make space for the people who need safer spaces, and unfortunately those spaces aren’t always church spaces. They can be theaters, living rooms and support/grief groups.

Y&H: What are some different ways people can utilize your films (Last Chance Charlene/BraveMaker/other work you do within BraveMaker)?

Tony: I loved that we created with your support and leadership a workbook. It’s been my dream to do this kind of work. We (BraveMaker) are about to launch a project called COPE for students to learn and acquire resources and practices for anxiety, depression and stress.

Y&H: What is some feedback you have received from viewers, potential viewers, partners, and other influencers of Last Chance Charlene?

Tony: I love when people tell me they appreciated the different expressions of grief that show up in the movie and by different characters,
If you could tell your viewers and potential viewers one thing, what would it be? It’s ok to feel what you feel and take away whatever you take away. Everyone’s reaction is different and I love that. (And please know you can laugh).

Y&H: How do you foresee Last Chance Charlene/your work within BraveMaker helping the grieving community?

Tony: From our film festival experiences I’ve heard how the audience members have experienced some sweet moments of joy and release watching the film. That’s my hope. Whether is laughter or an ah-ha moment, or a recognition of how to talk about Suicide in a different/better way. Then that will make me satisfied.

Y&H: How do you envision your work evolving and growing over time? How can people contribute and support your work/next film?

Tony: Financial support has been such a huge need in my life. We currently have 29 people who donate monthly (and get tax write-offs)–I need more donors. $10, $25, $50, $100- a month to help us do this BraveMaker work. And there are tiers of perks. Free film tickets, VIP passes, film fest visits and more for those who give monthly or help us with corporate sponsorships. More info here:

Y&H: How has your watching Last Chance Charlene take form influenced your understanding of grief and grievers?

Tony: Patience and compassion and empathy. All those things, these most important elements of what it means to be human, have elevated to one of the most important spaces in my life. Am I good at all of those? By no means, I just hope I’m more humble, in giving myself time and others, recognizing there is NO one way to grieve–and don’t even get me started about the stages of grief. Hah! This was one of one biggest learnings. That whole five stage thing–it’s only a starting place. There are millions and millions of stages and those traditional five stages (usually used in relationship to terminal illness attributed to author Elizabeth Kubler Ross).

Y&H: How can people watch Last Chance Charlene?

Tony: It will be on all VOD platforms starting February 28th, 2023. You can pre-order now on Apple TV and that would help us get the word out and open more doors for future filmmaking.

Y&H: How can people get in touch with you?

Tony: [email protected] (email) @tonygapastione (Instagram + Twitter)


Y&H: Share a fun fact about yourself that no one knows.

Tony: Hmm. I used to hate black olives, and growing up Italian I carried a lot of shame about that. But because of my amazing wife, I now love them. Why? She encouraged me to try them on ENCHILADAS of all things, loved them, and now I’m always ordering them on my pizza.