Tri-Valley native debuts new feature film, 'Dating Daisy'

Foothill High grad's romantic comedy is a wrap, thanks to friends

Falling in love can be so easy -- and wonderful. But what if the timing is really, really bad?

Screenwriter/director Neel Upadhye, a 2004 graduate of Pleasanton's Foothill High, explores this idea in his film, "Dating Daisy," which was screened for friends and family in Beverly Hills earlier this month. The non-traditional romantic comedy follows two passionate exes who secretly decide to give it one last shot.

Upadhye, who is just turning 30, drew on his experiences in his 20s to write the screenplay.

"I was forced to look very critically at my own relationships and things I had messed up and things I'd been blind to," Upadhye said. "It was fantastic therapy writing it."

In the screenplay, he also used his experience and observations about family dynamics.

"The thing I discovered in getting so specific about experiences that I've had, beautiful and painful experiences, it became universal," he said. "People have told me, 'That's my mom,' 'I've dated that girl,' or 'I've been that girl.'"

Upadhye made Michael, the male lead, Jewish to get away from his own specifics.

"I think a little bit of separation is good because it allows the characters to become themselves instead of me," he said.

Michael (Brennan Kelleher) is ambitiously pursuing a high-tech career in Los Angeles, and Daisy (Sascha Alexander) is an adventurous spirit who wants a job that actually matters, regardless of personal cost. When Daisy's car breaks down, Michael agrees to drive her to the Santa Barbara suburbs for Thanksgiving with their respective families.

"There's a pretty unique structure for a romantic film," Upadhye noted. "I separate them, then they drive back at the end of film. You can see how their time with their families has changed them and is going to impact their relationship. Michael and Daisy have the perfect, best of relationships with the worst of timing."

A great part of working on this project, Upadhye said, was collaborating with two Foothill friends, singer/songwriter Melissa Harding, who wrote original songs for the film, and Alex Backes, now a professional actor and writer, who has a part in the movie.

"We've stuck together throughout our professional careers," Upadhye said.

He and Backes are also creators of a TV comedy pilot, "Shark Bites," which they developed with another classmate, Cody Williams, about a young guy whose hipster roommate happens to be a shark (played by a puppet).

After Foothill, Upadhye attended USC School of Cinematic Arts, and since graduation has been a film and commercial director and editor. He has made TV spots and trailers for Nike and Coca-Cola, and he has created live action and visual effects for critically acclaimed video games.

Upadhye was born in India and moved to Iowa before locating to Pleasanton halfway through his freshman year. At Foothill High he found creative soulmates, including Harding, Backes and Williams. They performed together in the school's production of "Grease" and the choir led by JoAnn Koobatian, whom he credits for inspiring them in the theater arts. Koobatian died in 2013 of a rare cancer at the age of 47.

Upadhye knew in high school he wanted to become a filmmaker.

"'Lord of the Rings' was a turning point for me," he remembered. "I wrote in my application to USC about the 'Lord of the Rings' and thinking that the lives of those filmmakers were more fantastic than the fantasy characters."

Upadhye, who had already written three other feature-length screenplays, was amazed by how quickly "Dating Daisy" came together.

"I started writing the script in December 2013. By March I had the first draft, and we put together a table read of it," he said. "The reaction was really, really strong, and we decided we should make this thing."

They went into development, started casting and by late September had enough funding, mainly raised online, to begin filming.

"We started shooting Oct. 30 last year, and it was in the can by Dec. 15, 2014," Upadhye recalled. "The fun thing is everyone is a professional in their own right and had other things going on."

Upadhye works as brand creative lead for Starwars Video Games at EA.

"I was in the office three days a week, then out shooting for four days a week. There was definitely a period in there where I thought I had lost it, but when everything was wrapped up, it was the best day of my life," he said. "I am lucky to be at a company that rewards and honors creativity."

Then began the technical work and editing, creating the trailer, promotions and another campaign of online fundraising. That $20,000, a goal just reached Oct. 10, will go toward marketing and entry into film festivals for exposure, including the Slamdance in Park City, Utah, in January.

The movie was made on a shoestring, Upadhye said, albeit with a professional cast and crew. Tanner and Chase Boyajian of Dark Burn Media donated the use of its equipment, and Upadhye's team was able to negotiate with the actors union regarding salaries.

"The main reason the actors did it was because they were attracted to the story," Upadhye said, noting they were experienced pros, some who have been stars of TV shows.

"It's a symbiotic thing," he said. "They get to dig into material that speaks to them, flush out the character, own that process. I get amazing, talented actors."

A local contingent will be heading down to the Ahrya Fine Arts Cinema in Beverly Hills in early November to see the first screening of "Dating Daisy," the work of Pleasanton sons and daughters. Hopefully the rest of us will be able to enjoy it someday, too.

More about Daisy

See the trailer for "Dating Daisy" at www.datingdaisy.com. More information about the production and its journey for funding can be found at www.facebook.com/datingdaisy.

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