It’s true that Ralph Macchio played the young martial artist who learned to “wax on, wax off” in “The Karate Kid” films in the 1980s, but he’s picked up a few other skills since. He’s a storyteller, a writer, a director, a producer, a dancer, a student of art and of life—a filmmaker with a movie coming to the 21st annual Hamptons International Film Festival.He’s worked in front of the camera and on film for decades—in “The Outsiders,” “My Cousin Vinny” and, most recently in 2012’s “Hitchcock.” As an adult actor “cursed” with boyish good looks and good-guy reputation, he’s poked fun of his sterling image on “Entourage” and the Funny or Die video “Wax-On, F*ck-Off,” but his passion for storytelling has placed him behind the camera more and more often as of late.
Mr. Macchio has executive produced Nat Geo’s “American Gypsies” and a slew of other projects for a variety of networks. His debut short film, “Love Thy Brother,” premiered at Sundance in 2002. And now his “Across Grace Alley”—which he wrote, produced and directed—starring his “Dancing with the Stars” partner, Karina Smirnoff, four-time Oscar nominee Marsha Mason and child actor Ben Hyland, will screen at HIFF as part of the “Views From Long Island: Connections” short film program.
The 24-minute short feature is a tale of longing, isolation, desperation, acceptance and, ultimately, hope, all told through the eyes of a child. It’s also a layered and visually compelling story that shows what happens in private moments, when a person is vulnerable and alone.
Though centered on a 10-year-old boy who is struggling with his parents’ divorce, Ms. Smirnoff’s character is a focal point, quite literally, in the story. At first an object of distraction and innocent voyeurism, her character is the catalyst for the child’s journey to personal growth and acceptance.
Inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” Giuseppe Tornatore’s “Cinema Paradiso” and Michel Hazanavicius “The Artist,”—which screened at HIFF in 2011 and went on to earn the 2012 Best Picture Oscar—Mr. Macchio also drew on his relationship with the Russia-born professional dancer. Ms. Smirnoff became a close family friend of Mr. Macchio and his wife, Phyllis, during their time competing together on season 12 of “DWTS” and the former dancing partners were anxious to continue working together, he said.
“After the show’s over, there’s this huge creative void,” the Huntington, New York, native said during a telephone interview last Wednesday. “It was a way for us to continue telling stories, together.”
Just as the stories he and Ms. Smirnoff told on the dance floor were not necessarily about them but drawn from reserves of their own experiences, “Across Grace Alley” is a work of fiction. Yet there is an underlying and personal thread of truth told in the tale. In the film, Ms. Smirnoff’s character is devout and is also looking for a life partner; the same is true in her real life, according to Mr. Macchio.
“She would always take me to the Russian Orthodox Church to light candles. She’s a real spiritual person underneath all this sexy dancer celebrity,” he said.
In the film, Ms, Smirnoff plays a dancer who lives across the street from the young boy’s grandmother, played by Ms. Mason. Ms. Smirnoff’s character, who captivates the child, “provides him with his own silent movie, his escape,” Mr. Macchio explained, adding that he’s always been interested in telling a story from the innocent point of view of a child.
Having starting in show business as a child actor himself, Mr. Macchio began learning his craft at a very young age, and at the feet of some of the best directors in American cinema, including Francis Ford Coppola, who directed him in 1983’s “The Outsiders.”
“I spent a lot of time on the set,” he reported, adding that instead of partying with the rest of the ensemble cast,—which included C. Thomas Howell, Matt Dillon, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Tom Cruise and Leif Garrett—“I chose to hang out with the production designer, or watch what Francis was doing.”
“I would ask A LOT of questions,” he laughed. “But sometimes they asked me questions. I’ll never forget, Francis asked me ‘How would you bring him into this scene?’ about a character. I was shaking in my shoes—it was the first week, second week. He didn’t end up using my suggestion, but he asked, and I won’t ever forget that.”
Acting paved the way for Mr. Macchio as a young man (he and his family good-naturedly call their waterfront Montauk home “the house the ’80s built”) but eventually, as he matured, he began to seek more and more roles behind the camera. Directing films, which he likens to conducting an orchestra, allows him more creativity in telling the kind of uplifting stories that interest him.
“It might sound corny but I think being able to connect on a human level is something I think will be very much embraced,” he said of the hopeful tone of “Across Grace Alley.” “I like the idea of letting the human aspects of life take the forefront.”
The director said he’s really looking forward to attending the Hamptons International Film Festival, not just to support “Across Grace Alley” but also to celebrate the spirit of the “Connections” program.
“Eating good food, drinking good wine, celebrating with my friends and meeting other filmmakers and collaborators … And cheering for the hometown,” he said of what will be his first appearance at HIFF. “That’s what I’m looking forward to.”
Ralph Macchio’s “Across Grace Alley” will screen on Friday, October 11, at 5:30 p.m. at East Hampton UA and again on Saturday, October 12, at 1:30 p.m. as part of the “Views From Long Island: Connections” program. For additional information, visit hamptonsfilmfest.org.