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Romantic Cinema, Altadena Style

An Altadena couple keeps moviemaking in the community.

When you think of Altadena, the first thing that comes to mind might be mountain trails, charming old homes or rugged individuals. You don't think of Hollywood moguls. But when Isabel Junie Hildebrandt and her husband Richard Moon were becoming movie producers, Altadena was the first place they thought of. Their tale is not a Hollywood romance, where music and drama make dreams come true, but a hometown romance, where hard work and gumption turn hopes into reality.

Richard and Junie grew up in Altadena and met at John Muir High School. Richard, who had always been interested in science fiction, wrote sci-fi stories as a kid. He "fell in love with physics" in high school and went on to get his BA. But believe it or not he found it easier to get a job co-writing a screenplay than to find work in the science industry.

The couple hadn't strayed far from home to go to school, and it was while Junie was working on her Ph.D. at UCLA (in Molecular and Medical Pharmacology, no less) that they decided to move back to Altadena. "It was where we needed to be," says Junie. These two like to keep their work local.

But Junie was still in school and the commute was tough. She drove that Altadena/UCLA route so often she knew every bump and turn almost with her eyes closed. One evening while driving home, (surely before the hands-free law went into effect), Junie called Richard on her mobile phone. She told him she felt like she was "driving by Braille."

Richard didn't know when, but he knew he was going to use that phrase somewhere. Junie knew it, too, and she had a story in mind. It had been growing in her imagination out of local legends of the Devil's Gate and long-ago disappearances of children. She fleshed out the tale, then gave it to Richard and asked him to write the screenplay.

Richard had been writing science fiction and thrillers. He'd never written a straight drama, which was what Junie had in mind. He liked writing strong female characters, but he hadn't written one as nuanced and troubled as Junie pictured her heroine to be. He took it on.

While Richard was trying in vain to get his screenplays produced via traditional Hollywood routes, Junie was managing two research labs at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine. The commute was wearing her out. It dawned on her, "Richard needs a producer. What's a producer? A manager." Their marriage match became a business match. Tell me that's not romantic.

Taking extension film classes together at UCLA may not sound like a fairy tale, but working on two student films together is as sweet as it gets (and if you believe that, you've never worked on a student film). At UCLA, the two began building their network of designers, directors and cinematographers--the huge system of connections it takes to make a film. After the extension courses and student films, they co-produced a feature called "Small Days," and MoonHill Productions was born.

At last, thanks to the efforts Richard and Junie have pulled together with the help of the community they live in and the one they've gathered around them, this month MoonHill will premiere its first completely in-house, full-length feature, Driving by Braille, the story Junie envisioned for Richard to write.

Moon and Hildebrandt live in Altadena. Their production offices are in Pasadena's historic Doty Block, once known as the Hotel Carver and now called the Workshops Building. ("When we heard there was space in this building," says Hildebrandt, "we jumped at it.") According to their website, MoonHill Productions is "dedicated to engaging and supporting the business and commercial communities of Pasadena, Altadena, and the greater Los Angeles area." When other production companies left Los Angeles, MoonHill stayed. In "Driving by Braille," you'll see Altadena homes and neighborhoods. And you might recognize an Altadena neighbor, or even a screenwriter, in the scene with the oom-pah band.

If what they need can't be found in the Dena, MoonHill stays close, using LA locations such as the County Arboretum in Arcadia. When they needed an Irish Pub they shot at Timmy Nolan's in Toluca Lake, which happens to be owned by an Altadena resident whose daughter goes to school with Richard and Junie's daughter, Madeline. (Another result of the couple's romantic collaboration, Madeline Moon plays the main character as a child in "Driving by Braille." You could call it hyper-local casting.)

In the broader sense of community, two featured extra roles in the film were sold at a charity auction for Get Lit, a Los Angeles organization that promotes youth literacy. Watch for the gondolier and the restaurant manager. They did a good job.

The premiere of "Driving by Braille" will benefit a charity, too. On Monday, July 25th at the Arclight Theaters in Pasadena, MoonHill Productions presents a special screening of "Driving by Braille" as part of the film's participation in the 7th Annual Action On Film International Film Festival (not coincidentally, a Pasadena festival). Proceeds from the event will benefit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which tells you a little bit about the film's subject matter.

But don't let that mislead you. It's not an issue movie. It's a romance.

Margaret Finnegan July 19, 2011 at 05:02 PM
What a great profile. This area has so many interesting people.
Petrea Burchard July 19, 2011 at 07:03 PM
Thanks, Margaret. It's true. We never run out of cool people to meet around here.
IsabelJunie July 19, 2011 at 08:53 PM
Hi Luz We, ourselves, haven't used more than the houses, library, and street, but are interested in using other businesses. We kept thinking about Amy's Patio Cafe for one important scene, but realized that logistically it wouldn't work. We aren't planning on making our story into a film (but thank you for suggesting it!), We are planning on having a movie about a female scientist though!
IsabelJunie July 19, 2011 at 08:55 PM
Yes, we were planning on attending the meeting. I'm really looking forward to it.
Petrea Burchard August 05, 2011 at 12:04 AM
For those who weren't able to attend the screening in Pasadena, I've received word that there will soon be another local opportunity to see "Driving by Braille." It's the Feel Good Film Festival, the weekend of Aug 12-14 in Hollywood. "Driving By Braille" screens on Aug 14 at 3:30pm at the Pickford Theater, an intimate location, on the Raleigh Studios lot. Tickets are $15. https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/187681 The Pasadena premiere of "Driving By Braille" was part of the Action on Film festival, where it received runner up for Best Picture and won for Best Screenplay and Best Female Director. The premiere also raised over $3000 for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

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