Tony Pierce has indeed been grinding.
The Port Byron native and owner of Wayward Studios in Auburn will premiere his first movie, the zombie love story "Till Death Do Us Part," Oct. 15 at the Finger Lakes Drive-In.
Produced by Pierce's Finger Lakes Grindhouse Entertainment, the two-hour movie is the culmination of $30,000 of investment, years of education and labor, and a lifetime of cinematic ambition.
"I almost quit so many times," Pierce told The Citizen on Tuesday. "But I was totally consumed. It was the only thing that mattered, and I had to get it done at any cost."
The experience gave Pierce exactly what he wanted, he explained, as he began making "Till Death Do Us Part" a few years ago out of boredom. His sign business, formerly known as Sign Guys, had just completed a 14-foot shark maw for a Georgia theme park when he realized that making signs was no longer fulfilling to him. He had always wanted to make a movie, and now was the time.
Pierce thought about returning to the Orlando theme parks where he worked after graduating from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, or moving to a moviemaking hub like Los Angeles or Atlanta. But he decided to stay in Auburn and bring the business to him. He invested in professional camera and sound gear, as well as an editing bay, and taught himself areas of moviemaking that would complement his college degree in special effects and costume and scenery work at theme parks. Before long, he just needed a movie to put that education and equipment to use.
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A zombie movie was a no-brainer, Pierce said. But "Till Death Do Us Part," combines his taste for horror with a human heart. Made while he was trying to quit drinking, the movie has a main character who's trying to do the same when the undead apocalypse begins. He then finds himself barricaded inside a strip club with the woman he loves — and nothing to drink but the booze on its shelves.
"I knew I needed to do something I loved more than drinking, so I threw myself into the movie," Pierce said. "And it worked. I've been sober almost six months, and I owe it to the movie."
The movie resembles the zombie horror of genre icon George Romero, Pierce said, and is both campy and "gory as hell." Much of it was filmed at his own Steel Street home, which was gutted to stand in for the strip club. The bar scenes were filmed at Harley's Pub. Pierce couldn't afford to pay his friends who acted in the movie, he said, so anyone on screen is there because they wanted to be.
As he worked and troubleshooted his way through production, and then the COVID-19 pandemic, Pierce got a boost from the Finger Lakes Drive-In. When he told owner Paul Meyer about "Till Death Do Us Part," Meyer immediately offered his screen for an outdoor premiere. Having that goal motivated Pierce, he said, and made his "low-budget garage movie" feel more legitimate.
Next Friday's premiere will feature live music, food, merchandise and other vendors, with the movie beginning at about 9 p.m. Pierce said he'll try to schedule another showing at midnight if there's enough demand. Afterward, he'll collect feedback and return to the editing studio to make any tweaks. He's particularly interested in seeing how his first movie looks and sounds in a theatrical setting.
Then, Pierce will prepare his first movie for conventions and other events for horror enthusiasts. It's already been picked up by streaming service Troma, and he hopes it's popular enough to attract investors in his next movie, which he's already outlined. Other possibilities include a screening at the Auburn Movieplex around Valentine's Day, and organizing a local horror film festival.
"I want to turn this into something," Pierce said. "It's a roller-coaster ride. You're going to get your $10 worth, I swear."