John Nava loves a good story. He knows how to tell them and he knows how to pick them. He names The Wizard of Oz as one of his favorites and he believes all good stories follow the pattern of that classic movie.
“To me, every movie is based off The Wizard of Oz,” he explained. “It has family, it has friends—it’s a journey from A to B.”
Almost 30 years since he first dabbled with the camera, Nava is now preparing for Morgan Hill’s Aug. 27 premiere of his second film, The Biggest Game in Town, which he wrote, directed and co-produced. The film has already premiered at Redwood City’s Fox Theatre and Monterey’s Golden State Theatre.
In the film, main character Atticus Cane is akin to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Atticus rounds up two other friends (“one guy is looking for a brain, the other is looking for a heart,” Nava joked) to put their life savings together and to get to a mythical card game that is traveling the country—“The Biggest Game in Town.” All of this is unbeknownst to their wives, who think their husbands are taking much less money than they actually are. The husbands are surprised when their wives show up at The Biggest Game in Town.
John Nava’s own journey in filmmaking follows the same pattern; a journey from A to B, and traveled with family and friends who have taken that journey alongside him. He has a great story about how he’s gotten to this point in his filmmaking career.
A graduate from Live Oak High School, Nava grew up in San Martin on a 40 acre prune ranch and held his first real job driving trucks for Sigona’s Farmers Market back in 1979. Ever Sigona’s loyal employee, Nava is now part of its management team and is the director of its private label program.
“I do all of the buying of non-produce for the store; gourmet cheese, olive oils, balsamic vinegars, specialty foods. That’s my realm of expertise. Kind of natural with me growing up on a ranch. I’ve always been in the food industry,” he said.
He first discovered the passion of filmmaking in his late ’20s when he’d make movies with his friends for their own entertainment. They’d invite other friends to their condo to watch—until the crowds grew too big and noisy with laughter.
“The cops came, started watching the movie… and they stayed,” Nava said. One of those officers told him: “‘Dude, you’re missing your calling; you should make movies for real,’” Nava recalled.
He went to the library and learned everything there was to learn about film.
“I never went to school. I bought a camera, met some people in San Francisco and started doing demo reels for actors,” he said.
He filmed and wrote short skits for the demo reels, catering to the specific acting needs of each actor.
After many of these actors successfully obtained acting gigs, he decided to begin filming his first movie in 1993.
In Handsome Stranger, a western written by Nava, he cast his friends (some did theatre; some didn’t) in the film. Other friends, who were general contractors and electricians, helped him build a western town using another friend’s three-acre lot.
Nava “cold-called” TV actor, Eric Zivot, who he read about in The San Francisco Chronicle. Zivot accepted, but due to being a contracted actor, he was the only actor paid for his role. Other actors were paid with favors such as babysitting, fresh fruit from his work, or even lunch.
“I could never afford to pay anybody,” Nava said.
After roughly three years, he had a film. It premiered in Redwood City and Nava was able to make some money by it selling it to local video stores.
It would take him 22 years to make his next movie.
“Life happens,” he said. He married his lifelong partner Christina in 2007—they’ve been together for a total of 25 years.
“I always told my wife, I want to do one more because I think I can,” said Nava.
A trip to Las Vegas in 2011 is was what inspired The Biggest Game in Town. Sitting at a poker table with a “mob-boss type,” a British man, a drunk Elvis tribute artist, and a man who was going on the Food Network Channel, Nava soon after went to his room and began writing.
“They always say, ‘Write what you know,” Nava said.
Though he is a self-proclaimed home game poker champ, Nava researched the poker field, making trips to Las Vegas and playing games with his friends. Many of the conversations used during those games would end up in the script.
“Yes, it’s a poker movie, but it’s all about relationships and how we treat each other. Atticus is really doing it for the love of his wife,” Nava said.
Building on the same real people he met in Las Vegas, The Biggest Game in Town has a comical group of characters. For instance, the Mob Boss, the British man, the Food Network chef, and the Elvis impersonator are all there. Just as in his first film, Nava used local actors and friends, some with theatre background and some who had a certain look.
For instance, Nava’s next door neighbor, Ralph Noe, was cast as Vic Manfrotto, the mob moss character.
“He was perfect to play the mob guy,” Nava said of his neighbor, who has 40 years of theatre experience. For two years he kept hounding me. He’d say, ‘I’m gonna die soon, I’d like to do a movie,” Nava laughed. “He was the first one I gave the script to.”
Also in the cast are Jayson Stebbins as Atticus Cane, David Buck as Tony Guancione, Denee Lewis as Tessa, John Sign Jr. (Nava’s boss) as Mr. Sicily, Eric Zivot as Ritchie the Rounder, and Steve Caposio (2015 winner of The Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen) as Diamond Dave.
Once again, Nava paid his friends with favors.
“I’m gonna owe them washing their cars, walking their dogs, babysitting for eternity,” he said.
Mattie Scariot Myers and Nils Myers, from Gilroy’s 152 West Productions, co-produced the film and managed all the cinematography, editing and visual effects. Nava credits them both with helping him in digital filmmaking and getting him “up to speed.”
Frank Léal, Owner of Léal Vineyards, was instrumental in the filming process by providing his winery and his mansion for the film. After seeing Nava’s film at the Monterey premiere, Léal suggested that his own Morgan Hill theatre be used for the hometown premiere.
“He was true to his word,” Nava said.
Not only did Frank offer to use his newly renovated Granada Theatre in Morgan Hill, but he also suggested that everything at the Morgan Hill premiere stay local.
Food will be provided by LJB Farms and Swank Farms. Morgan Hill chef Mark Johnson has prepared the menu and will be cooking the meals.
Scariot Myers said that although this is their third screening, it is just as special as every other screening.
“We’re all coming together, and it’s cool, because this is our hometown,” Scariot Myers said.
“You know, you meet people for a reason…they’re there for something, for a purpose,” Nava said. “These people, local people, great people, are better than the people who are on the screen. They did it for the passion and love; no money. All the local people opened their hearts, but more importantly, opened their doors for us.”
Upon hearing about his desire to make this movie, Nava’s wife Christina asked him “How many dreams do you have to chase before you finally catch one?” This is a line that Nava would use in his script. Much like Atticus Cane, Nava has also taken a journey to his own “Biggest Game,” or “Emerald City.” It’s a journey he didn’t have to travel alone nor go too far to make. Just like Dorothy, he found that the other side of the rainbow was always here at home.
“The Biggest Game in Town” will have its Morgan Hill premiere on Sunday, Aug. 27 at the Granada Theatre in Morgan Hill, 17440 Monterey Road. Cocktail hour is from 4-5pm followed by a three course meal from 5-6:30pm. The movie will begin at 6:30. Tickets are $40. Tickets can be bought at eventbrite.com. Visit thebiggestgameintown.com.