For director Jonathan Ehlers, his latest film Ink and Steel was more than just a way to portray great characters within the frame of a mob movie. It was a chance for a homecoming.
Ink and Steel tells the story of an aging mob enforcer sent to rural New York to protect the son of a syndicate boss. Though much of the film was shot in upstate New York, Ehlers returned to some of his old stomping grounds in Carle Place, such as the high school baseball fields and along Rushmore Avenue, to shoot some scenes from the movie.
“I knew I wanted to come back to New York to make the movie. I knew the territory and had more help,” said Ehlers. “It was great to come back and shoot in a place where a lot of my imagination was developed.”
Given his family background, it seemed only natural that Ehlers would end up in an artistic career. He grew up in a creative family, his great-grandfather used to play piano to accompany silent movies, his grandfather was an art teacher, and his grandmother used to sing in a barbershop group. In 1980, when his mom went into labor with Ehlers, his dad was playing the lead role in MadMan, a horror film and showed up to the hospital covered in fake blood.
Growing up in Carle Place, Ehlers was always experimenting with cameras, convincing his teachers to let him make short films instead of doing book reports. He and his friends would often venture into New York City or out to Jones Beach, where Ehlers would bring a camcorder and make movies.
“Storytelling was always a part of my life,” he said. “Even at a young age, I was already thinking of how to make the most of the environment.”
In high school, Ehlers and his friends formed Engine, a band where he played lead guitar. His musical career lent itself easily to his love of making videos.
“I used a home camcorder to make music videos to go along with our music,” says Ehlers. “I taught myself shooting and editing and as I got out of high school, more people wanted me to make their musical videos. I felt more comfortable behind the camera. That was a big part of the early stages of learning and creative process.”
After graduating Carle Place High School in 1998, Ehlers and his band sought a record deal. But film always remained a passion. In 2007, he moved out to Los Angeles to pursue a film career. A year later he, along with directing partner Patrick Ward-Perkins, formed LoneShark Studios. Ink and Steel is the studio’s first feature film.
The film tells the story of Michael, an aging mob enforcer who is sent to protect James, the black sheep and youngest son of the Don’s family, as a violent turf war is erupting. Michael and James are forced to take cover in an old family farm, imposing on a single mom and her teenage son. Though it’s a mob drama, the movie deals with deeper themes of character and mentorship.
“We wanted to go for a strong character piece, and have a beautiful film with a beautiful location,” Ehlers said. “We wanted to make the most authentic New York film we could and I think we really achieved that.”
But making a full length film wasn’t easy. For the new studio, raising funds was difficult. Casting also posed difficulties. When writing the script Ehlers, Ward-Perkins and writing partner Jason Radspinner had imagined an established actor playing the lead role.
“We wanted to find an actor who could enjoy working with some young filmmakers, making a meaningful film,” Ehlers said. “After a couple of years we had the equipment and location, so then we just dropped the idea of trying to find a star and just decided to go for it.”
The team visited Ehlers’ old acting class in New York City, to find some local talent. Ehlers also recruited his lifelong friend Rob Gallo, from Carle Place, to play a friend of the lead character.
Gallo, an opera singer who did musicals with Ehlers when they were both in high school, offered his help when he first heard his friend was shooting a film locally. Though he has performed at venues such as Carnegie Hall, Gallo says his first time on a movie set was still a little nerve-wracking. But working with his old friend again was a great experience.
“He knows what he wants and how to get it. He’s been like that since we were little,” said Gallo. “It’s a great movie and a great concept.”
But even with the cast in place, the directing team faced another huge obstacle when it came time to film: Hurricane Sandy. The superstorm hit a few days before they were set to begin shooting.
“For a few days, we didn’t have power. But we had to keep shooting because we had such a small budget, we didn’t have time to reschedule,” Ehlers said. “We would keep the car running to charge car batteries, but there was also no fuel. It was such a crazy adventure.”
The movie played at film festivals last year, including the Long Beach International Film Festival (winning best director), Emerge Film Festival (winning Best Feature) and Soho Film Festival (winning the Audience Award). At the beginning of this month, it became available on iTunes, Amazon, OnDemand and other digital platforms.
The film has garnered a lot of attention for LoneShark, and Ehlers says they have several projects in the works.
“Our career has been blossoming. Once you make the first movie, more people want to see what else you can do,” he said.
But he credits his success to the encouragement he received growing up in Carle Place.
“I have such a love for where I come from. I always enjoyed the theatrical productions at Carle Place High School, and the teachers did such a great job of putting together these shows and plays,” Ehlers said. “That was the first exposure I had to acting, and it meant a lot to me.”