'Makings of You' is homecoming for director Matt Amato

February 23, 2015

It’s not hard to see why “The Makings of You” is the opening-night presentation of this year’s St. Louis International Film Festival.

Director Matt Amato is a native of St. Louis who built a name for himself as a music-video director in Hollywood. His debut feature is a years-in-the-making labor of love that includes some of the most beautiful images of his hometown ever captured on film.

Yet Amato says that filming in St. Louis wasn’t his first choice. Or his second. Or his third.

“Originally, the script was set in Chicago,” said Amato, 47. That’s the city where he attended film school after graduating from the Priory. After he moved to California (first San Francisco and then LA), he started a production company and arts collective called the Masses, making music videos for artists from Bon Iver to Barbra Streisand. One of the Masses’ partners was a young Australian actor who had lived in the communal space while he was a struggling unknown: Heath Ledger.

While Ledger was riding a wave of success, he wanted to segue into directing. He helped Amato develop the script, a romantic drama that would be filmed in Brooklyn (where Ledger had a daughter with actress Michelle Williams). Ledger was willing to be Amato’s assistant director.

After Ledger died in 2008, the project was in limbo. Amato had a potential funding source in New Orleans, and he tailored the script to accommodate river locales. The money fell through, but a new source promised he could shoot wherever he wanted.

He looked north to St. Louis, the city he left behind.

He said he scouted locations via Google Earth and fell in love with the river, the old brick neighborhoods and the taverns where chain-smoking locals drank Stag beer.

“I was a West County kid and hadn’t spent much time in the city,” he said. “But my mother was from the south side, and my grandfather ran the St. Louis Typewriter company on Locust, so this gave me a chance to reconnect with my roots.

“I hardly knew anyone here, let alone anyone in the film community, but the film-festival staff hooked me up with cinematographer Chris Benson and some great local crews.”

Amato arrived in St. Louis in June 2013 — and he hasn’t left. He has an apartment near Cherokee Street (where the Luminary gallery has been playing outtakes and music from the film on a storefront video monitor). He has invited his Masses comrades to move their operations here, and he plans to make a series of short documentaries about some of the characters he met while filming.

“There was so much good stuff that the original cut of the film was 4½ hours long,” he said.

Amato is particularly proud that the movie will premier at the Tivoli, where he will join stars Jay R. Ferguson and Grace Zabriskie at 6 p.m. Nov. 13.

“When I got a driver’s license, the Tivoli was the very first place I ever drove, to see ‘Manhattan.’

“Now I’ve done New York, and I prefer Cherokee Street.”

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