.‘War of the Wills,’ locally-made a dark comedy now streaming

It’s become abundantly clear that the differences in people are under a microscope more than ever, and more and more, they lead to rather angry public displays against one another.

Sonoma County-based filmmaker George Dondero has sort of concentrated this notion into War of the Wills, a dark comedy about a fraught relationship between a young man and his distant, absentee father. The film chronicles who can earn each a multimillion-dollar inheritance if they can spend a month together in a house without leaving the space or committing bodily harm to one another. Co-written alongside Donedero’s partner, Bethany Browning, and directed by Dondero, the film was made in Sonoma County for a mere $20,000 and is now available to stream on Amazon Prime.

When asked how the seeds for the story germinated, Healdsburg High grad Dondero says, “A lot of this movie was autobiographical, the idea that we all take on things from our parents. Circular things. And then the question of how to break these cycles.” He also notes inspiration sprang from “an idea about what would it be like if I had to spend a month in a house with just my dad.”

music in the park san jose
music in the park san jose

As is often the case with trying to manage a very personal story, the outline and script became a bit lengthy, which was where Browning came in. “Bethany is a professional copywriter, and I’m a much more visual person, so I needed someone to come in and help me round it out, structure-wise,” Dondero says.

War of the Wills is a solid indie film that’s clever in that there’s a built-in clock in terms of the time the men, who genuinely dislike one another, must spend together to gain their inheritance. But as the film goes on, layers are introduced where viewers learn more about father and son, many of which are unexpected.

Dondero says he and his team were initially going to make a much larger movie, both in the story and in the cast, but then the COVID lockdown happened. Still wanting to shoot something, the filmmaker decided a more scaled-down approach with very few actors in fewer locations was the way to go. Luckily, they found a beautiful Victorian home in Petaluma, which serves as the major setting throughout the film and becomes a character in its own right.

In the film, Kot Takahashi plays William Hadeon III, who is a young man riddled with a variety of issues, including anxiety and anger that he blames on never getting to know his father, played by Steven David Martin. Martin also serves as Healdsburg’s Raven Players’ artistic director.

Dondero found his cast locally, having worked with Martin previously. “Steven and I met about 15 years ago on a commercial project and just kind of hit it off. We’ve been talking about making something together since then,” he recalls.

Interestingly, Dondero met Takahashi while shooting a project for Creative Sonoma, where victims of the 2017 Coffey Park Fire spoke about their experiences. “Kot had pulled his family out [of the fires], and when I was interviewing him on camera, I just saw his charisma and strength and the way he held himself,” notes Dondero.

As War of the Wills progresses, the film reveals more about father and son, who have more in common than either would like to believe. The two men are an almost literal yin and yang, with young, toned and dark-skinned Takahashi squaring off mentally and sometimes physically with his older, thinner white father.

When asked about shooting films in Sonoma County, Dondero says he can’t think of a better place. “Aside from a strong urban setting with big buildings and alleyways, Sonoma County has everything you could want,” he says. After leaving the area to earn a film degree with an emphasis in animation from San Francisco State, Dondero recalls, “I left and came back because I recognized what I was missing.”

As ‘War of the Wills’ eases its way onto TV screens locally and abroad, upcoming projects, both cinematic and written, can be followed at Dondero and Browning’s website, SonomaFilmWorks.com.

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