Low-budget independent filmmaking takes to the amusement park in 'Neon Sky.'

Juelich Rides ‘Neon’ Roller Coaster

Michael Fox April 6, 2011

What do you get when you cross a degree in creative writing from San Francisco State with a self-guided program in the Quentin Tarantino school of filmmaking? (You know, working in a video store for five years in your 20s.) You get an aspiring writer-director with a grasp of storytelling, a hankering to film her original screenplay, and more initiative and determination than money. In postproduction on her second ultra-low-budget feature, Neon Sky—which she shot on weekends while holding down a full-time job as an administrative assistant at a Greek Orthodox church—Jennifer Juelich epitomizes the DIY filmmaker. Only she’s not in her 20s anymore.

“I knew I wanted the basic plot of a family traveling around and the daughter deciding if she was going to go off to college or not,” the East Bay filmmaker explains. “The owner [her father] had home-schooled her. He doesn’t want her to leave. She’s in a wheelchair, and he’s responsible for her accident. I went on the Internet and found something called Diary of a Carny by Kevin Morra, and I contacted him because I didn’t have firsthand knowledge of the carnival life. Kevin’s blog was fascinating: He spoke about the cleaning up the carnival in the last 10 years. He got out when the older carnies, who’d been on the road, who had their own language, were being phased out by bigger companies [wanting] to appear cleaner and less drug-oriented or whatever. I thought, ‘Great, I’ll integrate that plot line in as well.’”

Juelich’s grandfather owned and operated a Seattle amusement park called Playland, and designed roller coasters up and down the West Coast. So the concept of a particular breed of American nomads was not unfamiliar to her.

The Berkeley native contracted with Butler Amusement to get access to, and shoot her characters in and around, one of their California carnivals. In the summer of 2009, the bare bones production hitched its RV to the designated amusement park in half a dozen locations between Santa Clara and Auburn. Butler had just one overriding requirement, Juelich reports: “They have to see the final cut to make sure none of their people are in it.”

Juelich wrote the crucial role of the teenager in Neon Sky for her own daughter, who was in a car accident when she was 17 and is a paraplegic. But Nicole didn’t have the time to devote to a movie, so Juelich cast a young actress, Gracie DeZago, who prepared for the role by living in a wheelchair for a few weeks. Nicole ended up with a cameo, though, when she realized during a visit home from college that she wanted to be in the film after all.

Nearly two years later, Neon Sky is just about finished. The sound design was completed about a month ago, and the film is in the last stage of color correction, Juelich gained a strong ally through postproduction in veteran producer Debbie Brubaker, who had gotten wind of the project at the script stage and advised the filmmaker to wait to get funding. But with three shorts and a feature (Love Doll) under her belt, Juelich was anxious to get rolling, she admits.

One of Brubaker’s late-game contributions was organizing four days of reshoots of interior scenes (especially night shots) that came out too dark. They set up the RV in the parking lot of the Oakland Film Center on the old army base, where Brubaker has her office. If you think the producer was annoyed with Juelich’s impetuousness, you don’t know Brubaker.

“She loves this type of filmmaking,” Juelich says. “She loves people who roll up their sleeves and just do it.”

Brubaker has a list of festivals to submit the film to once it’s finished, and then she wants to pursue distribution. Juelich candidly admits she doesn’t expect to get into big festivals.

“I know the production value will be lacking because of the funding,” Juelich says.. “I’m proud of it for what it is. I’m proud of everybody’s accomplishments on it.”

Notes from the Underground
Red Poet screened March 20 at the Rome Independent Film Festival and March 29 at the Cineteca Bologna with Jack Hirschman and director Matthew Furey in attendance…. Rick Goldsmith and Judith Ehrlich’s The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers added a Peabody to the trophy case…..The Sonoma International Film Festival presents its lifetime achievement award to Susan Sarandon this Saturday, April 9.… After Dina Ciraulo’s Opal plays the San Francisco Women’s Film Festival this weekend; it returns to Eugene, Oregon for a one-week run beginning April 11. … Tickets are now available (at no charge) at for TCM’s screening of Elmer Gantry, with Shirley Jones in person, at the Castro Wednesday, April 20.

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