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Sundance Propels Former SLCC Student Into ‘Who’s Who’ of Filmmaking

Tony Vainuku

“Now they know who I am,” says Tony Vainuku.

By “they,” he means Robert Redford, whom he met during an event for directors at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival in Park City. And he means actor/producer Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who called Vainuku during the festival to say he wanted to throw his support behind “In Football We Trust,” a documentary which Vainuku co-directed with former Utah resident Erika Cohn. And by “they” he means the likes of HBO, movie distributors, directors, producers, actors, and the scores of people in the film industry he met while on the whirlwind tour that comes with getting a film accepted into the annual 10-day Sundance Film Festival.

Not bad for a guy who grew up poor in Salt Lake City, moving around because his parents couldn’t pay the rent, moving out at age 17 to fend for himself, and moving from job to job until the words “higher education” entered the career equation.

Vainuku, 36, who is half Tongan and half Dutch, grew up with four siblings in the neighborhood around SLCC’s South City Campus, which was South High School until he was about 9. He attended Whittier Elementary School, which is just across the parking lot on the east side of the South City Campus. By the time he reached Hillside Middle School on the east side of the valley, Vainuku had already been playing youth league football – and loving it, just like his Polynesian uncles and cousins who were also good at the game. “We all looked forward to playing,” he said. “My brothers and I all wanted to play when we were old enough.”

The socioeconomic makeup of Vainuku’s peers changed at Hillside, where he noticed white kids would pack white cheese in their sack lunches. Vainuku’s family had been on welfare and only knew of the “orange” color of the free “government” cheese his family consumed. “I used to think white cheese was only for rich people,” he said. “That’s how poor I was.” But the young Vainuku already had in him charm, charisma, entrepreneurial spirit, a positive attitude, and natural curiosity – the nucleus of a better future, which meandered its way toward a documentary five years in the making.

Vainuku developed his own sense of style in middle school, wearing – and, by default, marketing – his signature “reggae” beaded necklace in colors red, gold and green, made with materials he purchased cheaply at a craft store. The “preps,” or more well-to-do white kids, liked the look and began offering him lunch money – $3 to $5 – for one just like it. At his peak business, Vainuku was bringing bags full of necklaces to school and making $70 a week, which enabled him to purchase his first basketball standard. By the time high school rolled around, Vainuku had also tried filmmaking, grabbing a VHS video camera and shooting mock interviews with “famous” basketball players, aka his little brothers. “I always kind of had a knack that way,” he said. “I was playing with a camera as soon as I got a hold of one.”

After middle school, Vainuku was on his way to Highland High School and a promising football stint as a starter. But by his mid-sophomore year, already working jobs as a dishwasher and grocery bagger, he was unable to balance school, a job, and football – his grades slid south, and football paid the price.

At 17, his parents divorced and Vainuku started sharing rent on an apartment with his college-age sister, working his way through high school and taking a drama class along the way. He was into watching movies, but instead of being a passive observer of films like “The Shawshank Redemption,” a favorite of his, he was an engaged viewer, dissecting movies in the same ways a film student might. For Vainuku, films were an escape and a fortuitous early, albeit informal, education in movie making.

After graduating from Highland, Vainuku took jobs installing windows, working as a forklift driver in a warehouse, and finally a gig working directly with customers at Continental Airlines, a reminder that hard labor and punching a clock wasn’t for this self-described charismatic people person. “It got to a point where education was a must,” he said, in search of something different from a career that he thought college could provide. A friend attending SLCC drew him to the College’s South City Campus, where Vainuku took acting and film classes and garnered encouragement from instructors to pursue a career in the movie industry.

After filming a few shorts, he and a friend pulled off, as Vainuku describes it, a “quasi Frank Abagnale Jr.,” the con artist who inspired the film “Catch Me If You Can.” Vainuku and his friend placed an ad in a newspaper and used SLCC to set up a table and camera, looking for extras and a man and woman to play the lead characters for a short film they wanted to produce. “One guy sat down, and he says, ‘How do I get to where you guys are at?’” Vainuku recalled. “I’m behind the camera, smiling and chuckling.” They finagled free food for the cast and a free place to shoot, they looked every bit the part of movie producers and they even told people they might enter the finished product in the Sundance Film Festival. Ultimately, they ended up with a film that went nowhere. “The experience helped me to understand that we could get it done. That, if we wanted to film an idea, there were plenty of people around to help film it,” Vainuku said. But movie making took a back seat to finishing his college education.

Vainuku transferred his general education credits from SLCC to Westminster College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in business marketing while working in sales. During that time, he also launched a multimedia company called Soul Profile Productions. “In Football We Trust” started as an idea to do a film about his uncle Joe Katoa, a promising Polynesian football player with NFL hopes who instead ended up in prison for 10 years. That original idea still exists on YouTube under the title “Culture Clash: Raised To Play Football.” But as industry people such as director Jared Hess (“Napoleon Dynamite”), NYU’s Alice Elliott, and renowned executive producer Geralyn Dreyfous (“Born Into Brothels”) took notice of Vainuku’s efforts, he was encouraged to expand the scope of his project. He was introduced to award-winning director Erika Cohn, who helped pull all the pieces together. And instead of making a one-character movie about how football plays into the Polynesian community in the U.S., Vainuku and Cohn followed four Polynesian high school players from Utah. Vainuku found financial backing from a Chevron executive who had served a Peace Corps mission in Tonga, and a financially savvy Cohn stretched those dollars. “We started making a movie,” Vainuku said. “We both learned so much. We grew together. We both sacrificed so much.” When it was complete, they knew they had something good, something worth entering into the crème de la crème of film festivals: Sundance. After entering, they waited.

The call from Sundance programming director Trevor Groth came while Vainuku was at his office in Sugarhouse. “He says, ‘I went to Highland. My father coached football there. So, I watched this movie carefully. I just want to say you guys did such a beautiful job. You took your time. You told a truthful and impactful story,’” Vainuku recalls Groth saying. “I’m speechless. I can’t talk. I don’t know what I’m saying. So, I say, ‘I’ll let you go – you’re busy.’ I was wanting to get off the phone and scream.” And Vainuku wanted to call everyone, which he did, despite being told not to. Mom cried. Family members cheered. Cohn, working on a film in the Middle East at the time, went “bananas” during a call. Jared Hess, a Sundance veteran, said on the phone, “‘Dude, did you get the call?’” Vainuku said. “I was like, yeah, and he was like, ‘Yeah!’” Sundance now knew the name Vainuku, and word quickly spread.

On the night before the premiere at The Grand Theatre, Vainuku was having dinner with cast members and their families when Tony Vainuku near signhe was told by the movie’s distribution company, Relativity Media, to keep his phone line open. Somewhere between “May I take your order?” and “Check, please,” Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson called Vainuku. “He says, ‘Is this Tony?’ and I was like, ‘This is Tony,’ and he says, ‘This is The Rock,’” Vainuku recalls. “I started laughing – we both started laughing. I told him, ‘I knew if I could get this movie to you that you would identify with it.’” Vainuku said Johnson told him he liked the movie’s spirit and its portrayal of Polynesian culture. Finally, it was time to show the film to its first real audience – more than 1,100 people.

Sundance Institute Native American and Indigenous Program Director Bird Runningwater, introduced the film at the sold-out Grand Theatre premiere. “He said, ‘Tony, this is the most beautiful and diverse crowd I’ve ever seen in all of my experiences at Sundance,’” Vainuku said. “He was like, ‘I’ve never seen such a crowd.’” He received a standing ovation before the film started. “I told them, ‘Let’s not stand up yet. You haven’t seen the movie.’” But when the movie was over, the crowd stood and applauded again as Vainuku and co-director Erika Cohn relished the moment. Cohn auditioned for plays at the Grand Theatre and attended community events there while growing up in Utah. “The feeling was indescribable, to have that large and diverse of a crowd the first time that we screened the film,” Cohn said. “Tony and I looked over at each other during the screening with our jaws dropped and asked, ‘Is this really happening?’” Cohn said one of her other memorable Sundance experiences included showing the film to about 500 high school students from Utah at the Rose Wagner Theatre in Salt Lake City. “We were all so impressed by the questions they asked and by how they fell in love with the subjects (in the movie),” she said. Her goal is to build off of that experience and show the film at high schools around the country this summer in conjunction with what she hopes will be a nationwide theatrical release. And more and more people will know the name Vainuku.

As one amazing moment blended into the next throughout the festival for Vainuku, including that brief conversation he had with Redford, he soaked it all up. “Everything just kind of melted into the same feeling – I was just on a high,” he said. “It was surreal.” Showings at two other Sundance sites sold out, including at the iconic Sundance venue Egyptian Theatre on Main Street in Park City. People have started recognizing Vainuku, whose social media numbers have shot up. “People love to love him,” said Vainuku’s girlfriend Marie Varanakis. “People want to take pictures or at least say ‘Hi’ and ‘Congratulations.’ He loves it. It’s fun to be recognized for something you’ve done.” To which Vainuku replied, “Yeah, it’s fun. It’s different. I still don’t feel like anything special.” But he and his movie have been deemed special by many people who now know who he is. “The saying is, ‘It’s who you know,’” Vainuku said. “But here, what it proves to be is, it’s who knows you. Sundance gives you a platform to show what you do. Getting into Sundance gives you a chance to shine. It’s huge validation. Now they know who I am. I don’t need a business card. I’ve got Google.”