Michael Valentino and Michael Miceli have many things in common.
Both have the same first name, both are eighth-grade science teachers in the Teaneck Public Schools, and both men have a passion for movies.
Valentino, who teaches at Thomas Jefferson, and Miceli, who teaches at Benjamin Franklin, have helped students in the district learn about biology, Earth science, chemistry and physics. And while many students may be shocked to learn that their instructors have a life outside of the classroom, others in the school system already are aware that there are two budding filmmakers walking the halls.
Both teachers said their artistic interests came naturally to them while growing up.
Valentino, who taught himself how to play the piano as a child, said he’d mute movies and try to replicate the musical scores or create his very own.
“I had a piano in my house while growing up, so I used to do my own thing,” he said. “I used to perform in high school functions or at parties, and I used to run the pep rallies as the emcee, so I was more of a performer in that regard.”
When Miceli was a child, he used to construct his own movie equipment.
“I would draw a film strip on a piece of paper, shine a flashlight through a paper-towel tube, and then I’d pull the movie strip past the tube to try to project it onto the wall,” he explained. “It wouldn’t work, but I tried doing that all the time.”
In the second grade, Miceli brought a refrigerator box to class that he found one day after school. He cut a hole in the box, painted it, and performed puppet shows for his fellow students based on scripts he wrote during his spare time.
As he got older, he enlisted the help of his brother and friends to make short VHS films with the family’s camcorder. In 1998, while in college, Miceli directed a comedy that was accepted into the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival.
“It was a short film with all teenage boys and old people playing the parts,” Miceli said. “It was a comedy called 'Bingo' about the mob controlling bingo games at the local bingo hall.”
Both Miceli and Valentino studied science in college with the ultimate goal of becoming teachers, but they never abandoned their extracurricular hobbies.
TEACHING AS A SITCOM
Valentino began as a substitute teacher in Teaneck in January 2005, and his room at the time was located across from where Miceli taught.
Miceli, who began teaching in 2000, became a mentor to Valentino.
“He came in as a sub, and I mentored him because he was a science teacher, and I was a science teacher,” Miceli said. “We hit it off right away and not just with this passion for science but for film also.”
One day while talking about the “trials and tribulations” of a first-year teacher, one of the men brought up how such a premise would make a great movie or sitcom. So, they started writing “Tenure,” which is about a first-year teacher and all the things that teachers have to go through in order to learn how to manage kids and adults.
“It’s a comedy with a love triangle,” Miceli said. “We wrote it in our spare time over the course of a whole school year. We put it into some festivals, and it did pretty well.”
Last fall, the duo won third place at the LA Screenwriting Awards for their sitcom pilot for “Tenure,” which only exists as a script at the moment but is being shopped around for possible production.
VENTURE INTO SHORT FILMS
Their success with “Tenure” showed both men that they worked well together.
Their next project was a short film called “Honored,” which they described as more of an adult-themed comedy similar to “There’s Something About Mary,” which starred Ben Stiller and Cameron Diaz. “Honored” is about a lonely man’s search for love.
Valentino made his first starring role as an actor in “Honored,” and he scored the entire film.
“Honored” won “Best Short Comedy” at the New York International Film and Video Festival last summer. It also won a Los Angeles Movie Award for achievement in narrative short film and an award for “Best Director of a Short Comedy” at the Best Actors in a Film Festival in San Francisco last spring.
“Once Val and I worked on ‘Honored’ together, I was able to see how easily he can take what’s in my mind and put it to music, and that was something that was missing for a lot of years,” Miceli said. “Music is all copyrighted, and it’s really hard to do a good scene, whether it’s funny or scary or romantic unless you have the right music. Even before he sees a rough cut of the film, I just have to describe the scenes to Val, and he has the music for it right away.”
GETTING MORE PROFESSIONAL
For their latest short film, “Damaged Goods,” the men said they aimed to make a product that was more professional looking and marketable. The film is 28 minutes long, and a trailer can be viewed on Valentino’s and Miceli’s production company website, Jersey Flix.
The movie tells the story of a jilted kids’ party entertainer and his attempt at getting back into the dating scene.
“For a film it cost peanuts, but for us it was a major expense, costing a little less than $35,000 to make,” Valentino said. “The quality of the script was so good that I thought that this could do something and be a springboard to do more with the hobby that we love. We put a lot of our own money into it, but we also had to seek donations because it was just too much.”
Miceli said that with this movie the men hired SAG actors and a production crew.
“In the past, there was only the three or four of us, so an actor was also holding the boom microphone when he wasn’t in the shot, and we were all holding the wires,” Miceli said. “This time we had 12 to 14 people on the set. We had a full-blown production. The actors didn’t have to carry anything; I didn’t have to carry anything.”
Filming for “Damaged Goods” wrapped up this past December and since then the film has won the award for “Best Short Script” at the LA Comedy Festival in November.
Valentino said the festival wasn’t televised but was streamed live on the Internet. Even though both men had tickets to attend, they chose not to go because they had classes to teach the next morning.
“We watched the presenters come up for the very first award and they opened up the envelope and they announced my name,” Miceli said. “It was exciting yet bittersweet because we weren’t there. But we had a duty to teach.”
TEACHERS FIRST, THEN FILMMAKERS
On April 5, the Clearview Cinemas Warner Quad in Ridgewood will screen “Damaged Goods.” Tickets are all sold out, but Miceli said hosting another private screening hasn’t been ruled out.
Miceli and Valentino said they want to get “Damaged Goods” entered into the Tribeca Film Festival, but they missed this year’s deadline. They’re holding back from entering other film festivals while they wait to apply for Tribeca so as to not disqualify themselves.
These days, both men serve as mentors to new teachers.
Valentino and Miceli said they prefer to keep their hobby private from the students. They realize some students may know about their movie efforts, but they choose not to discuss it during school hours. They also don’t offer any writing or musical advice until students are out of the middle school and into high school or college.
“When you’re a teacher, you’re just a teacher to students,” Miceli said. “When a student sees you in a pair of jeans at the grocery store, it’s a weird, awkward moment. They freak out. It’s almost like you’re not supposed to have this other life, but the bigger this other life is getting is making it harder to keep it from the kids. But when a current student has a question, I tell them that right now I’m their science teacher, so let’s keep the focus on science. After you graduate from the eighth grade, you can come back, and we can talk about anything you want.”
Both men said they receive support from faculty and friends.
Their next projects are independent ventures. Miceli has been commissioned to write a feature-length script for a mafia-themed movie, while Valentino has been approached by a Canadian programmer to create a score for a video game.
“We’ll continue to work together, and there’ll be another movie after “Damaged Goods,” Miceli said. “But we don’t know what that movie will be yet. Hopefully it’ll be bigger, grander and funnier.”