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Check Out Antonio Harper’s Story

Today we’d like to introduce you to Antonio Harper. 

Hi Antonio, we’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
I am a 6 foot 8 Black-Greek director/writer from Cleveland Heights, Ohio. At first glance, I am perceived as many things, but not as a Greek dancing, marching band trumpeter, and storyteller. Don’t get me wrong, you would be right to assume that I played sports, was a captain, and excelled at them but at my core, I’ve always been a storyteller. 

At an early age, I would record my family vacations with my father’s camcorder, the same one he used to film our games. At the age of 13, I shot my first feature-length 007 film with the help of my two sisters, the younger of which played multiple characters. In the early years, it wasn’t with the knowledge of wanting a career in film, or even if that was a possibility. It was something that naturally, I wanted to do to have fun. By 13 I had also created a series of Star Wars comics that I had drawn out in multiple notebooks, comic strips that I would then act out with my action figures and toys (something later on that would directly be related to storyboarding and the blocking of a film) 

Whether it be staying up late to watch old classic Westerns or sneaking into another movie at the theater, my love of movies came from my father. My mother did introduce me to classics such as Indiana Jones, Star Wars, E.T, and Zorro, and it was by her hand that I (against my wishes) was put into a Film and Interactive Media camp the summer before my freshman year of high school. But it was that summer that I met Mr. Glass and the realization that filmmaking was an actual career path. 

In high school, while excelling in basketball and marching band, I expanded my knowledge of film, experimenting with techniques and skipping a boat load of other classes while I did. I worked on District-wide Anti-Bully videos and a facilities project that went on to be the catalyst for the renovation of the high school. Our school housed the production of a short film put on by Scenario USA titled SPEECHLESS. This project would go on to be a part of the Cleveland International Film Festival, my first taste of going to a festival and seeing a project that you helped out on the big screen…though they did spell my name wrong in the credits, either way my family was still proud! In my senior year, I entered into my first film festival the Hathaway Brown iMagine Film Festival for which I won Best Comedy and Best in Show for my silent short LARRY. Later that school year Mr. Glass held a meeting with the principals to discuss how the arts could be incorporated within the community more. At that meeting was then President of the Greater Cleveland Film Commission (GCFC) Ivan Schwarz, the most intimidating person I have ever met. Mr. Glass encouraged me to walk Ivan to his car for which I did. We had a pleasant conversation and before he left, I gave him a DVD copy of LARRY for him to watch. The following weeks I emailed GCFC for interest in interning there for my senior project. After weeks of no reply, I sent in a letter in the mail, after which I got accepted (if I’m not mistaken, I was one of, if not the first intern at GCFC) 

The senior project resulted in learning that films could be made in Cleveland! At the time, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER and DRAFT DAY were being filmed and I got the opportunity to go down on set and see firsthand the magic of movie-making! At the time I was being recruited for college basketball and hadn’t found a college that worked for both athletics and arts. Not to mention the cost to go to a school like the New York Film Academy or USC. I had to take a long moment and figure out what I saw myself getting up and doing after college, even if I wasn’t getting paid for it. At this time, basketball was something that started falling at the waist. I was still passionate about playing and loved the game that I grew up in, but I realized that right before winning iMagine, I had won MVP at the Bladen Wallace Classic Showcase against our rivals Shaker Heights, a trophy that upon receiving was told that Lebron James had won during his time at Saint Vincent. And at that moment, I wasn’t as happy as when I won Best in Show. I knew at that moment that film was what I wanted and needed in my life, and something I could see myself doing long after being able to play basketball. 

But the time I spent at GCFC during that internship solidified me to stay in-state and attend Cleveland State University (CSU). On the last day of my internship, Ivan pulled me into his office and told me that he thought LARRY was pretty great, though he would love to hear some dialogue in my future projects with LARRY. 

My senior year summer would end with a trip to Florida for a week camp put on by the New York Film Academy, where I found my ability to work with actors and crew to be second nature. And my first entry into the Cleveland 48 Hour Film Festival, a festival I would participate in every year until 2018. 

Going into CSU was like any school for me, skipping classes to work on film stuff. Though I had to be more attentive as I was put on academic probation twice, failing my intro to film class three times (in my defense, the class was nothing but remembering terms and definitions, not my strong suit) it was in my freshman year that I asked my Intro To Film teacher Mr. Denny if there were any filmmaking clubs. He mentioned film-watching clubs but nothing of the making type. And so, I created Oscar Productions, CSU’s first filmmaking club, and we had a lot of fun with that. The second half of the year, after making the club, my roommate Joe and I made an espionage feature film titled THE ELITE (a film which the plot resembles the film CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE, a film that wouldn’t be out u till 3 years after the YouTube release of THE ELITE but do with that information as you must). In sophomore year I was tempted to join CSUs men’s basketball team after putting on a performance against the trainers in a rec league game. I declined. 

The year of 2015 would be the year that I would meet my second half, both creatively and personally, that was the year that I met Abby. I met Abby in a production class on editing, the only film class she would end up taking. On the first day of class I arrived 30 minutes late because I could not find the room in the basement (to this day she still doesn’t believe that), when I arrived, I sat in the back as the teacher gave the editing assignment. The assignment was supposed to last 3 days for the class, I finished it in 30 minutes. I helped my classmates with their projects, one of whom was primarily Abby. From that moment we would work together on projects, including a group project that she not only conned her way to get me with her group but also covered for me when I forgot to show up for the actual shoot day. Regardless, I was put in charge of editing and was accompanied by Abby for the duration of completion as we ended up getting an A! From that moment, we were a team. 

Abby would go on to pursue journalism, but we would still work on film projects together whether it be for her class presentations or mine. My grades would improve as I began to excel in my other classes with the help of Abby. Junior year would be the year of the mockumentary as my roommates, and I (with the help of Abby) ran around campus shooting CREDIT HOURS. We made 6 episodes before Finals at the end of the year. That summer Abby and I participated in our first Cleveland 48 titled THE ORIENTATION. 

Senior year, I was able to loop back to GCFC for an opportunity to intern for college credit. Abby, Joe, and I moved to an off-campus apartment. Our apartment was in the West Building number 10G, this is where our production company West 10G got its start and where Abby and I adopted our dog Rocky while working at a convenience store that was on the first floor of our building, a store that I’m sure will be the source of a show we develop in the future. Abby would go on to intern at Cleveland Magazine, interviewing celebrities like Jonathan Van Ness and Damien Chazelle and receiving high honors for her reporting on “Lessie Brown Celebrates 114 Years of Life ” and becoming an Editor. 

We would both acquire part-time jobs and would go on to excel, getting the opportunities to work on productions for John Hopkins, The Cavs, and Cub Cadet. Towards the end of the year, an opportunity came to shadow for two weeks on the feature film WHITE BOY RICK. I managed to get the opportunity and was introduced to Yann Demange and Tat Radcliffe. While on set, I naturally did some production assistant jobs, having been on a set before, and found myself helping more and more with production rather than sitting around. A shadowing opportunity that was only meant to last two weeks turned into me becoming a PA all the way up to a Casting Coordinator after Yann needed assistance with casting and saw promise in my ability. 

At the end of my time, I had to go back to CSU for finals, and on graduation night I got a call from Yann’s assistant asking me to come back on full time for the duration of production. I did and was given tremendous insight into the inner workings of a large production. Upon returning to GCFC, I was brought on full-time as a Casting Coordinator, working with productions and managing interns on the day-to-day, shooting videos for screening events and increasing our social media presence. 

In October of 2018, I departed from the Film Commission to do more hands-on projects with West 10G Productions, working with non-profit and local businesses and artists, offering them high-quality services for affordable prices in hopes to help showcase many of the fantastic businesses and people that I came across during my time location scouting for GCFC. One such artist, Diana Chittester, needed a music video done that we would go on and get selected for the Cleveland International Film Festival, my first selection to a major festival. I would then go on to also assist at the festival during the FilmSlam section of the festival, showing films to middle and high schoolers, holding Q & A for the program, and granting insight on the art of filmmaking. 

I would be called back to GCFC for the four Band of Brothers Event that granted me the opportunity to meet and hang out with members of the cast and crew. 2019 started off strong with projects and a whole slate of shorts that Abby and I were creating starting with TRAIL MIX which we shot one chilly May morning. All was well until it all came to a dead stop that July when Abby was diagnosed with cancer. The back end of that year was a circus of trying to figure out how we would get through that and thankfully Cleveland Clinic was there to help. 

During our time in the hospital, Abby came up with a fun short film about a boy and a balloon called BUSH. I had just recently gotten a 16 mm film camera, and we set out to make this be our first short shot on it. By November, she was recovering and was at a good place for us to shoot something and so “shot” BUSH. The day was terrible, the balloon was not corroborating and it just came crumbling down. That evening when I checked the reel, I noticed that nothing had been recorded the whole day! So, the following day we went back out, took a deep breath, and shot. BUSH would go on to be accepted into Oscar Qualifying Film Festival the Cleveland International Film Festival the following year. In November, we would shoot our next short that we had slated for the beginning of the year DEJA VU. 

As Abby got better so did our role in working with more and more organizations within our communities like; The West Side Catholic Center, School Districts, Stella Maris, Brewella’s, and Car Idiots Forever. Chief Car Idiot, Bernie Golias, and I met at a media mixer held by GCFC when he mistakenly thought I was merely serving pizza. This would blossom into a friendship that grew into creative car-themed projects. I had also gotten into working with Ensemble Theatre and Reaching Heights’s Heights Performing Arts Camp. I was initially a drop-in instructor before coming on for the following summer in 2019 to introduce film to the theater and arts camp for middle schoolers. 

Then 2020 hit, and productions halted. It was tough but we made our way through, the scariest part was that Abby needed checkups post-surgery, but hospitals became unavailable because of the pandemic. But we stayed strong and following the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, we needed to act. After a BLM protest on May 30th in downtown Cleveland that resulted in tear gas, rubber bullets, and exploding cars, Abby thought of the idea for what would be our short ALTRUIST. We got everything together, gathered the troops, and by July 10th, we had completed the one-shot short. This would be the first production in Ohio to take place since the shutdown, pioneering what would be procedures that would take place because of COVID protocols moving forward for all productions. 

Following that shoot that year Abby and I would go on to make three more films with Bernie; CHANGING TIMES, DEADLINE, and PANIC IN VALLEY CITY. The latter would go on to be a part of the Cleveland International Film Festival in addition to ALTRUIST, getting us two shorts in one festival in the same year, a feat I’m not sure had ever been done by a pair of directors before. The three films would go on to be selected in over 70 film festivals, winning numerous awards. 

We also traveled to the Anniversary March on Washington, protesting the ongoing police brutality happening in the country. Toward the end of 2020, I would get a call from a crew member from the set of Cub Cadets, who was recommending us for a job with John Deere down in Alabama. Now my father was originally from Alabama, Goodwater, to be specific, and so this seemed like a kismet time to visit, seeing how we never took family trips down or even really knew anyone down there. My grandmother would tell us stories, and we knew we had a house and some land in the family name, but that was about it. My aunt Evette was ecstatic and made sure to connect us with everyone she could before we headed down. 

In March of 2021, we drove down and shot our first large corporation project. It was a mini-documentary about Heir’s Property. Outside the pleasure of meeting the Ely Family who was featured in the doc, I got to meet my family members, visit my dad’s childhood home, and even visit the Piggly Wiggly he always went to. It was a feeling that I will never let go of, the feeling of completeness. We grabbed a few things to bring back for Auntie Evette to see, including a yellow phone we found in the rubble of the house that she just about fell out of when we called to tell her about it. When we got back, unfortunately, Auntie Evette passed from COVID in April and never got the chance to see what we had brought back for her. 

At that time, Abby and I decided to start looking at a production space. We had loved the space that our friends over at Black Valve Media had and so we found a spot in Tyler Village that would work well. The 12,000 square foot space would have been the largest production space in downtown Cleveland and a place where we wanted to set up Bird Nest, a non-profit organization helping historically excluded artists explore their creativity. The process of removing all the junk and dirt left by the previous tenant (a wood chopper) would be a process that consumed us day and night, but we were excited to get things going and programs started. We were allowed to start cleaning the space in April even though our lease didn’t start till May. 

It was around this time that Abby connected with a system on TikTok named Ghang. Ghang was from Perth, Australia, and has Dissociative Identity Disorder and Abby reached out in hopes of assisting them to tell their stories. Even with COVID, we still worked to get this documentary put together so that we could get funding to travel to Perth and capture Ghang’s story. 

It wasn’t until I got a friendly call from Ivan. He told us that he had been following what we were doing and asked what it was that we wanted to do careerwise, understanding that I’ve been telling him that I was going to win an Oscar by the time I was 30. Ivan, now having moved to New York with his family, had been trying to get me out to LA since I came back to intern at the Film Commission in college. He knew what we wanted to do and wanted to help us do it. And so, after consideration, we withdrew from the space before the lease started and made plans to travel to LA. 

After driving cross country which included breaking down in the Colorado mountains, maneuvering around a mudslide onto a mountain cliff dirt road, breaking down again in Utah, and almost blowing up at a Nevada gas station, we finally made it to LA on the 4th of July, 4 days after we had planned to get there! We had come up with two short film ideas that we created pitch decks and proposals for while enroute. It was a business vacation as Abby nor I had ever been to LA. The first day, I sent a text to Yann to meet up for which we did, and he gave some great advice for how to maneuver out in LA. We saw some sights, met some executives, and pitched some projects. The three months were as successful as they get for a couple of first-timers shooting from the hip. Abby managed to email Eryn Brown, a partner of Management 360 and co-founder of 1N4 Coalition who would then take us under her wing in supporting and connecting us with more execs looking to support underrepresented voices from companies like Monkeypaw, Hillman Grad, and One Community. 

After the three months ended, we returned to Ohio but not by car by train because Abby’s car had enough and we weren’t sure if it would make the drive back. We spent the holiday back in Ohio, and at the top of 2022, we saw an opportunity to come back out and start making waves in LA, so we sold what we could to help pay for travel, and our family assisted with getting everything together. We continued to network though we’re not back in LA yet, connecting with our Cleveland connections at AGBO and people at Film Independent. We worked with the GCFC again as well as the newly created Heights Performing Arts Camp before gearing up to head back out West. On our travels back to LA we elected to learn from our mistake and take the southern route, and to our surprise, it was much less stressful on our car! 

Now that we are back in LA, we are picking up where we left off, pitching new projects and developing current ones. I was selected to participate in the Firelight Media Lab (partnered with the Cleveland International Film Festival) after submitting a proposal for our documentary following Ghang. Abby was asked to come back and speak at the Columbus Society of Communicating Arts on her experience as a female disabled director. 

We are now currently working on a short film that will utilize every aspect of the community in that we now reside. Allowing us the opportunity to feel out the way things work in LA compared to Ohio while also granting us the opportunity to grow our film networking crew and cast base for a smaller project. Looking to get a documentary, narrative feature, and a show off the ground and working towards that goal of getting an Oscar by the time I’m 30. Currently, I am 26, and Abby is 27, and regardless if we achieve that short-term goal, we will always be doing what we set out to do when first creating West 10G Productions, and that is the tagline for West 10G Productions and quote from Steven Spielberg “Dreaming For A Living” 

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle free, but so far would you say the journey has been a fairly smooth road?
Being Black in this industry has always held its challenges but growing up Black sets your mind up to figure out ways around those challenges. COVID was a huge challenge to have to maneuver as a local production company, and thankfully, we managed to stay afloat during that time, but outside the production side of things, with Abby being immunocompromised, it made it hard for us to feel safe as things were so unpredictable towards the end of 2020. Cleveland State University didn’t have a Film School while I was there (it was completed my senior year, and the inaugural class was the following year) and so utilizing the Theatre Department for Actors and convincing classmates outside of my film class to join the crew was a pleasant obstacle that has been beneficial later down the road. Obviously, our drive out the first time to LA was a complete representation of our journey to this point, but what was most important was that we adapted and kept moving forward. 

The most difficult struggle and obstacle are wondering if you’re doing enough. Social media has almost programmed us to think that we aren’t, but it matters to look back at where you’ve come from, and that excites us because 5 years ago, when I graduated college, I didn’t think everything that has happened (both good and bad) would have happened, but it’s led me to where I am today. 

Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?
Individually my background and experiences are what make me unique. I’m Black and Greek, I grew up playing the trumpet in the orchestra and marching band while also being a top athlete in the state of Ohio, I speak Greek, went to a Greek Orthodox Church, lived in a Jewish neighborhood, participated in Science Olympiad, and oh right…I’m a filmmaker. 

Now being older I’ve realized that my ability to fit into the group of athletes as well as the band crew has allowed me to understand how to communicate across barriers. And it was this that I feel makes me different from a lot of people who have only ever been in one type of group or another. I’ve used film as my voice, and in a way to communicate with other to whom probably will never speak a word to one another otherwise. 

I am one-half of a writing-directing duo shared with my partner Abby. That is what sets me apart. With Abby, I feel that we are the best directors to come out of Ohio. We offer a paired perspective that many people could never touch. Our experiences alone before the age of 30 have given us insight that most people will have one or two of. 

I’m proud of every project I’ve done. Sometimes it is hard to see progress in the moment, so I always look back at the older projects. There’s no shame in saying that you’ve grown as a creative, but the beautiful thing is seeing that the technique of telling the story has evolved but that the foundation of the story has always been consistently present. That was the number one thing that my father told me that makes a good story “One that has a beginning, middle, and end” 

I specialize in creating stories that make you feel something. Whether it be happiness, sadness, curiosity, or escape. I’ve found that many of our recent projects have been tailored to start discussions on overlooked topics including police brutality with our short ALTRUIST and Heir’s Property and the ELY FAMILY. But it’s not always so serious. I come from a very goofy family, and so naturally I believe that comedy has always been my calling, but as I’ve grown and as Abby and I have grown together creatively, we have been able to mix in some medicine with the sugar. Offering people a serious topic coated with digestible and comical content. 

Having made short films such as BUSH (16mm), PANIC IN VALLEY CITY, and ALTRUIST, all of which got into numerous festivals, including the Oscar-qualifying Cleveland International Film Festival. Their company West 10G Productions, has new projects slated this year for both television and film under their directing flagship Abbio Film. 

Can you share something surprising about yourself?
– Before Cleveland State University had a Film School, I created its first-ever filmmaking club Oscar Productions 

– With my background in music, I typically think if the music before working on a project. Usually, I will hate the project until I find the right music for it. 

– My sisters and I went to Greek school at much church every Saturday from elementary school through most of high school. I would cause rebellions at lunch, extending it for 30 extra minutes while we hid from our teacher. To no surprise, I did not officially graduate from Greek school, but the lessons stuck. 

– I started playing the trumpet in Elementary School through to marching band in high school. I still dabble with my trumpet from time to time. 

– I have Greek danced since I was in Middle School at my church’s Greek Festival. 

– At that same Greek Festival, my sisters, I, and our friend Steven tipped over the Scooby-Doo bounce house. my dad was not happy, primarily because we were supposed to be working the Kids Corner not bouncing it its bounce house. 

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Image Credits

Angelo Merendino
Bryan Clark

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