When “Proud American” opened in theaters nationwide Sept. 12, moviegoers likely recognized many of the country’s famous landmarks featured in the film, including the Washington Monument, USS Arizona Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery.
A few places and faces may also have looked familiar to some North County residents, as portions of the movie were filmed on location at La Costa Canyon High School, Diegueño Middle School and Fresco Trattoria.
“Proud American” presents five stories that magnify the themes of tolerance, freedom, education and personal responsibilities. The Dawn Trang story, about a Vietnamese immigrant whose family nearly died trying to find freedom in America, co-stars Michelle Ashman, a 2007 La Costa Canyon graduate.
Her father, Carlsbad resident Fred Ashman, is the film’s executive producer, director and co-writer. While his position gave her the opportunity to be part of the movie, he said his daughter earned her role. In fact, Michelle Ashman wasn’t the first choice for the part of Katie.
While working as an intern at her father’s company, Michelle Ashman was in charge of setting up the casting sessions. When the auditions were complete, she told her father and the producer she also wanted to read. Although she did a fairly good job, the producer chose someone else to play Katie, a nice girl who befriends the title character and helps her deal with prejudice and the high school mean girl, played by Mackenzie Rosman of “7th Heaven” fame.
But 24 hours before filming was scheduled to begin, the girl originally cast as Katie was unable to make the shoot. “(Michelle) earned it,” Fred Ashman said. “I was tougher on her than I was on any other cast member. She had more pressure than anyone else.”
Fred Ashman also gave Giorgio Saturnino, a partner and chef at Fresco in La Costa, a small part in the film. Michelle Ashman helped recruit about 30 local student actors for extras, including some of her former La Costa Canyon theater classmates such as Melanie Kaplanek, Carissa Lowe and Collin McCarthy.
“I thought it was a unique and exciting opportunity,” Collin, a junior at La Costa Canyon High School, said. “I was honored to be part of this film.”
Although Collin is a veteran of more than a dozen community and high school plays, this was his first experience working in film. “It definitely takes a lot longer than you’d expect,” he said. “It took about two hours to do a 30-second scene.”
Fred Ashman said he came up with the concept for “Proud American” about 16 years ago.
“I was quite moved by the fact that there’s so much negativity in our world,” he said. “We hear everything that’s wrong about our country. ‘Proud American’ is a statement about what makes this country great. It’s a film about the positives in America.”
The five vignettes are based on true stories about real people, Ashman said. In addition to the Dawn Trang story, the movie profiles Curtis Jackson, a Chicago youth surrounded by drugs and gangs who breaks tradition by graduating high school; a Jewish family that becomes the victim of a hate crime; and Carlos Moleda, a Navy SEAL trying to regain his life after becoming paralyzed. There is also a tribute to the heroes and victims of Sept. 11.
“The entire film is very much real,” said Ashman, who spent countless hours conducting interviews and researching the Reader’s Digest archives to find the stories for “Proud American.”
As an independent film, Ashman said funding was provided primarily through sponsorships by Coca-Cola, MasterCard, American Airlines and Wal-Mart. He is donating $5 million of the profits to various charities, including the National Military Family Association, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Shot in 70 mm Imax film, the PG-rated movie is being shown in traditional format at Edwards San Marcos, UltraStar in Oceanside and Del Mar Highlands, Regal Cinemas in Oceanside and AMC La Jolla Village.