At the beginning of One Tough Cookie, it’s easy to think it will be a lighthearted comedy about a Girl Scout trying to get a prestigious badge. But as a battle of wills draws out between an angry, old suburbanite, Martin Sinise, and a Girl Scout willing to go to dark lengths for her final sale of cookies, the darkness of the short reveals itself.
Much like the young protagonist (or antagonist), the bright disposition of the film doesn’t last long.
Filmed over the course of six days, One Tough Cookie, a short film written and directed by Denton filmmaker and comedian Tony Casillas, started out as a student film with no more aspirations other than a passing grade intended. What it became over the next year was a calling card for a new filmmaker, a proud display of range for a young actress and comedian, and a shared piece of work that showcased the talent of multiple DFW artists.
Dallas comedian and actor David Jessup played the father to the devilish Girl Scout in the short, Saffron Herndon, continually offering a supportive word to his daughter in a detached tone without looking up from his book. Jessup was familiar with Casillas and Herndon before filming began, as one of the more seasoned comedians in Dallas. He says he witnessed both performers start and grow as comedians as they shared the stage performing stand-up at different DFW venues.
It was a foreign experience for Jessup to act with, and be directed by, individuals in an environment that leveled the three on equal standings.
“I was blown away by how professional it was,” Jessup says. “When I signed on to do, it I thought, 'OK, some college kids doing a project, this should be fun,' but first day of shooting I felt like it was a legit film, and the end result shows that it was. I was also really impressed with Saffy’s acting chops.”
Upon completing the short, the Arlington Improv hosted a premiere screening of the film that featured stand-up comedy performances from Casillas and other local comedians before friends and family were able to see One Tough Cookie on a big screen. After the unveiling, Casillas and crew began to navigate a film festival circuit that can be at best career-defining and at worst exploitative and predatory.
“There’s like a festival literally everywhere nowadays,” Casillas says. “Like there’s the New Jersey Wine Bar Festival. I looked up pictures, there’s like seven people that attend. So we were like, Is it worth it spending money to submit to that and getting in, and submitting to a lot of festivals like that where you don’t know if it’s going to be well attended or not, or we just submit to the big ones?”
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With only a $500 submission budget, Casillas made the executive call to direct the money to larger festivals like South By Southwest. The gamble did not lead to an acceptance letter, but Casillas doesn’t regret taking the chance.
The experience proved invaluable for Casillas, allowing him a chance to meet and work with new artists to learn from. Casillas credits his producer, Collin Briton, as being an organized and reasonable voice who made sense of the hectic nature of creating a film of any length. Herndon made a deep impact on Casillas, as well, a young talent he often describes as brilliant.
For now, Casillas will continue to work on writing shorts and increasing his stand-up presence with a rapidly crowding calendar of shows. After shooting One Tough Cookie, Casillas has a better idea of how he wants his future projects to be handled, with an emphasis on taking care of the actors and crew.
"I think filmmakers that are shooting on film, you’re wasting your money,” Casillas says. “I’ve been on sets where they’re, 'We have to shoot on film,' and they feed their cast and crew three slices of pepperoni and dirt water. I’m like, 'Hey, what if you put food and drink in your cast and crew’s stomach, and shot on a format that everybody uses. Maybe we’ll have fun on the set.'”