The first one is always the hardest.
"Stuck in Love," writer-director Josh Boone's film drama about a family of dysfunctional writers starring Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Connelly, barely found an audience. Critics gave it mixed reviews.
There was a one-night screening at the Naro Expanded Cinema in Norfolk - mostly attended by family and friends - to celebrate the Virginia Beach native's moviemaking debut.
But it was a start.
The next chapter of Boone's Hollywood dream, a film adaptation of John Green's best-seller, "The Fault in Our Stars," has the potential to be a real blockbuster. The movie already has a fan base, evidenced by the teenage girls who, copies of the novel in hand, camped outside the Episcopal church in Mount Lebanon, Pa., near Pittsburgh, where filming took place this fall.
The emotionally charged novel revolves around 16-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster, who has stage 4 thyroid cancer and is able to survive only with an experimental drug and an oxygen tank that she calls "Philip." She's played by one of Hollywood's hottest young stars, Shailene Woodley, who starred in 2011's "The Descendants."
Before filming, Woodley had her long, wavy hair cut - Boone flew to L.A. to monitor the new hairdo - and lost weight to morph into Hazel.
Laura Dern plays her smothering mom. She pushes Hazel to attend a weekly support group whose members, a rotating cast of characters, circle around a huge rug with an image of Jesus. The rug was made by Patrick - portrayed by comedian/actor Mike Birbiglia - the group leader and the only member over 18. He starts each meeting with his experience: He survived testicular cancer but lost both testicles.
Tragedy, though, is trumped by humor, and when Boone shouts "Cut!" on the Pennsylvania set, everyone lets out a gasp of nervous laughter.
During one meeting, Hazel is drawn to the tall and handsome Augustus "Gus" Waters (newcomer Ansel Elgort), a basketball player who lost his right leg just below the knee to cancer but is in remission.
But "Fault," Boone said, is more than a love story. Hazel and Gus bond over a book she loves, and the movie builds to their trip to Amsterdam, where they hope that the reclusive author, Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe), will answer their questions.
If it sounds like "The Wizard of Oz," that's the way Boone pitched it during his audition with producers Wyck Godfrey and Marty Bowen, the guys behind "The Twilight Saga" and TV's "Revenge."
"You spend the whole movie waiting to meet this man," Boone said. "It's them coming to Emerald City."
He was drawn to "Fault" after one of his close friends, a record store owner who gave him his first job in L.A., died from lung cancer. It was aggressive, and Boone, 34, was at his friend's bedside most of his final month.
While directing "Stuck in Love," Boone read Green's novel, then got a copy of the script when it started circulating around Hollywood.
"I read it, never thinking I would direct anything I didn't write," he said.
But his agent kept pressing him to go for it.
Boone prepped for weeks, using a technique he'd mastered when pitching his own scripts. At his audition, he brought photographs of young people shot with natural light, music queued to specific scenes (The indie rock band Bright Eyes, who scored "Stuck," was on the list and is signed for "Fault.") and a shot-by-shot description for the opening 20 minutes.
"When we hired him, we thought of him as a young Cameron Crowe," Godfrey said. "He's someone with a clear vision, open to input. He takes everything in and then moves forward."
Though shooting was done primarily in Pittsburgh, the search for Van Houten took Boone, producers, actors Woodley and Elgort, and cinematographer Ben Richardson to Amsterdam in October.
On touchdown, it was a maddening race to accomplish everything, Boone recalled. Sleep was a luxury. He and Richardson went straight out to scout locations, navigating the cold and rain and thousands of bicyclists coming from every direction.
"Everywhere you look and everywhere you turn there are bicycles - people riding all over the place," Boone said.
The stormy weather provided only short windows in which to shoot. Richardson used a handheld camera, which afforded Boone the most flexibility.
Amsterdam was mostly "seat-of-your-pants filmmaking," he said. "If we saw something interesting, we shot it."
A magical moment was improvised at the dazzling Rijksmuseum. Boone happened across a "cool, classical street band" and got the producers to "lock them down" for the movie. Hazel and Gus walk through a tunnel beneath the museum, discover the band and stop to listen as they play Ravel.
On the final day, Boone and the group headed along the narrow Prinsengracht canal to a three-story brick building, No. 263. It was their final destination, where 13-year-old Anne Frank wrote her diary - putting down her hopes, frustrations and longing for freedom - while she and her family hid from the Nazis during World War II.
"I knew one of the most important scenes would be at the Anne Frank House," Boone said.
The production waited for months for permission to bring cameras inside the museum. Visitors cannot take photographs; director George Stevens didn't even shoot there for his Oscar-nominated classic, "The Diary of Anne Frank." But a week before leaving the Netherlands, Boone got the green light.
"We went with the belief that this would work out," he said.
They were admitted at 9 p.m., closing time. Once inside, they had two hours.
The secret annex, the area behind the movable bookcase where the Franks lived for two years, was off-limits. So was the attic where Anne could see the chestnut tree outside. Those scenes were filmed in Pittsburgh on a replica set built to scale and authentically dressed to the smallest detail.
Because of the time constraint, each shot at the Amsterdam museum had to be technically correct; the actors had to say their lines flawlessly and hit their marks. A second take was a luxury.
"It was incredible," Boone said. "We're in this big, empty white room with four very large photographs of Anne Frank on the wall.... Nobody has been allowed to shoot there before. Everyone knew how big of a deal that was."
Back in L.A. with editor Robb Sullivan, Boone went into serious multitasking.
While "Fault" was shaped into its two-hour running time - the June 6 release date, when it hits hundreds, possibly thousands, of screens, is etched in stone - Boone began his adaptation of Stephen King's psychological thriller/romance "Lisey's Story." He is writing the script and will direct, working again with Godfrey and Bowen.
Boone and King have been pen pals of sorts since Boone was growing up in Virginia Beach. So when he went to Florida to record King's voice for a cameo in "Stuck in Love," the author agreed to let Boone adapt one of his novels.
"Lisey's Story" topped the list, but it wasn't available at the time. A year later, while filming "Fault," Boone finally got the go-ahead.
In Los Angeles, seated on a cushy couch in the editing room, he was in the prep stage, rereading the novel, taking notes, highlighting scenes and dialogue. Three to four months, he said, should be long enough to transform it into his own script, a tale about the widow of a famous writer harassed by fans who want access to his unpublished work.
"It's... in the same territory as '(The) Green Mile' and 'The Shawshank Redemption,' as far as it's super character-driven, but it also has another element that makes it distinctly Stephen King," Boone said.
Next on his plate is his own "Pretenders," scheduled to begin filming in New York City next summer. It's about two guys who meet in college in the '70s and fall in love with the same girl - similar to "Carnal Knowledge," one of Boone's favorite movies. One becomes a Helmut Newton-like fashion photographer, the other an aspiring filmmaker.
Boone wrote it while editing "Stuck in Love," and it will be produced by Judy Cairo ("Crazy Heart"), who gave him his directing break. The cast includes Anton Yelchin ("Star Trek"), Imogen Poots ("Fright Night") and Michael B. Jordan ("Fruitvale Station").
But for all he's accomplished, Boone said his greatest success may be opening the door for his best friend, Knate Gwaltney. Back in Virginia Beach, they were like the kids in "Super 8," making movies at the ripe old age of 8. Gwaltney just finished directing his first film, "Cardboard Boxer," with Thomas Haden Church and Terrence Howard.
After Boone got a foothold in the business, he gave "Cardboard Boxer" to his agent at the Creative Artists Agency - Hollywood's biggest - who passed it around.
"I begged him for years to let me help set it up," said Boone, who is credited as co-executive producer. "All I did was put the script in the right people's hands."
If the road to success has been slow for Boone - it was more than a decade ago that he packed up his car and headed West - it's been worth the wait.
"I feel really lucky," he said. "So few people get to do what they actually want to do in life. It's the opportunity to do something that I've wanted to do since I was a kid.
"And, I want to do the best job I can - so I can keep doing it."