Although filmmaker Sue Vicory and actress Sariann Monaco both live locally, the pair came together for their latest project to help the family of a murder victim on the other side of the country.
Inspired by the story of 12-year-old murder victim Autumn Pasquale, “Absent” follows a grieving mother taking the first step toward healing and readjustment. Written by Monaco and directed by Vicory, the 14-minute film is about loss and hope.
“We feel like we’ve tapped into a universal emotion,” said Vicory, who has lived in Del Mar for three years. “In 14 minutes, we were able to translate that in a way that I think will be inspirational. That was our goal.”
Monaco learned about Autumn’s murder from her New Jersey-based friend Debbie Savigliano.
After the death of her niece Bianca, Savigliano founded a charity called Bianca’s Kids in 2010 to grant the wishes of foster and needy children in New Jersey and across America. In June, Savigliano appeared on an episode of Lifetime’s “Killer Kids” television series, and Monaco tuned in “not knowing what it was about.”
The episode covered the murder of the New Jersey girl.
Savigliano helped form the initial search party for Autumn, who disappeared Oct. 20, 2012. After a two-day search, police found her body in a recycling container. It was later determined that she had been strangled by 15-year-old Justin Robinson, an acquaintance who lured her to his home in order to steal her bicycle.
“Watching my friend on TV talking about this, it really hit me,” said Monaco, who has lived in Del Mar Heights for nearly three years. “She was crying, the father of Autumn was crying, and I’m crying in the middle of the living room with my family. It haunted me the whole night.”
Robinson, now 17, pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter in 2013 and was sentenced to 17 years in prison.
Since his sentencing, Anthony Pasquale, Autumn’s father, has been working to get Autumn’s Law passed in New Jersey — a measure that would hold abusive or neglectful parents responsible for the violent actions of their children.
Unable to sleep after watching the episode, Monaco began drafting what would become an early version of a script inspired by Autumn’s murder.
“I thought if helping them get signatures on this petition helps the gaping hole in their hearts, I wanted to do something,” Monaco said.
So, in the middle of the night, Monaco sent her rough notes to Vicory, who ultimately decided to make a film.
“It really was an idea in the middle of the night, and three months later, it’s in the can,” Monaco said.
“It went from script to screen in 120 days, which means that it was meant to have a life,” added Vicory, who shot the film in September. “All the openings and the quickness of it was just a huge blessing to the story.”
Besides writing the script, Monaco stars in the film as Joyce, the mother of Mia, a role portrayed by 11-year-old San Diego actress Caylee Hornaday. The film features a total of 20 actors — with all but two from San Diego — and showcases six original songs.
“In the film, we show that fellowship and having the community around you really lifts you up,” Monaco said. “And the community rallied around us to help lift up this project.”
After deciding to begin the filmmaking, the duo launched a Facebook page for the project and people requested to help.
“Almost overnight, we were surrounded by the love of the community,” Vicory said.
Shot entirely in the Del Mar area, the pair filmed at their homes, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Del Mar Highlands Dentistry, and Snooze, an AM Eatery at the Del Mar Highlands Town Center.
They raised donations through Vicory’s Heartland Films, a nonprofit production company established in 2003 to produce films that educate, raise awareness and inspire audiences.
“We raised a lot of money in a short period of time,” said Vicory, who wouldn’t disclose the amount of funds raised, but noted at least two dozen people contributed to the project.
One of the funders, a close friend of Autumn’s family, donated money for the opportunity to name the dog featured in the film. Vicory’s 10-year-old golden retriever, Kacy, makes her acting debut in “Absent” as “Autumn.”
Since completing the film, Vicory and Monaco have submitted “Absent” to the Slamdance Film Festival. The film was recently selected to be screened during San Diego’s Film Consortium Fall Film Festival next year. After they finish entering the film into festivals and pay those involved with the project, they plan to donate any remaining funds to children’s charities.
Vicory and Monaco first learned about each other after reading articles about their respective careers in the Del Mar Times. After meeting, the pair developed a close friendship. Monaco also co-produced and narrated Vicory’s previous project, “One,” a documentary that explores global humanity and our individual significance and impact within it.
Because the pair work so well together, Vicory was quick to collaborate on the project after Monaco shared her idea.
“I opened up an opportunity for Sariann’s vision and dream to have life, and we didn’t stumble at all,” Vicory said. “It takes a tremendous amount of work, but we work really well together.”
For information about Autumn’s Law, or to sign the petition, visit change.org/petitions/autumn-s-law-hold-abusive-neglectful-parents-accountable.
“We hope the film touches those who have lost a child,” Vicory said.
“The film really is for anyone who has experienced hardship in their life,” added Monaco. “We hope it makes a difference in the lives of Autumn’s family and other families.”