Local filmmaker Justin Atkinson mirrors his own story in Bobby’s Intermission.
The year is 1989. A young Justin Atkinson visits Vali-Hi Drive-In for the first time with his mother, Jenifer Cloutier, to see Batman—an evening that ultimately altered the course of Atkinson’s biggest dreams.
“It blew my mind to see a movie outside with stars behind the screen and seeing a fantastical story with larger than life characters,” he says. “I remember also seeing Jurassic Park there, and that was the movie that made me want to make movies.” Thirty-three years later, Atkinson is using Vali-Hi Drive-In as the setting of his own feature film, Bobby’s Intermission.
Atkinson, an Emmy Award– and Telly Award–winning director, has done professional videography work for the City of Woodbury and other local communities and area businesses, including Angelina’s Kitchen, Bridgeman’s Ice Cream Parlor and more. After graduating with a degree in science, film/video and digital arts from Minneapolis Community and Technical College, he began creating short films and training videos for restaurants. Years later, he created his professional business, Justin Films LLC, where he works on films from start to finish—in the preproduction, production and postproduction stages.
“I still had the dream to make a feature film, and I decided this [past] summer was the time,” the Woodbury native says. Atkinson wrote, produced, edited and directed Bobby’s Intermission; he also held open casting calls at the R.H. Stafford Library, where more than 90 local actors and actresses auditioned. “There are so many people in the community who act and want to be in movies. I just had no idea, and the actors who auditioned were all incredible,” he says. “It was really hard to pick who was going to play the characters. In some cases, I created roles for some actors because I really wanted their energy and talent somewhere in my movie.”
Filming started on June 13, 2022, and wrapped this past winter. Atkinson says the cast truly brought his film to life. “The actors I cast took my characters and script and elevated it to a whole other level … It’s more than what I ever envisioned,” Atkinson says. “These characters I wrote are very important and very personal to me, and to see actors come in and bring them to life before my eyes was very emotional at times.”
“It was also emotional to see actors, in some cases, bring part of themselves into the role, too. Many of them told me they identified with the characters … It’s cool to hear that the characters resonate with them on a personal level.”
Woodbury High School alumnae Rommy Romero and Adriana Tokin both have dreams in filmmaking and acted in the film. Tokin, who is currently studying cinema at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, has been acting since the age of 10 and recently started pursuing acting in films. She says of the experience, “Justin is an amazing director, he was always super engaging with us. He is also very understanding of his actors and always made sure we were comfortable …”
Romero shares Tokin’s enthusiasm for the film. “My experience filming this movie has been so surreal,” says Romero, who plays Natalie. Romero auditioned for the film with a dream of seeing herself on “the big screen” one day. “I didn’t realize how soon that dream would come true … [When] I got the email that I had gotten one of the main roles … I was over the moon excited,” she says.
For 12-year-old Spencer La Casse, the film is his first foray into the industry. Spencer, a Woodbury Middle School student, plays the supporting role of Jimmy. “I thought it would be a fun thing to do, and it gives me a good learning experience,” he says.
Also starring in the film—in the opening credits—is Atkinson’s wife, Meghan, and their newborn child, Ethan, who was born two months after Atkinson began filming. He says, “Becoming a father in the middle of shooting my first feature film has been enormously challenging …” It’s been Meghan’s support, as well as the support of other family and friends, that’s led him to continue this dream.
“It’s been really fun and exciting to see Justin live his dream over the past few months,” Meghan says. “He lights up when talking about the movie. It’s surreal to think that just a few years ago this was an idea, and it’s become a reality. I’m so proud of him.”
“I think about [Ethan] a lot when I’m making the film. I have a dream, and I want him to know, someday when he’s older, that if he has a dream, he can do it,” Atkinson says. “You’re never too old to put in the work and make your dreams come true … When I tell him that someday, he can’t say, ‘Well, you never made that movie, Dad.’ But I did, and I want him to know that he can do it, too.”
Bobby’s Intermission is being tentatively released in summer 2023. For more information, visit justinfilmsllc.com.
Bobby Cannata is a teenager on the brink of loneliness; although he doesn’t have many friends, Bobby has a dream of being a filmmaker. His current goal? To create a short film to get into the University of Southern California in Los Angeles—a school known for producing great directors. Bobby’s one flaw is thinking he can do it all on his own. But when Bobby breaks his camera while filming, his mother offers him money to fix the camera, under one condition: He has to get a job to pay her back. Bobby finds a job at Vali-Hi Drive-In, where he makes new friends, who even help him make his film—all while teaching Bobby the value of friendship.
A Mirrored Image
Bobby’s Intermission is a near mirror image of Atkinson’s own life. Atkinson grew up in Woodbury, often attending films at Vali-Hi Drive-In and got his first job in 2000 at Carmike’s Cinemas in Oakdale. It was at this job that he met his lifelong friends, including Matt Olson.
“We discovered that we shared a love for film scores and quickly discovered we had many more shared interest,” Olson says. Twenty-three years later, they are still friends—Olson even helped in the production of Bobby’s Intermission.
Olson says, “… When Justin asked if we’d be interested in helping with this film, I didn’t hesitate.”
“They were helping me out everyday … but they found time and made time to help me out,” Atkinson says. “These are the same friends I met working at the movie theater … My story is inspired by that experience and all those friends, who are my best friends. It has just been a wild, personal, emotional journey for me.”
Atkinson is already working on his second feature film, a documentary titled Let’s All Go to the Lobby. “It’s a very famous thing, and it used to show at movie theaters, to go to the lobby to get popcorn,” he says, referring to the witty, cartoon intermission trailers.
Let’s All Go to the Lobby tells the story of the third-generation owner, Robbie Mack, of Film X Studios, which is known for producing intermission trailers. “It’s the story of the company and how it got started with [Mack’s] grandfather in 1919 and the challenges of running a business creating trailers like that. It’s another story about relationships and family,” Atkinson says.
Filming began just a week after Bobby’s Intermission began filming, and Atkinson drove to Chicago, then to Pennsylvania, to interview big names in film, including Mack and the owner of the Mahoning Drive-In, a drive-in theater that shows 35 mm films. The documentary is still in production.
As for Bobby’s Intermission, Atkinson says he’ll be submitting the film to different film festivals around the country. “[I want] to try to get the movie shown in as many places and to as many people as possible,” he says. “The theme of the story is universal. It’s all about the power of friendship, and it’s more relevant now than ever.”