Clayton Valley High School graduate David O’Neill takes on complex political stories in his screenplays and films, and these days, he’s doing it from the comfort of his hometown of Concord.
“It’s not an easy thing actually to get any project written, funded, produced and distributed,” noted O’Neill, “but being out of L.A. and back home again is the perfect balance between the hustle and the home life.”
His new Netflix drama “The Stand at Paxton County” tells the true story of North Dakota livestock rancher Gary Dassinger, who was facing federal felony charges for animal neglect. Released May 2, the movie is already on IMDb’s list of the top 40 movies of 2020.
Bay Area beginnings
Like many Northern Californians who pack up and take a stab at the Hollywood experience, O’Neill had his first opportunity at Lucasfilms in Marin County.
In 1983, the casting call went out for someone to fill Harrison Ford’s shoes as a photo-double in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.”
“I remember in my first acting class that I had written down that ‘I wanted to be Indiana Jones’ – just like everybody else,” he recalled.
“I put together the Indy look, took some photos and met with the producers over in Marin. A few weeks later, I found myself in wardrobe with the infamous hat and whip and walking over to my first-ever, on-screen experience with director Steven Spielberg.
“I was terrified. I introduced myself to him,” O’Neill added. “He smiled, put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Indy for a day, huh?’ ”
Hooray for Hollywood
After college, O’Neill moved to Los Angeles with fellow CV Class of ’79 grad Chis Maes. As O’Neill pursued acting, Maes eventually went into the business side of Hollywood and is the general manager at Shine Creative. His background includes stints with Warner Brothers, National Geographic, PBS and Discovery Communications.
Meanwhile, their high school friend Reed Steiner was holed up back at home writing scripts in his bedroom. They convinced Reed to come to L.A. a year later, and he moved into their apartment – “The Dive at 405.”
“I remember Reed sleeping on the couch in his blue robe reading script after script while I’d come home after doing my plays at night,” O’Neill said. “He’s since become one of the most successful and prolific screenwriters in Hollywood.”
Steiner works mainly in television. Shows have included “Nash Bridges,” “The District” and “NCIS.”
Happy at home
Steiner’s influence would rub off onto O’Neill as he evolved into writing and directing. Handed the task of writing the Forrest Lucas/ESX production of “The Stand at Paxton County,” O’Neill found himself once again in own backyard – Petaluma.
The plot follows a soldier (Jacqueline Toboni) coming home to care for her ailing father (Michael O’Neill), only to end up battling corruption to save their land. The film explores the balance between ranchers and animal rights groups, as well as how law enforcement finds itself in the middle of sensitive Constitutional law.
For now, O’Neill seems to have found the right balance between Hollywood and Hollywood North.
“The next production is on the books, and I’ll be happy enough to write it right here in Concord,” he said.
View a trailer for “The Stand at Paxton County” at netflix.com/gb/title/81271289