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Friends honor aspiring filmmaker

Special to the Union Leader

April 25. 2018 8:57PM
Courtesy Brandon Joyal directs Jack Mazzola and Jennie Swardt in “The Rose Thorn,” a horror film written by Joyal's late friend Jon Hernandez and produced posthumously. 

DERRY — Jonathan Hernandez was a young man with a silver-screen dreams. When he didn’t live long enough to fulfill them, his friends did it for him.

Hernandez, a Derry native, is the subject of a new documentary film, “Our Friend Jon,” produced and directed by filmmaker Edward Payson, which aims to debut in the next three months.

In the film, Payson records the process Hernandez’s best friends went through to shoot a screenplay he’d written. Jon died from sickle cell anemia in 2013 at the age of 23.

Payson attended Derry schools and Pinkerton Academy until his sophomore year, when the family moved to Waltham, Mass. He took a screenwriting class, and by his senior year was “passionate” about filmmaking.

Payson, now a professional filmmaker, has produced several horror films. He was shooting one in New Hampshire and Massachusetts in 2012 when he met Hernandez through his brother Garrett. Hernandez was intrigued by the filming process, and helped out on the project, titled “Cohasset Snuff Film.”

Garrett lives with spina bifida and met Jon through Living Innovations — a program that helps people with disabilities with everything from social issues to jobs to housing. The two young men bonded, and Hernandez eventually moved into Edward’s old room in the Payson’s home in Waltham.

“People in the ‘normal’ world don’t understand these issues,” Edward said.

Sickle cell anemia is an inherited form of anemia — “a condition in which there aren’t enough healthy red blood cells to carry adequate oxygen throughout your body,” according to the Mayo Clinic. Jon’s father also died from sickle cell anemia.

When Edward came home from Los Angeles for Christmas in 2012, he learned that Hernandez wanted to shoot his own horror film and had been working on a script, “The Rose Thorn.”

Hernandez had planned to shoot the film with the assistance of friends Garrett Payson, Nick Saporito, Brandon Joyal and Joshua Burton, but didn’t live to see his dream come to life.

“My mom called me and she was devastated,” Edward Payson said.

When he found out that Hernandez’s script still existed, he knew what he had to do.

Ed decided to help his brother and friends shoot their horror film in memory of Jon. Principal photography for “The Rose Thorn” was shot in Derry.

Ed eventually brought a crew of 16 Hollywood veterans to help shoot the film-within-a-film. They made three separate trips to New England. At first the four friends were reticent, he said. “They just wanted to observe our crew.” But they eventually eased themselves into the process, asking each other what Jon would have wanted.

A casting call for local actors brought exactly one response, so Payson filled in the cracks with some of his tech crew doubling in acting roles.

Payson also enlisted his fiancée to act and rounded up a few Derry residents, including Jeremy Augusta and Jonathan Turcotte.

“The Rose Thorn” premiered last year at Chunky’s in Nashua, and Payson is looking at the same venue, within the next three months, for the documentary’s premiere. He’s also submitting it to festivals.

“The handful of people who’ve seen it,” he said, “have laughed, cried and been inspired. It’s a real underdog story.”

“Our documentary focuses on the relationships between the boys along with the trials and tribulations of people who’ve never made a film before.”

Edward is especially pleased with the effect it had on his brother. “It was one of the most incredible things he’s ever been able to do,” Payson said.

Garrett’s “quality of life changed” when his four siblings went off to college and then careers, he said. But shooting the film “gave him something that’s his own.”

Garrett recalled Hernandez as being “very laid-back, even when he was in pain.”

When he found that the script still existed, Garrett said he was excited but he didn’t think about shooting it for real until his brother made the suggestion.

Because of his own health issues, he couldn’t always help with publicity, such as going for radio interviews. “And I used three different wheelchairs,” he said.

In a phone interview, Brandon Joyal remembered his friend Jon. “He loved to do fun stuff, loved hanging around with friends,” he said.

When Edward came to him with the idea of shooting Hernandez’s script, Joyal also remembered being excited. “I was happy after it was done, and we could share it with other people,” he said.

“The hardest part,” Joyal said, “was talking about Jon.”

Though they’d talked extensively with Hernandez before his death, it was still challenging to bring his vision to life, Garrett said. “Each of us had our own ideas.”

But when he saw the final cut, it was worth it, he said. “We were like, ‘OMG, we made this movie.’”

Edward Payson sums up the documentary: “The whole theme is friendship. There’s a bond that’s unbreakable, even in death.”

Some of the proceeds from “Our Friend Jon” will benefit sickle cell anemia research and programs like Living Innovations.

Human Interest General News Londonderry Manchester

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