By Lisa Zola-DeLibro
The first time Laura Shapanus watched the people viewing her short film, “Acceptance,” her heart pounded. Emotions overcame her. She teared up.
Three years later, her reaction hasn’t changed. Every time she observes an audience enjoying her work, she cries.
Audiences seem to have been moved by the film as much as Shapanus has by watching them enjoy it. “Acceptance” has a list of laurels, including the New FilmMakers Spring Series, Hoboken International Film Festival, Golden Door International Film Festival and Hang Onto Your Shorts Short Film Festival. It won “Best Short Film” at the New Hope Film Festival. On March 8, Shapanus is up for the Best Actress in a Short Film award at the Brightside Tavern Film Festival in Jersey City.
Not bad for a film with no budget, one camera person and an all-volunteer cast and crew.
“I am super excited and it has really been a dream come true,” Shapanus said. “It really is an honor to be considered. My expectations are not that I will win, but to see my name and the film on the list is something that I can’t believe. It validates what we did.”
It has been a long road to this point for the 53-year-old Robbinsville resident who wrote and starred in the film. An actress for many years, she put aside her craft when her son Jake was born 13 years ago.
She didn’t pick it up again until a few years ago, when her nephew, Will Harper, a film student at Columbia University, asked Shapanus to have a small part in one of his short films.
“I really wanted to get back into acting, but I also had a seed planted in me years ago about an idea to write a movie about Asperger’s Syndrome,” Shapanus said. “I wanted to write about the human condition, and about all of the emotions that are felt when a parent finds out that their son or daughter has Asperger’s.”
That idea became “Acceptance,” a film about a mother coming to terms with her son’s Asperger’s diagnosis. With no money at all, Shapanus took the story she started in 2011, and made the short film in her Robbinsville home and the Robbinsville High School library. They had one camera person, Jill Brown, who eventually wound up being assistant director, and a director, Gene Gallgher, who is the husband of one of Sharpanus’ Yoga students, Colleen Gallagher.
They started to shoot the film in December 2011, two months after she completed writing “Acceptance.”
“Because I was also the producer, I saw the making of the film in many stages, and the first time we all sat down to watch it, it was very emotional,” Shapanus said. “The response to the film has been extremely positive, and so many people have reached out and said that they can relate to the characters, and getting the main idea of the story, which is accepting everyone for who they are.”
Gene Gallagher gives all of the credit to Shapanus for the film’s success.
“I couldn’t be more proud of Laura,” Gallagher said. “My wife told me about a script [Shapanus] had written. I have a background in film making and directing, so my wife thought I should take a look at it. After I read the script, I saw that it was something that was written from the heart by someone who was very passionate about the subject matter.”
Having no funding for the film did not stop Gallagher from believing that the film could be made. He said he told Shapanus that if she could get him a sound master, he would do the film. Instead, she gathered an entire crew.
“Laura pulled it all together, and did so much of the behind the scenes work on the project,” Gallagher said. “In the end, she was able to wear the hats of every job that she did, switching hats to the lead role that required a number of very emotional scenes. Laura is a remarkable actress, producer, and most importantly, she is a remarkable mother.”
Shapanus said she didn’t make the movie for it to win awards, she wrote it to see if she could actually write a short film. So many people have made her feel like writing the story was worth it, she’s now in the process of turning “Acceptance” into a feature film.
“There are very few woman movie writers out there, and I really believe that a woman can tell a story from a whole new perspective,” Shapanus said. “After I saw the way that the movie resonated with the audience, I knew that the message was getting out there, and this is exactly what I wanted after I met my first goal of actually writing the story. The people in the town of Robbinsville have been so supportive, especially with liking us on Facebook.”
Although Shapanus describes the process of going bigger with “Acceptance” as “overwhelming and daunting,” she is taking the process one step at a time. She also is very excited about starring in another short film, to be made this spring in Robbinsville.
Shapanus’ husband, Bill, and her son Jake, a student at Pond Road Middle School, have been very supportive of her, too, which helped to make this journey smoother.
“My husband has been and still is my biggest supporter, “ said Shapanus. “I would drag him to every play that I have ever been in. He is a great dad and husband.”
With the Brightside Tavern Film Festival just days away, Shapanus is excited, yet realizes that, even if she wins best actress award, the important thing is how many lives she has touched with her story.
“If I win, it will be the most amazing feeling, “ said Shapanus. “However, that feeling disappears. The real joy is about being grateful for this opportunity. At the end of the day, it is all about love and acceptance.”