Make It Happen
By Matt Morgan
The unbelievable story of how finance major Marialisa Caruso ’20 helped write (and starred in) the award-winning film Emerald Run, opening in theaters Feb. 21.
Marialisa Caruso ’20 has wanted to be a writer since high school. Junior year she started carrying around a small notebook, taking notes in hopes of someday turning it into a book or a movie.
Last year, “someday” came quicker than expected. Caruso was working on the set of an independent, faith-based film called Emerald Run (available to stream on Amazon) when the writer went off the project, leaving an incomplete script. Her father Anthony had taken on the role of executive producer to the film years prior and she’d been involved from the start. Now her family’s passion project was in jeopardy.
So Caruso, a finance major with minors in creative writing and international business, took a chance and offered to rewrite the beginning and end of the film, justifying the middle action that had already been shot. At the time, she was taking a screenwriting course with professor of English Ron Hansen—who has several screenplays to his credit, including Casey Affleck’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford—and was confident she could wrap up the story about a desperate father who smuggles emeralds across the Mexican border out of concern for his daughter’s life.
The actors were hesitant at first, but Caruso started writing—and she was good. Not only did she finish the remaining pages but wrote in a new character, Lisa Thomas, for herself.
“Honestly, I don't know what I was thinking,” Caruso says of her ambition. “I just knew I had the ability to write, and I’d been exposed to the story since its conception. A lot went into this, and it could’ve failed and it needed to succeed.”
The year since has been a whirlwind. In addition to classes at SCU, the LEAD scholar traveled the world promoting Emerald Run, which opens in more than 100 theatres nationwide Feb. 21. The film—which features a few familiar faces like David Chokachi (Baywatch) and Chris Mulkey (Whiplash)—has earned 15 nominations and six awards including Best Film from the London International Film Festival 2020 and Best Feature Film in the Faith Based Category from the Ocean Dance International Film Fest 2019.
For her portrayal of Lisa Thomas, Caruso won Best Supporting Actress at the Milan International Filmmaker Festival 2019 and the London International Film Festival 2020.
“I haven’t encountered somebody as young as she is who has had the success that she’s had,” Hansen says of his student. “She’s got a real drive that's going to lead to her success. You’re going to run into roadblocks, but she'll either kick them aside or jump over.”
Emerald Run was Caruso’s first acting role but playing Lisa came fairly easy. Facing serious but undiagnosed health problems, Lisa starts to self-medicate with drugs. Her father John, played by Chokachi, is sent into a panic when he discovers his daughter’s drug use, sending him down a path that ends with John re-examining his faith as he’s left for dead in the Mexican desert.
While the self-medication and smugglers aren’t part of Caruso’s life story, the rest is. During her junior year of high school, Caruso was diagnosed with a heart murmur and arrhythmia. Later in college, she found two lumps in her breast which were ultimately determined to be benign. During the series of health scares, she found herself frustrated with the lack of a clear diagnosis.
“It was a constant sense of, these changes are happening in my body and I have no control over it,” Caruso explains. “And then people telling me, ‘You're fine, you're just overthinking it,’ as if I was making this happen to myself. So I used that in writing the character.”
Caruso says her coursework at SCU served as a guide rail throughout the movie-making process. She got her first job with a production company thanks to a spreadsheet course where she learned to keep a budget. Her screenwriting class with Hansen taught her how to format a professional screenplay. Religious studies courses—specifically New Testament Narratives and Cinema, and Bible in Contemporary Fiction & Film—taught her to incorporate faith into her writing in a way that appealed to a wider audience.
“I submitted my last final for my religion class right before we started filming and got my grades while we were shooting,” Caruso says. “So everything has all been very much connected.”
After graduation, Caruso plans on working in finance, but she wants to keep pursuing a career in film, perhaps as a director. She likes controlling the creative path of the story, she says.
“She has a steely nature with her writing” Hansen says. “She has a vision and works hard to keep that vision front and center.”
Watching the film during festivals has been a humbling, but encouraging experience for Caruso. She’s proud of her work but already sees changes she’d make. She knows she could’ve done better.
“That’s what tells me that I can and I will (do better),” Caruso says. “Looking back, it could've been more. I know that I can do more. Especially because this wasn't even my story. It became my story. So the next one will be mine. So that’ll be my coming-out film.”
Feb 21, 2020
Marialisa Caruso ’20 (left) in the role of Lisa Thomas in Emerald Run