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Quiet on the set? That's his job

Anil Dhokai, left, watches as "Gospel Hill" director Giancarlo Esposito, right, works during filming of a scene at Gene's Restaurant in Chester on Thursday. Dhokai, a Northwestern High School graduate, is working on the film as part of his pursuit of a career in making movies.
Anil Dhokai, left, watches as "Gospel Hill" director Giancarlo Esposito, right, works during filming of a scene at Gene's Restaurant in Chester on Thursday. Dhokai, a Northwestern High School graduate, is working on the film as part of his pursuit of a career in making movies.

When "Gospel Hill" opens in theaters next year, moviegoers aren't apt to stick around long enough to see Anil Dhokai's name roll down the credits.

Dhokai isn't an actor. He's not a director or producer. But the 23-year-old Northwestern High School graduate plays a key role in the picture, being filmed this summer in the Rock Hill area.

As a location assistant, Dhokai is the guy responsible for quelling disruptions around the set, where even the slightest background noise can ruin a take. Disruptions -- as in barking dogs, noisy lawnmowers and curious neighbors.

Hey, even Steven Spielberg had to start somewhere.

On the first day of shooting, the actors and crew assembled on Columbia Avenue in an old mill neighborhood behind District Three Stadium. The cameras rolled on two characters talking as they loaded equipment onto a truck.

A few houses away, a different scene played out -- and it wasn't part of the film. A bulldog began barking from behind a chain-link fence. The owner wasn't home.

So Dhokai went to work. He retrieved a few slices of turkey from the catering table, hoping a sandwich meat snack would satisfy the dog into quieting down. Turns out the dog shut up as soon as Dhokai walked over.

"Definitely not the most glamorous job," he said later. "Right now, I'm just trying to get into whatever department will give me a job. You've always got to start out from the bottom."

Aside from befriending neighborhood dogs, Dhokai (whose first name is pronounced ah-Neel) makes sure security officers are posted in the right places and explains to neighbors what's happening on their streets, among other tasks.

"There's no better experience than to actually work on a picture," said his boss on the film, location manager Karl Golden. "And he still hasn't graduated college. So he's getting a head start on a lot of other people."

Hooked on movie making

Dhokai's first foray into the movie business came long before "Gospel Hill."

"When he was little, he would pick up a couple of action figures and play for hours," said his father, Mahesh Dhokai, who moved to the U.S. from India at 22. "I thought he was playing games, but he'd say, 'No, Dad, I'm making movies.' That's his passion."

Once at Northwestern High School, Dhokai wrote and directed a 15-minute picture as part of a film course. "Not Quite Dead" told the story of zombies taking over a school. "It was pretty cheesy," he recalls.

But the experience pushed Dhokai further down a career path he hopes will lead to Hollywood.

"I've always just been into telling stories," he said. "Once you write it, direct it and produce it, showing it is probably the most rewarding part. It's a pretty cool thing."

Two summers ago, Dhokai scored a break, getting hired as an intern and then as a set production assistant on "Walker Payne," the still-unreleased Jason Patric movie shot around Rock Hill.

More recently, he found work as a camera intern on "Death Sentence," a movie shot in Columbia starring Kevin Bacon and John Goodman.

In between, he studied at the University of South Carolina, where he is on track to graduate next year with a degree in media arts. On his own time, he directed a short picture called "Vacancy" about a man who goes insane and kills the guests on the fifth floor of a hotel.

Fortunately, given Dhokai's limited $1,200 budget, the set location was free -- his parents own the Wingate Inn next to the Rock Hill Galleria.

At this early stage, Dhokai shows an unusual penchant for dark thrillers. But he sees a practical reason for it. "Horror films are always the easiest to make and the easiest to market," he said.

After "Gospel Hill," Dhokai hopes to find work shooting TV commercials in the Charlotte area, maybe for NASCAR-related products. His dream job, though, is to direct a major science fiction film in Hollywood.

Not quite Hollywood yet

That goal will have to wait. Back on the set of "Gospel Hill," Dhokai confronted another potential crisis on the first day of filming. Actress Julia Stiles was rehearsing a scene in which she parks an old Volkswagen on the side of the street.

Dogs barked from a nearby yard. Dhokai sprung into action. A crew member announced over the radio: "Anil is attempting to calm the dogs down, but the owner is not home."

A few moments later, the director resumed directing. The actors went back to acting. Dhokai has done his job.

Favorite movie: "Close Encounters Of The Third Kind." "I saw it when I was really little. The story was really well-done, the whole 'aliens being good' kind of thing. In this one, the aliens were nice."

Favorite actor: Johnny Depp. "He's probably the most dynamic actor I've ever seen. He can pretty much play any character imaginable."

Favorite director: Steven Spielberg. "He always pulls little tricks that really engross the audience. Like in 'Jurassic Park' when the Tyrannosaurus rex is coming and he shows shots of the water (rippling in a cup). He really builds up the suspense."

Movie posters on his bedroom walls: "Return of the Jedi," "Kill Bill," "Dial M For Murder," "War of the Worlds" (original version).

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