OAKLAND -- It's a Sunday afternoon in mid-November at Coach Sushi on Grand Avenue.
Oakland-born writer and filmmaker Anthony Lucero wades through a snake of wires to reach three actors behind a counter who pause their knife-wielding work to stare, transfixed, at a cooking competition airing on an iPad.
"She's winning," Lucero says, causing their faces to crack into grins.
"She's losing," he instructs, scrutinizing their crestfallen expressions and slumping shoulders.
It's the making of an Oakland film, "East Side Sushi," Lucero's debut feature film.
The crew has been setting up for 25 minutes for the 60-second scene when photography director Marty Rosenberg decides to move the camera. Art director Jules Kobelin, disliking the white lines on a piece of fish, uses the interruption to dive in.
"Whose water bottle?" someone calls, as they resume.
"That's mine. Don't touch it," Kobelin shouts.
Rosenberg now sits in a chair, perched atop two wooden crates. Key grips hover, poised to prevent him and the expensive camera from toppling.
"Happiness, peace, tranquillity," a voice calls out.
"Tranquilizers," Rosenberg responds.
Lucero, winner of the Best Drama/Documentary/Overall Film awards at the Alice Independent Film Festival in San Francisco for his 2007 "Angels and Wheelchairs," comes to film directing with an impressive pedigree. After receiving his bachelor's degree in film from San Francisco State University, he worked as a commercial editor with clients such as Nike and Yahoo before landing his "dream job" with Lucasfilm's Industrial Light and Magic.
"The joy of working in visual effects on big-budget films like 'Pirates of the Caribbean,' 'Iron Man,' and 'Star Wars' was making things move to a different reality," Lucero says.
The movie bug first bit him on the streets of Oakland, when he cut school to watch "Dying Young," a 1991 Julia Roberts movie that was filmed in Oakland.
"They wet the street: I was fascinated that they could transform it so immediately. As a kid, I wanted to know how King Kong climbed the Empire State Building. At Industrial, I loved putting a person wherever I wanted -- a spaceship, a restaurant, behind the wheel of a car."
Eventually, the job's long hours outweighed the magic. Lucero turned to storytelling.
"East Side Sushi" tells the story of a working-class, single Latino mom who embarks on a quest to become a sushi chef.
"I wanted to tell a story that reflects what I see on the streets where I live," Lucero says. "Entertainment needs to relate to the people."
With the country's demographics changing, Lucero sees food, politics and entertainment trending toward diversity. But that doesn't mean film funding is easy.
"Kickstarter (a funding source for creative projects) was horrible for me," he says. "People said they loved the project but not a lot of people gave money."
Generosity has come out of his own pocket -- a down-payment he was saving for a house is funding the film -- and from in-kind donations from local shop owners, food distributors and friends.
Diana Torres, 24, is the actress selected from Los Angeles for the key role in "East Side Sushi. " Torres was chosen after a disappointing local casting call forced Lucero to look to Southern California for an actress who could "take my gibberish and make it sound compelling."
"I'm in love with this city," she says of Oakland. "It's beautiful, quiet, calm. Every morning, I can walk to the set. Lake Merritt is romantic, the sky is clear."
Torres says jumping from her native ladle-dumping technique of Mexican cooking to the precision of Japanese chefs was a challenge. Landing the role required gaining 10 pounds and tanning.
"I was too skinny and too white," she laughs.
Lucero insists Torres is ideal for the role. With only 23 filming days, he's happy to have "hit the casting jackpot."
His greatest desire is that his movies will have heart.
"I want the visuals to take a back seat," he said. "First, the story must be told. Everything else is in tow, behind me. If this film does what I want, I'll buy that home after all ... for my mom."
For more information, visit http://lucerofilms.com/About.html and https://www.facebook.com/pages/East-Side-Sushi/295127483918125