Pleasant Valley graduate Ralph Lucchese has already had plenty of success in the movie-making circuit.
With just over three years in the industry, Lucchese has worked as a production assistant on popular television series like 9-1-1, S.W.A.T. and Star Trek: Picard.
He has directed, written and worked on numerous short films, music videos and documentaries, with many projects premiering at notable film festivals across the country.
He has earned numerous awards from the Hollywood Film Competition, the Independent Shorts Awards and the LA Shorts Awards.
But, he has also failed.
And he’s not afraid to talk about it, as he did with an eager gathering of students at Pleasant Valley High School on Tuesday. His long route to Los Angeles may have been fraught with bumps and detours, but it was all a part of the process.
“I knew I always wanted to be in the film industry,” Lucchese said. “There was always a part of me that wanted to be in the industry since I was a kid. I always loved movies and acting. I was the kind of kid that would get a movie from 48 Hours, when DVDs were still a thing, and I wouldn’t even watch the movie, I would watch the special features because I was so interested.”
Lucchese, originally from Staten Island, attended Pleasant Valley School District, where he graduated in 2010. From there, he went to Bloomsburg University, where he failed out by December. After moving back in with his parents, he took a shot at Northampton Community College. He failed out in 2011. It seemed that it was time to take a different path.
“Needless to say, college was not my strong suit,” Lucchese said. “I joined the military in December of 2011, the Air Force. I was EOD – for those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s ‘Explosive Ordinance Disposal’ – so I literally blew a lot of stuff up.”
But a potential military career was derailed by a car accident in 2016 that left Lucchese with a metal right ankle and an honorable discharge.
It was around this time that Lucchese decided to take a leap and pursue a path in the movie industry.
With a GI bill in hand, Lucchese made his way out to Los Angeles. With his basic needs covered, he was able to dive into the industry and search for opportunities as opposed to picking up a full-time gig to pay rent on top of attending The Los Angeles Film School.
In order to score his first job, Lucchese jumped into some intense research. On the Directors Guild of America website, he found a member listing for the association. Each day, he would take time to track down contact information for those members. It was a time consuming venture that produced few results, so Lucchese found another way.
Posing as a filmmaker searching for contacts for a new project, Lucchese was able to connect with someone who could provide him with those resources. He expected about 200 contacts or so.
“She sent me a list of every single person on that members’ directory in an Excel spreadsheet,” he said.
That list contained thousands of members with emails and phone numbers, including some of the biggest names in the industry.
Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Lucchese would wake up bright and early, hit the gym, stop off for classes, and then dedicate three hours to the list. Mass emails were sent out in alphabetical clusters – first the As, then the Bs, and so on. If he didn’t get a response by the end of the week, then came the follow-up emails.
“I sent out 7,200 emails total over the course of two months, and I got 42 replies. Out of those 42, one person offered me a job,” Lucchese said. “And because of that one person giving me a job, I’m still working full time. One ‘yes’ is all it took. One ‘yes.’ So, when people sit back and say it’s impossible, now I laugh at them.”
But it hasn’t been smooth sailing ever since. Quite the opposite, in fact. With a career in an industry built upon who you know, hitting the pavement and making connections is a constant and necessary part of the game.
“I was never in the house, I was always out trying to network, always shaking hands with people on Hollywood Boulevard, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ ‘Hey, you work in the film industry? Oh my god! How’s that?’ Just to learn and get advice,” Lucchese said.
On top of that, Lucchese was working on his own projects, taking any opportunity available on movies, shows, documentaries and anything else. After all, that’s where you learn the most, he said.
“I work 16 hour days,” Lucchese said. “I’m the first to show up and I’m the last to leave. You’d better believe I get home on the 17th hour, shower, sleep for two hours, and I’m back at it again. I love it. It’s crazy how you feel when you do a job that you love doing, it isn’t work.”
Over the course of the past three years, he has made his mark working on popular series like American Horror Story and 13 Reasons Why, as well the occasional blockbuster like Avengers: Infinity War. He has done projects with stars like Denzil Washington and Jake Gyllenhaal. His own work has premiered at Queen Palm International Film Festival, Palm Springs International ShortFest, and NewFilmmakers New York.
He even has some upcoming personal projects with a bit of local flair, but details will have to be kept under wraps for the time being.
Not bad for a failure, eh?
“There were a lot of times in my life when I was presented with failure, and I could have stopped, and I should have stopped, but I said no, I’m too stubborn,” Lucchese said.
That sort of unapologetic honesty is exactly why Pleasant Valley High School teacher Melissa Ruschak jumped at the opportunity to invite Lucchese to the school as part of her guest speaker series, which aims to provide real-world perspectives to students that augment and expand upon what is learned in the classroom.
“He’s real, and he’s talking to them in a realistic way instead of preaching something or putting them down in any way,” Ruschak said. “He’s just talking to them, giving them a realistic view about his life, and being honest about what he’s been through and where he’s at now, giving them hope to be positive and keep it going.”
Lucchese’s message of perseverance and dedication struck a chord with the crowds throughout his presentations at the high school, with students hanging on his every word. And it wasn’t just because he worked on Avengers and 13 Reasons Why.
“I thought he did a great speech,” senior Adam Rosario, 17, said. “He talked about the real struggles of high school students not knowing how to fit in or what paths they might take. He really showed that anything is possible, even with failures, going through the military, following his dream later on. He showed that time is never really a problem.”
Lucchese said that he relished the opportunity to come back to his alma mater and provide some valuable advice for Pleasant Valley students, advice that he could have used back in the day. And if his wild series of failures and phenomenal success inspire even one of those kids to pursue their passion, it’s all worth it.
“It’s nice to give back to the community,” Lucchese said. “Denzel Washington says it perfectly: ‘Each one, teach one.’ What joy do you have in having success if you can’t share it with people, when you can’t teach people? I think the greatest thing is to be able to teach people, and if I can do that through films, okay, that’s my gift. I’m a big religious guy, and if God gave me the gift to touch people through film making, then I’m going to use the gift I’m made to have.