Delaware actress Olivia Gropp makes her directing debut with a thrilling short that merges music and murder
By Jim Miller
Actress Olivia Gropp, stand-up comedian Geno Bisconte and Squeezebox Records owner Rich Fisher are at the scene of the crime — all sitting on the same couch where Bisconte was murdered last summer.
In fact, they are laughing about it.
Anyone who has seen or heard Bisconte’s brazen and provocative brand of humor might not be surprised someone might have had it in for him. But in real life, the comedian is still alive and kicking. Often like a mule on amphetamines.
The murder that the three are giggling about is the plot to Gropp’s writing-and-directing debut, the film short Traders, which was filmed last July at Squeezebox. Today, nearly seven months later, Gropp, Bisconte and Fisher have reunited to talk about how the film came to be — and how the comedian’s character came to not be.
The super-taut thriller sees Gropp’s street-smart character confidently striding into a record store near closing time to engage in a trade with a mysterious man (Brian Dole), who she assumes is the shop’s “new guy.” Unbeknownst to her, the man was cleaning blood off the floor just a minute earlier.
For the majority of the film’s nine minutes, Bisconte’s record-store owner spends his screen time as a neck-cut corpse.
“Now I can say I’ve died on stage and screen,” boasts Bisconte to more laughs.
Bisconte’s comedy career started in Wilmington nearly two decades ago before his big move to New York City and, more recently, doing stand-up tours across the country. Now, he can add “actor in an award-winning film short” to his resumé.
In December, Traders won Outstanding Achievement Award (Thriller) at the IndieX Film Fest in Los Angeles. Last month a Film Threat review last called it “a winning slice of period pastiche that doesn’t overstay its welcome.”
Sure, these are fancy feathers in the cap for the funny guy, but much more so for the film’s creator, Gropp, who is just 20 and still in college studying biology at the University of Delaware.
Then again, Gropp has been balancing school and acting since she was in the 7th grade at Wilmington’s Ursuline Academy. From 2014 to 2019, the actress studied at New York Film Academy’s Acting for Film Camp, The Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute, and also Margie Harber Studios in Los Angeles. During that time, she appeared in commercials for Sheetz and Build-A-Bear, an industrial film for The Federal Reserve, and two other film shorts, Friends to the End and Delicious.
In 2018, Gropp saw herself cast in her first full-length feature film, The Middle of X, which also starred Samantha Hanratty (Yellowjackets) and Nicky Whelen (Hall Pass, Knight of Cups). It won Best Local Feature at the Philadelphia Independent Film Festival that year.
For Gropp, Traders signals a significant step in her film career. In addition to writing and directing the short, she also produced it and is currently shopping it on the film-festival circuit hoping a studio might pick it up for a full-feature film.
“If that happens, we would film it here,” Gropp says, pointing around the record-packed room. “If Rich will let us.”
That possibility appeals to Fisher, who found the initial ask to film Traders at his store to be an unexpected thrill.
“When I read the email, I was blown away,” the Squeezebox owner recalls. “I was absolutely taken off my pedestal. I was like, ‘Somebody wrote a script around… a place where we put up posters and sell records.’ It’s wonderful.
“So, I got a hold of Olivia, and they came in. It made me feel that I was doing something right. You know what I’m saying? I’m doing something right here. Because somebody’s offering to do something here in the form of art, right? Which blows me away every time.”
In exchange for offering Squeezebox as a location for the film shoot, Fisher was able to get a song in the film from local act Kenny Vanella and Higher Fire. Last year, Squeezebox worked out a deal to cut a vinyl 45 record for Vanella’s “Our Song.” The song in the film, “Riverwalk,” is the B-side.
“Rich bent over backwards to do everything for me,” Gropp says emphatically. “He’s like, ‘Here’s the key to the store, come in and film.’”
For two days in July, before the store’s opening and after close, Gropp and her crew did just that. The hours of work resulted in nine minutes of pure pulp-noir appreciation.
“I’m a huge fan of the Coen brothers, Tarantino and Hitchcock,” the young director admits. “One night, after I watched Reservoir Dogs for the millionth time, I had a dream… then the next morning, I woke up and wrote the [initial] script for Traders. Although, there’s been about 14 drafts, if I’m being honest.
“My dad came up with the name, Traders, because he said when he was younger, he said he would go into record stores and trade things in — like cassette tapes or records — for money or other records or tapes. I thought that was really interesting. I wanted to build on that idea.”
While Gropp continues to shop Traders on the festival circuit, she’s looking to team up with Bisconte again for another short called Curtain Call, which is due to shoot next month.
“I’m not planning to turn that one into a feature,” Gropp says. “Traders is my main focus. But it’s another way to get more content out there.”
To date, Traders has garnered more than 50,000 views on YouTube since premiering on the web channel December 10.
“I think it turned out great,” Bisconte says. “Hopefully, more people get to see it.”
— For more info on Olivia Gropp, visit OliviaGropp.com