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La Jolla producer bets on new film spotlighting autism ‘to touch people’s hearts and minds’

"Tyson's Run" star Major Dodson (No. 107) runs in a scene from the movie.
“Tyson’s Run” star Major Dodson, wearing No. 107, races behind Emilio Nares Foundation supporters Bob Tinsley, Diane Nares, Cuong Phung and Richard Nares (from left) in a scene from the movie.
(Courtesy of Andesite Holdings)

‘Tyson’s Run’ opens in theaters with an inspirational message.

Actor Major Dodson, a familiar figure on “The Walking Dead” and “American Horror Story,” so convincingly auditioned for the role of an autistic boy for the new movie “Tyson’s Run” that producers instantly knew he was perfect for the part.

It wasn’t until later that they learned that Dodson, an actor since he was 6, actually is on the autism spectrum.

La Jolla resident John Cappetta is the executive producer of the feature film, which was released nationwide March 11. A few years ago, he said, it might have been tough to engage film-goers in a feature-length movie about a boy with autism.

Then again, a few years ago, Cappetta’s business colleagues might not have envisioned the investment banker and financial analyst as a producer of Hollywood films.

“I look for stories that are going to touch people’s hearts and minds and highlight diversity. This did all of that,” Cappetta said. As an independent producer, he is free to take the chance that viewers will attend and approve.

“I’m not sure big studios would have embraced this. They need a massive reach that an indie film doesn’t need,” he said.

The plot revolves around Tyson, a 15-year-old who wants to switch from home schooling to a public school, where his father coaches football. When the boy meets marathon runner Aklilu, Tyson believes he finally may have found a sport and a way to win his dad’s approval and respect.

In “Tyson’s Run,” autism becomes the catalyst that launches a brew of interactions incorporating core values in life — family, friends, belief in one’s self, courage, perseverance and beating the odds. At its heart is a son’s love for his father and a father’s love for his son and their struggle to make a connection.

“It’s important in the context of someone with special needs,” Cappetta said. “They have a right, like the rest of us, to dream big and go out and do great things. Tyson tells us that story.”

But he said it also is paramount to have relatable characters, compelling art, interesting relationships and actors who touch everybody’s hearts, even though the story is told through this particular child.

"Tyson's Run" executive producer John Cappetta is interviewed on location in Atlanta during filming in 2018.
(Kayla MaDonna )

After two decades as a Connecticut- and New York-based investment banker who became the head of AIG Financial Securities, Cappetta ditched the globe-trotting life and returned to his native Southern California in 2006.

He had served as an inaugural board member of the Point Loma-based Emilio Nares Foundation, created in memory of a young boy who died of cancer. Emilio’s parents, Diane and Richard Nares, have organized fundraisers and running events in their son’s memory over the years to help support families coping with similar tragedies. Diane is Cappetta’s sister; Emilio was his nephew.

“Tyson’s Run” was set in Atlanta. But if you observe closely, you may recognize some San Diego elements. The film includes a marathon scene in which five participants wear ENF shirts. The runners include Diane and Richard Nares and San Diegan Cuong Phung, a longtime ENF supporter.

As Tyson races past them during filming, Richard inadvertently glances at his watch to check Tyson’s speed — something that wasn’t included in the script, Cappetta said with a chuckle.

Cappetta, too, makes a brief appearance in the film, but he’s mum on when and where.

The movie has another San Diego connection: Bass guitarist, composer and multiple Grammy Award nominee Nathan East, who earned a music degree from UC San Diego, composed an original song for the movie with Tom Keane called “If You Believe.” Gospel singer Yolanda Adams performed it.

After moving to San Diego, Cappetta continued his real estate and private equity investment under the name Andesite Capital Management. Part of that enterprise is Solana Beach-based Planet 9 Productions, which oversees his motion picture and theater projects.

Cappetta’s role as executive producer of “Tyson’s Run” grew out of his seven-year friendship with its creator, Kim Bass, a longtime Hollywood writer and director. After two or three years of discussion, they began work on the project in January 2018.

They selected an experienced cast, including Amy Smart, co-star of TV’s “Stargirl”; Rory Cochrane, a “CSI: Miami” alumnus who appeared in the Academy Award-winning film “Argo”; and Academy Award nominee Barkhad Abdi of “Captain Phillips.”

Filming took place in summer 2018, followed by post-production, with a targeted release in national theaters in May 2020. Distribution deals had been worked out with Universal and Collide Distribution.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic intervened. Like many movies, “Tyson’s Run” was pushed to the back burner as COVID shuttered theaters.

While other producers shifted to streaming and small-screen releases, Cappetta waited it out to deliver the film on the big screen.

This isn’t Cappetta’s first motion picture project. He was executive producer of the 2017 film “Marshall,” starring Chadwick Boseman as young lawyer Thurgood Marshall and featuring Kate Hudson. He joined Bass in the production of “Day of Days,” starring Tom Skerritt, which premiered in 2017 in San Diego.

On the theatrical front, he was co-executive producer of a Vic Bullock-directed play, “Paradise,” with Viola Davis and her husband, Julius Tennon.

There is more to come. Bass and Cappetta have another film ready to go that they hope to release this fall.

Cappetta’s goal is to spend half of his professional time on business investment and half on Planet 9. “We can reach a lot of people with some important lessons that they can take home with them,” he said. ◆