First-Time Marin Filmmaker Releases ‘Avenue of the Giants’

Photo courtesy of Avenue of the Giants

Jeanine Thomas, who splits her time between Maine and Marin, has done many things in life: opened a restaurant, worked with internet technology and in finance, had four kids and earned a master’s in psychology. But now she has two new titles to add to her resume — producer and filmmaker. And it all started at the poker table.

Thomas, who got into the card game as a way to bond with her then-husband who loved poker, found herself at a table in San Rafael in 2014 with a man who had an interesting story to tell: he said his grandfather had escaped Auschwitz.

“I said, ‘Nobody escaped Auschwitz, tell me the story,’ ” Thomas recounts. The man replied, “I’ll let him tell you himself.” After that, Thomas began speaking frequently with Herbert Heller in his San Rafael home, eventually bringing in cameras to record three years’ worth of conversation.

Although that footage was not used, the idea for a drama based on his life took hold and eventually resulted in the new movie Avenue of the Giants, debuting at film festivals around the country this month, including at the Mill Valley Film Festival on October 11 and 12.

It took a health scare to convince Heller to finally talk about his past. “He had not told his story for 60 years because he didn’t want his family to look at him differently,” Thomas says. “He has three daughters and he told me, ‘I love that they looked at me like their dad. I didn’t want them to look at me with pity.’ ”

Thomas joined forces with a consultant and started looking for screenwriters and capital. She went to another friend she had met while playing poker for philanthropic causes, Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander, who basically told her, “The Holocaust has been so overdone. We don’t want to see another Holocaust film.” That’s when Thomas decided to put a new spin on it, connecting the inability to let go of trauma in past generations with the malaise this young generation is feeling today.

“How do I give my children perspective on how good they have it?” Thomas asks. “The World War II generation doesn’t talk about anything that’s not fun or nice to talk about. And if we don’t do that, I think it just keeps adding up and getting passed down.”

The second screenwriter Thomas talked to, Oakland-born Finn Taylor, wound up being a perfect fit — he would go on to write and direct the film. But Covid and Thomas’ own cancer health scare nearly derailed the project … nearly. “They said I needed surgery and we don’t know what your life will be like after that,” Thomas says, adding that it was at that point that she gave up on trying to secure financing and decided to self-fund. “I said, ‘Well, I’ve got a film to make. So I’m going to make it through the surgery, and I’m going to make this damn film.’ ”

The movie was shot partly in Prague, focusing on Heller’s childhood there, with the young Heller played by Luke Blumm (Where the Crawdads Sing). The other half was shot in Marin, diving into Heller’s life in old age where, as a local toy store owner played by Stephen Lang (Avatar), he meets a young teenager, played by Elsie Fisher (Eighth Grade), whose own brush with pain and death inspires him to talk and heal.

Although the film will soon make its debut, one man will never see it — Heller passed away two years ago. “Once I got the clearance from my doctors to travel, I flew right away to see Herbert,” says Thomas, who was recovering from her own medical trauma and still had no hair. “I spent a few days with him and said, ‘Herbert, I’m going to make this film and you will be known forever.’ ” It seems Thomas was right all along — the best way to heal from trauma is to tell your story.

two characters from Avenue of the Giants
Photo courtesy of Avenue of the Giants