The book about the making of CIty Island continues. But not before a brief, italicized moment of reflection and a welcome and explanation for any new readers out there. Who are we, you may be asking? Why are we writing about a movie you've never heard of? Well, I'm the writer/director of the movie "City Island" which opens on March 19th of this year in New York and LA before going wider around the country. And in these desperate days for so-called "indie" cinema, we are reaching for any and every way imaginable to get the word out that "City Island" is a really funny, very charming movie that deserves a good long theatrical life before wending its way to the shelves of Wal-Mart, the screens of HBO and the vapors of the viral world. So join us for this little on-line book that I'm writing on how the movie got made. And tell your friends to follow the progress. Clips from behind the scenes, productions stills and more will be posted as we go along...

So it's early 2003 and I've made the acquaintance of the people who would be the producers of the movie then titled "Make Someone Happy", which we now know as "City Island". I immediately liked Doug Mankoff and respected his business acumen. And his partner, Andy Spaulding, was a lovely, supportive force in helping figure out the best way to make my script into a movie that would...clean up, I guess, would be the operative term. For we were in the early stages of watching "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" reinvent just what a "little indie comedy" could do, gross-wise. And my script seemed to promise something along the same order--a family vibe, comedy, sentiment, a slightly askew take on things so as not to appear too square. (Though to be honest, I found MBFGW about as square as square gets, what with that silly Windex joke etc.) The game for us, with "Make Someone Happy", seemed pretty straight-forward. Cast the thing, budget the thing, make the thing, charm the pants off the world.

Except I forgot the "rewrite the thing" step. It seems the producers had some...notes. Nothing extensive, just a "polish"--some tweaks and questions and ideas as to how to make the script as strong as possible before going out to actors. I wasn't surprised. Everyone has notes. I read them and was happy to find that there weren't any big "whhaaaattt???" notes (i.e. "could we make him a girl" or "can't it be set in Warsaw" or "isn't it more of a thriller than a musical?" etc.) Indeed, Echo Lake's notes were pretty sharp and are responsible for several big improvements in the final draft that was shot.

I was happy to make the changes that I saw fit to make and was ready to move on from the ones that I didn't agree with. This, by the way, is a method of dealing with script notes that writers didn't always feel comfortable with. Traditionally, writers simply made all but the most hopeless changes so as not to offend the executives. David Mamet changed that. He simply started informing producers that he disagreed with certain notes and wouldn't make them. It was, I think, a moment akin to Otto Preminger simply deciding he didn't need a seal from the Catholic Legion of Decency to release "The Moon is Blue". Nobody had thought of challenging their authority before and, once it happened, they had little power to respond. I'm not saying that writers refusing to address notes is a terrific career move--just that Mamet gave writers the sense that they, having written the thing to begin with, had as much stake in getting it right as the note-givers and thus should at least have the pride to pose as an equal--which, alas, the writer isn't really. In general, It helps in pulling this attitude off if you're the director too, like me. Or if your Mamet.

So I Mameted and rejected the notes that I didn't have any use for and was ready to move on. The producers did an interesting thing, though. Whatever changes I didn't make from their notes came back to me in a subsequent set of notes. In other words, things I didn't agree with weren't really brought up in an argumentative way--they were just not taken off the table. In this manner, the "polish" on the script wound up going on and on...and on. I would gently respond that, yes, I'd seen this note before and didn't agree with it. But just to give them somethng to mollify them, I'd find some adjustment to make based on the latest set of notes. This, in turn, led to another set of notes arriving, containing all the same notes I hadn't previously addressed. Once again, I'd reject the bulk of the notes but consent to one little change so as not to appear uncooperative. This, in turn, would provoke another set of notes...

You can see where this was going. They were determined to continue the notes process until I had gradually given in to all of the points I'd originally rejected. Patience is a real virtue in situations like this, and Echo Lake had patience to spare. I was watching the months pass by, eager to get the movie up and running, but they were content to keep nudging me on the script until they were entirely satisfied.

And you know what? They were right. Eventually all the points I gave into were, for the most part, either improvments or didn't really matter. There was one note, however, on which I never yielded and that was, ultimately, the only truly important one that I bothered fighting for; the sub-plot about the young son Vinnie Jr. (Ezra Miller) and his infatuation with super-sized, obese women. As I recall, this made my producers uncomfortable because it seemed, in its acceptance of "fat pride", to be promoting something unhealthful. I remember arguing passionately into my cell phone while pacing in Central Park (funny how our locales are often so much a part of our memories) that it was much more unhealthy to allow our country's rampant prejudice against the obese population to go unchecked and that our movie had a real chance to say something, help people, change the world...

You know the drill. You get worked up and every so often the other side backs down. I did. They did. We were ready, finally to go to actors. Perhaps six months had elapsed since the beginning of Echo Lake's option. Really the rewrite shouldn't have eaten up more than a few weeks, but who cares? As long as the script was better it was time well spent. Though the truth is you never quite feel done with your script, so much as sick of it and ready to move onto the next phase. In this case, that was casting...

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  1. I continue to be completely enthralled with this process! Can't wait to hear about casting, especially for the "kids" (Steven, Ezra, Dominik).

  2. i like to write (novels, not screenplays) and six months of editing seems almost tortuous to me.

  3. I inclination not agree on it. I regard as warm-hearted post. Particularly the title attracted me to review the intact story.

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