MAKING CITY ISLAND: WRITING IN THE SHADOW OF 9/11 (pt. 1)
Unlike most other projects, the histories of which grow distant and foggy with the passage of time, I can nail down the exact date and time of the creation and execution of "City Island." That's because it all happened during the shattering month of September, 2001.
One morning during that Labor Day weekend, I awoke having dreamed a movie. Two ideas had been crashing about my head of late, neither of which seemed substantial enough for an entire screenplay. One had to do with a man who worked in a prison and discovered a prisoner who he thought might be his son. The other had to do with a man who accidentally got on a long line which turned out to be for a movie audition and--surprise!--wound up becoming a movie star. The former story had its roots in a tale I'd heard on reality television as well as a similar situation that had happened within my own family. The second story is, supposedly, how Walter Matthau became an actor.
In my dream, the two stories fused seamlessly. The shame of the prison guard who never officially admitted to his family the existence of another son dovetailed with the shame that prison guard felt for wanting to be something so ludicrous, so unserious, as an actor. The whole thing was enormously suggestive of incident, character development and plot. I took a dawn walk with my wife in which I spilled out the ideas that had fused in the middle of the night. She said: "better write it down, fast."
Soon I'd created a family that lived in the Bronx. But then another element was added, a neighborhood that I'd recently read about in the New York Times and then visited, called City Island. Even though I'd lived in New York much of my life, I'd never heard of the eccentric fishing village near Orchid Beach, with the feel of a New England town and knockout views of the skyline of Manhattan. My wife and I took a drive up there and checked it out. Not a bad place to set a movie, I'd thought at the time.
So now I had a setting and cast of characters--the Rizzo family, a group of outer-borough residents, the kind of New Yorkers who personify, to me, the true spirit of the city. These are the the cops, firemen, teachers, secretaries, social workers; the people who are in the upper tiers watching the Yankee games; the people who use the public beaches and parks--the people who make New York what it is. Movies don't often focus on this group--what the world at large knows of New York is largely confined to what they learn from "Sex In The City" and...well, once I would have said Woody Allen's movies, but I'm not sure how many people watch them anymore. (Except for me. Have never missed one. Never. He is still, to me, the greatest living filmmaker).
And I had an "inciting incident"--textbook jargon aside, there are a few basic rules to screenwriting that really can help get your script off its ass when you need a little help. One is the inciting incident, i.e.: what the hell happens to start things off in a hopefully interesting and preferably crises-ridden direction?Another is--forgive me--the "premise." Basically: "blah blah LEADS TO blah blah". "Greed leads to families being destoyed." "Unchecked power leads to the collapse of ideals." "Jealousy leads to the destruction of love." You get the idea. A good, square "classical dramatist" formula--one which many movies and plays live comfortably without. But for me it often helps set things in motion, creating a clear framework and a direction to head in. I didn't outline "City Island" at all. But my inciting incident (man meets son in prison) and premise (lies within a family lead to the families undoing) were strong enough to push things off.
I wrote rather manically, the voices coming clearly into my head, all the while playing the Tony Bennett/Bill Evans CD of their two glorious albums. Those recordings are, for me, a curious expression of sadness mixed with optimism--a swank take on wordly matters (Evans touch) mixed with honest, urban, everyman romanticism (Bennett, of course). Somehow this felt like the tone that the story of Vince Rizzo and his dreams, confusions, ambitions and lies needed to take.
Any writer knows that you can't count on "inspiration", but that when it comes you simply have to ride it. (William Goldman, in one of his books on writing, talks about how "The Princess Bride" popped into his head, fully blown, while he and his wife were on vacation in Venice. He had to run--literally run--back to the hotel to start writing it down.) Anyway, the adrenalin rush that accompanies the rare true case of inspiration is hard to describe and impossible to resist. For whatever reason, I had it on the Labor Day weekend and in the following days.
On September 10, I was about halfway into the script--sixty or so pages, with a fairly clear idea of how things were lining up. I estimated getting close to the finish in another week, maybe ten days, making it one of the fastest first drafts I'd ever written.
Then on the morning of September 11th, I took a walk in Central Park and, while rounding the northern end of the resevoir, I heard two women who were looking through binoculars saying something like: "Look, you can see it. That's the World Trade Center". My only thought at the time was that they were clearly tourists and had misidentified the building they were looking at, since everyone knows you can't see the WTC from the back of Central Park.
And then I heard the radios blaring the news from the cars parked on Madison Avenue, and that perplexing morning was underway. I'd had my radio at home tuned the night before to WFUV, the Fordham University FM alt. music station. When I turned it on, they were playing Woody Guthrie singing "This Land Is Your Land." My thought at the time was that the end of the world was somehow upon us.
Posted by Raymond De Felitta at 11:37 AM