CITY ISLAND: STUMBLING TOWARDS A STARTDATE
We set up production offices in Queens, just over the East River from Manhattan, and hired the extremely capable Ged Dickersen as our line producer/UPM. The offices were basically one super big space divided into two sections--approximately one-third of the space was partitioned off from the rest of the space by a glass wall. This enclosed glass space is where the producers and I--Zach, Ged, Lauren--and our assistants hung out. Andrew Saxe came on as our Production Supervisor. The accounting staff was next door. From the window we could look out into the space inhabited by the ever growing production staff.
I began interviewing Cinematographers and Production Designers. Generally I asked them to meet me at a coffee shop across the street from where I live in New York, rather than coming out to the office. When you interview these people, you're interviewing people at the top of their game--there are no bad ones, otherwise they wouldn't have ascended to the jobs they now have. (In other words, they would have either stayed in more subservient positions on the crew or left the business entirely). So what you're doing is not so much trying to decide who's "better" than somebody else, as who's the right fit...who you feel like you speak the same language as...who has a real, burning desire to get to work on your movie. Sometimes it's a process of elimination and its made easy for you: one very talented production designer I talked with seemed quite promising. Halfway through the meeting, however, he started calling me "Josh". Now, if he'd said "Randy" or even "Rob" I might have corrected him. But "Josh" has as little to do with my name as, say, "Matilda". So I didn't bother to correct him. But I mentally left the meeting, figuring that if he hadn't bothered to learn the name of the writer/director, he probably wasn't all that eager to work on the movie. We said goodbye in front of the coffee shop. I told him I'd be in touch. "Thanks, Josh!" he said.
I had the real honor of talking with some Cinematographer legends--chiefly Adam Holender and Fred Murphy. Adam shot "Midnight Cowboy" among many other classics and was still interested in working...providing the amount of time to shoot the film felt right to him. In a sense he was interviewing me--to see what kind of filmmaker I was and precisely the kind of situation he'd be facing were he to commit to our movie. Fred Murphy, who shot "Trip To Bountiful" and John Huston's last film "The Dead" among many others, and I had a very nice, very simpatico exchange and I thought he'd be perfect for the movie. Upon looking into each of these men, however, it felt like there were issues; what we were offering time wise for Adam wasn't really what he was comfortable with, while money and scheduling seemed to block our way with Fred. (By the way, Fred is currently the DP for Julianna Margulies show "The Good Wife"--a nice moment of almost-connectivity. He and I chatted quite a bit while I was shadowing the episode of the show last fall).
And then I met Vajna Cernjul, who I instantly knew upon meeting and watching his reel was the right fit for our movie. European and with a sense of the tone and artistry that needed to be captured for our comedy to feel natural, beautiful and unforced...and a busy independent filmmaker and up and coming television DP (he did the "Ugly Betty" pilot and a season of "30 Rock") which meant that he understood and could work with the time constraints that we were going to be facing. So I hired him. And I've never regretted it. He did a terrific job and was a great housemate as well who introduced me to Malbec red wine (more on that later).
Now, all of the production designers I met brought me large portfolios of their work. I always felt obliged to look the work over carefully, commenting as I went along, and I always secretly resented this. Because I wanted to talk to them about life, the story of the movie, how they like to work, whose work they like...and more and more time got eaten up staring at those portfolios. Don't get me wrong--the work was all terrific. But after awhile, I just didn't know what I was looking at or why.
And then I met Franckie Diago, who was suggested to me by Andy Garcia. She'd worked for the great Dean Tavolauris in the art department on "The Godfather 3", production designed many other movies and--interestingly--seemed to take long periods of time off from the business, to travel and live and learn. This intrigued me so we set up a meeting. When she arrived at the coffee shop across from my house, the first thing I noticed was that she had no portfolio with her. I asked her why. In her very charming French-accented English she said: "your script is natural. It's what it is. I must serve it. Not serve my own ideas or my other work. It's about the people and their environment". And then she shrugged, as if to say: isn't that obvious?
As soon as I got back to the office, I hired her. Sometimes simplicity and directness is everything. And she did a bang up job as well, even though it took her awhile to figure out what my last name was (at least she knew my first name...)
For my assistant director I interviewed three people. The first one made it easy by not showing up. The second one made it easier by telling me in detail how he'd saved the directors ass on the last movie he'd A.D.'d. (Did I want him saying that about me in future interviews? I passed.) The third made it super easy by being prepared, enthusiastic and organized. So I hired the invaluable Eric Henriquez and I'm certain we will one day repeat the experience--Eric turned out to be a brilliant A.D.
So far it sounds like everything was going just nifty-dandy, doesn't it? And it was--putting your key crew together is one of the truly enjoyable moments in the whole process. Soon Franckie had her art department assembled and spreading out in that big office space we'd rented. Eric had his charts and schedules and boards. Production Assistants bustled around busily, phones rang, computers booted up...we were a movie in prep.
But as week one of prep turned into week two of prep, those of us sitting in that glass enclosed cubicle began to feel less like the people in the zoo staring out at the animals then the animals being stared at. Because it was becoming obvious that a movie with a start date just over a month away seemed not to have two very important cast members in place. Chloe Sevingny was, by now, clearly not going to be our Molly. And things were getting iffier by the day with Marcia Gay Harden. The truth is, many movies enter prep and never get to shoot a foot of film--because prep is the cheapest part of the process and if need be the plug can be pulled (if actors fall out or money starts disappearing) with only nominal damage. So it was that I sat there in a state of palpable anxiety every day, staring out at the good people who were there to finally make my dream project into a reality and wondering to myself: what if this all goes away?
Posted by Raymond De Felitta at 2:35 PM