Friday, January 29, 2010
Dear readers and friends: thank you for your encouraging comments and for the encouraging bump in readership I'm seeing happen on this blog. That's because of you--clearly somebody out there is telling somebody else about our mission. If I can prevail upon you all to send a link about the movie to one person on e-mail, that would be huge. You can send them a link to this blog. Or to the movies very nice website. Or to our Facebook page--all those links are visible in the right hand column of this page.
By the way, the trailer can also be seen on Hulu as well as Yahoo Movies.
The point is: "City Island" is the people's movie. It's a movie that belongs to the audience. It won the audience award at a major festival (Tribeca). It seems to speak to audiences. And it needs audiences to support it to have the life we think it deserves. Thus, I've been calling on you guys who read this blog to feel empowered to help "City Island' along--because the movie will ultimately belong to you. Thanks for reading and I hope you're enjoying this book-in-progress...
It was at the end of Zachary and my New York scouting expedition that the next piece of the puzzle fell into place--though I didn't know it at the time. An old friend of mine, Lauren Versel--we'd met in Hollywood in the 1990's when she was a screenwriter--called me to catch up. Lauren (pictured w/me above) had moved to New York, gotten married, had two lovely children and decided to re-enter show biz, this time as a producer. She asked what I was working on, I told her about my fully cast movie with no money and she asked to read it.
And then, rather suddenly, a bit of serendipity came our way. Lauren had been trying to produce another movie which had the reverse problems of "City Island"--they'd raised some money but hadn't been able to get a cast together. The person who was investing in that movie asked to read my script. She liked it. Could she simply move the money from the one project over to the other? Lauren said: of course!
So we had about million dollars committed--a fifth or so of what it would take but believe me, that first money in is valuable in ways that goes beyond mere monetary value. For it shows that the train has, indeed, left the station--albeit slowly. And a moving train encourages others to hop on. Lauren took the project to the Berlin Film Festival early in the new year and the combination of Andy Garcia, our other actors, my script and some money already being in place proved immensely attractive.
Soon we had our second investor--another million. When this happens, you have enough pieces in place to start gathering other segments of the financing in different ways. Given the strong nature of our cast and a third of the budget now in place, we were able to start looking around for a Foreign Sales company to pre-sell territories in order to pump more cash into the as yet unmade movie. Sure enough one emerged--Westend Films--who became our partner. They took the project to Cannes, 2008. Now Cannes is in May and I showed Lauren the script in November. So a scant six months later we were well on our way to having the movie fully financed.
I can't explain how it feels when the momentum of your movie falls into a positive place and you know--you just know--that you really are going to launch this one. So many movies fizzle out, fail to get going, stall and get walked away from. And yet so many get made! So it can be done--the persistence and willingness to suffer inordinate pain and frustration is all that it takes. Plus stamina, belief and a strong denial mechanism. And a sick kind of craving for the gamblers high--knowing when you're on a roll and keeping all the pieces moving just as you want them too.
That May in Cannes, Andy and Lauren and I knew we actually had a movie. I remember sitting on the terrace of the Hotel Du Cap with Andy, looking out at the sea and thinking calmly to myself: this one will actually fly. At the moment I was thinking that, Clint Eastwood came strolling out of the hotel. He and Andy said hello to each other. As they were talking, I eyed Clint Eastwood--and he's one of those humans that, no matter what you think, you can't help but be stunned being in his presence--and thought to myself; "Sure. Clint. Whatever. We're getting our movie made. This is all just another day in the office."
And then cracks started to appear in the surface. Minor at first. Then growing worse. It's safe to say that by the end of Cannes, 2008, the bottom began to fall out of our movie. It seems most of our cast--except Andy--suddenly seemed like they had other things they'd rather do then make "City Island".
Thursday, January 28, 2010
Now, if you were looking to finance a movie what would you think of the following package:
Star actor (Andy).
Highly well-known and super respected actress: (Marcia).
Super hip indie-queen (Chloe).
Very hot up and coming guy with big movie coming out (Steven).
Script that people love because it's both accessible and smart, warm and clever. (You know...)
Director with some awards behind him. (Me).
My thought would be that based on the projected budget--somewhere under ten million dollar--this is a pretty good risk.
The name value of the actors alone should protect your investment even if the film doesn't turn out too well. Add to this that the directors films have won festival plaudits and that he always delivers on time and budget (and I do, I really do--I'm simply not built to be an Antoine Fuqua...having grown up in the indie film world, I always make my days and respect my budget). The whole thing sounds like as good an investment as can be made into the notoriously difficult, if not disastrous, movie business...
But still, no money was forthcoming. For a minute or two, we had the interest of the notoriously prolific Elie Samaha--a producer/financier of literally hundreds of movies and somebody who has certainly earned the respect of the business by doing things his own way and continuing to get movies made. But something about the deal we were being offered didn't sit right; we had the feeling that the movie itself wasn't really of any interest to his company--it had more to do with our cast and budget, which to me meant that the movie was probably headed straight to DVD once it was done.
So more reality needed to be added to our still notional movie equation. Having cast the main roles, what more reality was there to add? The answer was: a budget.
Enter my old friend, veteran indie producer Zachary Matz. Zach and I go back twenty or so years and were often, in our so-called salad days, to be found hanging around various dimly lit lounges in LA trying to figure out how to make movies together. Over the years our personal friendship outlasted our never-quite-professional one. But he'd read the "City Island" script and loved the cast that we'd assembled and was no stranger to the awfully strange process of literally willing these movies into existence. Zach suggested that a real budget and shooting and post production schedule were in order: if nothing else, we would all find out what the actual number was--budget and shooting days--of this movie.
Zach and I went to New York and I showed him the real City Island. We cruised the city and I showed him the other locations--Roosevelt Island, Tribeca, prisons etc. We talked though the script and how many days it could comfortably and efficiently be shot in. And he did a budget and schedule--all of this, as they say, on spec. No guarantees that any of us were making a movie. But once we were done, I showed the work to Andy and arranged for him and Zach to meet. Andy is no stranger to budgets and schedules and had plenty of detailed questions to ask. But what emerged from this exercise was one more piece of what felt to me like an ever growing...argument, I guess I would say...a case that we were making for the movie that we were willing into existence. Zach's participation at this point was crucial; no money was in place yet, but somehow we continued to build a field on which we would play our game. And if you build it, they will come...
Or so they say in that Kevin Costner basball movie that isn't "Bull Durham"...
...which is more or less precisely what happened a couple of months later when another old friend of mine, Lauren Versel--a screenwriter turned producer-called to say hi to me and instead got an earful about my field of dreams.
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
I met Marcia Gay Harden at the Four Seasons Hotel in LA, where she was getting ready to do a slew of promotions for a very good movie she did with Richard Gere called "Hoax" (concerning the author Clifford Irving, who wrote a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes). It must have been mid-morning on a weekend, because the dining room/salon was eerily empty--she walked in looking around a little perplexed, as if everyone had been evacuated for some reason.
We introduced ourselves, I told her how much I liked her work, she said nice things about the script. And then an interesting thing happened: she began to interview me. Or so it seemed. Rather than let the meeting be about me checking her out for the role (which it never really was to begin with), she made sure--with grace and skill--that the shoe was on the other foot; was I a clear-headed, together enough filmmaker for her to be willing to work with--that seemed to be the guiding vibe of the first part of our conversation. I love when actors take situations in their own hands and so I was more entranced by the shift than thrown by it. After awhile we seemed to relax into every day stuff. I remember talking with her about her kids, my son, where she lived in New York, etc. She was at once frank, funny and also just self-protective enough to send you a clear message: she didn't go where she wasn't comfortable. No way.
Fortunately, she was comfortable enough to allow us to go ahead and use her name to help get the movie up and going. She was excited, I was delighted, Andy was pleased. We had a Joyce Rizzo and a damn good one--a true "actor's actor".
Next I met Steven Strait. Since the Four Seasons had been good luck for me with MGH, I suggested it as a possible meeting spot. The time was early evening on a Saturday. This time the place was jammed. Loud. Oppresive. As show-bizzy and uptight and see-and-be-seen, if-you're-nobody-then-piss off, as you could imagine. I instantly regretted the choice--this young actor who I'd never met would no doubt think I was yet another glad-handing, West Hollywood-cruising, scene-making, show-biz addicted wannabe. Indeed, I remember thinking to myself, maybe I really was all of those things and it was time to face who I'd become.
Fortunately Steven--young in years, aged in wisdom and serenity--didn't seem to care one way or the other. He is such a commanding presence--not just because of his super-handsomeness, but because of his aforementioned calm, his sweet and accepting nature--that the role reversal here was similar to my meeting with Marcia but for different reasons. People looked at us, wondering who the middle-aged shlub was, lucky enough to be sitting and hanging out with the young handsome actor who was in that caveman movie. I'm sure most of them thought I was a publicist of some sort. Or, more likely, a journalist in search of a raggy little interview...
Though I didn't know Steven's work, I had an immediate sense that he would bring a lovely complexity to the role of Tony Nardella, a jailbird from age eighteen on who suddenly, mysteriously, is plucked out of prison by a guard and taken into the guards home for reasons he can't comprehend. Tony needed to seem tough and lost enough to have already become who he is. He also needed to be the voice of calm, the prematurely mature one in the household of raging loony's that the Rizzo's had become. By the end of our meeting, I knew Steven was our guy.
Next was Chloe Sevigny. I bet you think I met her at the Four Seasons. Well, no. She was in LA, doing publicity for "Big Love" and they'd put he at the Chateau Marmont on Sunset. So we met there. This time, Andy Garcia accompanied me and I remember sitting out in the pretty, smog-choked patio garden talking with her about the role of Molly. She liked the script and liked the other cast we had. This, by the way, is how these things build upon each other--each additional actor added to the cast enhances the appeal for other actors to come aboard, never mind the fact that we still didn't have money to make the damn thing.
The one thing about Chloe that I remember thinking was a just a bit...well, let's not say strange since we are talking about the co-star of Vincent Gallo's "The Brown Bunny" and so strange is perhaps to be expected of Chloe. I remember thinking, though, that there was a slight tinge of puzzlement, of not quite seeming to know why we were so interested in her for the movie. She was demur about her abilities--charmingly so and incorrectly I think--and didn't delve deeply into the script or role. Things stayed pleasant and on the surface. It didn't bother me and at the time I put it down to actor insecurity--actors really do come in all shapes and sizes and not everyone has the personal command of Marcia Gay Harden, or the cool charm of Andy Garcia. But I remembered this initial impression of Chloe months later--and then I think I finally understood what her reticence was really about. That's down the road though.
So we had four great actors attached to our script. It was early fall, 2007. We'd been at work on the project, Andy and I, for almost a year. Not a bad place to have gotten to. Alas, still not one red cent toward production seemed to be in view...
Monday, January 25, 2010
So there we sat, Andy Garcia and I, miles away from the actual City Island (dig above ariel view) yet determined to find a way to make "City Island" the movie happen. I can honestly say that I never doubted we would--but I also knew the journey would be filled with the usual dead-ends, heartbreaks and non-starter attempts. Andy suggested sending it to a few companies that might seem likely homes for the material--after all, we were bringing a script, a star and a director and thus were entering with more than the usual artillery, which is generally a good thing.
I believe we went out to Sony, Fox Searchlight and Paramount Vantage. All three passed. Now, while this isn't unusual at all--what's truly unusual is when they want to do something--it still always chips away at a little bit of your heart. It's like somebody turning down your kid for something your kid wants to do. (Like maybe he wants in on the wrestling team but is too wimpy? I don't know--you know the feeling I'm getting at. You want to protect your beloved from the coldness of the worlds judgement). To put what a "pass" truly means into perspective, let me jump ahead about three years to just a couple of months ago. I'm sitting down with a female executive at a production company on the Warner Brothers lot. "City Island" is obviously by now a finished film, which she likes. In fact, she tells me, she read it back when it was submitted to Paramount Vantage, where she was then an executive. And she thought it was terrific back then and knew it would make a good movie.
I couldn't help but ask: "Then why did you guys pass on it?"
She shook her head, threw her hands up and said words to the effect of: "...changes in executive structure...in-house priorities changing...company wanting to go in a different direction..." Etc. In other words, it had little if anything to do with my script and star. And this is probably the truth--that most things don't happen in Hollywood simply because the white noise of the business creates its own chaos and confusion and it's easier to simply...pass.
Furthermore, a "pass" is something of a rite of initiation. Most things that finally get done have a long and cherished history of passes they collected on the road to getting made. People love revisiting which studios turned down which future franchises, which stars said no to which future Oscar roles. Collecting passes makes you part of the game. It hardens the armour. And you can always go back later and try again because...who knows?...chances are good that whoever passed the first or second or third time has moved on to another company and by now "in-house priorities" might have changed in your favor.
But back in 2007, passes were passes and didn't help us get any closer to making the film. I suggested that we send it out to some actors for other roles and start building up the cast. Andy agreed and we brought in Sheila Jaffe, who had cast my previous films, to start helping us with a list of names and some ideas as to availabiities. One of Andy's best traits emerged here--that of being completely behind the material and willing to reach into his phonebook if necessary to get the script out to actors he knew. It's a little hard for me to remember all the names now, but two of the early submissions we made were to MIchelle Pfeiffer (for the role of his wife) and Justin Timberlake for the role of his son. Timberlake knew Andy and got back--via his manager--fairly quickly to say that he liked the script but was about to begin an endless tour and so couldn't commit. Fine. We'd check back when we had financing.
The real surprise, though, was Michelle Pfeiffer. I think she was our very first stop and her CAA agent called to say that she liked it. It wasn't exactly a "yes"--more of a "wait and see...she's reading other things...liked the script and likes Andy..." (The two had worked together once before).
And then, after a few weeks of nothing, she passed as well.
Still, you have to measure these things optimistically and so far people seemed to be responding well--albeit negatively--to what we were putting out there. It wouldn't be long until we attracted some interest somewhere.
And then, in what seemed like a flash, two different actors suddenly expressed interest which led to a third actor expressing interest. Marcia Gay Harden read it and liked the role of the wife. Chloe Sevigny read it and liked it (for Molly). And Marcia Gay Harden's agent, Chris Andrews, also represented a young actor named Steven Strait who he'd shown it too and who wanted to meet me about the role of Vince's older son.
Thus we went from a movie with no money and no cast, to a movie with what looked to be a hovering cast and still no money. But you can't have everything all at once and I set out on the trail of meeting with these actors and hopefully seducing them into saying: yes, I want to be attached to your movie. In general, the more reality that you can bring to your project--and four committed actors is a lot of reality--the more seductive the whole thing is to people looking to back movies. The more of my movie that I can show and tell--here's my script, here's my star, here's my supporting cast--the easier it is to get people to see the vision and possibly jump in, especially considering that much of the hard work has already been done.
Of course, it's also easier for them to pass as well...
Saturday, January 23, 2010
Okay, so trailer-wise we were off a couple of days. Don't sue me, sue Yahoo whose page didn't refresh. Never mind, don't sue anyone. All is forgiven. Click here to see our awesome trailer in HD.
The making of City Island continues Monday. I'll tell the story of how we finally got our cast and financing together and began shooting. On February 1, I'll begin a 27 day blogathon which will cover the 27 days of the films shoot--using old blogposts with production stills, reports, call sheets (assuming I can find them) and clips of outtakes. By the end of February we'll be done with the shoot and onto post-production and through March I'll cover the circuitous route the film took on its way to winning the Tribeca Film Festival Audience Award and finally wending its way into theaters on March 19th of this year. As of March 19th, we'll be in "reel time"--(pun, not misspelling). That is, you'll be experiencing the reception and fate of the movie live, along with me.
Join me on this journey and please send this post to any friends anywhere in the world who you think will enjoy it. "City Island" is the people's film--it requires readers like yourself to support it and give it the oxygen it needs to survive in todays mephitic marketplace. It's success will be your success--for helping get the word out.
Enjoy the trailer--and pass it on. Meanwhile, just because my son is digging Soupy Sales these days...
Thursday, January 21, 2010
One afternoon in winter of 2007 (between Thanksgiving and Christmas is my memory is accurate) I drove out to the San Fernando Valley, to a modest house where I was scheduled to meet Andy Garcia. The house, which had been an early home of his and his families but was now used as an office, was filled with memorabilia--pictures, letters, awards etc.--attesting to the incredibly rich and varied career Andy has had over twenty plus years in the business. In time I would come to think of the house as the Museum Di Andy-Garcia--but on that first day I paid only cursory attention to the stuff surrounding me. Instead I was face to face with an actor I'd long admired and a man who, clearly, was the Vince Rizzo I'd been looking for for five plus years.
We sat in the garden and talked of many things--life, music, movies, family. Personally, I think this first conversation between an actor and filmmaker is the most important one. Nothing creative need come out of this first meeting--for nothing is more important than both actor and director getting a mutual sense of comfort and understanding about some basic philosophical things. If the air is muddy early--if a basic air of unease permeates things from the beginning, it will never get better. (Or so I've learned through unfortunate experience). You either have the same vision of life and work or you don't. If you do, you're making a film with a partner, not an adversary. Let David O. Russell make films with adversaries. I'd much rather make a film with a partner.
When our talk finally turned to the script, Andy did something I'll never forget. Rather than getting into a long talk about the character of Vince, he stood up and said he'd thought of something that Vince might do at the end of the movie, when the whole family is exploding in confessions about their secret lives. I watched and waited...and then Andy twirled around in pain, agony and exhaustion and sat down on the ground holding his head, defeated and incongruously (and literally) floored. The gesture was perfect--both humorous and genuinely pained. In a sense we never needed to discuss much about Vince again--this is the kind of the thing that lets you know an actor truly "gets it". The gesture survives--it's in the movie and it works wonderfully well.
Before the day was over, we'd made another kind of connection. Both of us are, essentially, entrepreneurial in spirit; I have never thought of myself as working "for" anyone (to my own detriment at times, but still that's who I am...) and have always looked at every movie as a sort of start-up business, one which with a few good breaks will turn into the long-awaited cash cow that all entrepreneurs dream of.
And Andy is not just an actor. He's a producer, a filmmaker, a musician and a supporter of anything in those fields he believes in. (His remarkable support of Cuban music legend Cachao led to the aging--and in many quarters forgotten--composer/player's resurgence in his old age.)
My feeling was that, between us, we were sitting with most of the firepower we needed, if it was harnassed correctly. So without much thought about it beforehand, I simply proposed that he and I become partners--co-producers--on the movie. Together we would find a way to mount it--cast it, finance it, the whole thing. Remember we had nothing but a script, a director and an actor. But the actor was so right for the script...and the director came cheap...
We shook hands on it that day. I remember the smell of his delicious Cuban cigar blowing in the winter air. (I don't smoke but the smell of cigars remind me of my childhood--my father smoked them all the time...) We would set out on the journey of a million miles together. First stop would be letting some of the better companies know that Andy was attached to a new project--a script that we both thought would be regarded not as an "art film" but as a highly accessible family comedy. Our lives would be considerably easier if Sony, say, or Fox Searchlight jumped on board and helped pull the movie together. Even if they didn't we'd made the connection--actor and material--that mattered the most.
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Item: Click here tomorrow (THURSDAY) to see the on-line debut of our trailer on yahoo movies. This is a terrific platform for our launch (or is it a launch for our platform?) and I'd love to hear what you think of the trailer--I myself like it a lot.
Item: The movie opened (or is about to open momentarily) in France and got an excellent review in Le Figaro. Click here to read it. If you don't speak or read French (like me) then all I can tell you is that they give the movie three out of four stars and say Andy Garcia is excellent.
Item: The on-line writing of "Making City Island" will continue with gusto tomorrow, Thursday. I thought I'd give us all a mid-week break so you can catch up with previous chapters (I assume you have no other life than following my book...) and so I could...regroup. A chapter a day? Madness. Not even Louis L'Amour could keep up that pace.
Enjoy the trailer tomorrow. Meanwhile, for comparisons sake, below is the official Spanish trailer of the movie, complete with absurdly dubbed voices...
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
I wish I could honestly portray myself as so driven, so filled with mission, so unchallenged by dissapointment, so brimming with gumption (which, as we all know, derives from the root word "gump"), that I awoke the morning after the option on my script had been dropped and got right to work on finding another way to make the movie then known as "Make Someone Happy."
But I didn't. Though I wasn't really bothered by losing my first set of producers--ultimately we were a bit too far apart on the way to get things done to make a good creative marriage--I can't say that I suddenly felt freed to pursue the making of the movie in a fresh, bold way. The truth is, I was tired. Tired of having spent close to two years screwing around with the project to no avail...tired from having directed another movie which I was only moderately satisfied with (the editing and scoring were taken out of my hands and I'm not shy about saying that the movie suffered because of it)...tired of once again having to start all over again. Usually this means back to the script drawing board.
Instead, I made my first documentary. I had met a man I'd long admired, the great jazz singer Jackie Paris, and I embarked upon a movie about his life--not just his life, but the life of all singers/artists/creative performers who don't quite...make it over the top. The journey took two years--an amazing, exhausting and very exciting adventure in filmmaking. I put "Make Someone Happy" on a back-burner. My son was born. We moved to LA. I adapted a novel by Oscar Hijuelos, "A Simple Habana Melody". I got hired to direct a big gangster movie. The money for the big gangster movie vanished. Etcetera. Etcetera.
It's not that I didn't still want to make "Make Someone Happy". But it needed some sort of rejuvenation, something to freshen it up for another walk around block. Looking over my research materials on the real City Island, I came across a phrase that I'd forgotten about--it had never made it into the script, even though I liked it when I heard it. This is the distinction made by City Island residents between "clam-diggers" and "mussle-suckers". Clam diggers are island residents who were actually born on City Island--and not in a hospital in the Bronx. Since City Island boasts no hospitals, this means they are born at home thus making them truly of the island. Mussle-suckers, on the other hand, are people from other parts of the earth who move to City Island. While they are not unwelcome by clam-diggers, they are--by dint of having moved from elsewhere--essentially rootless...people without a land of their own.
This odd and emotional differentiation got me to thinking about the themes of the script. Vince Rizzo is a family man. He's a clam-digger and lives in the house that his grandfather built. He's proud of his heritage and wants to tell the world about it--which he does at occasionally boring length. But this admirable trait is also strangling him, for he's not able to accept that he's changing as a person and that in order to grow a bit he needs to confront some ugly truths about his past--namely who that kid in the prison he works in truly is.
Suddenly the script seemed a lot deeper to me than it had in a long time. The place itself--City Island--was a metaphor for Vince meeting his son in prison. "Sometimes good things can be found in the strangest places" might be our theme--just as City Island itself might be considered a "good thing found in a strange place" (a fishing village in the Bronx?) The notion of the conflicting sides of his personality and his need to unify them suddenly made Vince a little deeper to me. Buried within us all is a clam-digger, a person hanging onto our deepest roots and connections, yearning to break free and suck some mussles. You get the idea.
I retitled the script "City Island" and added two or three speeches about mussle-suckers versus clam-diggers. Maybe this doesn't sound like much, but it seemed to bring the whole thing back to life and give it more focus. Before long, my agents at Paradigm were excited about the piece again and wanting to find a way to package it. One of their biggest star clients was Andy Garcia. What did I think of him for the role of Vince?
I remember my reaction at the time as being befuddled; of course Andy Garcia could be a great Vince. Why hadn't I thought of him before? Was it because we were so focused first on Italians, then on inappropriate middle aged white guys (Harrison Ford? For real?) I asked if he would read the script knowing that there was nothing--no money, no producers, no reality to it being a movie. My agent said: we'll give it a try.
One learns not to ask if there's any news from an actor--if there is, after all, its going to be the first phone call your agent makes to you. I put the idea of the submission to Andy out of my mind for can't remember how long. Maybe a week? Two? More? I just don't know. I do know that just before Thanksgiving weekend, 2006, I got a message on my voicemail from a man doing a very decent Andy Garcia impression, telling me he wanted to talk to me about my script.
Or was it actually him?
Monday, January 18, 2010
A good Monday to you and welcome to my on-line book-in-progress, about the making of my movie "City Island", which opens in theaters on March 19 in limited release (New York and LA) and in ten more cities in the following weeks. Please avail yourself of the contents of this blog in the archives or just follow along as I tell the tale of how the movie got made--soon to include production stills, clips from behind-the-scenes stuff, call sheets, angry e-mails and other ephemera.
And look for our trailer, debuting on-line later this week (more info tomorrow, I promise).
And mega cheers to our leading lady, Julianna Margulies, on her Golden Globe win last night!
By far the worst state your as-yet-unmade-unfinanced movie project can fall into is one of inertia. This is generally the death knell for most would-be projects, the state of mind that causes everyone to lose interest, hope and faith. It generally comes either at the outset of things (as in: nobody's interested in your script to begin with) or, more disastrously, after a good start yields no real "traction."
And that is precisely the state "Make Someone Happy" (the original title of "City Island" for those of you new to this site--and I sure as hell hope there are two or three of you out there) found itself in, following the departure of Michael Chiklis. We had announced ourselves in the trades, we had gotten the agencies all souped up on our upcoming movie, we had an actor committed...and then, slowly but with the inevitability of chocolate melting in the sun, we turned to goo. Instead of seizing the moment and pushing ahead, inertia gripped us. My proudcers weren't as concerned with this as I was--they reasoned that, having quickly attracted the interest of one actor, we would soon have the attention of another.
But something told me we were a balloon that was deflating. Much as I personally liked my producers, they exercised so much caution in every decision that nothing seemed good enough to go ahead with. I came to think of their condition as "Fear Of Photography"--as long as we didn't make the movie, nothing could go wrong. Which is correct, of course, but doesn't really explain how movies DO get made...just how so many of them don't.
Anyway, they were still convinced that a major name would bail us out and so the first stop was the major agencies to tell them what a wonderful opportunity we had for some of their A-list middle-aged male stars; a genuinely emotional and funny and complex acting role for a male old enough to have sired a son in his early twenties. Harrison? Bobby D.? Al P? Bruce? Travolta? Whose running to the plate first? Come on, fellas, better hurry...
The sound of crickets chirping...
Nobody could have cared less. Calls went unreturned. Eyes glazed over. People avoided us on the street. Yawns were stifled when the project was mentioned--and then, more seriously perhaps, yawns started not being stifled. When this happens--when torpor and disinterest set in--the blame usually falls on the script. Time for a rewrite. Thankfully, my producers didn't ascribe to this philosophy. They loved the script and stood by it. Good for them! What they did do, though, was talk about lowering the budget.
This may seem odd given that the budget was pretty low (about three million) to begin with. And that we were somehow talking about attracting actors whose quotes were in the seven to eight figure range. There really isn't any way to explain it except to say that pursuing two completely opposite goals simultaneously in the hope of achieving one unified goal is business as usual in movie-land.
And yet I knew. We were going nowhere fast. This was no longer a movie waiting to be made. It was a "project" we were all "involved" with each other on. "Devloping". "Exploring". Whatever you want to call it, we were now on the bottom of each others piles as well as everyone elses.
And then I got a phone call that I'd never before gotten. The late producer Bobby Newmyer was putting together a movie from a screenplay by TV mega-star Paul Reiser. Paul wrote it for himself and Peter Falk to play father and son in--and Falk was already committed. The money was even in place. All they needed was a director--and somehow, they'd landed on me as a likely candidate. This sounded too good to be true. All the crap I'd been going through--casting, budgeting, what-iffing...none of it was an issue! The movie was ready to be made. All I had to do was say yes.
So I did. It got me out of the depressive grind of making "Make Someone Happy", earned me a few bucks and gave me another credit. It also provided me with the pleasure of working with Paul Reiser and the honor of working (if you could call it that--other directors will know what I'm talking about) with the legendary Peter Falk. The film, "The Thing About My Folks", was prepped in five weeks, shot in six weeks and edited in four. By the time we were wrapped, it was Christmas and I was ready to have our "Make Someone Happy" fortunes turn around.
And that's just what happened. "Turnaround" in Hollywoodspeak means: we no longer want to continue with your project. Echo Lake had passed up renewing the option on the script. I had to start all over again.
Friday, January 15, 2010
Before moving ahead with the snail-like progress of "City Island's" journey, allow me to recount a brief episode that occurred shortly before the departure of Michael Chiklis from the project. It's important to recount this little moment because it's easy to remember the hardships in getting a movie off the ground and yet somehow we forget the little perks that go along with the process. Yes there are frustrations galore--but there's also the nice restaurants where meetings are held, the occasional first or business class ticket bought on somebody else's dime, the exotic trips to film festivals made with the vague hope of promoting an unmade (and probably unfinanced) film...
...and then there's lunch with Kim Cattrall.
Somehow she'd gotten the script for my movie--I'm not sure why or how or who gave it to her, only that I know we didn't offer it to her. We weren't really offering it to actresses yet, since we were still in list-land about which mega-stars we would approach to play Michael Chiklis' wife. Anyway, our casting director got a call from her agent who said that Kim Cattrall loved the part, loved the script and would love to meet me. Well. Why not? I thought the world of her from "Sex In The City" and quite admired the fact that she was somebody who wasn't precious about going out and getting herself some work that she wanted. Clearly she kept a trained eye on projects that seemed to be coming together and had no compunction about pitching herself for something she wanted to be part of. This is admirable and not necessarily typical of actors of a certain stature--but then not much is typical about Kim Cattrall.
We were both living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan at the time so we arranged to meet at a local joint off Madison Avenue. She was hot off her mega- turn as the rapacious Samantha Jones in the TV version of "Sex In The City" and thus at the height of her celebrity--both nationally and locally. I found her to be terribly charming and awfully smart. We talked a lot about her background, what kind of family she was raised in and why the part of Joyce Rizzo spoke to her. We talked relationships. We talked work. The restaurant was packed and I began to notice that most eyes were on her. This is a strange pheomenon and even stranger if you're not the person who's being stared at but merely the person they're with. For celebrities are used to the attention and have their own ways of blocking out the stares from strangers. But non-celebrities--like me--aren't sufficiently well trained to do this and thus we find ourselves distracted by the attention we're inadvertantly on the receiving end of.
Soon I was finding hard to concentrate on what Kim was saying. Have you tried to listen carefully while a roomful of people are surreptitiously staring at you? So I suggested to Kim that we take a walk, figuring that the open air would be a little less...confining. We strolled up Madison Avenue, still talkling away...only now we were being checked out by all the shoppers along the street. More importantly, I began to realize that a lot of people seemed to be checking me out...as if, by mere connection to Kim, I was suddenly a lot more interesting. "Who's the guy hanging around with Kim Cattrall on Madison Avenue?", all eyes seemed to wonder. Many of the looks I got from men were hostile, possessive, perhaps just a bit competitive. But the looks from the women were different: for the first time in my life I began to realize what it must be like to be an attractive sixteen year old girl walking into a sports bar. Women of all types seemed to be staring at me in a way I'd never experienced: he must be the very coolest if he hangs with Kim Cattrall/Samantha Jones on Madison Avenue? My stock seemed to soar with every passing block. I grew taller and thinner. I began to shoot little looks back at those shooting little looks at me. Briefly I was Marcello Mastroianni in "8 and 1/2". I fucking loved it.
My meetng with Kim ended in Central Park. She was friendly and direct about how much she wanted to be in the movie. I told her I liked the idea and that we were still putting it together...trying to finance it...talking with agents...in other words, I tried to stay non-committal in a positive sort of way. Just a week or so later we lost Michael to "Fantastic Four". I tried to look on the bright side and told my producers that at least we had the interest of Kim Cattrall. They didn't dig this opportunity as much as I did. They were focused on bagging a major star for the role of Vince.
I never saw or spoke to Kim again. I hope she wasn't pissed that nothing came of our meeting. I liked her a lot and will be forever grateful for the boost to my ego our lunch and walk gave me at a somewhat troubling, directionless time in my life as a filmmaker. A true perk...
Thursday, January 14, 2010
I knew Michael Chiklis from his then newish show, "The Shield", as well as his turn playing Curley Howard in a surprisingly good TV biopic about the Three Stooges. His acting was dynamic, he was tough and he also had a pathos that I thought might make him a good Vince Rizzo. He was Greek, not Italian, but who cared really? The other thing I liked about him was that, while he was certainly well known, he wasn't a mega-over-the-top-super-duper-A-list movie star...in other words, we stood a good chance of getting a fairly quick reaction as to whether or not the script was for him.
And we did. Almost immediately we got word from his agent that he really liked it! Never before in my career has the first actor I've sent something too evinced immediate interest. I was in New York but hopped on a plane to LA to have a lunch meeting with him. My producers seemed pleased and I was delighted.
Michael and I met and liked each other quite a bit. I saw a version of Vince Rizzo in the man-- tough, demanding and also sweet, funny and a bit...insecure, perhaps? Michael had recently lost a lot of weight and undergone a kind of image makeover to become the star of "The Shield." This was clearly somebody who went after what he wanted in life--and he was unabashed at telling me that he loved Vince Rizzo and wanted to be in my movie.
I flew back to New York and reported on my meeting to my producers. And they were happy too. Kind of. But I began to sense a reserve coming from them. Every time we spoke about the female roles, the names they were suggesting got bigger and bigger. What about Meryl Streep as his wife? What about Cate Blanchett as Molly, his friend in the acting class with whom he shares his big secret? Aside from the fact that most of the names didn't really seem right for the roles, they also seemed--somehow lopsided. Like our three million dollar movie with a respected TV name in the lead was teetering one way, while being overloaded on the opposite end with star power it probably couldn't accomodate.
Ultimately, though, I began to sense that the problem was one of expectations. You see, nobody really expects the first person you offer a movie to take it. Once Michael said yes, I think my producers began to wonder along these lines: "If the first guy who we tried loves it, maybe we can get..." And the names start swirling about: De NIro! Bruce Wills! John Travolta! You name it.
Well, humans are human and often times we have trouble accepting good fortune. While I really liked Michael and kept pushing to get the movie started by the upcoming break in his TV schedule, my producers seemed to be sliding in the other direction. Things got slower, the budget seemed to be getting smaller and more and more impossible names were added to the female roles list, and soon Michael Chiklis--no dummy, he--began to get a whiff that something was not going right. Who could blame him for being a little pissed? We offered him a movie, he said yes, the director wanted him and suddenly the whole thing seemed to lose momentum. Then he was offered a part in "The Fantastic Four" and, of course, he took it. That was that. We'd lost his window...and his interest.
I was depressed. We'd somehow torpedoed an opportunity that we'd created. Now we had to start all over again. My producers didn't seem daunted. After all, the first time out of the box we scored. How hard would it be to get a Vince Rizzo? Lets go to the agencies and try to land a big tuna! Travolta! Willis! Brad Pitt! Why not one of them?
A year later we were still waiting for our calls to be returned...
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
The first casting meeting on any project is, by far, the most enjoyable, delusional experience of the entire movie. You sit around tossing out famous name after famous name, roundly rejecting many or pretending to take others under careful consideration ("DeNiro?" "Nah, too old!" "Pacino?" "Love him!" "Eric Roberts?" "What?" "Just Kidding..." etc.) The actual likelihood of getting one of the big names is not confronted at this early meeting--indeed, the sky's the limit in the first cast meeting, with only our imaginations to stilfle the proceedings.
In the case of "City Island" (or "Make Someone Happy" as it was then known), we brought on ace casting director Sheila Jaffe ("The Sopranos", "Entourage", dozens of movies etc) who I'd worked with on my previous films and we all went to Ca'Brea, a trendoid West Hollywood boite where we proceeded to loudly consider and discard names. But Sheila is a very good partner in terms of the reality check that is often necessary--she can tell you who is truly unlikely or uninterested in the kind of role you might be looking at them for. Or who takes forever to read, or wont read without an "offer", or who simply won't do anything unless its a mega-studio deal being dangled.
Indeed, this brings up the ticklish and largely unnavigatible process of offering a movie to a star. For the unspoken rule is that you don't offer a movie that isn't already fully financed. But how could this be, you ask, if it takes a stars participation to finance a movie? Well, the truth is everyone knows this is bullshit. But it depends on how you slant things with the agency. If you go with your hand out, needing a star and having nothing but a script, you're bound for nowheresville. If you go with a script that has some heat--i.e. it's received positive coverage and perhaps even has made the rounds of companies with some vaguely encouraging responses...you're still nowhere. But at least you don't look like a total naif. If you have a good script and a director attached (or a writer/director as in my case), things progress just ever so slightly up the pole. Still, you don't have financing and you need the star.
So what do you tell the agencies? A combination, I would say, of flat out lies and hopeful expectations delivered in a non binding, non blustery, non committal sort of way. We have some of the money. More is on the way. We can make a cash offer. But its subject to financing closing. The whole thing is subject to a creative meeting between the star and the director anyway, so what are we talking about really? Would the star like to be a producer as well? Why not? Plenty of room!
All of this still doesn't guarantee you a read. If you're a non-studio, non-financed, underbudgeted kind of animal--as "Make Someone Happy" was--you're in for a long sit, waiting for a star to read. And even then, you're hoping for a miracle: the star falls so in love with your script that they're willing to work for less than their usual fee. And talk it up to their fellow actors. And help you get the whole thing launched.
This never happens. Unless it does.
It did with me in 2007 when I met Andy Garcia. But that was faraway in the future back when Doug, Andy, Sheila and I first sat down at Ca'Brea to figure out who might be our best bet, for star power and for appropriateness for the role, to play Vince Rizzo. A working class man, not too old but old enough to be the father of two teenagers and an older son who he meets in the prison where he's a correctional officer. A man with a tough exterior and a big heart that's been frozen for too long. A man who secretly years to bring out his inner artist--his true ambition, which he's embarrasssed by, is to be an actor. Who could possibly convey all these qualities, be serious, funny and emotional at the same time and deliver enough "marquee value" to help get the movie financed?
Yes, yes, I know the answer: Andy Garcia! But for reasons that I'll never comprehend, his was not a name that we first considered. Why, I don't know. We got stuck thinking that Vince had to be an Italian actor--DeNiro, Paciono, John Turturro, Stanley Tucci, James Gandolfini. These were the names we were throwing around that day at Ca'Brea. And in the end, we decided on our first submission. We sent the script to one of everyone's favorite Italian-American actors.
Tuesday, January 12, 2010
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...
Friday, January 8, 2010
I had a wonderful screenwriter friend, the late Lester Pine ("Popi", "Claudine") who had a number of memorable and succinct phrases about writing that have stuck with me for years--usually delivered in a slightly gangsterly "de's and dem's" delivery. Once I was pouring through his stack of screenplays and I said something sensitive like: "Jesus, you've written a lot of stuff that hasn't been made" (I was a teenager...) He looked at me wistfully and said: "Kid, the pile keeps gettin' higher and higher."
Contained in that response is everything you need to know about the peculiarly counter-productive problem faced by the writer; you can't succeed as a writer if you stop writing. However, everything you write stands a much greater chance of not getting anywhere then it does of succeeding. Thus writing is both a show of optimism and a courting of failure; not to do it is to fail at the outset. To do it is to fail by design.
And so what is there to do with a finished screenplay, except join the ranks of the thousands--perhaps millions by now--of people who churn these things out in the not very realistic hope of somehow getting a movie made? (There's a terrible billboard in Los Angeles, advertising a bank branch that has "more ATM's than unproduced screenplays". Oy). On the other hand, I have certain advantages that many people don't--an agent, for one thing, and a manager. And a few other films under my belt. None of these things, however, prevent the pile from getting higher and higher. It's just the nature of the game.
"City Island" was originally titled "Make Someone Happy"--don't know why, exactly, except that the Comden/Green/Styne song was probably playing on the Tony Bennett/Bill Evans CD when I was trying to come up with a title. Titles are strange things--they tend, for me, to stick like glue and I'm always amused when well known movies reveal their original titles and you just can't imagine them ever having another identity. ("Rocky" was called "The Contender"--which makes me wonder what "The Contender" was called. For some mysterious reason, "Sunset Boulevard" went into production under the title "A Can Of Beans". Hm.) "Make Someone Happy" was never a perfect title to me, but it was years before the very obvious, simple and--I hope--elegant solution of naming the movie after the locale in which it takes place occurred to me. "City Island" is the name of "City Island". Of course. How could it ever have been anything else? Except, of course, it was.
I sent "Make Someone Happy" to a handful of friends for reactions. My "Two Family House" producer, Adam Brightman, was warmly enthusiastic about it which pleased me. A few others professed to like it but used certain buzzwords that made me nervous--like "sweet" and "little". ("It's really sweet--what a nice little story", is the kind of praise that I'd rather not have and have heard all too frequently, given that I don't write movies in which crap explodes). My agent and I thought it best to find a producer to partner with, but the first few we tried also gave it the "small" treatment--"nice script, lovely story, it's so hard to make these small movies, though..."
This is something I've heard pretty much since I began doing this back in the early 1990's. The indie film--aka the "small movie"--has always been dead, dying, on the verge of extinction, too hard to get made, not worth the effort and/or too expensive or too cheap to be a good risk. And yet every year, Sundance seems to have a hell of a time winnowing down the glut of independent movies that have been made during the past year and which seek exposure at that famous (infamous?) festival launching pad.
Finishing a screenplay that you're proud of is a wonderful feeling. Hence the letdown when you must face the fact that one thing the world doesn't need is yet another screenplay. Still, my own response to this problem is, I'm afraid, typical of most life-long, fully addicted writers: I usually start writing something else straight away, to keep my mind off how potentially fruitless my previous work may prove to be. I wrote three more screenplays in a row while "Make Someone Happy" was looking for a producer.
And then one day I got a call from my agent that a very good, rather new company loved the script and liked my previous films. They were called Echo Lake Productions and had produced and/or co-financed several prestigious art-house movies, including one that I'd liked called "Thirteen Conversations About One Thing." A meeting was set for the next time I was in LA with the principals of the company, Doug Mankoff and Andrew Spaulding.
The year was 2002 now, the spring. I decided to be realistic and figured on a half year of development and casting. We'd start shooting in early 2003 and premiere in the fall at the Toronto Film Festival--perhaps throwing in a Venice Film Fest. appearance at well. And if things got delayed for some reason, we could always premiere at Sundance 2004.
Thursday, January 7, 2010
Wednesday, January 6, 2010
Do you remember the sense, on the morning of the 12th of September, 2001, of the air being let out of the tires? Of a collective, wheezing deflation of spirit? The reactions were, in retrospect, cosmically large yet weirdly particular. Chief among them was: why bother doing anything? It was as if the stunning, massive and catastrophic attack--and its success and our failure to see how easily accomplished and inevitable it was--rendered all other human endeavor kind of...pointless.
In New York the effect was, of course, magnified. Not only was all typical endeavor pointless, but all roads pointed to only one endeavor worth pursuing: clean up the rubble at Ground Zero.
Why was this so important to accomplish so quickly? In retrospect I wonder if it was the same instinct that led to Miramax's unfortunate decision to immediately recall all prints of their films and erase the World Trade Center from their logo: a collective shame that was felt about the attack and our own naivete regarding how many in the world around us regarded America. If evidence of the catastrophe could be erased, we seemed to think, our shame might be allayed. Somewhat like a child burying a toy that he broke, rather than asking for it to be fixed.
On that strange morning after, I pretty much gave up the idea of finishing my script. Several people I knew were going downtown to help the "clean up" effort. I declined joining them I think because I felt that, in my case, its symbolism outweighed its utility--given a broom and dustpan, I will more often then not spill more shit then I sweep up.
And all the other writers who I knew (both of them) had the same sense that I did: why finish something that doesn't matter? Movies/plays/books...whatever. That was the sound that the collective sigh seemed to be making at that time: whatever.
Almost a decade later, this seems far more rooted in American's arrogance at our invulnerability then in any true reaction to a devastation. For centuries and longer, cities and civilizations have been routinely demolished and somehow art never ceases. I have a strong sense that much of the rest of the world got used to these wounds in the collective unconscious eons ago. America is young still. So on the morning of September 12th, we were asking ourselves: "Is it truly necessary to make 'Legally Blonde 2?'"
And then a couple of weeks later I said the hell with it. I have little if anything to offer in the way of physical labor and a very limited patience with political rhetoric. What I did have, however, was a good goddam script that was languishing, half-completed, on my desk. The Rizzo's were as stranded as all other New Yorkers--and they didn't even know about the towers! I'd given them life and then put them on suspension. Worse, the point that I felt I was gearing up to make with this tale of family, love and secrecy--PASSIVITY AND INACTION LEAD TO FAILURE TO GROW--was being subverted by my own passsivity and inaction.
So I got back to work. And sometime in the early weeks of October, 2001, I wrote the last scene of the movie. A family lunch--a reunion of sorts, coming after the families problems have been solved and their love and trust rekindled--on the lawn of the Rizzo home, overlooking the skyline of Manhattan, as viewed from City Island. I didn't need to mention whether the towers were there or not--though their recent disappearance somehow make me think I needed to address this fact. No. Instead redemption and acceptance occur in view of a skyline that can never truly be defaced--a monument to strength, imagination and acceptance. That's how I ended the script, in October '01. It's also the exact way the film ends, as shot in August, '08.
In between finishing the script and shooting the film, however, there were a few stops along the way...
Tuesday, January 5, 2010
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.
Monday, January 4, 2010
So we begin.
The act of writing a book about the making of any film suggests the film has already achieved an importance in the eyes of the world which requires the tome to be added to the already sagging bookshelves of cinemaliterature. More often then not such books are contrived after the movies have passed into legendary status ("Star Wars", "Titanic", "Making of Gone With The Wind" etc.) and are looks backward at momentous production histories which seem to have been prematurely infused with a sense of destiny.
Then there are the books about the catastrophes. The classic, of course, is Steven Bach's "Final Cut"--about how Michael Cimino's "Heavens Gate" literally destroyed United Artists. My favorite in this genre, though, is Ted Gershuny's apparently forgotten "Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture", an account of the doomed death march of Otto Preminger's penultimate production, the execrable "Rosebud".
Gershuny writes the book as the films disasters mount (crews ready to mutiny, script a shambles, Robert Mitchum fired for drunkeness) and manages, oddly, to make the foul-tempered and somwhat out of it Preminger into something of a hero. The then seventy year old filmmaker never gives up, never buckles under to pressure, and makes damn certain to shoot everything he needs for his movie--even though early on he clearly has intimations of defeat. It's a fine look at the loneliness of the directors job and the heroic nature of the giants--like Preminger--whose life's blood was filmmaking and who never said die.
But what about our movie "City Island?" We don't know which camp it's destined for, if either. It hasn't been released yet, though it's been finished for a year. It's fate hangs suspended, awaiting a two-city opening this spring, reviews which will most likely determine how many more cities the film opens in, and the vagaries of a marketplace which increasingly has little room or need for so-called "small" or "character-driven" films.
On the other hand, once we started screening "City Island" last year, we were surprised to find that it made people laugh. A lot. And people talk back to the screen as the story develops--always a good sign, because it means the audience has broken through the fourth wall and become part of the action. And then there's the ending. Often times people cry openly at the resolution. (Actually, my preferred reaction isn't open sobbing, but rather the sound of men in the audience stifling their emotions--lots of uncomfortable coughs and deep sniffles trying hard to sound like unemotional remnants of an old cold.)
All well and good, of course. My friend and mentor Peter Bogdanovich asked me if the audiences generally laughed and cried in the same places. I said yes. "Then you have a hit", he said calmly. Then again, maybe our movie will get slammed and quickly close up shop, heading south to DVD land and hello HBO-ville. We simply don't know at this moment in time.
And thus the point of this book. This is a book about the making of a movie the final outcome of which is still unknown. I might be writing about as anonymous an indie movie as has ever been made--a filmic bottle-in-the-sea, if you will. Or maybe the story of the Rizzo family and their secrets, lies and emotional confusions will resonate with a public that might be hungry for a little humor and humanity at the local multiplex. Either way what I write here will be infused with the experience that every filmmaker has while making their movie; one of hope, uncertainty, shambling self-confidence and deep anxiety. "City Island" has been part of my life literally for years--I wrote the screenplay in 2001 and am seeing it finished, fully realized, almost a decade later. It's not that I didn't get to do other things--like live life, for instance and make a few other movies--in all that time. But my primary goal--telling this story--was a distant one that often seemed unlikely to come to pass. Until it did.
A note on why we are here--that is, on this blog. Two and half years ago I found myself losing an inordinate amount of time on youtube, watching clips of old movie musicals and old jazz performances--my two passions. Feeling that there might be something practical to be gained out of this wonderfully addictive brave new time-wasting world, I decided to blog about the clips that I was watching. Thus "Movies Til Dawn" was born, a blog about old movies and old music on film. For a year or so that was my subject and to my astonishment a small audience began to form.
Then my dream project came true and "City Island" got off the ground. Clearly I wasn't going to make a movie and write about Busby Berkeley musicals at the same time. So I got ready to say goodbye to the "column", as I'd come to think of the blog. And then it occurred to me that the small band of readers who were interested in what I had to say about old movies might be interested in the process of making a new movie. So the blog lived on, albeit in altered form; as a diary of the making of a movie. We posted clips, call sheets, drawings, stills, personal reflections from various people involved in the making of the movie and took the readers on the whole ride, right through shooting and editing. The readership grew. And thus I find myself now writing what is, in essence, a summary of the entire experience. My plan is to write the story of the movies creation right up until the opening weekend--March 19, 2010. After that, we'll see what more is left to tell.
So follow me, if you will, on this little ten-week ride. If you already know the experience of filmmaking, what your about to read wont surprise you but will provide an odd kind of comfort--because this shit happens to everybody who makes movies. And if you've never made a movie, be glad that you're observing the insanity with the protective sheath of a computer screen between you and it. For nobody anticipated how frustrating, addictive and maddeningly seductive the process of filmmaking would be when they invented the first camera.
In the words of the great Josef Von Sternberg: "“Man has yet to invent a machine more complicated to build, impossible to use or unpredictable in the quality of its finished product, than the motion picture”.
Amen. See you tomorrow for chapter one. Meanwhile, here's what it was like to shoot an early "talkie" in old Hollywood...
Saturday, January 2, 2010
Greetings all and welcome to a new decade. Let me first apologize for the paucity of posts over the past week and a half. And then tell you what a relief it was to be able to focus on something else--in this case, watching a load of movies currently in release sent to me via the Academy. Liked "Crazy Heart" with Jeff Bridges and the Coen Brothers movie, "A Serious Man", a lot. Also enjoyed a strange film with Joaquin Phoenix and Gwenyth Paltrow called "Two Lovers" which I managed to not even hear of when it went into general release earlier this year--was this the film that Phoenix was supposed to be promoting during his now infamous David Letterman appearance? If so, my heart goes out to the films writer/director, the humorlessly named but quite talented James Grey.
And now back to myself. Beginning this coming Monday morning, January 4, I will commence the writing of my book, "Making 'City Island'" on this blog. (Drab title, I know, but can you do better? If so, give me some ideas.) The book will be a work in progress on this blog every day (except weekends I'm guessing) leading up to the films release on March 19. Tell your friends. And enemies. And your parents!
Remember, "City Island" is your movie--the people need to rise up for this one to have a chance in this Avatar-ish media society we now inhabit. I'm hoping we can spread a little so-called grassroots good-will here and rouse some interest in our precious movie. Obama-ish of me? Overly optimistic? Call me what you will--I'm determined to kick this one out of the stands (block that mixed-metaphor) and the daily on-line writing of the book about the making of the film will, I hope, be of some help. I'll post clips, stills and other ephemera, as well as doing a day-by-day account of the shoot--27 shooting days relived in twenty-seven blog entries.
Item: The trailer will be posted momentarily.
Item: So will the poster.
Item: The movie's new website got a nice makeover. Go to the right side of this blog and click on the various related sites to check them out.
Item: follow me and soon some of the cast members on Twitter!
See you Monday morning, bright and early, for Chapter one, part one. Now, ring in the new year with a little Fats Waller, from the 1943 Fox musical "Stormy Weather". Dig...