"Cafe Society" was photographed across the December/January 1994/1995 holiday season. For reasons that have nothing to do with anything but managerial incompetence, the film was shot mostly at night--perhaps our initial location (the courtroom) was a nights only proposition, thus throwing the rest of the shoot onto an ungodly Six AM to Six PM timetable. In a strange way, though, the off-the-gridness of it all was part of the shoots magic--the odd task of re-creating forgotten Manhattan nightclubs on a bare-bones budget was given an additional otherworldliness by being allowed to happen only after midnight.
And how did we accomplish the recreation of a half-dozen or so nightclubs on that flea budget, you ask? By finding an incredible location which in many ways was the real reason the film could be accomplished at all. It was an old "gentleman's club" in the Wall Street area--a five story building that had once housed a series of meeting rooms, restaurants, private club rooms and, on the top floor, a gym complete with squash courts. The building was currently owned by an admitted eccentric who had turned one floor of the place into a luxe apartment for himself and left the other four floors to rot--the remains of old bars, staircases, booths and tables were already there and just waiting for us to dress them up and turn them into nightclubs of the past. The squash courts and gym became our police precinct. The owner's apartment became the "green room" for the cast. We moved into the building for seventy-five percent of the shoot, emerging at the end to move to the one set that we built from scratch--a magnificent rendition of a high-style 1950's penthouse apartment. My production designers, Stuart and Markus Canter, riffed off the idea that we were making a period film about a period story and created an apartment that coud only have existed in a late-forties RKO version of Manhattan, complete with multi-level living room, sunken bar, multiple terraces with Manhattan skyline backdrops etc.
I don't think the shoot lasted twenty-five full days and we cut the film fairly rapidly so that it was actually ready to submit for inclusion in the Cannes Film Festival that March. And lo--they took it! My first feature, shot at the age of thirty, was accepted into Director's Fortnight--a feat only equaled by my first short film being nominated for an Oscar a few years earlier. Unfortunately, these youthful feats of accomplishment frequently have a downside. In the case of the Oscars it was the afterparty, which was as dark, unpleasant and uncongneial an event as I've ever attended (remember: four out of five people had just LOST the Oscar...what kind of mood would you expect them to be in?)
Cannes was a much more delightful experience--at least at first. The sparkling Meditteranean, the absolute adoration and fawning over anyone with the title of "director" (relisateur...), the celebrity filmmakers and actors swarming the Croissette. And then we made our first mistake. Rather than simply premiere the film, we held a "special distributors screening"--I suppose the idea was to let the lucky people who were about to have the chance to buy the movie get a glimpse of it prior to the premiere so as to get there no doubt lucrative deal offers in place. Unfortunately, a room full of distributors is not a friendly room--these guys are really looking for a reason to not buy a film, not a reason to spend their companies money. And my somber, eccentric and frankly experimental film noir didn't exactly play like gangbusters to the gathered crowd. Still there was some talk that Sony Classics had quite liked the film and was eager to see how it played at its premiere screening.
And as I recall the premiere went quite well. Roger Ebert was there and was visibly and audibly impressed with the movie. He had, however a policy (and an honorable one at that) of not reviewing a film that had yet to be acquired by a distributor--a bad review by Ebert having the power to scare off a potential buyer. Unfortunately, Todd McCarthy of Variety didn't share this policy and his review of "Cafe Society", which appeared the morning after our premiere, more or less put the kibosh on any interest we had from Sony Classics. It wasn't a pan exactly--more of a soft, neither-here-nor-there kind of notice. His lack of excitement spread and before we knew it, the movie that we had barely just completed seemed like something that was soon to be completely forgotten.
But then we got an offer from Showtime. And then I made some money and should have invested it in Google. But I didn't. Instead I spent it on...well, 'll tell you what I spent it on in the next installment of "So, You Want To Be A Filmmaker"...
Posted by Raymond De Felitta at 7:24 AM