Thursday, October 13, 2011
Following the uncertain reception accorded to my first feature "Cafe Society", we returned to New York--somewhat dispirited but still essentially optimistic. After al, Roger Ebert had really liked the movie. Others had too. It was as if nobody wanted to be the first to come out and say that they loved it. I sensed (and believe I was correct in this) that the finishing of the film was partly to blame--it was still overlength and under-scored musically (by which I mean NOT scored--I tried to do with period records only which is a lovely conceit--Woody Allen does it all the time--but wasn't really right for this movie).
At that time, Showtime had gotten into the "made of cable" movie business in earnest. One of the ways to do this with some efficiency was to not just make their own movies, but buy already finished movies that had trouble securing domestic distribution. The movies needed to have recognizable cast elements, elegant production values and some sort of "hook" to capture their audience.
And boy, did "Cafe Society" fit that bill. Showtime made a handsome offer to debut the film on their channel, promoted it heavily and made the producers happy by at least confirming that they hadn't made a mistake in making the film in the first place. The film was scheduled for showing, a few alterations were made (music was added) and that should have been the end of that.
But I was a young man with a mission and my mission had not been to make a film for Showtime. It had been to make a kickass
indie film that would be seen in theaters and get me noticed. I say that with just a tinge of embarrassment from this distance. Just a tinge, though. For anyone who goes into the racket has to start with a fairly healthy ego and inflated sense of self worth just to get to the starting gate. I hadn't waited those five years since my short film to make my first feature and have it air a couple of times at 10PM on cable. No. That wouldn't do.
It took a couple of years, but in early 1997 I'd made some money writing scripts and decided that, rather than investing in the stock market (as my now wealthy friends did back then) I would spend the money releasing "Cafe Society" in theaters. Or in A theater--one would be all I could afford. I looked around New York (where I lived and where I felt the movie truly belonged) and found a lovely little theater called The Screening Room down on Canal Street and Varick. The theater had a lovely bar/restaurant attached to it and the whole thing had a vibe that felt incredibly correct for my movie. What I didn't know at the time, though, was that you don't just go out and rent a theater. The theater owners need to want to show your movie and believe that there's some profit in them for taking the trouble to do so. A lovely guy named Henry Hersowitz, had opened the theater with his partner. They listened to my proposal, watched the movie and then decided that yes--there was something potentially in it for everyone to open "Cafe Society" in New York. But certain things had to be agreed to. For one thing, I had to agree to pay for a minimum amount of advertising space. And we had to reach gross receipts of a certain number for them to agree to hold the film over past the initial one week run. Nothing deterred me. I assured them I would handle it all and that we'd be in for a long run. Jesus, what happens to our confidence as we grow older?
I hired a publicist, an art director and made up a rigorous schedule. I reached out to all news outlets with the story I thought would sell--the true story of the Jelke/Ward scandal. Some bit. Others were more interested in the story of me releasing my own movie. I put together a proper premiere using sponsorship from Mercedes Benz and other vendors to cover the costs. (Mercedes delievered a 1957 Mercedes to the front of the theater for the premiere. I remember a very young Gretchen Mol posing on it on our premiere night). John Harny of the New York Daily News wrote the best article--click here to read it.
And then we opened. The first reviews I read were in the tabs as the New York Times hadn't hit the stands yet. They were both poor. Weirdly they also both used the same "joke" headline: "So Noir Yet So Far". I remember, in those pre-internet days, reading them at the newstand on the corner of sixth avenue and fourth street and going right back to bed. It had been the fastest fifty thousand dollars I'd ever lost.
And then I got a call from my publicist, Alicia Goldstein. "Congratulations on your New York Times review", she said. I hadn't
even bothered to go back out for it, so convinced was I by the other notices that the whole thing had been a huge miscalculation. But in fact Stephen Holden's review that Friday morning saved the movie's life. Our opening weekend was actually quite busy--and all of that times review. The following week, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel reviewed it on TV. I wish I had the video of it. It made me cry when I watched it. Good cry, not bad.
To sum it up, "Cafe Society" had a life beyond what anyone had thought it was destined to have after its initial showing. Another small releasing company came along and booked the film in art house theaters in Philly, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and DC. I did interviews galore talking the film up and dutifully saved each and every clipping and review we got. (I've since misplaced the folder completely). But the best prize of all--at least for me--came after the New York Times review appeared.
I got a call Friday afternoon from Henry Hersovitz saying that the theater had been called by Woody Allen's assistant. He read the review and wanted to see the film. They were thrilled and invited him to come down to the theater and see the film off-hours. No, that wouldn't work the assistant explained. He had his own theater and needed to have a print sent up for him to see it. Unfortunately, we had only one print of the film which made letting it disappear for the day incredibly dangerous--especially on opening weekend. Once this was explained, the Woody camp came back with a solution. If we could deliver the film and have the messenger stand by, Woody would watch the film immediately. Jesus, I thought. He must really want to see this thing. So that's what we did. I never heard weather he liked it or not but a few years later I offered him a part in a movie and the response I got back from his reps was a polite no with an acknowledgement that he liked my work.
So that was that. My first film cost me every dime I'd initially earned on it and more. To this day it remains unavailable on DVD and only rarely turns up on cable. You could call this a story of disappointment but somehow--I don't know how--I saw the whole thing as a terribly promising start to things. What the fuck was wrong with me, you ask? Simple. To paraphrase Richard Brooks (see previous previous post), I had decided that I wanted to make movies enough to eat shit unsalted. All things being equal, there was salt on the table at the end of the day.
Posted by Raymond De Felitta at 11:50 AM
Monday, October 10, 2011
"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
Wednesday, October 5, 2011
"Welcome to 'Cafe Society'," intones Frank Whaley, star of my first feature film, "Cafe Society". "Where the elite meet to eat...(and then, sotto voce)
"Cafe Society" was made in 1995 and has been largely out of circulation since its appearance. Or so it seems to me. Since nobody has a clue who owns it and no one has seen fit to put it on DVD, I've posted it below. Well actually I've posted the first four parts. If you're interested in watching the rest, youtube will perform its magic.
The film was based on a true crime story--the sensational 1952 scandal involving one Mickey Jelke, heir to an oleomargerine fortune, who was accused and convicted of heading Manhattan's biggest prostitution ring. Jelke was tabloid fodder for several years, especially when it was revealed that his "main girl"--Patricia Ward--had formerly been his fiancee. Jelke convinced Ward to go to work hooking when his family (who became aware of Mickey's penchant for unsavory characters) cut him off from his trust fund. Pat Ward and Mickey Jelke are names that New Yorkers of a certain age--oh about seventy or eighty at this point--all smile in recognition upon hearing.
The scandal fascinated me for a number of years (I was a strange young man) and when I was in my late twenties and starting out in the movie business I pitched the idea of a movie based upon it to HBO. To my astonishment, they promptly bought it. I spent a year or more churning out drafts, eager to get a greenlight to make my first movie. Alas it was the first (though by no means the last) of many disappointments that I've faced in the movie business. HBO put the project in turnaround and it seemed to be dead.
Until a friend of mine--uber-agent Steve Alexander--read the script and convinced me that it would be makeable as an "indie"--this is 1994 now and the Quentin Tarantino of it all was coursing through the veins of all us young bucks. We somehow scraped together a million and a half dollars, went to New York, and in a fit of "can-do" thinking got the sucker made. Frank Whaley played Jelke--its one of my favorite performances in all of film and not because I directed it. Indeed I didn't really have to--Frank understood the arrogance, hurt, pride and pain in this strange young man and brought all those qualities out. The great Peter Gallagher played the vice cop who helped set Jelke up. (More on that in a minute). And the wonderful but now completely seems-to-have-fallen-off-the-face-of-the-earth Lara Flynn Boyle played the noir-ish Pat Ward to the absolute hilt.
But back to that vice cop. In doing my research on the case, I came across several cops who--all off the record--hinted that Jelke wasn't guilty of much, that it was an election year stunt that the Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan cooked up to make it look like he was tough on vice. He was right--all were re-elected and the Jelke scandal sold mucho tabloid newsprint. Jelke went away to prison. Years later an article about him depicted him as living in Florida off his inheritance, getting drunk at the beach club everyday, and complaining bitterly about how he was "set-up". He died at the age of sixty of cirhossis of the liver.
The appearence of the vice squad and the doubts cast on the veracity of the D.A.'s case, far from taking away from the scandal, showed me where the movie of this story might actually live; in the intersection of moral ambivalence from each side of the fence. Jelke was clearly up to some strange stuff. The D.A. was too. Both collided. Neither was right. The truth was lost along the way and the "villainous" Jelke was made to pay for the acts of a more evil force--the government face of "moral correctness" as portrayed by politicians who willfully wreck people's lives for their own benefit. Nothing changes.
I tried to write and shoot "Cafe Society" as if it were a noir movie made at the time the actual events occurred. Characters don't speak in naturalistic dialogue but rather in movie vernacular--an Odetsian kind of verbal dazzle that sometimes makes sense and sometimes is just an intentional noir mash-up. This confused some people at the time who weren't sure how to take the film. In retrospect I wish I'd shot (or at least printed the release version) in black and white; that would have put a fine point on what we were trying to do.
Check out a few minutes of my unjustly forgotten "firstborn". Next time I'll discuss the making of the film and how it (sort of) got released. One thing is for certain: it was an education in everything you have to go through if you love making films. I recall seeing the late, great (and now strangely marginalized) writer-director Richard Brooks speaking at my alma mater, the AFI, shortly before his death. In loud rasping tones, Brooks exclaimed "If you want to make movies, you'd better be prepared to eat shit unsalted."
He was right.
Posted by Raymond De Felitta at 3:56 PM