Diary Of A Feature Film: Stevie D

By Chris Cordone



Los Angeles, CA. – Pelican Productions announces that principal photography is completed on “Stevie D,” directed by first-time helmer Chris Cordone. The film was shot in Los Angeles and stars Cordone (“Castle,” “Ray Donovan”), Kevin Chapman (“Person of Interest,” “The Brotherhood”), Torrey DeVitto (“Pretty Little Liars,” “Vampire Diaries”), Spencer Garrett (“House of Cards”), Al Sapienza (“Millon Dollar Arm”), John Aprea (“The Godfather II,” “Idolmaker”) and Hal Linden (“Barney Miller”).

The screenplay, also written by Cordone, is a humorous crime drama about a Los Angeles construction magnate whose only son has accidentally killed a connected man. A sinister plan is hatched that sends the son into hiding while an unsuccessful actor is hired to fill his shoes and unknowingly take the hit. Cordone explains, “The movie is, at its heart, a father and son story about two people who are not related.” Acknowledging that there are some parallels between the actor in the story and himself, Cordone admits the project mainly came together out of his desire to work. An actor who began his career in film school, Cordone had always hoped his career would lead him toward producing and developing his own projects. When the opportunities did not arise, he decided to create one himself.

Produced by Brandon Amelotte under his Pelican Productions moniker, the film is co-produced by Cordone, Adam Silver and Kuldeep Malkani. Paul McIlvaine is the Director of Photography; Kevin Mockrin and Karina Walters are the casting directors. Scroll down to read Chris Cordone's diary of the making of Stevie D.

Checkout Stevie D's Facebook Page here or follow Chris on Twitter @akastevied

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The Production Diary

 

March 23, 2015

We wrapped the film on June 30 in Palm Springs. I had only seen a fraction of the footage at that point. I was confident that what we shot looked good but the question remained whether we had all we needed to tell the story. Had we more time and resources, I would have insisted on lining up our editor to begin work while filming. Most productions do this as it saves time and also allows for the editor to give feedback on what may be missing in terms of transitions or inserts. Brandon was looking for an editor that he felt could handle to humor and the tone of the piece, which I was grateful for, as I didn’t know many editors. Finally by the end of the film, he found the right guy.

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I had several weeks after filming to decompress before shoving off to New York for a month.  When our editor, Bill Sebastian, and I finally spoke, he had seen the footage of the film and agreed to work on the film on a nights-and-weekends basis until it was finished by mid-September (when his baby was due).  This arrangement worked for me at the time because I would be gone until mid-August and that was when the rough cut was due.  A fine cut by mid-September would give us time to finish the film by year-end.  Bill had very good editing experience and also had directed films.  He had good film knowledge in general.

By mid-August we had only about an hour of the rough cut and while it looked very good, it would be another six weeks before we would see the entire rough cut.  Due to work commitments, Bill did not have as much time as expected to work on the film and in addition, his wife gave birth sooner than expected.   He was clearly becoming frustrated and so were we as we were suddenly behind schedule and jeopardizing festival dates we had targeted.  By the time the rough cut was complete it was clear we needed some more transition shots, a few better establishing shots, and an insert or two.  We did not see any story or performance problems that would require actor reshoots which was good news.

I went out with a very good HD camera and filmed some establishing and insert shots.  I would not have reshot an entire scene on my camera but for an insert, it worked great.  I was able to get the exact shots I wanted at the exact time of day without paying for a crew and camera rentals and dragging people all over town.  We scheduled a day in October to shoot a few pickups of the car chase scene as well as one scene with dialogue between the hitmen that I re-wrote.  For that we had a skeleton crew and the camera and lenses on which we shot the movie.  The footage, combined with mine, made a huge difference in the film and while it was not budgeted I felt we needed it.

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Bill was still dragging his feet on the edit and lobbying for more time, which we were out of.  It was early November before we had the fine cut and that was two months late.  Overall I was not happy with the arrangement with the editor, as I was not able to be there for enough of the process.  Fortunately, Bill is a good editor and the work shows it.  But Brandon and I made the right decision when we pulled the plug.  I asked him to focus solely on my notes and deliver the film ASAP.  At that point, I had the film I wanted and it was time to move on to audio.    Please follow me on Twitter @akastevied 

February 24, 2015

As the writer of the script, I felt I was uniquely prepared to handle just about any problem that arose.  I knew the story I wanted to tell so if anyone could make a decision about what we needed or didn’t need, it was me.  On a low budget shoot where time is of the essence and you are constantly making concessions, it is a real asset.  At one point during the first few days of shooting, Paul McIlvaine, our DP, had a question about a potentially problematic shot and I gave him a solution.  He said “I like that you always have an answer for me”.  I was particularly proud of that moment.  I am also looking forward to the day when I can be a little more demanding on set because we have the time and the resources to get exactly what I have in my head.

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One time when being the writer did not help me was on our last weekend when we were shooting the scenes at the law offices of Jack Laurentis, played by Spencer Garrett.  Many of Daria’s (Torrey DeVitto) scenes were there as well.  There was a scene between Jack and Daria that I wrote to establish some tension between the father and daughter, which I needed to make her relationship with Stevie D more daring.  I also felt it gave her character some depth and some outer conflict, as opposed to her inner conflict about whether to go out with Stevie.  I don’t think it was a wonderfully written scene to begin but with two actors as good as Spencer and Torrey, I thought we could find our way through it.

During hair and makeup before the scene, which was the last scene we shot that day, Torrey approached me and said she didn’t think her character would back out of a work obligation, even if her father were involved.  I understood but I felt that her father was using the work obligation as an excuse to manipulate her time as an overly protective father might.  Torrey did not agree and it was the only thing she did not agree with in terms of her character so I wanted to listen to her.  She didn’t like the lines as they were written and I offered to tweak them in a way that maintained the conflict.  However, at the spur of the moment, I wasn’t coming up with anything good.  A couple months prior, Kevin Chapman had called me prior to filming about a scene he felt was out of character.  I agreed and rewrote the scene in no time and it plays wonderfully.  Not so much luck here.  Spencer joined the conversation and offered to help and the two improved a few takes.  We were also losing light – we had to be out of the office building in about an hour including clean up.  I listened to the improv takes, shaped a little here and there and then finally we were out of time.  Torrey was concerned and asked me how I felt about it afterwards.  I didn’t really like it but it was mostly my fault so I had to live with it.  I don’t love the scene but it actually plays better than I thought.  Had we played the scene as I had written, Daria would have come off as very cold.  In her first few scenes, all she does is push people away.  This at least showed another color of her.  In general, however, I think it’s better to start with a conflict in a scene and then work toward the gentler colors. Please follow me on Twitter @akastevied

February 18, 2015

For the most part, I did not give a lot of direction to actors.  I think that casting is where the director will really influence the shape of the characters and the performances are born in the casting process.   Not every actor auditioned for STEVIE D, however.  Many of the actors had not ever read in character before I met them on set.  In some cases, like Spencer Garrett, I gave him some broad brush strokes and he created his whole world --his relationships to other characters, his character needs, etc. on his own.  And you can see in the relatively few scenes that the life of his character goes beyond when he’s on camera.  Those are the kind of actors I like to work with, watch, and hire.  Robert Costanzo, one of the most seasoned character actors working today, asked me to rehearse in my home.  I was happy to oblige.  That was a blessing in disguise as we were unable to shoot at our desired location that day and had to steal scenes off the side of the road near a golf course.  The rehearsal enabled us to work quickly.

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The most difficult scene I had to direct was known as “The Vegas Sit-Down Scene”.  It occurs early in the film but we filmed it toward the end of the shoot.  The scene involved Angelo (John Aprea), Tony (Gene Borkan), and Nick (Al Sapienza).  All seasoned actors. The scene is emotionally charged but more importantly, it has to convey a sense of danger.  By the end of it, we have to feel the pressure Angelo is under to correct the situation caused by his son.  I had never worked with Al or Gene.  Al had flown in from Toronto, where he was filming a movie.  Gene had a lot of very good work under his belt in movies like SE7EN, BEVERLY HILLS COP, but he had not worked as much of late.  John was pretty well oiled by this time of the shoot and was in great form. I would have rehearsed ahead if I had time but I didn’t.  Al was not available anyway.  The parts were cast well.  The issue was that I had a certain place I needed the scene to go and I had two actors in John and Gene who both work very internally, very naturally and then I had Al, who was playing this character that was written to be over-the-top hysterical.  It was also an emotional scene for Al and he needed some time and space to get there.  He is also the consummate professional in that he understands how to hit his mark, both physically and emotionally.  You don’t get to work as much as he does by sulking in your trailer waiting for the acting gods to arrive. Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 8.22.14 AM

Movie magic worked in our favor on this one.  We had a complicated lighting setup so we had plenty of time to rehearse. Both Al and Kevin Chapman (who was not in this scene) both liked to do rolling takes, where they repeat a passage over and over again, varying it so that they can try different things and the director can have options.  It’s not the most organic way for a scene to take shape but it’s one of the ways that actors work on a professional set to deliver the goods.  When Al did his rolling takes of Nicky’s explosion, I asked him to do two however he wanted and do one with all the rage and anger building behind his eyes but not coming out.   That’s the one I ended up using.  In the end, the scene plays as I wanted it to.  The balance of the performances is what I am most happy with.  We have these two calm, rational, people, and one guy who can’t keep it together no matter how much he tries.  Please follow me on Twitter @akastevied

February 12, 2015

These were several big decisions that arose when I was in the throes of directing, acting two parts, and keeping an eye on the overall production.   As I mentioned, we went into production with most of our big locations locked, but not all of them.  We needed a few exterior locations to work as the Beverly Hills business district.  The center of Beverly Hills is a small city, which is quite distinct and impossible to film in, unless you are Jerry Bruckheimer.    Even some of the pretty storefront areas on Olympic, South Robertson, and South Beverly Drive would be impossible to get for the number of shots we needed.  Brandon knew this would be a problem.  I pushed for stealing shots but he didn’t think we could get away with it.  We were also frequently shooting in and around Woodland Hills so to take time out to move the company only to get shut down was risky.  Brandon knew of a place not far from the Warner Center which was a few blocks of a business center – more of a corporate park – which had a winding road, sidewalks, street lights, single story office buildings and very well manicured landscaping.  It looked nice enough to convince an audience we were somewhere like Beverly Hills.  We shot a bunch of exterior scenes there and it saved us.  Not perfect, but good enough to serve the storytelling.

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Going into the final weekend of shooting, we still had not found locations for our hotel scenes.  We needed several hotel rooms and also something that would serve as a hotel lobby or common area.  Brandon had hoped we could sneak out to Vegas for a couple days with a small crew but that was not going to happen.  I had been pushing for Palm Springs because I knew it well and believed we could find the kind of rooms we wanted for a bargain, as it was summer.  One of our investors had a connection to the owner of the SLS in Beverly Hills but it was slow coming together.  We also had a connection at the Four Seasons but they flat out do not allow filming.

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We had two days off before the final three days of filming.  The hotel scenes were scheduled for the third day, a Monday (also a gift in terms of booking hotels).  I made an executive decision and started researching Palm Springs hotels with rooms that could look both Vegas and Beverly Hills-like.   Brandon went ahead and filed for a permit, which was free.   As I thought, rooms were practically free too as it was 108 degrees in Palm Springs on July 1.  I booked a villa with multiple bedrooms, a sitting area, private courtyard, etc., at one of the beautiful old resorts and asked to be on the quiet side of the resort.  We booked several other smaller rooms for makeup, wardrobe and our production office.  A few of us went the night before and stayed over for recon.  We kept the crew to a minimum and they arrived at 9AM.  We asked for early check in on the villa and got it.  Filming started at around 11AM and we wrapped the day and the movie at about 6PM.  I cut one scene that I felt we did not need and it saved us from lugging our gear across the resort to one of the smaller rooms.  I also cut one end of a phone call that was to be shot in the valet area and just used a voiceover.  I felt we had been lucky enough without going for those shots.  The hotel did not know were there shooting and it was so hot outside that when we did shoot in the courtyard, no one came out to see what happening.  I think they were thrilled to have rented so many rooms off-season.

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Please follow me on Twitter @akastevied

February 3, 2015

In my last entry I went wrote about the thrill of directing on the first day of shooting.  Rather than go into that kind of detail for the following 20 days of shooting, I thought I would discuss some of the challenges, successes, and failures I experienced and contributed to during the entire shoot.  Prior to filming I met with a good director named Henry Miller, who directed ANAMORPH with Willem Dafoe.  We talked about what I should be prepared to handle.   I was concerned about conflict but Henry’s advice was that there would be dramas on set regardless and some people are not happy unless they cause one.  His best piece of advice, in retrospect, was the one he stressed the most and that I heeded the least: Make sure you go over all the props for the coming week of filming.  Sounds like something an underling would do but boy, did I regret not doing it.

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n acting we have a saying that props will always screw you.  They are essential to a good performance but unless they are really worked out, forget about it.  Same goes for directing. By props, I am going to take the liberty to include some set elements that are part of production design.  As I mentioned in a previous post, we did not have the time to have lengthy meetings with the production keys.  This was probably the root of my mistake because several isolated conversations do not always have the same impact as a meeting with people taking notes and discussing things in the open.  There are some props we had wrong because we just didn’t have the money, some that we should have had right regardless and some that were wrong because I didn’t communicate effectively what I needed.  Our production designer, Brandy Maasch, and her (sometimes) assistant doubled as prop masters and that is obviously not the best situation; however, better organization on my end would have helped.

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For example, we had a scene where Lenny (Kevin Chapman) gives Michael (me) his new identity of Stevie D.  I had written and envisioned a scene in a poolroom with Lenny handing out the IDs, credit cards, etc. on a pool table.  We even made great efforts to find a house with a pool table.  The props we had were fine for a shot where Lenny hands Michael some cards and he sticks them in his wallet.  In my mind (and in the script) I had Lenny laying the cards down on the pool table with the precision of a card dealer.  The props we had we could not shoot because in order to shoot government documents, they have to be faked in the right way.  You can’t show a real one.  I never communicated to Brandy that I needed to shoot this a certain way and so I lost the shot.

Guess what?  The pool table scene was one of the weaker ones during the editing process.  What had real potential to be a great scene in my director’s mind did not come out that way.  Fortunately, I was able to find a creative way out in post primarily because we had so many other good scenes to work with.  There’s another saying that you should never leave a problem to be fixed in post-production.  We got lucky.   It is a horrible feeling as a director to know you didn’t get the shot.  Please follow me on Twitter @akastevied

January 26, 2015

Thursday, June 5, 2014 was the first day of filming in Woodland Hills where we built a set to serve as the offices of Angelo DiMarco, John Aprea’s character. We also created a couple of smaller offices to use as Max Levine’s offices, Hal Linden’s character. Los Angeles traffic can either make you very early or very late and so I opted for very early. To this day I am still confounded at where all the traffic is going that is heading out of LA, past the 405, in the morning. When I arrived I was able to see the full set, which had been finished the night before. I had only scene it partially complete on visits the previous days and I was very happy with what Brandy Maasch, our production designer, had accomplished.

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I ran up to the production office where our UPM, Bethel Teshome, worked.  She was a formidable presence on set and very little got by her. That is exactly what you need in a UPM.   I had producer responsibilities each day, which I was not happy about, as they mainly involved signing checks and approving expenses.   After that I popped into the makeup room to say hello to Hal Linden who was first up on the shot list.  That alone terrified me as I had to direct an accomplished actor my first day.  Hal was working on his script as he did the entire time he was on set.  He had a few questions about lines and we discussed them.  Watching a real professional work is a wonderful experience and real gift for a first time director.  Hal was meticulous about everything from his bowties (which were his idea, a good one at that) to the shade of gray in his beard.

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Brandon then handed me a shot list for the day and we quickly met with Paul to talk about the first setups.  I realized that everyone was nervous to get the first shot right.  The set was a little smaller that we realized it would be.  That worked well for Levine’s offices but ended up hindering us for the DiMarco offices.   After I approved the first set up, I had to go to hair and makeup where I would spend the majority of my time on set for the next four weeks.   Many people asked me whether I was concerned about acting and directing at the same time.  I was not; however, the problem with playing two characters was that I was constantly in change.  On a larger budget, we would have been able to schedule the characters better so that I wasn’t constantly changing.  On this shoot, it was something I had to live with and then ome to resent as it took me off set for far too much time.

We shot Hal’s scenes and a few of John’s scenes.  I felt very comfortable directing John because I knew him so well and we had worked on the material before.  Having him on set gave me the confidence to talk to other actors.  We finished the first day ahead of schedule.  John and I drove back into town together and met my father, who had just flown in, for dinner at Musso & Frank’s.  We had a toast and great meal at a great old- fashioned Hollywood joint.  If there were ever a moment in my life when I felt I was living a dream, this was it.  Please follow me on Twitter @akastevied

 

January 22, 2015

I had written the script, cast it with the actors I liked, and hired key department heads to collaborate on my vision of the film.  The question now was whether I could execute.  Having lived with the script for many years in development, I had images in my head for many of the scenes and with most of the locations locked, I had reimagined those scenes in our actual locations.  I decided against storyboarding for several reasons. First of all, I didn’t have a storyboard artist and the software that’s available is expensive and time intensive.  Secondly, and more importantly, I didn’t feel that I needed or wanted that kind of visual aid.  I decided instead to use a shot list.  This enabled me to think in a detailed way about each scene but also leave myself open to whatever happened on set.

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As it turned out, when I asked our DP, Paul McIlvaine about using a shot list, his response was “We’ll know the shots when we see them.”  In the end, he was right as it is very difficult for anyone to really see the shots without being in the actual location.  My shot lists, however, were great preparation for me and in the end, I do wish we had worked off of them.  There were so many seemingly little shots, inserts, pickups, transitions, and the like, which can be lost in the fog of war on set.  We certainly had our share of missing shots although from a coverage perspective, Stevie D ended up in very good shape for post.  I only wish I had consulted my original shot list more during the many hours I spent in the makeup chair.

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Overall, my goal was to be prepared for the many things that come up on set and be either authoritative or collaborative in my decision, but to leave no doubt that I could make the decision. I had no idea what to expect.  I was concerned most about the actors, particularly Torrey DeVitto, Kevin Chapman, and Hal Linden—all of whom were working in the first few days.  I had my 2nd AD call them and make sure they had everything and see if they had any questions.  I had one good conversation with Kevin after he took the part and we discussed his character and I knew he would bring ideas to set.  Torrey and I did not discuss her character too much but I had directed her in the audition so I felt comfortable with her approach.  Also, as an actor I understand how to talk to actors and how not to talk to them.  We did not have rehearsals obviously.  My training as an actor stressed the rehearsal process as absolutely essential.  In truth it is not always easy to rehearse a film.  There will come a time when I will want to rehearse some of the actors in a movie but I did not feel it was essential in this case.  All good actors will rehearse on their own even when there is a rehearsal process.  To show up at a rehearsal without ideas and preparation is a waste of time.  I have no problem trusting good actors to arrive ready to work.  I think it’s part of working in film.  Jack Nicholson once asked a young Jeff Daniels what other work he had done and Jeff told him about some great theater he had done in New York.   Nicholson responded, “Well, now you’re in the big leagues.”  Please follow me on Twitter @akastevied

 

January 12, 2015

Coming out of Memorial Day weekend we were a little over a week away from shooting. The entire cast was complete and we had almost all of the locations locked. Brandon said it was useless trying to lock all the locations before we began shooting so we trusted that some ideas and opportunities would come to us.  I was still a bit nervous about leaving all of the hotel locations to chance as you really can’t fake a hotel, at least not hotels in Beverly Hills and Las Vegas.

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There is almost always a table read at this point – one for the keys of the departments and another for the cast.  Most of the keys had very little time to prep the movie since we did not hire people weeks out the way you would on a larger budget film.  We all had several conversations but a formal meeting never came together.  We moved into the sound stage in Woodland Hills to begin construction on June 1.  The production design team, led by Brandy Maasch, had only a few days to build out a set.  Paul McIlvaine, the DP, was crewing up, checking out/testing gear, and scouting locations with me.  Wardrobe and Makeup were prepping for a cast of over 30 people.  In short, no one had time to meet.

Wardrobe was another casualty of our low budget.  In addition to the large cast, the story took place over the course of several weeks.  Some of the characters had as many as 20 wardrobe changes.  Most of the costumes, with the exception of a few specialized pieces, were going to be coming from the cast members.  Suzy Magnin, our original wardrobe designer, had great ideas for wardrobe looks and spent her week of prep in endless fittings with cast members to bring it all together.  Kevin Chapman, who lived in Boston and worked in New York, offered to bring as many clothes as he could to help out – another sign we had the right guy.  Torrey DeVitto, as well, was extremely helpful and generous with her time and wardrobe.  We also caught a bit of a break in that I was playing two roles with very diverse wardrobe; however, I have always been a bit of clothes maven and was glad to empty my closets for both of my characters and any others.  I don’t know how Suzy, Isabel Mandujano (who took over for Suzy a week in) and Sarah Beasley, the assistant, handled it all but they were marvelous.

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A cast table read was also looking unfeasible. We could have pulled it off but we would have been missing several of the big characters. Kevin was in Boston, Spencer Garrett was filming “Satisfaction” for TNT in Atlanta, Al Sapienza was filming three things in three different cities, Hal Linden was prepping to go on tour with his musical act right after filming. I decided instead to have a cast meeting/party in a cute little theater on La Brea. We held it the Sunday before filming and offered some wine, cheese, and baked goods from my wife’s bakery, Cake Monkey. Almost everyone came and brought so much enthusiasm and genuine excitement for the project. I was overwhelmed. Literally. As soon as the party ended I had three days to finish my prep as director. Please follow me on Twitter @akastevied

December 15, 2014

One of the problems with basing so much of the production in Woodland Hills is that it opened us to the dreaded company move every time we wanted to film somewhere else.   In the event that we had a scene to shoot in a particular location where we were not booked to film all day, we had to then move an entire crew from location to location.  Company moves take forever.  They are very costly in terms of time and when the travel involves moving from Woodland Hills to Hollywood, for example, you’re looking at several hours of lost time.  For as many of the 21 shooting days, we tried to find locations where we could shoot for the entire day.  Sometimes specific locations were offered to us but we could not find additional scenes to shoot there.  In many of those cases, we had to pass.

One important location we needed was an art gallery/museum.  My friend, Emma Jacobson-sive, suggested we film at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, where she has done PR for years.  The museum is closed on certain days and while filming the exhibitions would be problematic, the museum has an open gallery space that is used for events.  The gallery space was perfect for what we needed.  There was art on the walls but we could film it in a way that it was unrecognizable.  We also took advantage of the large outdoor terrace to film another scene.  Both scenes did not take up an entire day and to make matters more complicated, the outdoor scene had to filmed at dusk meaning we had to start later in the day in order to time the filming of both scenes to the daylight.  We had considered shooting some extraneous stuff to fill in the rest of the day but Pasadena is one of those towns that make it outrageously difficult to film.  In the end we settled for the couple of scenes and gave up the rest of the day.  It would be a welcome break for the crew who, by that time, will have been filming for a week straight.   For such a unique and difficult-to-get location, it was well worth it.  The scenes look great.

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Other than the hotels we needed, our last big location headache was the estate of Angelo DiMarco.  Los Angeles caliber estates cost about $10k per day.  Brandon worked with a location agency to find something more in our range.  I can be a bit of a design snob and I was little surly in my responses to some of the gaudy, mc-mansiony crap houses we saw.  I had in my mind an Elmer Grey or Paul Williams estate and I was being given a tour of 1990s disasters in Calabasas.  We finally found a house in Laurel Canyon which has been filmed quite a bit but the price was right and I was confident we could film the elements of house that suggested wealth without revealing the elements I didn’t care for.  Again, it turned out to be a good move and we were able to use the large property for several different scenes.  It was not cheap but we got our money worth.

 

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Then, in a stroke of luck, a friend of one my actors offered his large, tasteful house in Malibu Canyon for very little money, which we were able to use for a ton of other scenes. More importantly, Bob’s generosity allowed us to shave a day off the expensive Laurel Canyon house. Please follow me on Twitter @akastevied

December 3, 2014

Ok, we’re back in business here after a brief pause to attend to post-production issues, eat some bird, and be present for the birth of my first child.  There’s a Jackie Mason bit about an old Jewish man who can’t go anywhere or enjoy anything without thinking to himself “I could have had this location!”   I now had to attend to the business of locking down locations to achieve the proper look for STEVIE D.  I talked about this earlier during the budgeting phase.  Where does one go to film a movie in LA that looks like LA but doesn’t cost what it costs to film in LA? As Maxwell Smart would say,” Would you believe…Woodland Hills?”  It was a shock to me to too and one that I resisted then (and continue to struggle with even now) but the truth is that filming in central Los Angeles is prohibitively expensive for almost everyone, including the studios, which rarely film their own content on their lots.

Every time I suggested a suitable, gettable location to my line producer, Brandon, he would say, “We can’t afford the permits for that location.”  By that he meant, that by the time 40 crew members, a couple truckfuls of equipment showed up anywhere, FilmLA was going to require parking and trailer permits; the fire marshal was going to need to send somebody to make sure we didn’t burn the city down, and of course we needed a retired police officer to hang around and keep the peace.  If you have ever driven by a film shoot, he is the handsome, silver-haired cop, with mirrored sunglasses on a motorcycle.   He also usually has a SAG card just in case a speaking role comes up.

Woodland Hills is a bit off-the-beaten-path and while not necessarily free of all regulation, it offers some wiggle room for certain kinds of locations.  Brandon had a good connection to a small soundstage there so we decided to build out the location for the offices of the Angelo DiMarco character.  We could not afford to rent and furnish office space for the number of days we needed and also achieve the look I wanted.

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We also had a couple of gifts fall in our lap.  Al Uzielli, who is the owner of La Dolce Vita in Beverly Hills, is a friend of mine, a former film producer, and an all-around great guy.  He enthusiastically offered the restaurant, which is featured in several scenes in the film.  Of course, the City of Beverly Hills was anxiously waiting for us to call so they could levy every fee in the book on us.  Then Budget, the car rental company that owns the lot next to and behind the restaurant, wanted to charge us $1,000 per vehicle to park there, after they charged us for opening the gate earlier than business hours.  The Mafia is actually much more reasonable to deal with.  We needed the lot as it was the only access to the restaurant for the equipment.  We also needed a generator, as the power in the old building would not suffice.  And since we had a generator, Beverly Hills required a fire marshal.   No you know why no one shoots in LA anymore.  Luckily, we worked out the issues, but not without taking a hit to the budget.  Please follow me on Twitter @akastevied

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November 13, 2014

If you ask almost anyone who has produced a film, they will say that a first time director needs a top-notch director of photography in order to make a decent picture.  Having spent some time in film school and being a student of film in general, I have always been particularly interested in film photography.  I had an idea that I wanted to shoot STEVIE D  as a modern, color film noir.  I felt that would most suit the material but also take advantage of the fact that we were filming in Los Angeles, which is known as a great film noir setting.  Brandon had suggested that I meet with Paul McIlvaine, who had shot his most recent feature.  The director of that film was not letting anyone see the footage so I did not have much to go on.  Paul shot some pickups for SHARKSKIN but they would be hard to judge since he didn’t create the look of that film.  Fortunately, Paul is a highly accomplished lighting technician and gaffer in Hollywood and he recently lit SAVING MR. BANKS.  He also gaffed on the HBO show “Hung” and served as DP for several episodes.  He had an amazing resume and he was an experienced guy on set.  The DP controls the camera crew as well as the grips and electrical crew so if there’s a breakdown in process or leadership, it has huge ripples on set and this was a major concern of mine.

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I met with Paul for coffee across the street from Paramount where he was lighting a commercial.  Like most working people in town, he worked in commercials for the steady work and union hours so he connected with the main character of the story who is recognized for a car commercial he has running.  Paul liked the script and saw the potential in it.  We both favored shooting with little camera movement and a greater depth of field.  He cautioned that lower budget films often needed to shoot tighter in order to conceal imperfect locations or lack of set dressing.  I suggested shooting the two look-alike characters in different lenses, which he liked.  (In the end we compromised for simplicity and shot the Stevie D character in longer lenses and never in closeup.)   We were very much in sync on ideas.

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Paul wanted to shoot in anamorphic, which was a widescreen, slightly stretched format.  I was willing to try anything that would give the movie, being shot on a RED digital, more of a film look.  (The RED camera broke ground when it came out as coming closer to the film look than any previous digital camera.)  Anamorphic lenses were more easily adapted to films shot in outdoor spaces but they can be used for anything.  Many classic films, including one of our benchmark films, CHINATOWN, was shot with anamorphic lenses.  It’s probably less common for low budget because the aspect ratio (2:40 to 1) is well off from the aspect ratio of most televisions (16:9 or 1.78:1), which is where most low budget films will end up, if they are lucky.  But, as I said, I was willing to try anything and let my department heads experiment within reason.  Brandon had access to anamorphic lenses from the 1960s which would put a little “grit” in the shot, as Paul explained, and make it look less like the crystal clear HD we see on TV every night.  Please follow me on Twitter @akastevied

November 9, 2014

While we were attaching our leads, we still had to cast about 30 principle parts and most of them were critical, much like in an ensemble.  I had a few of the parts earmarked for actors that I knew that I felt were right for the parts and deserving of the opportunity.  I did not audition those parts, which amounted to about 10 roles.  This left us about 20 to cast.  We began this process while the search for the leads was underway because casting takes time and we could not afford to wait until the last minute.   Because I wrote the script, I had a really good sense of what I wanted in those parts.   I met with Kevin Mockrin and Karina Walters to discuss possibilities for the characters and they were savvy enough to know how to bring in a slightly wider range of actors so that I would have a choice of both what I thought I wanted and what might be less obvious.

Casting the supporting roles was both fun and slightly depressing.  As an actor I saw how many great auditions were simply left behind because I decided to go a different way.  I joked to my friends who had been offered parts without auditions that had they been asked to audition for the part, they never would have been offered the roles because everything goes out the window during casting.  It’s so easy to be moved in a different direction.  The feeling I had most often during casting was a tremendous sense of gratitude for the actors who came in excited by the project, inspired by my story of getting the film made, and fully invested in their performances.  We were not paying very much so most of the actors, particularly those with solid work experience, could be losing money by blocking several days to do the film.   We ended up with a remarkable cast of solid performers.  I’ll say more about them individually when I write about the filming.

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One last supporting role that I want to mention, however, is the role of Max Levine, the elderly, old-school and old-world agent of the main character, Michael.  I had modeled the character after David Graham who, now in his 90s, was once a highly regarded agent and casting director in New York and LA.  I wanted to stay away from stereotype and what had been done before with elderly agents, shuffling around an office, etc.  David was very unique in my eyes.  I even considered using him.  One day I was driving around town listening to a SiriusXM program dedicated to Sinatra the American Songbook.  I heard a very distinct voice as the guest host of the show.  It was very resonant and virile but also clearly an elderly man.  It turned out to be Hal Linden, an actor I loved as a little guy, staying up late to watch “Barney Miller” reruns.  He was exactly what I wanted.   I asked Mockrin & Walters about him and they said “Let’s ask”.  We sent him the script and he said he would love to do it.   We had assembled a fantastic cast and everyone was getting excited to shoot the film.  Please follow me on Twitter @akastevied

November 1, 2014

As of mid-May, we are a couple weeks from our target start date and all I need is the girl.  We had longer lists of potential female leads as the part was not as difficult to cast as Lenny.  That having been said, I was acutely aware of what bad chemistry could do to the love interest in the story.  I was counting on the romance angle of STEVIE D to help us cross-market the film.  The charcter, Daria, while not an overly specific physical type, had to be beautiful and also believable as a lawyer.  She also knows herself well and as a result, has some friction with her father, who thinks he knows her better.   Immediately, we were confronted with the decision of whether to cast a solid actor who has worked a lot but not necessarily broken through or cast an actor who was less experienced but poised for a big break through.  Then the film can reap the benefits of exposure from the actor’s ensuing projects. The problem of course is figuring out who is about break through.

Our casting directors, Mockrin & Walters, had some good relationships with actresses who had recently broken through and thought that it would not hurt to gauge their interest in the project, which by now, had a good cast, a firm start date, and financing.  I liked the actors that we were approaching but I did not know their work and not having met them, I was really just hoping for the best.  We had a couple of passes and so we moved on to the better plan, which was to invite some of our original target list to meet me and read for the part.  As an actor, I don’t love the audition process and was happy in many cases to cast an actor off of their demo reels (or tape, as we say in the business).  But given that this was a critical role, I felt better about meeting these actors and so we invited in some of the better and lesser-known names.

Of all the girls on our original target list, only Torrey DeVitto agreed to come in and read for the part. The others were either conflicted with other projects or offer-only, which is understandable in some cases, but in many cases, they didn’t have a body of work or a strong enough reel that I felt warranted offer-only. Torrey had been working steadily for several years in Hollywood and while she hadn’t technically broken out as star, she had been part of some enthusiastically followed shows like “Vampire Diaries”, “Army Wives” and “Pretty Little Liars”. These shows have cult followings and it shows up in metrics like twitter followers. Just as studios like producing films that have built-in audiences such as a comic book series, it helps independent producers to have actors who have these kinds of followings as well.

Screen_Shot_2014-11-04_at_6.11.14_AM.pngTorrey came in, prepared, engaging--absolutely gorgeous--and worked through a few of the scenes taking direction very well.  I loved the fact that she made the effort to audition. We saw about ten really good actors that day with a range of talent and credits.  But on viewing the tapes over and over again, no one held the screen like Torrey.  She clearly had star potential and that was very desirable to the producers.  

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Please follow me on Twitter @akastevied

October 25, 2014

One suggestion our casting directors made was to attach some solid recognizable actors in supporting roles before going out to any of the potential leads.  Nobody wants to be the first to attach to a project, especially with a new producing team and first-time director.  Spencer Garrett, whom I’ve spoken about earlier, already expressed a desire to help in anyway.  I had him pegged for the role of the dapper lawyer, Jack Laurentis.  Spencer is from good entertainment stock as his mother Kathleen, was the first female head of the Screen Actors Guild and star on several TV shows.  Spencer had been working steadily for years and had just landed a series regular role on TNT’s new show “Satisfaction”.

My manager, Will Levine, suggested we send the script to Al Sapienza, who was based in New York but had an unbelievable body of work in film and TV.  Al called me one night after having just read the script – we had never met or spoken – and he was imitating characters in the story.  He said he not been as engaged by a script in a long time and wanted to help in anyway he could.  Al, like Spencer, is a busy guy.  I had to figure out a way to use them in prime roles without tying up their schedule for a month.  We just didn’t have the money to make competitive offers with the other jobs they’d likely be offered in that time.  I had the part of Nick Grimaldi in mind for Al.  Nick is off-the-rails crazy and his character has some great scenes in dealing with the death of his son at the hands of Stevie D.  Al said yes and we blocked out some tentative dates.

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Lastly, I went to Bobby Costanzo, one of the great character actors in TV and film of the past 30 years.  Bobby had a great working relationship with Billy Crystal and had appeared in memorable roles in many of his films.  Bobby also had been on just about every great TV show in that same period too.  He’s another guy whose face jumps right out at you.  Bobby is a good friend of John Aprea’s.  We met on Larchmont and talked about him playing one of the hitmen in the movie.  He was concerned about the number of shooting days involved.  It was a legitimate concern.  He offered to attach and even make some calls for us he but wanted to keep things open on the part I case something came up.  I appreciated his help but I was also concerned about getting the right guys for the two hitmen, and didn’t want to be stuck recasting it at the last minute.  I finally found a compromise that Bobby loved.  I moved him to the smaller part of Tony Mooch but also cast his son Chris, as the son of Tony Mooch, a part I wrote in for him.   Bobby was thrilled and I had my attachments in place.

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We were able to close on Kevin Chapman’s deal very quickly thanks to him and his team being very easy to work with.  Bobby and Kevin had the same agent, Sue Wohl, at Talentworks and Bobby vouched for me.  When I had a chance to speak to Kevin for the first time, he expressed a desire to work on a project where he could feel everyone’s commitment and energy.  He really loved the part and of course wanted the challenge of playing someone a little different than he played every week on television.  His show “Person of Interest” filmed in NYC and he lived in Massachusetts but he offered to put himself up out here on his own dime, which was another sign that we had the right guy.     Please follow me on Twitter @akastevied

October 20, 2014

I now had about a month to close on a couple of leads for the roles of Lenny and Daria.  Lenny was really the key and from the beginning of development on STEVIE D several years back, I focused our search on this role.  Lenny is a sideman in that he is the loyal henchman to a very powerful construction magnate but he drives the story because it is his idea to hire the actor who looks like Stevie to take the fall for the man, himself.  Lenny has to convey that sense of strength and toughness but he’s also very funny.  He’s funny in a way that requires subtlety, as Lenny is not a joker.  He’s not trying to be funny.  Most of the humor in STEVIE D is that way but with Lenny’s character, I felt the comedy in the movie would play way too broadly if the part were not acted with sincerity and gravitas.  Lenny takes everything he does very seriously.

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We had a very short list of actors for this role.  Again, one of the benefits of now being at a much smaller budget was that we didn’t need a name like Bruce Willis to carry the movie.  The drawback was that we now had very little money to offer.  Working off the availability lists that Kevin Mockrin and Karina Walters had compiled, my investors and I started looking for angles: who was right for the role, who had recognizability both in the domestic and international markets, and who would love a role like this for very little money.  We didn’t have months to wait on an answer.  We had a fully funded film and we would be making a firm offer.  Still, one never knows when an actor is going to finally get to the script and it is not really acceptable to make multiple offers at once.  One agent, Sue Wohl at Talentworks, had read the script during our availability checks and responded quite favorably to it.   She immediately suggested to the casting directors that we consider one of her clients, Kevin Chapman.  Kevin was on our short list as a perfect prototype for Lenny.  He was on a hit show on CBS in “Person of Interest” which is syndicated in 40 countries.  Kevin played a critical role in the classic Eastwood film, MYSTIC RIVER, which put him on the map and had also played a memorable character in the Showtime critically acclaimed drama “The Brotherhood”.

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Kevin is well known in the industry and very well-liked as a salt-of-the-earth kind of guy.  He had not done a lot of comedy but I liked that because I did not want an actor trying to be funny to get laughs.   He does not have instant name recognizability to average film-goers but the minute anyone sees him they know him well.  The investors and I were concerned about the time we had left to cast the film and still make a June 1 start date.  We talked about Kevin’s attributes and compared them to other actors we had considered and some that were suggested that might be much harder to attach.  We felt very good about the fact that his agent had already responded to the material, meaning it would not have to go on “weekend read” nonsense that you are always hearing about from agents when they hand a bunch of scripts to a recent college grad and ask for notes.  We made an offer to Kevin on a Friday morning and by late afternoon we had an accepted offer.  Please follow me on Twitter @akastevied

October 14, 2014

There is an old adage about not doing business with friends and, in general, that should be followed.  However, in my case, I was dealing with two very special friends who were not so much interested in doing business but in helping me achieve something for which they knew I had worked hard and waited a long time.  It did not hurt that they both liked the script very much and had interests in film and film finance.   If anything ever comes from STEVIE D, I will owe much of it to the generosity and unconditional support of my friends.

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There were actually several conditions, but the conditions were imposed by me to make the deal as stable as possible.  Firstly, I proposed that we fund in escrow until one of our agreed upon leads had accepted the offer.  That is very common.  Secondly, in the event that we cannot get any of our leads to accept or if the production falls apart anytime leading up to the start principle photography, I would bear the costs of development and preproduction.  This was slightly risky but Brandon told me we would not need to spend on the production until just before we begin shooting.  Again, one of the benefits (and challenges) of a small production is that you cannot really afford to pay people for lengthy pre-production periods.  Most of the costs up to that point were involved in the budget/scheduling and casting.  I was prepared to absorb those. I had already been absorbing them for the past four years of development on deals that went nowhere.   We were also intent on not offering pay-or-play deals to talent as those can be treacherous and useless, to my mind, unless you are dealing with the kinds of names that can instantly fund a project.  Fortunately, no one asked for this arrangement.  Lastly, I structured the producer-investor arrangement in a unique way.  Despite that we were all investing roughly equal amounts, I arranged so that initial cash flows resulting from a sale would pay back my friends first, followed by me, then followed by an agreed upon profit sharing split.  We were all technically producers of the film and would share in major producer decisions such as budget, cast, final cut, trailers, and any sales or distribution decisions.

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Still, as savvy businessmen, my friends wanted to make sure they understood the business.  Brandon and I arranged a conference call where we broke the budget down, discussed the filmmaking process, and talked about all the possible places where this could go wrong.  As my assistant director and line producer, they needed to know that Brandon could handle the production side and was confident of the budget.  We also talked about whether I could handle the directing side in addition to my other responsibilities.  On this they took a leap of faith and so did I.  As of the middle of April 2014, were officially in pre-production.  Please follow me on Twitter @akastevied

October 8, 2014

With Brandon Amelotte on board, I had a workable, realistic budget and a producer who knew how to pull a production together.  I now needed to get a greenlight from my investors but in order for me to pitch the project in its current form, I needed to convince them that we could make a marketable film.  I had to figure out whom I could get at this budget level to attract potential buyers.  I hired casting directors Kevin Mockrin and Karina Walters to draft lists of potential “Lennys” and “Darias”.  They felt the script would be very appealing to the right actors.  At this point, we were only talking about lists of actors, in theory, who had previously expressed interest in these kinds of projects.   Kevin and Karina had recently opened their own office; however, both had excellent experience working for larger casting offices so I knew they could get agents and managers on the phone.

 

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I combed through the lists of actors they gave me, researching each actor as thoroughly as possible.  In today’s film market, there is value in unexpected places like hit TV shows that are syndicated in foreign markets as well actors who had once been in very big global box offices successes but are not necessarily as hot today.  I felt we had some leeway to cast the part without needing a huge name – this was a benefit we had as opposed to producing the film at $1mm or higher where a bigger name is a must.  I selected my shortlist of actors, which I felt had some combination of rightness for the role and market value.  Kevin and Karina went out to those agents for interest and availability during the shooting dates Brandon and I discussed.  We had pegged production for May/June when traditionally a lot of TV production is down and many people are idle.  I was pleased to learn that many of our target actors were available and interested in the project, knowing full well the budgetary constraints.   I had learned from my last go-round with casting directors and agents that all this is meaningless until an offer is accepted but I now had a list of some really interesting possible names to discuss with my investors.

 

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One question that immediately came back from Kevin and Karina was who would direct, as they knew agents and talent would need to know this.  At higher budget levels, we had been seeking a director who could help us bring in the best possible cast and anchor the film.  We were now at a budget where we could not afford a director with any significant experience.  I felt strongly that I should direct the film now because I had the best understanding of the material and also knew exactly what I wanted the film to be.  The issue, both in my mind and I’m sure many others, was whether I could act in a major leading role (actually two roles), produce, and direct at the same time, given I had not really done any of those, except as a beginning film student many years ago.  As a pitch to investors, this was quickly not looking good on paper.   Please follow me on Twitter @akastevied 

September 28, 2014

John Aprea introduced me to Brandon Amelotte after having worked with him on a feature film called SHARKSKIN.  I knew that project well as John had been involved with it for years and I had been considered for one of the roles in the film.  The director was Dan Perri, who had a huge reputation as having designed the titles for some of the greatest movies of the last 40 years: THE EXORCIST, MARATHON MAN, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, TAXI DRIVER.  He had a particularly close relationship with Martin Scorsese, having designed titles on most of his films.  SHARKSKIN is a 1940s era, sentimental comedy with Italians and gangsters that would require specific set pieces, costumes, cars, etc.  Dan had only a fraction of what a movie like that should cost but with Brandon’s help they were able to get most of the film in the can.  It was a miracle.

I was still skeptical of that approach for STEVIE D for several reasons.  First of all, period films can be expensive but if you can contain the action to mostly interiors, then you can avoid a lot of the expensive set pieces, cars, etc.  STEVIE D needed to happen in a very recognizable Los Angeles and there needed to be a display of wealth that is hard to cheat.  We had many exteriors and needed cars, houses, hotels, golf courses.  We had a very large cast.  When I wrote the script I thought a low budget film could be accomplished by avoiding special effects, car chases, period costumes, etc.  A true low budget story has few actors and few locations—and those locations are usually places than can be easily substituted for tax-rebate friendly states.  Another difference between SHARKSIN and STEVIE D was that Dan had 40 years of contacts on the production side of the business, which meant a lot of favors to call in.  I had none.

 

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When I saw the trailer for SHARKSKIN, I was convinced that I needed to speak with Brandon.  The production values were extremely high.  Granted, it’s easy to hide a lot of typical low budget issues in a trailer but I had seen enough to allay my immediate concerns.   I knew some of the corners that Dan needed to cut to get SHARKSKIN in the can.  He had a different kind of strategy in place.  But if I were going to ask people for money and put in my own, I needed to know I would have a finished product at the end of it all.  I gave Brandon three parameters for STEVIE D before he approached the budget; 1) The film needed to look like a million bucks, figuratively and literally; 2) I needed room to attract recognizable names for Lenny and Daria; and 3) I wanted funds at the end for delivery.  When a film is complete, you need to sell it and that is not free.  There are costs associated with festivals, film markets, marketing and advertising, as well as the costs involved with preparing a film once a distribution deal has been reached.  Some of these costs can be handled creatively and some require immediate cash outlays.

 

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Brandon’s response was very positive.  He loved the script and the challenge.  We just had to be very clear about what we could and could not do. Please follow me on Twitter @akastevied 

September 25, 2014

There are many reasons why STEVIE D was not going anywhere.  We did not have an experienced producing team, which gave no one security that we could raise the money and then pull off the production of the film.  We had an unknown actor in the lead role, which may have been a catchy thing to do in the 1990s but in the days of presales, international sales and package deals, it was a big problem.  (John Aprea, who was in another key role, honorably offered to step aside and take a smaller role if it helped get the movie done.  I resisted this as I knew the money roles were really mine and the ones we had not yet cast, namely “Lenny” and “Daria”.)  We had no director attached.  And we had a budget of $3 to $5mm, which may have been right for the script on paper but not realistic considering the other components of the project.   It was becoming clear to me that we needed a new budget and new direction, most likely with a new producer.

I started doing something I was not previously very good at: asking for help.  Anyone I knew who I thought might be able to help, I asked for guidance, meetings, etc.  I hired a new line producer to re-budget the project and it came in around $1mm. (Anyone familiar with budgeting will know that $1mm is about the least you can make a movie for while still paying all cast and crew the modified union scale rate.)  One of my actor friends, Spencer Garrett, who really liked the script, offered to get it to one of his personal friends, a very well known and respected actor, who was high on our list for “Lenny”.   At the same time, we had interest from a director who was repped by the same agency so I thought we might have some fusion.  With a little momentum, I approached some close friends who were interested in film financing but more interested in helping me.  With their backing, we could put a big dent in the new budget and make people take us seriously.  Surprisingly, the wheels kept spinning in place again.  Even with my friends’ backing and a short list of interested talent, producers and financiers were not biting.  I began to question whether I could get the movie done and remain in the cast as the character I wrote for myself.

 

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The last option for me to consider was to go low budget.  At $1mm, most people would already consider us low.  What I needed to know was what the absolute minimum we could make the movie for and still produce a cinema-worthy product.  Most people would say were already at or below that threshold.  I had resisted all prior suggestions to shoot this bare bones as I had a spent enough time in film school to know what crap looks like.  I did not want to waste anyone’s time and money.  This was when I met Brandon Amelotte, the producer who would ultimately take STEVIE D down the path to production.

 

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September 22, 2014

My path to filmmaking is not uncommon.  When I was living in New York City in the late 1990s, everyone wanted to be a part of the independent film movement that was reaching its height.  I had already been exposed to the great American cinema of the 30s, 40s and 50s through my father, a major film enthusiast.  I also had a beloved Italian teacher in college who was mad about Italian cinema, and thus had the opportunity to study the great Italian neorealist films.  Combining these influences along with my own desire to create, I enrolled in my first filmmaking classes in night school at NYU and the New School.  I had also been studying acting and since that was opening more doors for me at the time, I decided to return to filmmaking when I had developed more of my own stories and had furthered my career as an actor.

Fast forwarding to many years later and now living in Los Angeles, I realized that not only had I not achieved what I wanted to as an actor, but I had also moved very far away from my original dreams of telling stories through film.  I committed myself to writing and began working on a father-son story that I hoped would allow me to work with an actor, John Aprea, who had been mentoring me since I moved to LA.   We met on a commercial shoot where we played a father-son mafia team that gets upstaged by a chimpanzee.  I knew John’s work from “The Godfather Part II” and “The Idol Maker” and I had to believe that there was a better path for both of us.

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I wrote a screenplay which I tentatively titled “Stevie D”, named after the wayward son of a powerful Los Angeles construction magnate who accidentally kills a connected man and is sent into hiding so that a lookalike actor can assume his identity and take the hit.  We had a reading with some excellent actors and attracted an executive producer who offered to shop the script for attachments and financing under the condition that John and I remain in the roles I wrote for us.  He immediately attached a well-respected casting director who sent the script to the big agencies for coverage, which is where agents break a script down and determine its prospects for success as well as suggest potential talent for key roles.  Soon we were being pitched a range of star names for the film and that’s where the project remained, moribund for the next four years...

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