Production Report: Among the Stars, Duane Hopwood, Glow Ropes, Great New Wonderful, Loggerheads
by Jason Guerrasio
"AMONG THE STARS"
For the past four years, Don Lenzer has spent his free time working on a documentary about The East End Special Players, a mentally challenged theater group in Long Island, N.Y. Having always had others speak their dialogue for them on stage, Lenzer chronicles the group preparing for a production of "Cyrano de Bergerac," in which they'll speak all the dialogue. "I was immediately drawn in," says Lenzer. "I really thought that it would be possible to forget what their disabilities were from a clinical standpoint and simply get into this unique theatrical world." Using a vérité style, Lenzer ignores the group's disabilities by focusing on the conflicts and "diva moments" the group goes through leading up to opening night.
After spending most of his career as a cinematographer ("Woodstock," and the Oscar winning "Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport"), this marks Lenzer's directorial debut. Shot in-between cinematography jobs using his mini-DV camera, Lenzer has slowly edited the film for the past few years with co-producer and editor Maria Maciak. Lenzer admits the lengthy post-production is due to never finding financing and instead putting up the doc's "under $100,000" budget on his own. He credits the comments from people he showed rough cuts to over the years for keeping him motivated. "We've gotten incredibly good responses to it," Lenzer says. "It just seemed like something we've got to get out there and it would be a pity to not complete it." Lenzer and Maciak are currently in the final month of post and hope to submit it in festivals or sell it to public television by the summer.
David Schwimmer is taking no time to move on from the clean-cut Ross Geller character he played for the last decade. His first project after the "Friends" finale is the dark drama "Duane Hopwood." Schwimmer plays the troubled title character, a pit boss at Caesars in Atlantic City. A divorced father of two with a drinking problem, Hopwood must deal with his demons after he's arrested for drunk driving.
Written in 1998 by director Matt Mulhern (known best for his acting roles in the cult-classic "One Crazy Summer" and Mike Nichols' "Biloxi Blues"), the under $1 million project was in limbo until Schwimmer signed on a year ago. Shot on Super 16mm around Atlantic City (including inside Caesars and Bally's) by DP Mauricio Rubinstein ("Casa do los babys") last February, Mulhern is currently overseeing the editing of the film by Tom McArdle ("The Station Agent"). Though Mulhern knows the horror stories filmmakers tell about shooting in casinos, he says the experience wasn't that bad. "The Gods were with us," he explains. "We shot a total of two days, one at Caesars one at Bally's. They let us shoot in the day. They sectioned off one section with some slots and a few tables." But containing "Schwimmer watch" for the full 21-day shoot did call for some maneuvering. "There were local radio stations where people would call in to tell where we were," says Mulhern. "If we needed to grab a shot we could stick him in a minivan and just have him step out when we were really ready to shoot. If we didn't keep moving they would start to gather."
Mulhern hopes to be finished by the summer and get the film into Toronto or Sundance. Along with Schwimmer the film also stars Janeane Garofalo, Judah Friedlander, and Dick Cavett. Elevation Filmworks and Deep River Productions produced "Duane Hopwood."
You would never think a plastic glowing necklace could spawn inspiration for a film but that's exactly what George Valencia used to conceive, "Glow Ropes." For 12 years Valencia made ends meet by being a master of ceremonies at Bar Mitzvahs throughout Manhattan. After forgetting to give a glow rope to the birthday boy at one party, Valencia felt the brunt of the boy's disappointment from his mother who chewed Valencia out in front of the whole party. That embarrassing moment lead him to writing his experiences as a Bar Mitzvah MC into a screenplay. "It's sort of a spoof," Valencia explains, as the main character, Taylor James, goes from obscurity to a larger-than-life pop icon due to his MC talents. "Obviously Bar Mitzvah MCs can't really be huge pop stars, but in this movie they really are. They're bigger than life. Kids want to grow up to be just like them."
Produced by Valencia's Hellfish Films, "Glow Ropes" is currently in pre-production. Valencia has signed on Judy Reyes (NBC's "Scrubs") as the female lead and is currently looking to fill the other roles. Expected to have a four-week shooting schedule in June, it will be shot in Manhattan and New Jersey on HD.
"Glow Ropes" marks Valencia's feature-film debut. Previous to this he made "Moment to Moment," which won best short film at the Los Angeles Film Festival and Showtime's "When I Grow Up" which airs in September.
"GREAT NEW WONDERFUL"
Set in New York City, "Great New Wonderful" weaves five different stories against the backdrop of an uncertain city after 9/11. Starring an ensemble cast that includes Maggie Gyllenhaal, Olympia Dukakis, Tony Shalhoub, and Edie Falco, director Danny Leiner describes the film as "dark, sad, but also fiercely funny." As 9/11 isn't referenced much in the film, Leiner says the film has "some dark comedic elements" without being disrespectful.
Best known for directing "Dude, Where's My Car?" Leiner understands the double-take people do when seeing his name next to a project like this. "I do think people were surprised," Leiner says. "They were trying to connect the dots. But I think frankly producers and financiers thought it was a plus that I had done big movies."
Leiner shot for five weeks last April using each week to shoot one of the five stories, which he says, was like "doing five little short movies once a week." Using DP Harlan Bosmajian ("Lovely & Amazing"), they decided to shoot in HD to make the illusion that the film had more production value than it actually had. "We're trying to do a $5 million movie for $500,000," Leiner explains. "Characters live in high-end New York apartments so we had to do quite a bit of production design and location work to make it look like a bigger movie."
Produced by Leiner and partner Matt Tauber's Sly Dog Films, it's also the first film for production shingle Serenade Films. Currently "Wonderful" is in the editing room with Robert Frazen ("Lovely & Amazing") and Leiner has his eyes set on getting the film into some of the bigger festivals next year.
Set in Wilmington, N.C., "Loggerheads" explores three lives affected by adoption. Mark is a drifter who travels to the coast to help save the endangered Loggerhead turtles. Grace is in search of Mark, who she gave up for adoption as a teenager. And Elizabeth, Mark's adoptive mother, must decide whether to stand by her conservative husband or go along with her neighbors and make a stand in the ever-changing world.
Written by director Tim Kirkman (the 1998 doc "Dear Jesse"), the film marks Kirkman's first narrative feature. "It's inspired by a story of a woman I know who relinquished a child for adoption and wanted to look for him years later," says Kirkman, who was interested to explore a law that was active in North Carolina until 2001 that made it impossible for birth-mothers to find their children. Loggerhead turtles also fascinated Kirkman while writing the script. "Loggerheads come up onto the beaches in the summer in North Carolina and lay their eggs and then leave and never see their offspring again," he says. "It became this beautiful metaphor."
Having not had a feature-film shot in Wilmington in a year, the city is welcoming the production with open arms. "People are excited that we brought the film to Wilmington," says producer Gill Holland of LaSalleHolland. "We have a crew that in New York would be a $2 million crew." Other than the DP, Oliver Bokelberg ("The Station Agent"), the crew is Wilmington-based, having worked on the TV series filmed locally including "Dawson's Creek" and "One Tree Hill." Shot on Super 16mm, the "low budget indie" will shoot for three and a half weeks. The cast includes Kip Pardue as Mark, Bonnie Hunt as Grace, Michael Learned, and Michael Kelly.