Nick Veronis' Filmmaking is No "Day at the Beach"
by Cleo Cacoulidis
With a bluesy-folk music score and a melange of styles, Nick Veronis’s
debut feature “Day at the Beach” is a quirky and spirited film. The
protagonist, Jimmy, played with languid charm by Veronis, is a would-be
filmmaker working in a mob-run ravioli factory in Manhattan. When Jimmy
and his friends become involved in the accidental death of a fisherman,
his life starts to unravel. He is fired from his job, falls in love
with his ex-boss’s daughter, and is pursued by Mafia hit men. In the
process of escaping to a Long Island beach with his buddies in tow,
Jimmy and the others have some surprising revelations about life, and
Having survived a number of production obstacles, not least of which was
severing four tendons in his hand while playing the title role (he
worked the injury into the script) Veronis completed the film, and after
a year landed a distribution deal for a theatrical release. No small
feat, to be sure. Reviewing the film, today’s New York Times
describes the project, “Mostly it is about a man who yearns to make
a movie. His name is Nick Veronis, and in ‘Day at the Beach’ he makes a
noteworthy debut not only as the film’s director, writer and producer, but
also as its star. He’s someone to watch, both on the screen and behind the
“Day at the Beach” will open at Village East Cinemas on Second
Avenue and at the Wellmont Triplex in Montclair, N.J. on May 29.
indieWIRE: Talk about why you became a filmmaker. What were your
inspirations, if any?
Nick Veronis: I don’t think I really had any particular inspirations.
There were influences. There were films that made me want to become a
filmmaker, but that didn’t necessarily have a direct affect on why I
wrote this script. I always loved film; however, I wasn’t someone who
was grabbing Mom’s super 8 camera and trying to make my own films. I
was never drawn to the process of making films and I never knew who the
great directors were. I wasn’t a cinephile in that sense. I was a
great fan of actors and the art of acting, though. Originally, I wanted
to be a writer. I wasn’t interested in writing novels. I wanted to
write theater plays. Around this time [early 1990s], I was working as a
journalist for the Star Ledger of Newark, but after a while I grew bored
of covering the local news. It was also at this time that independent
film was becoming very popular. So, I signed up for two film production
courses at New York University’s Continuing Education program. I had a
great time making some short two and five minute films, and I was
stunned to see that they were actually in focus! I guess this is when I
started to catch the low-budget film bug. I was reading “Rebel Without
a Crew,” and watching Nick Gomez’s “Laws of Gravity” and Robert
Rodriguez’s “El Mariachi” thinking that I can do this too. I was also
coming home after work and writing a screenplay.
While I was doing all this, I talked to a writer who suggested that I
sit in on an acting class in order to get a better grasp on dialogue. He
put me in touch with Marilyn Fried, a long-time member of the Actors’
Studio. The first time I went to Fried’s studio, I heard all these
sounds coming from behind the door: screaming, crying, laughing, etc. I
was too frightened to knock, so I just left. Two weeks later I thought
to myself: if I’m too scared to go and observe an acting class then I’ll
never make it in film. So I went back. Freed wouldn’t let me just
watch and take notes, but she did invite me to participate. So I did,
and I loved it. For me, that experience was invaluable. Much more
helpful than anything I learned at NYU or from the books I had read. By
then, I had the film bug pretty bad. I was determined to make a film.
After four years at the paper, I quit and decided to make “Day at the
iW: “Day at the Beach” experiments with several styles and genres: it’s
part crime story, part coming-of-age story, part love story, and part
morality tale. What were your ideas for the film?
Veronis: The weekend before shooting I panicked that the film didn’t
have a steady tone; that it wasn’t one type of film; that it switched
gears midway through. I was also very worried about the film’s balance
between reality and farce. I literally spent two days just before
shooting rewriting the entire second half of the script. I was
frantically sending out the new script to friends, begging them to read
it and give me some feedback. I think that getting criticism on a
script is very important. What it costs to fix a script at the writing
stage is nothing, just your fingers on the keyboard. Trying to fix a
script that doesn’t work while on the set or in post- production is very
costly. Too many people out there trying to make films refuse to show
their precious scripts to anyone. Anyway, I think the film does switch
gears. The first half is this character driven, New York-based story
that follows these kids around. The second half becomes much more plot
oriented, particularly when they get out to Long Island and the mob
story becomes prominent. It’s a flawed first script; its got problems,
certainly. But, I think it’s different as well. It’s not a perfectly
linear story. It is not this heavy, meaningful film. I look at it as
entertaining. And whatever people say about it, I feel that at the very
least it is not formulaic and predictable.
iW: You not only wrote, directed and produced the film, you were one of
the lead actors as well. Did you find juggling all these different
responsibilities difficult, especially on a first feature? Did you
prefer one role over the other?
Veronis: In the beginning, I wasn’t planning on directing my script. I
simply decided to write a film that, if I couldn’t sell it, at least I
could go out and make it for peanuts. The house in the Hamptons and the
ravioli factory are locations I knew I could get through friends of
mine, for example. I didn’t plan on acting in the film, either. I
tried to get actors for the part of Jimmy. I contacted all the talent
agencies. I would get these assistants on the phone who would ask me
what my budget was. The minute I said $70,000, the next thing I heard
was a dial tone.
I think that when you are playing all these different roles on a film
there’s a credibility issue. Cynical people may view the work as
another vanity production. Fortunately for me, my actors were fully
behind my script. As for what I like doing best, directing turned out
to be my favorite role. Writing is immensely satisfying, but I would
never describe it as fun. Writing is hard work, and you really have to
be very disciplined. Directing, on the other hand, is pure joy. If I
had to rate them in order of importance, I would say that the most
crucial thing on a film is a good script, then come the actors and
proper casting, and then, a distant third, would be the director.
Actually, I think the most important thing a director does is casting.
iW: How much did it cost to get the film in the can?
Veronis: I shot the film in October and November of 1995 in 24 days. I
was able to raise about $85,000 from personal savings, family, friends,
and credit cards. By the time we were in and out of the lab with all
our Beta tapes for editing, it was up to approximately $115,000. To
complete the edit and get one final print took all of 1996 because I
kept running out of money. Add to this all the expenses of the festival
circuit for a year-it took me a while to raise the money just to do the
film festivals-and I was probably up to $170,000 by the time Arrow
Releasing [the film’s distributor] stepped in. Arrow paid for the 35mm
internegative and release prints, the re-mix of the sound track, and the
music licenses, which came to well over $50,000. Altogether, the film
cost over $200,000.
iW: Talk a bit about working the film festival circuit and trying to
get distribution. Most people don’t realize how involved and complex
this end of the filmmaking business can be.
Veronis: I think having a certain amount of ignorance going into the
filmmaking process is probably not a bad thing. Being in the dark about
what post-production entails and how expensive it is might be good in
terms of getting a film done. If I had known what I would have to go
through to get my film distributed, it would have been far too daunting
and I would have backed out. I was on the festival circuit for
basically all of 1997, which is not a cheap thing; it’s very expensive,
very time consuming. I didn’t make the A-list festivals like Sundance
and Toronto, so I decided to go to the smaller, regional ones. And
they’re great because you can always drum up local press. You get a
list of the local journalists covering the festival, you send them a
copy of the tape, and hopefully you’ll get a review or a mention. Once
you start collecting press on your film, then you have something to show
a possible distributor. Because, at that point, you have to convince a
distributor that this film is worth investing in. Programmers are also
a potential source for creating a buzz. If they like your film and it
plays well to the audience, they’ll tell other festival directors and
programmers about it. I took “Beach” to 14 festivals in the U.S. and in
Europe, including Mannheim Heidelberg and Athens. I was getting a lot
of good feedback, and I had a lot of close calls with second-tier
distributors (Major distributors, such as Miramax, October, Fine Line,
and Fox Searchlight passed the film up), but no one wanted to put up
the finishing funds. Finally, Arrow and I worked out a deal but I had
to give up worldwide rights; however, I get a favorable split if the
film makes money. It’s not easy for small distributors, either.
Putting up money for an independent film with no stars is a big risk.
It’s highly unusual for a second-tier distributor to put up finishing
iW: What’s your next project?
Veronis: Unlike my last script, which I wrote on the fly, I’ve spent a
lot of time on this new work Briefly, it’s about a young man who is
made the scapegoat for a scam that others involve him in. It will be
another low budget, independent feature.
[A version of this interview appeared in the weekly newspaper, The
[Cleo Cacoulidis is a freelance journalist who has written for Cineaste,
The GreekAmerican and the Independent Film & Video Monthly.]