Blogging "City Island": Exit Chiklis, producers. Am I doomed?

We had no star, no producers, no money. I went and made another movie instead. And then we asked Andy Garcia

Published March 1, 2010 2:01AM (EST)

Andy Garcia in "City Island"
Andy Garcia in "City Island"

By far the worst state your as-yet-unmade/unfinanced movie project can fall into is one of inertia. This is generally the death knell for most would-be projects, the state of mind that causes everyone to lose interest, hope and faith. It generally comes either at the outset of things (as in: nobody's interested in your script to begin with) or, more disastrously, after a good start yields no real "traction."

And that is precisely the state "City Island" found itself in, following the departure of Michael Chiklis. We had announced ourselves in the trades, we had gotten the agencies all souped up on our upcoming movie, we had an actor committed ... and then, slowly but with the inevitability of chocolate melting in the sun, we turned to goo. Instead of seizing the moment and pushing ahead, inertia gripped us. My producers weren't as concerned with this as I was — they reasoned that, having quickly attracted the interest of one actor, we would soon have the attention of another.

But something told me we were a leaking balloon. Much as I personally liked my producers, they exercised so much caution in every decision that nothing seemed good enough to go ahead with. Still, they were convinced that a major name would bail us out, and so the first stop was the major agencies to tell them what a wonderful opportunity we had for some of their A-list middle-aged male stars; a genuinely emotional and funny and complex acting role for a male old enough to have sired a son in his early 20s. Harrison? Bobby D.? Al P.? Bruce? Travolta? Who's running to the plate first? Come on, fellas, better hurry...

The sound of crickets chirping...

Nobody could have cared less. Calls went unreturned. Eyes glazed over. People avoided us on the street. Yawns were stifled when the project was mentioned — and then, more seriously perhaps, yawns started not being stifled. When this happens — when torpor and disinterest set in — the blame usually falls on the script. Time for a rewrite. Thankfully, my producers didn't ascribe to this philosophy. They loved the script and stood by it. Good for them! What they did do, though, was talk about lowering the budget.

This may seem odd given that the budget was pretty low (about $3 million) to begin with. And that we were somehow talking about attracting actors whose quotes were in the seven- to eight-figure range. There really isn't any way to explain it, except to say that pursuing two completely opposite goals simultaneously in the hope of achieving one unified goal is business as usual in movieland.

And yet I knew we were going nowhere fast. This was no longer a movie waiting to be made. It was a "project" we were all "involved" with each other on. "Developing." "Exploring." Whatever you want to call it, we were now on the bottom of each other's piles as well as everyone else's.

And then I got a phone call that I'd never before gotten. Producer Bobby Newmyer (who would subsequently die much too young, in 2005) was putting together a movie from a screenplay by TV megastar Paul Reiser. Paul wrote it for himself and Peter Falk to play father and son in — and Falk was already committed. The money was even in place. All they needed was a director — and somehow, they'd landed on me as a likely candidate. This sounded too good to be true. All the crap I'd been going through — casting, budgeting, what-iffing ... none of it was an issue! The movie was ready to be made. All I had to do was say yes.

The film, "The Thing About My Folks," was prepped in five weeks, shot in six weeks and edited in four. By the time we were wrapped, it was Christmas, and I was ready to reapproach "City Island" — our fortunes were sure to turn around.

And that's just what happened. Of course, "turnaround" in Hollywood-speak means: We no longer want to continue with your project. My producers had passed up renewing the option on the script. I had to start all over again.

I wish I could honestly portray myself as so driven, so filled with mission, so unchallenged by disappointment, so brimming with gumption (which, as we all know, derives from the root word "gump"), that I awoke the morning after the option on my script had been dropped and got right to work on finding another way to make the movie.

But I didn't.

It's not that I didn't still want to make "City Island." But it needed some sort of rejuvenation, something to freshen it up for another walk around the block. Looking over my research materials on the real City Island, I came across a phrase that I'd forgotten about — it had never made it into the script, even though I liked it when I heard it. This is the distinction made by City Island residents between "clam diggers" and "mussel suckers." Clam diggers are island residents who were actually born on City Island — and not in a hospital in the Bronx. Since City Island boasts no hospitals, this means they are born at home, thus making them truly of the island. Mussel suckers, on the other hand, are people from other parts of the earth who move to City Island. While they are not unwelcome by clam diggers, they are — by dint of having moved from elsewhere — essentially rootless ... people without a land of their own.

This odd and emotional differentiation got me to thinking about the themes of the script. Vince Rizzo is a family man. He's a clam digger and lives in the house that his grandfather built. He's proud of his heritage and wants to tell the world about it — which he does at occasionally boring length. But this admirable trait is also strangling him, for he's not able to accept that he's changing as a person and that in order to grow a bit he needs to confront some ugly truths about his past — namely who that kid in the prison where he works truly is.

Suddenly the script seemed a lot deeper to me than it had in a long time. The place itself — City Island — was a metaphor for Vince meeting his son in prison. "Sometimes good things can be found in the strangest places" might be our theme — just as City Island itself might be considered a "good thing found in a strange place." (A fishing village in the Bronx?) The notion of the conflicting sides of his personality and his need to unify them suddenly made Vince a little deeper to me. Buried within us all is a clam digger, a person hanging on to his deepest roots and connections, yearning to break free and suck some mussels. You get the idea.

OK, maybe this sounds like much to-do about not much, but it seemed to bring the whole thing back to life and give it more focus. Before long, my agents were excited about the piece again and wanted to find a way to package it. One of their biggest star clients was Andy Garcia. What did I think of him for the role of Vince?

I remember my reaction at the time as befuddlement; of course Andy Garcia could be a great Vince. Why hadn't I thought of him before? Was it because we were so focused first on Italians, then on inappropriate middle-aged white guys? (Harrison Ford? For real?) I asked if Andy would read the script knowing that there was nothing — no money, no producers, no reality to its being a movie. My agent said: We'll give it a try.

One learns not to ask if there's any news from an actor — if there is, after all, it's going to be the first phone call your agent makes to you. I put the idea of the submission to Andy out of my mind for can't remember how long. Maybe a week? Two? More? I just don't know. I do know that just before Thanksgiving weekend in 2006, I got a message on my voicemail from a man doing a very decent Andy Garcia impression, telling me he wanted to talk to me about my script.

Or was it actually him?

By Raymond De Felitta

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