One of the big success stories at this past Sundance Film Festival was Tony Vitale's Kiss Me Guido, a mainstream-feeling comedy that combines moments of broad satire, gay-straight male-bonding farce and indie film "spirit" in a crowd-friendly package. Screening in the American Spectrum section, it was the debut feature of former Cinecom exec and Fine Line Features founder Ira Deutchman's new production company, Redeemable Features. Deutchman partnered with producer Christine Vachon on the pic and ultimately financed the film not by casting stars but by securing private equity investment through Kardana Films as well as a foreign sales advance from Capitol Films. Vitale, Deutchman, and Vachon's efforts were rewarded when the "under $1 million" film sold after the fest to a major studio for a reported $2 million.
But while the Bronx-born Vitale and his film may have seemingly come from nowhere, anyone in the New York indie community knew Vitale not only from his location scout and management work but from the sustained effort he put in over the years to get Guido noticed, optioned and ultimately produced. His approach, a mixture of chutzpah, hard work and good luck, is yet another model for making that first low-budget feature.
Filmmaker: How does one go from being a location manager to making a 35mm feature that gets picked up by Paramount?
Vitale: I had taken a couple of night [filmmaking] courses at NYU. Someone there said, "The best way to learn is to work as a location person--you have an opportunity to talk to directors when you return with [the location pictures]." So I took that advice.
Filmmaker: Did you have a talent for location scouting?
Vitale: Not at all! When I first started taking pictures, I had to ask how many pictures to take--I didn't know that there was a very standard form in which you were supposed to present those pictures. I learned the hard way --getting yelled at by a location manager. But what was good for me about location scouting was that I would read scripts and envision how scenes would play. Then, I would take pictures and tell the directors how I foresaw the scenes. It may have been brash, but it started a dialogue with directors.
Filmmaker: Who were some of the directors?
Vitale: Paul Mazursky, Irwin Winkler, Hal Hartley, Nick Gomez, and Robert DeNiro on A Bronx Tale. On A Bronx Tale, it was a very long shoot and on the last day, we were going in to do two shots: a pickup scene and the opening shot of the film on a rooftop in the Bronx. Lunchtime came around, and we hadn't got the [opening] shot. I got called into Bob's trailer, and he said, "Tony, would you mind taking a crew up to the Bronx and taking the opening shot of the film?" I worked on the film for a year, had gained his confidence, and I had scouted the location. And that's the first 37 seconds of A Bronx Tale. I thought, I have 37 seconds under my belt, now all I need is another 90 minutes!
Filmmaker: What was the genesis of the film?
Vitale: I first did it as a one-act play back in 1991. I wrote a story about how a gay guy and a straight guy learn to be friends. Staged it at the Village Gate, received great response, wrote the second act in 1993, and in 1994 said it was about time I write the screenplay and make it for $25,000 like Clerks--my simple little dialogue film.
Filmmaker: So what changed?
Vitale: People responded to the script. I had a budget--I copied a Nick Gomez budget from Filmmaker!--and I set a deadline for myself. I was very adamant about shooting May 1, 1996, and not moving off that date. I got a little bit seduced by people's response to the script--people said I should hold out, get well known actors attached. I sent the script to everyone I met at the IFP, to every producer who listed their name in the IFFM industry guide. I went down the road with quite a few producers only to have it end up with Ira Deutchman.
Filmmaker: Did you know Ira before?
Vitale: No. I worked on this film called Ripe and gave the script to a producer on that film, Suzy Landa. Suzy Landa gave it to Tom Caruso [of Kardana Films]; Tom Caruso gave it to Ira Deutchman. Ira gave it to Christine Vachon. They both agreed that it was a quality screenplay. They invited me into their offices, and I said, "I'm shooting this film May 1, 1996, and if you want to help me, I'd be glad to take [your help] but that's when I'm shooting." This was in September of 1995. I went in with storyboards for the whole film, I had scheduled it, I had ten budgets--a $50,000 budget with $25,000 cash and $25,000 in credit cards, up to a $5 million budget. I said, "Just give me a number, and I'll make the film."
Filmmaker: What gave you the confidence to stick to your guns about the May 1 date?
Vitale: I had put an ad in Back Stage and from that ad, got about 1,000 headshots. Did readings at the Gay and Lesbian center and the Nuyorican cafe. I had a non-SAG cast in place. I had scouted the whole film myself, so I had made deals with people saying, "Look, we are going to be on your corner for two days in May." If were going to change it, the whole thing would unravel.
Filmmaker: Where did the initial story idea come from?
Vitale: When I was living in the Bronx, I would come down into Manhattan and go into the nightclubs. In the club scene both communities, gay and straight, co-existed but never really talked to one another. I had friends from both communities and I thought, if both these guys could talk to each other, that could be some exciting, interesting stuff. The first thing was to break down this wall of communication. And that's what I try to do in the film--to break down those walls, to reduce people to human beings instead of labels.
Filmmaker: How do you respond to the criticism some might have that the characters are ultimately stereotyped?
Vitale: Oh yeah, I get that all the time! "They're stereotypes, they're offensive." I call myself an equal opportunity offender. I hold no bars [when] saying something that might be a little bit crude about either group. The humor that people respond to in the film is very real humor. [The audience] can totally see these characters saying the things that they say. But because we live in this politally correct world, we don't get to see these kinds of characters on television or in movies. I wish I could introduce everyone who thinks [the characters are stereotypes] to my friends who exemplify those roles. The two biggest "stereotypes" are the older brother Pino and [the gay lead's] best friend Terry, played by Craig Chester. We are showing the film at the New Festival, the N.Y. Gay and Lesbian Festival, in June, and I want to bring down my real-life Terry and my real-life Pino to the film festival and say, "Here's a guido, here's a fag, if you have any questions, talk to the three of us later!"
Filmmaker: It's the contrast between the two groups that makes them both look more two dimensional than you may have intended. The guidos in the beginning of the film seem totally real to me, having grown up in the Bronx. But when they enter the appartment of the gay guys, they become so much more stereotypical seeming and by contrast, the gay guys seem that much more mannered when the guido comes in.
Vitale: Everyone is a product of their environment and their community. When you remove yourself from that environment, you are going to stand out until you rid yourself of your own apprehensions and remove the labels you attach to other people and accept them. I think the first thing people have to know is that the film is a comedy. Once you realize that, I ask you to open up your mind and say, "It's O.K. to laugh because it is a comedy."