By Kelly Strodl
Today we talk with Robert Celestino, director of LEAVE, a film about Henry Harper - a successful novelist who has it all. But after surviving a recent trauma he finds himself haunted by a reoccurring dream that terrifies him. Henry decides to go to a remote second home to begin work on his next novel, a thriller. Convinced that the only way to understand what the dream means is to write his way through it. While there he encounters a strangely familiar drifter, who confronts him with information that threatens to turn everything he knows to be true, upside down. Director, producers and talent will attend the screening of this premiere!!
Q: How did you hear about the Newport Beach Film Festival?
Who doesn't know about the Newport Film Festival? My last film premiered at Tribeca, the one before that at Sundance and now Leave is premiering at Newport -- In horse racing, they call that the Triple Crown. The producers and I are delighted to be premiering our film here.
Q: Tell a little about the story of your film and the production of it.
Frank John Hughes and Rick Gomez came up with the story and then Frank, who I think is one of the greatest American writers living wrote the screenplay. It's a wonderful story with great characters and dialogue.
They guys introduced me to producer Michael Hagerty. Michael is a hard worker who brings out the best in people. He brought producer Bettina Tendler O'Mara aboard. Bettina has the patience of a saint, she believed in the project and along with Michael; she was able to obtain a budget and schedule I could work with. I had a lot of fun making this film and working with these talented and like-minded people.
Q: Tell a little about yourself and your story in filmmaking.
I started in the late 80's with shorts and doc's, and wrote and directed my first feature in 1991. Things didn't go to well with the picture and financing ran out pretty quick. We were still shooting on film in those days and cutting on flatbeds. A shoestring budget in 1990 was well over $200,000. The days of shooting a feature for pennies on video did not yet exist.
When I ran out of money the lab tried to auction my negative and I spent the next three years in court trying to hold onto the film. My efforts proved futile and ultimately I lost the film. But in my eyes, it was my film and I held all aesthetic rights. So I walked into a local video facility in Yonkers to do some re-cuts, change the title, and hopefully make some foreign sales. When I showed the film to the owner, he was impressed and asked me if I would look at a film he made for five thousand dollars. The film wasn't a masterpiece but he shot it on film for five grand! I couldn’t believe it. I walked out of there inspired. I thought if he can make a feature for $5000, I should be able to do one for $10,000.
I looked over my scripts. I had one I thought could be produced for very little. I called in every favor and asked for plenty more, still I couldn’t budget the film for less than $20,000 – and that was just to get it in the can.
But where was I going to get twenty grand? I had sold my condo to finish the last film and lost every dime. On top of that I borrowed a bunch of money from guys with New York accents who were showing up at my apartment wondering what happened to the condo I was going to sell to pay them back.
Two weeks later I set a production date and scheduled a 19-day shoot. We were set to start shooting in six weeks. I still didn't have any money. I was desperate. My wife was willing to borrow $5000 against her only credit card and I had a friend who owned and gym in CT., who said he would invest $5000 if he could write some of the songs for the film. That gave me $10,000, half the money, with two weeks left to the start of production. One of the co-producers said jokingly, “Let’s go to Atlantic City and put it all on the black.” Of course he was kidding and I the guy who made Yonkers Joe – I know you can’t win gambling, especially when you are desperate. But I needed a sign, after what I went through on the last film, I thought of the words Carl Jung had posted over his door, “Ready or not the Gods will come.” I needed the gods to come. If I was going to stick around it had to be more than me.
Cut to my co-producer, Brian Smyj and I diving down the Jersey Turnpike in the rain to Atlantic City. It was a two and a half hour drive from where I lived. The only rule we had is we’re not going to talk about. We’re going to the first casino we come to, walk to the closest roulette wheel and bet the entire 10 grand… No thought, no decision, no hesitation – Just make the bet. And that’s what we did… The first hotel we came to was Trump’s casino. We came off the escalator and walked up to the roulette wheel. The money was in crumpled bills; we were in shorts and unshaven. I could only imagine what the dealers were thinking when I threw the bills on the table and said “Gimme all black.”
The dealer straitened out the money as she counted it, then pushed me the chips. I pushed them right back – all ten thousand dollars worth onto the black. And this is where it becomes like a movie. Anyone who has played roulette knows it takes some time for the ball to settle -- it bounces around a bit then plops into a slot. After what seemed an eternity, the ball plopped into the red.
I looked at Brian and I thought, this is it… I’m done. The gods have made their choice. There will be no film and I’m no filmmaker. Then, at that very moment as if some invisible finger stuck their hand into the slot and grabbed hold of the tiny white ball – it popped out of the red and into the black! We did it! We had the money! I remember Brian screaming and I began to weep. We left the casino and two weeks later I began production on Mr. Vincent. Everything that went wrong with my first feature went right with Mr. Vincent. There was no looking back. We premiered at Sundance and had a wonderful experience with the film.
Q: Your take on the performances of the lead actors, (set backs, triumphs, impressions, good surprises, etc.)
Frank introduced me to Rick Gomez. I was a fan of Rick’s but I had no idea of his work ethic. I knew where Frank would go, as we had worked many times together. But the film could not work unless Rick was able to believe in something his character would find impossible to believe. As a man, there is no fooling Rick; he’s a brave heart who will go anywhere you ask of him as long as he believes it too. He’s also wickedly intelligent. So if you start to change things around he’s going to have questions. It was give and take for he and I at first, but then at some point early on we began to bond. Making a film is a battle; your courage is tested many times. I respect him for his courage and his sensitivity, and a phenomenal ability to make you believe what his character believes. Every part of him, every cell of his body, heart and mind goes into the roll. That’s how much courage he has. I loved working with him.
Frank John Hughes is more of a partner than I actor I work with. On every film we’ve worked on together you’ll find us off in some corner discussing an element of the scene we’re shooting. He’s extremely smart and has a keen sense of what is real and what is believable. He also has what I believe is the greatest quality an artist can have -- he’s not lazy. Through the years he and I have had marathon sessions trying to get to the heart of a character or solve a story point.
Casting Amy was a real challenge, I had to believe that husband and wife shared a bond that went beyond physical attraction -- that went beyond even the love they felt for each other. I wanted to experience something spiritual in their relationship – as if one doesn’t exist without the other. A lot of what Henry does in the film comes from how connected he is to his wife. Vinessa Shaw understood this. Amy is an emotional roll, whose function in the story to attack the hero’s weakness as an ally. Vinessa approached her as a strong women, dignified, classy but a little icy. It was a brilliant approach as Vinessa kept the character’s arc in mind. She knew it would be more moving for an audience if her character found that deeply emotional part of herself at a time when it would have the most impact. Vinessa nailed it! It was a great choice and it was all hers.
Great actors are the smartest people I know. An ‘alive’ performance must be calculated, thought out in stages, then thrown away so we as an audience may feel like we’re experiencing it for the first time. If you don’t think that’s hard, try it. Try experiencing something you’ve done many times, as if it were the first time – then make me believe it!
Q: What do you do when not making a smash indie film?
I’m writing smash indie scripts! Ha! I write seven days a week, but only in the mornings. The rest of the day I spend with my beautiful wife, who won’t let me out of her sight, until I pay her the $5000 I still owe her.
LEAVE screens Tuesday, May 3 at 7:45 PM at the Regency Lido Theater.
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Watch the trailer for the film here:
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