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When Peter Sollett and Eva Vives, two 1998 graduates of New York University's film school, set out to make a short film they co-wrote called Five Feet High and Rising, about a boy's first kiss on a summer afternoon, they were disappointed by the young performers sent to them by agencies.

"A lot of the child actors, unfortunately, were mimicking what they were seeing on television, and a lot of them were there for maybe the wrong reasons, like their parents sent them in. It really wasn't right," recalled Sollett, who was directing the short and had set the film's story in Brooklyn's Bensonhurst—a predominantly Italian and Jewish neighborhood where he grew up. (Vives served as the project's producer, casting director, and editor.)

The filmmaking partners decided to take a different approach to casting. Vives posted fliers in their Lower East Side neighborhood in New York City, inviting kids to audition. "By virtue of who was in the neighborhood," said Sollett, "most of the kids who came in were Latino. They had a lot to offer, and they weren't affected in the way that some of the kids we had been seeing were. We decided to go ahead and make the film with them. We just wanted to find the best actors for the job. In this case they were non-professionals."

Five Feet High and Rising was reset in the East Village and starred local residents Victor Rasuk and Judy Marte as the young lovers. While Marte was enrolled in a junior high that had a concentration in performance, Rasuk had no previous acting experience. (After making the film, Rasuk and Marte enrolled in and have since graduated from the Professional Performing Arts High School in New York.) The film wound up winning top awards at major festivals in 2000, including Sundance, Cannes, and South by Southwest. Inspired by the film's success and by the cast's talent, Sollett and Vives adapted their short into a feature-length project, which became Raising Victor Vargas. Marte and Rasuk, again, played the leads.

Sollett was invited to workshop the script with the film organization La Cinéfondation in Paris, where Sollett spent six months developing the script, followed by acceptance into the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, where he met with established writers such as Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects), Scott Frank (Minority Report), and Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia).

When it came time to shoot the feature, Sollett spent a month rehearsing with his cast members, who included Rasuk's younger teenage brother, Silvestre, in the role of Victor's onscreen brother, Nino, and Altagracia Guzman, who was 74 years old at the time she was cast and had never acted before. Guzman is the aunt of the film's casting director, Ulysses Terrero, and is simply terrific in her debut performance as the legal guardian of three teenage grandchildren who are driving her crazy. Other notable actors in the film include Krystal Rodriguez as Victor's tough-as-nails younger sister, Vicki, and Melonie Diaz as Judy's best friend.

While the entire principal cast of Raising Victor Vargas is made up of non-professionals, you wouldn't know it from watching the film. Rasuk and Marte, along with the rest of the cast, give honest, authentic performances that feel completely unforced. That's because the actors were never forced to say or do anything that didn't feel natural. In fact, Sollett said he never gave any of the actors the script.

Instead, Sollett used the script as a rough outline during the rehearsals, where he would throw out a situation to the actors or sometimes begin with a line from his script and then ask the performers to improvise. By the time shooting began, the actors were comfortable with what they were being asked to do, and they continued to improvise or recall moments they had come up with in rehearsals. Sollett and Vives (who is credited with writing the story for Raising Victor Vargas) also spent a great deal of time getting to know their actors on a personal basis, and the co-writers were able to incorporate the actor's real lives and feelings into the film.

"The honest truth is that most of this did not look or feel like work. It felt like friends spending time together, getting to know one another, and developing relationships," said Sollett, who hopes to apply a similar directing technique to his next feature, which is still in the development phase. Of course he realizes that a month's worth of rehearsals is a luxury for most filmmakers.

He continued, "I think it's a really big problem that actors and directors don't get to work together in a more significant way than they do, if only to develop trust. The actors need to trust the director if they're going to do anything really special, and the director needs to be able to trust the actors because he's putting his life into their hands. I hope I'm able to find actors who are willing do that. I hear from a lot of directors that it's difficult to do, financially speaking, because actors need to be paid, and who can afford to pay actors to be working an additional month? But I certainly hope to find a way to work with my actors in a more substantial way."

Raising Victor Vargas premiered to enthusiastic audiences at this year's Sundance Film Festival and will be released in theatres on Apr. 18. Victor Rasuk can also be seen later this year in a small role opposite Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in the Charlie Kauf-man-scripted film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Sister Act

Manna From Heaven, an independent film that hits L.A. and New York theatres this week, is a family affair like no other I've ever heard of. It was created by the five Burton sisters: producers/directors Maria and Gabrielle and producers Jennifer, Charity, and Ursula, who plays a lead role in the film. Maria, the eldest sister and also an actor, plays a supporting role in the film as well. Their mother, Gabrielle B. Burton, wrote the screenplay and co-produced the film with her husband, Roger Burton, who took an early retirement from his job at the University of Buffalo, where he was a psychology professor, to help make this film with his wife and daughters.

Said Gabrielle Jr. of their latest movie, "Our mother had gone back to film school [at the American Film Institute] to learn the craft of film. She was a novelist and non-fiction writer. She had written some scripts and started winning prizes for them, including the Nicholl Fellowship from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Then she started selling a lot of her scripts and we sisters, who already had a film company and had done two films [Just Friends and Temps, both directed by Maria], said, 'Hey, Ma, we really like this one called Manna From Heaven and we'd like to make it. So we optioned it from her for a dollar."

Manna From Heaven is a lighthearted comedic fable about what happens when you get a "gift from God," but many years later find out it was just a loan and repayment is due immediately. The film begins in the 1950s, when a neighborhood is mysteriously showered with $20 bills. Theresa, a young girl everyone thinks is a saint, doesn't have much trouble convincing her loose-knit family of relatives and friends that the money is a gift from heaven to split up. Years later, Theresa (Ursula Burton), who has become a nun, decides that it is time to pay the money back, so she calls the eccentric group back together to repay the "loan." The problem is, nobody has the money, nobody wants to give back the money, they don't know to whom it belongs, and most of them can't stand one another.

The Burtons assembled an impressive cast of well-known actors, including Shirley Jones, Cloris Leachman, Louise Fletcher, Harry Groener, Seymour Cassel, Shelley Duvall, Frank Gorshin, Jill Eikenberry, Wendy Malick, and Austin Pendleton. Cassel had previously worked with the Burton sisters on their film Temps. Duvall had approached Maria at a film festival where Temps was screening and Duvall was appearing for a tribute to Stanley Kubrick, and Duvall said, "I love this movie. I want to work with you."

As for the rest of the cast members, it was a matter of persuading agents to send the script to their clients. Once agents did, the actors quickly responded to the material and came on board.

"The big hurdle was getting through their agents," said Gabrielle Jr., "because obviously their agents weren't thrilled about getting 10 percent of what we were paying. But they could tell the passion that we had for this, and these characters were so interesting and complicated. We were also interested in casting these actors against type."

After taking the film to festivals where it was well received, the Burton sisters (who base their company in Santa Monica) partnered with RS Entertainment to distribute the picture. The sisters' strategy has been to travel with the film from city to city on a year-long publicity tour, which began in August in Branson, Mo., followed by Kansas City, Washington, D.C. (where it was also given a special screening for Congress members at the request of Missouri Rep. Kathy McCarthy), Columbus, Ohio, and their hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., where the movie was shot. The film has been a surprise success, often extending its runs due to audience demand and positive response from theatre chains such as AMC and Regal. Manna From Heaven opens in Los Angeles and New York this week.

The Burton sisters often hold post-screening discussions on opening weekend in new cities, as they are doing in L.A. and N.Y., and encourage interested filmgoers to put together a group of 20 or more and a member of the Burton clan will appear during the run in a city by request through their website, www.fivesistersproductions.com. BSW

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