The mood on the set of "Nailed Right In" has the festive, neighborhood quality you find at high school homecoming football games. On this brisk autumn evening in Gravesend, Brooklyn, a crowd has gathered at the Open Air Spumoni Gardens Restaurant. Folks mill about -- munching pizza, sipping cocoa. It's tricky determining who exactly is involved with the movie, who is here to gawk, and who is on hand just for the pepperoni.
One crew member sets about wrangling the extras: "Finding background," he declares, "is like finding a needle in a haystack."
While waiting for the film's star -- Freddie Prinze, Jr. -- to arrive, producer-director Michael Corrente sits down at one of the outdoor tables and chats about the feature (which is the first picture in a slate of projects to be filmed by a new venture called Iridium Entertainment, created by Corrente and partner Marisa Polvino).
"Nailed Right In" is a coming-of-age story about three Brooklyn friends (Prinze, Scott Caan, and Jerry Ferrara) in the 1980s. Prinze's character is the prepster wannabe who's talked himself into Columbia University and who courts a girl (Mena Suvari) from the high-toned side of the tracks. Caan portrays the aspiring wise guy, while Ferrara's character just wants to stay in Brooklyn and marry his high school sweetheart. Things go awry when Caan's character gets involved with a local don, played by Alec Baldwin.
"It's about how blurry the lines can get between friendship and loyalty," says Corrente of the film. "It's about being tested in the neighborhood and how you come out on the other side."
The premise of the film is similar to that of the first movie Corrente made, 1994's "Federal Hill," which was set in Providence, R.I. (Corrente is himself a Rhode Islander and three of his previous four directorial efforts were shot in Providence and/or Pawtucket.)
"Nailed Right In" was scripted by Terence Winter, an Emmy winner for "The Sopranos." Corrente notes that "Nailed Right In" can be seen as Winter's take on "Federal Hill," just as "Federal Hill" can be viewed as Corrente's version of Martin Scorsese's "Mean Streets," and "Mean Streets" as Scorsese's rendition of Federico Fellini's "I Vitelloni."
Corrente began as an actor. He attended the conservatory at the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence and worked on the main stage there for two years. Moving to Boston, he founded a theatre ensemble called Studio B, which he transported to New York City in 1984. He produced about 30 plays there, including the stage version of "Federal Hill," which he also wrote and directed.
Once the screenplay for "Federal Hill" was finished, the transition from theatre to film proved easy for Corrente. "I knew how to get a performance out of an actor," he explains. "I am an actor -- that's how I started. And they rehearsed the shit out of it. I rehearsed seven weeks, like I was rehearsing a play. Long, hard hours. We got everything in one take -- it was perfect."
The success of "Federal Hill" led to an exciting sophomore assignment for Corrente: directing the screen adaptation of David Mamet's "American Buffalo," starring Dustin Hoffman and Dennis Franz. The film was shot in Pawtucket in 1996 in 28 days.
Corrente's third film was a comic drama, 1999's "Outside Providence," scripted by Peter Farrelly (of "There's Something About Mary" fame). Alec Baldwin played the blue-collar father in the film.
The director is enthusiastic about collaborating with Baldwin once again: "He's just a doll to work with. And it's great for these young actors, too. They see a guy like Alec Baldwin -- on time, breaking his ass, working hard every day, always got something to contribute, always got some sort of a suggestion or creative idea. And it's contagious. They pick it up and say, 'Geez, I didn't know I could do that.' I'm a very open director to anybody who's got an idea. I'll listen to anybody. Creativity is not restricted to artists. The plumber or the janitor could have a great idea. I like to keep my films as real as possible."
It's nearing time to shoot, so Corrente excuses himself. Prinze is spirited onto the set in a white van. A small pack of adolescent girls who've been waiting behind a chain-link fence begin shrieking and chasing vainly after him. But within moments, it seems, Corrente has Prinze, Caan, and Ferrara rehearsing their scene at one of the outdoor tables. Filming commences quickly after this brief run-through.
Screenwriter Terence Winter is on the set, watching. He confirms that Corrente practices the credo of collaboration he preaches:
"With TV, one of the writers is always on the set, but movies are a lot different. I think it's a mark of generosity and confidence for a director to want to include as many people's opinions as possible."
"Nailed Right In" is the first feature-film screenplay of Winter's that's reached production. Based on his relationship with his two best friends while growing up, it was written in a 17-day spurt of creative energy. Winter notes that as a kid, he lived 10 minutes away from Spumoni Gardens. "I've eaten many a pizza in this place," he says.
No wonder things feel like a homecoming game here tonight.
Although "Nailed Right In" marks Michael Corrente's first New York shoot (his fourth film, 2002's "A Shot at Glory," was lensed in Scotland), he apparently has a grasp on the Brooklyn sensibility. Winter says of Corrente, "A lot of people were put off by the way these guys in my script talk to each other. If you don't have these kinds of friendships, if you haven't grown up in a place that's fraught with insult humor and cursing, it's a little weird. But he totally got it. It's a way of showing that you love the other person -- to say horrible things to him."
Corrente has produced other people's films (including the critically acclaimed "The Door in the Floor") and he helped finance the recent Broadway revival of "Gypsy." His probable next film will take him back to Rhode Island: David Mamet recently handed him the first draft of a screenplay about Vincent ("Buddy") Cianci, the former mayor of Providence who was sentenced to five years in prison for racketeering. Mamet has also expressed interest in writing something for Corrente to direct on stage -- an offer the director finds nearly overwhelming:
"To have a guy like that set you up -- I feel like I want to cry almost."