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The Indie Film/ Television Connection

"Backlot Buzz" has presented several columns on the indie film/theatre connection, but this week we're coming closer to home—to the living room to be exact—to discuss the burgeoning connections between the worlds of New York television and independent film production.

Giancarlo Esposito: From the Lower East Side to "The Street"

Many of our readers were part of the overflow audience at our recent ActorFest "Six in the City" panel. That panel of six featured, among others, noted stage, screen, and television actor, Giancarlo Esposito, who first played on Broadway in "Seesaw," when he was eight years old, and has been working across the media ever since. (He's also a much sought after motivational speaker on college campuses and he shared with our audience his thoughts on racism, type casting, color-blind casting, and self-empowerment, both for actors and human beings.) His most recent TV foray was on the last year of NBC's gritty "Homicide," when he came in to play Yaphet Kotto's son.

For four weeks last month, he juggled his major screen role in the Leon ("Sugar Hill"/"Hendrix") Ichaso film, "Piñero" (the biopic about the flamboyant poet-playwright, who served time in Sing-Sing before writing "Short Eyes"), with his featured role on Darren ("Sex in the City") Star's latest entry for FOX, "The Street." "The series allowed me to shoot from 6 am to 3 pm, while the four-week film shoot had a night energy, so we worked from 3 pm to 3 am. There was one day when I was in Puerto Rico on Monday at 6 am for "Piñero," and then back here on "The Street" set the next morning at 6 am. At that point, sleep was non-existent, and I didn't see very much of my family." (He has three daughters—a five-month-old baby, plus a two-year-old and a four-year-old.)

The two roles could not have been more different. "Piñero" co-stars "Law & Order" 's Benjamin Bratt in the title role of the original Nuyorican poet, playwright, and "bad-boy genius," while Esposito portrays Miguel Algarin, Piñero's unofficial creative godfather and best friend. Together, the two co-founded the still flourishing Nuyorican Poets Café on E. Third St. in Loisaida (the street name for the Lower East Side). "Algarin was and is an eclectic, cultured man who writes and teaches Shakespeare at Rutgers—Joe Papp (played in the film by Mandy Patinkin) was a lifelong friend—and his work is every bit as awesome as Piñero's, but he's remembered more for encouraging 'Mikey' [Piñero's nickname] to write. The two Miguels met when both were acting on 'Fort Apache' and later worked on 'Miami Vice' together. They had made a pact to trade poems at the funeral of whoever went first, and when we were filming Mikey's funeral scene in a Loisaida vacant lot, people who had known him kept coming by with stories.

"I've never played a living person before and I was struck by Algarin's personality. He was comfortable putting his own ego aside to push Mikey's work, and even though he'd [Algarin] won all sorts of awards—he's one of the foremost translators of Pablo Neruda, for example—he wanted the whole society of Lower East Side poets to have the fame. He coined the term Nuyorican, and the irony is that, when they first went to P.R., where Mikey had never been before, Piñero was disappointed because the people didn't accept him right away. They were much more disapproving of his lifestyle than here."

The film also co-stars Rita Moreno as Piñero's mother.

For "The Street," the dapper Esposito returns to FOX (where he co-starred on "Bakersfield, P.D.") to play Tom Divak, the dapper head of a Wall Street firm, a role, as he explained at the early Saturday morning panel, which was never intended for any particular ethnicity. "In fact, it was only a guest shot at first, because I was in a directing program and didn't want to give it up. I got bumped to regular status after the pilot." He's currently looking forward to directing several upcoming projects with his own LyraLyn production company.

Gina Prince-Bythewood: From Television to Film to Television Film.

2000 has been Gina Prince-Bythewood's year. The Californian, who began her career writing for such TV series as "A Different World" and "South Central" before serving as producer on "Felicity," made an auspicious leap to the big screen this year when she directed her original script for "Love and Basketball," produced by New York's primo basketball fan, Spike Lee. And then, almost immediately, she returned to the small screen to direct HBO's upcoming "Disappearing Acts," based on the Terry ("Waiting to Exhale") McMillan novel—the first African-American woman to direct a film based on the works of McMillan. Prince-Bythewood's "Love and Basketball" star Sanaa Lathan reunites with her "Blade" co-star, Wesley Snipes, who's also co-exec producer of this bittersweet love story about a sometime-construction worker and an aspiring singer-songwriter. Others in the cast include John Amos, CCH Pounder, Michael Imperioli, Kamaal Fareed (aka rapper Q-Tip), and Regina Hall.

The film was shot from March 29 to May 17, primarily in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn, which acts almost as another character in the film. "It was both culture and weather shock," laughs the West Coast Bythewood. "I'm pretty laid back, so I found an apartment in the Village and that let me live like a New Yorker. My husband is from the Bronx originally, but I'd never had much chance to come to New York before." Recalling our wet spring, she says, "It was so cold and rainy at first, but finally it got warm. And we had the best cast and crew. I can't begin to articulate what a good time we had. I particularly wanted as many women as possible on our support team—the vibe is so different—and I got them." Besides director of photography Tammy Ryker ("High Art"), co-exec producer (Kimiko Fox/"John Henkik Clarke: A Great and Mighty Walk") and producer (Lydia Dean Pilcher/"Cradle Will Rock"), her production designer, first assistant director, and other key behind-the-scenes personnel were female, including Keri Putnam, the HBO senior vice president in charge of the film, which debuts in December. (Check your TV listings for dates.)

Although she started out as a writer and wrote the script for her debut film, she admits, "I don't particularly like writing; for me, it's a means to direct. When you write and direct a film, you own it 100%. 'Love and Basketball' took two years, but 'Disappearing Acts' was shot in just 5 weeks, and then a third of my time was spent on post-production. HBO took a real chance with me because 'L and B' hadn't come out yet. What's really cool is I got to shoot my sophomore film while my first film was screening around town [to excellent reviews]. There are so few female directors that we have to acknowledge not, 'Wow, it's amazing that I'm here,' but, rather, 'I deserve to be here,' and the first couple of days are hard for any director. You really have to be on your toes all the time. As for shooting in New York, well, it was full of people yelling 'Hey Wesley,' and there's all this energy and noise and, of course, the joy of walking."

Currently Filming

(As always, casting directors request all contact be made only by mail. Do not phone or visit their offices unless specifically instructed to do so.)

As Turkey Day approaches, let us give thanks that almost all of the new New York television series are doing well ratings-wise. And be on the lookout for Tom Cruise, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, Helen Hunt, and Charlize Theron among the stars in town filming during Thanksgiving Week. Also take note of the number of cabaret divas (including Betty Buckley, Eartha Kitt, and Rita Moreno) currently doing local film cameos and TV guest spots—a trend that diva Karen Mason (Sunset Boulevard) will discuss with us in next month's "Backlot Buzz" column.)

Comic divo (a male diva) Mario Cantone is currently featured in Frank (Brooklyn State of Mind) Rainone's latest, And She Was, filming through Nov. 22. Introducing newcomer Dorotea Mercuri, the romantic comedy also boasts a cameo from TV's original Mrs. Ed Norton, Joyce Randolph. Principals: Caroline Sinclair (85 W. Broadway, NYC 10007; no further background casting.

And from the TV series "Homefront" (circa early '90s and in occasional rerun on TVland), actor Harry O'Reilly (he played Charlie, the handsome working stiff, who marries a gold-digging British war bride and then falls for a sweet young widowed Jewish refugee/mom) is about to make his film directorial debut with Crooked Lines. It's skedded to shoot from right after Thanksgiving to just before Christmas. No further casting.

Mum's the word on two new indies: Jill (Clockwatchers) Sprecher's sophomore film, 13 Conversations, lensing through Dec. 6 and Michael (Hamlet) Almeyreda's latest, Happy Here and Now, the latter shooting in both New York and New Orleans from Nov. 27 and Jan. 8. As of now, no further principal casting and background to be determined for both.

Love the Hard Way (formerly titled Step Beyond), shooting through Dec. 18, is an international hybrid, adapted by German director Peter Sehr (Kaspar Hauser: Crime against a Man's Soul) from a Chinese novel with an American cast. This film noir romance between a scam artist (Adrien Brody) and a grad student (Charlotte Ayanna) brings police detective Pam Grier closer to catching Brody and his scam-buddy, Jon Seda. No further principal casting; background: Dominic Andreoli (c/o Kaufman Astoria, 34-12 36th St., Astoria, N.Y.).

Wrapping on Nov. 30, Penny Marshall's comedy-drama Riding in Cars with Boys for Columbia Pix recently added James Woods to its ensemble, including Drew Barrymore, Lorraine Bracco, Adam Garcia, and Sara Gilbert. No further principal casting; background: Grant Wilfley Casting (60 Madison Ave., #1027, NYC 10010).

Those gorgeous movie heartthrobs Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz shared more than their homophonic last names, as they were caught in a day-long smoocherama by the local tabloid paparazzi, all for the sake of their latest film venture, Paramount's Vanilla Sky. Others in the cast of this new romantic thriller from Cameron Crowe, shooting here until just before Christmas, include Cameron Diaz and Jason Lee, with Cruise also acting as co-producer. No further principal casting; background: Grant Wilfley (see above).

And just one more week of shooting left on Woody Allen's fall project for Dreamworks, currently titled The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. The comedy stars Helen Hunt, Dan Akroyd, Charlize Theron, Elizabeth Berkley, and John Schuck. Principals: Juliet Taylor (140 W. 57 St., #4B, NYC 10019); background: Kee Casting (324 Fifth Ave., NYC 10001).

Wrapped Or Wrapping

Nov. 5—Neurotica, Roger Rawlings flick, took Broadway's Brian D'Arcy James and Geneva Carr on a raucous roadtrip from NY to the Hamptons.

Week of Nov. 13—As soon as Ben Stiller's male modeling satire, Zoolander, finishes, he and the cast, including Milla Jovanovich and Owen Wilson, are off to shoot some more in Los Angeles.

Nov. 16—Andrew McCarthy lent his talent to Standard Time, playing a Bohemian musician involved with an aspiring cabaret singer (Isabel Rose). Rose and first time film director Robert Cary (who assisted Scott Ellis on The Rainmaker and Waverly Gallery), cowrote the script. Others in the cast include veteran Victor Argo (The Yards), with a guest appearance by diva Eartha Kitt. (Look for an interview with McCarthy in an upcoming column.)

Nov.18—Jay Lee's conspiracy theory thriller, Noon Blue Apples, featured Lauren Fox (Pi) and Thomas J. Ryan (Henry Fool), with cameos by Betty Buckley, Montel Williams, and rapper Kool Moe Dee, plus a v/o from "Star Trek" 's George Takei.

Upcoming In December

(No casting info currently available)

Gary Fledner (Kiss the Girls) will be shooting his new thriller, Don't Say a Word, starring Michael Douglas, for 20th Century between Toronto and New York. Also on tap, Manhattan Midnight, an action thriller starring Richard Grieco.

TV Series

(All shows listed are SAG, except for AFTRA's "100 Centre Street")

We're also thankful to all of 700-plus of you who attended the "Six in the City" Panel on TV production in N.Y. Our guests were phenomenal and so were you, the audience. Good news/bad news: the one major N.Y. show that didn't make the first cut of the millenium was Dick Wolf's "Deadline," but he will be adding yet another "Law & Order" variation to his NBC roster with at least 13 episodes of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent." (More info as available.) And CBS' critically acclaimed "Welcome to New York" is currently "on the bubble."

NBC: With the cancellation of Deadline, its shooting schedule now ends on Dec. 6. Principals: Lynn Kressel (Pier 62, Rm. 304, West 23rd St. & Hudson River, NYC 10011); background: Grant Wilfley Casting (see above).

Ed continues shooting until Dec. 20. Principals: Todd Thaler (130 W. 57th St., #10-A, NYC 10019); background: Sylvia Fay (71 Park Ave.).

Law & Order shoots through April 1, 2001. Principals: Lynn Kressel; background: Sylvia Fay (see above for both).

Law & Order: S.V.U. ends on Dec. 18. Principals: Lynn Kressel; background: Grant Wilfley Casting (see above for both).

Third Watch films until May 3, 200l. Principals: Jeff Block (1325 Ave. of the Americas, 32nd Fl., NYC 10019; background: Grant Wilfley Casting (see above).

ABC: Madigan Men shoots through Dec. 8. Principals: Bonnie Finnegan (12 W. 27th St., 11th Fl., NYC 10001); background: Grant Wilfley Casting (see above).

CBS: Welcome to New York wraps on Nov. 30. Principals: Mark Saks (c/o Warner Bros. Television, 1325 Ave. of the Americas, NYC 10019); background: Kee Casting (see above).

FOX: The Street films up to Dec. 18. Principals: Jennifer McNamara (Pier 62, W. 23rd St. & West Side Hwy, Ste. 307, NYC 10011; background: Sylvia Fay (see above).

HBO: The Sopranos shoots through Feb. 15, 2001. Principals: Georgianne Walken ("Sopranos" Casting, 1600 Broadway, Ste. 406, NYC 10036; background: Grant Wilfley Casting (see above).

A&E: 100 Centre Street will be around through mid-Dec. Principals: Lou DiGiaimo (214 Sullivan St., Ste. 2C, NYC 10012); background: Tuffy Questell (c/o T.E.C. Casting, Kaufman Astoria Studios, 34-12 36th St., Astoria, NY 11106).

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