“Sometimes, you go to a Christmas party and you meet somebody, and great things happen,” said filmmaker Brian DeCubellis. He might also say, sometimes you read a book, and great things happen.
His first feature film, Manhattan Night, with Academy Award-winner Adrien Brody, will be a special screening at the first Ridgefield Independent Film Festival on May 21. The Lionsgate film screening in Ridgefield is the result of his meeting Joanne Hudson, founder/director of the festival, at a holiday party in Katonah and telling her about his film, which she immediately saw as a possible feature for her festival.
“We are so excited to bring this indie-produced film, by such a tenacious and talented writer/director/producer, to screen at RIFF and have Brian share his secrets with our official selection filmmakers,” said Hudson. “We are dedicated to the art and craft of filmmaking and to supporting the filmmakers who do it themselves.”
DeCubellis said that the book that inspired him, Manhattan Nocturne by Colin Harrison, grabbed his imagination immediately. “I finished this book in 1999 and turned to my wife, Diana, and said ‘I have to make this into a movie.’”
An NYU film school graduate then living in Brooklyn, he was working at his craft and making the connections that would serve him later in his filmmaking career, but at the time author Colin Harrison wasn’t on his speed-dial. So he cold-called him at Harper’s magazine. He learned that someone else held the film rights to the novel, a classic contemporary noir tale of intrigue, sex and tangled motives into which a tabloid columnist, Porter Wren, is plunged. The filmmaker and author met for lunch anyway and talked about DeCubellis’s vision for bringing Manhattan Nocturne to the screen, which Harrison liked. They also discovered they lived near each other in Brooklyn and would occasionally meet on the street in the next few years.
Persistence is a hallmark of the independent filmmaker and eventually, in 2003, DeCubellis was able to obtain the option on the book. He said he’d written his first version of the screenplay shortly after reading the book and continued to revise it over the years, “right up until the day we shot.”
Friends and connections are also crucial to independent filmmakers. With the option on the book, a screenplay in hand, and early support from the well known actors Campbell Scott and Jennifer Beals, the project needed financing. Having two name stars associated with the project helped. Scott, who grew up in South Salem, N.Y., and Beals are longtime friends of DeCubellis’s; they met through DeCubellis’s friend Dylan Kidd, who directed them in the 2002 feature film Roger Dodger, that also starred a young Jesse Eisenberg and Isabella Rosselini. Author Colin Harrison, Scott and Beals are all co-producers of Manhattan Night.
Serendipity can also move a project forward and after years of work, DeCubellis found himself doubly blessed: actor Adrien Brody was interested in playing the Porter Wren role and had the backing of his new production company Fable House Ltd. Said Brody, in announcing his involvement in the film, “It is the kind of film Sidney Lumet would make. It is the kind of film I wish to make.” Then, out of the blue Steve Klinsky, a hedge fund manager, made contact to say he was interested in producing the film.
“When you’re making a movie like this in the independent world, there are a thousand hurdles for you to jump and you’re never sure you’ll get over the next one,” said DeCubellis. “You’re kind of holding your breath the whole time.”
“I have this memory of standing in line at the deli and checking my email and seeing that the money was transferred from the escrow to the production account,” he said.
His vision was becoming real.
Manhattan Night was shot over 25 days in New York, on location all over the city. “Manhattan is really a character in the movie. We were really excited to shoot in New York,” said DeCubellis. “One of the things I take pride in the most is when New Yorkers who’ve seen it say it really feels like New York.”
Shooting took place in December 2014 and the filmmaker said that city officials, from the mayor’s office to the police department, were very cooperative, especially considering that this was happening during the holiday season. “We even shot a car stunt near Grand Central,” he recalled, and official New York smoothed the way.
In addition to Brody, Scott and Beals, the crime thriller also features Yvonne Strahovski, with Linda Lavin and Steven Berkoff. Manhattan Night will have a day-and-date release, which means that it will open in theaters domestically and around the world and also as a video on demand, all on the same day. It’s part of a shifting of the industry, DeCubellis said, both for studio and independent films, as the way people consume the art continues to evolve.
As part of the Ridgefield Independent Film Festival, Manhattan Night will be screened Saturday, May 21, at 7 p.m. at the Ridgefield Playhouse, one of several festival venues in downtown Ridgefield. DeCubellis, who lives nearby in Katonah, N.Y., with his wife Diana (the film’s co-executive producer) and two children, will be on hand to take questions after the screening. A party will follow in the historic theater’s lobby.
In addition to this special screening, RIFF has announced 72 other films from 23 countries that were selected to be shown May 20-22 at locations including the Playhouse, the Ridgefield Library, the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, the Prospector Theater, and the Keeler Tavern Museum.
There will be panels and master classes as well as the screenings, with topics including Storytelling in Narrative and Documentary Filmmaking, Reading in the Dark: How to Watch a Film (for ages 8-12), Micro-Budget Filmmaking, and “Livin’ The Dream” Screening and Back Talk (about a new web series). Networking opportunities and a chance to dine with filmmakers and film enthusiasts alike are planned as well, culminating with an awards ceremony/garden party on Sunday, May 22, at the Keeler Tavern Museum.