Last Friday, as Chicagoans faced a weekend of liberating their cars and sidewalks from a foot of snow, local filmmakers Ben Redgrave and Ben Berkowitz were jetting off to Park City, Utah, for the Sundance Film Festival. The two Bens--whose feature Straightman opened the 2000 Chicago Underground Film Festival--planned to try to snag studio financing for their next one, Polish Bar. It's a major step for Redgrave and Berkowitz's six-year-old partnership, the Benzfilm Group. And their odds aren't bad--thanks in part to Effie T. Brown, an LA-based producer they've teamed up with.
Straightman, which grew from character sketches the pair wrote at the School of the Art Institute in the late 90s, starred Berkowitz (who also directed) and Redgrave as best friends and roommates whose friendship changes when one of them reveals that he's gay. Like many low-budget indie films, it lost money, though Berkowitz says it's made a respectable showing since being released on video and DVD in 2002. Redgrave and Berkowitz started on the script for Polish Bar that year, while they were coproducing Rockets Redglare!, a documentary about the eponymous New York punk personality. At the time Berkowitz was also working in the jewelry business, selling watches at the Manhattan store of a family friend. "I ended up doing it for almost two years," he says. "I made a lot of money, but more importantly learned all these inside things about it." His experiences there--along with a later gig deejaying at an east-coast strip club--inform the plot of the new screenplay, which is about a young Jewish wannabe DJ who leaves behind his family's jewelry business to hang out with strippers and Polish gangsters.
In the fall of 2003 Berkowitz and Redgrave took part in the Independent Features Project Market, a New York industry fair. While they were visiting, a friend introduced Berkowitz to Brown, a former director of development for Tim Burton who had struck out on her own and was becoming known for producing character-driven films like Sundance award winner Real Women Have Curves and the Meg Ryan vehicle In the Cut. The two hit it off immediately: "It was an instant-best-friend, making-everyone-else-in-the-room-puke thing," Berkowitz says. When he and Redgrave got back to Chicago they sent her the script for Polish Bar, and Brown, who'd inked a deal with HBO Films to develop projects for theatrical release, was interested. "I thought it was a really beautifully told, gripping character drama that really unflinchingly looks at race relations, religion, and family obligations," she says. "I like the fact that it was so un-PC but truthful."
Berkowitz says that's the pair's selling point. "If it's honest I can defend it to the end. . . . If you start fucking with things and trying to make it fit your agenda, that's when it's hard to defend."
"There's also been this real trend in 'indiewood' movies to have a happy ending," says Redgrave. "Ours is very far from that."
"There's no hero," Berkowitz puts in. "Ben made me cut the scene with the firemen saving the puppies."
Redgrave and Berkowitz continued to tinker with the script over the winter. In March Berkowitz went back to New York and met with Brown again. "We sat down, we're like, OK, we like each other, you like the work, can we do this?" he says. "That was when we really made a concrete deal that we would partner up." The plan is for Brown to be lead producer, with Redgrave as a coproducer, and for Berkowitz to direct. (Neither Ben will act in the film.)
Since the summer Brown has been sending around the script under the auspices of her production company, Duly Noted. While HBO has expressed interest, it hasn't signed off on the movie yet, but the terms of Brown's agreement with the company allow her to shop the project elsewhere if it takes a pass. In November the Bens flew to LA to meet with a casting director. "I was ready for the worst stereotypes," says Berkowitz--but as it turned out their list of potential actors, which drew heavily from indie films, was remarkably similar to the pro's. No one's officially on board yet, so they're leery of naming names. But Berkowitz does reveal that actor and director Paul Mazursky called him up to chat as he was about to read the script: "He just wanted to bullshit with me, like he was lonely!"
This past Wednesday (the day the Reader went to press) Brown was throwing a Sundance launch party for Duly Noted, intended to attract investors to Polish Bar and some other projects she has in the pipeline. Berkowitz and Redgrave had never been to the festival before, but they were familiar with its workings. "My experience with these things is you meet, you collect a lot of business cards," Berkowitz said before they left. "Sundance is the mating ground," added Redgrave. "Conception happens afterward."
The pair say they're confident they'll get a deal for Polish Bar eventually. "We're sitting on Melrose Avenue with Effie talking money in the millions, having these hypothetical financial conversations," says Redgrave. "It can be sort of shocking." This will be their first time working in 35-millimeter film--Straightman was shot in 16-millimeter. "The smallest way that we could do Polish Bar . . . would be ten times larger than Straightman and Rockets Redglare! put together," Berkowitz says.
They're hoping to begin shooting Polish Bar in Chicago this fall, for a spring 2006 release. But for now the Bens are waiting on the wheels of the Hollywood machine, which can seem to move painfully slowly, Sundance parties and calls from Paul Mazursky notwithstanding. "That's the hardest thing, being patient," Berkowitz says. "It just feels like, Oh, it's been so long. But six months is nothing."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim newberry, Jeremy Harmon/Wireimage.com.