Chris Charles says he warned his star up front: "But I don't think it really registered till his first day of shooting in downtown Chicago."
Charles had cast Frank Vincent as the lead in Chicago Overcoat, an independent drama that will receive its world premiere Saturday, October 10, at the Chicago International Film Festival. Known almost exclusively for playing gangsters—including New York crime boss Phil Leotardo on The Sopranos and Billy Batts, who ends up in a trunk in Goodfellas—Vincent, 70, got to the set in October 2007 and realized that most of the crew were in their early 20s. "He's looking around like, 'Where'd all these kids come from?'" says Charles, who's now 25.
Chicago Overcoat was the first full-length feature produced by Beverly Ridge Pictures, a company formed in 2005 by six Columbia College film students, including Charles. Writer-director Brian Caunter, now 26, and writer-producer John Bosher, now 25, developed a sideline producing promotional and music videos while roommates at Columbia. Their "booty video," as Caunter calls it, for Joe Glass & IROC's "Two" got heavy rotation on BET Uncut in 2004. The next year, Caunter and Bosher joined forces with Charles, Philip Plowden, Kevin Moss, and William Maursky to form Beverly Ridge, named after Moss's far-south-side neighborhood. "The name sounds Hollywood, but it's also kind of Chicago," Caunter explains. They used Givens Castle, a Beverly landmark, as their logo. Charles directed Beverly Ridge's first production, a short adaptation of the Ray Bradbury short story "The Small Assassin."
In 2006 the six friends worked on a low-budget thriller called The Devil's Dominoes, directed by Scott Prestin, owner of the now-defunct Wicker Park bar Ginbucks. "We realized from that experience that we were more prepared than we thought to make a feature," Charles says. They were all fans of gangster films and figured they could make one without incurring a lot of extra production costs by taking advantage of Chicago locations.
"For months all we had was a title," says Caunter. His grandmother in Ohio had suggested "Chicago Overcoat," Prohibition-era slang for a coffin. The Family Secrets mob trials were in the headlines at the time and wound up providing inspiration for the screenplay.
Vincent plays Lou Marazano, an old hit man for the Chicago Outfit, who accepts his first contract in years—going after witnesses in a union pension-fund embezzlement case—to finance his Vegas retirement. Another Goodfellas vet, Mike Starr, is the underboss who exploits Marazano's money troubles. Another Sopranos alum, Kathrine Narducci, plays Marazano's old flame and alibi. Armand Assante plays the jailed boss facing trial. Chicago-based actor Danny Goldring is the alcoholic detective who's been chasing Marazano since the 1980s. And Stacy Keach does a cameo as a retired investigator pulled off the case when he got too close to city corruption.
"We were huge fans of The Sopranos," Caunter says. "We decided to write the script with Frank Vincent in mind so when he read it he'd feel like the main character is Frank Vincent. His book A Guy's Guide to Being a Man's Man was our character outline." The partners figured that "if we could create roles from scratch for celebrities, knowing they'd want to play something different, something challenging, we'd have an easier time recruiting them," Charles says. "We usually see Frank as a high-rolling mobster, higher on the food chain. In this film he's very humbled, very flawed, taking orders from guys younger than him."
Charles got the script to Vincent's people, and Vincent responded even though it came from unknowns in flyover country. "What appealed to me was the sensitivity of playing the softer side of a mob guy," Vincent says, "a guy who's not in control, who's looking to get the control." Vincent says he met a lot of mafiosi while touring as a drummer for Del Shannon and Paul Anka in the 1960s, helping him perfect a persona he's portrayed in Scorsese masterpieces and B movies alike. "They all have a way of looking at you, of intimidating you," Vincent says. "They're all evil. I can give a look or a stare that people read as evil."
Caunter and Charles signed Vincent at a place called Goodfellas Ristorante near his New Jersey home. "Frank walked in in a jumpsuit with a gold chain, looking like he walked off the set of The Sopranos," Charles says.
Once Vincent signed on, the other leads followed. Joe Mantegna was cast as the detective but dropped out weeks before shooting to take a role on CBS's Criminal Minds. "That was tough," Charles says. "I'd worked very hard to cast Joe." Goldring, who played the last clown killed in the opening bank heist sequence of The Dark Knight, stepped in. "They're so young, but they really got the writing for old-timers down," Goldring says.
The mother of cinematographer Kevin Moss, JoAnne Moss, who runs a real estate title insurance firm, personally invested "hundreds of thousands of dollars" and helped raise the rest of the $2 million budget, according to a report in Crain's Chicago Business. "Originally it was a smaller film. But as we found some success attaching talent, the budget increased," Charles says. "The project just kept getting bigger."
The filmmakers' youth "concerned me, absolutely," Vincent says. "They were younger than my kids. I've never experienced that before in all the films I've done, such a young team. . . . I figured if they were going to screw up, they'd screw up right away. As we progressed into the shoot, it became clear that they really knew what they wanted, and that was enough to make me confident."
Caunter, who turned 24 during the shoot, says he felt like "a chicken with its head cut off. Most of the time you have no idea what's going on. You feel like the world is going to end. You shoot for 12 hours, you come home and feel like you failed. The next day you feel like you want to redeem yourself. I think that's what makes a good movie—the struggle. If everything went your way it might feel kind of washy. I never had that experience, so I don't know."
The biggest adjustment for Caunter was learning to adapt to each actor's approach. "Frank is quite easygoing," he says. "Armand is the polar opposite. Armand would scream obscenities at the top of his lungs before the take. That alone would scare half the set, and then we'd roll the camera."
"They turned me loose," says Goldring. "That can be a dangerous thing for any actor, but they also had the good sense to rein me in. I'm a passion merchant. Doing Chicago Overcoat allowed me to let my passions out. The [character] is . . . ornery. He likes to tip back a few. Even though I don't do that anymore, I can play one on TV."
Accusations of ethnic stereotyping have dogged many of Vincent's projects. Last spring, MillerCoors pulled a series of ads featuring Vincent and Starr as mobsters after complaints from the Order Sons of Italy in America. Chicago Overcoat is no exception. After principal photography wrapped in November 2007, Bosher got an e-mail from Bill Dal Cerro of the advocacy group Italic Institute of America. Dal Cerro wrote, "It saddens—and yes, sickens me—that you are reverting to the oldest game in the book in your quest for Hollywood fame: namely, stoking prejudice against Americans of Italian descent by producing yet another pointless Italian 'mob' movie."
"I told him they can't force us to stop making movies that people want to see," Bosher says. "They have to change people's minds." Let them protest, adds Vincent, who sells "mobbleheads" of his Goodfellas character on his Web site. "It'll do the movie good."
It's going to be tough to recover the $2 million budget in today's independent film market, which is arguably in a deeper slump than the rest of the economy. Todd Slater of LA-based Huntsman Entertainment is shopping the film to distributors. "We've had a lot of offers from smaller companies," Charles says. "We've been waiting patiently for the right buyer. We want an offer we can't refuse."