Archive for September, 2009

The 9th Annual Coney Island Film Festival takes place this weekend with screenings of 96 films including new features, documentaries, short subjects and more about what else?—Coney Island past, present and future. ATZ’s must-see list includes the world premiere of historian Charles Denson’s documentary “The Prince of Mermaid Avenue” (Oct 2) about Major Market’s Jimmy Prince and a screening of Craig Butta’s “Sea Legs” (Oct 3), which won the Audience Award for Best Feature Narrative at the Brooklyn International Film Festival. Here’s the trailer for Butta’s film:

When I saw “Sea Legs” in June, I was just starting to work on Jones Walk where the film’s main character “Ritchie” (played by Butta) runs a water race game inherited from his Dad. At the time I was feeling excited about working a favorite game from my traveling carnival days on “the Walk” in historic Coney Island. Between the drop in attendance blamed on the rainy weather and the loss of Astroland and Thor Equities’ deliberate shuttering of the Walk’s west side, anticipation was sweeter than reality. On slow nights depression began to set in. Scenes from “Sea Legs” would flash through my mind: Craig Butta’s “Ritchie” opening his water race game in what looks like the dead of winter, calling people in to play (or not, depending on his mood), and fruitlessly waiting for customers to pass by his stand after the fireworks.

As the film’s synopsis says: “With the power of gesture and a minimum of words, a riveting character embarks on a doomed enterprise — his responsibility for his father’s inheritance is transformed into a search for elusive, otherworldly beauty. Sea Legs is a vivid, harrowing journey through the funk, vitality and downward spiraling world of Coney Island.”

In a recent Q & A with ATZ, the filmmaker talks about a love-hate relationship with Coney that dates back to his days as a young game agent on the Bowery and the challenges of writing, directing, producing and acting in an indie film in Coney Island’s much photographed and filmed amusement area.

Q: Before we get started tell us a little about yourself and your work in theater and film.

A: I grew up doing theatre. I’ve been involved in several plays a year since I was about 10. I can’t really remember a time when I wasn’t in a show, closing a show or preparing for one. In college I started acting in films. At first student projects and then low budget indies.

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Q: How and when did the idea to do a feature in Coney Island take hold?

A: I was traveling with a short film I shot in Coney, “Coney Island USA.” And audiences were always asking questions, demanding more information about the character. At the time, the leads were me and Angelica from the sideshow and we both wanted to expand on the parts so I started writing.

Q: Congrats on winning the Audience Award for Best Feature Narrative at the Brooklyn International Film Festival in June. In the Q & A after the screening you mentioned that you’d worked a game in Coney Island. How old were you when you did that and for how many summers? Can you tell us about that experience and how it colors the film?

A: It was right after college, I was working summers with a cousin doing traveling feasts, like San Gennaro, while he would hit the road and do the bigger county fairs. He got tired of traveling, setting up and breaking down. It’s a tough life doing traveling shows, its very much a circus lifestyle. So he started to rent some property on the Bowery in Coney and opened up the Big Chair and a small dart game. I worked there on off nights in the summer while I was writing and filming “Coney Island USA” in 2005. As far as how it affected my films….it was a huge influence on “Coney island USA.” I felt the desperation being down there on a Tuesday night when its dead and you are just sitting and waiting. Waiting and waiting, for a rush, for good weather, for something to happen. Sea Legs is a much bigger and more personal film. I don’t think of “Sea Legs” as being about Coney Island as much as being set there. There are many other places in this country that the same story could have played out. Its much more about the father and son, about loyalty and finding your own way in life.

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Q: How long have you been working on the film? I seem to remember you talking about it back when we first met in 2008 on the way to the meeting at Lincoln High School about the City’s plan to rezone Coney Island?

A: Yeah, it’s been a while. I started writing in 2007, and wanted to shoot that summer. This was the summer the press was declaring the ‘Last Summer of Coney Island.’ I was ill prepared with my script and felt very unwelcome in Coney. Cameras were everywhere. News people, artists, filmmakers; it seemed everyone wanted to get a piece. It was not the environment I wanted to work under. Plus, the locals were getting fed up with being photographed and interviewed, so I waited. That winter, February of 2008, Sean and I started shooting and we continued photography till August. I edited and re-edited the film throughout the year and premiered it at the Brooklyn International Film Festival.

Q: How has the redevelopment hoopla of the past several years and the threat of gentrification made itself felt in your film?

A: Well, first of all, it’s a plot point. Ritchie has the option to sell the game to a developer who has been buying up land. Secondly, I think you can feel the end coming, in the photography, there is something foreboding about the closed games and empty Bowery. There are still scenes filled with people, but so often we pass a closed game or storefront. Plus the prizes are so out of date. In one shot a guy is trying to entice crowds with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles stuffed animals!!

Q: How much of the film is scripted and how much was improvised day by day? Tell us a little about the process. Did anything happen to make you change the script during the shoot?

A: Most of the film was scripted, with the exception of the fortune teller scene and the customers at the game. I was often writing on the fly, getting up early and writing out the scenes for the day. We never knew where we were going to shoot or what the weather would be like so we were winging it in that sense. When you produce a film with no budget you must constantly adapt to your environment. I had a story, a script, scenes written, but we were constantly changing things as we went.

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The fortune teller scene was pretty spectacular. Jimmy Smith (who plays Simon) and I were doing a scene on the Boardwalk, which now that I think about it was improvised, and she pops into the frame and asks us to watch her stand, so we did. When she returns, Jimmy gives her a couple of dollars and asks her to give me a reading. Now at no point does she mention or even look at Sean who is filming all of this. I’m not sure what she thought, but I think she was totally unaware that we were actors. She proceeded to give the reading that made it into the film, a perfectly accurate reading for the protagonist at that point in the film.

Q: Tell us about how you worked with your crew.

A: What crew? Most days it was just me and Sean Williams, who photographed the film. We had a sound man in the beginning but he was like 18 and got a girlfriend and stopped coming once he discovered sex. Sean and I work really well together. We have a long history as friends and don’t need to speak much on set. He knows what I want and I know where he is. It was like working with a dance partner you have had for years, you know what the other is going to before they do it, it was all very fluid. We rarely did two takes.

Q: What kind of equipment did you use? I remember you said during the Q & A that a very small camera was used and some people did not realize they were being filmed.

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A: Yes. I started shooting the film on Super 8, but when I had a few rolls come out overexposed, I realized this wasn’t a project for film. Too many of the shots needed to be captured perfectly in one take. We shot on a Prosumer SD video camera that was lent to us by a filmmaker friend, Jessica Oreck, whose new movie “Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo” was also shot on the same camera and is amazing!!! Sean has a history of working in documentary film, so this style of shooting was fine with him, and being from the theatre, I had no problem doing everything in one take. I just basically stayed in character all day and he kept rolling.

Q: Was this filmed in the water race game at the corner of Jones Walk?

A: Yes, the Roberts family was very kind to let us work there on and off for 6 months.

Q: How has your relationship with Coney Island changed over the years? In the film, I felt the character had an ambivalence almost akin to a love/hate relationship with Coney. It seemed he’d left that world behind to be a teacher, yet coming back to claim his inheritance he got sucked into it again. I think that I mentioned this at the Q & A, how I was struck by the way he didn’t call the people in at first.

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A: I always quote Jimmy Breslin when asked about how I feel about Coney Island. At the beginning of Spike Lee’s “Summer of Sam,” Breslin introduces the film saying it’s really a story about New York, a city he loves as much as hates. I would concur. Coney Island has always drawn me in with its colors, lights and characters. But I never leave feeling satiated or happy, I always leave feeling nauseous. Ritchie actually says this about Coney in the film. His reason for coming back is not out of nostalgia or because he thinks there will be a re-birth in the amusement district; Ritchie is seeking something deeper, he is looking into his family’s past, walking in the footsteps of his estranged father and trying to find answers.

You’re right about him not calling people at first. I don’t think he tries very hard at first to make it work. He is simply going through the motions. But he has it in him, he has carny blood. I think that comes out after the graveyard scene where he makes peace with his father in his own unusual way. When we finally see him on the microphone, he is pretty damn good. So good in fact, the folks I was renting the game from wanted to hire me after we filmed that scene. We were drawing huge crowds on a pretty dead night.

Q: You are the producer, screenwriter, actor and editor. Tell us about the film from each job’s perspective and how you pulled it all together.

A: Well to be honest, the most important job on an indie film set is the producer. It’s easy to write a story, or say you are a director, the hard part is to get it done. And that’s what I did most often. Get the location, find the actors, convince everyone to take the train sometimes two hours to Coney to shoot a five minute scene. As far as being an actor/director, I don’t recommend it and am really unhappy about this decision. I did it because I had to, but wouldn’t do it again. The film is not directed as well as I am capable of and my performance is not as good as it would have been if I didn’t have so much responsibility.

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Q: As the character takes to drinking to get through the days, the film took on more of a hallucinatory quality. For example, I wondered if his interaction with Veronica was real or just a figment of his imagination?

A: We get questions like this a lot at the Q & A’s at screenings. Was she real? Is she a mermaid?, etc.
I always thought of her as a real character but it’s his perception of her that is important to the film. I am not so literal a person in real life. I prefer poetry to prose. I think that’s what Veronica is– a Coney Island of the Mind. She walks into the sea when she says she must go home and later he follows. I never see these moments as literally suicide but as metaphorically returning home. A French filmmaker and friend pointed out that the French word for Sea and Mother (mer) are nearly the same.

Q: Is it “over” as some of our friends on Jones Walk say? Is Coney Island done?

A: Coney Island is a state of mind these days more than a piece of real estate. The days of water gun games, and sun burnt stuffed animals being hawked on the Bowery are probably over. Coney didn’t keep up with the times. Kids have changed, technology has changed, but the games and amusements there have not kept up. So yes that part is definitely over, in my opinion. But as long as the freak show and museum and the film festival and the Mermaid Parade and the burlesque events are around I think Coney will keep its character. It may take some time before it really rises again.

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Q: “Sea Legs” is your first feature. What’s next for you?

A: My first priority is getting “Sea Legs” seen by as many people as possible. We are screening this week in Coney Island at the Coney Island Film Festival and the following week in Brazil. I spent the summer away from filmmaking and worked on writing a few short plays and am working on a new screenplay that we may shoot this winter or next. I also have a lot of favors to pay back, so I will be producing, editing and acting in friend’s stuff for a bit as well.


Coney Island Film Festival
October 2, 3 and 4, 2009

Craig Butta’s “Sea Legs,” Oct 3, Saturday, 7 pm, $6

For advanced tickets for all programs and a complete list of films at the festival, visit www.coneyislandfilmfestival.com
Films screen at Sideshows by the Seashore (1208 Surf Ave., Ground Floor) and the Coney Island Museum (1208 Surf Ave., 2nd Floor) in Coney Island, Brooklyn. Take the D, F, N or Q lines to the Coney Island/Stillwell Avenue stop. All screening venues are within easy walking distance of the subway.

Opening Night Gala screening & party: $25
Full Festival Pass (excludes “The Warriors”): $45
Saturday Pass (excludes “The Warriors”): $15
Sunday Pass: $10
Special Saturday Night Showing of The Warriors: $10
Any Individual Program Screening: $6


Related posts on ATZ…

September 20, 2010: Movie Monday: Teaser Trailers from the Coney Island Film Festival

August 28, 2010: Video: Grand Prize Winner of Luna Park Coney Island’s Film Contest!

March 30, 2010: Super 8 Movie: I Had A Dream I Went To Coney Island

February 24, 2010: Step Right Up! Coney Island Documentary Film Seeks 20 More Backers

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Poet Edwin Torres Reading at Parachute: The Coney Island Performance Festival at the New York Aquarium. Photo © Edward Hansen

Poet Edwin Torres Reading at Parachute: The Coney Island Performance Festival at the New York Aquarium. Photo © Edward Hansen

If you’re looking for something to read on this rainy, “as summer into autumn slips” kind of day, ATZ recommends this poem by Edwin Torres. The autobiographical “Coney Island 1969” was written especially for Parachute: The Coney Island Performance Festival. Torres debuted the poem on September 12, the first night of Coney’s Island’s first annual performance festival. The Alien Stingers exhibit at the New York Aquarium proved to be an inspired setting for the event as the parachute-like jellyfish danced in the water behind the human performers. Now if you’re looking for somewhere to go on a rainy day, ATZ recommends the Alien Stingers at the Aquarium, which is open year round. The adult jellyfish is called the “medusa.” How poetic is that?

CONEY ISLAND 1969       

My father was the manager of Nathan's Hot Dogs on Coney Island
A memory inside a beach ball
My cousin reaching below the surface
Water in my lungs
Blue sky
Technicolor white
Where skin should be

        My father watched me walk the cracks
	From our bedroom window
	In the Bronx
	Asking me
	What I thought I was doing
	How a line is straight when you walk it
	How a man knows exactly where to go

My father took us to Nathan's at Christmas
Company party
A thousand presents for each and every child
The boardwalk was cold
The rides empty
Coney Island winter
You had to warm your fingers
By hiding them from the ocean

	My father gave us hot dogs and fries
	Between his affairs
	He gave me animals
	To show his love
	I had a beagle, a turtle, 3 guinea pigs and 2 java rice birds
	I loved them
	So I loved my father

My father took me and my two sisters to the Statue of Liberty
He told me it was made of Limburger Cheese
I loved him
He never hit me
He never hugged me
I had to walk straight
That's what he told me

	When I visit my father
	At St. Raymond's Cemetary
	I find his gravestone
	I have a son I tell him
	Winter is our time
	When he left
	When all those presents at Nathan's were opened
	All those families

My father towered over me
Laughing in his eyes
You're my little man he'd say
From up there
The bumper cars
The mirrors
All those reflections

	a location's intuition
	will be to remain
	long enough to be found

	in a relationship with scale
	the chance to leave
	will follow its pull

	calling to catch
	what will does
	to weight

My father was never Coney Island to me
He never knocked on the door
That morning in the Bronx
My mother didn't open
No cops told her nothing
She didn't hide her face in her hands
No silent tears
	cover her mouth when she snore
No floor I play my indians on

	No roller coaster tell me no turn
	No question come from long legs
	No mean kids
	No skinny mirror
	My father had yoga thumbs
	Look what I can do I'd say
	Leaning out just far enough
	To make you catch me

        -Edwin Torres ©2009
Jellyfish in the Alien Stingers Exhibit at New York Aquarium, Coney Island. Photo © Charles Denson

Jellyfish in the Alien Stingers Exhibit at New York Aquarium, Coney Island. Photo © Charles Denson


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Gerry Menditto, Manager of the Cyclone, visits the History Project on the Coasters Opening Day 2009. Photo © Tricia Vita/Coney Island History Project via flickr

Gerry Menditto, Manager of the Cyclone, visits the Coney Island History Project on the Coaster's Opening Day 2009. Photo © Tricia Vita/Coney Island History Project via flickr

Congrats to Gerry Menditto, manager of the Coney Island Cyclone Roller Coaster! An email from our friends at City Lore informed us that Gerry has been elected to the People’s Hall of Fame.

Gerald Menditto, for enabling New Yorkers to experience the thrills and chills of the world’s greatest roller coaster, the Coney Island Cyclone, by “walking the tracks,” and keeping it safe and running for more than three decades.

Each inductee will receive a larger-than-life-size token of esteem — that is, a large bronze cast of an actual subway token — from City Lore. The ceremony will be interlaced with performances honoring the honorees. Following, we will celebrate our honorees with light refreshments, music and dance. Red Baraat, a “Bangin’ Bhangra and brass funk” band will perform, and a brief Bhangra dance lesson will be offered to guests. Call 212-529-1955, x 0 for tickets ($15 for members, seniors, and students, $20 for others).

City Lore’s 11th People’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony and party is set for Sunday, October 25th from 3- 6 pm at the Museum of the City of New York. In advance of the celebration you can watch this video profile of Gerry Menditto from Thirteen.org’s new online series “New York On the Clock.” The mini-documentary webisodes about “New Yorkers who make the City work” premiered on September 14 with this feature on Coney Island’s “Mr. Cyclone.”

In a similar vein, City Lore’s annual People’s Hall of Fame awards celebration honors the contributions of local people to New York City’s cultural life and was established in 1993. In addition to Gerry Menditto, the 2009 People’s Hall of Fame inductees are James V. Hatch and Camille Billops, Dionisio Lind and Michael Smith, Margarita Kagan, and “DJ Rekha” aka Rekha Malhotra. Honorees are selected by a committee working with City Lore’s Board of Directors. If you would like to nominate your New York City cultural hero to the 2010 People’s Hall of Fame, email a note to City Lore along with the reasons for your nomination.

Previous honorees with Coney Island or amusement industry backgrounds include Pete Benferamo, the Lemon Ice King of Corona Queens; The Ross Family of Coney Island Bialys, the oldest bialy business in the city; Rudy King for bringing the steel drum to New York City; Dick Zigun for founding the Mermaid Parade and Coney Island USA; and Hovey Burgess for mentoring a new generation of circus artists.


Related posts on ATZ...

December 20, 2009: Coney Island Photo of the Day: First Snow on the Cyclone

August 5, 2009: Coney Island Has 56 Rides and 33 More Days of Summer!

June 26, 2009: Happy Birthday to Coney Island’s Cyclone Roller Coaster!

June 7, 2009: How Sweet It Is: Wedding Party at Cyclone Roller Coaster

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