Posts Tagged ‘Sea Legs’

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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