Film festivals chart their progress by the movies, filmmakers, and stars they weren’t able to attract in years past. Ask the NIFF’s Michael Catalano which films at this year’s fest he wouldn’t have been able to obtain three years ago, and one of the first he mentions is Under Hellgate Bridge, Wednesday’s opening-night selection.
The film, which will air on HBO later this year, vividly depicts life on the violence- and drug-infested streets beneath Hellgate Bridge in the working-class immigrant neighborhood of Astoria, Queens. Its protagonist, Ryan (played by Another World regular Michael Roderick), returns home after being falsely imprisoned, only to find that his ex-girlfriend Carla (Jordan Bayne, a Tennessee native) is married to his enemy, the small-time mobster Vincent (Jonathan LaPaglia).
Thrust back into the world he has tried to avoid, Ryan turns to a local priest (played by Dominic Chianese, The Sopranos’ diabolical Uncle Junior) in his quest for redemption. He also encounters neighborhood tough guys played by veteran character actors Frank Vincent, best known for such gangster classics as GoodFellas and Casino, and Vincent Pastore, who plays Big Pussy on The Sopranos. (Both actors, along with Chianese, will be on hand for the festival.) Ryan isn’t faced so much with choosing between right and wrong, but between the lesser of two evils.
”Each character believes he is doing right for his character,“ says writer/director Michael Sergio. ”We may not approve of what he is doing, but we at least understand he is acting out his real base element, which is self-survival. Every character, including the worst character, is seeking redemption for his sins. It’s incredibly important to emphasize not only with the heroes, but also with the villains of the film. That’s good storytelling, because you don’t just have black and white, good and bad.“
The movie debuts during a time when the nation is in the midst of mob mania, as evidenced by the smash success of The Sopranos and movies such as Analyze This. Middle Americans toss around mob nicknames such as ”Sammy the Bull“ and ”Teflon Don“ John Gotti in a manner that was once reserved for sports stars. The lifestyles of these men, whose careers have claimed more lives than every celebrity serial killer combined, are perceived as glamorous, mysterious, and exciting.
”Going back to the Humphrey Bogarts and James Cagneys, those kind of bad boys were always people that many in society envy because they don’t go to work in the morning,“ says Vincent, who readily admits that it’s fun to be a bad guy. ”They don’t punch a clock and stand behind a bank-teller window all day. They make their own rules and live by a code and wear beautiful clothes and have lots of money and pretty girls. They have something that most people don’t have, and that’s power.“
In his thick New York accent, Sergio describes today’s mob movies as modern-day Westerns, complete with shoot-’em-ups, fights over women, and heroes riding into town to save the day. ”Except it being a little more permissible to tell a story more in-your-face, there is very little difference between Donnie Brasco and a good old-fashioned Western,“ Sergio says. ”It’s just the modern way to tell a classic story. The Westerns really aren’t different from the Greek tragedies.“
Make no mistake, however: Despite the violence, Under Hellgate Bridge is not your typical mob flick, and it’s certainly not Sopranos II. ”You actually see less inside the mob and more from the family’s point of view,“ Bayne says. ”It isn’t quite as steeped in the mob, but it’s kind of a little neighborhood story: how the little bully in the neighborhood got to be the big bully.“
The film, which was made for less than $1 million, was almost an afterthought. Sergio had run a New York newspaper ad stating, ”Money Needed to Finance Film,“ which attracted the attention of investor John Fortune III. Sergio was actually trying to raise $3.5 million for another script, but when Fortune revealed that he had considerably less than that to share, Sergio immediately shifted gears and began pitching Under Hellgate Bridge, which at that time was only an outline on 3-by-5 index cards. With little prodding, Fortune was sold, and Sergio spent 30 days in his apartment writing the first draft.
Sergio relied heavily on his own life’s experiences when creating the characters. Born in Harlem, he moved to Astoria, where he was kicked out of four high schools. Armed with a bottle of Thunderbird and a case of Ripple, he once spent a week under Hellgate Bridge, where the Long Island Sound meets the Atlantic Ocean. Realizing his creative desires, he soon turned his life around, first emerging as a singer-songwriter, then earning guest slots in series such as Kojak and Law and Order. He moved on to directing and eventually won an Emmy.
Under Hellgate Bridge, which was produced by Queens native Isil Bagdadi, premiered at the 5th Avignon/New York Film Festival and was the only film to show to a sold-out crowd. It also found success at the Montreal World Film Festival and garnered good reviews in Variety. Later this year, the film will be shown at screenings in New York and L.A. that will likely determine its future. ”We’ll see what happens coming out of Nashville,“ Sergio says. ”Nashville could do very good for us.“
Despite its low budget, the film’s impressive cast should draw media attention that tends to elude most low-budget independent films. ”The whole film was cast before The Sopranos was made, so I lucked out,“ Sergio says. ”But it’s a double-edged sword. The good thing about it is it picks people’s heads up, but we’re no Sopranos. We’re a different film. We are sort of in the same genre, but we’re a whole different style of storytelling.“
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