’The Mean Streets Come Alive Again’
Michael Sergio is an Emmy-Award winning Director/Writer/Producer who has created commercials and videos for clients as diverse as Continental Airlines, AT&T, Disney, Alitalia, ESPN, Broadway Theatre Institute, ABC Sports, and American Express. Sergio has also directed numerous films and television specials including John Ford Noonan's "Night Man at the Sardi Building", "Creating the Wizard of Oz on Ice", for which he was nominated for a Day Time Emmy and "Ringling Bros. 1996 TV Circus Special" for which he won an Emmy.
For his highly controversial and critically acclaimed feature film debut "Under Hellgate Bridge" which he wrote, produced and directed, Sergio won the "Best Director" and "Best Film" Awards at the Narrowsburg Independent Film Festival in New York. Other awards include the "Regal Cinemas Dreammaker Award," "Best Film" at the Nashville Independent Film Festival, and the "People's Choice Award" at the Atlantic City Film Festival. "Under Hellgate Bridge" was released theatrically May 2001 by CAVU Pictures and was acquired by Lions Gate Entertainment for domestic home video rights.
As an actor, Sergio appeared on Broadway in "I Love My Wife", numerous films and television programs, such as ‘Kojak,’ ‘Law and Order,’ ‘Loving,’ ‘The Equalizer’ and has appeared in over 50 national TV commercials.
An accomplished singer/ musician, Sergio has appeared at many of New York City's finest clubs, including "Catch a Rising Star", Greenstreets", "The Bitter End", "The Comic Strip", and "The Original Improvisation" where he performed for almost 17 years. As a writer, Sergio has also completed five screenplays.
Sitting down with this man of many talents, I wondered when this 'latest' project ('Under Hellgate Bridge') had first come to light ? ”It was conceptualized in and shot in 1997, but it hit the movie theatres in 2001. It’s a real independent story and, you know, we basically crawled through broken glass to get this film made. There was an extension period where we ran out of money before we could finish it. But when we had a theatrical release in New York with 17 theatres it was then that we hit the jackpot. Lionsgate saw the film and picked it up for domestic consumption, which is basically the “Holy Grail” for an independent film maker. We have actually gone through probably twelve occasions where I looked at everyone and said, ‘I don’t know if I can go on.’ We didn’t know if this was going to be still-born or if something could actually happen here. But with that independent spirit you put this product out and you hope that a company with vision like Lionsgate comes along and sees what’s going on, but also understands that it may not be the next ’Titanic.’ But, you know, all that does represent what filmmaking is about nowadays and the film does have a built in audience so economically there is a reason for it. And you know they smile upon the project.”
Films to me over the past years have meant something like three takes per shot, low budget, long hours … did I miss anything out?! ”No, and in fact that’s exactly what it means. It’s a little difficult to be dabbling in a climate where some of the studios have just stolen the name of ‘Independent’ and they just slap it on movies. You know they have 20 million-dollar “Independent films” being made. The word ‘Independent’ has become sort of a marketing tool for some companies or publicity tool. The notion that you can do a 20 million-dollar film that’s actually being backed by Hollywood and all this other stuff, that’s fabulous, but you know it’s not really an ‘Independent’ film. A true Indy film, the way guys would crawl through the broken glass feel about it, it’s a film that’s an on-tour type project. It’s a film that can raise a couple hundred thousand dollars from someone who has an idea and can then basically green light his own project. And then the perfect time for an Indy to interface with the industry is at the time of sale because then you get the benefit of both things. You get a real sort of Indy vision on something and then you get a corporation with power behind it to bring it out to the people.”
Actually getting to film on the streets of NY, well, you couldn’t get a better backdrop than that ! ”Absolutely, you know I was born in New York hospital. I was brought up in Harlem, moved out to Queens and so I’m like a New York kinda guy. I truly love this town. Like some people may say they like the prairie or the Rocky Mountains … this is my Rocky Mountains. And I see more picturesque stuff on the streets of NY than I can even imagine. I think NY is a perfect place for an Indy guy to shoot because it’s fairly basically free and it’s just an incredible production value !”
What was one of the biggest hurdles filming wise on this film ? ”Actually the biggest hurdles always was that the money wasn’t always there. I took an ad in a NY paper and I started meeting people to try to raise money to make a film. Someone came into my office and said he had about two hundred thousand dollars. It was very low. I said well, I can get a film in a can for that but I can’t finish it. Not if it’s four or five years ago. Digital wasn’t a big thing back then and so we actually started the project knowing I wouldn’t have the money for the third week of shooting. But somehow during the first two weeks I got the money to keep me going. So I went into the project, but when you get an Indy, you get this thing called ‘Go fever’ where you just got to ‘Go’ and become a junkie. In some ways what I went through in making this film is what the characters in the film went through. Except it was with regards to dope, because you become high on this stuff - it becomes intoxicating to you. I know you’ll do anything to get it done, once you’ve started. That’s exactly what happened when I made the film. So we got it in the can and then went flat broke. I borrowed, just did every favor I could, promised the world to this really good editor and had him sit down and for like six months crank out the thing. And it took me almost a year and a half with just patching things together before I could finish the movie. So at that point we were accepted into the NY Avenue and Film Festival. We did really well in that festival and got into other festivals and won the Nashville Independent Film Festival. And when we won the Nashville Festival, Regal Cinemas - which is the largest theatre chain in the United States - saw it and said to us, ‘we don’t care what your distribution status is, we will let you bring your film out into as many of our theatres as you want.’ So they were suddenly talking to us as Independent Filmmakers like we were theatrical distributors. So at that point I started capital releasing and was able to raise some money to do the theatrical at least in 17 theatres in NY and it did really well. That got the word out to the industry and then Lionsgate and then the rest is history as they say.”
The guy who actually brought the money to you, Jonathan Fortune, seems also to have gotten a Producing credit ! ”Absolutely, that’ s standard when you do Hollywood films. He actually got an Executive Producer credit. When you do Independent films you gotta reward people with something. And people who give you money, want something in return. Sometimes people want to build their own introduction into the movie business and do other films and so they go for that title. So I think it’s fairly standard actually that a lot of the Executive Producer and Associate Producer credits are simply rewarded for bringing in money or finding money.”
Why was the bridge named that ? ”Hellgate Bridge is named that way because it spans a very small body of water. You have NY and you have Long Island – where Long Island comes close to the edge of Manhattan and where the water from the South comes in from the bay and the ocean and the water from the North goes out through the Long Island Sound and also into the ocean. So you have the tidal flow that chokes at this point in the river called Hell Gate. It was named Hellgate way back when because so many ships sunk in that place. The water actually boils spins and pools and if you catch the fast time, even power boats stand still trying to get through. It’s quite a dramatic place there. In World War II it was the one bridge that the Nazi’s when they landed in Long Island were supposed to go to and blow up because it was the bridge they used to transport the soldiers. The Mob used to dump bodies into there. It’s got a sort of weird psychic energy to the place. It really hasn’t lost that either. I wanted a character so I chose a place that was a character. And under Hell Gate Bridge is a character in my film.”
Tell me more about your childhood and how it influenced this movie ”Well, I grew up under the bridge. I lived in Harlem until I was about twelve and then we moved out to Astoria. So growing up there now in my teenage years, heroin was very, very big. It was the biggest drug at that time. I had many friends who have died from overdosing on heroin. When you’re growing up you don’t think it’s different somewhere else. You think the whole world is like this. The five blocks you walk around, you think that’s the world. You think, ‘well that’s the rules of the world.’ So you don’t really understand what you go through until after you’ve escaped that or grow out of that sort of thing. And certainly growing up on the streets of Astoria there was the ‘Astoria Saddle Tramps’ - the motorcycle gangs who we had to worry about down the block. Two of the toughest projects in NY city were right there in Astoria: Astoria Projects and Queens Projects. So it was a real. It’s a real sort of just working-class side by side row housing that after awhile it breaks you down so much you don’t even know that you can escape from it. It becomes your world. These blocks and blocks of two story high attached tenements. You just think that’s what it’s like in California. You don’t know any differently.”
So what gave you the impetuous to get out ? ”What did it was the subways and the monotony. So there’s a lot of subway analogy and imagery in the film. The thing that pulls you out of this place in NY city was back then a 15 cent subway ride. It takes you to anywhere you want to go from Manhattan in about nine minutes. So I’ll tell you if there wasn’t the subway there, geez, Manhattan would just be this thing on the other side of the river. It would be like looking at Vegas on a map or something because it lights up, it’s all glittery at night you know. Basically you’d go down by the East River to get high and everything else. And like in Astoria Park and from Hellgate Bridge, well, they are two of the most beautiful sights you’ll ever see if you stand there and look towards Manhattan. You basically look under the Triborough Bridge and on the other side of that about a half a mile worth of water and then the most incredible skyline of NY you could possibly imagine.’
Talking about characters, how did you encourage some of these incredible actors to work for so little ? ”Well, I’ve done a lot of acting in my life and was on Broadway in ‘I Love My Wife’ from ’77. And from ’77 until about ‘90, when I started directing, I just made my living acting, doing films or commercials. The first film I did was ’Men and Respect’ with Vincent Pastore (Mitch) and that was his first film so we became close friends after that. I also worked with Frankie Vincent (Big Sal). Vinnie Pastore brought me Dominic Chianese and so the older guys were people I actually worked with. I just went in my phone book and called them said I’m doing this film will you help me out and they said, absolutely. The younger guys, I met through casting calls and other projects I saw being done. A lot of times in an Indy film it’s all 23 year old people in the whole film and I didn’t want to do that. So this is like a wider angle lens where you see more. I wanted to open it and see panorama and I think panorama is also reflected in the age of people that you see on screen. It’s sort of a depth to the project and that’s why I built it that way.”
Regarding that point with the depth of the project, what does the movie outside of it’s celluloid depiction represent to you ? ”Well, the characters in the film represent redemption to me. Every character in that film, well, they’re just people who want to get through the day. That’s what people want from life. People think there is some great drama about it, but it’s not. People want to get through the day with a little respect. When you get a little deeper in life, some are seeking redemption for things that they’ve done. So every character in that film at some point is seeking redemption of one kind or another. Ryan comes back a broken man but once he realizes what’s going on he wants to try to save these people who are lost inside this thing that in fact he helped create. He carries that weight. The priest carries that weight. The priest carries knowledge. But for the priest he has to make a decision: Do I break my own vow as a priest if I know something that’s going on, or do I convey that to stop the violence. Even Jonathan LaPaglia who plays Vincent, he would be what you would normally call your antagonist or bad guy in the film. But at one point he sees his wife – who is an Achilles heel – he sees his wife talking to the old boyfriend. At that moment I think that you feel worse for that character in that moment than you feel for any other character at any moment. “
Word has it that your next project will be called ‘Cinderella Knights’ ? ”Now, I actually just optioned three scripts, aside from writing two others ! I just started working with Keanu Reeves’ father, but I was just sent this script and fixed it up for him, nothing else. Next week he’s actually walking that script up to Miramax so another project may have skidded in front of me. If it happens that way, I’m not going to fight it. A number of things like that are going on. I was also just up at Warner Bros.,” he laughs.
If you can, describe the movie in three words ”I can do it in one – REDEMPTION. Part of the craft of what I used, while I was writing it and while I was directing this film was that every time I became a little confused on things, and things got a little muddy, I told every one of my actors, “go to redemption”. In any single moment you’re character just wants to be forgiven.”
What was your reasoning for starting up the rumor of Jordan (Bayne) “dating” Jonathan (LaPaglia) ?”That kept the competition between the two guys on set on screen. I wanted these two guys to be at each others throat in a very sexual way. They have conflict between each other and it manifests itself through violence. But it’s actually a sexual conflict. They are fighting over the same thing in their minds. They are just fighting over the same piece of territory. That could be a motorcycle they both want just as much as a woman they both want. Now Rodrick has a little more insight that this is flesh and blood that he loves. To Vincent it’s just this obsession; he loves her but she’s his Achilles heel. But he will actually destroy her trying to prove his point. That’s just heavy stuff there. Not just casual viewing.”
And that depicts the rape scene to a tee, because there’s about four different things going on in that rape scene ….. ”And none of them’s rape,” he says matter-of-factly. ”I knew we had nailed that scene when Jordan told me that that was her favorite scene in the movie. They say if there’s two or three things you remember in a film that you got a gem there. I think I certainly have three things there.”
Is it true that you wound Ryan (Michael Rodrick) up during filming by convincing him that you knew his old girlfriend and such ?! ”Yeah, we did stuff right before we would wreck the apartment. I said to Leeland the cameraman - right in front of Rodrick, like he wasn’t there – that ‘Mike’s old girlfriend was a piece of ass. Do you think she’s getting laid tonight ?’ He went nuts. I want him to just walk off the set. But that’s the kind of thing from being an actor myself, motivation like that you can’t buy. When I first worked with Vincent Pastore and we did ’Men and Respect’ together there’s this one scene where John Turturro shoots me in the back and kills me and I’m dying and I said to Vincent, punch me in the stomach and he said no. I said yeah, punch me in the stomach come on. So he starts whaling on me and I’m doubled over. The director’s like great, great get on the ground. Turturro looks at my face and I’m dying. So you do stuff like that sometimes. And I think that that transcends the normal sort of acting being neat – I don’t think acting should be neat. I think acting should be messy.”
We are now gonna run a contest to win copies of this new DVD …. ”Can you give me some if you get them,” he laughs. ”Maybe then I can enter and win some DVDs.”
Sure, but first give the readers a question to answer ”Okay, well, name the actor that starred in the same movie with both Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino and what was the movie ?”
To win one of ten DVD copies of ‘Under Hellgate Bridge,' just let us know the answer to Michael's question. Just send an e:mail to me with the subject title 'UHGB' and your answer in the text to:
To check out the 'Under Hellgate Bridge' web site, go to www.underhellgatebridge.com
To check out the beautiful and multi-talented Jordan Bayne, visit her web site at: www.jordanbayne.com
Got any questions or comments for Jordan ? Contact her at:
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