I WAS 16 WHEN I found myself living
under Hellgate Bridge in Astoria, Queens. After being kicked out
of four high schools and even my house, I spent a week under that
bridge with six hot­tles ofThunderbird and a case of Ripple. I
was rebellious; it was the ’60s. A week of sleeping on the ground,
hanging out with local drug­gies, and drinking that hooch made
me so sick that, to this day, I can’t stand to smell the stuff.
But after years of playing in bands, acting, writing scripts and
directing, those memories of Hellgate became invaluable when I
decid­ed I needed to make my own movie.

I began my filmmaking journey with an advertisement
in a local paper: MONEY NEEDED TO FINANCE FILM. During the next
two years the ad was answered by mostly really strange people.
I went through so many horror-show meetings that no one believed
I would ever find the money. Finally, though, a legitimate investor
called. We met, I pitched him, and he said he was really interested.
The problem was that he didn’t have enough money to finance the
film I envisioned. Quickly switching gears, I proposed a low-budget
idea that I instantly started mocking up on the three-by-five cards
that happened to be tacked to my corkboard. He liked the concept
and believed in me so much he gave me the ini­tial capital to begin
production on the spot. This was before I had even written a single
word of the script!

Jonathon LaPaglia, Vincent Pastore and Michael
Rodrick in Under Hellgate Bridge (1999).

For the next 28 days I locked myself in my apartment
and wrote Under Hellgate Bridge, a modern-day western set
in present-day Astoria. The structure is right out of the wild
west–there’s a tragedy, and then the reluctant hero rides into
town to set things straight. There’s a fight over a woman and a
shoot-out in a bar-sort of like Shane meets Goodfellas.

Once the script was finished I quickly brought casting
director Michele Ortlip into the project. Because of my own acting
expe­rience, I was really clear on the style and type of actor
I wanted for the script. Remember, casting is your movie! It’s
not  the actor’s fault if he’s not right for a role; it’s your
fault for casting him. But don’t worry-you’ll know when you’ve
found the right person. An actor will walk into the room and simply
make the role his own. You won’t be able to see anybody else as
your character except the actor in front of you.

Casting the right lead for Under Hellgate Bridge was
critical. "Ryan" is a character with a wounded heart
who is seeking redemption, so I needed a very internal actor. When
Michele brought Michael Rodrick to meet me, I knew I’d found Ryan.
By chance, Michael was going through a painful breakup in his personal
life and was forth­coming with me about it. I knew that, like Ryan,
Michael was emotionally vulnerable. All the emotions were just
beneath the sur­face,just waiting to pour out for the camera.

Other casting was equally serendipitous. The role
of Vincent, played by Jonathan LaPaglia, called for a bad guy with
a fatal flaw-he’s in love with his wife. LaPaglia is absolutely
brilliant with that kind of layer­ing. Brian Vincent as "Eddie," Ryan’s
younger brother, and Careena Melia as "Doreen," Eddie’s
girlfriend, both dove into their parts. For research, they both
went for two weeks to a needle exchange program. They blended in
so well that they were actu­ally offered methadone by the clinic.
That’s the level of commitment any director should look for in

Having acted for years on Broadway, in movies and
television, I reached out to actors I’ve worked with in the past.
Vincent Pastore (as "Mitch," Vincent’s associate), Frank
Vincent ("Big Sal," the local mob influence) and I had
worked together on the movie Men of Respect. I was lucky
to get them; they’re both talented veterans with incredible faces
for film. Pastore even introduced me to his old friend, Dominic
Chianese (Johnny Ola in The Godfather II). Chianese was
per­fect for the role of the priest.

I had been working all the while to put – together
a crew, beginning with my terrific – director of photography, Leland
Krane. I told him I wanted the look of Serpico, Godfather and Donnie
. Even with very little money, Krane gave me a film that
looks like a $3-4 million project. As a former gaffer, his lighting
technique is wonderful. We used a 35mm Panavision camera and shot
on Kodak film. While I concentrated on story­telling and directing,
all my key people worked to make the film look expensive.

Sergio: My hair was black before I started this project.

One thing I’ve found is that talent­ed people rise
to the occasion, no matter what the budget. Luckily for me, Isil
Bagdadi worked through the ranks to help me co-produce the film.
Remember those old war movies when guys would get battlefield promotions?
Isil became so valuable on the set I offered her the co-producer
position if she would stay on during post-production. Agreeing
to the new duties, she produced the second unit and pick-up days,
oversaw all the post work, contacted festivals and lawyers, and
has generally kept things moving even when money stopped flowing.
Bottom line: find people who believe in your film-they are the
ones who will help you get it done.

Principle photography took 21 days. We found an empty
three-story building where we filmed for two weeks, so that kept
com­pany moves to a minimum. The structure served as a bar, the
brother’s apartment, an Italian restaurant, and also for holding
and equipment storage. We did four days’ worth of pick-ups with
a minimum crew, and five days worth of beauty shots with just a
cam­eraman, Isil and myself. A pilot friend of mine, Bill Richards
(owner, Film Flyers), was doing helicopter shots for another film,
and he called to see if I wanted to go up and grab some free aerials.
He flew and I operated the

camera. We used a "Tyler" nose mount and
I sat in the back seat with my head buried between my legs, looking
at a small TV monitor on the floor while oper­ating two joy sticks
to control the camera. The big joke was how airsick I got. I’ve
taken more than 2,300 parachute jumps, but had never been sick
like that before. Two days passed before my world stopped spinning.

During post-production we kept running out of money;
I mean we were totally broke. I received dispos­session notices
at least nine times, about a half-dozen final turn-off notices
from Con Ed.-on, and my home phone was off more than it was on.
Making this movie was like being a junkie! Every penny I could
beg, borrow or steal got shot right into the arm of this film.
But even when there was no money, I used the down time to keep
refining the cut. It’s important to make up your mind that nothing
is going to stop you from getting your film madeWhile we searched
for finishing funds, we screened rough cuts directly off the Avid
to attract sound design and music people. I used this "one-step-at-a-time" approach
to getting the film completed.Work on the film, show what you have,
and that attracts people and money. Work some more, show it again,
repeat the process as often as you must.

We were accepted into this year’s Avignon/New York
Film Festival, scraped together just enough money to do one answer
print and screened for the first time to a packed house and total
media madness in New York City. Suddenly we were hot! Still broke,
but hot! Go figure.

Under Hellgate Bridge is starting to get a
lot of attention because some of our actors are taking off. Vincent
Pastore and Dominic Chianese are in the HBO hit show, The Sopranos.
Jonathan LaPaglia is starring in UPN’s top-rated show, Seven
, and Michael Rodrick recently wrapped up on NBC’s popular
soap opera, Another World. It didn’t hurt that Hard Copy
just did a story on us, and we are continuing to build a great
press kit from all the coverage. We’ll be at the Montreal World
Film Festival, then we’ll be at the IFFM, and right after that
we’ll be doing East and West Coast distributor screenings. Hey,
who knows, maybe we’ll get lucky. I’ll let you know. MM