Friday, April 18, 2008

Wanna See Something Really Scary?

With Creedence Clearwater Revials' The Midnight Special playing sinisterly over a Californian mountain road, Twilight Zone The Movie is my pick for best anthology wraparound story.

Dan Aykroyd presumably plays a hitchhiker Albert Brooks picked up along the way, and they sing along with The Midnight Special as anyone on a road trip would do.

But of course, since the tape player belongs to Albert Brooks, it breaks down.

Musicless, the guys entertain themselves by playing 'Guess the TV theme tune'

This inevitably brings up the topic of The Twilight Zone's memorable theme song, and a discussion of favourite episodes. Even people who don't enjoy self referential humor will get caught up in this story. I won't spoil the rest of the opening, but suffice it to say, it's terrifically creepy. Kudos John Landis!

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Interview With John DeBellis

Here's a longer version of my interview with John DeBellis that ran in the April 10th issue of Uptown Magazine.

John DeBellis knows comedy. This is evident in an interview I did to promote the release of his first film, The Last Request, which hits DVD on April 22. He was a part of the New York stand up scene in its heyday alongside Bill Maher and Larry David, (“We used to go down and watch Larry bomb because he was so funny when he bombed - he would yell at people.”) and his writing skills were honed on shows like Saturday Night Live and Politically Incorrect. His work on television taught him discipline and the ability to improvise scenes on the spot. During the run of D.C. Follies, a Spitting Image like political satire produced by Sid and Marty Kroft, DeBellis explains, “At times guests wouldn’t show, and we’d have to go walk on the lot, and find a guest. We’d essentially have 15 minutes to write the sketch, so it becomes second nature to improvise.” DeBellis has fond memories of working with the legendary creators of Land of the Lost and HR Pufnstuff. “The writers’ guild went on strike, and at the time, I was getting good residuals from that show – and I love the Krofts – but Marty is kind of like one of those guys, almost like Danny Devito on Taxi, that you love to hate. You know he’s going to do something ornery. And so half way through the strike, all of a sudden, the residual cheques stopped – Marty had taken all the money and gone to Cannes. He took all of the writers’ money, and we had to go to court to get it back, but you couldn’t hate him! There was just a loveable side to him, you’d just say ‘oh yeah, that’s Marty’. He’s the same guy, when one of the writers thought he was having a heart attack – it ended up being a panic attack – but Marty took him to the hospital and was screaming at the doctors to look at him. He would give you everything. You forgive that scoundrel part of him because he would go to the wall for you on a lot of other levels.”

His first feature, The Last Request is a broad comedy in the best possible way; Danny Aiello plays a dying stand up comedian whose sole wish for a grandchild is unfulfilled when one of his sons literally dies trying to accomplish the request. This leaves his only other son, played by T.R. Knight of Grey’s Anatomy, no other choice but to drop out of seminary school to make pop happy. Knight’s character is thrown head first into the singles scene, and goes on a series of disastrous dates that includes jealous conjoined twins and a threesome between a hand puppet and a Rosalind Russell channeling Mary Birdsong (Reno 911). The film also has a sweet side to it, and is most successful detailing the relationship between Knight and his co-worker Sabrina Lloyd, at Encore Acres, a rest home devoted to retired actors. Tony Lo Bianco, frequently cast as streetwise cops or thugs in movies like The French Connection and God Told Me To, plays against type as a classic movie star with elaborate remembrances of his old career. Last Request’s ensemble also includes Barbara Feldon, Gilbert Gottfried, Joe Piscopo and Mario Cantone. DeBellis told me, “We got lucky. Buddy Mantia, the creative producer, knew most of the actors, so we were able to get great cast. We originally had Robert Loggia as the father, and because of a pilot commitment, he dropped out. Buddy knew Danny for over 30 years, so we drove over to his house with the script. We knew if we got him reading and laughing, he would do it.”

Shooting on a low budget in 19 days was a daunting task, but DeBellis says it’s easy if you have good crew. “Our director of photography, Dan Karlok, was amazing, and has won a couple of Emmys. He shot on 24p video, but it looks like film, you could never tell the difference.” When they realized they needed a top notch editor to fine tune the movie in postproduction, they were helped by no less than Woody Allen. “Woody recommended Bob Reitano, who had done Sleepless In Seattle and a whole mess of big films. Bob did it for half of the money he gets because he liked what he had seen, and he did a great job.” He went on to say, “I don’t believe in that whole thing ‘it’s a film by’. It’s never that, it’s a group effort. It takes a good group of people to make a film. The real ego is the film, everything else is secondary. If you have a good dp, a good editor, and good writing, you basically need a bad director to screw it up.”

With wins for Best Film at The New York Independent Film And Video Festival and Best Director at The Drake at the International Film Festival in Naples, DeBellis couldn’t be more happy with the movie. “The whole design was to do a real simple story, and just make you laugh. I feel like we’ve succeeded. Anytime we’ve seen it with a full audience, it’s exploded.”

Check out John DeBellis' site here.