Left: Director of Photography Al Rodgers (left)and Writer/Producer/Director Fred Carpenter on the set of Jesse, at the DiGangi Estate in Merrick. Right: Actors Sal Serchia (left) and William Forsythe shooting a scene from Fred Carpenter’s Jesse.
The Feature Filmmaker
It’s Friday afternoon and the small lobby at Bellmore Movie Theater is quiet—a cool and shady respite from the hard June sun cooking the storefronts and sidewalks outside. Behind the doors to the screening room, the lights have just gone down and the previews have begun for a 3 p.m. showing of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, playing to a small crowd of mostly seniors who sparsely populate a tiny fraction of the theater’s 350 seats. In the lobby, of course, there is the aroma of buttered popcorn—fat and heavy as a monster-truck tire and immediately, intensely seductive—but the concessions counter itself appears to be temporarily unmanned. Indeed, the entire room is empty and peaceful as an ocean mist. On this particular hazy summer day, it’s a sleepy scene in a sleepy space.
But when Fred Carpenter enters the building, he brings with him a frantic energy that crackles and whirs; he tours the facilities like a tornado laying waste to an especially languid and forgotten patch of Oklahoma plains.
Diminutive and fidgety, with a wild nest of youthful brown curls giving the 57-year-old the appearance of a man a decade or two younger, Carpenter cruises and examines the grounds—poking his head into the screening room; picking up, half-inspecting and summarily dropping with disinterest assorted pamphlets and newsletters and random promotional swag—as if he owns the place.
And maybe, in some sense, he feels like he does: At a table to the right of the ticket booth, standing as tall as Carpenter himself, is a large poster advertising Carpenter’s new film—a vigilante thriller called Jesse (named after its titular protagonist, fictional Long Island cop Jessica Weinstein, played by former wrestler Stephanie Finochio)—which will close out the opening night of the 14th annual Long Island International Film Expo (LIIFE), to be held in this very theater in not a week’s time.
“It feels outstanding,” says Carpenter, about his new film’s appearance at the LIIFE. “Making a film in our backyard, and then getting people to see it? It’s a great thing.”
Carpenter is one of many Long Island filmmakers who will be featured at the festival—a festival that welcomes and accepts submissions from filmmakers around the world (this year’s Expo features films from Australia, the Philippines, North Wales, Taiwan, Kenya…), but which puts on display an abundance of local talent, too.
Opening Night is Friday, July 8, and then, Bellmore Movie Theater will not be nearly so placid as it is right now. Tickets for this screening of Jesse are already sold out. Carpenter’s film will play to a packed house, just as it did back in April, when it sold out its world premiere at Manhattan’s Soho International Film Festival. Jesse is Carpenter’s 14th picture—a feature-length narrative with some recognizable names attached, including Eric Roberts, Armand Assante and William Forsythe.
Coincidentally, this is the 14th year of the Long Island International Film Expo. In 1998, the Expo’s inaugural season, it took place at the considerably smaller Malverne Cinema and Arts Centre—whose largest theater seats 189 people—and showcased only 40 films. This year, the festival will screen more than 115 pictures, and will span a full week’s time, starting with a “warm-up” night on July 7 and closing out on July 14 with the LIIFE Closing Party and Awards Ceremony, which will honor one of Long Island’s most prominent independent filmmakers, Valley Stream native Ed Burns—perhaps best known for his 1995 breakthrough debut, The Brothers McMullen, which told the story of a Long Island family and was filmed mostly in Burns’ real-life Long Island home.
Fred Carpenter shoots on Long Island, too—exclusively. For his 2006 film, Eddie Monroe, Carpenter had scripted a few scenes that were taking place in New Orleans, but with neither the budget nor the inclination to move the production to Louisiana, he instead shot those scenes in Bellport.
“A lot of the houses there look like Southern homes,” he says. “You would never know the difference.”
Fred Carpenter lives in Shirley, a continent away from Hollywood in both geographic and cultural terms. He got his bachelor’s degree in film and theater at Stony Brook University. After graduation, he got a job at United Artists in Manhattan, and from there, moved on to Paramount Pictures, working as an assistant publicist. (He describes it as being “like a gopher,” his role including such responsibilities as picking up Warren Beatty at the airport and finding opera tickets for Jack Nicholson; says Carpenter, “I can’t tell you how many famous people I worked with and met.”) But he left Paramount to make independent films. He has done just that—made independent films, been an indepedent filmmaker—for the last 25 years. His definition of that word, “independent,” differs from the one that describes the pictures that play today in most arthouse cinemas.
“My Big Fat Greek Wedding is known as the most successfull independent film ever made,” he says (indeed, it grossed some $241 million in North America alone). But, Carpenter points out: That picture was executive-produced by Tom Hanks; it was distributed by a major studio (IFC Films); and it cost $5 million to make. “By Hollywood standards, a $5 million budget is nothing,” he says. “But doing what I do, $5 million is a lot of money.”
Here, Carpenter is understating the case: In fact, it’s an unheard-of sum. It cost $150,000 to make Jesse. Over the last few decades, Carpenter has learned how to get $20 value from every $1 spent. He works with a skeleton crew: six people. (By comparison, for instance, Richard Linklater’s 2004 “indie” success, Before Sunset, starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, had a crew of approximately 130 people, according to Internet Movie Database.) He’s the writer/producer/director, yes, but he’s also the first AD, the second AD, the production manager… He even coordinates the catering.
“I’ve got to do things that you really don’t want to do as a director,” he says. “But if you want to make a film that’s going to compete, and it’s going to look and sound like a Hollywood movie, you’ve got to bust your butt. You’ve got to work very hard.”
And while $150,000 is a microfraction of anything that might be screened at a stadium-seating multiplex, it is still money. For Carpenter, that money comes from friends, family, a small group of investors.
Says Carpenter, “On a Hollywood movie, $150,000 will feed a crew dinner for two days.” Of course, he understands too that this is not a reasonable justification for a subpar product. “When you make a movie, most people don’t care that you made it for a hundred and fifty grand,” says Carpenter. “They’re comparing it to that $100 million film they just saw in the theater.”
As a filmmaker, Carpenter prizes script and acting above all. He firmly believes in the entertainment value of film. He sees Jesse as a franchise—he’ll be filming its sequel next summer—and he’s pitching to networks now a reality TV series that would follow his cast and crew through the making of the movie. He sees Web as the future of film; on his website, idriveinmovie.com, visitors can watch his pictures for free. Carpenter lives and breathes motion pictures, but he admits it is an ascetic lifestyle.
“If you really want to do this, and you really want to keep going, you’re sacrificing a lot,” he says. “Trust me, the Christmases are becoming very lonely.”
But Carpenter doesn’t know that it could have been any other way.
“My drug and alcohol is making films,” he says. “I’m not a drinker, I’d never do drugs, but making films… It can be very frustrating.”
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