Saturday, November 3, 2007

Running Funny

On first impression, Anthony Grippa strikes you as a likeable, somewhat diffident guy, as much a watcher as a doer. But he obviously knows how to get things done: His first feature is one of the homegrown movies being shown at this year’s New Jersey Film Festival.

The film is Running Funny, and it’s part of the crop of extremely low-budget, do-it-yourself features by young filmmakers with a prosumer video camera and a story to tell. “I decided two or three years ago that I’d get a day job and make my life about getting this film made,” says Grippa, 25. “I watched as more and more of my friends started making more money and getting cool cars and apartments. But I have this film, which to me is a lot more valuable.”

Based on a play by Princeton-based playwright Charles Evered – who’s also Grippa’s uncle – Running Funny tells the story of Ed (Gene Gallerano) and Mike (Maximilian Osinski), friends just out of college who rent a garage together for a few weeks from a wise elderly landlord (Louis Zorich) while trying to figure out what to do with their lives.

Grippa read the play after graduating from Rutgers, when he was living in the same state of confusion as Mike and Ed. He called the man he calls “Uncle Chuck,” who has written movies as well as theatrical plays, and proposed that they turn his 1988 play into a screenplay.

The two agreed not to stray far from the play’s script. “We didn’t want to open it up to much to become something completely different, because the heart of the story is these two guys living in this small apartment-garage,” explains Grippa. “Also, we knew we couldn’t afford to open it up too much, since we’d need to shoot most of it in that one location.”

I wanted to just grab a camera and go do it
Grippa grew up in Upper Saddle River with his psychotherapist mother and two younger sisters. (His father, who runs a business in the Fulton Fish Market, lives with a second wife and their two children.) For the last couple years, he’s been living in Hoboken, working his day job at the Lincoln Center Institute for the Arts in Education, and making and marketing this film on his time off.

“I didn’t want to write a script and wait for somebody to give me $5 million to make a movie, because it just wasn’t going to happen,” says Grippa, who started making short movies in high school. “I wanted to just grab a camera and go do it. I think when you have less resources available, you really learn how creative you can be.”

Making his first feature was a much bigger production than making those high school shorts -- but it was essentially the same process on steroids. The most important thing, Grippa says, was “just committing to it, saying ‘This is what I want to do with my life.’

“I’m the co-writer, I’m the co-producer, I’m the director, I’m the marketing guy, I’m the caterer, I’m the sales guy. It’s basically the best film school I could ask for.”

Getting it made
Making the movie was “definitely a grassroots process,” he says. The key to success was telling everyone he came across about what he was doing, since “you never know who might want to help you out.”

The whole thing cost only $10,000, which he raised from “friends and family, and friends of friends and family. No amount was too small. Some people gave 20 bucks; some people gave a thousand bucks.”

Other things were donated too. He found the garage where they shot in Upper Saddle River after his hometown paper ran a story on the movie and a reader called to offer his garage, free of charge. “It was the first one we looked at, and it was perfect,” Grippa marvels.

An indie filmmaker operating on a shoestring has to be “a great communicator,” he adds. “You have to be able to get people as passionate as you are about what you’re trying to do.”

For his cast and crew, he rounded up a group of people, most of them also starting out their movie careers, who volunteered their time in exchange for adding a feature to their resumes. Grippa was hardly the only one who did more than one job. “The gaffer was also the sound guy; the grip was also helping out with wardrobe,” he says. “Everyone was wearing many different hats. I think everyone was working on it for two reasons: because they really cared about the story and to gain experience.”

For the actors who play Mike and Ed, there was a third reason: “the chance to work with Louis Zorich. They couldn’t turn that down,” says Grippa.

Zorich, who plays the landlord, is best known for his role as Paul Reiser’s character’s father on TV’s Mad About You and for cofounding the Whole Theater in Montclair with his wife, actress Olympia Dukakis. “Louis became involved because he was in my uncle's play The Size of the World about ten years ago when it ran Off Broadway,” says Grippa.

Getting it seen
“In a way, making the movie was the easy part,” says Grippa. “The hard part is getting people to care about it. How do you get them to see it?”

Hoping to interest a distributor in putting the movie into theaters or on DVD, Grippa submitted it to film festivals. So far, it’s been accepted by three, including the Woods Hole Film Festival, where he won the emerging filmmaker award. He does advance publicity for festivals, plastering area coffeeshops with flyers, contacting the media for stories like this one, and “telling everyone I see about the movie.”

And he doesn’t stop with film festivals. “I’ve done all this work for two years, so why do I want to put the life of this movie in the hands of these festival programmers?” he asks. So he’s also screening it at colleges that accept his offer to show the movie and answer questions afterward.

“I think you became a filmmaker by making films,” says Grippa. “I made my feature film for a third of the cost of one year of tuition at NYU film school. The technology is so accessible -- it’s all digital now. You just need a desire to do it and a camera.

“The bad thing is, since more and more people are making films it becomes more difficult to break through the pack.”

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