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Film

Hometown Boys

Baltimore-bred Hollywood-types explain how to get a movie made

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Vera Farmiga and Andy Garcia in Middle-Aged People’s rom-com At Middleton

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Libowitz, Rodgers


At Middleton

Directed by Adam Rodgers

Now Playing at the Rotunda Cinemas

We met via conference call with Adam Rodgers and Sig Libowitz, respectively co-writer/director and producer of the new film At Middleton—starring Andy Garcia (The Godfather: Part III, Oceans 11 through 13) and Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air, The Departed)—a sweet but not completely sunny Man-Meets-Woman story, set in a walking tour of the titular college campus their children are considering. This romantic comedy allows Farmiga and Garcia to literally romp through the scenery and get a little meta with the acting game. First, before discussing the project, we verified Adam and Sig’s Baltimore credentials.

Adam Rodgers: I was born at Sinai Hospital, grew up in Baltimore County, the Liberty Road area, moved to Greenspring Valley, Owings Mills, went to Pikesville, went to Hebrew school, played little league, did everything a Baltimore kid does. It’s funny, Sig grew up a stone’s throw from me, we didn’t know each other when we were kids, but years later it turns out we both went to NYU, and Sig, who’s an actor as well as a producer, auditioned for a thesis film I was making at NYU, but anyway, like Sig said, we’re homegrown.

Sig Libowitz: I was, like Adam, born at Sinai Hospital, so, you know, we started working there as infants.

AR: I think we put together a good TV pitch there, didn’t we?

SL: We sure as heck did. If only Nickelodeon was around then, I’m sure we’d have sold ’em. I grew up in the city, graduated from Poly, lived in the Reisterstown Road area for a while, Park Heights, went away to NYU. As Adam mentioned, he was in the film program. I started out in the acting program, and we wound up meeting on his senior film, which ended up being a finalist for the top prize there, at NYU film school. I auditioned, got the call back, and he said, “We’re gonna be shooting this in Baltimore,” and I said “Baltimore? That’s funny! I’m from there!” He was at Pikesville, I was at Poly, there was a couple years’ age difference, and it was just kind of this amazing bond. And we met Glenn German, who co-produced the film with me, and he co-wrote the screenplay with Adam, and we’ve been working in different combinations ever since. Prior to this, Adam and I worked on a film that we shot in Baltimore called The Response. It was a short film based upon the actual transcripts of the Guantanamo Bay military tribunals which was shortlisted for an Oscar.

CP: You got Andy Garcia and Vera Farmiga here, and they’re both people who like to get behind their own projects. How do you get them to be interested in your film?

AR: I think what really drives films getting made out here, you know, or getting financed, originating in Los Angeles, is always gonna be talent, meaning the actors, and then if you sort of connect the next dot, what really motivates great actors, you know, obviously they’re business people too, they need to make a living, and get a payday, and deservedly so, but what often drives their desires is great roles. We just spent a long time on this script, and a long time developing the characters, and Glenn and I have written 15 scripts together, so we have been working at our craft for quite awhile, and so we just got very lucky, because it was a good piece of material, and Andy and Vera just responded to it very quickly.

CP: So how do you get in a room with Andy Garcia?

SL: It’s really all about the script. Anything you do—you know this as an audience member—people are hungry for a good film and a good screenplay, so much is passed around that’s, you know, OK, and when something has some heart, you know, and it has a voice, you just find that people really respond to it, and suddenly all these hard iron doors open up. And that’s really what happened here, when we got it to Andy’s representative, everybody just responded to the screenplay, because it’s certainly wasn’t like we could offer Ocean’s Eleven money. You know what I mean?

AR: Just sort of logistically, Joe, if you’re curious, the way it works is we had brought on, early in our process, a casting director. This is often a good way to get independent films off the ground, the paradox is always: How do you get an actor to commit without a solid guaranteed money offer? You need the actor to commit to get your financing in place, but you can’t offer money until you have money—you know, just thousands of those stories daily in Hollywood—so one way around it is if you get a casting director on board, who has good relationships, they can sometimes get an agency, like Andy’s agency, which is Paradigm, to get him to read it, to see if he’s interested. And we knew Andy had produced films and he understands the game. He came on first. So Andy was willing to come on with no guaranteed fee yet, with the understanding that we would all raise the money together.

CP: People do things for love or they do ’em for money. You got Andy, who’s doing it for love, you get the script to him, and he looks at it, and it’s something that he wants to do, and like you said, it’s not Ocean’s Twelve or whatever.

AR: Yeah, and look, Andy’s a very savvy businessman too, and with some projects, you’ll get a fee upfront, and that’s fine; and with others, I think he did do it for the love. But, you know, as a producer in the movie, with a huge stake in it, Andy is at heart a filmmaker. He’s not just an actor and he wants to do things that inspire him. And frankly, it’s hard to do anything in Hollywood, it’s hard to whether you’re an animator at Nickelodeon or you’re making a TV show or a hundred-million-dollar action movie. Everything’s difficult.

CP: I like that, “Everything is difficult.” [laughs]

AR and SL: [laughs]

AR: You might as well pick something you love.

CP: Vera Farmiga, kind of the same way, she got a look at the script and she got interested in it that way?

AR: We had our press junket yesterday in Los Angeles, which was great, everyone sitting around tables and talking to journalists and TV reporters, and Vera said she gets offered and takes so many dramatic roles, and she’s in these wonderful horror movies, and she told us, across the table, “When I got this, it was just so much fun.” I think she—and Andy is the same way—these are amazing dramatic actors who’ve been nominated for work like this, you know, for dramatic work, and they often don’t get a chance to do comedy and to do physical comedy and to do something with a lot of joy in it. So she said it reminded her of Carol Burnett and Lucille Ball, and just a chance to play.

CP: So it’s like, then you got two people, Andy Garcia and Vera Farmiga are like “the Elements,” the things that help you get your movie made, and I think I was watching the Golden Globes and the movie 12 Years a Slave won a prize, and you look at all the people in that movie, and they specifically thanked Brad Pitt and said, “We wouldn’t have got the movie made without you,” and I’m like “Oh yeah, not because he’s super-important in the movie, but because he’s Brad Pitt.”

SL: Yep.

AR: Everything out here is—it’s interesting, because you have various ways to finance an indie film, and there are a lotta ways to skin a cat, but at the end of the day, it’s a business, so people wanna know whether it’s gonna be playing on a screen in Paris or Bulgaria or VOD download in Brazil, you know? What drives everything out here really is “Who’s in your movie?” Look, this is a good thing, this is why I go to the movies, if someone tells me, “Oh, I saw this trailer,” “OK, who’s in it? Paul Giamatti? OK, I’m there.” So in a completely non-cynical way, it’s great that we have stars and that they are a big part of American cinema.

CP: So you’re non-cynical?

AR: No, I’m cynical about a lot of things but not about that. These are very special, talented people, who have this amazing gift, and they elevate your material, and it made my job really fun, really easy. It’s like, you know, you’re hiring these thoroughbreds, and so it was a pleasure. I think this is the kind of movie that’s for my demographic, probably your demographic too, Joe, Sig’s. It’s a little bit of old-school, a good story, a sweet story, I think well-told, and oddly enough, they’re harder to find. And those are the movies that inspired me when I was starting out. I think the people who invested in our movie, who did support the movie financially, I think they thought we were nice guys and they liked Andy and Vera, but I think they also saw an opportunity to help put together a movie that would be appealing to a lot of people of our age group.

CP: Do you get yourself in trouble for saying it’s for somebody who’s had some life experience?

AR: Not at all, I think—look, we exist now, it’s a very strange landscape where there’s so many outlets and there’s so many niches. We, all of us on the call here, grew up when M*A*S*H was watched by 15 million people a week, and that was sort of remarkable, but now, you can have a very successful movie if 3 million people get to it, or with some TV shows, half that number. Obviously we have high hopes that as many people as possible will see it, and oddly enough, on our Facebook page and Twitter, a lot of people sort of in that 18- to 29-year-old group seem to be responding to the movie, which puzzles me in a way, but maybe it’s, to them, like when I first discovered these great old romances when I was their age, when I saw Roman Holiday, and I thought This is really cool. So people in that demographic get bombarded with all the edgy stuff that they’re used to seeing, so this sweet little movie comes along, it’s just kinda different.

CP: Right, it’s not nihilistic and there’s no rocketships and there’s no explosions.

AR: No serial killers, no disembowelings, hell, I watch those too—

SL: Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

AR: Not that there’s anything wrong with disembowelment. I watched Spartacus, I love the Starz show, top to bottom, all three seasons. Hopefully, people see that it’s a good story.

CP: And then you throw in that little nod to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and it’s just an interesting little moment, little splash in the film, the only other film I can think of right now that did that recently was Prometheus, which was a rocketship show.

AR: For years in the script it was Jules and Jim, we finally—poor Sig—had to face the Jules and Jim estate, and it was very clear we were not gonna get Jules and Jim for the money we had in the budget.

CP: How does that work, how do they ask you for money? Isn’t there just kind of a set, it’s a royalty situation, you gotta negotiate that?

SL: You know, Joe, like much in life and everything in film, everything is negotiable. They of course have a standard fee, and one of the things that’s fun about producing and working in independent films is because you have such little money, you can be very upfront and honest, you know? It’s kind of a good thing, it’s like, “This is what we’ve got, we can offer you this.” But they asked for a—how should I put it diplomatically?—an exorbitant amount, there was just no way around that. Fortunately, Glenn, who wrote the script with Adam, did some research, and another film that really worked well and was such a beautiful film—it was like “oh, yes, of course, why didn’t we think of that?”—was [The] Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and we contacted them, explained the situation, they asked for their initial amount, and we said, “We totally understand, that makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, we don’t have the budget for that,” and they laughed, the woman who represented the estate was very kind, she asked some questions and she saw that we were good kids from Baltimore and she said, “Sure, let’s work this out.”

CP: That’s nice.

SL: See? Nice people in France.

CP: The location [eastern Washington state], for me, it was so idyllic, it was such an idyll for them, you kind of understood, and they’re sitting around and looking out at a beautiful field, or they’re up on that bell tower looking out over everything, and everything is just so pleasant, and stuff like that.

AR: You couldn’t make this movie at MIT, no one would buy it.

CP: Yeah, you’d have to go back to the disembowelings.

AR: Exactly.

SL: It’s really fun for two guys from Baltimore to have a film coming back. We made our previous film in Baltimore, it’s our hope to bring more films back here.

CP: Great. Everybody wants that, everybody wants more of that kinda stuff here, so thank you, guys.

SL: Absolutely, thank you.

AR: Thanks, Joe.

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