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MOVIES : ON LOCATION : Weegee’s Tabloid World : The very busy Joe Pesci finds a role he can’t refuse--a night-prowling artist with a camera straight out of the pages of Damon Runyon

<i> Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar</i>

Movies about artists are notoriously difficult to pull off. Actor Joe Pesci, who’s currently working in “The Public Eye,” a movie loosely based on the life of the ‘40s tabloid photographer Weegee, has an idea about why that is.

“The hardest thing about this part is trying to communicate what an artist really is,” says Pesci on “The Public Eye” set at the Santa Clarita Studios. “To show this man’s involvement with his work, how he thinks and feels about it--these are hard things to convey in lines of dialogue, and maybe that’s why movies about artists don’t do well at the box office.

“Another reason they do poorly is because they’re often boring,” he adds with a wicked gleam in his eye. “I try to bring a little fun to all my characters, a little black humor, and I hope I’m adding that here as well.”

Last year’s supporting actor Academy Award winner for his ferocious performance as a murderous thug in Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas,” Pesci seems ideally cast in the part of Bernzy, the lead character in “The Public Eye.” Physically, he bears a strong resemblance to Weegee, whose shockingly raw photo essay on New York, “Naked City,” was hailed as a brilliant synthesis of fine art and photo journalism when it was published in 1945. Moreover, Pesci’s penchant for black humor is well suited to the character of a night-prowling urban photographer who specializes in the macabre, grisly and weird; the part allows him plenty of room for the kind of gritty, street-tough vamping he does so well.

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The fact that Pesci is on a post-Oscar roll--he recently starred in “The Super” and “My Cousin Vinny” and will soon go to work on “Lethal Weapon III” and “Home Alone II"--may help “The Public Eye” surmount the artist-film stigma when it’s released next spring. Even more helpful is that “The Public Eye” is set in Manhattan’s violent underworld; gangland shoot-'em-ups have always done well at the box office.

“Movies about artists are very difficult to pull off,” concedes Howard Franklin, who wrote the script for “The Public Eye” and makes his directorial debut here. “However, we have an advantage in that the world Bernzy inhabits is visually sensational and highly cinematic.”

Forties gangland dramas set in New York are indeed highly cinematic, but they’re certainly not new. The opulent nightclubs, rain-drenched streets, shootouts in Little Italy--we’ve seen them dozens of times before. What we haven’t seen is a ‘40s movie that attempts to duplicate the hard, cold immediacy of Weegee’s photographs.

“So many movies set in the ‘40s have a sepia-tone or a Technicolor look, but we wanted to avoid anything with a nostalgic feeling, so we shot in very high contrast--we wanted a crisp look with an edge,” says Franklin in describing the visual style of the film. “We considered shooting it in black-and-white--and for certain sequences where we see things from Bernzy’s point of view the film does shift to black-and-white--but it’s very self-conscious to shoot in black-and-white now, so we decided not to do that. Plus, I had different goals in mind here.

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“New York feels like a very lonely place in those old tabloid photographs, partly because the foreground subject has that flash of light in the face, while the background falls into darkness,” he explains. “One of my intentions was to try and re-create that sense of startling foreground and infinite background in a moving picture. It’s very hard to do.”

Franklin got a jump on achieving the look he desired when he hired Peter Suschitzky, a cinematographer with a flair for the offbeat (Suschitzky recently completed shooting David Cronenberg’s adaptation of William Burrough’s underground classic, “Naked Lunch”). However, Franklin’s effort to conjure a view of Manhattan as seen with the probing cruelty of the voyeur’s gaze was made considerably more difficult by the fact that the union situation in New York made it financially impossible to shoot there.

So, in July, the cast and crew traveled to the Midwest and began the 13-week shoot in Cincinnati’s “Over-the-Rhine” district, a picturesque neighborhood that’s gone untouched by time for decades, and hence looks more like ‘40s New York than anything in Manhattan. (Several recent films, including “City of Hope,” “Little Man Tate,” and “Rage in Harlem” were shot there.) Working with a budget of $15 million, the company then moved to Chicago for a few weeks of shooting before arriving in L.A. in mid-September to complete the film, which recently wrapped. Local sequences include scenes shot at the Orpheum Theater on Broadway and an abandoned downtown bank; however, the bulk of the work in L.A. was done on a soundstage at Santa Clarita Studios. It was there that production designer Marcia Hinds oversaw the creation of a painstakingly detailed replica of a plush Art Deco nightclub, replete with massive hand-painted mural and exquisite period glassware.

“To be in three cities and try and cast extras in all those places, and have enough lead time to scout locations and see sets--the logistics of this film have been quite challenging,” says Franklin of the shoot, which was overseen by producer Sue Baden-Powell. “I think people will be convinced we shot in New York though because we went to enormous effort--we spent endless hours in the bowels of buildings re-creating scenes from 50 years ago.”

While Franklin’s attempt to create a unique and authentic period look that reflects Weegee’s sensibility will no doubt be of interest to photography buffs, that’s not what attracted the principal participants to the project.

Barbara Hershey, who is cast as a glamorous nightclub owner of questionable ethics who steals Bernzy’s heart and then sets him up, says she was intrigued by the script “because I’d never seen a movie about these people before.”

“I was interested in this story because it sheds some light on these tabloid photographers who were the forefathers of the paparazzi ,” said executive producer Robert Zemeckis, whose hit films “Back to the Future I, II & III” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” gave him the clout required to get a picture like this made. “But, whereas those guys in the ‘40s had integrity, this genre of photography has really gotten out of hand today, and the film raises timely questions concerning the ethics of the press and how far one should go in pursuit of a story or news photo. The ethical issues in this film are very adult and serious.

“Getting this movie to the people is going to be tough, but I think there’s an audience for anything that’s good,” adds Zemeckis, who became friends with Franklin in 1983 when Franklin was hired to do a rewrite on Zemeckis’ script for “Romancing the Stone.” “It’s been proven time and again that it’s impossible to second-guess audience taste, and how wrong it is to say things like ‘nobody wants to see a movie about an artist.’ ”

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It certainly seems wrong to presume audiences wouldn’t be interested in a colorful character like Weegee, a flamboyant figure straight out of the pages of a Damon Runyon novel. Though Franklin stresses “we didn’t need to clear the script with the Weegee estate because my character is not Weegee--he was simply the launching point for the story,” Pesci’s Bernzy is a dead ringer for Weegee.

Born in Poland in 1899, Weegee (whose real name was Usner Fellig) was the son of Jewish refugees who emigrated to the United States in 1909, where Fellig led the life of a poor street urchin on New York’s Lower East Side. Fellig had every crummy job in the book before finally stumbling into photography while in his 20s, when he began working as a free-lance news photographer. In an effort to be the first on the scene of any photo opportunity, he obtained his own police radio, which gave him the jump on the rest of the press corps.

Unaware of his secret weapon, Fellig’s New York cohorts nicknamed him Ouija for his uncanny knack of being first at the scene of the crime. A shameless self-promoter who favored a ruthlessly invasive style of picture taking, Weegee published several books and came to Hollywood to try to break into the movie business before dying of a brain tumor in 1968.

Franklin’s interest in Weegee began in 1982, when he saw an exhibition of tabloid photography at the International Center for Photography (ICP) in New York. Born in Southern California and educated at Berkeley, where he received a degree in literature, Franklin moved to New York in 1976 with dreams of being a novelist.

“I arrived in New York during a period when it was really tough to get a first novel published. A friend of mine told me I should quit knocking myself out and that if I wrote movie scripts I’d be able to sell them, and that proved to be true almost immediately,” recalls Franklin, who wrote the screenplay for the Ridley Scott thriller “Someone to Watch Over Me,” and co-wrote the film adaptation of “The Name of the Rose.” “I sold my first script--a comedy about a guy in an auto factory--to the Ladd Company in 1981, then I sort of got the bug and started dreaming of directing like everybody else.

“When I saw Weegee’s photographs at the ICP, I was really fascinated and immediately began thinking about his images in terms of a movie. The script I originally wrote nine years ago was a story about wanting to make it as an artist--probably because it was only the second script I’d written and that’s where I was at in my own life,” adds Franklin, who is now 37. “As I got older and continued to work on it, it evolved into a story about the sacrifices you have to make if you’re serious about your work. At first I was eager to sell the script, but couldn’t. Several years later various directors and actors tried to option it, but by the time people started being interested in the script, I’d decided I wanted to direct it myself.”

Before diving into “The Public Eye,” Franklin went through what he describes as “my $10 film school” when he co-wrote and co-directed the 1991 film “Quick Change,” with Bill Murray, who also starred in the film. (Oddly enough, Franklin’s pal Murray is currently teamed with Pesci’s longtime pal Robert De Niro in the John McNaughton film “Mad Dog and Glory,” in which De Niro plays an eccentric police photographer named Mad Dog.) Throughout the making of “Quick Change,” Franklin was mulling “The Public Eye” over in his mind and sifting through ideas about the creative structure of the film. One thing he was sure of from the start, however, was that he wanted Pesci in the lead role.

“Many people who’ve read the script assumed I wrote it specifically for Joe and he has always felt exactly like the character to me,” says Franklin. “Bernzy’s style of photography is similar to Joe’s style of acting in that both are very naked--there’s nothing between the viewer and the image. There are lots of actors who can turn in incredible performances, but they can’t resist telling you ‘by the way, this is technique--I’m not really like this.’ But great actors like Joe don’t leave any fingerprints on the picture.”

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Pesci says he does feel remarkably comfortable in the role even though “I’d never heard of Weegee before this film and never worked a camera in my life. After I was cast, I read all the books on Weegee, and I looked at a video of a silly little movie he made--he’s in it, and he’s goofy in it. I must say, we do resemble each other. He was squatty and had my type of face, and with a cigar in my mouth I look quite a bit like him--I started smoking cigars to get a feel for him.”

In addition to mastering the cigar, the role required Pesci to learn how to handle the vintage Speed Graphic camera that was favored by ‘40s news photographers.

“I don’t want to pat myself on the back, but I learned how to work that camera in one day,” he says munching on a saltine cracker during a chat in his mobile dressing room. An engagingly candid man who manages to take his work very seriously while viewing the movie industry with complete irreverence, the 48-year-old actor clearly enjoys the technical aspect of his profession. “I’m talking about all day long though--it took me maybe 12 hours of concentrated effort. Ben Glass, who’s the still photographer on the film, and I stood in a room and I took pictures of Ben all day long. (Glass also shot the photographs used as Bernzy’s work in the film). I just kept popping bulbs out and changing the plates all day until my thumbs were blistered. So now when I pick up the camera it feels natural to me.”

The thing about this shoot that doesn’t feel natural to Pesci is Franklin’s insistence that the actors stick rigorously to the script. “Anytime anybody has a great idea, I’m more than happy to get it on film and get credit for having written,” says Franklin in explaining his thoughts about improvisation. “However, this is basically an old-fashioned script in that the plot is so tightly woven it doesn’t lend itself to improvisation.”

“Actors and directors always have different points of view they have to resolve,” counters Pesci, “and the other day I told Howard, again, that the director takes the script away from the writer and the actor takes the script away from the director. In this case, Howard is both writer and director and I don’t think he’s ever given up control of the script--he caresses it too close sometimes and that gets in my way as an actor.

“When he saw the character I put together he told me I was Bernzy for him, but that doesn’t mean he defers to me when we have a difference of opinion,” he continues. “I often add things to my character that he likes and accepts, but he still always has to see his creation come to life first. I find it constraining to have to stick to the script because I like things closer to true life. I like to embellish on what’s there, to loosen it up somehow--that’s how I work as an actor, and I’m trying to do it here but it hasn’t been easy. Barbara’s right there with me too--she’s the same kind of actress, and I don’t think Howard can deal with that. He’s very open-minded, but as I said, he’s so in love with his script he can only see it one way.”

Having talked on this subject at some length, Pesci catches himself and says “Look, maybe I’m just overtired. I’ve been making movies back to back for 2 1/2 years and I have a couple more to do after this one. At this point I’m sick of making movies. I have three movies coming out next year, but I might not make any more after that--I mean it, I might just stop, cause I don’t want to be famous for being famous. I feel like my whole life is being taken away by this and I don’t like it. You go on location and you work 14-hour days six days a week--it’s a bizarre existence. I was watching myself the other night on a TV interview and I couldn’t relate to the person I was seeing--I didn’t know who he was! I relate better to the fictional characters in the movies I make because I spend all my time with them. This is a change in my life I don’t like at all.”

Such are the perils of winning an Academy Award. Fortunately for Franklin, Pesci still seems able to muster a good deal of enthusiasm for the character of Bernzy--and, despite Pesci’s comments, the shoot seems to be progressing harmoniously. Of course, it’s only fitting that there be a little conflict on this set, as Weegee was the antithesis of the team player. He was a hardened outsider who played by nobody’s rules but his own. Franklin got the casting right on “The Public Eye.”


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