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California Independent Film Fest: Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Exclusive interview with producer Michael Cerenzie, this year's recipient of the festival's Maverick Award

I'm really excited about the California Independent Film Festival next week. This is a fantastic event, every year, but this year's lineup is particularly good. I'll be moderating discussions with legendary football coach John Madden and filmmaker Penny Marshall, actor Mary Stuart Masterson (Some Kind of Wonderful, Fried Green Tomatoes) who will be screening her outstanding directorial debut The Cake Eaters, and film producer Michael Cerenzie, who is receiving the festival's Maverick Award for producing the criminally-underseen crime caper masterpiece, Before the Devil Knows Your Dead.

Devil is a beautifully written, sensationally acted, masterfully directed nailbiter about two brothers (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke) who plan to rob their parents' suburban jewelry store for some quick cash. Things don't go according to plans, and, in classic film noir fashion, all involved get on an express elevator to hell. Directed by the legendary Sidney Lumet, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead was my favorite film of 2007. It will be screened on Friday, April 18 at the Vine Cinema in Livermore (for tickets and info click here), following my on-stage interview with Michael Cerenzie. I had a chance to pre-interview Cerenzie over the phone recently. Here's how it went:

PC: Nice job on Before The Devil Knows You're Dead. I'm a huge fan of film noir, and this was the best contemporary noir I had seen in a long time. I keep telling people to check it out, but I'm about the only person I know who went to see it in the theater.

MC: Thanks. I know, we've had some trouble finding the audience, but it did really well critically. It was on something like 75 top 10 lists. I know a lot of people who went to see it in the theater several times. I think this film will become a cult favorite over time.

PC: Tell me about how the project made it from script to screen.
MC: I first got this project six years ago now. (Screenwriter) Kelly Masterson was a playwrite in New York, his manager is a friend of mine. That's how I got the script. In its original form, most of the structure was there, but we developed it for about three years. We originally had a young director and do this as a Sundance film for $2-$3 million. I showed the script to Philip Seymour Hoffman, but he was busy trying to put Capote together.

So, we got this offer from Artisan to put $1.5 million and I would raise the other half. Then Artisan got bought by Lion's Gate. The project went away. I was devastated.

But later, I found a contact for Sidney Lumet, one of my favorite directors. I grew up on his movies, as well as Scorsese's and Cassavetes'. So I sent the screenplay to Sidney. Oddly enough, he said, "come to my office in 20 minutes". He read it immediately and loved it. He said, "I would really like to take a pass at it."

PC: What is Lumet like in person?
MC: First of all, He's 83 years old but he looks 20 years younger. This was his 46th film. And this was the 50th anniversary of 12 Angry Men.

PC: Besides his incredible resume, what did Lumet bring to the project?
MC: So much. One master stroke was that the Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke characters were originally best friends. What Lumet came up with was to make them brothers, which changed the whole film. It went from a crime drama to a modern day Greek tragedy. He shot on Genesis (digital video) so he could keep several cameras rolling and not have to cut. Also the location: It was originally set in Chicago, he moved it to New York, which worked really well.

PC: How does he direct?
MC: I found his process very interesting. The first thing I noticed, is there is no hierarchy on his set. He does not have star chairs, or any of that. It's more like a theater rehearsal. He does a table reading and reads the script all the way through. Then he rehearses it and tapes off their marks and uses props. So by the day you start shooting they're off book and ready to go. They call him "one take." The average number of takes he will do for a scene is maybe two.

PC: Were you on the set very much during shooting?
MC: I was on the set from the day we started to the day we wrapped. The last day of shooting, I had a chat with Sidney and told him that no matter what happens in the rest of my career, nothing could really top this. I mean, the first movie I went to see in the theater was Lumet's Murder on the Orient Express. My mother took me to see it. This is the guy who made 12 Angry Men, Network, Dog Day Afternoon. And I've had a lot of great moments in my career already, I've been very lucky. I started out in theater, and have had the unbelievable luck to work with Arthur Miller, Eve Ensler, John Patrick Shanley, Wendy Wasserstein. I was lucky enough to work with those kind of literary giants.

PC: You have another new film, called My Sexiest Year. What's it about?
MC: It's coming of age movie about young boy played by Frankie Muniz who goes to live with his father because his mother is dying of cancer. Harvey Keitel is the father, and does a wonderful job in it. He plays a horse junkie, a gambler. Frankie's kid falls in love with this model. It’s a fun sweet little movie, totally the opposite of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead.

PC: When the California Independent Film Festival told you they wanted to honor you with the Maverick Award, how did you react?
MC: When I got the call from the publicist and the director, I was blown away. I was pleased to be honored in the context of independent film. In that sense, this honor meant more to me than an Oscar nomination for Best Picture would have.