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A Jewish man - his bald spot - the Virgin Mary?  Oy!


About the Production

The idea for StigmatZa had been brewing in Jesse Levy's head for many years.  Fascinated by the bizarre Virgin Mary sightings happening on tacos and in oil stains on glass windows, he started wondering what if things got even more absurd?  What would happen if she appeared on the back of a Jewish guy’s head – as his bald spot?  Years later he was in a Santa Monica coffee shop talking to his writer friend from New York, Bill Ando out west on a visit.  They talked about collaborating on a script.  That script ended up being an episode of 100 Deeds for Eddie McDowd, a Nickelodeon show Jesse was working on at the time.  Nickelodeon never bought that script but several people told him that he and Ando had indeed captured the flavor and humor of the show.  This encouraged them to try again.  Bill urged Jesse to sit down and write the Virgin Mary thing, as it was then called.  Jesse took a stab at it, sent it electronically to Bill who added some lines and jokes, and the script was on its way.

What about casting?  Levy was reluctant to put himself into the picture because he wanted to concentrate solely on directing (although he does have his “Hitchcock cameo” as the guy whose foot get stepped on).  He and three actor friends, Michael Immel, Ernie Miyares and David Keats, a recent transplant to California, were sitting in a Los Feliz restaurant talking about projects they wanted to do.   “I mentioned the Virgin Mary idea and the guys laughed. They thought it was a great idea for a story.”  So, Immel, Keats and Miayres were tapped to play roles.  The rest of the cast was comprised of old theater friends, industry acquaintances, and newcomers.  Luckily for the filmmakers, six-year old Brandon Leon, who plays the son of Mr. and Mrs. Rodriguez, actually looks like he could be their child.  He came with the apartment where they shot that scene.  Levy worked at Disney with the boy’s mother who was gracious enough to let them shoot there and use her son.  He now wants to be an actor.

“So, we were thinking this would make a good short film, but we didn’t know how to get started,” said Levy.  It was Levy’s friend Michael Immel whose enthusiasm for the project got things rolling  (The two had been friends since meeting on a bus and truck tour of West Side Story, which played throughout Europe in 1988 and lasted a year).  Immel suggested they seek out his friend Chris Armbrister who has his own production company (Arthur’s Realm Productions) as well as equipment they might be able to rent.  This is how the next phase began.  With money from Immel and Levy’s credit cards and a rental agreement for equipment, they began the laborious pre-production process.

Levy secured the services of the three directors of photography (their schedules dictated this arrangement) from the Eddie McDowd crew.  Each one, Andrew J. Giannetta, Jeff Baustert and Greg Williams brought their talent, extensive knowledge and experience to the shoot.  “We had a fun set.  Jesse kept things light and loose and we all contributed.  It was a good experience,” said Baustert.  “We laughed a lot,” recalled Chris Armbrister of the atmosphere during shooting, “The schedule was well planned out, as much as it can be, and we had a good time.”

Shooting started on September 8th and 9th of 2001.  Two days later, the World Trade Centers were destroyed.  “All of us were stunned.” Levy remembers. “The air was charged with confusion, fright, paranoia, you know, the usual things for a movie shoot; but, this was a little different.  We had a lot of shooting to do outside and we all wondered what that would be like in a more security-minded Los Angeles." 

But, with a contract for the equipment, time commitments from everyone to be there every weekend in September, and limited options, the two producers kept the shoot moving forward.  “A lot of us have New York connections, and we were worried about family and friends but we had our little comedy film to shoot.  It certainly put things into perspective though,” Levy said.  After a rehearsal, Andre Martinez who plays Mr. Rodriguez said, “This film is certainly going to be even more timely. It deals with religious fanaticism and we’re seeing that right now.”  Mr. Martinez is a working camera operator in Los Angeles and hadn’t acted since college.  Jesse wrote the part of Mr. Rodriguez with Andre in mind.  Says Levy, “He had the right look. We worked together on Eddie McDowd and I knew he could do it. He’s a funny, outgoing guy and I knew my instincts were good for him to do the role.”  Andre also said, “Jesse made it so much easier for me as an actor.  At a rehearsal he said, ‘You see the way you’re talking now, that’s what I want you to do.’”

Shooting progressed with the usual filmmaking problems.  There was the securing of a location at the last minute, hot weather, intentionally noisy neighbors, a shoeless, shirtless drunk who got thrown out of an apartment in the building they were shooting in front of, and other fun stuff along those lines.  “One actress’ car got towed.  We found out that we had the restaurant location for a shorter time than we had planned, and we had to improvise a wig shop sign.  It looks pretty bad but we justified it by saying his business was bad too,” Levy added.

Immel recalls, “We only had one run-in with one policeman in Burbank.  So, after that day we thought we’d better go ahead and get the necessary permits and insurance policies, both of which cost a fortune.  We were, of course, never bothered again. The police in Los Angeles didn’t even look at us twice.”

Somehow the filming was completed at the end of September.  They moved into post-production not knowing where they would find some of the people they would need.  Christopher Coppola, who directed several episodes of “Eddie McDowd,” came to be a valuable resource.  Christopher allowed them to use his Stedicam unit for their “B” camera, which they rented for one weekend from Independent Features Project/West.  As thanks for letting them use the Stedicam, Levy went to a Dodgers game and argued a Dodgers’ hot wheels car (meant for kids 14 and under) out of one of the attendants handing them out at the ballpark (Coppola is a big Dodgers fan).  He gave the toy car to Coppola who gave it to his son.  Levy threw in a good bottle of wine to seal the deal.

His editor Travis Spangler, put a marvelous cut of the film together using Final Cut Pro. He edited the film at Christopher Coppola’s facility. Then, after an unfortunate delay of almost a year, Levy found the wizards at PlasterCity Digital Post, Michael Cioni and Otto Arsenault, who did the sound edit also using Final Cut Pro.

Tom Kolb and Daniel Brownfield composed the music.  Both men have extensive backgrounds in music, both in writing and teaching, and both are multi-instrumentalists.  Dan also let the filmmakers use his cello as a prop for Rita. It’s the same cello he himself plays on the soundtrack. The other music used in the film, a song called “Skin I’ve Been In,” is by The Gurus (of which Tom Kolb is a member) from their CD release called Ritual Dance on their own label, Ritual Music.

Robin Middleton who plays Rita said, “I love being on a film set and creating on camera.  Being involved in pre and post-production was also great fun.  I got to see the script come to life (Robin was given early drafts to read for her comments) and having input on it was also cool.”

LaMar Aguilar played the waitress.  She said that, “everyone was willing to do things they never would do normally to help out.  I’ve never held a boom mike before, but there I was outside holding the boom.  It says a lot about the enthusiasm for the project.”

In fact enthusiasm marked a great deal of the production.  “When the script is good,” said director of photography for the second day of shooting Greg Williams, “you want to be part of the process and do a good job.  It always starts with a good story.”

So, after the sometimes grueling but always fun process of shooting, the inevitable delays, and the post-production hold-ups, StigmatZa came to life.  According to producer Immel, “It’s amazing how many problems can be solved with money.  But, we got it done and we had a great deal of laughs doing it.  I think that shows in the final product.”


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