I am witnessing something very special.
An entire community in Westerly, Rhode Island, is welcoming, embracing and participating in the filming of Eugene J. Celico’s original film, THE TOURNAMENT with the warmth and spirit of a family reunion. It comes so natural to Eugene to direct this New York film crew, the actors and extras with the grace of a hometown host. After all, he was born and grew up in Westerly and much of the film, which he wrote, directed and produced, is a sweet and dramatic memoire of people and characters from his childhood.
“We filmed in the very house where I grew up,” Eugene says, and “right down the street, at the Knickerbocker Club is where my parents danced the jitterbug.”
Eugene, six-foot something, bearded and pursued by a long, graying ponytail spilling from under his baseball cap has a quality of making those around him as happy as a back rub. He seems kind as he runs from the prop person, his wife, Cynthia, to the cinematographer, Milton Kam. He has a soft, wild voice with a smidgen of gravel in it.
So, how did you get here, to do this film? I ask.
“It seems as though this is the work of a lifetime,” he answers. “This is my third film and the most promising yet as it will probably be sold and distributed. Ten years ago, I left a very lucrative job as an operating room assistant to become a film director. Before that I wrote and directed plays. I spent four years as a director at the Eugene O’Neill Theater in Connecticut and won 2 Eugene O’Neil Awards two years in a row. I used to do a lot of Beckett. I love Beckett!”
Eugene turns his head, as Graziano DiMeo, playing the part of Crazy Benny the Town Fool, walks past us.
“Speaking about Beckett,” he says, “doesn’t Graziano look like Estragon from Godot?”
I look at Graziano DiMeo as he walks by, wearing a crumbled fedora, shirt and pants of mismatched motley, and a seven o’clock shadow. Yes, I think, he does look like Estragon with a little of Chaplin and Cantinflas. His Crazy Benny character is quite a far depiction from his role as The Bartender in Artie Buco’s place in the HBO series, “The Sopranos.”
Eugene goes on.
“When I was young, I wanted to be a priest,” he says. “I attended the seminary for two years, but left and went to college where I studied writing. I won a scholarship to study in Sicily for a year. After that, I decided to become a writer. I write poetry, too. I love the free verse form.”
Free Verse is the name of his production company.
“Then, three years ago, I met Nick Puccio. And that changed everything.”
Puccio, sticking a fake moustache over his top lip, gives us a look. A veteran actor and the executive producer of “The Tournament,” he has played in roles in “Casino” and “NYPD Blue” as well as many roles on the stage.
“Hey, Eugene, did the lobsters come in?” Nick asks.
The lobsters, twenty something of them, will appear in the film. “They are characters, too” explains Eugene. “Joe Pagano makes his living selling water, but he wheels and deals in hot lobsters.”
THE TOURNAMENT is an independent film made with private money with private investors. It has a budget, which is less than a sleek, luxury car.
“This film is a love story, between Joe and his son, Alby,” explains Eugene. “The central character, Alby (Cohlie Bracato ) is young teenager who learns the game of bocce to be able to play in a tournament with his father, Joe (Michael Mazzeo). Both are struggling through their own personal infernos, but they connect with each other through their mutual love of the game, bocce.”
Bocce is a popular game among Italians (in France, it is called “boules”). Played with wooden balls (the French, of course, make theirs of steel!) the object of the game is to get as many of ones balls closest to the smallest point ball called the pallino, which is tossed first. Players take their game seriously as I learned when the filming of the climactic scene during the tournament went overtime on location at the “Bocce Club” in Westerly, a community center with a clubhouse, bar, picnic tables, and an outside barbeque oven . Even the allure of cinema did not matter to those guys eager to get to their game.
“So much has been done about Italian families recently,” explains Celico. “Here in Westerly, traditions are still deep, good or bad. A lot of these families came from the Calabria region of Italy to work in the granite quarries.”
He’s right, I think, as I sit interviewing him. We sit under a grape pergola admiring the vast garden in the back yard crowded with rows of tomato plants, peppers, basil and eggplant as the roomy scent oftomato and garlic sauce simmering on the stove comes from today’s “set,” a private home where the stormy kitchen scene is being filmed. People here want to help. Food is all around us, pasta, salads, pizza. Doors are open to Eugene and his crew (although, at this very moment, the woman next door is yelling at the extras playing football on her perfect lawn and Evelyn Carrigan, 2nd Assistant Director rushes by wearing her headset. She stops, takes it off to listen to Benny Trombino playing the mandolin and says to us, “You know, this is magical!”).
Most of the time, I’ve seen film crews invade a community like incongruous angels wearing the halo of Hollywood. They can suspend and enhance the ho-hummness of the everyday. They can also disrupt a place with the nightmare of technical impedimenta. But not here. Some of the crew are from the community as well as some of the actors and extras, a few of whom are first-time actors. For instance, Anna Trombino, who plays the matriarch Pagano, woke up one morning not knowing that three hours later, she would find herself in front a camera as a last-minute substitute for an actor stricken sick.
Yet, I can see that this positive energy, this enthusiasm, emanates from Eugene. He is kind and encouraging. He makes people want to act. He cajoles, taunts, and sets mind traps like a DeSica to get an emotion or a look from an actor.
In a few days, the New York crew and the actors will pack up and go home. Those in the local community will go back to their everyday lives, to their jobs, their hairdressing salon, their restaurant, their dental practice.
Back to the Big City, Colorado, or New Jersey go Maria Nazzaro (who plays the role of Sylvia Pagano on the set with the fury of a street corner Medea), Freddie Gano (as the testosteronic Sonny Pagano), Lance Schaefer (Arthur Pagano), Roseanne Sher (Elisabeth Pagano), Danny DiMeo (set videographer), Brian and Richard Oliver, among others...
Back to local places go Anthony Paolucci (Fabrizio), Joanne Lancellotta (Rosa, whose character make the Inquisition seem like Club Med), Les Papp, Richard Colardo, John Cipolla, Rose Serluca, Debbie Benn...
Back home, goes...me (Father Leo).
And yes, back to Cranston goes Vinny Paz, five time world boxing champion who plays the role of “Mouth.”
Some day soon, however, when this film emerges from the editing room, we will all get together for the premiere. We will see ourselves reunited bigger than life on the screen, above the heaviness of the everyday.
And Eugene J. Celico, with his black baseball cap and ponytail, his smile and warm and fuzzy presence, will be there in the front row hosting the reunion.