$40,000, 12 days, and then 'Smiling'

One look at the old-fashioned Hollywood house and the dead lawn, and the words "fixer-upper" come to mind. Could I have the right address?

Then the co-writers, coproducers, and costars of "Smiling Fish and Goat on Fire" - the brothers Martini, Derick and Steven - wave me in. "It's not the Four Seasons," one greets, while the other finishes, "It's the One Season."

The brothers and their high school pal and director, Kevin Jordan, have achieved the near-impossible in the movie business. In this age when a million-dollar film is regarded as a great bargain, they made "Smiling Fish" in 12 days for $40,000. It has won two honors - the Discovery Award at the Toronto International Film Festival back in 1999, and "Best Movie" at the Milan Film Festival in Italy in July.

The movie's unique title refers to their characters' native-American grandmother, who nicknamed the younger life-loving brother "Smiling Fish," and the more responsible older brother "Goat on Fire."

Within two weeks of receiving the Discovery Award, the real-life brothers received offers to market this movie of two brothers looking for romance. "We selected Stratosphere Entertainment to help finish the movie and IDP to handle the distribution," Steven Martini explains.

Back up a minute. What's this "finish the movie" business? Didn't a completed movie show to the 700 critics in Toronto?

"Yes and no," they reply.

It all started when Derick began working on the script, spending four hours every night writing it longhand with a No. 2 pencil on a yellow pad. Mornings, he'd get Steven's input, and Derick would rewrite that evening. The brothers had worked as actors and decided to cast themselves in the film.

Derick used the money saved from his men's clothing company in New York's Greenwich Village. Steven donated his salary from a TV series, which had lasted only two weeks (but he was paid for the full season anyway). They guessed that by doing most of the work themselves, their movie would cost around $10,000, or $20,000 tops. Today they laugh at their naivet.

Their high school buddy, Kevin Jordan, who had won a Martin Scorsese Award for Young Filmmakers Scholarship, signed on as director. He also polished up the screenplay at the Martinis' insistence.

Derick says, "We reached out to Kevin, since he could bring a lot to the project. I'd been working on it for almost two years, so his objectivity was welcomed."

A friend of Steven's loaned them a house for much of the filming, but money was still running low. "Kevin's dad, who owns the Jordan Lobster Dock in Brooklyn [N.Y.] came to our rescue. He sent crates of fresh lobster in lieu of money to pay the bills," Steven adds.

While most movies are shot on 35-mm film, the brothers shot "Smiling Fish" in cheaper, lower-quality Super 16. The movie was transferred to video and edited in that format, so when the movie was selected for the Toronto festival, "we just blew it up from the video transfer. It wasn't great, but fortunately people guessed it must have been shot digitally."

To make a 35-mm print for projecting on a large screen would have cost more than their entire movie. They were out of money and lobster by this time.

After gaining notice in the festival circuit, the brothers signed with Stratosphere, "which meant completing the film professionally. Also, they assured we could do it our way, no interference," Steven says.

"Smiling Fish and Goat on Fire" opened last week in limited markets. Christa Miller, a regular on the "Drew Carey Show," was cast opposite Steve ("We wondered if she and Steve would have the right chemistry.... [but then] it was obvious they were great together," Derick says).

"Although it's the story about two brothers and how they each find the right girl, the heart of the movie is [an] elderly man from [a] retirement home," Derick says. "We interviewed many white actors and none fit.

"Then, Bill Henderson walked into the room. He was a magnet.... But he was too important an actor for such a small role. I went home and rewrote the part. Instead of white, [the character] was black; instead of a small role, his was major."

Last month when the Martinis were in Milan, a professional print of their movie was shown at the film festival.

Says Steven: "There we sat in Milan, seeing our movie on the big screen. Only it was with Italian subtitles. I was so nervous I felt there was a load of bricks in my stomach. Then, the audience started to laugh, and it made all the bricks crumble."

Adds Derick, "I think my inspiration will always be Joe Montana. He was a skinny guy, barely six feet, playing in the NFL and winning all those Super Bowls. When he retired, I actually cried. I admired him because he would come from behind, pull a rabbit out of the hat at the last second, and score a touchdown. I'm beginning to know just how he felt."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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