So You Wanna Be in Pictures

Blinded by waves of snow, I'm skidding my way to Chestnut Hill to meet a man named David Bakalar. Wham! I slam into the car in front of me. What the hell am I doing out here in a blizzard? I look in the mirror. Okay, I'm all right. Let's calm down. Have to keep on going.

“Listen to me!” my brother Jim had shouted into the phone the previous night. “This is real.” I'm not easily swayed. As the pessimistic half of this screenwriting duo, I'm inclined to let gravity pull me down. Sure, there's been some measure of success — we'd sold a script and scored meetings with studio execs and independent producers. But up until now our biggest fan has been our Uncle Willie. Now there's a real live film financier waiting a mile down Route 9 from where I live.

I get out of my car and assess the damage. The other driver is all right. There's only a small dent in her bumper. We trade insurance information and I drive onward. I knock three times at the door of a large suburban home, half expecting a butler to answer. Instead, David Bakalar is there with a welcoming smile on his face. This is no Armani-wearing slickster from L.A., but a guy in a comfortable collared shirt and slacks who looks more like Uncle Willie. There's a sentence or two of small talk, then he cuts right to the chase.

“I want to create a film that's the antithesis of American Beauty, not about the disintegration of the family, but how a down-on-her-luck single mother tries to make her family whole again,” he says. Bakalar liked the grittiness of Sheffield, England, in The Full Monty and thought New Bedford, with its Portuguese community, would make a comparable American backdrop. His passion is contagious and his mind as sharp as a Ginsu knife. The next day, intrigued, I do some research on him.

David Bakalar not only graduated from Harvard, but also has a Ph.D. in physics from MIT. By 1955, his Wakefield-based company, Transitron, was the world's number-two transistor manufacturer, behind Texas Instruments. At one point, he had more than 10,000 employees. By 1980, however, IBM and Intel had turned up the heat. Bakalar sold Transitron but didn't rest on his laurels. At 62, persuaded by his friend, artist George Segal, he tried his hand at sculpture. His work can be seen on the campuses of Harvard, MIT, and Columbia University. Now, at 75, Bakalar was keen on producing his first film. He told my brother, Jim, that if the script was good, he would invest in the production.

Even the remote chance of seeing characters come magically to life on the big screen after plugging away for years will transform any screenwriter into Pavlov's drooling dog. Our friends in the biz were more realistic. Sign the contract, get your money for the work, and get out, they said. For one guy to invest in a film, especially one who's never done it before — it just ain't gonna happen.

On August 15, the Samuel Goldwyn Company will release our movie, Passionada, in Boston, Providence, New York, and Los Angeles. Two weeks later, the film will open nationwide in more than 200 theaters. There were plenty of times during the process of writing, selecting a director, finding a cast and crew, producing, editing, and showing this movie to distributors that it could have been scrapped and our dreams turned to lint. I feel like I've been holding my breath for four years straight.

The first thing Jim and I did after signing the contract was to drive to New Bedford. We walked over to the fishing trawlers docked two and three abreast at the city's Pier 3. Men with wizened faces were busy mending nets, their catches reeking in the raw, salty air. The story was already doing cartwheels in our minds.

For days we examined every nook and cranny of the city. We explored Johnny Cake Hill and the cobblestone streets Melville made famous in Moby-Dick. We strolled down Acushnet Avenue, the hub of the Portuguese community. We tried Portuguese sweetbread at a bakery and olives at a grocery store straight out of the Algarve, and dined on linguiça and bacalhau, or salted cod, at a mom-and-pop restaurant.

On our last night, we checked out a fado club, where a woman was belting out a tune. When she reached the crescendo of this searing song, you felt as if you could touch her soul. Jim and I were mesmerized. We looked at each other and laughed, knowing that our single mother, the main character, now had to be a fado singer.

Our research was finished in New Bedford. At least, that's what I thought. Jim wanted more time there. As we approached Johnny Cake Hill for the third time, the pressure got to us. I screamed at my brother, “I want to see my wife and kids!”

“We're not done yet,” he yelled back. “We haven't seen enough.”

I walked toward my car. He grabbed my arm and we started throwing fists, missing each other badly due to lack of practice. Two camera-toting tourists broke us up, and we went our separate ways. Things were getting testy, and we hadn't written a word yet.

Writing is an arduous process, and there is no part more agonizing than the beginning. We might fight like brothers, but as screenwriters, my brother and I complement each other perfectly. My years as a journalist have taught me about narrative and exposition. Jim's background in theater and standup comedy helps with characterization and gives him an ear for dialogue.

Jim and I spent hours, days, weeks staring out the windows of a third-floor attic-turned-office in my suburban house, talking about our make-believe world. We argued over minutiae such as whether the mother washes her laundry by hand or machine. Used to hobnobbing with actors and directors in New York and L.A., my brother was stuck in Newton teaching magic tricks to my son and giving voices to my daughter's Barbies. All the while, the deadline loomed, along with the thought that we might blow our only opportunity in life to experience a Hollywood ending. It was slow going, and we needed inspiration.

In June of 1999, my father rented a house on Cape Cod. It was an agonizing time, less than a year since my mother had succumbed to cancer. Yet when Jim and I saw our father on the Cape, he cracked a smile. He was on the phone with a woman he'd met in a bereavement group. He didn't know it at the time, but my father's budding relationship — soon to bloom into a second marriage — would prove to be the muse we needed. We're fed the belief that there's only one soulmate in our lives, but what if that's not true? Without even knowing it, Dad did what dads do: taught us a lesson. And it helped us to cement our story's theme.

We handed the script to Bakalar in August of 1999, anxious to see if we would push onward or collect our fee and part ways. “I like it,” he said, “but there's some problems.” We spent hours sucking down peanut M&M's from a fancy glass bowl and fighting over words. It's not easy debating with the former owner of a successful business who's used to getting his own way. Bakalar would call us at all hours. “Stephen, David here,” he would say. “Can you come over? There's a problem with the second line of dialogue in scene 47.”

At last, he was satisfied and ready to move on. He would put up the money. It wasn't much in Hollywood terms, but, hell, My Big Fat Greek Wedding made $350 million on a $5 million budget. He gave Jim executive producer stripes and sent him off to find a director, cast, and crew. The next year proved to be a trying lesson in patience as L.A.-based agents put up impenetrable walls, moats, and drawbridges around their clients, not wanting to deal with a risky first-time producer. Tired of the runaround, Jim made the bold move of calling a director at home. His name was Dan Ireland. We'd admired his work ever since seeing The Whole Wide World, a movie he directed that was based on the life of the pulp writer who created Conan the Barbarian. Ireland worked wonders with an unknown actress at the time, Renee Zellweger. We hoped he could bring out the same compelling performances in our film.

“Why don't you send the script to my agent?” Ireland asked my brother over the phone.

“Because your agent is just going to hand it to you anyway,” said Jim. “We don't have time for that detour. We're ready to move.”

“Is the money there?” asked Ireland.

“Absolutely,” my brother answered.

The next thing I knew we were dining with this tall, dapper man at a restaurant in Brookline. He was intently focused on our characters, the script, how he was going to film it, and, by the way, when would we leave for New Bedford? Ireland not only understood every vital element of our script, but also how it fit into the genre of romantic comedy. Bakalar leaned over to Jim and whispered, “I'm ready to go with this guy. Any objections?”

The next day we took him to New Bedford. Ireland was smitten. He packed his bags and his cat, Shelley Winters, and moved east, bringing with him a Mexican cinematographer who worked on Like Water for Chocolate. Many of the rest of the crew — grips, lights, sound — would come from Boston.

Within the blink of an eye, most of the cast was assembled. There was a familiar face from more than 125 films, Seymour Cassel (“Dusty” in The Royal Tenenbaums); the lovely vixen Theresa Russell, star of Black Widow; the mother in the recent Real Women Have Curves, Lupe Ontiveros; and the talented, young Emmy Rossum, soon to play the lead in the movie version of The Phantom of the Opera. With a week before we were scheduled to shoot, all we needed were (deep breath) the female and male leads. After a brief audition, Ireland chose Sofia Milos, best known for her recurring role in The Sopranos (and now on CSI: Miami). “God, I hope she can act,” he told us. Jason Isaacs, the villain in the latest Harry Potter movie, also signed on, but we had to wait several weeks until he finished filming Black Hawk Down.

As executive producer, Jim was putting in long hours. My job was basically over. There were close to 100 people on the set every day in a frenzy of activity. I had my first reality check when the cinematographer came up and said, “Can you get your head out of the doorway? You're in the shot.” I seemed to have misplaced my tongue when meeting the beautiful Sofia Milos.

“It's a wonderful role you created,” she said in her Italian accent.

“Duh . . . duh . . . ,” I responded.

Three television crews interviewed Jim and me that first day. I was amazed they were interested in us. “They want to meet the actors and director, you idiot, but they're all working,” Jim said.

Then, as quickly as everyone had come, they all left. Dan Ireland went back to L.A. to edit while Jim and I moved on to the next script. Eight more months would pass before I saw the finished product.

Along with a random collection of people — a focus group — I sit down on a Wednesday night at a theater in the Fenway to watch my film. Darkness descends on the theater and within moments, tears are streaming down my face. I feel like Gene Wilder staring wild-eyed at his Young Frankenstein. Ireland had lessened the comedy and left some secondary characters on the cutting-room floor, but that helped tighten the relationship between our leads. He also added a powerful score by composer Harry Gregson-Williams (Shrek), along with that exquisite fado music sung by Misia. Man, I think to myself halfway through the film, this is damn good. Of course, I'm biased. It's not until the audience starts applauding at the end that I figure this movie might have a shot.

The credits roll. I hug Jim. I hug my wife for putting up with Jim. I hug Bakalar for making my dreams come true. I hug the stranger who's standing in front of me. And I hug Ireland, thanking him for not screwing it up. “That Sofia Milos really can act,” I say. This will surely be her breakout role.

Jim is on the phone with a British producer who likes another of our scripts. “She wants to make our directing debut happen,” he says. “Aren't you excited?” he yells. “Of course,” I say, though at the moment there's finally blue sky outside and I want to go on a bike ride through Dover. Truth is, I am excited for the next project. But there's nothing quite like giving birth to the first one.