By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
The local independent film East of Overtown is not supposed to be a comedy. But this chronically underfunded, perpetual work in progress has threatened for some time to become a comedy of errors. Despite the dead-serious subject matter it fictionalizes (especially the Lozano and McDuffie riots), the seven-year-old process has managed to generate only a few short films and some raw footage.
Now East of Overtown may be rising like a phoenix. With a new title (Liberty City), a new script, and new talent, it now has new hope of being filmed. This resurrection is largely the doing of a Fort Lauderdale film production company with the unlikely name of Magic Fingers, Inc. In December 1994 the creative team that had been working on East of Overtown -- director Bob Ingria and writer/producer/actor/saxophonist Leo Casino -- asked Magic Fingers president Gordon Scott Venters to help them finance and distribute their project. Three years later the project seems close to realization. There is talk of casting nationally known actors, including singer Bobby Brown, Clockers star Mekhi Phifer, and the resurgent Erik Estrada. Popular rap star Coolio may produce the soundtrack. You'd think that everyone involved with the project would be thrilled.
You'd be wrong.
Casino, the author of the 1989 one-man play on which the first script drafts were based and the lead actor in all existing raw footage, says he never agreed to let Venters shop East of Overtown. He claims that he never agreed to script changes. He maintains that he didn't know about the title change until mid-1997. And, most vehemently, he denies that he approved the recasting of the film with Hollywood talent.
"I refused the idea to make this into a Hollywood movie," Casino declares. "This is a story that needs to be told from the heart, with open arms to all of Miami's communities to help us work on it. Especially the black community, which has been beat down and stabbed in the back so much here." Casino states that, in proceeding without his input, Ingria and Venters have essentially stolen the idea he has nurtured since the McDuffie riots of 1980. "Spike Lee had his thing, and this was mine," he says.
Ingria, who derisively calls Casino the "anti-producer" of Liberty City, calls Casino's claims of ignorance about Magic Fingers's involvement "a total fabrication." He also counters that Casino's problems with the new shape of the project have more to do with ego than with a sense of duty to Miami's black community.
"Leo feels ousted because he no longer has lead status," Ingria says, noting that Casino was offered a supporting role in Liberty City. "He's dressing it with all these other issues, but in talking with Leo, his biggest qualm with it is that he's not the star."
Casino insists this isn't the case. "It's not a question of me being the star, it's a question of someone giving everything they've got to the struggle, to give hope to the community," he says. Frustrated by his loss of creative control, furious at what he perceives as an adulteration of the film's social mission, Casino now finds himself in the odd position of wishing for the failure of the project that has consumed him for almost a decade.
This latest chapter of internecine struggle and backstabbing -- what movie producers like to call "creative differences" -- has its roots in the late Eighties, when Casino collaborated with activist Timothy Hodges to develop his stage show into a film script. Hodges recalls that he himself had been thinking of dramatizing the upheavals in Overtown and Liberty City. He and Casino drafted a script, then Casino brought it to the attention of Ingria, whom he has known for years as a result of their mutual interest in the music business. (In addition to directing a few straight-to-video films, Ingria oversaw music video production and operated Quadradial Studios, a now-defunct audio and film recording facility.)
"He gave me 60 pages of handwritten notes, just some scenes he thought would be good," Ingria recalls. "I implied to him that it really wasn't a script. It was just a sketchy idea at best."
Nonetheless, Ingria says he saw enough potential in the material to join the project as director. In February 1990 Casino/Ingria Films was founded, with Bob Ingria as president, Leo Casino as vice president. In 1991 Hodges and Casino copyrighted their screenplay for East of Overtown.
As the film moved through casting calls and into principal photography, funding was hard to come by. Other than a $20,000 kick-start brought in by Fort Lauderdale businessman Joseph Farrow, few people made substantial contributions to the film's budget, which was estimated at $1.5 million in 1992. According to Hodges, this problem arose from the project's odd racial mix. "We had a white director, and black investors were leery of that," he says. "And white investors were probably leery because the story could be explosive."
(According to Ingria, one investor, John Neal, made his $10,000 investment contingent on a black person being president of the production company. Ingria says he complied, stepping down as president of Casino/Ingria Films to give Casino the top spot.)