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But mostly, the film's creative principals financed the project themselves. Ingria estimates he has put $115,000 of his own time (mostly directing and editing fees) and money into the film. He figures Casino's cash contribution at $5000, not including writing and acting fees. Casino says he has sunk between $40,000 and $50,000 in the project over its lengthy history.
The trials weren't only financial. During the early stages of filming, Ingria brought in another writer to flesh out the script. That writer, Dan Stanimirovic, was a sophomore in the University of Miami's film program at the time; Stanimirovic says that he -- with input from Ingria and Casino -- turned the original 60-page manuscript into a complete screenplay. Battles over plot were frequent, and not always resolved peacefully. In 1993, after a series of disputes with Ingria over story elements, Hodges left the project. And about six months after a seventeen-minute version of the film was screened during the 1993 Miami Film Festival, Casino/Ingria Films dissolved.
Enter Venters and Magic Fingers. The production company was originally that Magic Fingers, the vibrating-hotel-bed company, which moved from Delaware to Florida in 1992 and became an entertainment company. Approached by Ingria in 1994, Venters had enough interest in the project to take it to California and pitch it to studio brass.
The script, says Ingria, was rejected outright by Republic Pictures and Paramount Studios, among others. "Venters got slammed," says Ingria. "We got letters from the studios after they reviewed it, and they slammed it." Hollywood's problem? "They didn't like the script, and they didn't like Leo," Ingria says. (Republic's assessment: "Just like the dialogue, the plot is so misconceived and overdone that there isn't a chance of salvaging an entertaining movie.")
The Hollywood visit also drove a wedge between Ingria and Casino. Casino believed that retaining the grassroots Miami cast, which starred himself and a group of local unknowns, was essential for East of Overtown. "So African-American people could say, 'Wow, one of us really did something,' not just, 'Another dumb nigger let a cracker rob him again,'" he explains.
Venters disagreed. Unwilling to give up on the film, he brought in another script doctor, a Magic Fingers employee named Elizabeth Rogers. It was during these rewrites, in 1996, that the title was changed to Liberty City.
Though scenes and characters have changed or disappeared in the years since the first screenplay was written, the basic story arc has remained constant: After witnessing numerous atrocities perpetrated by police and government against the black community, a group of black militants hatches a nuclear-terrorism plot aimed at the City of Miami.
When Venters took the reworked, retitled script back to Hollywood, he says, he caught the eye of studios. Actors were named. Fees were discussed. Bobby Brown, reached at his Williams Island residence, confirms that he is interested in the lead role in Liberty City, though he is not yet under contract. Venters won't comment on just how far along negotiations are, but he says that everything will be finalized once Magic Fingers secures domestic distribution. None of the original East of Overtown footage, he adds, is likely to make it into Liberty City.
Casino, meanwhile, has been fighting the rewritten and recast version of the film every step of the way, portraying it as an outright rip-off of his original idea. He has even accused Ingria of forging the initials of his legal name, Roy Wesley Harris, Jr., on company checks from Casino/Ingria Films. One of these checks (a copy of which Casino provided to New Times) is particularly irksome to Casino: a $2000 check to Scott Venters on February 23, 1996. He reiterates that he never approved of Venters's shopping East of Overtown around and that he never signed this or many other Casino/Ingria Films checks. He filed a forgery affidavit with Great Western Bank in June 1996 and was paid a $3600 settlement in July 1997. Now, Casino says, he has reported the alleged forgeries to police.
"It's outrageous," seethes Ingria, who says he never knew about the complaint to the bank or the settlement paid to Casino. "This is money I put into the account. This is my money. I don't know where this is coming from, but I didn't forge any check."
But from the point when the film stopped being low-budget and local and became a Hollywood-ready project, Casino has seen his inclusion as an insult. "Everything's got a head and everything's got a tail," Casino intones. "If I started as the head, I sure can't go be the tail." Promotional material for Liberty City currently lists Casino as associate producer, a title he scorns. "That's the title you give your retarded brother-in-law's son," he sneers. "That's like saying, 'You made the Burger King run.'"
Both Ingria and Venters say that nobody is trying to cut out Casino or anyone else who has substantively contributed to the production during its lengthy history. They insist that, once the financing for Liberty City comes through, everyone who participated in the film's early stages will not only be credited for the time, money, and talent they put in but compensated. In autumn 1996, when a financing deal almost materialized, Casino's share would have been nearly $40,000.