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With his dad's video camera in one hand and a borrowed field light in the other, 18-year-old aspiring filmmaker Lee Anthony Cipolla, accompanied by two buddies from Dr. Michael M. Krop Senior High School, sneaked into a condo construction site under the cover of darkness.
"We didn't have permits or anything; we just did it," Cipolla says, laughing, as he recalls the day in December 2001 when he began shooting the 30-minute short film that would launch his movie career. As Cipolla filmed, his schoolmates played a pair of kickboxers engaged in a complicated and daring fight atop rugged concrete and cement blocks.
"The guys were doing this crazy stunt and one of them landed," says Cipolla, grimacing, "and as he put out his hand, a huge nail shot through his palm and nearly impaled him to the concrete. I remember we could hear the cops coming because we weren't supposed to be there, and the guy just basically had to pull his hand free."
Though the impalement scene didn't make the final cut, martial artistry was integral to Cipolla's 30-minute movie, Taken Away, which traces the struggles of two Miami kickboxers from opposite socioeconomic backgrounds. The gritty martial arts flick won Cipolla Best Director and Best Film at the Miami Children's Film Festival in 2002.
For the young filmmaker, now 24, it was a sign of things to come. By the time he graduated from high school later that summer, Cipolla's shorts and plays had won 16 awards. The National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts gave him a scholarship and a nomination as a Presidential Scholar in the Arts. Cipolla applied to the film program at the University of Central Florida.
"I remember when the film faculty was looking at all the children applying to film school, and we are talking about 300 or so, he was far and away one of the two or three best," says Barry Sandler, associate professor of screenwriting at UCF. "He clearly stood out as a student with enormous potential."
Once enrolled, Cipolla developed the theme of Taken Away into a feature-length film, called Harder They Fall.
"It took me about seven months," he recalls, "trying to really make the characters likable, their struggles real." The script was ambitious, calling for a cast of 20. "He showed me the script when it was done," says Sandler. "It was some of the best student work I've come across, and I've been in this business for 30 years."
To produce the film, according to conservative estimates, Cipolla would need at least five million dollars.
He had $87.
Undeterred, the young filmmaker took a gamble, quit school after just two semesters, and moved back to Miami hell-bent on bringing his characters to life. "I remember [Sandler] telling me 'You've got it, man!' And that was all I needed to hear." He picked up freelance production gigs for TV shows, music videos, commercials, and films shooting locally, and dedicated his spare time to his own production.
"I posted a casting call in places like the Theatre League [of South Florida], and we held auditions at the Roxy Theatre," he says, eyes wide. "About 250 people showed up! I think it was because Miami always get this tits-and-ass stereotypical tourist image, and this was something different."
With cast and crew assembled, Cipolla rented a camera, bought field lights, and spent July 2004 shooting. By winter the movie was complete, and he entered it into every film festival he could think of.
Harder They Fall was accepted into 13 festivals and was screened before industry giants like Sir Anthony Hopkins and Brett Ratner. The film won top-five honors at two of the world's most revered sports film festivals in India and Rome.
"The way I look at it is, we achieved a moderate success on a grand scale, and that feeling of accomplishment ... there is nothing like it," beams Cipolla. Not content to rest on his newly acquired laurels, he began scanning for a new project. He didn't have to look too far. In January 2006 an acquaintance approached him with a script about two rival Miami rappers.
"The script was good, but it was too one-dimensional and there was too much violence without reason," says Cipolla. "Every rap movie is this rags-to-riches story. I wanted to do something that would be more marketable, that would appeal to a more mainstream audience, so Jeremy and I decided to rewrite it."
The process took five months. The result, Nemesis, is a stark look at how the hip-hop industry perpetuates stereotypes in the interest of raking in money. (In the words of one of the film's protagonists: "Hip-hop ain't black or white anymore — it's green.") Cipolla showed the finished script to veteran producer/director and Miami native William Grefe at a local film seminar later that year. "I must have read 250 scripts a year, and I remember thinking, Yeah, yeah, another young hotshot thinks he knows everything. But of all the filmmakers I've met over the years, he's the most talented of the bunch. Called him up the next day and told him so."
Cipolla enlisted a director of photography and hit up every family member and friend for sponsorship.