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.)
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."
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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.
Casino is unyielding. "Before I let them go ahead, give me one million, two million. Don't come to me with chump change to make me your token Negro," he says. "I'm not the one. I walk too damn straight."
Dismayed by Casino's position, Ingria says that Casino's accusations (and the fact that he brought them to New Times) might be too extreme to allow for any reconciliation over this project. "As far as I'm concerned, the guy's a thief," Ingria snarls. "He's trying to steal the project. He doesn't have the talent or the experience to do what he's trying to do, or he would have done it already.