By Sabina Mollot
Two Stuyvesant Town actors whose credits include parts for policemen and priests, can now add mobsters to their resumes, this time as producer and writer of a film about two wise guys on the run from a dirty debt they can’t pay.
Longtime neighbors Tom Nonnon (producer) and Ben van Bergen (who wrote the screenplay) spent the past year working on the bare-bones budget flick, a dark comedy called “Mob Fathers: Permanent Rehab.”
The story focuses on two career criminals who end up owing $200,000 to a foreign loan shark.
“So,” said van Bergen, “they have to find a place to hide.” The pair then decide to hide out in a church, only to discover that the priests there have their own problems — specifically gambling debts. The two lead characters, Jack and Mack, think they’re just disguising themselves as clergy men, but end up finding themselves in an unexpected role.
“They still have to earn and in doing so, they go to people who are really bad and give those people a chance — change your ways or die,” said van Bergen.
He added that the film will be different from others in the mafia movie genre in that the story is dialogue-driven, centered more around the friendship between the two men than the expected whack-a-mole type violence. (Though there is definitely some of that.)
For van Bergen, “Mob Fathers” is the second full-length feature film he’s made. The first was a documentary about ADHD called “Fireworks on the Brain,” released only overseas, and he’s also produced shorts. But it was his first time working with a large cast (24 actors) as the person in charge. Nonnon, who worked in finance before becoming an actor, has also had some production experience doing videography. Career highlights include a promotional video for Whitney Houston and episodes of cable show “Cabaret Beat” (later “Broadway Beat”), including one episode featuring Lloyd Price.
For Nonnon, making the career switch from finance to film, back in the mid-80s, was a no-brainer.
“I thought if I work for Citibank any more I’ll blow my brains out,” he explained.
On the other hand, the experience in that world has helped him do things like crunch the numbers for the film. Like van Bergen, Nonnon’s done some TV and film work, but his bread and butter is in commercials. He also, along with his wife, Sandee Conrad, an actor who switched careers the same time he did, has gotten many roles when dancers were needed for scenes. Early roles came in films such as “The Age of Innocence” and “The Fisher King” and more recently in TV’s “Boardwalk Empire.” Van Bergen’s credits include the film “The Knick” and “Boardwalk Empire” as well as a slew of voiceovers.
Cop roles were also plentiful for both men at one time although, according to Nonnon, that changed after 9/11 when real cops started getting cast instead of actors. This coincided with a crackdown on the unofficial use of cop uniforms.
With “Mob Fathers,” originally, the plan was for Nonnon and Van Bergen to play the two lead characters — in fact Van Bergen wrote it with the both of them in mind. They’d known each other for years through work, later learning that they lived mere blocks apart.
“We always bicker, so I started writing something for us,” said van Bergen. But then, he just didn’t see either himself or Nonnon as Mack or Jack.
“This is for two Italian guys,” van Bergen decided. “They sound like they’re from Jersey or Brooklyn. That’s not us.” Ultimately, they cast David Brown, who’s been described as a Ralph-Kramden type, as Mack, and Lou Irizarry as Jack. Nonnon does appear in a small role in the film as degenerate gambling priest.
While written to be a film, in the hopes of it getting picked up by a studio as a feature film, van Bergen said he and Nonnon are also open to the idea of it being released in other ways, like a serial. “We could do plenty of follow-ups,” said van Bergen.
Meanwhile, the response so far has been positive. “Mob Fathers” had a brief stint on the internet, but its creators yanked it when they were alerted that the film had gotten scooped up and offered for sale by companies in Italy and in in Asia they had no connection to. Now only the trailer (two different versions) can be viewed online.
Other lessons learned on the job included just how important organizational skills are when working on a low-budget film, from the needed permits (which require $1 million in liability insurance), to the importance of time management when working on public streets or private properties. One scene was shot in a restaurant, but had to be wrapped prior to its opening. This was after the first location fell through at the last minute and van Bergen had to ask the owner of the restaurant, who he knew, if they could shoot there. “It limits the amount of shoots you can do,” said van Bergen. As for the street scenes, Nonnon and van Bergen quickly learned from the city that certain spots were off limits due to having had cameras crews film there too often already. This, van Bergen, explained was done out of courtesy to the neighbors. A couple of scenes were shot in the East Village, one at the Merchants House museum and the other outside St. Mark’s Church.
Still, most of the time, things went according to plan, although there was one shooting day in Greenpoint when the police showed up. With the cast having prop guns on set, not to mention bags that were being schlepped around as if they had bodies inside, van Bergen figured that’s why the cops had come. But he was wrong. The police were far more interested in the person who had threatened to commit suicide nearby. But the show went on with the crew moving to another spot a few blocks away.
At this point, Nonnon and Van Bergen are finalizing fundraising efforts for marketing the project. (As of this interview last week, “Mob Fathers” had actually exceeded the expectations of its Indie-Gogo crowd-sourcing page, which had an $8,000 goal for marketing, mostly via film festivals.) But van Bergen said they’d keep the page running through March 17 in case anyone else wants to contribute. The page is online here.