Park Slope native Danny Leiner says the
goals of his new film, "The Great New Wonderful," were
to effectively capture the mood and energy in the Big Apple a
year after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and to show how
those feelings of anxiety and loss worked as invisible threads
connecting the lives of five seemingly unrelated sets of New
Penned by playwright and stage actor Sam Catlin, the 88-minute drama follows the characters as they face their own personal struggles in a city still reeling from a collective heartbreak.
Greenpoint native and "Sopranos" mob wife Edie Falco has a small, but pivotal role as a master cake designer to the rich and famous, while "Secretary" star Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the ambitious rival who would love to poach her high-profile clients.
Tony Shalhoub, star of TV’s "Monk," plays a psychologist trying to help a man (Jim Gaffigan) deal with his feelings after witnessing an office tragedy; Judy Greer ("Adaptation") and Tom McCarthy ("Good Night, and Good Luck") portray a young couple, fighting to keep their marriage alive while their troubled, 10-year-old son (Billy Donner) becomes increasingly angry and difficult; "Moonstruck" matron Olympia Dukakis plays a woman who rediscovers a past passion after reconnecting with a childhood friend in Brighton Beach; and Naseerudin Shah ("The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen") and Sharat Saxena ("Mumbai Express") play immigrants who work as security guards and spend much of their time driving around the city, discussing the nuances of American life.
"I really wanted to do a movie that took place in New York and was about New Yorkers and so we started thinking about how we were going to portray New York and what we were going to do and 9-11 was just there," Leiner told GO Brooklyn in a phone interview Tuesday. "We couldn’t find a way to write about or think about New York without that being central to it."
Asked how he thinks the vibe in New York has changed since 9-11, and also since the year the film was set, the man best-known for directing broad Hollywood comedies like "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle" and "Dude, Where’s My Car?" replied, "I think it’s changed quite a bit.
"In 2002, you could not walk down the street or just be in the city without just feeling 9-11It was constantly there. So, now, I feel like it’s like anything terrible that happens; people have had some time and people have been able to kind of, I guess, heal from the experience. You still feel it when you’re here, but I feel like it’s changed quite a bit and this film delves into people coping with that."
When it came time to cast the film, one of the first actors Leiner approached was Falco, the Emmy Award-winning actress he had previously directed in the short film, "Time Expired" and the indie feature, "Layin’ Low," as well as a recent episode of "The Sopranos." And although Falco has only a small part in this movie, the filmmaker emphasizes, her contributions to the project were immeasurable.
"Edie is definitely my ’go-to girl,’" Leiner said. "I love working with her and, actually, one of the reasons the movie happened was because she was so gracious. It’s a great role; she read it and she really dug it. I think she signed on because she is a friend of mine and that really helped us get other cast members."
The director went on to say one of the most important scenes in the film is when Falco’s and Gyllenhaal’s pastry princesses have a quiet - though scorching - showdown in the middle of a restaurant.
"I feel like that scene - in the middle of the movie where Edie comes in and has lunch with Maggie - is the key scene in the movie," Leiner observed.
Faced with a ridiculously low budget and time constraints - he had only $500,000 to shoot the film in 24 days - Leiner tried to film each individual story line, so he could send his A-list cast members back to their higher-paying day jobs as quickly as possible.
"We were under extreme budgetary pressure, scheduling pressure," the SUNY Purchase grad admitted. "But one of the cool aspects of shooting the movie is the fact that it is five separate stories, so I treated each one almost like a short filmSo, we would just go from story to story and once those actors were gone, we’d bring in the new team."
So, how did his Park Slope upbringing prepare him for life in the movie industry?
"L.A. is a cut-throat town, so I think growing up in Brooklyn definitely prepares you for tough situations - put it that way," he said with a laugh, noting that the Slope wasn’t quite the "capital of baby strollers" when he lived there in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
"My sister lives in Park Slope, still, where I grew up and I go there quite a bit," he said. "I shot my first feature, ’Layin’ Low,’ in Carroll Gardens, and I shot ’Expired Time’ in Park Slope, so it’s definitely changed. You can’t go there and not see the transformation. You go to Williamsburg, Carroll Gardens, you just see change and some of it’s good and some of it’s a little sad.
"When I go to Park Slope now, it’s so different from when I grew up," said Leiner. "It’s transformed. It’s nice to see revitalization going on, but you also miss the old neighborhood feel that existed."
"The Great New Wonderful" will open on June 23 at the Angelika Film Center [Houston and Mercer streets in Manhattan, (212) 995-2000]; and at AMC Empire 25 [on 42nd Street, between Seventh and Eighth avenues in Manhattan, (212) 398-3939]. Call the theaters for screening times and ticket prices.