Michael Cerenzie on Sidney Lumet and Giant, Flying Ostriches
by Jef Burnham
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As a producer, Michael Cerenzie is one of creative forces behind the upcoming film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Ethan Hawke with Academy Award winner, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead has already screened in New York to much praise and will open nationwide November 11. His other producing credits include Deuces Wild and Matt Dillon’s writing/directorial debut, City of Ghosts. I spoke with Michael Cerenzie about his beginnings in producing, his latest film and his other projects with the video game/graphic novel oriented, CP Productions.
Michael Cerenzie got his start as an actor and producer in theatre, though he has no intention of pursuing acting in front of the camera as he has producing. “I kind of made the choice a few years ago to let that go,” the 37-year-old producer confessed. “I studied with the amazing acting teacher William Esper (who worked with Sanford Meisner, who, actually, Lumet worked with)… At the time, I couldn’t get my green card and [Esper] sent me over to a theatre to do some work as an intern. I ended up becoming the managing producing director of that theatre, The Ensemble Studio, and winning an Obie Award my first year in New York City.”
“A lot of people don’t look at a producer as being creative and it’s because they don’t fully understand what a producer really does, including my mother, by the way,” he said of his decision to go into producing. “For instance, if you had a painting, to me an actor was an expression, meaning, maybe the color red, or the color purple, or the color blue. And I look at producing as being the canvas and the frame that holds all of that together, including the director who is putting all that color on there.”
Recently, Cerenzie acted as canvas and frame for Sidney Lumet, the legendary director of 12 Angry Men and Network. He compared working with Lumet to working with Robert Altman, whom Cerenzie was working with before the director’s death in 2006. “They’re what I call, very producerial… They know what they want from the time they open the script. They’re basically craftsman, you know? Working with Sid was amazing because he knew what he wanted every day. We wrapped early every day—probably around 3:30/4:00, and noon on Fridays so he could go to the Hamptons.”
Cerenzie also discussed his initial interest in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, which tells the story of two brothers and their botched robbery of their family’s jewelry store. “I worked on this project for three years. It was off the screenplay by Kelly Masterson… I just thought it would be something that would be perfect for Lumet… It wasn’t really an attraction to a film about crime. It was more about the family unit and how one action dominoes, and starts to unravel from the time we first look at this family unit. Like American Beauty—a lot darker than American Beauty—[it’s] the idea that you’re looking at this family that could be anyone’s family.”
Earlier this year, Cerenzie formed CP Productions along with Christine Peters (How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days). CP is aimed at developing adaptations of video games, comic books and graphic novels to target the 25 and younger demographic. The first project they’ve announced is an adaptation of the Midway video game classic, Joust. The project has generated some mixed reactions online, as the game features knights fighting on giant, flying ostriches with no storyline to speak of. However, Cerenzie has confidence in Marc Gottlieb’s script, which he described as “Mad Max meets Gladiator.”
“From a filmic perspective we looked at [the video game], saying, well, it’s not really something we’re going to be able to make into a movie, but Marc was very brilliant, and we worked with him very closely and creatively. What we did was, we took a single element of the game and we then made it into a whole new world that is based in the future. It’s 2025, Vegas. Vegas is kind of suspended in mid-air. It’s kind of a fantasy/action film, based a lot in CGI. It follows the journey of this one man… and his search for truth and redemption after the loss of his family.”
It’s no wonder that Cerenzie was named one of Variety’s “50 Creatives to Watch.” Cernzie and CP Productions have their eyes firmly fixed on the future. Aside from Joust and Peters’ Area 51 (penned by comic book writer, Grant Morrison), CP has been working closely with Dark Horse comics and Tokyopop, and they will be going to Japan in the next few months to acquire the rights to some Manga libraries. They are also planning to employ numerous, innovative modes of advertisement for their films, including the use of free downloadable media for cell phones to track the growing audience interest.
Cerenzie outlined a unique venture they have undertaken for Joust. “What we did was, we made an amazing deal with Dave Zucker at Midway [Games]… and we said, ‘We have this script. You guys should take a look at it,’ and they loved it, because what it did was, it’s kind of an inversion of what people normally do. We recreated the game for a film that could then be turned into a new game engine which they would build as a new game for their market.”
Now, don’t think for a moment that Cerenzie is in video game and comic book adaptations just for the money. He has been, since childhood, a big fan of both. Unfortunately, we will probably never get to see Cerenzie tackle his favorite comic series, Batman, given the recent revamping of the series by Christopher Nolan. Nevertheless, with a lot of fun pictures to come from CP Productions, the release of his upcoming thrillers Blackout and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, and his plan to work with Sidney Lumet again, we will still see great things from Michael Cerenzie.
Jef Burnham is a writer/filmmaker in Chicago.
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