Local New Yorkers aim for the big time of Hollywood success

Irena Allegrova belts out tune for video shoot
Irena Allegrova belts out tune for video shoot

The crew bites back the bitter cold, as they attempt to get one of the lights to work. It keeps flickering, and the lighting crew is trying to fix it. 9 o’clock in the morning has come and gone, and they are just setting up. The shoot is starting behind schedule.

Russian super star, Irena Allegrova has arrived, and is getting ready to shoot her music video. Signs that the Cold War has melted away can be seen all over the set, as they prepare to film on the deck of the former United States Navy aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Intrepid, now the center piece of the Intrepid Sea, Air, Space Museum.

Just another day on the job for Ken Kushner. His company, Red Reel Pictures, is producing this music video. This is not the first time this Flushing-born director/writer/producer has found himself on the set of a music video. He’s been doing them since 1984.

Ken Kushner
Ken Kushner

“I always wanted to be a filmmaker,” says Kushner, who now lives in Bayside. “The first day I ever shot anything, it was so exciting.” And in this borough, he’s not alone.

Queens is simmering with a list of talents, all struggling to make it in “the business.” From actors to writers to documentary film makers, these up and coming stars are looking to make their mark on the silver screen.

“My father took me to the movies all the time,” Kushner says, who occasionally casts his father in his films. His first foray into the arts was writing a play in 6th grade. As he got older, he studied screenwriting and film making. His first film,Gangsters, was a three minute, silent black and white.

The life of a film maker is not an easy one. Every film has been a fight to create, since financial concerns always stand in the way. “It’s a hard thing to gain the trust of the financiers,” Kushner says. Just “getting in the director’s chair is a war.”

Because money is so difficult to come by, many have to rely on their friends. Just ask Don Calabrese. He has just recently finished filming his directorial debut film, Dungeon Dogs, a semi-autobiographical tale about an ex-con trying to turn his life around. Hoping to live a quiet life selling hot dogs, he’s harassed by local thugs, threatened by a health inspector, and robbed at gunpoint by a former prison mate.

Born in Newark, he’s a writer, director and actor who’s been living in Bayside for the last few years. The $8,700 he managed to raise to make the film came from his girlfriend and friends, along with the actors and crew who helped make the film. Even the places along Bell Blvd. where the film was shot contributed to the film.

Looking for some direction in his life, Calabrese started out as an actor. Without any professional training, he tried out for a local production of Stalag 17. He got the lead part, and since then, has appeared in an episode of New York Undercover, along with a number of short films.

Calabrese’s move into the film business was not something he’d imagined himself doing. This is not an uncommon tale. For actor Paul Coughlan, interest in the performing arts began at Queens College.

“My intention was to teach,” Coughlan says. He’d taken an acting class because he had to. One night he went to a production at the college, where some of his acting classmates were performing. Afterwards he said to himself, “I can do that!” He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree, and headed out into the acting world.

“I’d gone out on a lot of auditions I got from Backstage,” Coughlan says. At the same time, he took acting classes as often as he could, while balancing his responsibilities to his job. “There have been many times when I had to give up on acting classes because they were in conflict with the job that I needed,” Coughlan says. “Because a job gives me the money to pay the rent.”

Getting acting jobs is something that sometime requires an imaginative approach. For a gangster film titled, Murderland, Coughlan got rather inventive with his audition. “I just played it out,” he says. “There were about 500 people trying out that day.”

When his turn came up, Coughlan pretended to be a rough ex-con. “This is all fabricated,” he says. Coughlan was cast in the film as Angelo, an ill-tempered hoodlum. He has appeared in three other films, as well as episodes of Law & Order and New York News.

While he enjoyed acting, his interest in film had grown. He decided to go to film school, he says, and “learn how the whole process was put together.”

Actors branching out their talents into different fields is something that Lauren Patrice Nadler knows something about. A native of Bayside, she has acted and directed, and served as production coordinator and assistant director on a list of independent films. “I do workshops,” Nadler says. “I teach acting, and I love it.”

Nadler sharpened her film production skills with Dungeon Dogs. “It was the first thing I produced, from soup to nuts,” she says. She had been drawn in by the gritty tale of redemption, and to its creator, Calabrese. “He’s a great writer,” she says.

Still, independent film does not only include people who spin fictional yarns.

A native of Long Island City, Pam Stemberg left when she was 19 and swore she’d never return. But return she did, with her partner husband, and set up shop to create documentaries. “There are topics that I believe in, and documentaries I love to make,” Stemberg says.

Her latest project, a pilot for a television food and travel show called, I Remember Italy, is something she’s created with her husband. They have been working to sell the pilot, with hopes to produce more episodes in Italy.

Stemberg’s experience with the film business started at a young age. “I was a model when I was a little kid,” Stemberg says, who appeared in a Bayer aspirin commercial when she was a baby. Much of her childhood was spent on sets, but she stopped working as a teenager. “When I did get back on a set, I was in my twenties.” That was when she knew. “I was like, oh my God, I’m home,” she says. “I said this is what I want to do.”

Has being from Queens helped shape these future Orsen Welles’?

“Living here has definitely augmented my writing,” Calabrese says.

For Stemberg, “All of those people around me, the hundreds of immigrants” that call Queens their home have shaped the direction of what she hopes to be her next film. It will focus on Americans as immigrants in other countries, a view of ourselves that we don’t normally see.

So what does the future hold for these future stars of the silver screen?

After attempting to shrug off acting to pursue a career behind the camera, Paul Coughlan recently received a role in an upcoming comedy, Shadow of Death, an independent feature film written and directed by Joe Murphy. The film will be shot on location in New York City.

Don Calabrese, who is now working as a reporter to pay the bills, is hoping to film a script he wrote two years ago, Even God’s Got A Dirty Mouth, a film about three drug addicts who pretend to be cops. But today, he’s still trying to raise money to put the finishing touches on his film, Dungeon Dogs. On April 7th, he will be holding a fundraising screening of the film at 8 and 10 p.m. at the KC Saloon, 213-11 41st Ave. in Bayside. It will have live music and hot dogs.

Ken Kushner is getting ready to direct a $6 million dollar production he wrote, titled Ultraviolence, starring Snoop Doggy Dogg, Method Man, and other Rap stars. He also has a deal to co-write and direct the comedy, Rock Bottom, with a budget of $12,000,000.

“The most gratifying thing to me is watching something on the big screen that came out of my brain,” Kushner says.

And like these other talented Queens film makers, he’s watching that dream come alive. A dream that none of them could possibly give up. “Death is the only thing that’s going to stop me,” Calabrese says.

“I’m a big believer in getting what you want, and not stopping till you get it.” Kushner says. “It’s one of the greatest opportunity in the world to make a film.”

Michael Sheridan

Michael Sheridan has written, directed and produced more than a dozen short films under the banner of Maynard Films, and has worked as a writer for more than a decade for websites, magazines and newspapers.

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