By Jeffrey Levick
Cleveland Jewish News
“You Must Order Within Ten Minutes,” notes a handwritten sign hanging on the wall of a Coventry Road delicatessen, circa 1973. The odor of cigarette smoke hangs in the air as Holocaust survivors kibitz inside a sticky brown vinyl booth that’s seen better days. Deli owner, Marv, eyes the new waitress, despite backlash from Grace, Marv’s (who’s married) longtime lover and hostess. Meanwhile, freeloading hippies filch chocolate-chip cookies from behind the counter, averting the glances of beer-swilling bikers.
Under the faint light, elderly Benny Berkowitz is writing yet another sign, in exchange for leftover turkey legs.
Fast forward to 2000. Filmmaker Laura Paglin sits in Arabica coffeehouse near remodeled Coventry Yard, lingering over a luke-warm cup of coffee. She explains the above scenario for her soon to-be-shot independent film, “The NightOwls of Coventry.” Paglin, 34, is the film’s writer, producer and director.
“The movie is a black comedy about the importance of community and the threat of its demise,” she explains. Deli owner Marv is the father figure to a group of displaced souls whose spiritual home is the deli. Failing financially, Marv’s Deli is forced to stay open 24 hours, attracting hippies, political radicals, and old Jewish widowers whose own children have long since fled to the suburbs.
Every night, the customers bicker and complain, avoiding the pain and loneliness of their own lives, as Marv pays off the health inspector and loses himself and his money in gambling pursuits.
As the situation worsens, Marv sinks to new lows and “Coventry Friends,” a neighborhood watch group, try to put Marv out of business. “The film”, says Paglin, “is about a place rather than a specific character.”
The curly, dark-haired producer reveals that the script is “loosely inspired” by the residents and the stories she overheard at Irv’s Deli (upon which Marv’s is modeled) while she was living in the Coventry are in 1985. As a graduate student at the Cleveland Institute of Music in those days, she hung out at Irv’s and immediately felt adopted by the local characters.
"I couldn’t understand why everyone reminded me of my relatives," laughs Paglin, who is Jewish. "An encouraging, almost paternal atmosphere existed at Irv’s," she says. Located on the corner of Coventry and Hampshire roads, the deli opened in 1959. By the time it closed in 1989, the deli was “delightfully crusty,” Paglin jokes. “You could taste cigarette smoke in the cookies.”
“I didn’t grow up here, so it struck me as so different from anywhere I had ever been,” says the Portland, Oregon native.
Paglin’s own fascination with film started in high school when she produced several award-winning claymations and animated shorts.
In 1992 she produced “Men, Women, Angels & Harps,” a nationally distributed documentary about the instrument’s association with heavenly imagery.
Most recently, she produced a promotional video for The Pardes School in Beachwood. The video, which is shown to prospective students and various organizations, follows kids from the first day of school and is periodically updated with their growth and achievements.
While juggling these and other projects, Paglin spent five years developing “NightOwls”. Using local connections, grants from the Ohio Arts Council, Humanities Council, the George Gund Foundation and private investors, she finally completed her script and filmed test shoots at Hatton ’s Deli downtown.
Paglin had initially approached the “NightOwls of Coventry” film idea as a documentary, but after interviewing over “45 hippies, bikers and relatives of the late owner, Irv Gulko” she felt she would be artistically constrained by just factual accounts. “It’s really about people who just sit around, so you build up the exciting parts,” she says. “The character changed over time; they’ve taken on lives of their own.”
In 1999, “NightOwls” was a finalist at the Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab competition, thus gaining the attention of Hollywood actors, including Seymour Cassel. Cassel, an Academy Award nominee, has appeared in many Hollywood films, including “Indecent Proposal,” with Robert Redford. “Cassel is a gem,” says producer and casting director Alison Maier, “And he’s tough to get in the industry.” Cassel has signed a letter of intent to play Marv.
Bolstered by considerable support from private investors, Paglin and her staff are currently in the pre-production phase of the project, which will be shot entirely in Cleveland. Recently, a fundraiser, hosted by community activist Ilana Ratner, brought in supporting crew members and actors from New York for a script reading. “We formed as a crew for the first time,” enthuses Maier. “It was magical.”
Finalizing the cast is another crucial part of the preproduction phase. “We’re casting in Cleveland, New York and LA,” adds Maier, “but we want to use as much local talent as possible.” Last month they had over 100 people show up for a local casting call and hope to have another open call soon.
Both Paglin and Maier plan to start shooting in September. “All of us will be taking some financial dents,” says Maier. Paglin, who supports herself as a piano teacher, will stop giving lessons until November and Maier just moved to Cleveland from Yellow Springs, Ohio, where she recently finished another film. Paglin is moving out of her Cleveland Heights home, making it NightOwl Productions’ main office.
She says she is taking each day at a time, but constantly “laying the plans.” Considering the context of the script, keeping the film as local as possible is essential, says Paglin. “Coventry had adapted well,” says Paglin, but unfortunately, “community is being replaces with ‘sprawl’ marts. With urban flight and the subsequent breakdown of traditional neighborhoods, 'NightOwls of Coventry' really represents 'Coventry U.S.A.'"
Filmmaker Laura Paglin estimates the “NightOwls of Coventry” will cost over $100,000 to produce, with a large chunk of money going to feeding the crew.
“Pre-production is the most critical phase,” says Alison Maier, the film’s producer. “We’re looking for interns, RV’s, cell-phones, hosing for crew members and catering - everything." Most importantly, Maier adds, they are still looking for a large restaurant or warehouse space that can be used for one month of shooting. If anyone is able to help, please contact Alison Maier or Laura Paglin at NightOwl Production at 216-321-3280, or e-mail Laura at firstname.lastname@example.org.