Ever since he left the public sector after having served as mayor of Guttenberg and running unsuccessfully for Hudson County executive, Peter LaVilla has concentrated on his true passion: making movies.
Over the past decade, LaVilla has written, directed and produced a slew of documentaries, as well as several live-action shorts and some full-length motion pictures.
LaVilla’s work has all been low-budget, independent films that reached a smaller market and featured the acting skills of local Hudson County actors.
However, when LaVilla sat down to write his newest screenplay, entitled “Oak Hill,” he had a particular actress in mind – Oscar-nominated legend Sally Kirkland.
The movie is set around three women of different backgrounds – a stand-up comedian, a dancer, and a fading actress – who battle addiction and end up in a homeless shelter.
“When I wrote the script, I contacted Rosemary Gore to be one of the leads, namely Molly,” LaVilla said. “Rosemary did another movie for me [called “Oil and Water”] a few years ago and she said she was interested in this one as well. When Rosemary asked me who I had in mind for Elizabeth, I told her Sally Kirkland, but I didn’t know how to reach her.”
As it turned out, Kirkland was on the cover of a recent issue of “In Hollywood” magazine that also had a feature article about Gore. The magazine was distributed last year at the Cannes Film Festival.
“Rosemary said that she would call the managing editor of the magazine to see if she could get a contact number for Sally,” LaVilla said. “The editor knew Sally’s publicist and we went through all the proper channels. Here I am, a little moviemaker in New Jersey, and she’s on the A-list in Hollywood. How was that going to happen?”
Incredibly, LaVilla got Kirkland’s number and called her. He explained himself and described the role.
“I told him to send it to me,” said Kirkland.
Golden Globe winner
Kirkland was nominated for a Academy Award as Best Actress in 1987 for her work as a struggling Czech actress in “Anna,” the role that transformed Kirkland from a character actress and off-Broadway performer into an overnight star, albeit after 23 years in the business. Kirkland won the Golden Globe that year for that performance.
Kirkland was the outsider that year in a group of nominees that featured Holly Hunter (“Broadcast News”), Glenn Close (“Fatal Attraction”), Meryl Streep (“Ironweed”) and eventual winner Cher (“Moonstruck”).
“I was the upset nominee,” Kirkland said. “I was the black sheep. You think of the others, and they’re all Great Dames of the movies.”
LaVilla sent the script overnight to Kirkland’s home in Hollywood, and a day later, she called LaVilla.
“I loved the script and I loved the character,” Kirkland said. “I wanted to attach my name to it. Peter really wrote a role that you can tear the scenery apart with. It’s a very poignant script about three women who basically find themselves after being lost and alone in conflict. I immediately thought it was a tremendous role.”
The only problem would be finding the time to have Kirkland come to New Jersey (and several different locations throughout Hudson County) and shoot her scenes.
Between film shoots
Kirkland has been busy in several other projects, like filming “Big Stan,” with Rob Schneider (in Schneider’s directorial debut) and “On the Black,” featuring Nick Nolte.
“I was just in India,” Kirkland said from her Weehawken hotel room, awaiting another film shoot later that day. “We only had a short time to get the scenes done.”
But Kirkland has been working feverishly with LaVilla to complete filming before she returns to California. There were many scenes filmed at the PERC homeless shelter in Union City, a place where Kirkland found a deep-hearted appreciation.
“It was so touching when people choose to make their whole lives helping others who need it,” Kirkland said. “It was so touching to see all different kids of people living there. It humbled me to be there. It’s not only a shelter. It’s a place that serves many needs. I don’t know of any place like that in Los Angeles. I got to know people who have devoted their lives to helping others. It was very humbling.”
Kirkland mentioned the relationships she developed while filming at PERC with people like outgoing Executive Director Matt Kamin – “He knew all of my work,” Kirkland said – Director of Development Brian Poffel and new Director Priti Bali.
“They are wonderful people,” Kirkland said.
Kirkland plays aging actress Elizabeth St. James, who puts on an air like she’s from England.
“If she’s not British, then she acts like she is,” Kirkland said. “I’m excited about this role. I’ve never done anything like this. It touched me greatly. All of my immediate family died from alcoholism, so I could relate to the role. And the shelter is the last frontier for addicts. I’m glad Peter gave me this opportunity.”
Needless to say, LaVilla was thrilled to have Kirkland as part of his project.
“I was floored when I realized it was her,” LaVilla said. “I’m telling you, I had her in mind when I wrote this. As we’re filming, I say, ‘I’m working with a star.’ I simply can’t take my eyes off her. She mesmerizes me. I get goose bumps watching her perform. She keeps on giving more and more. I think everyone has been in awe.”
Other than Gore and Kirkland, the cast features Jeannie Evans, a native of Englewood, as Madison, the fading disco/go-go dancer.
“But we use a lot of local talent in the other roles,” said LaVilla, who has also cast himself in a small role. The cinematographer is Brian Timmons of North Bergen, and the executive producer of the film is Ralph Milo of Guttenberg.
She’s a co-producer
Kirkland serves a dual role as a co-producer.
“You have to wear about four hats in this profession now,” Kirkland said. “You can’t stay alive if you don’t. I am fortunate to have Peter to write something where I can scream, cry and laugh. And it’s really like the reality of Hollywood. The film runs the gamut from comedy to tragedy. This part was a little difficult. Elizabeth didn’t have much of a sense of humor. She’s entirely full of herself and making demands. Peter is the kind of director who wants the actor to be happy. He’s very kind because he’s an actor and a director.”
LaVilla’s work will now have instant credibility now that it has an Oscar-nominated actress associated with it.
“You’d be surprised how it opens doors for you,” LaVilla said. “She can take this to another level.” LaVilla said that he will continue production with the film through the end of the month. The rest of the timetable remains up in the air.
“We want to get it ready for all the major film festivals,” LaVilla said. “We’ll see what happens.”
At the very least, there’s name recognition now, courtesy of Sally Kirkland, once known as “The Queen of the Indies.” Here’s another independent film, this one with a local flavor.
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at either OGSMAR@aol.com or email@example.com