After more than 50 years of writing and directing plays, Maurena Luzzi, who is in her 25th year as director of the North Bergen Players, has begun her first foray into the movie industry.
Luzzi, who has run the acting troupe along with teaching several workshops on voice and acting, was finally convinced to bring one of her plays to the screen by a former student, Ralph Laboy.
Laboy came to Luzzi 15 years ago, after finding success on soap operas like “One Life to Live” and “All My Children,” because he needed help when screen roles became scarce.
Laboy, a product of North Bergen who now lives in Rockland County, said that he first was a model, living in Japan, Paris, and New York, before he set his sights on his dream. He had recurring roles on television in the mid-’80s before joining the North Bergen Players for five years. He went on to take classes at NYU and SUNY Purchase for film.
Laboy returned to television for a few years, before striking out on his own as a director and actor in short films and, most recently, a feature-length film called “Betrayal.” When he saw Luzzi’s most recent play, “Desmond’s End,” which debuted at the North Bergen Library last year, he begged her to film it.
The play is a “who-done-it” mystery with a murder victim named Jasper. In the movie version, “Jasper,” as played by Laboy, will appear in flashbacks as each of the suspects remember their encounters with a man who caused more harm than help.
Luzzi said that the scenes will then go back to present time as the suspects explain what transpired to the police.
“When I was writing the play, I saw the monologues as flashbacks, and thought, ‘This would be great for a movie’ and it just worked,” said Luzzi. “It really wasn’t that difficult. It just fell perfectly with everything, and I was very comfortable with it.”
Last week, Luzzi said that their present filming location, Antonia’s Restaurant in North Bergen, was truly wonderful because all that the owner requested was a credit in the movie. She said that members of the community have been generous in participating in the film, which the cast collectively had to insure out of their own pockets.
“When you think of low budget, this is no budget,” said Luzzi.
Other shoot locations included a chiropractor’s office and outdoor scenes in North Bergen.
She said that most of the cast, other than the extras, are from North Bergen, and were or are now a part of her acting troupe.
Amanda Rosa, who at 17 joined the Players, is the director of photography in the film. She stayed with the group during her senior year at North Bergen High School, before going on to the New York Film Academy. Recently, while shooting another film with Laboy, he mentioned that his next project would be in New Jersey. Their conversation eventually led to Luzzi, whom they had both studied under at different times. Rosa told him then and there that she wanted to work on the movie.
“Maurena can act; she can do it all,” Rosa said. “Just to see her coaxing what she wants out of the actors is amazing,” said Rosa.
Neda Mitrovic, who plays one of the suspects in the movie, said that Luzzi gave her the opportunity to act after she came to this country from Croatia. She said while she preferred the stage, she was getting used to not being able to hide from the movie camera.
“[The cast from the play] never dreamed what was going to happen,” said Mitrovic. “Especially I, coming from Croatia 20 years ago [when] I didn’t even speak English. I was going with my daughter to the library when I saw a North Bergen Players [flyer] and said ‘Oh my God, I wish I could go’ and I thought how they’re never going to take me; I don’t speak English.”
Mitrovic said that 15 years later, she did join the group. Often typecast as a Russian spy, she has progressed under Luzzi’s teaching.
Laboy, who is simultaneously working on another film with Rosa called “Come Back,” hopes to submit them to numerous film festivals.
Laboy, who works part-time as an occupational therapist, and Rosa, who is a part-time employee at Blockbuster, explained that film festivals a few decades ago helped aspiring filmmakers find their footing.
“I tortured this man to get his [evil] laugh.” – Maurena Luzzi
Laboy said that part of him felt compelled to come back to his hometown to make a movie with Luzzi, the skilled writer and director who taught him so much. He hopes to submit this film, along with “Betrayal,” to film contests.
Luzzi said Laboy had grown into a successful and talented actor, but she still helped him prepare for the role of “Jasper.”
“I tortured this man to get his [evil] laugh, and he’s got it down, but it’s scary,” said Luzzi.
Tricia Tirella may be reached at TriciaT@hudsonreporter.com.