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From Lockport to Hollywood, Mac Cappuccino chases his dream

This is the curse of the start-up storyteller: It’s tough to tell a story uninterrupted.

Late on a sun-dappled Friday afternoon in June, Mac Cappuccino was shuffling around a cluttered band rehearsal space a few stories up inside a nondescript brick building. The sounds of downtown Buffalo wafted into the room through an open window: A siren’s occasional wail. The intermittent rumble of metro trains passing below.

The are the ums, ahs and throat-clearings of regular life. They happen, you hear them, you don’t notice them.

Cappuccino does. He has to. He’s a film producer who, until now, made movies for other people. But today, and for the three weeks that preceded today, he is back home in Western New York making a movie for himself. Cappuccino is the writer, producer and director of “Malaisia.”

Director Mac Cappuccino, right, and Stevie Ungureanu, the film's director of photography, discuss a scene. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

The Buffalo Niagara Film Commission, which helped bring Cappuccino’s project here with tax credits and in-town support for his cast and crew, describes “Malaisia” as a “dark indie comedy.”

The word “indie” is not one of those nearly invisible ums or ahems. It’s key to understanding the size and scope – small and focused – of Cappuccino’s film about a toppled love triangle. He has three weeks of shooting, at 12 hours a day, to make this movie. He has a cast of 13 (one of his three leads is from Buffalo) and a crew of 20, most of whom are local.

This is creativity on a budget: the quick and nimble variety. (Cappuccino declined to reveal the actual budget of the film.) Which means screech of a train brake is a potential slowdown for him, especially on a night like tonight, when he has to wrap the entire film by precisely 8 p.m.

“The frustrating part about making movies versus other forms of creation is the guitarist can pick up his guitar and play his guitar anytime he wants,” he said. “A director can’t pick up his camera and just make a movie.”

Actor Joshua Nuncio, left, waits for the director to call action. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

At least not the movie he has in mind. Cappuccino, 29, was a movie-loving kid during his childhood in Lockport. By the time he was a teenager at Canisius High School, he knew he wanted to go into filmmaking. A serendipitous motherly moment accelerated his entry.

When he was 17, his mother met a filmmaker on a plane and told him that her son was interested in the career. That led to an offer for him to spend three months sleeping on a couch in Kennebunk, Maine, and working on the crew of the 2007 movie “The Living Wake,” with a cast that included Jim Gaffigan and Jesse Eisenberg. Cappuccino worked 12 to 15 hours a day building and tearing down sets.

He also learned a tough lesson in hierarchy. One night, a guy on the crew took him out drinking. Another man walked into the bar, saw Cappuccino and knew he was underage.

“You’re not going to have another drink,” the man said, waving his hand in Cappuccino’s face.

Cappuccino recalls his punky response like this: “I was like, ‘Alright, man, you can get your Obi Wan Kenobi (stuff) out of my face.’ ”

The man warned him again: Stop drinking. Cappuccino told him again: “Get your hand out of my face.”

What Cappuccino didn’t realize is this guy was one of the top-ranking members of the crew. He was a boss. Mac was a kid.

“He jumped across the table, grabbed me, pulled me to ground: ‘You want to see some Obi Wan Kenobi?’ ” Cappuccino recalled. “Needless to say, I didn’t say a peep.”

Director Mac Cappuccino, center, watches the scene as cameraman Joe Bloggett, right, and crew member Steve Russell, left, prepare for the next shot. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

From there, Cappuccino went on to produce several more films (“The Evangelist,” “Aftershock,” “Arthur Newman” and “Clown” among them). He’s also shot music videos, including a recent one in Buffalo that led to a conversation with Rich Wall, director of operations for Buffalo’s film commission. Cappuccino had written “Malaisia” and Wall suggested he film it in Buffalo.

For Cappuccino, that was an easy sell. He’s based out of New York City now but has retained a hometown pride, especially for Western New York’s burgeoning film industry.

“Anytime there’s any movie thing in Buffalo, I at least try to have my nose in it, because I think there’s a wide berth of potential here,” he said. “We have a very young, talented crew base.”

For “Malaisia,” Cappuccino became their boss. On the last evening of shooting, he hovered near a screen that captured the framing of scene in which a musician, played by the surfer-haired Los Angeles-based actor Leonardo Santaiti, is crumpled on a couch, realizing his rock-star dreams are crushed.

A flurry of words and quick-check bounced around the room:

“Let’s lock it up!”

“Settle…”

“Hold for sound on this train.”

“Sound, you clear?”

“Hold on a few seconds… Clear.”

Amid the chatter, Cappuccino, who wore a gray suit, focused through his thick-rimmed glasses on the screen. Each time he called “Action!,” Santaiti, in character and working with two other actors, filled the room with dejection: “I don’t understand. I’m doing everything right. I’m writing music in line the zeitgeist, I’m performing like a madman.”

They filmed the scene multiple times, adjusting camera angles and tinkering with Santaiti’s delivery. Cappuccino, who has peppery hair with splashes of gray around the temples, was no older than much of his crew and younger than many, but seemed in command. When he gave notes to Santaiti, he approached the actor and knelt down, delivering the feedback discreetly. When his director of photography, Stevie Ungureanu, questioned the quality of a single-camera shooting approach that zipped back and forth between characters, Cappuccino explained his idea, but didn’t waver from it.

“If you’re comfortable with it, I’m comfortable delivering it to you,” Ungureanu said.

At one point, a crew member who was trying to keep the set organized unknowingly admonished Cappuccino.

“If people don’t want to put their drinks on other people’s drum sets, that might be nice,” the crew member said, slightly annoyed, picking a Diet Coke can off a drum head.

“Was it a DC?” Cappuccino said. “That was me. I’m sorry. It was empty.”

At another point, someone looked out the window and noticed a parking lot attendant booting the cars below. One of them was Cappuccino’s. He sent an assistant downstairs with a couple hundred in cash. He wanted to dispense with the distraction and focus on the filming; when you’re working on a low-budget project, and tied to a time frame constructed by union rules (in this case, an 8 p.m. finish), that’s what you do.

And that’s what Cappuccino did. Without a minute to spare, he got what he needed.

“Ladies and gentlemen, that is a picture wrap on 'Malaisia,' ” his first assistant director, Kyle Mecca, announced to claps and whoops.

“On the dot, 8 o’clock, by the way!” Cappuccino added.

The movie crew was shooting a scene for director Mac Cappuccino's movie, "Malaisia," on the sidewalk in front of the North Park Theatre. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

The shooting ended there, but this story doesn’t. Next is a summer of editing, sound design, visual effects and what Cappuccino calls “the nauseating process of trying to sell the movie and doing the festival run.”

Cappuccino is hoping to submit “Malaisia” for the Sundance Film Festival, which has a deadline of September.

“However, I’m not willing to rush the process of editing the movie,” he said. “I feel like it has a chance to be a cool, special movie, because it’s very different and it takes the audience down a long (journey), and it kind of takes advantage of the audience a little bit; it takes a strange turn. In a fun way, not in a weird way. I don’t want to rush that.”

The filming itself was rush enough.

Email: toshei@buffnews.com

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