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TWO GUYS FROM BUFFALO, A CAMERA AND A DREAM

You can tell when moviemakers are tired. They can't imagine life away from the cameras. Asked to meet a reporter at Kostas, the Greek restaurant on Hertel Avenue, to discuss his recently filmed movie, Josef Kissel squirms.

"I don't like the interior," he frets. "The lighting isn't good."

But we're going to be talking, not filming! Finally, Kissel agrees.

It's easy to laugh at Kissel at a moment like this. It's also easy, though, to see why he's addled. For the past six months, Kissel and collaborator Gregory LoBue, both 28, have been working 12- to 18-hour days, giving Buffalo a look at true guerrilla filmmaking.

Nothing about their movie, "Where in the Hell Is North Tonawanda?," is normal.

Title aside, it wasn't filmed specifically in North Tonawanda. Though scenes were shot throughout our area, filming headquarters have been on Amherst Street, in a hulking building owned by Kissel's brother-in-law, on a shadowy block with Spar's European Sausage and Meats and Assumption Church (where a bingo scene was filmed).

Next, it stars not a veteran actress but the manager of the Banana Republic in the Galleria Mall. (LoBue, the film's costumer, put her in outfits her store never dreamed of.)

Then there's the story. "Where in the Hell Is North Tonawanda?" is set in the future. Its plot involves a gigantic, sinister corporation that tries to woo Western New York by dangling jobs in front of our faces.

And it's a musical. The songs, by local composer Kendall Kelly, range from pop to jazz to electronica. The whole shebang culminated with a huge song-and-dance number, set -- of all places -- in Niagara Falls, in the Wintergarden.

Loopy? Undoubtedly. But Kissel and LoBue do give methods behind their madness.

"Musicals are coming back," says Kissel. He cites "Save the Last Dance," the hip-hop flick doing well at the box office.

He believes action, not talk, captures an audience. "Instead of everyone talking, we wanted to translate it into dance," he says. "When you have two or three people talking, people zone out. They don't want to hear it."

Filming is just wrapping up for "Where in the Hell Is North Tonawanda?" The movie cost, Kissel says, between $8,000 and $10,000. Friends invested money, and actors donated time. People helped them out left and right, and, watching Kissel and LoBue at Kostas, it's easy to see how that happened.

"You're making a movie?" the cashier grins. "

As Kissel hands her his card, the chef, having gotten wind of the commotion, approaches in his white apron. "My son does musicals," he says.

Finally, a blond, black-clad waitress steps up to the plate. "There's a party scene being shot Wednesday at 5," LoBue tells her. "You can wear what you've got on. And you're very attractive, so we'll put you right out front."

LoBue leans back euphorically with his coffee cup. "Our cast is really attractive," he beams.

So much for Buffalo's Zubaz pants-sporting, Krispy Kreme-chowing image. "This is a sexy city," Kissel says.

The best boy

"Where in the Hell Is North Tonawanda?" began not on Oliver Street but in Los Angeles, where Kissel held an unexalted job several years ago as studio best boy for Concorde Pictures.

Having majored in journalism at Syracuse University, he liked the training the job gave him in show business. "The biggest waste of time is going to film school," he sneers. But he felt frustrated in his dream, which was screenwriting.

"My last name wasn't Scorcese, so none of my scripts were going to sell," he says.

LoBue, who knew Kissel from their days at St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute, was also in Hollywood. Working in makeup and wardrobe, he was discontented too. Together, the pair began working on a script. "We could wait our whole lives to make a movie," Kissel says, "or we could make it ourselves."

They were encouraged when they showed their effort to Stan Wlodkowski, an influential Hollywood acquaintance who had been a co-producer of "American Beauty," the Oscar-winning Kevin Spacey film. Wlodkowski praised the two newcomers' originality.

So Kissel and LoBue returned to Buffalo, and began bringing "Where in the Hell Is North Tonawanda?" to life.

The title, Kissel explains, comes from an old T-shirt fad. Years ago, he recalls, Western New Yorkers were wearing shirts that said not only "Where in the Hell Is North Tonawanda?" but other local variations. "We could have called the movie 'Where in the Hell Is Cheektowaga?' " he shrugs.

Of course, the main question concerning the film isn't "Where in the hell did that title come from?" It's "Where in the hell will the movie go from here?"

For aspiring filmmakers, these are heady times. Freak successes like "The Blair Witch Project" kindle new hope for novices. Video technology has made the art easier, and cheaper, than it used to be.

Movie producer Wlodkowski, reached in Los Angeles, points out that most film festivals, such as the Sundance Festival, can project digital video. And should a distributor pick up "Where in the Hell is North Tonawanda?" he adds, the distributor would put out for the "finishing fund," which would adapt the movie to 35mm film, saving Kissel and LoBue the expense.

But Wlodkowski, who was also behind such movies as "Longtime Companion" and "Ethan Frome," adds that because filmmaking isn't the elite art it once was, the competition is keener.

"Nine hundred films are submitted to Sundance. They take maybe 20," he says. "Already there are too many films in the marketplace, and many never see the light of day."

On the bright side, Wlodkowski thinks the wild premise behind "Where in the Hell Is North Tonawanda?" might attract attention. "There's always room for original material," he says. "They have a musical set in the near future with issues involving the Buffalo economy. That's an interesting idea."

Does the nation care about Western New York's woes? Wlodkowski, who's originally from New York, thinks it might. "I do believe, he says, "we see too many films set in New York and Los Angeles, and most people don't live in those places."

Kissel passionately stresses his movie's regional appeal. Everyone in "Where In The Hell Is North Tonawanda?," he boasts, is from Western New York. It's the moviemakers' bold belief that to captivate the country, Buffalo need only be itself.

'You're really sassy'

It's time for the party scene, the scene for which LoBue recruited the waitress at Kostas. (And, yes, she turns up.)

Filming is happening on the second floor of the building on Amherst Street. At 6 in the evening, the raucous sound of a jazz band floats down from the upstairs window into the scrubby lot next door.

Many of the actors play multiple roles, and everyone is running around wearing LoBue's fanciful creations. (LoBue's costume budget was about $500, but he was helped along by bolts from the blue -- including a cache of cloth found at the Lafayette Hotel.)

This particular scene is supposed to be a corporate party, held by the evil corporation,the Jasmine Center. A banner announces the company's name. Laying down a strenuous groove is a host of regulars from Buffalo jazz jams, including guitarist Dennis Warne, singer Jenny Jones and pianist Tony Jaeger. At the microphone, singing a song called "You Rock Me the Best," is Michael Mirand, a brash local lounge belter. After having expressed interest in "Where in the Hell Is North Tonawanda?" Mirand got an unexpected break: He found himself a leading man, Frank Morning, who romances Ahn Fresnel, the head of the Jasmine Center. "I'm the love interest," he beams.

Fresnel is played by Linda Leising, the Banana Republic manager. She met Kissel one night at Tim's Rendezvous on Niagara Street.

"He kept staring at me," recalls Leising, 27, a bright, articulate woman dolled up by LoBue in an absurd, plum-colored ball gown. "He asked me to get up and walk," she adds. "He said, 'You're really sassy.' And he asked me to come for a reading."

She didn't hear from Kissel initially, but weeks later, to her surprise, he told her she had the part. "He's been fun," she says.

Though LoBue and Kissel love such impromptu casting, they were savvy enough to enlist many experienced people.

Rhonda Liuzzi, the stunt coordinator, was trained at Niagara University. "Where in the Hell Is North Tonawanda?" involves "a lot of punching and fighting," she says, adding, "I got hung from a tree in front of the Connecticut Street Armory."

Also on the set is Patti Culliton, an actress imported from the Lucille Ball Little Theater in Jamestown. Culliton doubled for Cloris Leachman in "Manna From Heaven," the movie filmed recently here by the Burton sisters. She also appeared in Vincent Gallo's "Buffalo 66," playing "Anjelica Huston's 20-year-younger double."

Culliton had no trouble with the notoriously temperamental Gallo. "He's very demanding and fun to work with," she says.

She has also liked working with Kissel and LoBue. With the filming winding down, she says, "I'm going to miss everybody."

Other cast members feel the same way.

But not to worry: Kissel and LoBue are already planning their next project, a movie based on the Blizzard of '77. As they wrap up their first film, they're proud, but poised to move on. "Where in the Hell Is North Tonawanda?," after all, looks to the future. "It's like a roller coaster," Kissel says. "It never goes back."

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