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Inspiring Tinseltown Writers raised here use Buffalo's rich ethnic and cultural heritage to fashion stories that Hollywood craves

Let's call it "Buffalo Friday" at the movies.

That's what will happen five days from today when two movies will open in America that take place here, at least in part -- John Dahl's small Polish hit-man comedy "You Kill Me," starring Ben Kingsley and Tea Leoni, and Tom Shadyac's huge "Evan Almighty," a film starring Steve Carell already fabled to be the most expensive comedy ever made.

And now, as you no doubt expected, the major qualifications: Buffalo will, in fact, figure only in the opening minutes of "Evan Almighty" as Steve Carell's character -- the TV newsman -- says goodbye to the city and drives away with his family after being elected here to Congress.

Buffalo, the setting for at least half of "You Kill Me," isn't even as yet one of the cities where "You Kill Me" will open next Friday. And, while the setting of "You Kill Me" may be Buffalo, the Buffalo scenes, complete with snow-shoveling, were filmed in Winnipeg.

But for those keeping score at home, these movies aren't as Buffalo-averse as they might seem.

While Buffalo is only momentarily incidental in "Evan Almighty" -- an elaborate CGI-fest about a modern Noah with Morgan Freeman reprising the God of "Bruce Almighty" -- it's absolutely true that, like in "Evan Almighty," we have a history of electing local celebrities to Congress, particularly of the jock persuasion. What else was Jack Kemp, ex-Bills quarterback, but a fellow whose former job made him the local celebrity to end all local celebrities? (Remember, too, Hank Nowak, one of the most famous of college basketball players, and former Bills player and county executive, Ed Rutkowski.)

And while Winnipeg is where "You Kill Me" was shot, any Buffalonian who sees the film will be rocked by how plausibly Winnipeg in the snow passes for Buffalo. Nor is this the first time Buffalo has figured in a John Dahl movie. Fleeting scenes in "The Last Seduction," his best movie, were set here, though not filmed here.

"I was amazed," said Christopher R. Markus, half of the Emmy-winning writing team that wrote "You Kill Me," and the half responsible for having the movie's recovered alcoholic hit man being a member of a highly fictitious Polish mob in Buffalo. "We went there [Winnipeg] for a week. I didn't pressure them to film in Buffalo because they had a very small budget. But it looks like Buffalo to the point where I was kind of uncomfortable while I was there. I wasn't visiting my parents. I was just loitering around doing what I wanted."

As part of the screenwriting team also responsible for the nine-figure budgets of "Narnia" movies, Markus jokes that he's used to much more "omnipotence" as a writer. His explanation for his fictional Buffalo being in the middle of a war between a Polish mob fighting it out with an Irish mob is very simple: Markus is half-Polish and from Buffalo.

His writing partner, Stephen McFeeley, is of Irish extraction and from San Francisco (the other city in which "You Kill Me" takes place).

Markus' film has already met with small disapproval in the Am-Pol Eagle, he says. "I guess they didn't like being portrayed as drunken criminals. I would think they'd appreciate being portrayed. We didn't really want to write about a mob at all. But when you have a hit man, it's required you do something."

>North Buffalo roots

Markus, who went to St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute, grew up on a weirdly artistic and writer-intensive block of Starin Avenue in North Buffalo. Before his family bought their house on Starin, it was home to the family of neo-expressionist painter Susan Rothenberg. (Markus' sister is also a painter.) Two doors down is the house where the much-awarded and distinctive crime and mystery writer Lawrence Block grew up. This reporter knows these details because he grew up across the street, 10 houses down.

Markus and McFeeley won an Emmy for their script for "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers." This puts him up with such other Emmy winners from Buffalo as David Milch, and as part of the astonishing cadre of Buffalo-raised Hollywood writers: Anthony Yerkovich, Milch, Tom Fontana, Diane English, Alfonso Ruggiero, Patrick Hasburgh, etc.

What is undeniable is how very much of a disproportionate presence Buffalo has in movies and TV and among Hollywood writers for a city its size and in the throes of such economic travail. Why? Try these possible explanations:

*Proximity to Toronto. Our TV is their network TV in Canada's largest city. Deep acquaintance with "Eyewitness News," Channel 7 and Irv Weinstein, for instance, is why "Bruce Almighty" was set here in the first place.

*The chicken wing, our junk food ambassador to the world.

*The presence of two major arms of the State University of New York system, meaning a typhoon of Hollywood people who, at the very least, passed through here (including, for instance, mogul Brad Grey and film director James Foley, who said he decided to become a filmmaker as a student here.)

*A long, intense history of movie and TV coverage in the local press.

*Most importantly, as writer Diane English once told Alan Pergament, Buffalo is a great storytelling town.

"It IS a great storytelling town," agrees Markus from his home in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles, echoing English. "All those neighborhoods, all those people, several hundreds of layers intertwining. You get a nice feast of life there -- not all good. You get a certain amount of despair, dreams that have cracked. It's a thinking man's town."

"I think it may also have something to do with being stuck inside for six months. If you can't go out, you have to invent something to do."

>City has good schools

Anthony Yerkovich -- one of the first Buffalonians to find gainful employment writing in Hollywood ("Hill Street Blues" and the show he co-created, "Miami Vice"), would add the many "good schools in Buffalo" to the list of reasons our city contributes so disproportionately to the ranks of Hollywood writers. "It seems to me from my experiences in other parts of the country that there are more really first-rate quality schools in Buffalo per capita . . ."

Yerkovich is also brutally frank about how bar life in Buffalo once contributed to the city's immersion in storytelling.

"I'm not necessarily proud of this fact, but I was thinking about the amount of time I spent in bars when I was young in Buffalo," said Yerkovich. "I started going to bars in Buffalo when I was 14 years old. I went to Canisius. (He graduated in 1968.) Back then, we had a tradition there. We got out of school at 2:45, from the fairly rigorous curriculum the Jesuits are known for. If we weren't in organized sports or otherwise occupied, we'd roll down the street to an old German braustrubel called Maxl's on the corner of Main Street at Ferry. We were about 4 feet tall and 14 years old and wearing blue blazers and drinking beer.

"Then the action moved down to the Holland House, which was east of Main Street. It was an entirely black neighborhood. We'd hang out there drinking 7-and-7's and shooting the breeze with all sorts of interesting folks. Then of course, there was Brink's over on Elmwood."

"The socialization that results," from that helped make him a writer, he says.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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