The actor Judd Hirsch leans against the display case at S & J Jewelers, on the ground floor of the Monadnock building at Dearborn and Jackson. There’s a tinge of Yiddish to his voice as he accuses an employee of stealing a watch. Vincent Piazza mutters a half-hearted defense of the suspect, hiding his own guilt. It’s a good take, except for some crowd noise in the background.
“Let’s get it wild,” says Ben Berkowitz, who’s directing. He sports a thick beard and a black Polska Vodka T-shirt; his hair is pulled back in a ponytail. The team is shooting for a second day on the independent film Polish Bar, in which Piazza’s character, Reuben, turns his back on his Orthodox Jewish family’s jewelry business to DJ at a seedy nightclub, where he befriends a stripper. It’s Berkowitz’s second film as director and his fourth with Ben Redgrave, his cowriter and partner in the Benzfilm Group production company. Cinematographer Tommy Maddox-Upshaw puts down the Red digital cinema camera, the boom operator brings the microphone in close, and Hirsch and Piazza repeat the dialogue.
About 30 young crew members crowd into the compact shop or huddle outside on this frigid early March afternoon. Except for some missing kosher lunches—meant for Orthodox cast and consultants—things are running relatively smoothly, and Berkowitz is upbeat. He’s been working toward this day for years.
Until February, the producer, Effie Brown, had planned to film the Chicago-set movie in Los Angeles, on sound stages and cobbled-together patches of rust-belt-style grit. Redgrave says that scouting locations in LA was less than inspiring: “When I saw three brick buildings in a row I’d wet myself.”
The expanded Illinois film tax credit, which former governor Rod Blagojevich signed into law days after his December arrest, helped Brown justify shooting the low-budget film in an unfamiliar city. A last-minute tour of Ukrainian Village and Avondale sealed the deal. “It was just the type of flavor I was looking to re-create,” Brown says. “I realized it was a ridiculous notion to think I could fake Chicago in LA.”
“I was the last person to find out,” Berkowitz says. “I walked into Effie’s office and everybody was talking about Chicago. I thought it might be one of Effie’s other movies.”
Golden Brooks of CBS’s Girlfriends plays the stripper, Meat Loaf appears as the mob-connected—but good-hearted—Polish club owner, and Richard Belzer does a turn as Reuben’s stepfather. Hip-hop artist Chingy plays the owner of another club, who supplies Reuben when he branches into coke dealing.
Polish Bar draws on Berkowitz and Redgrave’s experiences living in Wicker Park and Ukrainian Village for roughly a decade, as well as on Berkowitz’s memories of visiting family in Chicago.
“I’ve always associated Chicago with relatives—and, unfortunately, with funerals,” says Berkowitz, who was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Connecticut. Both his parents are from the area—his maternal great-grandfather owned a candy factory in Milwaukee and his paternal grandfather owned Berky’s Baby Land, a baby goods store outside Gary. Berkowitz spent summers and holidays here as a kid. When he was a teenager he’d go to Kingston Mines to hear blues with his older cousins. “I’ve had the dubious honor of looking 25 since I was 13,” Berkowitz says. “I was the only one that didn’t get carded.”
Berkowitz was raised in a moderately religious household and has some Orthodox family members. In college some of his cousins became ba’alei t’shuva, or Jews who return to Orthodox practice. In an incident that inspired a turning point in Polish Bar, Berkowitz’s b’al t’shuva cousin came to stay with him when he lived in Wicker Park. “It drove me crazy,” Berkowitz recalls. “I loved him, but every five minutes he had to pray. We couldn’t go out. It affects what you eat, how you dress, and where you can go.”
At 15, Berkowitz played guitar in a hardcore band, the Corps, then founded a metal band called Threshold and played at clubs on the eastern seaboard, from D.C. to Boston, for the rest of his teens. He caught the filmmaking bug assisting one of his bandmates who was a prop master on music videos. “I was restless,” he says. “I wanted nothing to do with school, and I could be in the middle of New York in an hour. Reuben is like that. There are all the things you’re supposed to do that feel like a big waste of time, and you’re just going to jump on all the things you want to do.”
He dropped out of school when he was 16, in 1989, and worked part-time jobs as a legal messenger by day and a chemical plant janitor by night. “It was only for a few months,” he says. “Then I decided to go to back to school and save my brain from chemical fumes and lawyers.” He got his diploma at an alternative school and went on to study music and film for a year at CalArts in Valencia. He moved to Chicago in 1995 to attend film school at Columbia College, and then transferred to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago when a short film he made landed him a scholarship.
Redgrave met Berkowitz in an acting class at the SAIC. They hit it off and began developing a series of improv workshops that grew into Straightman, a feature film about the sexual tension between two ostensibly heterosexual male roommates. They wrote, produced, and starred in the 2000 film together, with Berkowitz directing. Straightman played the Berlin and Los Angeles film festivals, toured the gay and lesbian fest circuit, and got a limited release from Virginia distributor Water Bearer Films.
Berkowitz and Redgrave wrote Polish Bar over the next several years, in Chicago, while producing Usama Alshaibi’s personal Iraq documentary, Nice Bombs, and Luis Fernandez de la Reguera’s Rockets Redglare!, a portrait of the late New York actor.
They brought the Polish Bar script to New York’s Independent Feature Project Market in 2004, where they were introduced to Brown and she signed on to produce. Then they moved to LA in 2006. They slowly assembled the cast, holding out for the precious window when all the actors would be available for a 22-day shoot.
Piazza has been on board for nearly two years. “That gave him enough time to do his research and put him on almost the same level as a Jewish kid who rebelled against his religious upbringing,” says Berkowitz, who made several trips to New York to work with Piazza on the character.
The production is a family affair. Berkowitz’s wife, Samantha Stevenson-Berkowitz, is editing, and Redgrave’s girlfriend, Sarah Staskauskas, is costume designer. Brown raised the under-$1.5 million budget from private equity investors through her company Duly Noted, Inc. It’s her smallest production after years of working on HBO movies and bigger independents, but it’s the most expensive shoot yet for Berkowitz and Redgrave.
“It’s bizarre to me that I’ve gotten a check, which is a new experience,” says Redgrave, seated by a foosball table during lunch. “We need to get kosher food,” calls Berkowitz from the adjacent actors’ table. Redgrave looks up—he’s been accessing Facebook through his cell phone, casting extras for tomorrow’s shoot. “After leaving for LA to make sure it got made,” he says, “to bring it back here where it was written, and to be able to employ people in such dark economic times—well, I have to say it’s a huge mitzvah.”v
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