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3 Nuts Studios Makes 'A Bronx Tale'

Tue, 06/04/2024 - 07:24
Mike Lavin, left, Chazz Palminteri, Jason Nower, and John Sheridan together created "A Bronx Tale: The Original One Man Show," a film of Mr. Palminteri's acclaimed play.
John Cafaro

Jason Nower had a knot in his stomach. Then he had a realization: "There are nine million people in New York City, and Robert De Niro is sitting in a room with you watching a movie you made. After a while, you just have to take a moment to enjoy it." 

And it wasn't just Mr. De Niro. It was also Jane Rosenthal, his Tribeca Productions business partner, and Chazz Palminteri, the actor, writer, and director.

How did that work out? Well, "A Bronx Tale: The Original One Man Show," a filmed version of the stage play that rocketed Mr. Palminteri to fame and was eventually made into a movie by Mr. De Niro, will be shown on June 13 at 7 p.m. at Spring Studios in TriBeCa, on the opening night of Tribeca Film Festival's "De Niro Con," a special event celebrating the actor's career and his 80th birthday.

How Mr. Nower, the chief broadcast engineer at LTV Studios in Wainscott, found himself in that stressful situation, along with John Sheridan and Mike Lavin, his two partners in 3 Nuts Studios, which shot and edited the film under Mr. Palminteri's direction, is a story that goes back at least to 2007.

After having studied theater at Suffolk Community College, he was backstage here at Guild Hall, where he was acting in a play. "My buddy was putting on some YouTube videos, and it was the first time I'd seen YouTube," he recalled during a conversation in his LTV office.

It was a revelation. "I realized video production was going to turn from massive movie cameras, that are effectively cloistered because of the capital necessary, into something more accessible to everyday people."

He went out and bought his first video camera, a Canon HB 20, "a nice little camcorder that people were rigging out to shoot in a higher format than it was intended to. I sent it away to a guy who modified it. It was awesome. That was when I began to really fall in love with being behind the lens and telling stories."

As a child, Mr. Nower moved with his family around New York State, from Nyack in Rockland County to Woodstock, and back to West Nyack before settling in Southampton in 2001.

"My mom basically raised us. When my parents split up, she became a professional storyteller. She would go around to schools and historical societies and they would pay her to tell historical stories about that area. It’s really from seeing her working that I got to see a lot of what holds an audience’s attention."

Mr. Nower made his first short film in 2010. By 2016, when he started at LTV, he was supporting himself as an independent film and video maker, but his days, he said, lacked structure.

"What working at LTV brought to me was the idea of teamwork. How do you work with a team to create something greater than our individual aspects? That all really happened here."

Mr. Nower left LTV briefly to develop a documentary project. Not long after, he and Michael Clark, the studio's new executive director, worked together on "East End Underground," the station's broadcast series featuring local composers, musicians, and vocalists. After that, at Mr. Clark's suggestion, Mr. Nower returned to LTV, where he became obsessed with remote video production. 

Eventually, he developed LTV's government broadcast system. As a result, technicians at the studio have been able since 2020 to direct all government and school board meetings remotely, skipping the laborious task of directing on site. The meeting software can also run the studio productions.

Mr. Lavin, a former colleague at LTV, was producing podcasts for the comedian Chris Distefano, whose first special was released in 2019 by Comedy Central. In 2022, as Covid was easing, Mr. Distefano wanted to do another special and asked Mr. Lavin to direct it. He agreed, but said he would need the other two members of his team.

The result was "Speshy Weshy," a Netflix special. It was the first time 3 Nuts Studios had a big budget to work with, and Mr. Nower said, "Let's shoot with the most expensive cameras we possibly can. Let's leave it all on the screen and go for it." They filmed it at the Gramercy Theater in Manhattan.

"When the three of us walk into a set, it’s this weird kind of hum that happens, I can look at John and know exactly what he’s doing and how he’s going to structure his next shot, and where I have to go to move on to the next point, and Lavin knows exactly where we are and what he has to do as well. Working with those guys has been amazing."

In the late '80s, Mr. Palminteri was splitting his time between roles in Off Broadway plays and moonlighting as a bouncer. In his acting class, he was developing an autobiographical monologue about a 9-year-old boy growing up in the Bronx who'd witnessed some bad things, gangland slayings among them. 

It became "A Bronx Tale," a one-man play in which, sitting alone onstage, he morphed into 18 different characters. Both the play, which premiered in Los Angeles in 1989 and went on to a sold-out run Off Broadway, and the 1993 film directed by and starring Mr. De Niro and Mr. Palminteri, made the latter a star.

Mr. Distefano introduced the 3 Nuts to Mr. Palminteri, and after the thousandth performance of "A Bronx Tale," the actor asked if they could film it. 

The trio floated two approaches: filming it like a comedy special in front of a live audience, "or creating something new," Mr. Nower recalled, "where we film once in front of an audience and then spend four or five days doing different camera work, different moves, shooting it like a movie. We were able to dovetail all of that together and create a kind of hybrid."

They rented the Paramount Theater in Huntington and shot five solo performances of "A Bronx Tale" and one with a sold-out crowd. The three of them wound up editing with Mr. Palminteri, in his office. "It was the four of us editing, and Chazz directed," said Mr. Nower.

"We married all that together," he continued, "so there are certain parts that translate so well on camera when you’re alone, and there are other parts that just sing with an audience. We would go up there on Sundays to edit, we would work all day, and we would have Sunday dinner with Chazz and Gianna and his family at his house." 

Last September, Mr. Palminteri invited them to join him in Mr. De Niro's screening room to preview the film. After the screening ended, Mr. De Niro looked at the team. "So," he said. "You're the three nuts?"

Mr. Nower was upstate several weeks later when Mr. Palminteri called to inform him that Mr. De Niro, Ms. Rosenthal, Brian Liebman, and Jon Kilik had signed on as the film's executive producers. 

"It was a wild moment. I was sitting in my car, awestruck. We've been running on all cylinders ever since."  

"A Bronx Tale," said Mr. Nower, "touches on something deeply human, but also something about the American experience. It's about a young man trying to understand the world from two men who love him like a son. It's a beautiful love letter to that time, to those people, to that era."

Mr. Palminteri will introduce the July 13 screening and take questions afterward.

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