Commentary: 'Bart' is a Hollywood movie -- Hollywood, Florida


"Bart" beginnings: It's a long way from Hollywood, Fla., to Hollywood, Calif., both in distance and career miles for a young filmmaker, but Brian Hecker's managed to make that journey with flying colors.

Hecker, a South Florida native, spring-boarded brilliantly off his directorial debut feature "Bart Got a Room" into a writing deal for Leonardo DiCaprio's Appian Way Prods. and Paramount Pictures for a biopic of video game pioneer Nolan Bushnell, with DiCaprio playing the Atari founder.

"Bart," a coming-of-age comedy opening April 3 via Anchor Bay Films in New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Toronto, revolves around likable but nerdy high school senior Danny's desperate quest for a prom date now that he's spent some $600 renting the requisite hotel room, stretch limo and designer tuxedo. Unfortunately, finding the girl -- not necessarily the right girl, just any girl -- to accompany him isn't going well. To make matters worse, even Bart, the school's biggest dweeb, has somehow managed to land a prom date and has even secured one of those coveted hotel rooms.

The Plum Pictures presentation in association with Shrink Media and Basra Entertainment and Benedek Films and Hart-Lunsford Pictures was written and directed by Hecker. Starring are Steven Kaplan (who's terrific as Danny), Alia Shawkat, Brandon Hardesty and Jennifer Tilly. Cheryl Hines and William H. Macy play Danny's newly divorced parents, who try their best to help him find a date even as the prom doors are swinging open.

"Bart" was produced by Galt Niederhoffer, Daniela Taplin Lundberg and Celine Rattray and Jai Stefan and Tony Shawkat. Its executive producers are Pamela Hirsch and Stephen Benedek, Mario Fallone, Ed Hart, Bruce Lunsford and Brenda Rhodes and Dina Burke, Michael Lafetra, Reagan Silber and Randy Simon.

With that lengthy a cast of producers and executive producers you already know that "Bart" must have taken some interesting twists and turns to the screen. After enjoying an early look at "Bart," I spoke recently to Hecker, whose MFA is from the American Film Institute, where he was named director of the year. His thesis film, "Family Attraction," starring Chris Penn and Martin Sheen, was honored at over a dozen leading film festivals worldwide and is one of AFI's top-grossing short films to date.

"It's loosely based on my life as a pathetic loser growing up in the most un-hip environment a kid could possibly grow up in -- Hollywood, Fla., where you're surrounded by retirees and egrets and lizards and sticky wet humidity, big puffy clouds and golf carts," Decker said about "Bart." "I was very inspired to capture that environment (and) what it's like for a kid to grow up having a tremendous amount of anxiety (and) an identity crisis to try to figure out who he is and his place in the world."

Hecker shot his movie in Hollywood, Fla., where it takes place, but he had to push hard to be able to do so. "There was some pressure to shoot it in Los Angeles," he told me, "but I definitely fought to keep it in the locations that I knew and loved and where a lot of the story was (set). South Florida was really important to me, especially because of the retirement community and how that affected and inspired the (swing-era big band) music that Danny played in his jazz bands.

"The wardrobe choices that we came up with (for Danny) reflect the environment, (and) he definitely stands out from anything that's hip or cool. When we ended up getting to shoot in South Florida I sort of made it a mandate for my cinematographer, location manager and production designer that every shot would some way be indigenous to that particular environment."

Hecker's long road to directing his first feature started, he explained, while he was studying at the American Film Institute: "I had just completed a short called 'Prom Pudendum,' which was an eight-minute short. It got a lot of attention. Frank Pierson, who was teaching at the time (and) who wrote 'Dog Day Afternoon,' took a real liking to it. It gave me the confidence to realize that this is something I can do if I stick to stories that I know that are very personal. I don't need to worry about writing stories that are going to change the world, but I could create things that will resonate with people because they can relate. I had a professor at the time who I asked if he could help me get a PA job and he said, 'PA job? Let's get you a writing-directing deal.' I was like, 'Great!' "

The summer before Hecker's second year at AFI, he continued, "he took me around and had me pitch a feature version of this short to a bunch of producing friends of his. I started pitching it and before you know it I ended up pitching it to all these executives and producers. Different producers wanted a piece of it and it just kept increasing in value. We ended up setting it up at Universal and the Bubble Factory. This is almost 10 years ago. Sid Sheinberg heard the pitch and he was, 'I suppose you want to direct this, too, huh kid?'

"I was like, 'Yes, yes.' I had music accompanying the pitch from a boom box and he was like, 'You know, it's very expensive to acquire the rights to that kind of music.' I was like, 'Well, you know, this is just a sample to give you a sense of the tone and the flavor of the story.' He said, 'Well, let me think about it,' and the next thing you know I got into the Writers Guild and he hired me to write the script of 'Bart Got a Room.' "

After Sheinberg and Universal ended up putting the project in turnaround, he said, "along came producer Cathy Konrad, who with Miramax bought the project from Universal. This was in 1998. I got a three-picture writing-directing deal with Harvey Weinstein (then Miramax's co-chairman), which didn't amount to anything. They wanted me to merge 'Bart Got a Room' with a project they already had in development called 'Prom War,' which was a totally different film in tone. It was more like a zany prom movie. So that was a recipe for disaster. Of course, I convinced them that I could do a good job merging these two, but it's very difficult to merge two completely different scripts and have something that makes any sense.

"They ended up putting the project in turnaround and then I found this production company in New York called Plum Pictures. The three women that run this company are really smart, really determined and really tenacious. They've made like nine feature films already. They're Galt Niederhoffer, Daniela Taplin Lundberg and Celine Rattray. They believed in the project and Galt Niederhoffer sort of was the helmer. She asked me who were my top choices to play the father character and William H. Macy was one of them. We made an offer to him and he agreed."

Recalling his first meeting with Macy, Hecker told me, "We met at the Roosevelt Hotel (in L.A.) and I remember I was so excited and so nervous to meet the great Bill Macy that I went to the bathroom first to check myself in the mirror. Bill Macy comes out of a stall while I'm doing that. It seemed like a girly thing to do to look at yourself in the mirror before you meet with someone so I didn't want him to think I was doing that. So as he was coming out, I immediately went to one of the urinals and as I'm walking to the urinal he made eye contact with me. So I figured, okay, well I had to acknowledge him now because I'm going to be seeing him in three minutes. It's going to be weird if I don't say hello. So I'm walking to the urinal and I'm like, 'Hey, Mr. Macy, it's Brian Hecker.' And I proceed now to pretend to go to the urinal and I'm thinking he's going to say, 'Hey, I'll see you in a couple of minutes.'

"Instead, he stays at the door and I'm like pretend urinating (and he says), 'Loved your script. Really loved your script.' I said, 'Well, thank you Mr. Macy. You know, I have to say, this is the first time I've ever started a meeting in the bathroom.' And he stands there and he goes, 'Not the first for me.' He's just such a generous guy and so cool."

Looking back at the biggest challenges he faced during his fast 20 days in production, Hecker noted, "Well, in South Florida we were shooting during hurricane season and that was a big gamble. In Florida when you don't have opportunities to shoot beyond your 20 days and you have no opportunities to do re-shoots, you're so dependent on going with the flow and whatever happens happens. You know, Florida is notorious for having very quick weather changes.

"We had some brutal situations that took place. It started pouring on us at different times and we just had to improvise. So there's a scene where Bill Macy is driving around in a car and it started raining on us so we just made it about a rainy scene. I remember being in the camera car and the crew was on there and it's pouring down on us. It's really, really cold. My headsets are not working because the frequency is getting screwed (up) because of the heavy rains. So I couldn't even direct Macy in the car and I'm shouting to my cinematographer through the thunder showers that are happening so he can't even hear me."

As for his new project about Nolan Bushnell for Appian Way and Paramount, Hecker replied, "It's really exciting. My writing partner Craig Sherman and I -- he's a friend of mine from high school -- spent about eight months trying to get the life rights to Nolan Bushnell, who in the '70s began the videogame revolution. He was a young hippie, an amazing colorful man who at 32 started one of the fastest growing companies in American history. He started Atari with $500 and in less than 10 years it grew to a $2 billion company. It's a really, really interesting story. We just kept delving into more articles and books and got to sit down with him ourselves. He ended up trusting us. He has a wonderful family and he's a really, really nice guy. Once we got the life rights we went to Leonardo DiCaprio's company, Appian Way, and his producing partner Jennifer Killoran really took a liking to us and we ended up writing this for Appian Way and Paramount Pictures."

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