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CCRI graduate, professor team up to produce films
April 23, 2012
Michael Iacobbo ’78 and his wife Karen, a CCRI adjunct professor, have been preparing for this moment for months, and it is over in seconds.
The two are co-producers of the film “House of Shadows” written by Karen and filmed in Rhode Island using local actors.
After carefully scripting and storyboarding this scene, lighting the set inside the Governor Henry Lippitt House Museum in Providence, and testing how it will appear on camera, they are ready to begin shooting for the day.
A hush falls over the set when Michael Iacobbo, serving as director, shouts the iconic command: “Action!”
The camera rolls for only a few seconds, capturing lead actor Joe Michael Phillips staring through a window in 19th century garb.
In person on the set, the scene does not seem like much, but when edited into the rest of the film it will portray Phillips as an apparition, leering out of the past to haunt his descendants.
This is the beginning of a 12-hour day of shooting.
“Filmmaking is a lot of work,” Karen Iacobbo said, “but it’s thrilling. I cannot describe what it’s like to have actors bring your words to life.”
“House of Shadows” is the Iacobbo’s second film together. Their first, a 22-minute short film “The Unproductive,” was shown at Providence’s SENE Film, Music & Arts Festival on April 15. The film is available on the Iacobbos’ website, www.providencelyceum.com.
The Iacobbos’ turn as independent filmmakers came when Karen, an adjunct writing professor at CCRI and a published author of short fiction, wrote a screenplay about two adult cousins on opposite sides of a euthanasia debate concerning a hospital patient.
Rather than take the usual approach of sending the script to directors and producers and trying to spark their interest, the Iacobbo’s founded their own film company, Providence Lyceum, and shot “The Unproductive” themselves in the winter of 2010-11.
To get the project going, they began making connections within Southern New England’s independent film community.
“When you do a film you have to gather up all the resources you can,” Michael Iacobbo said, “and we networked and met different people just to see what was out there. We had the vision, we had the writing, but we needed the people to make it happen.”
The Iacobbos worked with the Rhode Island Film Collaborative and local film production company The 989 Project.
“We did a lot of homework and brought on the right people to make up for our lack of experience,” Michael Iacobbo said. “The better they do, the better you look.”
Before production could begin, the Iacobbos also gave themselves a crash course in the technical and artistic side of filmmaking. They read every book they could find and watched documentaries about the process. They also studied the works of directors John Carpenter and Franco Zeffirelli and writer/producer Rod Serling.
Serling is most famous for his work on the 1960s television series “The Twilight Zone,” which is a great influence for the Iacobbos. The 22-minute length of “The Unproductive” is the same as a typical episode of “The Twilight Zone.”
Despite this preparation, Karen said the prospect of getting behind a camera for the first time was intimidating.
She remembers thinking at the time, “I have absolutely zero background in filmmaking and now I’m going to direct a film.”
Michael added, “It was learning on the job, but we do have a lot of life experience, and like anything else, a lot of it cuts across different occupations and fields.”
Though Michael and Karen had not made a film before, they both had experience as writers - he as a reporter for the Associated Press and Karen as a published author of short fiction.
“I had no journalism background but I just figured I would do it,” he said.
His first job was writing about Providence’s jewelry industry during the 1980s and he went on to work for The Providence Phoenix and the Associated Press, covering the Rhode Island State House.
“We came into [the film business] as writers,” Karen said. “I’m a storyteller who has a great deal to say … I want what I have to say to the world to reach the largest audience, and film is the way to do that.”
Even as they prepare for the film festival, the Iacobbos are hard at work on their second film, “House of Shadows.”
Karen describes this film as “a gothic romance,” an homage to the 1960s horror soap opera “Dark Shadows.”
“House of Shadows” will be longer than their first film, at about one hour, and is more technically complex. It takes place both in the modern day and in the late 19th century, and the costumes this requires are stretching the resources of the Iacobbo’s tiny independent film company.
Work on “House of Shadows” began not long after production of the first film was complete,and continued even as the couple prepared for the SENE Film Festival.
One of the film’s stars is Lawrence O’Leary, a CCRI student and local actor who is working on his own documentary film about CCRI’s Knight Campus.
It also features actress Beverly Hayes,who was a guest star on the original run of “Dark Shadows.”
“There are a lot of things that people who are fans of the old TV show will recognize,” Karen said.
The filmmakers themselves are of course great fans of the show. Michael said he remembers rushing home after school to watch it everyday, and that he and Karen would often reminisce about the program.
The Iacobbos had a budget of less than $100,000 for each of their movies, and even though the Hollywood parlance for this is “no budget,” they are still expensive for a married couple working on their own and there is still plenty of work to be done.
“Filmmaking is a very stressful business, there’s a lot of rushing,” Karen said, “but we’re crazy about it. It’s an art form we take very seriously.” The greatest reward is “seeing my screenplay come to life and working with the team that makes it happen.”