A group of organized crime bosses gather in an empty office building in Morristown, N.J., to hear the pitch: Help execute a terrorist attack in the center of Manhattan and walk away with enough money to buy a small island to escape to.
The gangsters -- a ragtag collection of misfits and thugs -- have no love for the federal government, but even they don't like the idea of taking thousands of innocent lives. Then again, organized crime doesn't pay the bills the way it used to. A well-paid job is nothing to ignore, no matter how dirty the deed.
So goes the moral dilemma behind The Greater Good, which screens at 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Esquire Theatre. Vexing? Yes. Thought provoking? You bet. And shot almost entirely in and around Cincinnati.
Equal parts Reservoir Dogs and Twelve Angry Men with a shot of Goodfellas thrown in for good measure, The Greater Good is the brainchild of local writer/director Mike Bizzarri. Save for some establishing shots around New York City under the opening credits, the film is entirely local. Cast, crew and locations are all familiar.
Better still, they all work in the context of the film's setting. That empty office building? Sits near Hamilton. Those gangsters? A veritable who's who of local screen actors. The crew? Dedicated and nearly all-volunteer force from production companies around the Tristate.
The fact that the final product works -- i.e. fools audiences well enough into believing this is a New York-made movie through and through -- is a testament to Cincinnati's talents and versatility, Bizzarri says.
"This film couldn't have been made without having lived in this town and having these contacts," he says. "From the get-go, I designed this project as something I could shoot in just a few days. I'm no novice in the business. I knew exactly what it was going to take, and I had it pretty well planned out. And I had everyone I wanted through friends of mine. That's the only way it could have happened."
The Greater Good started first as a stage play, stemming from Bizzarri's reaction to 9/11. As he wrote the script -- essentially about the degrees of evil in the world and how in a room full of "bad guys" there will still be one with a conscience -- he began seeing camera shots and angles.
He moved forward with the script, deciding with his expertise and resources through his day job at On Location Multimedia Inc. that he could eventually film the play as a two-camera shoot. Finally, it hit him: Why not skip the stage version and reconfigure this as a feature film?
"If I could shoot this like I was going to stage this and if I could limit it to a weekend or two of production, which is what a stage version would have taken, then I could get friends of mine to participate and donate their time," he says. "I would end up with a feature film without the normal demands of a feature film that takes five to six weeks to shoot and a lot of money."
In 2004, he put the final pieces together, finished the script and began contacting talent and crew. He also began securing back-up crews. If he was asking for volunteers, he knew conflicts could come up and he didn't want that to derail the project. Then in 2005, on the Monday before the shoot weekend, he found out both the crew and the backup crew all got paying gigs for part of that weekend and would be unavailable.
"I about had a heart attack," Bizzarri says.
But several other people attached to the project already -- including several of the actors who had production experience -- pleaded with Bizzarri not to can it. He says everyone pitched in and they were able to stay on schedule until the original crews could return.
Bizzarri says he knew going in what a challenge the production would be, given the practically non-existent budget and the multitude of favors he was calling in. It would only be worth it if he first had the right cast to bring the script to life. That's why he put casting as his first priority.
He called several actors he'd worked with previously, either through earlier local film projects like April's Fool or through his theatrical experiences. They included some of the best and most established screen actors in town, like Bob Elkins, Greg Procaccino and Mike Dennis.
He also contacted Peter Condopoulos from the locally-based Ashley Talent Agency, who supplied him with his one key missing part, the lead character of Connie. Condopoulos convinced Joe Lorenzo from Columbus to drive down and audition. Bizzarri says he nailed the part.
"And once I had the cast," he says, "I knew I had to pull out all the favors and freebies (on the production side of things) to make this happen."
Elkins, the elder statesman of the cast, says the process was refreshingly organic and almost theatrical.
"We shot this like a play," he says. "We started at the beginning and went through the end. Every actor knew the entire script. It's highly unusual and exciting. I just loved working with these guys. I've never had that experience before."
This weekend's screenings at won't be the first time The Greater Good has been given the big-screen treatment. Bizzarri submitted the movie to a few film festivals around the world. Earlier this year, the film took home the "Best of Festival" prize at the Foundation for the Advancement of Independent Films International Film Festival in Los Angeles.
Bizzarri says whatever success and recognition the film receives, it's a testament to the amazingly generous production community that Cincinnati has. He says he hopes The Greater Good can show others how deep and largely untapped the talent pool is here.
"If you know how to use the resources, you can definitely make films here," he says. "The bottom line is, it's definitely possible to do good work in Cincinnati with the resources available."
The Greater Good screens at 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Esquire Theater in Clifton.