September 25, 2018

From Naive Dream to Big Screen

Michael Prywes was 24 when he decided to make a film. After all, he reasoned, he had started the Jewish Theater Ensemble in Chicago, so why not make his own movie? It was, he conceded, "complete chutzpah or a serious lack of understanding of the world."

Prywes’ first feature film, "Returning Mickey Stern," is a "new old comedy," shot on Fire Island with Joseph Bologna and Tom Bosley in leading roles. It opened the Long Island Film Festival at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center in April 2002 and played at the Long Island International Film Expo 2002. The film won awards at two other film festivals: best feature at the Rome Film Festival 2002 and the audience award at a festival in Tiburon, Calif.

Prywes’ audacious decision came shortly after he left Chicago with a degree in creative writing for the media from Northwestern University and went to Los Angeles to break into films. Raised in Old Bethpage and Dix Hills, both in New York state, he had decided that filmmaking would be ideal for combining his desire to be an author with his talent in the visual arts.

A stint in Los Angeles — studying at UCLA and running errands for a few production companies — convinced him to return to New York to make an independent film that he would direct from a script he had written as a thesis project at UCLA. He and his co-producers, Victor Erdos and Jason Akel, were determined to shoot it "come hell or high water, even with relatives playing the roles, if necessary," he said.

When his partners discussed the project on a radio show in Los Angeles, the host of the show said it sounded like something his friend Joe Bologna might like, Prywes said. Bologna, who plays the title role of a mature man who tries to relive his youthful dreams, recommended Bosley for the role of his adult best friend. Renee Taylor, Bologna’s wife, and Connie Stevens took supporting roles. Prywes’ parents, Dr. Arnold and Charlotte Prywes, did get to appear, as a doctor and his nurse. Four members of the younger cast were chosen from the Internet. Prywes, who also designs Web sites, created, inviting the public to choose from among finalists.

Deciding on a location was easy. Prywes and his family have always spent the summer on Fire Island in the New York area. "It’s so cinematic, with a certain innocence that has not gone away," he said. "It has always been a place of magic and romance to me."

The principal photography began in September 2000 and was completed 19 days later, on Prywes’ 26th birthday. "It was the best birthday present anyone could ever hope for," he said. After completing post-production chores, Prywes’ company, 2Life! Films, began the arduous task of showing the film, looking for a distributor and making the rounds of festivals. "We didn’t enter festivals like Sundance or Toronto or even the Hamptons, because they generally go for the more edgy films," Prywes said. "’Returning Mickey Stern’ is the opposite. It’s sweet and funny. Like popular foreign films, like my favorite, ‘Cinema Paradiso.’ In fact, you could say it’s the perfect foreign movie made in America."

"Returning Mickey Stern," about a Jewish teenager who loses his true love, then helps a younger version of himself avoid the same mistake 50 years later, opens today at Loews Beverly Center Cineplex in Los Angeles.