“Out of the ashes: Three strangers find each other in a story of post-9/11 New York”
On Christmas Day 2000, New Yorker Michael Phelan was still grieving the death of his mother a year before. To escape his holiday blues, he walked across Central Park to the Lincoln Square Theater to see “All the Pretty Horses.”
“I figured everyone would be home celebrating with their families,” he says. “I wanted to sit alone in the dark.”
The theater was packed. There was one seat left in the last row, between an African-American woman in her 50s and a white man in his 70s. Each was also alone.
“This amazing, beautiful, elegant black woman very graciously stood up and offered me the seat between them,” Phelan says. “And the three of us sat awkwardly and saw a film together. It was one of the most profound moviegoing experiences of my life. These two strangers on either side of me were so kind and dignified in their loneliness on Christmas Day that it set my imagination on fire.”
Phelan says he never spoke to either of them. But the experience planted into his mind the seeds of “Into the Fire,” his impressive first film as a writer-director-producer.
A Columbia University graduate, Phelan had spent the previous five years working in the film industry, first as an assistant to high-powered producer Joel Silver and then to Warner Bros. president (and now Yahoo chairman) Terry Semel. He’d worked around luminaries like Mel Gibson, Julia Roberts and director Richard Donner.
“But I knew on that morning in 2000 that I wanted to make a movie about real people,” Phelan says. “People like the three of us alone in the dark. The thing I learned about Hollywood from working out there was that the people there really do know how to make movies. They just don’t know why they make them. And when I went back to work I thought, Man, we have to make films for people like that beautiful black woman.”
He set about writing the first draft of “Into the Fire.” After 9/11, the main character in the screenplay became an NYPD harbor cop who works a jetliner crash in Jamaica Bay and discovers the body of a beautiful woman. He later encounters her heartbroken sister and is befriended by an older woman in his working-class Brooklyn neighborhood who lost her firefighter son at the World Trade Center – a son who resembled the harbor cop.
Sean Patrick Flanery plays the lead, Melina Kanakaredes is the grieving sister and JoBeth Williams the grieving mother. The intersecting lives of these three people, who are wracked by loss and regret, tell a powerful post-9/11 New York story. It opens Friday at the Landmark Sunshine Theater on Houston St.
Phelan couldn’t get a studio to finance the script so he took a margin loan on his Hollywood Hills home and shot “Into the Fire” in 19 days on locations in Brooklyn and Manhattan for $1.6 million.
“When I read the script, I simply loved my character,” says Williams, whose performance captures the pain of all the anguished mothers of the 9/11 victims.
“What I loved was the nonsexual relationship he has with this younger man in a film that honestly deals with the emotional pain of men,” she adds. “It’s a film about manhood as opposed to machismo. That’s very rare in movies. I also think Michael Phelan made the film look as beautiful as it’s written – and on a small budget.”
Phelan worked out a distribution deal with Slow Hand Releasing and hopes that the kind of people the movie is about come to see it.
“I really hope that beautiful black woman I sat with on Christmas morning of 2000 sees it,” he says. “As I made it, I kept thinking this movie is for her.