It’s noon on a summer afternoon and the streets of Greenport Village are beginning to fill with tourists. On Main Street, a crew is hard at work on a building renovation, shoppers are browsing local boutiques and restaurants are gearing up for lunch.
The popular neighborhood bar, Brix & Rye — it’s closed right now and will open later in the day — is nonetheless buzzing with activity. Downstairs in the bar area are movie lights, boom microphones, wires running from one end of the room to the other, and about a dozen very busy people.
This is the Manhattan Film Institute in action.
The brainchild of actor/director/writer Tony Spiridakis and his partner Lisa Gillooly, MFI dubs itself “a film school…and so much more.” Now in its sixth year, MFI is a not-for-profit summer program based at Greenport’s Brecknock Hall; Peconic Landing donates the space for classes and workshops. The program immerses students in the filmmaking process over the course of an intensive one or two weeks. There are two-week programs in cinematography, acting and directing and one-week courses in visual storytelling for actors or directors.
At the film set, Spiridakis, Gillooly and MFI board member Paul Henry are huddled around a table discussing today’s filming.
The crew is working on a short film called “Women Come and Go,” one of 25 films that will come out of the two-week program; all are three to five minutes in length and all are made by MFI students.
Spiridakis gives a brief summary of the plot, the story of a woman exacting revenge on a man who snubbed her. Written by Caryn Jaffe, it is directed by 18-year-old Alex Bradley of Mattituck, one of two local students awarded a scholarship co-sponsored by MFi and Peconic Landing.
Alex, who just graduated from Mattituck High School in June, is grateful for the opportunity to participate.
“It’s good to have a prestigious program like this available locally,” he says. “I wouldn’t have been able to travel to the city. Here we have a Manhattan-caliber experience. It’s a great opportunity.”
By the program’s end, all 25 films will have been made using the 3-2-1 process, according to Spiridakis.
“Three-page script, two characters, one location,” he explains.
“When I taught at Chapman University in California, I fell in love with 3-2-1 because it was like condensing a 120 page script into a short form that served to teach all the principles of filmmaking,” he says.
The idea behind the MFI process is to have all participants take on every role involved with making a film. Actors will find themselves directing, directors will work the lighting or serve as production assistants.
“It’s the perfect class to offer aspiring young filmmakers,” says Spiridakis.
The MFI faculty boasts a number of heavy-hitters in the film industry; most are friends of Spiridakis and all are talented teachers in high demand. This year’s faculty includes producer-director Shannon Goldman, acting coach Bob Krakower, actor-teacher Wendy Makkena and actor-director Chazz Palminteri as well as Spiridakis.
There are 50 students in this year’s class; they come from all over the world and from all walks of life. There’s a Bollywood actress from India, a teenage student from England, an award-winning director from Moscow and an Egyptian documentary filmmaker. All MFI participants stay at the Silver Sands Motel just outside Greenport Village and film at locations throughout the North Fork.
Nineteen-year-old Greenporter Rosario Rodriguez, here on an MFI scholarship, thinks about becoming a documentary filmmaker. On a lunch break, she sits on the deck at Silver Sands and talks about going back to her native country of Guatemala to document the hardships endured by those living in developing nations.
“This is an amazing opportunity for me,” says Rodriguez, an Oneonta College student. “Someone gave me this chance because they think I have the potential to do it. Without the scholarship I wouldn’t be here and I wouldn’t know what I now know. This can open so many doors for me.”
Rodriguez is directing a film called “The Parable of the Wasp.” She came to the program with a strong interest in videography and editing, but found that she also enjoys directing.
Actor Ariel Eliaz has been attending MFI for several years and credits the program with launching his career as a full-time actor in New York City.
“MFI has been completely life-changing for me,” says Eliaz, 39. “The opportunity they gave me here set the ball rolling and now I act full-time in television, film and on stage.”
The people that work at MFI are not just teachers, he says. They’re professionals at the top of their game — some of the most sought-after instructors in New York City.
Eliaz, who worked as sheep herder in Italy, a lumberjack in Canada and a certified scuba diver in Egypt before he followed his passion for acting, can’t say enough about the supportive and nurturing environment at MFI.
“The range of ages — I’ve seen students from 13 or 14 years old up to people in their 60s — the different levels people are at professionally, it works so well and it becomes a familial experience. There’s magic that happens when you get people from all walks of life together. These amazing moments happen.”
MFI students all leave the program with a film for their portfolios and alumni have gone on to study at prestigious film and theater programs at Yale, NYU, Bard and Wesleyan, among others. Several films coming out of the program have won awards.
The program has attracted the children of industry professionals, says Spiridakis. Chazz Palminteri, Joe Pantoliano, Marcia Gay Harden — all have sent their children to the program. Spiridakis’ own children have also attended.
All 25 short films will premiere at Greenport Theater on Sunday, July 16 at 10 a.m. The screenings are open to the public and free of charge, although moviegoers are welcome to make a tax-deductible donation.
For a wealth of information about the program and information about other movie screenings, visit the Manhattan Film Institute website.
Correction: In the original version of this story Rosario Rodriguez was identified as Rosario Gonzalez.