When filmmaker Tony Spiridakis’ 18-year-old son Dimitri was three years old he was diagnosed with autism, and it was the boy’s unique symptoms that led Dimitri to the unexpected place he often finds himself these days — in front of a camera.
“Some autistics don’t speak,” says Spiridakis. “But Dimitri was hyperlexic; he was verbally incredible, a super reader; he inexplicably had a great vocabulary at a young age. He loved to memorize things.”
Dimitri often exhibited what appeared to be highly inappropriate responses to situations, but after studying his son’s actions carefully, Spiridakis realized that there was a certain logic to what Dimitri was saying.
“For example, he would see a movie, take a quote from the movie and plug it into a situation where it will just come bursting out of his mouth,” says Spiridakis. “You’d think it was a non-sequitur but it’s actually connected and that’s what I pieced together about his inappropriateness.”
It is Dimitri’s story that is at the root of the television comedy “Greenport,” the pilot for which was shot almost entirely in and around the village.
It started years ago with an idea Spiridakis had for a feature film based on his experiences raising a boy who he found to be extremely funny, but who was often perceived as being inappropriate.
“I saw past his inappropriateness and I saw him as using his behavior in a way that was more communicative than disruptive,” he says. “I felt that there was an organizational component to his behavior and so rather than make him feel like he was a bad child, which he’s not, I explained to him that he had to learn the difference between being laughed at and being laughed with.”
Spiridakis taught Dimitri that if you’re being laughed at, it means people didn’t get the joke so they’re put off; they don’t know if you’re safe or ‘normal.’ But if they’re laughing with you then you’ve discovered and unlocked what it is to be funny.
“I told him if you can be funny, you don’t have to be trapped in your autistic world; you can invite people in so they’ll follow the joke and if they follow the joke they’re not going to be afraid of you. So I put him in Second City in Los Angeles where he did improv.”
Dimitri thrived at comedy improv and audiences loved him.
“It’s like getting paid to mess around,” says Dimitri. “I really liked doing it.”
It was from these experiences that Spiridakis wrote a feature film script and titled it “Inappropriate Behavior.”
“It’s a beautiful story that involves a father’s decision to take his son on the road to play comedy clubs as a way of saying he doesn’t need medication or a special needs school, he needs to do comedy. ‘Rain Man’ meets ‘Little Miss Sunshine.’ It has a happy ending and nobody gets hurt,” he said.
After a series of unfortunate events — including the actor he wrote the role of the father for becoming unavailable— the movie deal fell apart.
Spiridakis was despondent over the failure to get the film made until Shannon Goldman, his lifelong friend and partner in the “Inappropriate Behavior” project, suggested that they write a television pilot for a show based on what had been going on in Tony’s life.
“So the comedy becomes about a father who’s trying to get his movie made,” says Spiridakis. “It’s the comedy of a dysfunctional family and a man taking care of his aging parents and taking care of his son and what you do when things don’t go your way — how do you make it work?”
The pilot was filmed in November; the crew spent eight days in Greenport on location at the Eastern Long Island Hospital’s Opportunity Shop, D’Latte, Peconic Landing and on the waterfront. The pilot is the first production of the Manhattan Film Institute, a film school Spiridakis and his partner Lisa Gillooly began six years ago. It stars students from the school along with Spiridakis himself.
Goldman, who directed the pilot, has extensive experience making low-budget independent films, and was enthusiastic about filming on the North Fork. He was thrilled that Dimitri would star in the show.
“I’ve known Dimitri all his life,” says Goldman. “He is hilariously funny.”
Goldman initially planned the shooting schedule around Dimitri, wanting to be sensitive to his needs.
“I figured we’d shoot Dimitri’s scenes first, get them out of the way,” he says. “But as it went along we ended up doing his shots last because over the course of the filming, he studied everybody and everything and from his first take on, he just kept getting better and better.”
“He was the easiest guy on the set to direct,” says Goldman. “Dimitri is a great actor and there’s a quality that exists because he’s playing the character. There’s a genuineness to it and when people see the show it will just ring true.”
Being an actor has changed Dimitri’s life, says Goldman. “His autism was more apparent when he was young; it’s less obvious now and I credit Tony’s parenting, putting him into situations where he excels. It’s given him a place to be.”
Both North Fork residents, Goldman and Spiridakis found Greenport to be a welcoming place to film.
“Everyone involved couldn’t have been nicer,” says Goldman. “We’ve been filming in and around Greenport for six years with MFI; we have a lot of friends here who have our backs and want us to succeed.”
Spiridakis and Goldman hope that “Greenport” will be picked up by a television network or independent financial backing will allow them to make 10 more episodes.
“It would be a dream come true not to just work in Greenport but also to bring that kind of business to Greenport,” says Goldman.
As for Dimitri, the boy who used to startle people on the subway and in the classroom with his “inappropriate behavior,” well, he’s heading off to Bard College in the fall to study art “and definitely get involved with theater,” he says.
“Greenport” trailer (Note: Trailer contains adult language)