Michael Cuomo, the Baltimore born-and-bred star and producer of "Happy New Year," had one of his biggest professional thrills when the Maryland Film Festival screened a short version of the film in 2008. He brings "Happy New Year" back to the Charles as a full-length dramatic feature Thursday night. Set in the psychiatric ward of a remote veterans hospital, it focuses on the traumas of military personnel who've served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Baltimore magazine managing editor and film critic Max Weiss will moderate a post-screening panel discussion with Cuomo, writer-director K. Lorrel Manning, Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran Mary Hull, and Joseph Harrell, a former Marine sergeant who starred in "ReEntry" at Center Stage last fall and was a military adviser and associate producer -- as well as a supporting actor -- for "Happy New Year."
The movie starts at 6:45 p.m. Tickets ($10, or $5 for veterans and students), are available online (click here) or, depending on availability, from 4:45 p.m. Thursday at the Charles.
In March we spoke to Cuomo about his Baltimore roots and his cinematic ambitions before the film made its debut at the South by Southwest music and film festival (for that talk, click here). We caught up with him by email on the eve of the film's Baltimore premiere.
What was it like for you to see the movie for the first time with a paying audience at South By Southwest?
Our world premiere at South by Southwest was absolutely tremendous --- I still remember walking up to the State Theatre with writer/director K. Lorrel Manning and seeing the words HAPPY NEW YEAR up on the marquee. We just looked at each other, smiled and deftly navigated through the sea of audience members to our seats. Just before the lights went down, word spread that famed film critic Roger Ebert was in the audience.
After my heartbeat returned to some sense of regularity, I settled in and waited for the film to begin. I particularly enjoy the sense of community that comes from a public screening. There's a scene early in the film where my character "Lewis" meets his roommate at the VA, "Jerome," played by JD Williams of "The Wire." A mouse runs across the room, "Lewis" freaks out and "Jerome" pulls out a BB GUN to try and shoot it. This was always a hilariously twisted element of the short film version, but the audience ERUPTED this time around. It was awesome!
But there was definitely a palpable sense of tension in the air throughout most of the screening, especially as the film veered into the 2nd and 3rd acts. I specifically remember my Uncle Richard and Aunt Darlene (co-exec producers of the film who had made the trip to Austin from Baltimore) gripping the armrest next to me and emitting audible gasps during key scenes. After the film, the audience was incredibly moved and cited the performances and the writing as true standouts. I tip my hat to our writer/director K. Lorrel Manning who comes from a theatrical background and is truly an 'actor's director,' in the spirit of Elia Kazan, George C. Wolfe or how many folks describe Clint Eastwood.
In talking with some viewers, I think they walked away with a richer knowledge of what it means to go to war, come home (forever changed) and try to regain a sense of normalcy. There are a lot of men and women suffering in silence, so the hope is that "Happy New Year" sheds new light.
Did the SXSW screening create the kind of industry interest you had hoped for?
When Lorrel and I interviewed with Matt Singer from IFC NEWS, we had already screened HAPPY NEW YEAR three times in just two days. You see, demand for the film was so high that Janet Pierson (SXSW Film Producer) offered us an additional screening where we screened for over 125 veterans and their families. We even had reps from the Mayor's office and the Austin VA! After that screening, noted film critic Elvis Mitchell (who was already a fan of the film) hosted an emotionally-charged discussion.
So yeah, we were certainly gaining traction early on and the press took notice. Variety wrote "Shades of 'Coming Home' and 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' resound throughout 'Happy New Year' … [lead actor] Cuomo impresses." We also received strong coverage from The Austin Chronicle, The Austin American Statesman, The Huffington Post, PBS, Script Magazine, etc. On the sales side, we opened up talks with independent distributors who are currently watching "Happy New Year" very closely as it travels the festival circuit and continues to gain momentum. We are currently in negotiations for a combined theatrical and video-on-demand release on 11.11.11 in select cities across the country, in timing with Veterans Day.
What's the benefit of doing an entire festival circuit, including towns like Kansas City and Sarasota (and then Little Rock and Rhode Island)? And by the way – what was the controversy in Sarasota all about?
The independent film landscape is more competitive than ever, particularly when you talk about any sort of theatrical release. So we are taking "Happy New Year" to key cities where it can screen in festivals or special events (like what we're doing in Baltimore) and gain attention and buzz as we embark on this journey towards our 11.11.11 release. We played as the Opening Night film in Kansas City and the screening was so explosive that we added a second screening as a benefit for a local veterans service organization, Heart of America Stand Down.
In Sarasota, we coordinated post-screening discussions with local veterans, which truly engaged the community as well as the press. Our first screening was a huge success, complete with several visibly emotional marines standing beside us and praising the truth and importance of the film.
However, controversy erupted after our second screening when a retired Army officer was booed out of the theater during our Q+A after he started bashing the film, calling it "Anti-American, Anti-Government, Anti-Veteran," among others for portraying veterans as "victims," instead of heroes. The next day he issued a statement to the press further condemning the film, which ignited a local media fight which lasted several days after we had returned to New York.
Lorrel and I even issued a statement to the Herald Tribune which expressed, "We know that 'Happy New Year' is going to be a difficult film for some to watch. We created this film in order to raise awareness about an issue that we feel has either been forgotten or pushed to the background of America's consciousness. While the film does not represent every veteran's experience, we felt a responsibility as filmmakers to be fearless in our storytelling, in honor of the brave men and women who opened up and told us their truths."
How important is it to set a context for a movie like this one? Is that why you've been assembling panels like the one at the Charles?
With less than 1% of the American population fighting in the Middle East, it is easy to 'tune out' the wars and the fact that some veterans are coming home and struggling. Sure there's some coverage in the news about post traumatic stress, but even journalists have told me off the record that they've had trouble pitching certain combat-related stories, because their editor said, 'Do people really care to read about that right now?'
The panel discussions serve many purposes, but one of the biggest ones is to open up a dialogue between civilians and veterans. There have been many times after a screening of "Happy New Year" when someone approached me and said, "I had no idea this was going on? What can I do to help? It is a travesty that the people fighting for our freedoms are not being treated better when they come home."
Assembling veterans and clinicians on a panel who are willing to speak openly about how elements of the film correlate with what they experience on a daily basis allows for "Happy New Year" to become more than just a film. Lorrel and I recently screened for a group of military bloggers, service organizations and clinicians in the DC area. After the screening, one guy approached us and said, "I think this film is gonna save some peoples' lives." And so we continue on this road.
Photo of Michael Cuomo in "Happy New Year" by Nina Berman