News Column

Firth film is just what two Buffalo doctors ordered

May 10, 2013

YellowBrix

May 10--It had to feel pretty good to have Colin Firth agree to make your movie while he was still considering the perfect place on the mantel to put his Oscar.

That is how it went for Vertebra Film Production, a little movie company whose managing partners are a pair of Buffalo doctors. Andrew and Helen Cappuccino also have six children and are fairly busy "back home," on staff at Roswell Park and UB, running an orthopedic surgery practice and working for the Buffalo Bills, doing things like helping players with devastating spinal cord injuries walk again.

Their movie, "Arthur Newman," has Firth in the title role, starring alongside Emily Blunt and Anne Heche. It is Vertebra's first major feature, and it opens today in Buffalo.

"The actors really liked the script," said Helen Cappuccino, explaining how they were able to attract such big-name stars for a small independent film. "It was the first thing Firth signed onto since he got the Academy Award" for best actor in "The King's Speech" in 2011.

Their young company's production team includes son Mac Cappuccino, who went to Canisius High School and New York University (major: Italian) and said he knew early on that he wanted to work in film. He spent half his senior year at Canisius assisting on a movie called "The Living Wake," which starred a then-obscure young actor named Jesse Eisenberg ("The Social Network").

Mac now lives in New York City but also spends time in California for the company and seems to get a kick out of working with his parents.

"I think we make a pretty good team," Mac said by phone from Los Angeles. "It helps to have a moderating influence on -- let's call it my youthful energy. My mother, in addition to being a great doctor, has great business acumen.

"I can bring film knowledge and skill, and my mother -- she is so able when working with" entertainment people.

Chalk it up to her bedside manner. Helen Cappuccino is a surgical oncologist at Roswell Park Cancer Institute and an assistant professor of surgery at the University at Buffalo. How does she fit filmmaking into that schedule?

She notes that her job at Roswell Park is part-time.

"In my type of medicine, there's not a lot of emergencies," she added, "and, of course, I am tethered to my phone and always available."

The parent Cappuccinos are credited among the executive producers for "Arthur Newman," and their son is one of the producers, although Andrew Cappuccino is far less hands-on than his wife and son; he was not able to join them to be interviewed.

"My husband is first and foremost a physician," Helen Cappuccino said. "When it comes to vetting projects, we discuss the bigger issues together. Otherwise, he's completely consumed with the work he does, with his surgery, developing medical devices and working with the Buffalo Bills."

That sports connection, along with another of the couple's passions, charitable work, led them into the movie business.

Andrew Cappuccino landed in the limelight in September 2007 when Buffalo Bills tight end Kevin Everett suffered a catastrophic spinal cord injury in a home game against the Denver Broncos. Part of the team's medical staff, Cappuccino was Everett's attending surgeon. Though at first it was feared Everett would be permanently paralyzed, the player eventually regained movement in his limbs and now lives, walks and plays with his children in his home near Houston.

After his recovery, Everett and Andrew Cappuccino were among those invited to appear at a fundraiser in Texas for "Beyond the Lights," a charitable organization sponsored by the crew of the TV show "Friday Night Lights." The group was created to assist those who have suffered paralyzing injuries, inspired by a storyline in the show about an injured player.

While in Texas, Helen Cappuccino said, they became friends with people involved in the television show and, with their friends' guidance, began exploring show business themselves.

The Cappuccinos formed Vertebra Film Production -- a name that reflects Andrew Cappuccino's specialty and also, perhaps, the idea that it takes a little backbone to try to make a go of it in movies.

So far, so good. "Arthur Newman" and another of their films, "Aftershock," which they describe as a horror-thriller, were accepted at last year's Toronto International Film Festival. Helen Cappuccino said the Weinstein Company, owned by Bob Weinstein and his brother Harvey, who spent his early years in Buffalo producing concerts, will be the distributor for "Aftershock" and a second horror film they have made.

"Our experience working with them was easier than I expected," she said.

"I would say nobody does genre distribution better than Bob Weinstein," Mac added.

And without distribution, moviemaking is nothing more than a hobby.

Mac, who has been asked before what it is, exactly, that a producer does, explained:

"The best answer I've come up with to date: The idea of a producer is ultimately facilitating the delivery of an agreed-upon product -- creatively, physically, financially."

That means finding the director (for "Arthur Newman," it is Dante Ariola), the cinematographer, often the cast and everyone else.

"In the 'indy' world," Mac said, "it also is up to the producer to find the material -- the script -- himself and also to find the distributor."

As for the executive producers, like his parents, the level of involvement varies widely.

"It can be: (1) Someone who writes a check, or (2) someone who brings credibility to a project, but he's not there day to day, or (3) a combination of those two, plus someone who arranges the distribution and the marketing."

For "Arthur Newman," both said, director Ariola was closely involved with courting Firth and Blunt for the two lead parts, that of a burned-out, divorced midlevel manager who fakes his death to assume a new identity and of a light-fingered young woman running away from a life that has nothing for her. With the film set in the Southeast United States, both British actors had to speak with Americanized accents. "The 'ar' in Arthur is one of the hardest sounds to produce when you have a British accent," Helen Cappuccino said. And Firth, who has just taken on the name that will make him "a new man," has to say it a lot.

Reviews for the movie swing from good to not so good, with most landing in the comfortable middle, praising the cast and production, if not the low-key story of this unlikely road trip.

"It seems like it's getting a lot of different opinions," Helen Cappuccino said. "It deals with a lot of mature ideas and themes, and it seems like some people get it, and others don't."

The movie's local opening was pushed back a week, which mean she won't be able to be there for its first screening, she said. She'll be back in her own real-life role, as doctor and teacher, speaking to a small group in the Honors College at UB. "I was one of its first graduates, and this has been on my calendar for months," she said. "I can't miss it."

email: mmiller@buffnews.com

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