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Ext. Buffalo Street Scene-Day

Keanu Reeves stars in the locally set and filmed "Henry's Crime."

Keanu Reeve's Buffalo-based film Henry's Crime opens April 29

Sometime in 2005 a fellow named Stephen Hamel had an idea for a movie about a guy who decides to commit a crime that he had already gone to jail for. Hamel is part of a film production company called, blandly enough, Company Films. His partner is Keanu Reeves. Reeves liked the idea.

Six years later, that spark has given birth to Henry’s Crime, a movie that mixes comedy, drama, crime, and romance into a package that is all the more likeable for its modesty.

And, of course, for being set (wholly) and filmed (partly) in Buffalo.

Reeves, who shepherded this little film through script development and production (see the accompanying article for a history of his involvement with shooting in Buffalo), admits they weren’t out to change the world with it. “I can’t say it’s inspirational, but [hopefully] when you come out of the theater, you have a little lift,” Reeves says. “If there are things that we’re not happy about or things that are frustrating to us, we can try and negotiate that once we leave. Or just go have sex.”

An affable guy, Keanu is, but not exactly the king of quotes. Much more garrulous is his co-star, James Caan, even if he can be a little hard to keep on topic. (He’s prone to digress self-deprecatingly about his four failed marriages.) For him, Henry’s Crime is a throwback to the kind of movie that his parents might have enjoyed in the days when they, like many Americans, went to the movies twice a week.

“This picture, it’s not going to cure cancer,” Caan says. “But if you had a good time, and you went out of it a little different than when you came in, that would be a success to us.

“More pictures need to have a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s a novel idea, I know, but pictures need to have that. Character-driven stories are pretty novel right now.”

Henry’s Crime may not have any CGI effects, but it does have characters. There’s the eponymous Henry, played by Reeves. One day he’s a guy with a house in South Buffalo, a shaky marriage, and a dead-end job as a toll collector. The next he’s in jail, having been arrested for robbing the Buffalo Savings Bank. He didn’t have anything to do with it, but it’s off to prison nonetheless.

His cellmate there is Max Saltzman (Caan), a con artist who has more than made peace with prison. He likes it there, and does his best to offend the parole board anytime they consider releasing him.

Released, Henry finds himself at a loss for direction. Standing in the middle of the street is a bad time to be in such a state, though it leads to a meeting with Julie Ivanova (Vera Farmiga, an Oscar nominee for her role opposite George Clooney in Up in the Air). She is an actress who plans to leave Buffalo for Los Angeles as soon as she finishes her upcoming gig starring in Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard in a theater right across from the bank. (No, it’s not Shea’s. Thanks to the magic of movies, it’s a theater in Tarrytown.)

And you know what? There’s a Prohibition era tunnel that runs from underneath the theater to underneath the bank vault. For the first time in his life, Henry is struck by inspiration: I already did the time. I might as well do the crime.

The director of Henry’s Crime is Malcolm Venville, a burly Brit who made his name as a still photographer (his 2009 book Lucha Loco is a study of Mexican masked wrestlers) before moving into feature films with his 2010 debut 44 Inch Chest. A fan of classic Hollywood, he names as inspirations for Henry’s Crime the freewheeling comedies of Frank Capra and Howard Hawks, the films of Preston Sturges, Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, and anything with Barbara Stanwyck, who clearly would have played Julie Ivanova if this movie had been made in 1945.

“Vera reminded me of actresses in that period, who were fast-talking, punchy—you wouldn’t want to cross them—but they’re beautiful,” Venville says.

“I was happy to draw on those movies. I wanted to re-establish that kind of genre, just as a personal feel I had. I love films about relationships. There are very complex human relationships in this film. I hadn’t seen those sorts of relationships in other movies for a long time: goofy, beautiful, complex, psychotic, neurotic.”

He admits that his initial experience of Buffalo will be colored by the extreme cold spell the city was experiencing when the production was here in December 2009. For a 2am scene they shot at Niagara Falls, he recalls, it was so cold that they had a problem with a camera lens cracking and film stock freezing.

Fortunately, it’s not his only memory of the weather. “I came back in the summer to do some [extra shots], and it was very warm and green, it was lovely.”

Because Reeves and his team scouted the area so heavily before filming began, Venville says, they had no lack of photogenic locations to chose from. One that made it into the film was Jin Lan’s restaurant in Kenmore, where they particularly liked the enormous fish tank that dominates the room.

So why didn’t they shoot all of the film in Buffalo? There are a few theaters right down the street from their bank, after all—why go to Tarrytown for that?

“The logistics were difficult for a low-budget film,” he sighs. (According to IMDB, the budget for Henry’s Crime was $12 million—small by any non-digital standard.) “To bring all the crew and house them here was too expensive. We looked at Shea’s, but that’s like a 3,000-seat auditorium. I would have loved to shoot the whole thing there—I found lots of good angles in Buffalo, wide streets, crowds of people, it was fantastic.”

Adds production designer Chris Jones, “We went back and forth about it. We probably debated about three or four weeks whether to shoot it all in Buffalo. It would have helped a lot. But getting to pay for it…”

Unlike Vincent Gallo, who had to concoct fake football footage and equipment when the Bills wouldn’t let him use their likenesses for Buffalo 66, Jones found another local team much more cooperative. “The Sabres gave us a bunch of stuff, so we used it in the movie—you can see it in [Henry’s} house too. The NFL is hard to do, but the Sabres were nice enough to let us do it.”

Henry’s Crime was a return to Buffalo for its male leads. Reeves visited the city as a teenager growing up in Toronto. “We went on field trips to Niagara Falls, and I played hockey there, the Canadians versus the Americans,” he says.

And of course Caan starred in and directed 1980’s Hide in Plain Sight, based on the true story of a Buffalo man trying to find his children after they disappear (along with his ex-wife and her new husband, a gangster) into the witness protection program.

“I was the first guy ever to bring a film to Buffalo,” he says, “which almost put me in a mental ward. I loved it, Buffalo is great. It wasn’t like Miami Beach, but I had a good time, the people were great there.”

Given that the film was generally well received, why was it his only effort behind the camera? “I haven’t directed another film [because] I couldn’t afford it,” he says. “It took too much time, and with four wives and five kids, you gotta keep working. I love marriage…I have a bill I want to run through Congress: You can only get married twice. After that you lose your license.”

If you only go by the film’s credits, in which Reeves is listed as the star and one of 15 producers, you wouldn’t realize it, but everyone involved credits him as the real driving force behind the movie. His input on the script probably could have allowed him a co-writing credit, but he downplays that. “I’m not the writer,” he says. “That’s a collaboration with the writer but it’s his credit.”

Venville says, “Keanu was the mainstay. Without Keanu, the film wouldn’t have come to life. He won’t admit it publicly, but he was the driving force for this whole movie.”

As for Reeve’s work as a producer, Caan says, “[Actors] don’t talk to producers, unless we want more money or better lunch. But Keanu, in front of us, I never felt like he was anything but an actor on set. I give him a lot of credit for that. There was never one moment where I remember him [acting like a producer]. He might have run around the corner pulling his hair out or something, but we didn’t see it.”

Henry’s Crime opens in Buffalo on Friday, April 29 at the Amherst Theater.

The Local Angle

Tim Clark, Buffalo Niagara film commissioner, on Keanu and Henry’s Crime

In December 2009, local starwatchers were all on the lookout for Keanu Reeves, because everyone knew that he was shooting scenes for his new film in downtown Buffalo. But there’s a pretty good chance you might have seen him here any number of times in the last five years.

“Keanu was a pretty familiar sight at the airport,” says Tim Clark, who ought to know. As the head of the Buffalo Niagara Film Commission, he’s the guy who shepherds visiting filmmakers who are considering bringing a production to Western New York.

His involvement with Henry’s Crime goes back about four years, when he was first contacted by Reeves’ business partner Stephen Hamel about writing a movie set in Buffalo. A team of writers, including Sacha Gervasi, came and spent three days here, checking out the local architecture and landmarks like M&T Bank’s gold-domed building and Shea’s Theater.

After that, it was a few years before Clark heard from Hamel again. “I met with him in Los Angeles at a trade show, and brought Pat Kauffman, the New York State film commissioner. Next thing you know they’re scouting. From that point Keanu was extremely involved. He tried to get into the rhythm of the city. He was interested in the people and the cadence, quizzed me on my accent.

“So often scouts come in and just go through the motions, but here they brought the whole team in: the director, the cinematographer, a staff of people. We had a people mover to move them around the city. It was probably one of the largest scout crews I’ve encountered, and one of the longest.”

Although the film was able to take advantage of the New York State Film Credit Tax program, under which 30 percent of below-the-line costs can be recovered, that wasn’t the primary factor in bringing the production here.

“The thing that sold them quickly was our desire to cooperate fully. They don’t see a lot of that in New York City, where people get mad that the streets are closed. Here, it was apparent they would get whatever they needed.”

For the major scene with Reeves and Vera Farmiga set in front of the M&T building, lockdown was extremely important, and the NFTA was willing to cooperate to keep streetcars from interrupting.

The climax of the film involves breaking into a bank vault, and the scouts found one in the basement of the Main-Seneca building. “As soon as they saw it they knew they wanted to use it, and the building cooperated. The night we shot that was the night of a Sabres game, so traffic was a mess, but everyone put up with each other and got it done.”

And of course the weather had to be dealt with. “The forecast called for a good dumping of snow, and they were concerned about that. We didn’t get it, but we had the Mayor’s office, Buffalo Place and Americorp all ready to remove snow. The night we shot in Niagara Falls, a couple of crew members showed signs of frostbite, so I made sure we had a doctor and paramedics in case anything happened.”

Unlike some films that seem to care nothing about local color (a certain Jim Carrey movie that was set in Buffalo but filmed in, of all places, San Diego comes to mind), Henry’s Crime took pains to get the local color right.

“There are productions that just want to get it done, put it on fast forward and trudge through. Then there are others like this one that want to get the local flavor, get streets names, restaurant names. In one of the scenes there was a sign [in the shot] for a local realtor, and they were more interested in getting clearance for that than in removing it.”

Although few big Hollywood films seem to shoot here, Clark says that more come by to look for locations than you would realize. The Adjustment Bureau almost shot some scenes locally. The upcoming Men in Black III looked at Niagara Falls. The next Batman film considered shooting at the Central Terminal. Last summer’s Get Him to the Greek actually did some filming in Letchworth Park, though the scene was cut from the final print.

And then there’s the big Hollywood director currently scouting locally for his adaptation of a popular fantasy novel—but I can’t tell you about that. Will it happen? Who knows?

m. faust

Watch the trailer for Henry's Crime

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