Joe Young Jr. peered into the empty Bank of America tower, a heartache for the city with its vacant 26 floors right in the middle of Main Street, and smiled.
The cash has long been hauled out. The bank tellers and corporate offices moved a block away to CityPlace I.
"It's a blessing," said Young, 47, the Hartford-born cartoonist, animator and businessman who has added author and filmmaker to his resumé. "Everything's just falling into place."
In a sound stage 2 miles away is a 15-foot-high Trojan horse awaiting its cinematic debut. The wooden prop will be wheeled into the former bank building at 777 Main St. next month, and there will be actors, a bank robbery and a police chase that will end at the Colt Gateway — scenes from "Diamond Ruff," Young's movie based on his novel about a Hartford con man.
Director Alec Asten and a local production crew plan to start shooting the full-length independent movie in just three weeks, beginning on Sept. 6, for $200,000.
They said they'll film inside the bank tower at a small cost while it sits on the market. And Young has been renting a sound stage on Weston Street, the site of a recent casting call and the crew's production meetings, at a bargain rate thanks largely to his connections, although the shaky economy also plays a role, he said.
Young credits the downturn with bringing him closer to finishing a project that has dominated his life for the past three years.
City and state film officials have endorsed the production, which Young considers a PG-13 morality tale with "Pulp Fiction" swagger. A couple of supporting actors from HBO's "The Wire" have signed on for lead roles.
"It's so much pressure. You've got to shoot certain scenes in a certain amount of time, and you don't know if something is going to break down," said Young as he walked downtown. "I do love those challenges, but it's scary at the same time."
"I never celebrate too early," Young added. "I may promote too early, but I never celebrate too early."
'Take A Chance'
In the world of Diamond Ruff, a late-twentysomething with a downtown Hartford penthouse and an addiction to money, the mind is more potent than a gun, the con is theater, and there are no qualms about using the Bible as a muse for one's greed.
"Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you," Ruff says, quoting Matthew 7:7.
Ruff, to be played by actor Fredro Starr, was orphaned at 7 when his drug-addicted parents were shot and killed on Christmas. A gifted boy from the city's North End, he attended Milner Elementary School and would slip into a library at night to read the classics and sneak into museums to admire the great works.
Learning from masters, as Ruff puts it, honed his ability to "artistically create and manipulate opportunity."
After the bank robbery — local law enforcement and state police don't exactly shine in that plot turn — Ruff eventually meets a preacher, Trek Woods, played by Dennis L.A. White, who tries to persuade Ruff to use his mind for good.
Starr, a member of the '90s rap group Onyx, has appeared on shows such as the "The Wire" and "CSI: NY."
Felicia Pearson, who played the assassin Snoop on "The Wire," also has committed to the movie, Young said. The Baltimore native will play K.K., a brash, shoot-'em-up criminal who first encounters Ruff as she holds up a convenience store.
The crew and many of the actors are from Connecticut, Asten said.
Two casting calls in Hartford drew a few hundred prospective actors, and at least 10 crew members are graduates of the state's 3-year-old film industry training program. Once finished, the production can also expect a 10 percent film tax credit from the state.
"The truth is, because we're all local, it helps us get this film done for a smaller budget," said Asten, who grew up in Mystic and lives in Rhode Island. "It's all about the relationships."
"Diamond Ruff," a Screen Actors Guild production, will be one of the few film projects based in Hartford in recent memory, said Mark Dixon of the state's Office of Film, Television and Digital Media, which is part of the Department of Economic and Community Development.
The independent "Rising Star" by Connecticut native Marty Lang, a romantic comedy that centers on a young, overworked insurance guy, is in post-production. The storyline for the TV series "Judging Amy" was set here, too, Dixon said, although the CBS show was largely shot in southern California before it was canceled in 2005.
Then there is "The Second District," a drama about violence and corruption in Hartford that is being developed for TV by veteran city police officer Mark Manson. A pilot was filmed last summer.
Earlier this year, Mayor Pedro Segarra met with Young about "Diamond Ruff." Segarra wants to market the city as an arts and culture hub, and he would like to add motion pictures.
But the mayor also is trying to convince people that Hartford is not a dangerous place, and crime plays a big role in "Diamond Ruff."
"I'm not here to censor," said Segarra, who noted that good appears to triumph over evil in the story. "There's room for artistic expression. Sometimes these films, done right, launch other efforts. I think we should take a chance and support it."
Young's crew has been busy securing locations, from the Colt Gateway and city hall to an old courtroom in Willimantic and the closed Webster Correctional Institution in Cheshire. They are applying for city permits — they want to shut down part of Main Street to shoot the bank robbery chase — and finalizing the script. Young's son, Kyle, a recent Los Angeles film school graduate, has been building the movie's website.
They've also been collecting props and wardrobe donations. A woman offered two utility vans. (There have been quiet inquiries for a working helicopter.)
"It's the help of the city, itself," Asten said, "that is allowing us to make a phenomenal spectacle."
For Young, who grew up on Irving Street, then moved to Bloomfield as a grade-schooler and now lives in Springfield, showmanship has long been part of his game. The founder of the nonprofit Hartford Animation Institute once held the Guinness World Record for the longest cartoon strip based on his "Scruples" characters. He is no stranger to cable-access TV.
But this is the first time Young has delved into live-action film.
Young went on YouTube in July 2008 to announce his plan to make a movie about "Diamond Ruff," a young adult novel he wrote eight years ago. Young said it would take about two years and that he would raise up to $5 million to finance the film.
"'It's taking too long, it's not going to happen, he doesn't know what he's doing,'" said Young, recalling his critics as the project dragged on. He characterized those critics as "folks who haven't really pursued their dreams."
The task of financing, though, had been wildly underestimated. Young sold his BMW as seed money. He rummaged through his closets, pulling shoes, clothes, a kitchen blender — anything that could be sold at a tag sale for cash. Even if it was $1,000, said Young, that was enough to string the project along while also maintaining his business, the multimedia advertising firm Young! Studios on Main Street in Hartford.
"That means we sacrifice," said Teressa Young, his wife of 19 years. The Young family hasn't taken a vacation in the past three years. "We're talking about Hartford … not Hollywood, Calif. So the whole aspect of what he's trying to do is exciting."
Not until 2010 did the private investors and sponsorships begin to trickle in, and Young said he is still looking for a few more.
Young said that, if anything, he is consistent. That means working seven days a week on the film. In his Main Street offices is a large portrait of Young's late mother, Lillie Mae Young, with her saying: "Anything worth having doesn't come easy."
So Joe Young prays. He also relies on the advice of his mentor, he said, Hartford developer Phil Schonberger, who owns the sound stage that is the movie's home base.
"One speed, neutral. Every problem, you can solve," Schonberger said. "If it doesn't work one day, go home, go to sleep, come back the next day. If you get stressed about everything, you'll die at 40."