Diner and a movie

The Miss Albany has a starring role in a local filmmaker's upcoming project

ANNE MILLER Staff Writer
Section: Arts-Events,  Page: I1

Date: Sunday, January 29, 2006

ALBANY Diner owner Cliff Brown doesn't bother waiting for an invitation to join local film director Michael Camoin. He just plunks down a can of soup, a pile of Saltines and squeezes in.

Brown is a round, white-haired man who wears cardigans and prefers strident political debate with his customers at the Miss Albany Diner, which he has owned since 1988. Camoin is producing his first feature film, "Grazing Miss Albany," in which the 65-year-old Broadway diner plays a starring role.

Brown has agreed to close the diner for a few weeks for filming. Camoin has promised to pay him. They have not worked out the amount.

"You have to recognize it's a speculative endeavor," said the 78-year-old Brown between spoonfuls. "Recognizing that, you don't put demands on it right away, like `I'll do it if you give me $1 million.'

That's about triple the movie budget of $350,000, which Camoin said he is almost done raising.

"I've always loved diners," Camoin said. "People feel safe in diners. There's a sense of community here you'll never find in a chain restaurant. You know, it's real."

Camoin, who grew up in Wappingers Falls, has nurtured moviemaking dreams since 1992, when he asked for, and got, a camcorder as a present from his parents. He earned a master's degree in social work from the University at Albany and worked six years for several area school districts before switching to documentary filmmaking full time in the mid-1990s.

Previous credits with his firm, Videos for Change, include "Battles of Saratoga," "Inside the Blue Line: Leadley's Legacy" and "Me, My A.D.D. Coach and I."

A changing point

On Sept. 11, 2001, Camoin had just finished a film course in New York City. He stood on a bridge, watching the second tower burn, and decided life was too short not to follow his Hollywood dream.

He had already finished a script about a diner owner, the owner's estranged brother in the priesthood, and the struggling restaurant that brings them together.

Enter the Miss Albany Diner, which came to the city in 1941 pulled by a truck it's that small. The diner was deposited on Broadway, pointed toward North Albany, and it remains there to this day.

The diner's neighborhood is urban industrial large, square brick warehouses and offices just past crumbling, boarded-up brick row houses. Then, less than a half-mile away, there's the high-priced steak joint, 677 Prime, and Noche, a lounge with $10 mixed drinks in a revamped firehouse.

Yet Miss Albany is still a cash-only joint and the ingredients in the dishes don't change. If the customers don't like sour cream on their eggs or the vegetable of the day, they can leave.

On any given day, beneath the curving yellow ceiling and the original wooden beams, an eclectic crowd of state workers, hipsters and neighborhood folks tuck in to breakfast. The atmosphere is thick with history and the sharp tang of curried eggs and coffee.

Historic past

Camoin's movie won't be the diner's first brush with Hollywood. Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson swung by for 1987's "Ironweed." The film, based on the novel of the same name by local literary light William Kennedy, filmed in several locations upstate.

But Cliff Brown didn't own the diner then. Brown, a retired engineer and salesman, owns the restaurant with his wife, Jane, a retired teacher who plays hostess Sundays, the busiest day of the week.

One recent morning, the crowd thinned, and Jane Brown took a moment to rest her feet, claiming an empty red-and-chrome counter stool. She indulged in a brief movie fantasy. Gazing into the distance, she saw herself in an elegant gown, walking a red carpet.

"Can you imagine," said the 70-year-old, "me, at a movie premiere?"

After four years, she's finally allowed herself to dream. Filming is slated to begin in March.

Camoin, 40, sounds by turns driven, dedicated, obsessed and crazy. He is convinced of the quality of his story and his ability to tell it. He may not promise fame and fortune, but he has inspired a few others.

So far, two Hollywood veterans have signed on: James Fahey, who starred in "The Lawnmower Man," and David Keith, best known for "An Officer and a Gentleman."

With them is a young actor from the local educational theater circuit. A chance meeting at a New York State Writers Institute event last year brought Camoin to his fry cook, Alonzo Verbal, who is 23.

Verbal, who lives near Lincoln Park and works as an assistant at the Washington Avenue YMCA, invited the director to a performance at Albany's Steamer No. 10 Theatre. Camoin offered him the job after the show.

"I was shocked," Verbal said. "I couldn't breathe. I was like, my first movie? Oh my goodness gracious."

Film dreams

Camoin plans, after six to nine months of post-production, to submit his film to the 2007 Cannes International Film Festival and other screenings. A similar effort worked for Tennyson Bardwell, a first-time director from Ballston Spa whose "Dorian Blues" was released last fall. The Spectrum 8 theater in Albany has booked it for the first week of February.

The festival statistics inject a bit of reality though. Last year Cannes selected 86 films from 800 from around the world to compete for top prizes. Many of those have yet to be widely released despite the involvement of top stars like Kevin Bacon or Natalie Portman.

Camoin's budget is just enough to make a decent first film, said Jerry Stoeffhaas, deputy director of the Governor's Office for Motion Picture and Television Development. The figure is about the minimum needed to produce a film without cutting major corners.

But even if "Grazing Miss Albany" never makes it across the ocean, even if it remains another quirky chapter in diner lore, a young actor can say he became a movie star. A diner owner had a fun daydream. And Camoin can say, at least, he followed his dream.

Anne Miller can be reached at 454-5697 or by e-mail at amiller@timesunion.com.