Poker, prison, the weather, gay cultural, history. These are some of the disparate subjects of 4th Row Productions documentaries bursting on to the local, national and international scene this summer.
"You know how on Amazon it says, `If you liked this, you'll like this?'" says Douglas Tirola, 4th Row's president. "Our films aren't like that."
But all their films tell a story. And share a theme: risk.
4th Row's first documentary, An Omar Broadway Film, will premier this spring on HBO. It tells the story of the title character, a gang member imprisoned in the notorious Northern State prison in Newark, N.J. The film features original footage Omar Broadway filmed by smuggling a camera inside the isolated unit designed to break gang members. He has remained in the unit for seven years because he has not renounced his membership in The Bloods. The smuggled footage is supplemented with interviews with Broadway's family, friends, prison guards and the warden.
"The film opens up communication about the prison system," says 4th Row's Director of Development Susan Bedusa, "It's broken."
"For me, the most profound thing I learned," Tirola says, "is that in Omar's neighborhood in East Orange, New Jersey, it's expected that you'll end up in prison. Here in Westport, there's an assumption you'll go to college. In Omar's community it's the same -- but for prison."
"The most fascinating part," adds Bedusa, "is that many of the prisoners and guards grew up together."
Business partners Tirola and Bedusa, both Westport natives, recently returned from the Berlin Film Festival, where they screened 4th Row's The Making the Boys. The 90-minute documentary tells the story behind the play and movie The Boys in the Band, and will be shown in independent cinemas this summer.
Boys in the Band is considered one of the first gay films to reach a mainstream audience. The play premiered off-Broadway in 1968 and was made into a movie directed by William Friedkin in 1970. In the documentary, author Mart Crowley, actor Lawrence Luckinbill (who appeared in the play and the movie), and playwrights Edward Albee, Paul Rudnick and others lend opinions on whether The Boys in the Band broke ground or portrayed stereotypes. "To me, the play was like The Big Chill," says Tirola. "It makes gay people ordinary."
The Making the Boys also tells the story of the play's author, Mart Crowley, a gay man who left his native Mississippi for Hollywood, where he worked for Elia Kazan. Natalie Wood hired Crowley as an assistant, helping to support him while he wrote The Boys.
Making the festival scene this summer will be 4th Row's Kati with an I, a portrait of a southern teenager about to graduate from high school. It is directed by Robert Greene.
4th Row's Owning the Weather is about "people's relationship to the weather," says Tirola. Directed by Robert Greene, it was based on an article in Harper's magazine. Along with examining weather modification programs, it looks at how weather affects people's moods.
Some of the people interviewed will be familiar to Westporters. "Westport is our back lot," says Tirola. The Reverend John Branson of Christ and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church talks about how weather affects church attendance. Jimmy Izzo of Ace Hardware comments on how weather affects what people buy at his store. Owning the Weather, which was screened at national and international film festivals, is available on iTunes, Amazon and Netflicks.
All In -- The Poker Movie asks the question: "Why has poker had a renaissance?"
"We tie it to the American Dream," Tirola says. Both poker and the dream have changed, he said. "It's gone from grinder [semi-pros who make little money] to Texas Hold 'Em."
All In won the grand jury prize for best documentary when it premiered at the CineVegas Film Festival. The film includes commentary by Westport's Frank DeFord, the sports writer, and Doris Kearns Goodwin, the historian.
The duo started 4th Row four years ago to make branding and marketing films for Fortune 500 companies.
"Fairfield County is like the silicon valley of the marketing industry," says Tirola, who lives in Westport with his family. Bedusa lives in Manhattan, where 4th Row is based.
Despite their success with the documentaries, they plan to continue making marketing and branding films. The marketing films are more than just what, in Hollywood, is called "a housekeeping deal," that allows them to pay their bills while moving the documentaries forward. The marketing and branding films fuel their creativity.
"It's a good synergy," says Tirola.
Bedusa and Tirola, who met while they both worked for Ira Deutchman, founder of Fine Line Features, brought years of experience in film to their joint venture.
Bedusa was raised watching independent movies at SoNo Cinema, which her family owned.
"I grew up there," she says, "I miss it."
Tirola's first job was at the Westport Country Playhouse. "I was the `house beautician' -- that's what they call the janitor," he says. His father was the attorney for the Playhouse.
Tirola's first job in film was as production assistant on When Harry Met Sally. He went on to make an independent film, A Reason to Believe, which was released by Lion's Gate.
"That led me to being a writer in Hollywood for eight years," he says.
While in Westport to spend Thanksgiving with his parents, Tirola met his future wife and decided to move back east.
Over a cup of coffee at the Sherwood Diner recently, Tirola and Bedusa reflected on their work of the last three years.
"All these things are coming together this summer," says Bedusa.
"We feel very fortunate," says Tirola.