His thoughts of airplanes land an award
Bayport resident's film wins acclaim
By Linda Leuzzi
Courtesy of The Suffolk County News
Old flying machines and the intangible magestics involved with powering them have always been part of Billy Tucci's psyche.
A member and new director of the Bayport Aerodrome Society's museum, Tucci, the creator, artist, and publisher of the award-winning comic book property "Shi," won Best Short Film (Video Presentation) at the 2002 Long Island International Film Expo for his hilarious film "some trouble of a SeRRious nature." The film features a Chance Vought F4U Corsair, regarded as one of the greatest combat aircraft in history, as well as local scenes at Sayville's Grange and Brookhaven's Calabro Airport. Ambiance sounds, background sounds of nature and birds, were recorded at Connetquot State Park Preserve.
Tucci received a lot of consulting advice from the pilots at the Bayport Aerodrome Society. The film marks Tucci's debut as writer, director, and producer.
"I've always been a firm believer you can do anything," Tucci said. "If you can fly, you can do anything. I love aviation history and the spirit of adventure and military history. I get obsessed. Whenever I see a veteran, I go and talk to him. I've gone to a Pearl Harbor Society Dinner and talked to the survivors, (because) you have history right in front of you."
The seed for the film was prompted by a gag letter. Bob Fritts, a member of the Bayport Aerodrome Society who owns a Boeing Steermans, showed a copy to Tucci. The original was sent to a Chance Vought Aircraft associate as a joke by Lieutenant Commander R. DeMott who received the Navy Cross during World War II and flew an F4U Corsair. The Chance Vought associate didn't realize DeMott's missive was a joke; the company spent almost 10 years looking for the errant airplane that was the subject of the letter.
"In the film we use four different planes," Tucci explained. Gary Lewi, public affairs officer for the Air Power Museum at Republic Airport, said the museum has a dozen historical aircraft including the Corsair and a P-40 War Hawk.
"We've had the History Channel approach us," Lewi said. "Billy was a little different as to his intensity and level of accuracy."
Lewi said Tucci was allowed in the cockpit, a policy that was unusual. "When you have operational aircraft, this is not something you do as a rule," Lewi explained. "You meet him and there's another layer you don't often see. This was something profoundly different."
Joe Tobul, an engineer and flying enthusiast, flew his F4U Corsair up from South Carolina. Sadly, Tobul died Nov. 10, 2002, after his last air show, one year to the day he departed from Tucci's set. He was memorialized in Tucci's film at the end.
"Joe Tobul was the most generous man I've ever met in my life," Tucci said. "He was a self-made guy, an engineer, who had been a Marine. We got so attached to him." Tucci said that Tobul only charged for his fuel and insurance.
Tucci pulled together a stellar crew including Sol Negrin, an Emmy-award winning cinematographer. While the film was shot in eight days, hundreds of hours were invested in prep work and the editing. Editor Jacques Ditte peered through 5,000 feet of film with Tucci at Black Sheep Television in Westhampton (Black Sheep edits PBS documentaries, among other things.)
Some local residents like Matt Arnold from Sayville, who played Mountain Man, and Mark Wrobloski from Bayport, who was the owner and driver of a 1929 Chevy, can be seen in the film.
The Long Island International Film Expo, which debuted in 1998, attracts about 200 entrants and shows about 75 films, said Debi Markowitz, director of the Nassau County Film Office which sponsors the Expo. The Expo is held at the Malverne Cinema 4 Theater.
"That was picked entirely by audience ballot," Markowitz said of Tucci's film. "He put together a film that should be shown on television or wherever. He came out with a real professional short film and assembled a terrific cast."
Tucci was also awarded First Place for a Finishing Film Grant from the Long Island Film and TV Foundation, another arm of the Nassau County Film Office. (The film submitted to the Long Island International Film Expo was a rough cut.)
Tucci said he relied on his background to choose scenes for the film. "What helped me is my comic book background," Tucci said. "Shi" is printed in six languages, has sold more than 4 million comic books, and grossed over $25 million worldwide.
"The average comic book is 22 pages," he said. "(Because) you have to tell your story in 22 pages, you don't have the luxury of waste. Every page is a shot or a scene and it propels you to the next chapter. Filmmakers Spike Lee and the Hughes brothers were huge comic book fans and they said it helped them."
Armed with a $50,000 budget, financed by his father-in-law Andrew Steffens, Tucci had his challenges. Shooting was supposed to start mid September of 2001, but 9/11 changed plans.
"They (FAA) opened New York airspace on Oct. 31," he said. "Joe (Tobul) had to fly from South Caroline to Brookhaven Airport along a route that was mostly 30 miles out to sea around major cities."
Then there was the overhead shot he needed of the Corsair while Tobul was still around. "A boom camera crane would have cost me $2,000," Tucci said. "I asked the airport manager, 'Do you know someone with a crane?' He's a member of the Mastic Fire Department and he made a call. A fire truck came in with a cherry picker and they parked it on the grass. The cameraman was lifted a hundred feet in the air and I was able to get an overhead shot of the Corsair's 40 feet wingspan."
Tucci said he will start selling the film on DVD and VHS through history and aviation magazines, comic book stores, and websites, including his own, www.crusadefinearts.com.
Tucci has a couple of other projects in the works: "Shi" has been optioned for a major motion picture by producer Mimi Polk Gitlin. Tucci is also currently writing the screenplay with Kevin Bernhardt and will serve as executive producer.
"It was the hardest, but most rewarding thing I ever did," Tucci said of his short film. "My goal is to make feature films. No one can tell you can't do it."
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