In 1995, four years before he became famous as Tony Soprano, James Gandolfini filmed a small part as a New York landlord in “Mint Julep.” When the movie finally premiered last month, “The Sopranos” had long since ended its eight-year run.
It took Wisconsin filmmakers Ian Teal and Kathy Fehl more than a decade to complete their low-budget black comedy about a small-town Southern waitress who leaves her husband in search of a more meaningful life.
“We finished our first rough cut in 1998, but we kept running out of money,” Teal said in a joint phone interview with Fehl, his personal and professional partner. “So it sat around for a long time before we finished it.”
“Mint Julep” premiered at the Gerold Opera House in Weyauwega, Wisconsin, where the couple run a nonprofit cultural organization called Wega Arts. Teal and Fehl live in an old farmhouse near the central Wisconsin town, which has a population of about 1,800.
“Mint Julep,” which is available on DVD at http://www.mintjulepmovie.com, was filmed in North Carolina and New York. The cast includes Angelica Torn (daughter of actors Rip Torn and Geraldine Page) and former “St. Elsewhere” star David Morse. Teal plays the waitress’s insurance-salesman husband, while Fehl is one of her diner co-workers who takes out her frustrations by mashing fried chicken with her hands.
The couple knew Gandolfini and Morse from their days working in the New York theater. Gandolfini did a play with them in the East Village and Fehl directed Morse in “Waiting for Godot.”
When he filmed his scene in “Mint Julep” 15 years ago, Gandolfini was considerably slimmer and had slightly more hair than he did in “The Sopranos.”
“Jim was very gracious,” Teal said. “He was renting a home in New Jersey and invited us out to have dinner with his mother.”
Teal and Fehl said the film cost about $150,000, much of it coming from their own pockets. One of their financial backers is Marilyn Perry, an art historian, painter and former chairwoman of the World Monuments Fund. Perry was a student of Fehl’s father at the University of North Carolina, where he taught art history.
“She’s been a big help in getting the movie finished and converting it to DVD,” Fehl said.
While it has the film-noir elements of murder, infidelity and fraud, “Mint Julep” also has an engaging surreal quality that reflects the influence of directors such as Fellini, Bunuel and Antonioni.
“It’s definitely not a mainstream movie,” said Teal, who grew up in Wisconsin.
The first-time filmmakers had to be resourceful. One day, they tried to break up an argument among crew members during “magic hour,” a period of fading sunlight that is prized by cinematographers. Worried that darkness would fall before the scene was shot, Fehl faked a seizure to get everyone’s attention.
“I just dropped to the ground and everybody shut up,” she recalled. “It worked perfectly.”
The Gerold Opera House, built in 1915, had been sitting empty for 15 years when the couple bought it in 2007. They renovated the two-story building and made it the headquarters of Wega Arts, which sponsors a variety of cultural events.
Wega has hosted a gospel choir from Milwaukee, big-band concerts, an original radio drama and a showing of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” which was based on a novel by Robert Bloch, who lived in Weyauwega when he read about the Wisconsin murderer who inspired the book.
“We’re trying to bring culture to our small community here,” Fehl said. “We want to encourage people to make an impact on society through art.”