Be nice to your waiter. You never know what talents are burning behind the courtesy and attentiveness.
Azdine Melliti and James Jude Courtney worked together at BeauRivage 15 years ago. Now, they have a prize-winning film, playing weekends in Santa Monica.
“Le Magique” tells the story of a 10-year-old Tunisian boy whose parents must move to France to find work. They leave him behind to mind the house. He wanders into the nearby city and discovers the movies — the magic — which becomes his obsession and ultimate salvation.
In actuality, the film is Melliti’s autobiography. He was not eager to relive those times, but was prompted by co-writer Nina Jo Baker.
It’s a sweet film, a tender celebration of humanity. Melliti complains: “There are so many movies out there that deal with the violence, the sex, the violence, the sex. I ask, ‘Do you want to leave a filthy place for your children and grandchildren?'”
Courtney quotes Erasmus: “‘Focus on the light, and the darkness will disappear by itself.’ We’re not out to change the world.”
Melliti adds, “If we can change just one or two . . .”
“Or just ourselves,” Courtney says.
They formed Melliti Brothers Productions with Melliti’s brother Faical, who sold his limousine business to help finance the film. He says, “Every day, my brother was waiting for phone calls. I was prepared to do something. So I sold my company. I said, ‘What the heck, let’s do it.’ I don’t regret it.”
Melliti remarks, “It’s funny how my baby brother — the one who was sleeping through the whole thing in the movie — was the one who helped me.”
Melliti sold his car. The brothers “maxed out” their credit cards. They’re temporarily housed at Courtney’s Santa Monica apartment. Their friend Christian La Croix wired funds to the production company, “and we still don’t have a contract with him,” says Melliti.
They publicize the film by handing out fliers. Melliti promised a few moviegoers a money-back guaranty on it. The response overwhelms them. During their first weekend showing, a man offered $50 worth of printing for their fliers.
Melliti says he is rejuvenated when people tell him they love his movie. “People are so starved for these kinds of movies,” he says. Some have seen it five times, many others two or three times. The audiences are very mixed, of all ages and types. “Even punks,” says Melliti. “Wow, punks loving the movie?”
His family in Paris has seen the film. Their response? “We don’t talk about it,” he says. The story is still too painful for them, a reminder of an intensely impoverished life in which decisions were based on survival, not love.
As his character, Deanie, reflects, young Melliti’s childhood desire was to be intelligent. “I struggled for many years with being told, ‘You’re not articulate enough,'” he says. “In France, I was silent for many years. I thought they were going to laugh at me. The same when I came to the United States. I had the same experience in acting classes — they told me I had the emotion but I sounded stupid.”
One of five brothers, he is self-educated. He learned to read, he says, “by being rude — a pain in the butt — asking people, ‘What is this letter? What is the sound of this?'”
When he arrived in the U.S., he applied for a job at McDonalds — and was rejected. With a French sense of style, he would apply for busboy jobs smartly dressed and carrying himself well, and was asked, “Table for one?” Potential employers here treated him better than he was treated in France, he says. “Here, when you apply for a job, they don’t ask you were you’re from. There, if you’re not French, they won’t give you a job.”
Melliti got his “break” through producer/director Karen Arthur, a customer at BeauRivage “At that time,” he recalls, “she was directing ‘Hart to Hart.’ And that’s how I got my SAG card. That night was her birthday, and we gave her really great service. She was touched. James and I, we would go out of our way to make people feel great.” He also made appearances in her productions of “Remington Steele” and “Cagney and Lacey.”
He came to the U.S. to be an actor but became disappointed by his roles — typecast as an Arab and playing terrorists, rapists and drug dealers. So he decided to create his own film work.
These days, he lives in Mammoth Lakes with his wife, Susan Hartunian, a surgeon, and their 4-year-old daughter, Najet.
Courtney was raised in Columbia, S.C., the eldest of seven boys. His Irish mother was told she could never have children. She prayed to St. Jude, and Courtney came along. Her physician said, “That’s nice, but it will never happen again.” She gave birth to six more boys.
“Everything my parents did was focused on getting us educations and keeping us solid,” he says.
As a result, or despite this, Courtney took hold of his father’s movie camera and made his first movie when he was 11, coincidentally at the same age Melliti made his first “movie” — drawings passed in front of a flashlight. “All my school projects were films,” Courtney says. “My mom would be the cameraman, my dad gave me an editing machine. We’d experiment with light.”
He notes that he and his brothers are entrepreneurial. “That’s because we felt secure. I think that comes from love and respect and a strong commitment to education.”
He attended the University of South Carolina, where he studied broadcast journalism. “Then I stayed to study everything that had to do with film,” he says. After touring the country on a motorcycle, he found Los Angeles. While at BeauRivage, he was hired for stunt work at Universal Studios. Then came acting jobs, including work in “When a Man Loves a Woman” and “Far and Away,” and television appearances in “Knotts Landing” and “General Hospital.”
He, too, started writing because he got tired of playing small roles. He continues working as a stuntman, he says, “to pay the bills,” doubling for Garibaldi on “Babylon 5.” He also studies aikido, as well as naturopathic medicine and contact reflex analysis, and he practices reiki (hands-on healing).
His mother was a peace activist in Belfast. In the U.S., she co-founded a program to bring Irish children — Protestant and Catholic — to summer camp. Now, Courtney and Melliti are working on a film about the IRA. “The idea,” Courtney says, “is to get past the place where we need to destroy.”
Of Melliti, he says, “He’s been a very generous friend to me. He’s my brother in the true sense of the word.”
It took the “brothers” five years to complete Le Magique.
To begin, Melliti placed an ad in the Tunisian newspaper looking for actors, and 100 people responded, all nonactors. The only character he could not seem to cast was Deanie. One day, one of the boys brought a friend. “I looked at the kid, and my heart started pounding,” Melliti says. Coincidentally, the child had also been abandoned by his parents.
“He brought a lot of emotion to the film,” says Courtney. Melliti adds, “And the boy who plays Caesar [Deanie’s best friend] too. His mom and dad are separated. He’s a computer genius. The boy who plays me is a writer; he writes children’s books.”
The young girl who plays Deanie’s love interest is Melliti’s niece. “In the movie, they’re supposed to love each other,” he says. “In reality, they hate each other. On the set, they were fighting. And in the movie, she’s supposed to hate Caesar, and they were great friends.”
Melliti worked with the kids for months, until he decided they were ready. They improvised, and Melliti wrote scenes for them.
“I wanted it to be fresh for the movie,” he says. “I developed a very close relationship with the actors. When it was time for a scene, I worked with each actor alone and brought the tone for whatever it was. I never wanted, per se, for them to do certain things. I never told them to cry. I told them, ‘Give me whatever you’re feeling, and I’ll buy it.’ I showed them the road, but I never told them . . . “
“. . . how to travel it,” Courtney says.
Melliti did not intend to act in his own movie. “I hired an actor, who never showed up to the set,” he says. He plays Caesar’s bitter, widowed father. “I had an hour to prepare. I was bigger than the other guy, and the pants didn’t fit.”
Of his work at BeauRivage, Melliti says, “It was one of my best experiences in L.A.” Says Courtney, “They were really great people. Martin Sheen.”
“Yeah. Martin Sheen,” says Melliti. “He’s a really great guy.”
“Leo Penn,” Courtney continues. “Larry Hagman.”
“Yeah,” Melliti says. “He was a really nice man.”
“Tipped a lot.”
“Yeah. So did Martin Sheen.”
“Le Magique” shows Saturdays and Sundays at 11 a.m. at the Laemmle Monica 4, 1332 Second Street, Santa Monica. Tel. 310/394- 9741.