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Nathan Hale

By Heidi Sutton

The 1,000-seat theater at Stony Brook University’s Staller Center was filled to capacity last Sunday night as the community came out in droves to celebrate the first screening of TBR News Media’s feature-length film, “One Life to Give.” And what a celebration it was.

“I have to say this exceeds our highest expectations. We are so thrilled,” said TBR News Media publisher Leah Dunaief, scanning the packed house as she welcomed the audience to “what has been a year’s adventure.”

“I am privileged to be the publisher of six hometown papers, a website, a Facebook page and, now, executive producer of a movie,” she beamed.

TBR News Media publisher Leah Dunaief addresses the audience.

Dunaief set the stage for what would be a wonderful evening. “I’m inviting you now to leave behind politics and current affairs and come with me back in time more than two centuries to the earliest days of the beginning of our country — the start of the American Revolution.”

“We live in the cradle of history and I hope that when you leave tonight you will feel an immense pride in coming from this area,” she continued. “The people who lived here some 240 years ago were people just like us. They were looking to have a good life, they were looking to raise their children.” Instead, according to Dunaief, they found themselves occupied by the British under King George III for the longest period of time.

Filmed entirely on location on the North Shore in 16 days, the film tells the story of schoolteacher turned spy Nathan Hale and how his capture and ultimate death by hanging in 1776 at the age of 21 led to the development of an elaborate spy ring in Setauket — the Culper spies — in an effort to help Gen. George Washington win the Revolutionary War.

Scenes were shot on location at Benner’s Farm in East Setauket, the William Miller House in Miller Place, the Sherwood-Jayne Farm, Thompson House and Caroline Church of Brookhaven  in Setauket and East Beach in Port Jefferson with many local actors and extras, period costumes by Nan Guzzetta, props from “TURN” and a wonderful score by Mark Orton.

The film screening was preceded by a short behind-the-scenes documentary and was followed by a Q&A with Dunaief, producer and writer Michael Tessler and director and writer Benji Dunaief along with several key actors in the film — Dave Morrissey Jr. (Benjamin Tallmadge), Hans Paul Hendrickson (Nathan Hale), Jonathan Rabeno (John Chester) and David Gianopoulos (Gen. George Washington).

“It says quite a bit about our community that we could pack the Staller Center for a story that took place over two hundred years ago,” said Tessler, who grew up in Port Jefferson. “I hope everyone leaves the theater today thinking about these heroes — these ordinary residents of our community who went on to do some extraordinary things and made it so that we all have the luxury to sit here today and enjoy this show and the many freedoms that come with being an American.”

Director Benji Dunaief thanked the cast, crew and entire community for all their support. “In the beginning of this project I did not think we would be able to do a feature film, let alone a period piece. They say it takes a village, but I guess it actually takes three.”

From left, Jonathan Rabeno, David Gianopoulos, Hans Paul Hendrickson and Dave Morrissey Jr. field questions from the audience at the Q&A.

“Our cast … threw themselves 100 percent into trying to embody these characters, they learned as much as they could and were open to everything that was thrown at them — I’m blown away by this cast. They are just incredible,” he added.

“The positivity that was brought to the set every day made you really want to be in that environment,” said Rabeno, who said he was humbled to be there, and he was quick to thank all of the reenactors who helped the actors with their roles.

One of the more famous actors on the stage, Gianopoulos (“Air Force One”) was so impressed with the way the production was handled and often stopped by on his day off just to observe the camera shots. “I really enjoyed just watching and being an observer,” he said, adding “It was just such an honor [to be a part of the film] and to come back to Stony Brook and Setauket where I used to run around as a little kid and then to bring this story to life is just amazing.”

According to the director, the film has been making the rounds and was recently nominated for three awards at Emerson College’s prestigious Film Festival, the EVVY Awards, including Best Editing, Best Writing and Best Single Camera Direction and won for the last category. 

Reached after the screening, Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) said the film was the essence of a sense of place. “I thought it was spectacular. I thought that it was one of the highlights of all of the years that I have lived in this community.”

He continued, “It all came together with local people and local places talking about our local history that changed the world and the fact that it was on the Staller Stage here at a public university that was made possible by the heroics of the people who were in the film both as actors today and the people that they portrayed.”

For those who missed last Sunday’s screening, the film will be shown again at the Long Island International Film Expo in Bellmore on July 18 from 2 to 4 p.m.

Filming for a sequel, tentatively titled “Traitor,” the story of John André who was a British Army officer hanged as a spy by the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, will begin in two weeks.

Special thanks to Gold Coast Bank, Holiday Inn Express, Island Federal Savings Bank and Stony Brook University for making the evening’s screening possible.

Photos by Heidi Sutton and Rita J. Egan

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The saying, “It takes a village,” certainly applies to us here on the North Shore of Long Island. Elsewhere in today’s newspaper, you can read the article about our making a full-length historical movie (page B11). It was a fantastic adventure and something of a wild ride. From the first rushes, before color and sound correction with the addition of music, the final product looks really good.

The film, “One Life to Give,” delves into the relationship between Benjamin Tallmadge and Nathan Hale against the tense background of the Battle of Long Island and the formation of the Culper Spy network in Setauket. So much of history seems to pivot on a single turning point or a particular event, and the Revolutionary War is no exception. Because of these two men, George Washington embedded his spies behind the enemy lines and the outcome of the war took a decided turn for the better.

Speaking of turns, many of you probably watched the TURN series on AMC, about the Setauket spies, whose fourth and final year is showing on cable television presently. Though based on the scent of real events, those episodes are largely fiction, although they are nonetheless riveting. Our movie, made authentic through the attention and help of local historical societies, is as factual as the history that has come down to us through more than two centuries.

Which is to say, this is the real story and no less intense for being accurate. This film can, and we trust, will be shown to children in the schools as part of the state mandate for teaching local history. But its making would not have been possible without the help of our North Shore “village.” So many organizations, businesses and individuals teamed up to bring our local history to life.

Let me explain. There were three parts to our filming, kind of like a trifecta. First we needed the script, which was researched and written largely by TBR’s Director of Media Productions Michael Tessler and Emerson College junior Benjamin Dunaief, with help from Port Jeff alum and Brooklyn College student Dominick Famularo. Part of that first win was to bring the script to life, for which we needed a competent crew behind the camera. These dozen hard workers were brought in by my grandson Benji, who knew their work from previous film shoots. We also needed high level equipment, some of which came with the crew and the rest we rented.

The second part was to secure the historic locations, also the actors in front of the camera. Here is where the “village” came into play. The Ward Melville Heritage Organization, SPLIA (Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities), Three Village Historical Society, Miller Place-Mount Sinai Historical Society, Three Village Community Trust, LISEC boat builders and Benner’s Farm provided the settings and encouragement.

Then casting calls along with connections brought us the talented actors, who included among many others, Jeff Sanzel, Dave Morrissey Jr. (from New York City, soon to be an equity member), Jonathan Rabeno, David Gianopoulos (who was Agent Johnson in the 1997 movie “Air Force One”) and Hans Paul Hendrickson, who played Hale.

The third win was the unending assistance and support from individuals like the inexhaustible John Worrell, Tim Glynn, Margo Arceri, Fred Bryant, Charlie Lefkowitz, Michael Ardolino, Peter Moloney, Andy Pollen, the Connell family, Virginia Cash, the many battle re-enactors who traveled from near and far, and the contributions of Stony Brook University. Then there are the many local restaurants who helped us feed everybody on set like Setauket Gourmet deli, Setauket Village Diner, Via Pizza, Pasta Pasta and Eastern Pavilion.

There are many more to thank and we will do so in a more formal way, but this is just a spontaneous outburst of gratitude to all those who, with willing hands across the community, make our lives so rich.

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As we are filming “One Life to Give,” the Battle of Long Island, which took place at the beginning of our Revolutionary War in 1776, and the dramatic story of Nathan Hale, ISIS has come knocking on Brookhaven’s door in 2017. What? You may say, ISIS from the faraway lands of Syria and Afghanistan, those violently troubled, war-torn places in the Middle East reaching out to our serene little township?

So it seems. This past Sunday, an extra page was found to be on the official town site. This page, from a group called Team System Dz, conveyed some unpleasant pro-ISIS thoughts through Facebook and, according to Brookhaven, not directly from the town website.

Why are we on the group’s radar? Who knows? But they have been sending messages like the one we received here throughout the country to 76 municipalities all told, according to town Councilman Dan Panico. Along with these assaults, similar messages were found on several Ohio government websites, including that of Gov. John Kasich. This particular group has hacked into many government websites around the world in recent years, according to a story in Newsday.

As we know, these terrorist groups are looking to spread fear, and the internet enables them to reach across the globe even as their physically occupied territory shrinks from allied military efforts to defeat them.

Homeland Security officials are actively investigating the event, but for us the timing is particularly meaningful. Here we are, filming the story of the birth of our nation, some 240 years ago, and realizing most meaningfully the values and freedoms under which we live. Those we hail as Patriots gave their lives and fortunes, in some cases, so that these inalienable rights of our society might come down through the centuries to us. We don’t live in fear of being gassed or dismembered by our government. We have the right to criticize our leaders without disappearing. We live under the rule of a Constitution that was forged in democracy, and none of these facts are lost on us as we film the events and the people who made it happen more than two centuries ago. Approaching July Fourth, we are profoundly grateful for our nation, warts and all.

As we covered the story of the town’s hacked website, we needed to decide how to run the article in our papers. We briefly considered putting the ISIS event on the front page, then immediately chose instead to lead with one of the values that make us who we are: our educational system. As you can see, we have given prominence to graduations. We are the hometown papers and we prize our students and their accomplishments. We wouldn’t dream of destroying schools and slaughtering teachers. Our educational system makes democracy possible, and that is what totalitarian regimes fear. Our residents know how to read and write and, we sincerely hope, tell propaganda from real news.

From the battlefield of Long Island and the campsite of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Tallmadge and Nathan Hale to the backyard barbecues and rockets’ red glare of our fireworks, have a Happy Independence Day!