Finding Purity of Purpose: Screenwriter Tony Spiridakis Raises the Curtain for EZRA and the Revived Greenport Theatre

Courtesy of Bleecker Street

As a longtime resident of Greenport, the historic seaport village on New York’s North Fork of Long Island, screenwriter Tony Spiridakis knows the important role small town movie theaters play as a cultural gathering place for the community. Originally built as The Metro in 1915 and largely rebuilt after the 1938 New England hurricane, the Greenport Theatre has been a landmark in the fishing village for 100-plus years. When the historic house landed on the real estate market with an asking price of $5.5 million in January of 2023, Spiridakis and owner Josh Sapan worked out an arrangement to save the space. If Spiridakis could demonstrate community support for his vision and create a nonprofit organization to raise the necessary funds to financially secure the theater, Sapan would take the venue off the market and donate it to the nonprofit.

In order to make the vision a reality, Spiridakis rallied friends, neighbors, and fellow arts enthusiasts to the cause. In six months, the newly formed nonprofit North Fork Arts Center secured over $1 million from some 900 individual donors, leading Sapan to donate the space. A series of special holiday screenings, which included showings of Elf followed by a Q&A with producer Todd Komarnicki, generated some $100,000 in donations over just four days. The newly renovated North Fork Arts Center Sapan Greenport Theatre will now provide the community with a lasting, inclusive cultural arts center where arts, creativity, and education can flourish through film, lectures, and live performances.

The theater’s reopening coincides with Bleecker Street’s nationwide debut of Ezra, a story inspired by Spiridakis’ life as the father of a neurodivergent son. A labor of love for over a decade, the endearing drama is directed by Spiridakis’ best friend, actor and director Tony Goldwyn. Ezra stars Bobby Cannavale as Max, a stand-up comedian coming to terms with the challenges of co-parenting an autistic son with ex-wife Jenna (Rose Byrne). As they face difficult decisions regarding their son’s future, Max and Ezra (William Fitzgerald) embark on an unsanctioned cross-country road trip.

The rich ensemble cast includes Whoopi Goldberg, Rainn Wilson, Vera Farmiga, and Robert De Niro as Max’s father Stan. Ezra releases on over a thousand screens this weekend from Bleecker Street, including the Sapan Greenport Theatre. Boxoffice Pro spoke with screenwriter Tony Spiridakis about the film he fought to make and the theater he fought to save, where the sold-out May 31st premiere will also serve as a fundraising event to benefit the theater.

This is a very personal story. Why was it important for you to bring your experiences, your son’s experiences, and neurodivergent representation to the screen?

Well, because I love him so much and also because I made a big mess. As my father would say, “You made a salad.” In Greek it sounds so much better, it’s “Ékanes saláta”. I never meant it to be a mess, it was just messy. It was a big, fat giant learning curve. His diagnosis came at [age] four and every year was an adventure of dramatic, comedic, and messy proportion.

The script evolved over a decade. What was that development process like? What did you learn along the way?

It was fascinating because the fears were much greater in certain sections of his journey. For instance, they told me when he was six to ten years old that he was extremely inappropriate behaviorally. A couple of doctors said to me, “You know, you don’t know what’s going to happen when they hit puberty.” They said, “It could get worse and it could get better. We can’t tell you which it is.” I think the journey that I was on—[I was] in denial about firstly, naming it and secondly, advocating for therapies filled with acceptance. [Being open to] the help that people had done a lot of work on, in training to become special education therapists and teachers. It took me a little bit of time to come around to [accepting that] maybe being in the toughest public school in New York wasn’t a great idea. [Laughs.

Perhaps that was counter-intuitive. That laugh that we’re having right now about that statement is kind of where the movie lived for me. To be that wrong and think it was purely from a place of wisdom and love as a father. Then watching him find his way to a special needs school and watching him find his people. The turn at puberty went into a happier place. He was much more himself. That then became the message. Let them be themselves. How do you help a person? You don’t help them by wanting them to be something that they’re not. That doesn’t help them. My understanding of all of that seemed like really good fodder for a dramatic story. 

You share a long friendship with Tony Goldwyn. How has this artistic collaboration pulled from, or perhaps even enhanced, that relationship?

It’s funny to think there could be anything to enhance it, especially when you’ve known someone for over 40 years. [Laughs.] It is what it is after 40 years, it’s not going anywhere. All kidding aside, the truth is, I think it did enhance the friendship. I got to see that my own behaviors were quite similar, in terms of being neurodivergent in some way. I’m not trying to throw myself into the category of being autistic; I’m just saying, it has been said many times that I’m crazy or an emotional roller coaster. By doing this film with my best friend, I got to see things about us, in terms of our relationship. He is about the most solid person you will ever meet. He is just so even-tempered and has a big heart. When we were coming up together in our 20s, I was like, “This poor guy needs a crazy person in his life, so I might as well be that crazy person.” Then as we got older, this kind of puppy dog kid, who I was going to help out, became such an incredibly wonderful person, man, father, husband, and everything.

At times the tables turned, sometimes that happens when you think you’re taking someone under your wing. You’re going to show them the ropes because you’re this crazy tough guy from Queens and here’s this guy from Beverly Hills. I thought, “I’ll teach him how to order a drink” or something stupid like that. Then in 15 years, I was going to him for advice—crawling to him for advice—because he is so solid. He is an uncle and a godfather to my kids. He was there when they were born, and I’m the godfather of his firstborn. We’re really connected in a familial way. To have the journey of our friendship come to this point, where we could open our hearts to each other and express through these fictional characters—who clearly have representational connections to both of us—I had complete trust and faith. In that way, it brought back something we may have gotten busy in our lives and lost track of, which is that we are really brothers deep down. To have that come back at this point in your life, it’s beyond a blessing. Everything that I just said, you could ask any person on our crew on any day of this very intense 25 day shoot, and they will tell you the same thing. The love that we had on that set was all from the top, and the director is the person who does that.

Were there things that were important in creating the set environment—both for members of the autistic community in front of and behind the camera as well as for the cast and crew to understand how to best support their colleagues?

It was fabulous. We immediately had two consultants, Elaine Hall and Alex Plank. Elaine Hall was a consultant in the prepping and pre-production part, where we were getting advised about who we should hire. When we were auditioning over 100 ‘Ezras’, we were all pretty convinced that we weren’t going to be making the movie. We did not have an Ezra until the final two weeks before the film. I had made it very clear to everybody, and the whole team agreed, that we had to find a neurodivergent child actor or we weren’t doing the movie. Having William Fitzgerald walk in at all was the first of many blessings that came our way. Tony first saw William outside of the audition room. He came in and was completely red and he said, “It’s Dimitri. It’s Dimitri at age 11 out there.” Dimitri is my son’s name. Then William came in and he had that same kind of humor and fearlessness. If you don’t have parents who are trusting of the director, you have a problem, because there are so many rules and regulations. You add autism to that and you have all kinds of accommodations. For example, if we make a change, which happens on film—weather, someone getting sick—it’s hard for transitional purposes. You have to pull that child aside and explain exactly what’s going to happen. Having two parents as loving as David and Laura alternating on set was a huge thing.

Then we had Alex Plank, who was our consultant and who is an autistic actor himself. Alex did a training with the entire crew. What is autism? What will look different? What’s ok? What’s a sign that something’s not ok? William was very particular about smell and tactile things. For instance, with the horse, William was terrified the horse would spit on him. We had a hard time getting him anywhere near that horse. We had to plan ahead and make sure there was a safe place for him to go and unwind. William was so sensitive as a person that anything in the film that had conflict associated with it, would really send him into needing a time to regroup. Meanness, anger, or anything like that. The scene in the woods was like Mount Olympus; I didn’t know how we were ever going to climb that mountain. It was Tony Goldwyn and Bobby Cannavale, who was such a father figure to this boy. You can make up stories about great chemistry, but they had great chemistry. Tony and Bobby talked very openly with William about how to prepare for that scene and that they would be doing it together. It was a lot of beautiful preparation, which is exactly what autistic children need. They don’t like surprises and transitions that are not known to them. Surprise is not their friend. We did a lot to prepare for William to be on set. Then there was William, who was miraculously brilliant, intelligent, sweet, and sensitive. Saying we got lucky is an understatement. We found an extraordinary actor and an extraordinary human being.     

Across the board there’s a terrific ensemble cast, including Robert De Niro playing Ezra’s grandfather. 

What makes Robert De Niro the greatest actor of our generation is that he isn’t thinking about what you think of him. He’s in the moment, and William has that same thing. He’s not guessing at what you’ll think of him. The truth, the power, and the beauty of that is that there’s no ulterior motive. What I used to say about my Dimitri is that he can’t lie. Somebody would say at school, “He wasn’t telling the truth.” I would be like, “No, we’re going to rule that out, because he doesn’t even know what that is. He is going to tell you exactly what he can tell you.” It’s guileless; there’s no malice or bad intent. What do they say about great actors? They just are. They are just being in the scene with the other actor.

I had Dimitri be a part of a film program where he got to act. People could not believe what it was like to be in a scene with somebody who had such purity of purpose. Think about it: everybody is always worried about autistic people. What are they going to do? I had this experience of watching this child, who had gotten thrown out of five schools for inappropriate behavior. When he was on a set in a scene, he was just there. It was extraordinary, which is why I was so committed to find a neurodivergent actor, because I knew one and he was the person I’d written about. Dimitri saw the movie and he loved it. There was this wistful moment and I said, “What? What honey?” and he said, “I don’t know. I know I’m too old, but I would have loved to have played Ezra.” That was the greatest compliment. He just said, “But William was so great, Dad.” He loves William in the film and I think that’s such a great gift to get at the end. 

This is the type of meaningful film that seems increasingly difficult to make and bring to theaters. What are your thoughts on that and how much does it mean to you to bring this story to audiences and families?  

We could do this for about a week. It’s a big one. Why do I say that? I guess because the movies that I fell in love with—that made me want to be an actor, at first, or a storyteller [in any way I could]—were about people. The Graduate, Five Easy Pieces. Stories that were not easy, that were messy and about messy people. They were not afraid to offend. They just put their hearts and souls on the screen. Those were the movies that I cared most about. I pray that more movies like that start coming back. Maybe they just lose another $200 million dollar investment on another big tentpole movie. I love action films, so I’m not going to shit on any of those films. My friends would always say, “Why can’t you write one of those?” I would if I could. I love those films, but when we only give ourselves one nutritional aspect as a choice, we’re diminishing our imaginations and we’re also shortchanging ourselves in terms of what going to the movies and seeing a drama on the screen can actually do to us. What does To Kill a Mockingbird do? The same with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? There were so many movies that I watched that were so important to me.

I always feared that this movie would never get made, and guess what? It took 12 years to get it made. Were it not for Tony, Bobby Cannavale, and Robert De Niro saying, “Let’s do this”—then Rose Byrne coming in, and Whoopi Goldberg, and Vera Farmiga. It would never have gotten made. Those actors need to step into these wonderful small films. I loved the speech that Cord Jefferson, the writer of American Fiction, gave [at the 2024 Oscars]. Take that $200M film and let’s make 20 films like American Fiction or The Holdovers. Let’s do that. Let’s make Ezra times ten. You have a better chance of making money, and maybe you don’t make as much money, but in the end you don’t lose so much money either. The way I look at this is, William Horberg and Jon Kilik came on board and turned our dream into a reality. Even though we had Bobby and Bob De Niro, we still needed real producers to step in and take our game up to make it a reality. Just look at the films that Jon and Bill have made, everyone knew that we were the underdog on steroids.

We didn’t know we were going to make it to the movies, and then along comes somebody like Andrew Karpen at Bleecker Street. And Bleecker Street, here they are, putting their necks and careers on the line for little films and getting those little films into theaters. We’re holding on by a thread sometimes I feel, and yet, we’re always one Coda or one The Holdovers away from making a spate of beautiful films that will have a message. I’m so happy that I didn’t work for a long time during the Marvel Universe explosion, because they were not going to call me for that type of film, but I felt like I kept doing what I love long enough that Tony saw the last version of Ezra and said “This is it. Let’s go try to do this.” It’s hard. It’s not easy. “Time is money” is a real thing. For people to give their time to something small, is not the right way to look at it. Jon Kilik, Bill Horberg, Tony Goldwyn, Andrew at Bleecker Street, Zhang Xin at Closer Media, and everybody at Wayfarer Studios—they all said, “No, we want to be in this business. We want to do movies that have a message.” Hopefully with a little success, we’ll get more of those companies giving small films a chance, that’s what I pray. 

You are also in the process of transforming your local hometown theater in Greenport into the North Fork Arts Center. How did you rally the community to save and transform that communal space? 

I saw my first movie in the Greenport Theatre in 1965, sitting up in the balcony with my dad. I’ve lived out here for years and years. The theater was owned by a media person, Josh Sapan. He and I became friends and he was going to sell in January of 2023. We just started a big fundraising drive and the community came out like It’s a Wonderful Life. We raised a lot of money and the theater was donated to the new non-profit North Fork Arts Center. We had a ribbon cutting with the mayor of Greenport Village and all the politicians who helped us. Believe me when I tell you, everyone had to chip in and everyone did their part. So this theater is now the community’s.

The Brooklyn Ballet has come out and done a three-week residency and taught dance to our public school students. We’ll have first-run films, and we put surround sound in and made the theater spectacular. We did a great job renovating an old theater and making it, not just a new movie theater, but also an art center. That was the key. Ezra opens here on May 31st. Bobby Cannavale, Rose Byrne, and Tony Goldwyn are making the trip out to support this little theater in a fishing village. It was Andrew’s idea at Bleecker Street. He said, “Are you saving a theater? Did I read that right?” I said, “Yeah kind of, it’s a dumb idea, I know.” He goes, “No, no, no, no. I have some ideas for you about movies.” I said, “Oh ok, thank you, just email me.” Tony Goldwyn said, “No, he’s talking about Ezra.” That’s how we got to do Ezra on the 31st. I told him we’re going to be in the top ten best percentage of ticket sales for Ezra in the country. That was a complete mitzvah. Now, think about it, it took me at least ten years to get the movie theater, it took me twelve years to make Ezra, and they’re happening at the same time!

Courtesy of Bleecker Street