Chance meeting leads to Hollywood leap with Buffalo-based film
Fateful meeting 7 years ago leads to edgy film, brings 2 people closer to silver-screen dreams
By Henry L. Davis
Updated: 08/13/08 9:29 AM
Dr. Cynthia Ambres was a senior health care executive in Buffalo. Jonathan Butler ran a plumbing business that specialized in repairing backflowprevention devices.
They met on a flight home from New York City in 2001, when another passenger suffered a seizure.
Like a scene from a movie, that meeting turned into a relationship in which the couple discovered they shared a common dream — to try to make it in Hollywood. All the career move required was taking the biggest risk of their lives.
Fast-forward to seven years later. Their first effort, a locally shot film called “The Cuckold,” is being privately screened today in Buffalo after recently completing post-production.
The ultra-low-budget drama confronts controversial racial and sexual issues as the lives of its black and white characters collide. Butler wrote and directed the screenplay; Ambres produced.
Now, their aim is to get the film accepted into one or more festivals, eventually premiere it in Buffalo and, hopefully, have it distributed on DVD.
“Our main intention is to try to stick our necks above the crowd, to get a foot in the door for our next project,” Ambres said.
The Queens native, who trained in emergency medicine, came to Buffalo in 1998 as chief medical officer for BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York, became executive vice president and chief medical officer of Kaleida Health in 2002 and took over as president of Lifetime Health Medical Group in 2005, staying until 2007.
She found herself willing in midlife to walk away from a successful, high-paying career — at least for now — to satisfy a nagging desire for change. Her partner, Butler, describes their endeavor as a “jumping out of the helicopter production.”
“I’ve always had interests in film, books and poetry,” Ambres said. “You wonder about what you’ve done and sometimes feel regret, but I also am a person who likes a challenge.”
Butler, the son of an Evangelical minister, had been writing on the side for years, constantly conducting an internal debate over whether to stay in the comfortable business he had built or make the serious attempt he had always dreamed of to support himself as a writer or director.
Ambres, 50, encouraged him to write a science-fiction screenplay based on a graphic novel he wrote, “The Clan Destined.” He did, closing his company to work part time and study screenwriting.
Butler, 34, received praise for the script, but the story’s scope was too large to entertain serious thoughts of a film.
“It’s so hard to break into the business,” Butler said. “Every guy with a ponytail in a coffee shop in L. A. has a screenplay.”
The advice he got: Start smaller.
So, in 2006, they shot a short film, pulling together a small Buffalo-based crew. Ambres worked on every aspect of preproduction, from casting to finding locations. The short led them to expand the script into the current film, which was shot in 17 days in the summer of 2007 in Buffalo. They then relocated to Los Angeles to complete postproduction.
Ambres and Butler sought help wherever they could get it for the $150,000 venture, which they financed themselves, searching out University at Buffalo filmmakers for professional advice and rounding up young people and university students to help fill out the crew.
“It was going to film school by making a film,” Ambres said. “Instead of taking vacations, we made a movie.”
The couple describe the film as a brutally honest look at racial and sexual relationships, including the swingers lifestyle, among urban and suburban blacks and whites, in which people say things they would normally hold back in real life.
“We were raw with the racial issues and played down the sexual themes,” Ambres said. “It’s not a feel-good movie.”
The movie is one of many film projects, small and large, shot in Buffalo every year.
Tim Clark, commissioner of the Buffalo Niagara Film Commission, said the city attracts at least one production a month because of the area’s architecture, scenery and, as of this year, a new state tax incentive.
“We’ve gotten films, TV shows, student films. A lot of productions fly under the radar,” he said. “Like ‘Buffalo Bushido’ last year, I call Cynthia’s film a passion project.”