Around a decade ago, when Jon Carlo moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting, he got a job working as a waiter at a Venice Beach restaurant. Relegated to shifts at unpopular hours, Carlo found a silver lining: he got to serve actor Harvey Keitel, who would frequently come in for breakfast.
The actor, who grew up in Toronto, did not realize at the time that he was waiting on a future scene partner.
Carlo stars alongside Keitel in the new gangster thriller Brooklyn Guns, which is currently playing on digital and video-on-demand platforms in Canada. The film will also have a limited theatrical release in the United States, under the title First We Take Brooklyn.
Brooklyn Guns also marks Carlo’s first onscreen writing credit. After a languishing career with a few high points, such as roles on Parks and Recreation and Transparent, Carlo turned to screenwriting.
“My whole intention to start writing, in the beginning, was I just wanted to write something for me,” Carlo says, over the phone from Los Angeles. “You really have no control as an actor in terms of the material… of when you work and how you work. You’re basically waiting for an audition, for someone to pick you.”
He co-wrote Brooklyn Guns with its director and star, Danny A. Abeckaser, who plays Mikki Levy, an Israeli ex-convict who is released from prison and decides to move to Brooklyn. There, he reconnects with his distant family and ultimately falls back on violent habits when he begins confronting the Russian mob.
Abeckaser was interested in working with Carlo after reading his first script, one about Israeli soldiers dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“He really wanted to make an Israeli gangster film,” Carlo says of the director, adding that he and Abeckaser speak fluent Hebrew and have lived in Israel. “Israelis are portrayed [in film] as either the Zohan or they’re soldiers. [Abeckaser] just wanted to give a different twist on that.”
To prepare for this new project, Carlo dug into historical research. Stories of brusque Israeli gangsters moving to New York in the late 1980s and early 1990s captivated him and inspired the thriller’s milieu.
Abeckaser also proved to be a supportive if unorthodox collaborator, Carlo says.
The writer did not realize that Abeckaser had already greenlit Brooklyn Guns and was preparing the cast and crew before the final draft was finished. “The next thing I know, we’re on set shooting the film that I wrote,” he says.
Abeckaser’s local connections were invaluable for the low-budget production. One of the producers, Century 21 co-owner Isaac Gindi, gave permission to use his lavish Battery Park penthouse as a prominent setting.
The director also knew Keitel and cast the screen veteran in the role of Russian mobster Anatoly.
Carlo portrays one of Anatoly’s henchmen, Vlad, and says that spending formative years in a prominently Russian neighbourhood of North York helped to inform several of the characters in his screenplay.
“Our hope was always to give a foreign film vibe but still stay true to these [crime] genre archetypes that we all grew up with and love,” Carlo says.
Now that he has one produced film under his belt, Carlo says he is refining his previous screenplay about Israeli soldiers.
Carlo says he would love to see Brooklyn Guns get a limited theatrical release north of the border. That could be difficult since the film currently plays on-demand, and Canadian exhibitor Cineplex refuses to screen films available on digital platforms.
“There is such a huge Israeli and Jewish community in Toronto… and I think they would love this film,” he says.