By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
As a filmmaker, St. Petersburg's Curtis Graham answers to a higher calling. Not the religious kind, although his works are sometimes steeped in spirituality.
Graham worships at the altar of solid storytelling, whether it's pious like his latest directing effort The Investigator, or poking fun at fundamentalism in 2008's Misconceptions, for which he served as cinematographer.
"I don't put my faith in either (viewpoint), as long as it's good entertainment," Graham, 60, said in a telephone interview. "You can look at a situation in a comical way, or you can look at that situation in a more serious vein.
"(The Investigator) is based on a true story, so it's hard to do a comic thing with somebody's true story, that has great meaning to them. . . . We had to tame it down, actually, to keep it from getting too heavy."
The Investigator is written by Richard Romano, a former New York policeman who retired to become a criminal justice teacher and baseball coach at a Catholic high school. (He's also actor Ray Romano's brother.) At the time, Romano's religious faith was shaken, then later steadied through a classroom exercise — a mock trial of Jesus that Graham incorporates into the movie.
Filmed around Tampa Bay in 2012, The Investigator preaches to an expansive choir of moviegoers seeking faith-based entertainment. The same type of audience has made minor hits of modestly budgeted cine-sermons like Fireproof, Courageous and The Grace Card. Not the usual Hollywood fare, which is exactly the point.
"There's definitely a difference, but from a filmmaking standpoint it's still the same," Graham said. "The only thing is that sometimes the faith-based (projects) tend to be a little easier because everybody has an agenda. They're a lot more forgiving, and don't demand as much, which I think they should sometimes.''
Working near home also made The Investigator smoother for Graham, although the movie is set in New York, with establishing shots of Manhattan's skyline.
"It works pretty well," Graham said. "There's maybe a palm tree here or there that I wish we didn't have, that are hard to avoid sometimes. But, you get rid of the palm trees this could be Long Island, which is where the real story took place."
The Investigator's recognizable Tampa Bay locales include baseball fields at Tampa Catholic High School, Fossil Park and Brandon and St. Petersburg's Woodlawn district. Scenes set inside an NYPD precinct were filmed in St. Petersburg College's mockup for criminal justice students. The Investigator is competently produced, despite a budget estimated at about $600,000.
"I never thought, oh, this is just a faith-based film," Graham said. "I just tried to make the best movie I could make . . . trying to make it as entertaining as possible without beating somebody over the head with a message."
The Investigator opens Friday at BayWalk 20 in St. Petersburg and Centro Ybor 20 in Tampa. B-
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.