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Filmmakers bringing dream to Tarpon

If your dream is to paint, you can buy canvas, brushes and tubes of oils and have at it. If it is to sing, it is easy enough to record a demo tape.

If it is to make a classic family movie that touches the heart, that's a little more complicated.

That is the dream that local attorney Steve Stavrakis and his friend Gino Cabanas say they plan to realize this month.

The men roomed together in Miami in the mid-1980s. Stavrakis had received a degree in theater at the University of South Florida, and Cabanas was planning to go to law school.

Stavrakis, a Tarpon Springs native, ended up giving up his brief acting career to go to Stetson University and earn a law degree, and now he is a partner in Dris, Kouskoutis & Stavrakis, a firm with an office at 29 N Pinellas Ave. in Tarpon Springs.

Cabanas gave up the idea of law and stayed in Miami at Acme Theater Company. Even after Cabanas moved to Los Angeles, the two stayed in touch.

Now they are planning to film the movie Stavro, which they co-wrote, on a shoestring budget. The fictional story will use the city's Epiphany celebration as a backdrop for part of the action, with tens of thousands of spectators as unwitting extras.

"I just wanted to put it on the screen," Stavrakis said, recalling how he decided to use Epiphany as the kernel for a movie script. "It's just the right time to do it."

Epiphany, celebrated Jan. 6, is the second holiest day after Easter to Orthodox Christians, and Tarpon Springs hosts the largest celebration in the Western Hemisphere. It draws tens of thousands of spectators annually.

"As beautiful as the script is, we're going to get so much life and so much energy out of that one day," Cabanas said of the spectacle in which more than 60 Greek Orthodox boys will dive into Spring Bayou to retrieve a white cross thrown in by the church's archbishop.

Stavro loosely uses Stavrakis as a model for its main character. Ray, an outwardly successful Tarpon Springs attorney, realizes that he has taken a spiritual wrong turn in his life. He receives guidance from the spirit of his dead friend, Paul.

By the end of the film, Ray realizes that his life was on the right track when he was the successful Epiphany cross diver, but that he went astray afterward. He decides family and spirituality are more important than the materialistic pursuit of his career.

"It's a rated-G film, a very positive type film," Cabanas says. "There's no violence; there's no cussing in it."

The mass of spectators in the scenes filmed at Epiphany will give the film a grander feel than most low-budget films, Cabanas hopes.

"Independently, you can make these films for between $300,000 and $500,000," Cabanas said. He said independent investors are financing the project. He hopes to sell it to a major film distribution company after he shows it at independent film festivals.

"We defer our pay so we can get it done," he said.

Jennifer Parramore, Pinellas County's film commissioner, helps such projects scout local locations. She said she has met with Cabanas and his producer, Brett Kerr, who strike her as "earnest."

Five or six low-budget films are shot in the county each year, including recent titles When the Horizon Bleeds and Sucks Its Thumb and Whispering Thunder. Haven't heard of them? Well, that's the way these things usually go.

But the makers of the small films tend to dream big, thinking of their movies in at least art house cinemas nationally or internationally, and Cabanas and Stavrakis are no exceptions.

Realistically, "What is the chance of this film hitting the big time? I don't think it's super great," Parramore said. "Which is not to say they can't do it; they've just got to get great production value on film."

It is films such as The Full Monty and Sex, Lies and Videotape, mainstream successes produced on minuscule budgets, that inspire independent filmmakers, she said.

Cabanas mentions Rocky, a film made for less than $1-million, as his inspiration.

"Our movie has got every bit as much heart as Rocky," he said.

Cabanas believes passionately in the script, his directing ability and the team of producers, cinematographers and camera operators he has assembled.

"It's all fated," he said. "Jan. 6 will be the brightest day of the century. It's going to be magnificent. It's manifestation _ we're celebrating Christ. You wouldn't be able to get this far with the wrong intentions."

Cabanas and Stavrakis said say they had discussed making a film for years. About six months ago, they started roughing out a script. The two faxed passages back and forth across the country to each other.

Cabanas, who has spent the bulk of his career working with stage productions, says Stavro is his second movie project. The title is Greek for cross.

Cabanas established Speak Films 2{ years ago so he could make the move to directing films. He said his first film, The Puzzle in the Air, is in post-production, and after he finishes shooting Stavro, he will tour with Puzzle at independent film festivals, where he hopes a distributor will buy the rights.

He plans to shoot Stavro in four six-day weeks, beginning Tuesday. All of the filming will be in Tarpon Springs, Cabanas said. Scenes will be filmed at Sisler Field, St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral and a local coffeehouse, among other sites.

Cabanas and Kerr say they have assembled a cinematographer and crew they are confident in, and they say 60 people will be brought to Tarpon Springs for the weeks of shooting. Stavrakis will play the lead. Other actors are being cast in New York and Los Angeles, Cabanas said.

Acme actors and some people cast locally will play the other 46 speaking roles in the film, he said.

Kerr and Cabanas have approached local businesses, asking for discounts or free products and services in return for being featured in the film.

Kerr said students at area schools are selling T-shirts, with half the proceeds going to the Peter Assimack Scholarship Fund and half going to buy equipment for the movie. The student who sells the most at each school gets a speaking part in the film.

Parramore said such tactics are sometimes used successfully on low-budget projects. People become fascinated with the idea of making a movie and want to help out, even if the prospect of commercial success is slight.

"It's not the usual way to make a film, not one where the producers really want to go to a wide theatrical release," she said. But she added, "I've got to say, I applaud this, when people are this earnest about doing their thing."

The most important day of filming will be Epiphany, when there will be four cameras chewing through expensive 35mm film, but the rest of the time, the crew will be smaller, Cabanas and Kerr said.

A great asset to the project, Cabanas said, is the rich choice of locations around Tarpon Springs to provide beautiful, authentic backdrops at no cost.

The cast will rehearse extensively inside the auditorium at City Hall to keep costs down during filming, doing scenes in just one or two takes.

And that, Cabanas, Kerr and Stavrakis insist, is how they will make a great film, a classic film, for a small amount of money.

"We're not putting it together the way Hollywood would tell you," Cabanas said. "We're doing this from the heart."

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