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Behind the scenes of ‘Cabrini’ film, as it wraps shooting in Buffalo

Untitled Cabrini Film set photos
Tom Dinki
Cristiana Dell’Anna (right), who plays Francesca Cabrini, takes a break in between filming scenes for "The Untitled Cabrini Film" Sept. 2, 2021 outside the Buffalo Water Filtration Plant.

On an early September evening, the Buffalo Water Filtration Plant on Porter Avenue off Lake Erie was transformed into a late-19th century New York City seaport.

There were dozens of immigrant families carrying their possessions out of a U.S. Custom House, police officers patrolling the area, a horse-drawn carriage and even a live horse.

“You have Lake Erie and we have a visual effects department. So we can even put the Statue of Liberty out there,” said Jonathan Sanger, co-producer of “The Untitled Cabrini Film.”

The film production has reimagined several Buffalo landmarks as New York City locations from over a century ago before wrapping on Wednesday. The crew of roughly 300 people, after 45 days of shooting in Buffalo, will now move on to a five-day shoot in Italy to complete production.

Cabrini co-producer Jonathan Sanger
Tom Dinki
Co-producer Jonathan Sanger on the set of "The Untitled Cabrini Film" Sept. 2, 2021.

The film will chronicle the life and work of Francesca Cabrini, an Italian immigrant nun who founded one of the largest charitable organizations in the world, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She was also the first U.S. citizen to be canonized by the Catholic Church.

Sanger, who was also the producer on another period biopic shot in Buffalo, the 2017 Chadwick Boseman film “Marshall,” said that experience convinced him that Buffalo was the perfect place for “The Untitled Cabrini Film.”

“Buffalo was very high on my list of places to at least look at,” he said. “I mean, I had to convince the director [Alejandro Monteverde], but once we brought him up here in November and he saw what Buffalo had to offer, he was thrilled with it. And he really decided that this would be a great place to do the movie.”

The crew has used Delaware Park as a double for Central Park, and City Hall’s council chambers as a double for the Roman Senate Chambers.

But perhaps the most crucial set was simply a complex of brick warehouses in South Buffalo, which for three weeks doubled as New York City’s famed Five Points neighborhood that no longer exists.

“We knew we were going to have to find a way to cheat it or create it in some odd way,” Sanger said. “And one of the things we found in Buffalo were a lot of derelict warehouses, old warehouses, brick warehouses, that looked very much like the buildings would look in New York, like tenements.”

Cabrini film set photos
Tom Dinki
Extras on "The Untitled Cabrini Film" finish a scene outside the Buffalo Water Filtration Plant Sept. 2, 2021.

It’s not just Buffalo structures that are getting a chance to show off. The shoot has also given several hundreds of Western New Yorkers a chance to appear as extras.

“He's like, ‘Oh, by the way, I'm an orphan and I have a little brother,” said Gabriella Collana of the Town of Tonawanda, whose son, Gianluca, a freshman at St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute, is an extra in the film. He was one of the many immigrants walking out of the would-be U.S. Custom House at the filtration plant earlier this month.

Collana said they applied online after seeing the production was looking for people of Italian heritage.

“How many times can you say that you've been in a movie in your hometown?” she said. “So I thought, ‘Why not? Let's give it a shot.’”

She added the shoot has been big for Western New York’s Italian community.

“I'm first generation Italian-American and my parents came straight from Sicily,” she said. “Obviously not at this time era, but it's an exciting thing to see when you come to a new country and you don't know what to experience. They made a whole life for themselves and their five daughters. So it’s nice.”

 Gianluca Collana on "Untitled Cabrini Film"
Tom Dinki
Gianluca Collana, a freshman at St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute, plays an extra immigrant on the set of "The Untitled Cabrini Film" Sept. 2, 2021.

The star of the film is Cristiana Dell’Anna, who starred in the HBO show “Gomorrah.” On this particular day outside the filtration station, she was filming what she says is a crucial moment for Cabrini in the film.

“She’s stepped on a few toes to do what she intended to do: open a hospital and raise the money for it, asking, in the opinion of the archbishop, the wrong people,” Dell'Anna said. “So right there and then ... she needs to see for herself and understand what she will do next, what the next move on the chessboard will be.”

Dell'Anna said she’s never played a character quite like Cabrini.

“You don't hear of a nun, a woman like that, able to, with her beliefs, build such a great empire, as she calls it,” she said. “She calls it an empire of hope and love.”

Sanger said it’s great just to be back on a set after the COVID-19 pandemic essentially shut down the film industry last year. The production has a dedicated sanitation department, something Sanger doesn’t think will ever leave the film industry. Many of the crew wear masks, while extras place their masks back on in between scenes.

“But the movies have come back with a bang,” Sanger added. “It’s hard to find crews right now, because everybody is working, mainly because most of the big companies are looking to create new content, and they need new content because everyone during the pandemic sat home and watched all the streamers and they're just about watched out now.”

Cabrini film director Alejandro Monteverde
Tom Dinki
Alejandro Monteverde directs a scene for "The Untitled Cabrini Film" outside the Buffalo Water Filtration Plant Sept. 2, 2021.

Sanger said they’ve already spoken with multiple companies interested in distributing “The Untitled Cabrini Film.” Like many non-comic book franchise movies these days, he said, it will likely mostly be seen via streaming, but the hope is to get a theatrical release.

“It's being shot in a way that's really made for a big screen,” he said.

The hope is also that the film will be marketed as the “contemporary” story that it is.

“It's about a woman at a time when women didn't do anything like what this woman did,” he said. “And immigration is as big an issue today as it ever was.”

The producer said he wants to shoot other projects in Buffalo. There were only about two dozen union crew members based in the city for the “Marshall” shoot. Now there’s about 250 and that number is growing. Plus, there’s plans for two film studios to be built in the city.

“A lot of the people that we've hired on this film would love to work here more so they came up here and they said, ‘The quality of life is really great. Maybe if there was enough work up here we'd consider moving around here.’”

Tom Dinki joined WBFO in August 2019 to cover issues affecting older adults.
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