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Filmmaking, Boston style

Developer and movie producer Steve Samuels isn't looking for attention - just for good art

The first time Steve Samuels produced a movie, "everything that could go wrong did go wrong," he says. During the filming of "Half Light" in 2005, several of his foreign partners were indicted, bad weather on location in Wales destroyed sets, and the movie's coproducer took off early, leaving a first-time director and writer to deal with star Demi Moore.

By the time he was done, Samuels, a real estate developer, had doubled his original $500,000 investment on the production, which ended up going straight to DVD. Yet he was ready for more.

"Rick Hess, a friend who is an agent, called me up and said, 'I guess that's the end of that,' " remembers Samuels, 48, speaking from the office of his firm on Newbury Street. "I said, 'No, now I know everything that can go wrong. Let's do another.' "

Samuels can joke about this now. His fourth and latest movie, "Michael Clayton," opens today, with high expectations. George Clooney stars as the title character, a "fixer" in a New York law firm who must choose between what he knows, and what he's paid to do, when thrust into a $3 billion lawsuit.

Samuels's third film, "In The Valley of Elah," is still in theaters, having scored strong reviews from, among others, The New Yorker and Roger Ebert. (Samuels also was executive producer of 2006's "Running With Scissors.")

Though the script for "Michael Clayton" had been shopped around for years, it wasn't until Samuels stepped in last year and agreed to fund it that the movie got the green light. The key initial meeting came on Newbury Street, when screenwriter Tony Gilroy (the Bourne films, "Dolores Claiborne") visited with Samuels. They were hooked up by Hess, a representative at Creative Artists Agency and one of the developer's old friends.

"I went up to see Steve about eight days after I joined CAA, and I walked out with a movie," Gilroy said in a phone interview this week.

Talking about the producer, Gilroy says that unlike so many other people in the movie world, Samuels doesn't like to draw attention to himself, or to name-drop.

"Some people make movies because they're bored with their lives or want to go out and meet movie stars," Gilroy said. "Steve is none of those things. He's doing this, it seems to me, for all the right reasons. He certainly hasn't been showboating."

The boss's office at Samuels & Associates barely reveals his Hollywood connections. No wall of stars, no shelves of memorabilia. Tucked in the corner, he's stacked a few movie posters. There's a director's chair from "Michael Clayton," a gift from some of his co-workers on the film.

Samuels says he's not looking for attention. In an interview in his office, the tanned developer, fresh off his annual hiking weekend at Maine's Mount Katahdin, said that he approaches his film as he does his work in real estate.

"It's about just doing your job and doing your work," said Samuels. "It's not supposed to be about me. It's about the work we do. That's reward enough."

So low-profile is Samuels that Nicholas Paleologos, executive director of the Massachusetts Film Office, didn't even know of him until recently, after receiving a call from a mutual friend in California. The two met this year, with Paleologos pitching Samuels on the tax credits that he believes make Massachusetts a more attractive place to film. ("Michael Clayton" was shot in New York City.)

"Here's a guy whose business is on Newbury Street, and I'm over on St. James Street, and what does it take to bring us together?" said Paleologos. "A lot of it has to do with the fact that Steve's a low-key guy who would rather have the work speak for him than have him speak for him."

That's how Samuels says he has always operated. Born in Cleveland, he came to Boston in the early '80s, and started the real estate company that would build such projects as the South Bay Center and, more recently, the 17-story Trilogy building in the Fenway.

Real estate runs in the family. His father, Robert, started a firm before moving into the supermarket management business. His wife, Ami Cipolla, comes from a family of developers. The couple, who met at a shopping center convention in Las Vegas, live in Brookline with their 3-year-old daughter and are expecting twins.

"It's nice to start in a new industry where you don't have three generations of history behind you, and to see if you can have success and learn how to perform adequately in another world," Samuels said. "To walk into a room with nobody knowing anything about who I am and what I do and for me, to just listen."

There have been mistakes. "Half Light," for example, remains a film he's proud of artistically but considers a business failure. He blames himself for falsely assuming that there are different rules in how one does business in movies and in development.

"I got lulled into believing that things move at a different speed, and when somebody shakes your hand and makes a deal with you, you're done," he said. "From my many, many years of experience in the real estate business, it's never a deal until something is signed. This time, I dotted my i's and crossed my t's just like I would do in the real estate business."

Samuels won't say how much money he's thrown into "Michael Clayton," which has a budget estimated at $25 million, but he's clearly making a long-term investment in the movies. Samuels Media, based in Santa Monica, Calif., employs six people. The staff at his real estate company also pitches in, with chief financial officer Roger Daprato helping on financing and assistant Karen Marsh organizing movie meetings.

It's only natural to draw on his real estate firm, Samuels says, as the film and development worlds have so much in common.

"If you look at a real estate deal, you might tie up a cornfield in the corner of I-90 and 128 and have a great piece of land, but it's not a great piece of land until you have tenants and permits and a vision for it," Samuels said. "A good script is like a piece of land. It doesn't have a value until you attach talent behind the camera, in front of the camera, and you have a business plan and execute it."

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.

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