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NewCityNet Saber Rattling

A spy turns to film

By Carl Kozlowski

SEPTEMBER 21, 1998:  Luciano Saber is not your typical first-time filmmaker. Instead of a struggling kid fresh out of film school, says he's a former U.S. government secret agent living under an assumed name. But despite that, he managed to land his debut film, "Placebo Effect," in the opening weekend of the prestigious New York International Film Festival September 20.

As writer, producer and costar of a potboiler in the "Usual Suspects" and "Reservoir Dogs" vein, the 32-year-old Romanian native drew from his four years of experience tracking international drug traffickers as a member of the Air Force's Joint Drug Enforcement Team (JDET). Working in conjunction with the Pentagon's Office of Special Investigations (OSI), Saber says he spent the late eighties cracking drug dealers along the Mexican border, checking out suspected satanic activity in Colorado nuclear missile silos and working stings in Western Europe.

But Saber always had different ambitions. "When I was a boy, I loved two things: spies and movies," he recalls. "I wanted to live past 25, and I'd been in JDET since I was 18. I had already fulfilled half of my dreams by getting to be an agent, and now I knew that I had to get out so I could live to pursue my other goal to be in films."

"Placebo Effect" is the first step toward that dream. The story of a cab driver (played by Saber) who unwittingly unravels a terrorist plot to murder the U.S. vice president, the film toys with the jumpcutting time frames and multiple perspectives found in "Dogs" and "Suspects." And while some dialogue is clichˇd and a couple of supporting performances miss their marks, the film has a crisp look and enough energy to impress the selection committee at one of America's premier film festivals. "It was written with the audience in mind, and I want to engage the audience in a battle of the wits, and be proactive when they watch this film," he says. "I have another twist every fifteen-to-twenty minutes, which throws your theories out the door and forces you to look at the illogical to figure it out. But now I know it's up to the big guys at the studios to check it out at the festival and decide for themselves."

Saber enlisted first-time feature director Alejandro Seri to handle the month-long shoot last January, hired B-movie veteran Francesco Quinn as the prime villain and cast the rest of the film through a computerized casting service. The resourcefulness required to make the film for the proverbial under-a-million-dollar budget led to the woods of Lake Forest substituting for the Bosnian countryside, with other locations including a bar owned by Saber's mother.

Yet the stresses of producing a first film were nothing compared to Saber's experiences as a JDET agent (which were confirmed by the Pentagon). While much of his time consisted of "un-James Bond-like tasks" like paperwork and stakeouts, he found himself on the receiving end of a gun on several occasions and also had to live with the burden of not knowing whom to trust.

"When you're undercover, you're in a vacuum, a cage," he says. "There are no friends or girlfriends, and no normal social life, so you're like a machine with feelings. Even your partners who are there with you to protect you via surveillance aren't actually busting into a drug den with you. That inability to just trust anyone carries over into civilian life for quite a while." Saber credits his experiences as an undercover agent with developing his acting abilities "because you have to blend in with these people or you die," as well as providing rich, real-life figures upon which to base his screenplays. After receiving his discharge from the Air Force, he served as a Lake Forest police officer before gaining production experience as a Columbia College student and creating a Romanian-language weekly series carried on the local foreign-language station, Channel 23. Even as he awaits word from studio scouts as to who will attend the "Placebo" screening, Saber presses forward with the finishing touches on a romantic mystery, "Black Coffee," which will film locally this fall. And he not only has investors, he says, but an invitation from the Romanian president to film a real-life story of Dracula called "Prince Vlad" in Transylvania next spring.

While it may seem odd for a former secret agent to seek out stardom while in hiding, Saber points out that he had the option of entering a federal witness relocation program, but his cinematic calling was too strong. He changed his name, grew his hair and altered his appearance in other subtle, non-surgical ways.

"There was always a risk people would come back to hurt me even when I was an agent, because some of their [prison] sentences were just a few months or a couple of years long," he says. "I can't let them control my destiny. I've worked too long and hard for this."

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