Last month, actor, writer, and now film director Brett C. Leonard was back in his home state of California for the L.A. premiere of Miami Vice. Leonard's not in the new Michael Mann film, but his girlfriend Elizabeth Rodriguez plays Detective Gina Calabrese and his buddy John Ortiz plays José Yero, the nastiest of the film's several villains. Not so coincidentally, they are all part of the LAByrinth Theatre Company, probably New York's largest extended theatrical family.

But Leonard, whose plays includes Guinea Pig Solo and North of the Mason-Dixon Line, was not yet part of that famed clan when he cast LAB members Stephen Adly Guirgis (best known as the playwright of Our Lady of 121st Street) and David Zayas in the film Jailbait, which opens in New York today. The movie -- which is not a LAB production -- also stars Michael Pitt, who played Tommy Gnosis in the film version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, as a young prisoner named Randy, while stage veteran Laila Robins has a brief cameo as his mother.

"It sounds a lot more incestuous than it really is," says Leonard, smiling over a cup of coffee around the corner from the LAB's current home at The Public Theater. But then he notes that a lot of LAB members helped paint the film's sets, remarking: "You should have seen John Patrick Shanley, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Michael Puzzo up in that fifth floor walk-up!"

Jailbait focuses almost exclusively on the interaction between Randy, a young man who has vandalized an expensive sports car and ends up with a 25-year prison sentence because it's his third offense, and his cellmate, Jake (Guirgis), who murdered his wife in a jealous rage. The piece began life several years ago as a stage play by Leonard. "I first met Stephen at his audition for the play over at the InterArt Annex in Hell's Kitchen," he recalls. "I remember thinking, 'We can't call him back, since he's a writer.' But he brought so much to this part. We started talking and we just hit it off." Says Guirgis, "When we first met, Brett had just seen Jesus Hopped the A Train. He was talking about how much he liked the play -- and I let him go on for a bit before he made the connection that it was mine."

The entire film was shot at the Bronx House of Detention over nine days, but it took nine years to bring the project to release. (The film was shot in 2004, but has had distribution issues.) "Everybody wanted me to 'open the film up,' " says Leonard, "but part of the guts of the story is the claustrophobic world of the prison cell that the two lead characters share. Prison's a great dramatic setting as well as a perfect metaphor," adds the writer-director, who also had a political point to make: "I am outraged about the so-called 'three strike' law, and that's why I have Randy's 'crime' become a felony -- so, wham, he's in the slammer for a quarter of a century!" For Leonard, casting the right actor in the role of Randy was a key decision. "Michael was at the top of a very short list of young actors who were recommended for the role," he says. "We waited a year for him to come back from working on The Dreamers so we could film with exactly the right cast."

Pitt recalls his unconventional audition quite clearly. "You go on a lot of director meetings, and usually they pitch you and you get a free meal," he says. "Well, we started talking, and we were there for four hours. Then he said, 'Ah shit, can you cover this for me?' I thought, 'I like this guy and I want to do this film.' He was really real, and I especially liked that he was a playwright with a background in the theater.

"In the end, there were only two reasons to do Jailbait: Brett and Stephen. It was a kind of a punk rock decision. By the end, it was more like Film Boot Camp; we had three weeks of rehearsal and a nine-day shoot, the last of which Brett, Stephen, and I paid for on our credit cards." Indeed, the cast became so close that Guirgis cast Pitt as Jesus in the LAB's Barn Series reading of his play The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.

Guirgis is now comfortable as film actor, having appeared in such movies as Palindromes. But he had never made a film before Jailbait and admits that the shoot was a trial by fire. "We shot lots and lots of pages every day, and I was in character 24 hours a day," he says. "I know Jake isn't really me; he's bigger and tougher, and there's something so messed up in him that you know he could get really ugly if he had to. But mostly he's quiet, and he reads. Brett shot mostly in sequence, which helped a lot. And having Michael there was a blessing; he's just a young kid, but he's an old soul."

Zayas, who is currently shooting the new Showtime series Dexter with Michael C. Hall, has just a few scenes in the film, playing a no-nonsense prison guard. "Brett's got a great ear for the way real people act and talk," he says. "I saw Jailbait when it was a play, and when the movie came up, I said, 'Hey Brett, you need to write me a cameo.' So he did." Zayas' scenes were all shot in one day, but he didn't want the experience to end. "I hung around for another day," he says, adding with a laugh: "I fully expect to be in a major Brett C. Leonard movie in the next few years."