When it comes to New York City filmmakers, you have your Woody Allens and your Spike Lees and Martin Scorseses, but in recent years, a new breed of filmmakers has emerged trying to tell some of the other 8 million stories set in the city.
Granted, filmmaker Raymond De Felitta is not exactly a young new face, having made his first short back in 1990, but with his last movie City Island and his most recent one, Rob the Mob, he has painted two very specific portraits of New York City and its people that makes him a filmmaker that really understands how to translate that onto the big screen.
Rob the Mob stars Michael Pitt and Nina Arianda as young married couple Tommy and Marie Uva, who after being released from prison on two-bit crimes get the idea to use the crime family’s problems during the John Gotti trial to rob their local hang-outs. They get away with a number of these robberies until they get their hands on an important list that finally gets the attention of the local mob boss, played by Andy Garcia.
ComingSoon.net spoke with De Felitta over the phone a few weeks back about making a movie set in a very specific period of New York City history and adapting a true story into what ends up being a very funny and entertaining film.
ComingSoon.net: I’m pretty familiar with your previous films. I first heard about this movie and heard Andy was playing a gangster in it, and all I could think about was that audition he did in “City Island,” though this was a very different type of role for him. What made you want to make a movie about this particular story, especially after “City Island,” which I think was a more personal story than I’d imagined? Raymond De Felitta: It’s funny because this came to me. First of all, it’s someone else’s script, Jonathan Fernandez’s script, and I usually write my own scripts, but when it was sent to me, I’d just made “City Island.” I was sort of looking to get attached to something that I hadn’t written just because writing gets increasingly hard for me and slow the more I do it, somehow. I thought it would be good to find something. There was really nothing out there. I would just get sent these sort of sexy rom-com things, and I was like, “Is that really how far people can see me?” I love true crime and Bill Teitler sent me the script. I really liked it, because it converged on a few different things that I like. It’s a New York story, it is is true crime, which I thought would be an exciting genre to work in. I really felt more at home with the fact that it was about two people and a love story and an offbeat and bizarre one, one that wasn’t clearly normal, rational or understandable, even. It kind of intersected all these different things, and it was an opportunity to work and to develop it further. It wasn’t specifically the script that you saw on screen that I originally read, but Jonathan was very open to working with me on it. I also sort of felt in a way, I would’ve never have said that I was going to sign up to go make a mob movie because you’re not going to win. The best ones have been done. The ones that aren’t the best, the ones that aren’t “Goodfellas” or “Casino” or “The Godfather” are probably some of the worst movies ever made, so it’s kind of a losing game. But I didn’t really see this as a mob movie, because when I read it I thought, “Well, this is so weird. The mob are the victims.” They’re not the mob as you’ve seen them portrayed. They’re like this kind of weird, exhausted, barely functional thing sitting in their little clubs. I thought that there was something sort of sad and even kind of humane about that.
Really the approach to the whole movie from the beginning was let’s take material that you potentially could say you’ve seen before, and let’s always turn it on its head. Let’s never be satisfied with doing something that you’ve seen in that genre before. With Andy, I got the idea of asking Andy to be the boss, and he and I sat and started talking about, “Well, who’s a boss we’ve never met?” What we eventually came to was the idea of a character who we didn’t know him as the boss. In fact, you only really know him in one scene as the boss, when he goes to the club finally – you know him as like a grandfather. You know him as this sad, aging man, kind of an Italian-American foodie in his kitchen with his grandson. I loved that idea because again, we don’t even see him as a threatening presence until that one moment when he finally blows with Rispoli and tells him to go get the list. So again, all those things were ways that I guess of saying that I thought this would be great to do only if there was a way it could always be twisted or turned in an interesting and different way.
CS: You do have romance in this with the relationship between Tommy and Rosie, which plays a big part in the movie, and there’s also a lot of humor, so there’s more than just a crime story here. In a way “Goodfellas” was also a funny movie even though it’s considered a serious crime movie. De Felitta: It is, because it’s not played sort of funny. I mean, it’s just the truth. It’s who they are. That’s what I always think. Those are my favorite comedies, are the ones that aren’t comedies. That was always the thing with this. I always thought, this will be funny if you’ve seen the tragicomedy of it, like the guys who are going to hold up the club. You’re actually going to root for Tommy, because you can’t believe he’s going to do it, but it can’t be done as a joke. It’s got to be done as a straight scene. Then, what Michael did, which gave it its truth, which is I think what makes it funny, is he went like, “Well, who would this guy be? He’d be a guy who has the brains to think up this bizarre idea and to get an Uzi, and he doesn’t know how to work an Uzi.” So when he did that. He said “What if I do this, like I can’t stop firing it?” it killed me. I was like, “That’ll be funny because of course he wouldn’t know how to do it.” It’s like he doesn’t have the patience to do anything, certainly not learn to use an Uzi. So yeah, but as you can tell this is a funny movie, because they’re playing it for real.
CS: It’s interesting to see Michael doing that sort of comedy or any kind of humor, because I think we’ve mainly seen him in darker stuff. De Felitta: I think what happens so quickly is that if somebody’s great at something, people just want them to be great at that. Early on, Michael was just a great, brooding young brooder. It was in the fashion ads, it’s in the Gus Van Sant movie, but he’s got a lot of colors. He was the first person that we ever sent the script to for Tommy, and he got it right away. He always thought that there was some humanity and a goofy charm about Tommy that he got that he wanted to tap into. He also said an interesting thing before we got to Nina, which is partly why we decided to go to someone like Nina. He would say to me, “The girl is as important if not more important than me, because if you don’t buy the two of them, the movie is not going to have any real core.” I think that is really right. You gotta believe their story and the two of them for the movie to have size, so we were always looking for an actress of real chops who was going to bring something really big to it.
CS: I’m pretty sure I’ve seen Nina in many things over the years, but I think a lot of people when they walk out of the movie are talking about her. De Felitta: Yeah, I’m glad. I do hear that from lots of people and I’m really happy about it, too, because she brought so much and she’s so unusually funny and energized and dark. She’s really a powerful actor. There’s so much research and so much craft that goes into it. Yeah, I think she’s just a major, major actress.
CS: Not sure if I mentioned this earlier but when Andy first appeared on screen with the gray beard, I didn’t know it was him, because it’s such a different look for him. De Felitta: You know who he kind of partly used as a model for that whole look? Francis Coppola. He was saying, “Francis used to be the baggy, long hair, Northern Cal overweight film geek. Now, it’s all about tailored vintage suits and classical hats and his beard is really carefully kept.” I loved that. He said, “I kinda want to do a little bit of what Francis looks right now.” I thought that was very cool.
CS: Obviously, you’ve lived in New York a long time, and you must’ve been around in ’92 when this happened so were you aware of this story? (SPOILER WARNING: The end of this paragraph and the next question/response may spoil the movie if you don’t know the original story on which it’s based.) De Felitta: Strangely enough, I wasn’t, and that was one of the things that I actually really like about the script when I got it. Sometimes, you hear about a true crime story that’s going to be great. Well, the truth is if everyone already knows the story, it’s harder to tell it. Sometimes, when these stories are less known and they’re more like blips on the crime scene, in a way, they become more poignant. The example I always use is “Dog Day Afternoon,” because that crime that was on TV for five minutes, but the movie will be remembered forever because it took something that, like I say, was a blip, but it really showed the scope of “How do people get involved in crime? What’s the extent that people will go to? What are the reasons for it? Why will Sonny rob a bank in Brooklyn to finance his boyfriend’s sex change?” You know, because that’s what humans do. We want to love each other, support each other, and we get into desperate situations. We think of ways we can somehow turn the earth our direction when we can’t otherwise. So in a way, the fact that you don’t really know much about that makes “Dog Day Afternoon” even more impactful. When I got sent this and I didn’t know the story, I thought, “Wow, it’s kind of major because it really wasn’t that major.” (REPEAT! SPOILER WARNING!) It came and went, but it was a huge story for Tommy, Rosie, and for the mob at that moment in their history and it completely f**ked with them. Yet, at the end of the day, it was two guys who did something stupid and they got shot in the end by the mob.
CS: What kind of research were you able to do considering that the two main characters on who this was based were already dead? De Felitta: You know, this story was pretty well laid out, because by the time they were killed, there had been enough newspaper articles about it and there was enough coverage. There’s a whole other piece of the story that isn’t in the film, which is after they died, there was all this arguing between families as to who got the credit for the hit. That wound up turning into a war within the families. Originally, that was in the script, but the truth is, the movie is done – it’s Tommy and Rosie’s story, not the mob’s. So I never wanted to go there. I just felt like this is done when they’re killed. But the fact is that there was coverage of it out there. For those who are deeply interested in mafia stuff, you can find it. It was there.
CS: I’m sure a lot of the attention was still on the Gotti trial, too. De Felitta: Well, yeah, exactly, which was also part of Tommy’s whole plan, and it’s like, do they need more trouble? They’ve got Gotti on trial. They’re not going to f**k with us.
CS: As someone who has lived in New York for 25 years, I was curious about recreating New York in 1992. Were there any particular challenges as far as doing that? It hasn’t changed that much, but I’m sure things must have come up, like having smartphones everywhere. De Felitta: Well, actually, yeah, there’s more than you think largely because of the phones. It’s like if you shoot on the street, it’ll just be the cars. Now it’s like I can clear some cars, I can’t clear others. But now, people are like looking at that thing and using their fingers on their phone, and before you know it, you don’t even notice it anymore. We don’t think of that as non-period behavior. It’s hard just to find phone booths. There aren’t very many. We didn’t have a lot of money to do this, so we were always looking for streets that didn’t look I mean, we were on Jamaica Avenue in Queens. I mean, that really hasn’t changed since longer than 20 years, but that sai, what we did was carry a whole bunch of trash bags and graffiti paint and we’d dirty anything up that looked too clean, because New York just looked really different then. It was in the texture of it, though. The buildings are the same. They were just ill kept and neighborhoods just didn’t have nearly the amounts of prams and Starbucks and lattes and all that. None of that was there. Subways looked really different because the subways were all old cars and all graffiti. I mean, there’s still a couple of lines that still have old cars, but yeah, they don’t have any graffiti.
CS: So when looking at the script, do you have to find ways to avoid the subway? Because you did shoot in the subway for a couple scenes. De Felitta: Yeah, I actually did want to shoot in the subway. There’s subway stuff that’s in there that’s stock footage, but yeah, it’s hard, you know? It’s like, you want to go and do this stuff. You want the scope. You want to be able to do it and it’s all about time and money and that’s the stuff there’s never enough of when you make a film this size, and this isn’t even nearly as cheap as people are making films now. As independent films go, this is a sizeable budget, but it’s still only five, five-and-a-half weeks of time to shoot, and that’s a lot of script for us to get in five-and-a-half weeks.
CS: Most of the made guys at the bar are character actors we’ve seen before in other movies and television shows, so was it hard avoiding so many familiar faces while casting those roles? De Felitta: Well, I kind of wanted a mix. It wasn’t so much that you can’t avoid it. I wanted faces that didn’t just look like your standard lineup of, you know, “Here are the mob guys or here are the extras who were in The Sopranos.'” But I also wanted actors who would make you think of other New York crime movies, so that for a second with Michael Rispoli and suddenly, yeah, you’re in “The Sopranos” for a minute or here’s Burt Young and I’m in “Once Upon a Time in America” for a minute. Here’s Cathy (Moriarty) and I’m in “Raging Bull.” I just liked that idea as making a kind of iconography of New York film as well as telling a New York story.
CS: By the way, was there an actual list? Was that something that was really part of this story that they found a list of all the members of the family? De Felitta: Yeah, they got something that wound up in the FBI’s hands. The big thing they got, which we couldn’t dramatize, which in a sense the list stood in for was the fact that the mob had on tape argued about who got the hit. That’s what put a bunch of these guys away. One of the things he did was craft the list into standing in for that, because the important thing I felt wasn’t exactly what the information was. It was more did Tommy and Rosie actually do something that went to something much larger than what they thought they were doing, which they did. They had no idea they were going to help the put guys away, and they never found out, either. This is what happens when you adapt nonfiction into fiction. It’s like you want the essence of the story to be there. You don’t want to violate the reality of the main character’s stories. Sometimes, in the story around it, you kind of need to craft and simplify or kind of make shapely something that’s more unwieldy in reality. Look, we’re not making a documentary. We’re not writing a news magazine piece. We’re trying to take reality and a true story and honor its reality while making art out of it that satisfies people who are actually looking at it for two hours of entertainment, not two hours of documentary–not that documentaries aren’t entertaining.
CS: So what’s next for you? As someone who usually writes their own material, do you have other scripts you’ve been developing before making “Rob the Mob”? De Felitta: Yeah, I have a movie that I’ve been trying to make since before “Rob the Mob” actually, which I’m hoping we’re going to do this summer called “Married and Cheating,” which is a comedy that I wrote a few years ago, back when I was married and cheating.
CS: I think I remember you mentioned that when we talked about “Booker’s Place.” De Felitta: Yeah, so there’s that. I’ve been developing a series for TV. I haven’t had one bought yet, but I’ve been working with Warner Brothers Television on a few different things and I’m very eager to get into that, because I feel like what I do Listen, movies aren’t going to go away no matter what people say, but it’s getting longer in between and harder and cheaper and I’m getting older. What I do I feel is maybe better served in branching out into storytelling where I can do 12 hours about Tommy and Rosie and their world, because I would love to do that. I’d love to spend a lot more time with people like that and a story like this so that’s also where my interest is turning in the coming year.
CS: Have you actually directed for television? De Felitta: No, I’ve created three pilots, but I’ve not ever directed for television. I once trailed a director on a show, because I thought that, all right, it was something I could get into. I didn’t last the first week. I slithered away because I just thought, “This isn’t directing as I know it,” because you’re serving the writer, producers, and I think that’s just how it has to work, and you’re not really free to create much. You’re also working with actors who already have what they’re going to do down. It just didn’t really speak to me, but what I did notice from it was that I was like, “If I do this, I’d really like to be the creator or the producer of it,” because that’s really the person who’s the auteur of making television. I know a lot of guys do that for money, but I’ve usually written for money between films, not directed.
Rob the Mob opens in select cities on Friday, March 21.