Exclusive: City Island Director Raymond De Felitta

It stars Andy Garcia as Vincent Rizzo, a prison guard who lives on City Island with his constantly squabbling family. Vince is a man with a number of secrets, like his desire to become an actor, but when he learns he has an illegitimate son named Tony (played by Steven Strait), he brings him home to keep an eye on the troubled young man, without telling either Tony or his family about their blood bond. Soon, Tony learns that the entire Rizzo family is quite bonkers, all of them harboring secrets from one another, and that’s where City Island really takes off.

De Felitta had directed a number of small independent comedies over the years like the Paul Reiser-Peter Falk comedy The Thing About My Folks, but City Island really seems to be one of those movies where all the stars aligned, quite literally, to create the perfect mix of humor and pathos. Garcia is funnier than he’s ever been, and Julianna Margulies is perfectly cast as his wife with Emily Mortimer playing “the other woman” (sort of). Similarly, we were really impressed with Steven Strait and the film’s two relative newcomers, Ezra Miller and Dominik Garcia-Lorido (yes, Andy’s daughter) as the Rizzo kids.

Almost a year after seeing the movie at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it won the coveted Audience Award, ComingSoon.net got on the phone with De Felitta earlier this week to talk about a movie we absolutely loved.

ComingSoon.net: I saw your movie at Tribeca last year right after it won the Audience Award, and I loved it. Even saw it a second time recently. Was this a movie you’d been developing for a while? I don’t remember you mentioning it when we spoke for “The Thing About My Folks” which was probably three or four years ago now.

Raymond De Felitta: No, I actually wrote this before “Folks.” I wrote it in 2001 and I had it kinda trying to get it to the starting gate a few times and I had either producers but no offers, or money but no producers. With these things, it’s always such a puzzle, but I never really had an actor. Briefly, Michael Chiklis was involved during “The Shield,” but we never really were able to get somebody. Then after a few years I had gone on and done some other things like “Folks” and I made this documentary “‘Tis Autumn” about the jazz singer Jackie Paris. Then I said, “I should really go back to this and try to get this going.” My agent said, “Why don’t we try Andy Garcia? (who is represented at the same agency). I said, “Well, let’s try.” She said, “There’s no money, no offer, but if he’s free he might give it a read and we’ll see what he thinks of it.” He liked it. He got it and it was great, because I went to meet him and we bonded as two people, which is also really important. We liked each other and I said, “Well, if you want to do this with me, we should really become partners.” ‘Cause it’s so hard putting these things together. He’s a producer and he’s got a credit on the movie and sometimes those are vanity credits with actors, but it’s really not with him at all. He really did this together with me. He sent it to actors, got people to read it. So that’s how it all kinda came about. It took whatever, six, seven years now.

CS: It’s really genius casting, because even though Andy has done some comedy in the “Ocean’s” movies, he hasn’t really done anything like this, even playing an archetype of some of his previous characters. Was that something that appealed to him?

De Felitta: Yeah, it’s not pushed comedy, this, not like the “Pink Panther” movie he’s in, but no, it’s human. I think you’re right that it’s sort of playing off of a certain element of his persona, that kind of just slightly dark, brooding. This guy is that, but he’s also kind of a goofball and not quite sure of himself. Andy usually plays people who are very sure of themselves. That’s I think what’s funniest about him doing this is that Vince really is just a mass of insecurity.

CS: Absolutely, and especially when he does the audition scene. People love that scene because it’s almost like playing a heightened version of the characters he normally plays, which is just hilarious after establishing this other character.

De Felitta: The thing that I think is kinda funny about that scene, and it didn’t really occur to me until we started showing it to audiences, but a part of what I think people like about it is you’re looking at a really, really good actor show you what bad acting looks like. If you just had a bad actor do it, it wouldn’t be as funny. It reminds me of this movie where Chris Walken dances badly, but he’s a great dancer, so it’s really funny watching Chris Walken dance because he’s showing you how a great dancer looks bad dancing. So it’s sorta the same thing with Andy doing that I think. It’s funny seeing his take on what bad acting is.

CS: I thought he was just doing an impression of Pacino or a heightened version of a gangster, rather than acting badly.

De Felitta: Well, that’s the beginning of the scene where he first starts reading it before he improvises. He doesn’t really have it yet. But when he improvises he becomes that guy and he’s not bad at all. He’s really good.

CS: It’s funny because when you did “Folks” you had Paul Reiser and Peter Falk, both who are known for comedy. For this one, Steven Strait hasn’t done any comedy at all and you did get a lot of mostly serious actors. Emily Mortimer doesn’t do much comedy either. I was curious, was that something very deliberate? Did you see this as a comedy, or not really?

De Felitta: I thought it would be funny if it was played straight, rather than a movie where you had to reach for laughs. It’s different than “Folks,” which was really a vehicle, which is a separate kind of an entity in terms of these things. That was a movie that was much about those two guys playing the part as it was about the two guys in the movie. But this isn’t a vehicle either, I just felt this has to be a human comedy that’s played real. In a way, the fact that the actors were essentially dramatic actors, I thought would work for it. The thing about acting, I think Woody Allen said something once, and it sounds so simplistic, but it’s true. He said, “Well, we’ll just get really good actors, even if they’re not exactly right for the part, because they’ll give you more what you need than someone else.” I know what he means. What he means is they’re great for a reason and if they get it, it’s not about whether they do comedy or not, they’ll make it work. They’ll find the humanity or the reality in it. So that’s the way you work with people like Julianna Marguiles or Emily Mortimer or Andy. They’re really at the top of their profession in that way. Like when we started doing the family scenes at the dinner table, which were the first things we shot, it really just took off, these guys just went for it. They just started chewing each other up and spitting each other out. It was great. I had two cameras going and it was always a pleasure to see what they were going to do.

CS: They’re all different ranges of actor. Obviously Andy and Julianna have a ton of experience, Steven has a little bit less. I mean, Ezra, was this the first thing he ever did?

De Felitta: No, he was in one other movie and he either had just started or maybe had just gotten the part in “Californication,” but pretty relatively new and he was quite something. He startled us all. He auditioned and as soon as he left the room I just said, “Oh, hire him. He’s great. He’s just very funny and loose.” But when we got on the set the first day I said to him, “Do what you want. Get to the scene, but if you could unsettle them in any way, do it, because that’s who you are in this.” I didn’t know how far he would go or anything, but he was so funny and just so fresh each time out and I think it kinda made all the other actors with more experience suddenly go, “Oh, we gotta rise up to this kid’s game. His game is really good.” It’s great when actors feel a little competitive with each other. It’s great because they really start to dig in and do stuff and give you stuff.

CS: I wanted to ask about Andy’s daughter Dominik playing his daughter in the movie; did he have any problem with his daughter playing a stripper and doing that stuff?

De Felitta: No, they’re such a family of professionals. No, he was delighted when I was interested in her playing the part. He was always very cool about telling me, “Look, this is totally a director’s decision.” I read her a few times, but I also loved the idea of his actual daughter doing it just because I thought it would be a great vibe for the movie as an experience too, and she’s a really good actress. So he had no issues at all although he didn’t bother to come to the set on the day that we did the strip club scene. (Laughs) But they’re pros.

CS: Her and Ezra really look like they could be the kids of Andy and Julianna, too.

De Felitta: Yeah, absolutely, because Ezra has a lot of Julianna’s features actually.

CS: Did it take a long time to put this particular cast together? Once you got Andy, was it a little easier? How long did it take you to actually get all the parts cast?

De Felitta: On and off like a year and then it was searching for money, but a couple of those parts originally belonged to other people. Julianna came in very late because the actress who was originally committed to it had another job and we couldn’t work out the dates. So that happens a lot of the time and I always think it happens for a reason. I feel like I really lucked into the perfect woman for that part. What seemed like a catastrophe losing one actress turned out… the other door opened as they say, it was great.

CS: So with something like the dinner scene, was there a lot of improv involved in that, or was it a mix of scripted and improv?

De Felitta: It’s a mix. I never believed there’s only one right way to say it, that I wrote something perfectly. I always tell the actors, “Just be loose. If you want to say something else or try it in a different way, just do it.” I find that even if you don’t use a lot of that it just does something mentally to them. It frees them up. It makes them feel like they cut the leash off of them. So sometimes you wind up using exactly as it was scripted, but it just sorta feels fresher, because they don’t feel like they’re trying to get it right. They’re just improvising in kind of an existential jazz-like way. They’re free to be who they are.

CS: I want to go back to when this first thing first started, because I read that you discovered the location of City Island reading an article.

De Felitta: It was through the “New York Times” Escape section piece on it. I hadn’t heard of it and it’s not unusual for New Yorkers not to know City Island. It’s very strange, but a lot of New Yorkers don’t know anything about it. My theory is that there’s no direct way to get there by public transport, if there was, if there was a ferry that took you there, I think more people would know about it. It’s a very peculiar, private little spot when I read the “Times” article I was already writing the script, but it was sort of just set in a generic Bronx neighborhood and I thought, “This could be a great thing in a cinematic way, because it’s never been shot before,” which wasn’t true. It turned out it was shot plenty, but they usually pretend it’s Connecticut or somewhere in New England when they shoot on City Island. They don’t call it “City Island.”

CS: How was it shooting there as far as finding locations for how you were envisioning the movie, especially because it ended up playing such a big part?

De Felitta: Yeah, half of it faces the Manhattan skyline. It’s such an overwhelming view I thought that to lose basically like, fishing villas that faces like the most famous skyline in the world, I just loved that, the kind of the collision of values. So I knew that we had to find a house on that side of the island and we did. We spent quite a bit of time out there. Also, we wanted to get to know the populace. We wanted to meet them and we didn’t want to feel like the big, nasty crew coming in who doesn’t care about people’s lives there or anything. So we were gentle in that way. We wanted to reach out.

CS: Obviously this played at Tribeca where we saw that it could really play well with a crowd, but do you think a movie like this could have been done through the studio system? Did you ever try to go through a studio or did you always want to go the independent route?

De Felitta: I think we may have submitted it to Sony at some point, but studios don’t do this anymore; they just don’t and it’s a waste of time for the most part to try to get them to. This isn’t what they do anymore. None of the movies that studios were making in the ’70s–which is now widely regarded as the real classic Hollywood years–none of those would be made by studios now. Those would all be independent films. I always figured because it wasn’t that complicated a film to make – I always thought we’ll budget it well and we’ll find a way to do it like this. This is how I’ve made all my films, so that wasn’t unusual for me to try to do it this way. It would’ve been unusual to me if a studio had wanted to do it. It probably woulda scared the hell outta me really.

CS: It would probably be a very different movie I would assume also, because they might have wanted more of a scripted movie with less improv.

De Felitta: Yeah, it’s like a mixture of tones, and I don’t think studios like that. That’s not what they do. They get nervous with stuff like that. Listen, that’s okay because they’re not in the business of taking that chance.

CS: I know you finished this project about a year ago and I know you always have other projects in the works. Is there any other projects that you might start shooting soon?

De Felitta: Yeah, I spent much of last year writing a new script that we’ll do with the same producers who financed “City Island.” Sometimes they take a long time to write and sometimes they don’t. This is a complicated script. It’s called “Marriage and Cheating” and it’s three couples and how none of them know each other and they’re all having fidelity issues in their life and then of course they all wind up becoming involved with each other somehow. I wanted to write that kind of serial screenplay. I think I was watching that movie “Love Actually” and I thought, “Gee, I’d love to write something like this where a series of characters don’t know each other, but gradually get intertwined.” Then I thought it would be fun to write about it, but with maybe just a bit more bite. (Laughs) It’s a subject that I just thought was funny because let’s face it, it’s a subject we all lie to each other about. We all think we’re the only ones with these issues, these thoughts on our mind, and marriage is difficult. So I thought it would be a good comedy. It’s a little akin in that way to “City Island” where you feel like only your family is the sick one on the block, but start telling someone the truth about how you’re feeling and it’ll all start coming out from them, too. It’s like suddenly we’re releasing each other from the bonds of hypocrisy to keep up appearances.

CS: Are you looking for the cast and financing and all that stuff yet or are you still finishing up the script?

De Felitta: We just started casting, so I don’t have anyone yet.

CS: Will this new movie also be fairly New York based? Both of your last two movies have been very much in New York even though “Folks” was Upstate, so is the new movie going to have a very New York feel as well?

De Felitta: Yeah, it’s New York and Paris. It takes place in both cities over the long Memorial Day weekend. I like writing in New York. There’s something about like if you write “exterior Madison Avenue,” you quickly start to picture a movie, and it’s like if you write “exterior Wilshire Boulevard,” I picture nothing. I can never picture setting something in LA for some reason.

CS: Do you find that it’s going to be easier to get that going with “City Island” under your belt? Obviously “The Thing About My Folks” is great too, but did you find “City Island” and how it’s been received is making it easier to get people because you have this great cast that people know?

De Felitta: No, it’s always hard. I don’t know why it is, but it’s always hard and it’s slow going. It’s like you’re trying to get people to read a script, and there’s so many of them floating around and most of them have that, as this movie currently has, no real reality attached to it. It’s just something we want to do. So it’s hard. It always is the same climb up the same mountain. When you finally get there, it looks like it was inevitable, but along the way all kinds of strange things transpire that turn your movie into what it turns into hence all the issues we have with casting along the way. You look at it now and it seems like, “Gee, wasn’t I clever the way I cast that? Well no, not at all. I wasn’t clever at all, I was lucky.”

CS: So do you feel it ever gets easier? There has to be a time when it starts getting easier with each new movie.

De Felitta: Well, you always tell yourself that at the beginning because otherwise you’d be too fraught with despair to get outta bed and try again. (laughs) Yeah, when I was writing the script I was like, “Yup, this time, this is gonna take us a few months. We’re gonna get going.” I don’t know, hopefully it won’t take as long as “City Island” did, but I’m always prepared for a long way.

CS: What are your feelings on the festival experience being that played such a big part in getting people to know about your movie? You said before you weren’t interesting in doing things through a studio, but do you feel like you’d want to go the same route with having your movies in festivals in the future?

De Felitta: Well, listen, it’s one way and it’s worked for me a few times to get your movie sold. But honestly, no, I’d rather make a film for a company that’s already agreed to put it out. I mean, it would take out a huge amount of the stress out of, “What are we gonna do with this movie once it’s done?” I’d love to make a film that actually has a release date slotted while we’re shooting. (Laughs) Then it takes this whole strange public relations nightmare that you have to go through to kinda get everyone to notice your film. It takes it out of contention.

CS: But then you have to deal with the stress of having to get a movie in time for its release date, which many directors have to go through. Anyway, before we wrap up, I was curious if you’d been in touch with Peter Falk and how he’s been doing.

De Felitta: No, no, I think he’s not well.

CS: That’s sad to hear and I’m sorry to hear that. I was very lucky to have met him doing press for “Parents.” Anyway, thanks a lot, Raymond. I loved this movie and I’m glad we had a chance to talk finally.

Raymond De Felitta’s City Island opens in New York and L.A. on Friday, March 19, and in other cities after that.