By Danny Peary
Rob the Mob fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. This Friday it opens in New York at the Angelika, an indication that it’s not the predictable mob comedy one might expect from the title. The true tall tale told by director Raymond de Felitta and screenwriter Jonathan Fernandez includes humor of the absurdist variety, but as in de Felitta’s smartly-cast, superbly-acted mass-audience-would-love-them-if-they-bothered-to-see-them little films Two Family House and City Island (which won the Audience Award at the Tribeca Film Festival), it blends the wit with off-kilter romance/love, quirky plot twists, tricky family relationships, and serious themes. And at the center is a big heart.
A quickie synopsis: “Rob the Mob is the true-life story of a crazy-in-love Queens couple who robbed a series of mafia social clubs [in the early 1990s] and got away with it…for a while…until they stumble upon a score bigger than they ever planned and become targets of both the mob and the FBI.” Michael Pitt (Funny Games, TV’s Boardwalk Empire) and Nina Arianda (Midnight in Paris; Tony-winner for Venus in Fur) are sensational as the doomed Tommy Uva and his clever girlfriend Rosie, heading a terrific cast that includes Andy Garcia (City Island), as soulful mob don Big Al, a serious Ray Romano (Everybody Loves Raymond) as a reporter on the mob beat, Cathy Moriarty (Raging Bull), and Michael Rispoli (star of Two-Family House). I spoke last week to De Felitta about his stars and new movie.
Danny Peary: When I saw the title Rob the Mob, I assumed it was going to be a full-fledged comedy, which it isn’t. Did you keep the humorous title because you wanted the film to maintain a light-hearted tone even when things become darker?
Raymond de Felitta (left): Some people said it wasn’t serious enough a title for the movie, but I always loved it because it’s cheeky and I feel the movie in general is cheeky. When I watch it with audiences I see there are good laughs through the first half and absolutely none in the second half, when it turns into a different movie. To me, that’s cheeky. If I did my job right, you don’t really see what’s coming and that’s part of the movie’s fun. I got a little pressure here and there to change it, but ultimately it’s Rob the Mob. It is what it is.
DP: In New York, it’s going to open at the Angelika, a site for art films. Is that surprising to you?
RDF: I guess the bigger question is: what are “art films?” I don’t know any more. I think Rob the Mob is an art film under the guise of a genre film, which reflects my own preference in movies. If you don’t care about film and you just want entertainment, you’ll like the title and love the idea of the movie, that somebody with an Uzi robs mob social clubs. And if you are a serious filmgoer, you might hear that it is not just a mob movie but has little more going for it.
DP: You’ve called it an “anti-mob movie.”
RDF: Yeah, because “mob movies” are over with, in a sense. Rob the Mob was not going to be The Godfather or Goodfellas or Casino. There’s no more room, it’s done. So you’re either going to make a really bad mob movie, or find a new wrinkle. This movie is not really about the mob. The more we developed the script and the closer we got to doing it, I began to feel that this movie will live or die with the romance of these two people Tommy and Rosie. If you understand that it’s about their love for each other, I think the movie will have heart and be special and won’t slide off into a genre and be this kind of movie or that kind of movie. It had to have a center and their romance is the center. I love when things are disguised as other things, and that’s why I wanted to do this movie. It’s a mob movie, but it’s really not, it’s about these two people in love. I guess you could fit it into a genre with Gun Crazy, They Live By Night, and Thieves Like Us. There is some of those films in mine, but mine is more kinetic. It was a bit of a magic trick. I don’t know if I pulled it off, but I liked doing it. Whatever people think this movie is, it’s not quite that; it a different animal.
DP: So where does the mob fit in?
RDF: While it’s not primarily about the mob, I love that the mobsters are the victims in the movie. They’re kind of the worn out, tattered remains of their former selves. I thought that was a fun, interesting angle, because to me it humanizes them rather than makes them larger than life. It brings them way down to the actual size they are. They’re the guys at this stupid club on the corner. That’s where they hang out, and they don’t do much there other than sitting around. It’s not at all glamorous. They can’t even figure out how to deal with Tommy and Rosie, the amateurs who are robbing them. That’s the truth, they did not know how to deal with this couple who was making fools of them and threatening the organization. Those are the things that I liked in the script. I felt it turned our view of the mob upside down.
DP: In the production notes, you say that Rob the Mob’s coming from a true story made it more interesting for you. If it were a fictional story, would you have been interested in doing it?
RDF: You know, it’s hard to say. Because it weren’t true, if it was made up, it might be too silly to believe. This story is so unbelievable and so strange and has so many odd things about it, that it being true is what makes it interesting; as fiction it would be far-fetched. Somebody really did pull off those robberies on the mob! Tommy and Rosie were really rubbed out. The facts of the case make it interesting. I compare this story in terms of its truth to Dog Day Afternoon. Similarly, if I write a movie about a married man with a secret gay lover and he needs money for a sex change, and he has a Vietnam vet friend who robs a bank, you’d be like, “Where’s this coming from? Did you hear this story somewhere or did you make it up?” In fact that story happened, too. Also similar about the two stories is that neither had any real notoriety. The Dog Day Afternoon story also came and went in just a few weeks and never was a big, nation-wide story. I think dramatizing these stories is a little more poignant because you’ve discovered such a large theme and such a big and bold story in something relatively obscure. I’d never heard of Tommy and Rosie Uva.
DP: I vaguely remember something about a list of Mafia names that proved there was an organized crime organization.
RDF: That’s why I focused so much on the list. I wanted to show that there was something bigger that happened than what Tommy and Rosie ever knew about, that they even understood. We couldn’t fit it into the movie, but the different mob families all started arguing about who actually made the hit on Tommy and Rosie. One of them was caught on tape taking credit for it and he wound up being sent to prison for the rest of his life. I couldn’t dramatize any of that because it happened after they were dead, and the movie has to end when Tommy and Rosie are shot. I didn’t really want there to be a long coda. But yeah, there were things about them that were a bigger story. Jonathan Fernandez, the writer, and I talked about the size of a movie that’s just a caper film. And Jon pointed out that what The King’s Speech was really telling us is that if this guy didn’t fix his speech impediment, England would have lost the war. It’s not that cynical, but the gist of our story is that a little act led to something heroic. We started looking at Tommy and Rosie as two little people who actually took down a big chunk of the mob. They didn’t mean to, they didn’t know they were having that effect, but Tommy’s crusade against the guys who beat up his dad when he was as a little boy actually leads to big things. He got somewhere in his life, he did finally accomplish something, and I find that very moving. If you can twist the story that way, then I think you’ve got a great character arc.
DP: There seems to be a parallel story. Big Al tells the FBI that he doesn’t want to be humiliated in front of his grandson and as a boy Tommy experienced his own father being beaten up and humiliated in front of him.
RDF: I don’t know if other people get it but the fact is that Tommy and Big Al had so much in common.
DP: I think Big Al would have liked Tommy, actually. He would have understood Tommy’s anger toward the mob from what happened to his father.
RDF: I think you’re right. They’re both haunted by deaths in their pasts, they’re both haunted by things they can’t change or avenge. And ultimately Tommy’s actions have a huge impact on Big Al, although they’ve never met. When we were editing a scene with Big Al in post-production, we’d cut to Tommy and Rosie just to reiterate that their stories are impacting on each other. I think it’s so interesting in life to look back and realize the people who’ve impacted you whom you’ve never met. You’ve somehow had this parallel existence, and one person’s actions have paid off positively or negatively in someone else’s life.
DP: Tommy has charm according to Rosie, but Big Al’s the person who really has the charm in the film. And he’s probably the one really smart person in the movie. Do you think a reason Tommy and Rosie are so vulnerable is because they’re not smart enough?
RDF: I think they’re idiot savants. They don’t really know what they’ve gotten themselves into. They think they’ve got a handle on it, but no. She’s reasonably more polished than he’s ever going to be, but yeah, they’re not smart enough. Andy Garcia plays Big Al as a guy who was actually too smart to be a mob boss. He really shouldn’t have wound up where he is. He should have been a businessman.
DP: He loves to cook so he could have run a legit Italian restaurant.
RDF: That part Andy and I developed together. We were looking to create a Don that hadn’t been done. He’s not Powerman; he’s tired, he’s a grandfather, he doesn’t really understand how he got where he is. I felt the way he’s portrayed by Andy is a big part of our turning the whole mob concept on its head. What if it’s not about a powerful Don and about “respect” and all that crap, which we’ve seen so many times? What if it’s about a guy who wants to play chess with his grandson? Big Al’s fatal flaw is ultimately his humanity–he doesn’t order a hit on Tommy and Rosie at the very beginning before things escalate. That’s what you’re supposed to do as a mafia don.
DP: The Uvas were really married, but in the movie they’re not married.
RDF: Yeah, we took that liberty because I wanted us to see Tommy ask Rosie to marry him. I just felt it was such a beautiful place for them to finally get to. The fact is they really were murdered on Christmas Eve, so I wanted them to have that moment before it happens. That’s the sentimental Italian in me.
DP: There’s a Bonnie and Clyde reference in regard to their being shot in their car, but you are very protective of them and we don’t see them get torn up by the hail of bullets. What happens to them could be shown with as much brutality as what happens to Bonnie and Clyde in Arthur Penn’s movie, but you don’t, won’t, let that happen.
RDF: Well, you’re not going to beat Arthur Penn’s ending. But I also don’t need to see their death. I only need to know that they get gunned down and what the ending is going to be. I was inspired in some ways by the ending of The Wrestler, where he goes leaping off the ropes into the ring, after he’s told he can’t wrestle anymore. You don’t need to see anything after that.
DP: I love that it’s elegiac, even sweet and super romantic, oddly enough.
RDF: I thought the same thing. To me, that was very important – how do we feel about Tommy and Rosie at the end? Do we end with a huge downer and see blood everywhere ? That was something we developed as we were doing it, we figured out a way to give them some dignity and let their romance live on.
END SPOILER ALERT
DP: In the production notes Nina Arianda says that the romance between Tommy and Rosie is kind of a combination of Romeo and Juliet, Bonnie and Clyde, and Sid and Nancy. Actresses usually don’t bring up Sid and Nancy in conversation, but there’s a madness in the romance that really appealed to her in that film and in Rob the Mob.
RDF: Michael Pitt and I talked about how great love, passionate love, is actually a destructive force. It doesn’t have any boundaries, it does whatever it needs to do, it has its own fierce energy. That’s how we saw the romance of Tommy and Rosie. It’s a force that can’t be stopped. They create their own catastrophe. The way I always read the real story of Tommy and Rosie is that she was trying to show the world what she saw in him. She wanted the rest of the world to see it. It was so much bigger than what anyone else had ever thought of this guy who seems pretty much like a druggy ex-con. He had this side to him that she believed in, and that was his humanity and poignancy. The whole act of what they do–coming up with his bizarre scheme and pulling it off–is his work of art and his gift to the world. She was so proud of him for it. That’s what I loved about their real story. It was about two people who in their sociopathic way thought they were doing something light and beautiful for each other.
DP: In Gun Crazy and Bonnie and Clyde the robberies themselves are sexual acts to communicate the love the two lead characters feel for each other. Are you trying to show the same thing when they kiss in the car before he commits the crimes and when they celebrate in their apartment afterward, throwing the money into the air?
RDF: I do think what we show after the robbery is like an orgasmic release for them. But they also have a practical consideration. They are trying to put together enough money so they can settle down and finally be normal. There’s the whole concept–One of these days I’m going to be like everyone else– that a lot of us carry around, mistakenly. If only I could organize the world to fit my needs, then I’ll finally be part of the normal world.
DP: Do Tommy and Rosie have a death wish and is their being ill-fated part of the romance?
RDF: I guess so, but I look at it as Rosie being so in love with Tommy that she’ll do whatever he needs to complete his journey. She’s not necessarily the doomed one. She’s just so profoundly in love with Tommy and so believes in his misunderstood genius that’s lost in the world, that she’ll do whatever. That of course leads to their doom.
DP: And she sacrifices her career at the collection agency for him. Granted, it’s a weird career, but you see what talent she has to do it. And he has no talent to do it. She could take over the agency some day.
RDF: She absolutely could be working in a hair salon or be a teller in a bank. Rosie is every one of those great girls from Queens who maybe had some drug issues in high school, but got over it and now have jobs. Tommy isn’t capable of working a real job. He is a dark, sad, sociopathic young man.
DP: Michael Pitt and Nina Arianda are perfectly cast. I think you might look at the film now and say, nobody else in the whole world but these two actors could play these parts. I’m sure you recognized they have the potential to be superstars down the road, but at this particular time, you could still afford them. You were very lucky. Is that how you see it?
RDF: Absolutely. It’s funny how these things come about, the weird journey of filmmaking. The very first actor we sent the script to was Michael Pitt. The script was not exactly the script we ended up shooting, but it was a pass at it and you could understand what the basics were. And Michael “got it.” I thought, “If this guy gets it, he’ll become a collaborator through the whole process.” I wanted to have a relationship with the actor playing Tommy. I wanted it to be like Scorsese and De Niro, and we’d do this film together, and create Tommy. I thought that if we got that character right, the movie would have heart and soul. If we didn’t, we’d have simply a guy playing a young thug. So Michael and I became very close while working on the development of the story and his character.
DP: With dark hair, Michael Pitt looks a little like Elvis in your movie, a good-acting Elvis.
RDF: A very young Elvis, yeah. It took us a long time to get the financing because everyone was trying to get us to get a bigger name than Michael to play Tommy. They also wanted a big name actress to play Rosie. But none of them wanted to do it– Mila Kunis, Scarlett Johansson. You make a list of name actresses, you send it out, you don’t really know if they ever read it. After quite some time, my producer said, “Look, if we make the movie for less money, we can probably get this done and not have to try to rope in a name actress as if we were searching for Scarlett O’Hara. It’s ridiculous.” So on Michael’s recommendation we went after Nina. She had this tremendous Broadway life that happened to her very quickly, so when they brought her name up, I asked, “Is she going to want to do it, or is she waiting for a starring role in a bigger movie?” She read the script and really loved it, and met with me and Michael. Like you say, I can’t imagine anyone else playing those parts now. A wonderful thing about filmmaking is that once it’s done, it’s real. Those two amazing actors are in my movie. But it’s funny that along the way there are always so many bizarre iterations.