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TFF: The Treasure Found in “Garnet’s Gold”

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garnetsgoldposter

By Danny Peary

Ed Perkins and Garnet Frost

Ed Perkins and Garnet Frost

Our heroes in movies, particularly documentaries, are of often ordinary people who do extraordinary things, people who rise to the occasion under dire circumstances. Garnet Frost could be seen by himself and others as an extraordinary man who has never done anything that exceeded the ordinary. Unmarried, childless, living in London with his ninety-year-old mother, he believes that his best chance to make his mark in history is to find a fortune in gold that was hidden three hundred years ago in Scotland’s Loch Arkaig, where he almost died twenty years before while hiking alone.  This dynamic personality has no idea that his brush with fame will be not as an explorer, but as the subject of director/writer/editor Ed Perkins’ fascinating, beautifully-shot documentary, Garnet’s Gold, which just played to large, enthusiastic crowds at the Tribeca Film Festival.  For his first feature, Perkins (who made a series of TV documentaries for the National Geographic Channel) tells us what he learned, which is that Garnet underestimates himself as much as George Bailey does in It’s a Wonderful Life, and that it is neither wealth nor celebrity that makes someone exceptional, but what he graciously offers to others.  As the film’s press notes state, “[A]s Garnet embarks on his journey, the pursuit for riches is soon eclipsed by a more melancholy search for meaning and inspiration by a wonderfully exuberant man with grand aspirations.”  Garnet (whose newest dream project is a play with huge magic tricks about Houdini) was one of the most welcome guests at the festival.  I was fortunate to speak to him and the London-based Perkins last week.

Danny Peary: So, Garnet, on your first visit to New York, are you saying, “It’s nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live here.”?

Garnet Frost: I don’t know, I haven’t had time to come to that conclusion.  I do think it is a very nice place to visit.  I’ve been doing a lot of press so I’ve just been out and about briefly, but so far I love what I’ve seen.

DP: You have the name, Garnet Frost, of a renaissance man.  Has having that name influenced you, do you think?

GF: Possibly, it’s a bit like “A Boy Named Sue.” It’s a curious name, so I had to live up to it by being curious. It’s unusual, but not unique, although I’ve never met another one.

Ed Perkins: There’s a few Garnets over here, aren’t there?

DP: There was a singer from the 1960s named Garnet Mimms who had a hit “Cry Baby.” That’s the only one I know.  Of course, he shares a fairly common last name with the poet Robert Frost.

GF: Well, that’s beyond my control. As for the name Garnet, I blame my mother for that –it’s an expression of her romantic nature.  In fact my first Christian name is Edward, which was my father’s choice. My mum rather preferred Garnet, because when she first realized she was pregnant with me, she stood on a beach somewhere on the east coast of England, where garnets were everywhere. My dad preferred Edward, so it was Edward Garnet, but then my parents split up when I was a baby in the cradle, so she took to calling me Garnet, and that’s what I’ve been called ever since.

DP: So oddly, you two have the same first name!

EP (laughing): I didn’t know about this!

DP: Let me ask you, Ed, if Garnet is a quick study. Did you pretty much know him after one meeting?

EP: No, the reason I kept coming back is that he’s so enigmatic and evocative that I became addicted and obsessed with trying to dig deeper get to know Garnet more and more.  At the same time, I was trying to work out for myself what was going on in our film story. I started doing a lot of research into kind of archetypal narrative structures.  If I was going to dramatize a story like this, how would I tell it?. It took four years to make Garnet’s Gold, and for a long period of that, I had no idea as a filmmaker what the film was really about. I found a structure in something called The Hero’s Journey, kind of based on Holy Grail mythology. In my house, I put up a big sheet, and marked it Act I, Act II, and put notes on Post-Its all over it. It was a little scary but very exciting–I kept going because I wanted to know what was at the end of this rainbow.  There may not be a literal pot of gold, but I sensed we could find something  more interesting.

DP: What kind of odds did you think there were that you’d find the gold?

GF: Well, that’s impossible to assess. Obviously on paper the odds were low that we’d find it, but at the same time there were so many tantalizing clues suggesting that it could be there.

EP: I didn’t try to guess the odds, and I didn’t really care. I was swept into Garnet’s world, into Garnet’s plans to build flying machines, and into his coffee-stained maps and all the rest of it.  I went along with his idea to search for the gold, and certainly when we got in the stream where he thought it was hidden, my heart was beating very fast, because I thought it might be there and I wanted it to be there for Garnet’s sake.  But in actuality, I didn’t think it was essential for my film that Garnet find the missing gold. I thought if we found it, it would have be a hell of a story, but it wasn’t the kind of story I wanted to tell. I wanted to tell the true story of Garnet.

DP: Was finding the gold your Plan A for your film?  And if that didn’t work, did you have Plan B in place?

EP: There wasn’t a back-up plan. From the moment I met Garnet I wanted to tell a more introspective, emotional, and human story than a story of Garnet searching for gold.  Garnet’s Gold is about how people need a purpose in life. The reason I wanted to do that story was because Garnet’s journey itself threw up big themes that we can all relate to in our own lives. Who hasn’t looked back on their lives and asked themselves if they’d reached their potential?  Garnet’s willingness to ask himself such a tricky question was very powerful.

DP: At the end of the day, when you were getting to know each other, would you leave Garnet behind and come home and tell your girlfriend, “You won’t believe what happened today!”?

EP: Yeah, I was constantly surprised. Every time I’d come home from a day of filming with Garnet, I thought, “This is kind of amazing!” It wasn’t perfect but it was close enough for me to think, “This is going somewhere. I don’t know where it’s going, but it’s worth taking a risk.” I knew it was worth my spending time with Garnet, a man I came to really care about. I fell in love with the guy and I became completely obsessed with trying to tell his story.

DP: Garnet, you’re a humble guy and suddenly somebody’s making a movie about you. At the end of the each day did you ask yourself if you were a good enough subject?  Or were you confident to just let Ed do what he does?

GF: Well, we had sort of a division of labor from the outset. This was going to be my expedition and it was his film. From the start, he was reluctant to show me any footage, saying it was best if I didn’t see it because it would make me feel a bit self-conscious. I’m sure he was right. So I just kind of let him get on with it. We had this build-up as we prepared for the expedition, the boat was nearly ready, we were making sure we had enough money, so each day had its own  momentum and its own fulfillment, without us really having to review what anything we filmed meant.

DP: So you didn’t worry that you weren’t giving Ed enough.

GF: I did in a sense, not having seen the rushes. I wasn’t sure what he was getting, but I was sensing what it was.  I didn’t care about a camera being pointed at me, he could do that when he wanted to, but when he’d have it almost touching my chest, it made feel kind of awkward and self-conscious; and when he’d then ask me questions, I’d feel I was a bit flat and not up to par–but I thought we’d make up for it later.

DP: Did you ever tell him to turn off the camera, because what he wanted was too private, including conversations with your sick mother?

GF: He might ask, “Oh, can I tape this?” and I’d say, “No, you can’t.” But he usually was sympathetic and sensed when I didn’t really want to talk.

DP: Ed, you didn’t show him the rushes, so were there moments when you wondered how he was going to feel about something?

EP: When he finally watched the film, it was very nerve-wracking. This was my first feature film, and I was sure I made lots of mistakes along the way. The approach I took was that Garnet is quite an introspective guy who thinks a lot of about the world and himself, and I didn’t want him to become too self-conscious about the process of being filmed. I didn’t want him to think he had to give me something because I knew that would have been the way to not make this film. I wanted as much as possible to build a trusting relationship between us and then get him to feel comfortable in front of cameras. It took a long time.  We’d go out without a camera and have a beer at the pub, and I spent a lot of time sitting with his mom without the camera, just talking about her life and Garnet’s life.  I also met his friends.  I was drawn into this amazing world, full of very rich characters, so it was always a treat. I wanted Garnet to focus on just being there in the moment.

DP: Was Garnet a different person when you were in Scotland?

EP: Yeah, Garnet became much quieter and much more introspective.  The place was having a really profound impact on him.  He was returning to the place where he nearly lost his life years before and it was difficult for him to confront what had happened there. I certainly realized that.  I didn’t pry but I could see it in his face, and I wanted to give him the respect that he deserved.  In one of our most poignant interviews, I just lit the side of his face, and I kept most of the front of his face almost in darkness. It was a very conscious decision. It come across as very intimate because we were very close, but the real reason I did it that was because I wanted to let him hide a little bit.  Even though he was very emotive, I was respecting him and his journey.

DP: When you were doing all that gorgeous cinematography of spectacular wildnerness in Scotland, did you have a spiritual experience?

EP: I’m not a religious person, so no, but I wanted to make Scotland feel slightly dream-like. The color correction and sound design made it slightly hyper-real.  The scenes in England were very claustrophobic, and consciously so; in Scotland, Garnet becomes a very small man in a very big landscape. The colors are saturated and he’s surrounded by light.  In London there are millions of people but there’s sort of a loneliness there. Soon, in Scotland, he’s alone, yet he’s surrounded by midges, and running water and little creepy crawlies, and spiders, and wildlife. I wanted to bring that to life. I wanted all of Scotland to feel a bit ethereal so we got this sense that it wasn’t just a literal, physical journey we were going on with Garnet, but there was something a bit more introspective about this journey.

SPOILER ALERT

DP: As a filmmaker, where could you have gone wrong in telling the story?

EP: Well, it’s up to you to judge, but the biggest mistake I could have made as a filmmaker was to fall into the natural documentary track. When Garnet waded into the stream at the end of his journey, and he didn’t find gold where he thought it would be, he stands there and looks up and down the stream.  The natural reaction for me would have been to ask, “Garnet, how are you feeling?” What I was trying to do as much as possible was resist that temptation to ask that and just hold the shot and let viewers make up their minds as to what was going on in Garnet’s mind; and have them embrace the ambiguity. I think the ambiguity is important, I think it’s interesting in filmmaking. All the films that I love are those that ask questions and leave us trying to figure out where it’s going.

DP: Garnet, Ed wants us to decide for ourselves what you were feeling when you realized there was no gold.  But I think at that moment you were thinking many things and maybe your whole life was flashing before your eyes.

GF: I think the pair of us were really caught up in the adventure of the whole thing, really right up to that point. What I was actually feeling when I got into the stream was nothing. I wasn’t feeling anything.  I was somehow just physically absorbed in the business of being there.

DP: But you gave up your search at some point. You’re no longer at that stream in Scotland searching for the gold.

GF: That’s it, we were as thorough as we could be and I felt that we took it as far as we could.  It was at this point we needed to ask, “What has this adventure been about–it has something to do with the search for gold, right?  Okay, so where are we now? It’s now the story of a man who goes in search of gold and doesn’t find it.” At that point I’m getting a little bit worried because I’ve been leading the way on the search for gold and Ed has been following along, but after not finding the gold, is there still a film in it? And Ed’s coming back to me, going, “Tell the camera how you feel about it?  Has this changed your life or your perspective on things?”  And I’m going, “Uh, well, maybe it has or maybe it will, I’m not really aware of that.” In fact at the moment here, more than anything else, I was just feeling really depressed. And he’s going, “Okay, so you feel depressed, let’s talk about depression a little bit.”  Oh, for Christ’s sake, he could have been phased by it, but he was saying, “Let’s talk, something will come out of it. Trust me, we’ve got enough here, we’ll make it work somehow.” I think had we found the gold, it would have been exciting, but it probably would have been a lesser film than the way it turned out.

END SPOILER ALERT

EP: It has been the biggest privilege of my life to work with Garnet, and one of the challenges of working with someone who’s so self-aware and so introspective is that he’s quite knowing of his own journey.  I felt like I was trying to get him not to think about whether he was providing me with a film. That would have been the wrong way for him to approach it, because he didn’t owe me anything, he never did. I was there documenting a story. So when we returned from our expedition in Scotland, I came back to London and tried to figure out in my mind what the bigger themes were. I don’t think Garnet knew exactly what the deeper message was. So we sat down in his bedroom for what must have been three, four, or five hours and we just talked. I didn’t know where our conversation was going. We talked and talked and talked, and eventually we started talking about the idea of whether he and I had made something of our own lives.  The idea of an apology by Garnet [for not accomplishing enough in his life and meeting other people's expectations] started to come to life. And I think that was the moment Garnet reached–that we both reached–and found what we feel is the heart of the story.

DP: Well, it’s at the heart of his life.

EP: Yes. At a Q&A, we were asked if  Garnet was thinking about the apology when he was standing there in the stream where he thought the gold was hidden. I didn’t know, it was not for me to say. But I don’t think that’s important in terms of the storytelling. What’s important is focusing on the overall truth, finding themes that are true to his own life that relate to other people’s lives. And it felt like his apology was at the center of his story.

DP: But of course we in the audience are thinking, “Why is he apologizing for anything?” Garnet, you feel responsible for letting people down, and we’re thinking why?  I won’t say if you found the gold or not, but I doubt if it would have made a difference in regard to your feeling the need to apologize. I guess the answer is that is just who you are, right?

GF: I’m not like that the whole time, but I have a depressive streak to me. I find myself thinking, why? I don’t know why myself.

DP: Maybe you’re a “people-pleaser,” in that you don’t like to let anybody down.

GF: Yeah, and I suppose I’m quite a driven person in a way.  I set myself quite a high standard, so I never quite feel that I’ve done enough.

DP: You got a standing ovation at the sold-out screening I attended, so there!

GF: Perhaps I don’t take enough credit for what I do.

DP: Talk about your age difference. Was that important in your personal journeys?

EP: I think I recognized Garnet, and the story he’d undertaken, as kind of a mirror in which we can see our own hopes and dreams, and maybe our own fears. I think if you’re slightly older, closer to Garnet’s age, you can relate closely to things that are actually happening in your own lives. I think people like me who are a bit younger relate but not so closely–we see ourselves later in life. That happened with me, and without a doubt that had an impact on the themes I chose to portray more strongly in the film.  In the last few years, I have certainly asked myself questions about meaning in my life. Did this have an impact on the stories Garnet and I talked about and the conversations we had?  Possibly. I think often these really personal films say a lot about the filmmaker as well as the subject,

GF: The disparity in age between us is similar to that of a father and son, in a way. I identify with Ed and feel protective of him enough to feel that he could be a son of mine. At moments, he has looked to me as almost a father figure. There’s respect and protectiveness, if you like, between us.

SPOILER ALERT

DP (joking): So when are you going back to search for gold in Scotland?

GF: I would love to go back! I think it would be worthwhile going back and having another look around there. The historical story of the gold is to my mind another story that could be worth pursuing.  I think the back story of how the gold came to be there in the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden is fascinating in its own right.  We only alluded to it briefly so maybe there’s another movie in there.  I would love to go back because when we went I had this sense almost of going home. I identify with that place in ways I don’t quite understand.

EP: Would I like to go back? I would love to go back with Garnet. I’d never been up to that part of the world before.  It is an amazing.  It’s a dream for a filmmaker. I personally like the idea that the gold is still there, but I have to admit that I don’t know if I want it to be found.  There’s something romantic about the idea of there being a billion dollars worth of gold just sitting there. If it is found, I want it to be found by Garnet, not anyone else.

DP: If it were in America, then everybody would be out there.

GF: Yes, it is bizarre that there has never been a systematic search for the gold. There was a man before us but he looked entirely the wrong place. As time goes by, the more I am convinced we did go to the right location, but by the same token I’m also pretty much convinced that after the gold was hidden there, it was lifted and redistributed, probably within a year. That was the intention when hiding the gold in the first place, so the chances of finding the gold is extremely remote. Nevertheless I think there probably is some archeology there worth investigating.  For a proper search you need a team and all sorts of equipment because it’s a very difficult, tricky landscape.  It’s quite dangerous to get across, let alone to investigate with a metal detector. It’s full of mystery.

END SPOILER ALERT

DP: Tell me about being at the Tribeca Film Festival.

GF: I was thrilled and scared for months before coming here to New York first time. You can see what I’m like in the film, so being a worrier I worried about having a heart attack or something like that.

DP: You’re a performer, once you get up in front of everyone you feel comfortable.

GF: I was having the heebie-jeebies!

EP: I know we’ve finished filming but I don’t think Garnet’s journey has come to an end. Actually being at the Tribeca Film Festival is part of his whole journey. We got a standing ovation from two hundred people in New York City, it was amazing.  I feel so pleased that Garnet’s getting the respect and the attention that I believe he deserves and hasn’t had for too long.  It’s a real privilege for me to be able to see Garnet in the limelight.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead Stars as Alex of Venice at TFF

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Mary Elizabeth Winstead

Mary Elizabeth Winstead

By Danny Peary

Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Chris Messina

Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Chris Messina

You can catch the final screening of Alex of Venice at the Tribeca Film Festival this Saturday at 6:30 at the SVA theater on 23rd Street between 8th and 9th Avenues.  The impressive directorial debut of actor Chris Messina, a native of Newport, is a character piece about a workaholic environmental attorney in L.A., Alex who lives in Venice, California.  When Alex’s husband George (Messina) suddenly leaves her, she is forced to pay more attention to their shy son Dakota (Skylar Gaertner) and her aging actor father Roger (Don Johnson). Still neglecting her son, she enlists the help of her irresponsible, free-spirited sister Lily (Katie Nehra) around the house while she deals with the biggest case of her career and has an affair with the man she is fighting in court, Frank (Derek Luke)  Alex is played by one of my favorite actresses, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who made a splash as an alcoholic teacher in #Smashed. On Saturday I spoke to Winstead about the film and her character.

Danny Peary: I thought you deserved a lot of awards for your performance in Smashed. That might have been the best performance of 2012.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Wow, thank you.

DP: Your characters in Smashed and Alex of Venice have no self-awareness. Did you recognize that similarity?

MEW: It’s funny, but I don’t think I actually compared them in that way.  But it’s true. They’re both in denial about their own lives and not really looking at themselves.

DP: They can’t fix themselves, or make no attempt to do it.

MEW: That’s right.  Certainly Alex through most of the movie is just in complete denial about who she is and all the problems she has.

DP: In the press notes, Chris Messina says this is a slice-of-life drama.  That means characters don’t have to change.  But the movie is about change. Everyone changes for the better.

MEW: It’s one of the major themes of the movie.

DP: When does Alex have her pivotal moment of change?.

MEW: There are several little moments.  Her relationship with Frank (Derek Luke) is a huge change for her, because she married when she was young.  But her internal change doesn’t happen until the end of the movie, when she kind of comes in and talks to her son, Dakota (Skylar Gaertner).  That to me is the moment when she says, “I’ve been so much in denial of my life.” During the early midlife crisis that she is going through, she becomes focused on everything other what she should really be focusing on. Ultimately, she should focus on her relationship with her son and her estranged husband George (Chris Messina), whatever that relationship is going to turn into.

DP: That’s interesting that you say that, because how they are now is not set in stone.

MEW: Even if they don’t get back together, they recognize that they have a son and must look after him together.  Ultimately her relationship with Dakota is going to be the most important thing to her. After George leaves, she has to be a parent alone and at first she’s flailing about and hitting the wall and not being attentive to him.

DP: Well, you know the last line of the movie.

MEW (smiling): “I should have listened.” Yeah. That is a great encompassing line for who she’s been.

DP: About a third of the way through the movie I was liking your performance, but I was asking myself, “Do I like her character?” When you read the script for the first time, did you like Alex?

MEW: I really liked her in the script and as I played her, But there were a few moments when I was thinking, “I hope people stick with her through some of this stuff, because she’s really high-strung and nervous for a good majority of the movie.” She’s not connected, not really present, and making bad choices as well.

DP: Really bad choices.

MEW: There were a couple of really bad choices she makes but I’m not sure Chris and I realized they could potentially turn the audience against her until the movie was over.

DP: Actors are usually protective of their characters, so were you seeing good stuff in her?

MEW: Absolutely. She’s so relatable, in terms of people that I know and love. I have a really big family, so there’s all sorts of types of people in my family. So there are Alexes in my family. Especially when you’re a mother and you’re very busy and  just trying to keep your life together, you don’t want to look at or think about or address things that aren’t going well.  Because there’s too much going on. I think that’s easy to relate to, particularly for women today who are trying to balance so many things in their lives. Alex, in some cases, would rather things just go on in their own broken ways because it’s easier than addressing the real problems.

DP: Something she must do to move forward in her life is to realize that she’s no longer in love with her husband, and vice versa.

MEW: Oh, absolutely. That’s a hard thing to learn. I think Alex and George haven’t really been in love in a long time, even if she never admitted that to herself.

DP: In the scene when George breaks up with Alex as she sits on the porch in front of him, you had tears in your eyes. Was that a powerful scene to shoot?

MEW: It was incredible. We did it so many ways.   I didn’t really start out intending to be as emotional as it was. It was one of my audition scenes, and it was less emotional in the audition.  At first she is so in denial as he breaks up with her that it wasn’t really hitting her. Doing the scene with Chris, and having him acting with me and directing me at the same time, was very interesting because he started going completely off-script and had George say things to Alex that were heartbreaking.  What he said was really sad and mean, but it was really truthful. That immediately set off the waterworks, There were emotional takes, where I was sobbing at the end of it, but we knew Alex couldn’t have that moment so early in the movie. So I think we found something that is poignant, but not devastating because she is not realizing the weight of what is really happening to her. She has denial.

DP: Reading the script, did you think Alex would end up with Frank, the most self-aware character in the film?

MEW: In the scene with the Ouija board, Alex tells Lily that since George has left, she wonders if she will ever have sex again. I think it’s a nice moment because Alex shows her insecurity, which she never really revealed up to that point because she’s really trying to keep it all together. She shows that she is insecure about who she is and where she’s going and will end up. Frank is an exciting person who comes to her life.  He is the most self-aware character in the film.  I don’t think Alex is thinking about messing up her work life, I think she’s just allowing herself to feel something she hasn’t felt in a long time.  With Frank, she tries to be kind to herself.  She wants to give herself a little bit of freedom to explore something new romantically. That’s how I feel, but I think there’s several different interpretations.  When I watch the scenes between Alex and Frank, I realize that’s my favorite stuff in the movie. Doing those scenes with Derek Luke just felt so different from the scenes I did with anybody else.

DP: You have many two-character scenes in this movie. Alex is with George, Roger, Dakota, Frank, and her sister Lily (Katie Nehra).

MEW: Yeah, it was like ten different mini-movies for me.

DP: With different styles of acting.

MEW: Yeah, absolutely. Which was so much fun to do.  I got to show so many sides of Alex through these different relationships.  I love the scene with Lily and Alex and the Ouija board because the mood we created felt so real to me, like when I’m with my real sisters and we have wine after our parents have gone to sleep. My sisters don’t talk about double penetration necessarily, but the feeling and mood in that scene was spot on. It was fake wine but we felt drunk and giddy.

DP: I thought it was brilliant to cast Don Johnson as Alex’s dad Roger, an aging actor who is the early stages of Alzheimer’s but is trying out for a part in The Cherry Orchard.

MEW: Chris was asking us, “What do you think about Don Johnson for the dad, and we said, “That’s brilliant.” I think he really rose to the occasion and gave a really heart-breaking performance. You never know what to expect from someone who’s an icon, and he was just really great to work with. There’s nothing PC about Roger, and I love that.  We have a similar sense of humor, let’s put it that way. It was one of my favorite days on the set.  He was so giving to everyone and really taught me a lot.

DP: I wasn’t surprised by how good and natural you are in this film because I’d seen Smashed. But I was surprised by how good you were in that film.  Do you have different fans from your early horror movies, Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and the types of films your making lately, Smashed and now Alex of Venice? Or do fans not realize you’re the same person in all of those films?

MEW: I really don’t know, to be honest. I did several horror movies, so they started to connect the dots. I think one of the reasons why I get to be so anonymous is that no one knows that I’ve been in more than one movie. They always think it’s somebody new. It’s kind of nice.

DP: I saw most of your early movies without realizing they all starred the same actress, you. It wasn’t until The Thing that I knew who you were.  Was that a pivotal movie for you, in terms of audience?

MEW: I’ll always really love that role.  It was not a movie that did well necessarily, but I was attracted to the idea of playing a smart action heroine at the time. I still am.  I loved the character, and the project, and the director [Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.] and it’s still something that I look back on fondly.

DP: You had the scream queen designation, and all the sudden you’re playing your roles in a low-keyed manner, like a female Steve McQueen almost.  You hold back and give caring, nonshowy performances. Were you always capable of that, or did you all the sudden become a really good actress?

MEW: I was always suited to play these roles but when you start out you get boxed into a certain type of role.  People thought, “Oh, that’s what she is suited for.” They thought I was meant to be an action heroine or a horror scream queen, but I always approached those roles in the same way I approached Alex in Venice and Smashed.  So even when I look back on those films, I’m proud of the work that I did in them. But maybe I just didn’t have the freedom to explore as broad a range of emotions as I do in the films I’ve done of late. As I’ve gotten older and gone further in my career I make the effort to just bring myself into the part as much as I can and know that’s a good thing. I think when I was young I thought that wasn’t really acting. I thought I had to create this mysterious person who’s totally different from me and that was the only way I was going to be a real actor.  As I got older I realized that what people want to see is the actress they want to see their personality and their heart and their soul.  That’s actually what makes people relate to my characters. I’m just really thankful that people like Chris Messina watch me closely and appreciate all those weird things I do in front of the camera.  Because when I watch my performance I see all these faces I was making without realizing it!

Raymond de Felitta Shows How to “Rob the Mob”

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rob-the-mob-poster

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.

rob-the-mob-600x337 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.

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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.

SPOILER ALERT

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.