Sunday, June 17, 2012

Paper Blood - Part 1 - I See Dead Mafioso

Film critic Roger Ebert famously coined the term Dead Teenager Movie, and though he has expanded on it over the years, the simplest description I heard was when he shared a show with the late Gene Siskel, and that was movies that started with a lot of live teenagers, and ended with a lot of dead teenagers.

Mafia movies have a similar arc; I mean, when was the last time you went to a movie featuring Mafia characters where a significant number of them didn't wind up dead?  Let's call them Dead Mafioso Movies.

Mob movies go back a long way, but I like to distinguish Mafia movies from mob movies, where said mobster can be of any ethnic persuasion, or, as is now becoming the custom, all of them. Call it the Rainbow Mob movie, where every ethnic group is lauded or demonized, depending on your perspective, equally.
Think Boardwalk Empire or Hoodlum.  There is no confusion on the nationality of the mob guys on Mafia movies.

My first personal encounter on a Dead Mafioso movie was an incredibly positive one, as I got to work with a husband and wife director and producer team who came to be like family, only without your aunt's dry ham on Easter and your cousin who talks about the joys of asbestos removal.  That "family" line came up in a funny reference with a member of the cast years later.

I also got to work with one of the contemporary acting pioneers of the genre, the man who set bad things in motion when his Billy Batts character told Joe Pesci's to "go home and get his (expletive deleted) shine box. " No way someone wasn't going to wind up dead after a line like that.

Frankie Vincent is a member of a group a bartender friend of mine used to jokingly refer to as the "Perfume Mafia," actors who weren't really mobsters but played them in movies and television.  The core of the group was Frank, Vinny "Big Pussy" Pastore and Tony Sirico, and, yes, they all appeared on The Sopranos, and that is not a coincidence.  Another regular notables are the highly-talented and under-rated Arthur Nascarella,  and the incredibly versatile actor, musician and writer Victor Coliccio, (he's been shot by Jodie Foster and penned Spike Lee's Summer of Sam).

While Sinatra and Martin's Rat Pack was known for carousing, the Perfume Mafia (they DO NOT refer to themselves by this name) functions as an actor's networking and casting group, a loose and informal arrangement that hit the ultimate height with The Sopranos.  

It's often said that you aren't a real actor in New York if you didn't appear in at least one of the Law and Order shows.  If you were an Italian-American actor living in New York and didn't make it onto The Sopranos at some point, well, you were doing something wrong.  I know Tony Sirico, who I have never had the pleasure of working with, is very influential in bringing on Italian-American actors to projects he works on, and I understand this was no different on The Sopranos.

One certainly doesn't need to be of Italian heritage to play an Italian; James Caan's Sonny in The Godfather is as convincing as any performance (albeit Brando's, not so much).  For me, though, there is a difference when the characters playing the part has a face that my mother used to describe as "the map of Italy."  You know the look - Tony Sirico definitely has it.

So do the old guys playing bocce (or bocci - both spellings are used) in the Bronx.

Working with any of these guys is fun, and we had a number of them on this film; Frank, who was the lead, Vinny Pastore, Victor Coliccio, and Dan Grimaldi.  We also had a guy named Mikey "Scuch" Squicciarini.

Scuch, as we always called him, was a big man.  I don't have a picture (I will try to correct that at a later time), but the guy he most reminded me of was Lenny Montana, the actor who played hit man Luca Brasi in The Godfather.  I knew Lenny - his mother was my grandmother's neighbor - and like Mickey, who was 6'5" and 305 lbs, he was a big guy who was as nice as he could be off camera.

Scuch, which is slang among Italian-Americans for someone who needles others, was one of those who, like Tony Sirico, actually did have a criminal past, and had served time.  I'm not revealing any secrets here; Tony has been quite open about this in his own bio, and Scuch's background sadly became public after his death.  Both big men were done in by their size and had their heart give out.

Everyone who ever met Scuch loved him; his wake was standing room only the entire time.  He would work long days on set then go home and take of his parents, and I had the pleasure of being the person who cast him against type in Man of the Century.  In that movie, he played Maurice, a big bodyguard who turned out to be very gentle and recited Shakespeare sonnets.

Two of my favorite Scuch story actually comes from Man of the Century, which I will cover later, but I think it appropriate to tell here.

The first was Scuch one day in make-up talking about coming back from being "on vacation" for a few years.  One of our younger make-up girls heard this, and wondered what type of wonderful job he held to be able to take a vacation for a few years.  Those familiar with mob vernacular are aware he was talking about time in prison, and watching Scuch try to not upset this young girl and finding a polite way to explain it was quite cute.

The funnier story was Scuch preparing for his role, specifically, reciting the Shakespeare sonnet.  This was certainly much different than Scuch's usual dialogue in films - there were no threats of violence in it -  and he found memorizing it and the cadence of iambic pentameter difficult.

I showed up on set the day of that scene to find Scuch pacing and reciting his lines.  He was there over two hours before cast call - he showed up at the crew call time, and I was afraid someone had given him the wrong info.  Scuch insisted that was not the case; rather, that he had shown up early because he was determined to nail the scene and not disappoint me for recommending him, and the director and producer, who he liked.

I tried to assure him that he would be fine, and the final scene is wonderful.  However, his explanation to me was priceless.  

"JB, I know how to memorize lines, but when I do this sonnet, I have to go 'somewhere else.'"  When he said 'somewhere else,' his eyes went up to the heavens.  I always joked that I expected to see Scuch on The Actors' Studio, explaining this to James Lipton.  This obviously never happened, a great loss to the acting profession, for I would have loved to seen Scuch sharing his expertise with the students.

The combination of that, and seeing Scuch having tea with his pinky extended while holding this tiny cup, was  worth the price of admission, as they say.  

A good article on Scuch can be found here at the following link.

This brief introduction to some of the players on a film I will call Paper Blood - it's original title - will hopefully give a feel for working with these folks.  There are more tales to come, and I want to give this particular movie it's due.

Roger Ebert got a lot of blow back from the horror community for his Dead Teenager Film comments.  Ebert always contested that simply being a horror film with dead teens doesn't make it a Dead Teenager film, and that there are films with this plot that are good.  Ebert's issue was with the cookie-cutter, generic ones that had only the formula and little else going for them.

When it came to Dead Mafioso Movies, Paper Blood was anything but cookie-cutter.  Frank played an ex-cop who was now making some money on the side by moving a small number of securities whose destruction he was meant to oversee.  He gets in deep, pays the price, and his son and his son's girlfriend wind up seeking revenge.  It's a very original plot, and was, in my opinion, an under-rated film.  More on the plot, the making of the film, and some other fun moments in subsequent posts.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

An Ace in the Hole

I was preparing a blog post on my first mob film when I received a link from a student filmmaker to a short he wrote and directed.  It seems a perfect introduction to this genre.

The short was the story of a female drug dealer who plays a game of poker with another female customer for money owed.  It's a heads-up match with a male dealer.

The crime drama has always been among my favorite genres.  Those noirs that graced my television in black-and-white were filled with flawed characters, but what fascinated me most was the struggle to have honor in dishonorable situations.  The actors who embodied this most for me as a kid were Bogart and especially Robert Mitchum.

Mitchum's embodiment of evil in movies such as Cape Fear and Night of the Hunter were riveting and specific, not just a monstrous psychopath but one with depth and dimension.  His chiseled appearance, both in face and body, made him the perfect tough guy in numerous films.  The fact that he had once spent a short time in jail for marijuana possession just made him that much more like a real guy than a movie star to me.

Perhaps my favorite Mitchum role was as a former private detective who can't outrun his previous life in Out of the Past.  Much like Jim in Conrad's Lord Jim, fate seemed to toy with him, offering him redemption from past mistakes, only to take it away from him after he had tried so hard to do the right thing.

In my early attraction to English in grammar school, the concept of the tragic flaw always fascinated me.  My favorite Shakespeare character was Macbeth, an honorable and valiant warrior who is struck down by his vaulting ambition.  That was the phrase my English teacher, Brother Louis, used - vaulting ambition - and it stuck with me,  After all, weren't we supposed to be ambitious?  Ah, but vaulting ambition, that was different.

Classic heroes seemed indestructible, and even in my youth, I never felt that way.  I was never the best athlete, always one of the last kids picked on the team, the last guy on the bench on my freshman and JV football teams, teams I only made because of my grit.  Yeah, flawed characters I understood.

I also grew up in an Italian-American family, and gambling, cards, etc were part of the culture.  I made extra money while attending my Catholic high school by distributing and collecting money for football parlay cards my uncle would give me.  Kids would bet money, fill out a sheet, and, depending on how many teams they picked - they had to pick at least three but could go for more if they wanted to try big bucks - they could win money.  I'd give the money and the sheets to my uncle, and I would get a cut, a small percentage of the money bet.

If you grew up in a working class Italian and Irish neighborhood, this seemed normal.  My grandmother played the Brooklyn number (based on the last three numbers of the race track handle) with the local grocer.    None of us knew real criminals, just small time people getting by with a little hope for the something better.

My favorite columnist was Jimmy Breslin, then with the NY Daily News, pictured below.

Breslin was a crafty and skilled writer who looked like a regular guy, a little overweight, a NY accent, cigar in his mouth and shirt unbuttoned at the top.  He was one of us.

He always wrote from the perspective of the average Joe, including a beautiful piece after JFK's assassination from the point of view of the guy who dug his grave.  He wrote about mobsters real and fictional; the fictional mob boss Un Occhio allowed him to tell stories he heard from his mob informants without using real names.

When I entered a speech competition in high school, my choice to read was entitled Death Waited Here, and started with the line, "Five crosses, five crosses whose shadows lengthen in the evening sun.  Their presence announces that death waited here."

My first short screenplay in the NYU intensive class I took after my operation was about a bookmaker who had gotten in over his head.

When I saw an ad on Craigslist a few months back for someone to play a poker dealer, I was intrigued.  I certainly played my share of poker over the years, and knew how to deal.  I flirted with acting early in my career, but decided that the world could survive without one more mediocre actor, and so I moved to the production side.  I did pursue it long enough to have my photographer girlfriend from college, Sheila, do headshots for me.  One of those is above.

Clearly, pretty boy roles were not going to come my way, and even if had the perfect features to play them (I didn't) , I don't think I would have sought out those roles.  I didn't know those folks.

I did play Jesus in a comedic play my friend CK directed in the late 90s.  The play, written by an established TV comedy writer who was friends with CK, was about a talk show that had Jesus, a hooker (played by Natasha) and a gambler.  I actually lobbied CK to play the gambler, but he insisted that of all the people he knew, I was the one "who most seemed like he thought he was God."

It was scary doing a live stage play where I had to remember a lot of lines for the first time in a long time.  No second takes, no pick-ups.  I coached acting, and coaching is nothing like acting.  I can see very quickly what an actor brings to the table in a scene, and see how to get more out of him or her.  That is very different from doing it yourself.  This is why I always called myself an acting coach and not an acting teacher; everything I gave the actor came from the actor themselves.

In preparing for that stage role, I decided that I had to take a decidedly un-God-like approach.  Playing against text always adds dimension, so I decided on a Jesus who had done one-too-many talk shows, was bored, and a little snippy.  As much as I think I did a good job with it, it was still odd to watch myself on the tape of the performance later.

Now, many years later, this really nice film student named Gabriel met me for coffee where we talked about the role of the poker dealer, and the game itself.  I think he knew it mostly from television and home games, and wasn't familiar with how the game would be dealt.  We talked about it, a little about who the character was an his relation to the two female players, and how he would deal.

Gabriel is clearly one of those directors who thinks he will get more out of actors if they don't know the whole story, because he never gave me the entire script - just my scene.  He kept saying he didn't have a chance to write out the translation (he is French), and I now think that was a ruse to keep the rest of the script out of my hands.  I was amused when I saw the final product, because I never knew one of the characters was a drug dealer.  I don't think it would have changed how I played it, but it certainly didn't hurt.

I was in and out in about an hour and a half - I'm very thankful to Gabriel and his friend who was helping light for that.  He was organized and knew what he wanted.  Oh, Gabriel, if only more of my directors were like you!

I don't expect the final result to have my cell phone buzzing from agents, but it was a lot of fun and I'm really glad that I did it.  If I am ever given a mob film like the ones I worked on to direct, I think I might find a very small character just like this to play in a cameo.

One additional note - I also didn't know the title.  I haven't asked the director if he knew the title was shared by a noir by one of my two favorite directors, Billy Wilder, featured another flawed tough guy, Kirk Douglas.  I'll chose to think it is a happy coincidence.

Even in my radio days, I always hated my voice.  I am thankful this film required no lines on my part.

Below, my latest (and hopefully not last) stint in front of the camera.

The password is coutou. Please respect as it is otherwise private.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Regenerate Me - The Horror! The Horror!

He had summed up - he had judged.  The horror! The horror!
-Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

I recently revisited a favorite author, Joseph Conrad, and specifically, Heart of Darkness.  Most film fans know this was the basis of Coppola's movie, Apocolypse Now.  Conrad's Kurtz was an ivory trader in uncharted Africa whose zeal had led him to make personal armies of the natives, who looked upon him as something of a god.  When Conrad's narrator gets to him, he is a gaunt, ghostly figure who is looking into the abyss.

Kurtz's death in the novel on a couch in the cabin of a tiny steamer encompasses the true nature of horror.  The narrator, the captain of that vessel who has become fascinated by Kurtz, leaves the cabin after his final words and is not even in the room when he dies.  The reader can feel the chill in the room.

"It was as though a veil had been rent.  I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror - of an intense and hopeless despair....He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision - he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath.  The horror!  The horror!"

Both Kurtzs had come with good intentions, and done things that were horrible - the hanging of heads comes directly from the novel.

Conrad's story about the darkness in the human soul should be the the heart of the horror genre, and it is in classic horror.  The real monster in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is not the creation, but the doctor who goes beyond the desire to save lives to creating life from death.  Dr. Jekyl, and those around him, must come to deal with the darkness in his - and all men's souls - in Mr. Hyde.

Somewhere along the line, the horror genre de-generated (the puns start here) to any excuse to have humans and former humans do horrible things.  So it was with Regenerated Man.

The one-line plot description is "Thieves force a scientist to drink his own formula, turning him into a deformed, monstrous killer."  There isn't really more that you need to know.

John Rosnell, my old friend JR, was DP on this show with his usual crew.  Originally, the director and producer's didn't want to bring on a production manager, and I heard JR complain often about this terrible shoot that he was on.  Remember, JR was more than a DP - he was a vendor.  It was his equipment, and he brought the camera and G/E crew, and he did not take lightly to his crew being put in bad situations.

This was around the time I was leaving the movie with Van, and Stacey kidding me about leaving her on a lousy movie, and me kidding JR about how he was still on his own lousy movie.  As was our way, JR started "threatening" to bring me onto Regenerated Man.  Since there was resistance from the producers to pay an additional person they didn't think they needed, I didn't really think it would happen.

It happened.

Movie sets can sometimes be a reflection of the genre of the movie; comedies can be fun on set, dark subject matters sometimes leads to tense sets because of many emotional scenes that require crew to be quiet and stay clear of actors trying to portray unspeakable things.

Horror films, to me, fall into the category of most genre films - sci-fi, horror, mob films (something I know very well, and which I will explore at some length in good time), etc.  They tend to become more about the gadgetry of film-making, whether it be special f/x, blood, props, etc.  Acting tends to take a back seat, as does craftsmanship like cinematography.  Surely, in the hands of masters like Scorcese or Tim Burton, this is not the case.

That was not Regenerated Man.

We were very much about the SFX make-up of the deformed doctor, a really pleasant actor named Arthur Lundquist.  Don't take the lead in a film where you will spend as much time in the make-up chair as you will on camera unless you're a trooper, and Arthur was.

I came on after the film had started as production manager - nothing new for me at this point.  The producers expected that if they were going to have to pay me - and none of us was getting paid well - I better show them where I was saving them money.

The "money" people on this film weren't movie people - one of the biggest contributors owned a deli that was additionally providing the food for set.  It took a great deal of prodding to get them to understand that cold cuts is not an acceptable lunch for crew.

For up-and-coming filmmakers let me make this clear - an acceptable lunch is a hot meal.  It's the least your cast and crew deserves.  There also needs to be a vegetarian alternative - and that should not just be pasta every day.

It can sometimes be a struggle to get film caterers, who understand how to do this, to service small crews on low budgets.  That means often being creative with other meal sources - restaurants and delis who think of catering as big parties and not the way crews work.

On at least two occasions, I had very good experiences with friends or parents of the director providing the catering - in both cases, they cared, they listened, they responded to suggestions and corrections.

These guys - not so much.

Two of the producers were also playing small parts as thugs in the movie, and if they understood such things, there would have been a lot of sense-memory they could have brought to their parts.

They were the type of producers who loved the title, but thought that paying people meant you owned them, and resented every penny they had to spend.  I got into a number of heated arguments about the catering and their thoughts on my crew.

JR is the only reason I remained - I wouldn't quit and leave him, and the producers wouldn't fire me because they know JR would have pulled the crew.

Throughout Conrad's work, the nature of honor is examined.  In the film adaptation of Lord Jim - absolutely one of my five favorite movies of all time - a sailor who was on a ship where the crew abandoned the passengers - tries to earn back his honor on his own scale.  He finds himself on an island where he helps rid the locals of a thieves who are robbing and abusing them.

He marries the daughter of a high-ranking official of the locals.  When they capture one of the thieves, he makes the decision to let him go, and says if he is wrong, he will pay with his life.  The thief does try to return with others, and while they repel the robbers, the son of the official is killed.  That night, the official makes Jim an offer - leave that night, and he will make no attempt to follow him.  If he is still there in the morning, the official will be forced to have Jim honor his word and be executed.

Jim stays.  For him, running - again - is not an option.  He dies with his honor restored.

There is little heroic about production managing, but I feel just bringing the film in on time and budget is only the basics - you owe it to the producers to make the best movie possible - maybe even better than they deserve or would have thought.

This was the only time in my career where I abandoned that creed.  I was so appalled by these people that my only concern was finishing the movie on time and on budget and moving on.  I specifically remember a funny incident with JR.

JR was lighting the set with Jeffrey, our gaffer.  Now, JR was not a DP you had to rush - he rushed himself.  He would work to help get the lighting done himself.  At one point, I asked what the delay was.

"I'm just need to add a few touches to get the look (the director) wants."

"But are we basically lit?  I mean, it would look ok, right?"

""Well, yeah, but it doesn't ...."

"JR, I dont care.  I'm tired of these guys complaining about how much they're spending and how the crew doesn't work hard enough.  If you've got a key light, shoot the damn scene."

JR understood, and we hurried the lighting.

When the film was done, I asked my name not be in the credits.  What is funny is that it later became a cult classic.  I take no credit for that.

Genre films can be trashy, but they can also be a lot more, and my next experience with a genre film was a mob film, one of many I would go on to do, with a better plot, better actors, and a great producer/director team.