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. http://observer.com/2000/06/its-retarded-hell-suck-your-lungs-out/
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.