Opening March 21st, Rob the Mob is a heartbreaking crime-thriller inspired by the true story of Tommy (Michael Pitt) and Rosie (Nina Arianda) Uva, two small-time crooks from Queens whose crazy-passionate love for one another fueled their audacious heists of Mafia social clubs in the 1990s and led to a startling discovery. The film directed by Raymond De Felitta from a screenplay by Jonathan Fernandez boasts an impressive cast that also includes Andy Garcia (who also produces), Ray Romano, Griffin Dunne, Cathy Moriarty, Michael Rispoli, Val Vazquez, Frank Whaley and Burt Young.
At the film’s recent press day, Garcia, De Felitta, Romano, Fernandez and composer Stephen Endelman spoke about how the project emerged, why Fernandez’s well written script and De Felitta’s directing style helped attract an incredible cast, how the actors approached their characters and brought the fascinating story to life, De Felitta’s unique collaboration with Endelman on the film’s score during post production, and how Garcia created genuine moments on screen with Luke Fava, the young actor who played his grandson. Romano also discussed his Italian heritage and his pride in its traditions and values. Check out the interview after the jump.
QUESTION: Of all the mob stories ever done, I’m thrilled to see this finally happen. I can’t believe it took this long to be told. Andy, how did you go about crafting your character that’s a Mafia boss but exudes unexpected warmth, gentility and humanity?
ANDY GARCIA: First of all, the steps that happened were Raymond (De Felitta) approached me with the screenplay by Jonathan (Fernandez). At the time, Nina (Arianda) and Michael (Pitt) were involved so Ray (Romano) had already been approached, and I’m a great admirer of all three of those actors, but Ray specifically because we’re also good friends. Raymond came to me and said, “I have this project and I’d like you to get involved as producer,” because we had this relationship on City Island. He said something very touching to me. He said, “I can’t think of making a movie without you.” We wanted to continue this relationship that we have with each other as filmmakers and collaborators. He said, “I have this idea for this character. It’s still under development in the story, but read it and we’ll work on it.” So I read it and then both Raymond and Jonathan and I got together. I spitballed some ideas and Raymond did, and then Jonathan went off to write and he elaborated on those. And then, we got together again and we went deeper into that and we wrote some more. We developed this concept with everybody’s ideas of who this guy could be in the story. One of the things I remember suggesting was to change his name, because the real guy is the real guy and now we’re creating a guy, so just let it be an inspiration on these guys. Raymond wanted to do something that was a departure, and we were more interested in him as a cook and as a grandfather than we were as a mob boss. That was what he did, but how did he get there? I think the original character did have a food truck and that’s how he started and he got involved in the mob. Jonathan did more research than I did because he was the original writer. We took the idea of the food truck, and I had a personal experience with these manila envelopes that we talk about in the story, and I gave it to them. We started building this arc for this character and that’s always the beauty of the collaboration.
RAYMOND DE FELITTA: Part of what we were trying to do always from the beginning, from the time that I first got Jonathan’s script and we started talking about it, was I don’t think that it’s a good idea for any director to decide to go make a mob movie. It’s been done. You’re not going to top Goodfellas. You’re not going to top The Sopranos. And so, if you are interested in that culture, which I am and which we all are, you have to find another reason to, another approach. You have to find some other wrinkle. So, when I read Jonathan’s screenplay, I saw this is the mob as a bunch of victims. It’s like they’re these worn out guys and they don’t know how to deal with this strange kid with an Uzi. Every choice we started to make from that point on was based on what have you not seen in a mob movie. What makes this different? And then, when we started talking with Andy about the role, it was, “Who’s the mob boss you haven’t met?” The idea that ultimately we got to was the foodie grandpa mob boss who actually makes a fatal error early on, letting the death of his own son affect his not ordering the hit on the two when he should. It made his story encompass all of the big things we wanted to do in the movie as well, which was just tell you a mob story that really wasn’t one that hopefully you had seen before.
GARCIA: It was a tragic arc and it was beautiful because he got involved in it by chance. There’s a courier and he starts making money and he buys his boy a bike, and it’s all this kind of stuff that came out in these improvisations and things we discussed. Just because of who he is, he grows within the hierarchy of that organization, and it gets to a point where because he’s such a powerful guy, and his son by his very nature gets sucked into it with him, he has to pay for it with the price of his own son, the death of his own son. He gets involved to protect and provide for his family. He thought he was protecting his family, but he completely destroyed his family. That choice was a very powerful thing and now he’s left with his grandson. All he wants to do is spend time with his grandson and cook for him and not deal with the mob, but he’s still the head of the mob. Those were all complications that we were trying to get to. I think it served the movie well because it gave another parallel story to the arc of Nina’s and Michael’s characters and also to the arc of Ray’s and the FBI in the story. It was all moving in parallel directions.
Jonathan, can you talk a little bit about how this project came together for you? What was your experience like writing the script and what inspired you?
JONATHAN FERNANDEZ: I had heard the story in the early ‘90s, and then, over a decade later, there was a trial for the people who were convicted ultimately of the murder of Thomas and Rosemary. And so, like Michael Pitt’s character, I really did go to the courthouse and I really did sit with the journalists, and there really were the Mafia families watching. I really did go to the Mafia social clubs. When I first walked into the Mafia social clubs, they weren’t like The Godfather, and I am the biggest fan of The Godfather and Goodfellas and all those great movies. I was like, “Wow, this is something different. We’ve never seen the Mafia in decline. We’ve never seen that.” What Raymond was able to do so brilliantly is capture the early 90’s. He was just so brilliant in that visual look and in capturing that look. It was something totally different than anything we had seen before. And then, of course, once Andy got involved, it was so exciting.
DE FELITTA: There are really two things going on with the music. There’s Stephen’s score which is gorgeous. It’s the second time we’ve worked together. He scored a movie I made called Two Family House and that’s very specific. You should talk about it a bit, Stephen, in terms of how we developed Tommy and Rosie’s music and what we wanted their tone to be. But then, there’s also the period music. What we were trying to do was find some music from the period like the opening track of Groove Is in the Heart by Deee-Lite which was very much of the moment that the whole story takes place in. I also wanted a sound for Tommy that indicated something kind of nostalgic in him. None of this survives, but there was a back story about how he had inherited his father’s record collection, and his father taught him to love soul and jazz. Anyway, what survives is we picked a number of really nice soul tracks. We have Wilson Pickett. I also think that kind of stuff works in a strange way. It doesn’t have to be the exact period, but it does remind you of a kind of nostalgic eastern, in this case, outer borough funk with that whole atmosphere. That’s really how the score and the source developed.
STEPHEN ENDELMAN: As Raymond has said, we collaborated on Two Family House before. This time was the most creative experience I’ve had on a movie, mainly because Raymond said to me, “I’d like to cut the film for the first six weeks in one of your rooms in your studio opposite Paramount” and I said, “Really? That would be amazing.” I talked to the producer. Raymond and the editor came to my studio. We started work. Then pretty quickly I was writing and he was editing. He’d throw scenes back to me. I’d throw music back to him. Then Andy came in the room one day and got involved, and before you knew it, we had a score. When the producer came from New York after five weeks to watch what was a rough cut, he was completely blown away because it was a rough cut with all new music for the film. There wasn’t one piece of temp.
DE FELITTA: One thing we should explain is that usually the composer isn’t brought in until the picture has pretty much been locked, and it’s always a disaster. I’ve never understood why it’s done this way, because if you’re a director like me, you use a lot of music in the editing. I’m always pulling stuff from other movie scores, putting temp in, and that temp sticks like glue to the movie. Once you get used to it, you feel like that’s your score. And then, in comes a talented composer who’s basically being told, “Could you just write this that I already stole from all these other movies?” It’s always this very difficult pull and push. I thought, “Why is that happening? Why don’t we do the score while we’re editing?” Because Stephen and I had worked together before, we thought let’s just as an experiment do this. What was great is we would be in one room cutting. We’d send him a scene. He’d send us a theme. The score was done effectively when the first pass of the film was done.
ENDELMAN: And then, it was just left to be recorded, modified, changed and refined, but it really was a delight. As far as thematically, there’s the theme for Rosie and Tommy, which is as broad a romantic theme as I think you can give it, but it’s also very asymmetrical. It feels like a waltz and it never is, and that was very much by design. Their love was so insane and mercurial. Until the very end of the movie, I just couldn’t get over how much in love they were with one another. Yet they were so flawed and faulted and you knew that nothing good could come of it.
DE FELITTA: That’s one of the things that became the hallmark of your score, which was we were not scoring a thriller. We weren’t scoring for tension. We were scoring for love because that was ultimately what we kept saying. This is what the movie is about.
ENDELMAN: The theme that I wrote for Alfonse (Garcia’s character), again it wasn’t like, “I’m a scary character. I’m really the head of a family and I’ll whack you.” That wasn’t it. It was all about him and his grandson from the first time we saw them in the kitchen. Raymond said, “I want to try it over this.” It’s very beautiful. I’m proud to say that the music isn’t aggressive in that sense, even in the gunfights. We can talk about the song that Raymond and I wrote for the robberies, the Love in the Garden song.
DE FELITTA: There’s this wonderful Italian recording artist named Nina who’s like the Barbra Streisand of… and she’s fantastic. We made the mistake of temping one of her songs and found out it was like licensing a Barbra Streisand song except the movie costs less. Stephen and I said, “Alright, how hard can this be?” What is it? It’s Italian pop of a certain era. We listened to it carefully, and one morning I wrote a sketch lyric thinking it was sort of a dummy lyric. The fact that it really wasn’t all that great worked because it felt like a stiff translation of a song from another language. We realized that’s what it needs to be. It needs to be like an Italian pop song that someone translated into English for the soundtrack of an American mob movie. The whole thing made sense, and Stephen wrote a great melody, and now we’re hoping that this is the last way somebody is finally going to make some money on this movie. That’s our song. (Laughs)
Ray, how did you approach your character, a veteran journalist who is obviously receiving information from the FBI, but in the process of writing his story also develops a genuine affection for these two kids who are robbing the mob?
RAY ROMANO: Well we talked about that. This guy was probably covering that beat for a long time. I just pictured him being a little burnt out. With the Gotti trial, you could see he talks about how it’s going to end up the same way. The fascination is gone. I took him away from what he was doing and just made him this guy who’s lost his way and is trying to find what’s next for him because this isn’t it anymore. This story about this couple falls in his lap and it pulls him back in. This is something he’s never seen or never covered. Because of where he is now in his life, the morality of it affects him more and he realizes that this isn’t just about getting the story. You’re also affecting these kids’ lives. That affects him more now just because of where he is. It’s not about the story. It’s about the human element to it, and that’s where I saw this guy just struggling with himself, and that made him more susceptible to his feelings towards these kids.
What about that great scene where you realize that the FBI is willing to sell these two kids out, and you want to do the right thing and help save them, but they just don’t get it?
ROMANO: I’m going to give Raymond De Felitta a little more credit because that scene was originally for….
DE FELITTA: Yeah, for Dave Lovell, who plays the head of the collection agency, at one point.
ROMANO: We were talking about my character and how are we going to see this in him. You thought that should be his scene. That’s when we were discussing me playing that role. I was offered the other role first.
DE FELITTA: I think it was realizing that the reporter is the conscience of the movie and hopefully the audience’s conscience. If we’re watching him take the story on and we’re watching him become fascinated, we need to arc the whole thing out. We need to know what really becomes of this. He was the guy, more than the employer, who you wanted to see feel that closure, or in his case, lack of closure. He tries to do something. It also has a lot to do with what journalists always have to face, which is, am I part of my story? I’m not supposed to be, but how can you not be sometimes and where’s that line that you cross?
We always know whatever Ray Romano does is based on honesty in terms of the roles you’ve done over the years.
GARCIA: You should play golf with him. (Laughter)
ROMANO: When you say honesty, are you talking about me as a person or my performance in the moment, because if you’re talking about me as a person, I have no problem playing someone dishonest as long as the moment is honest. So no, if they want to cast me as the bad guy, I’m all for it. But, as far as an honest moment in living the scene, in the acting of it, that’s important for everybody and for all the actors in this movie. I think what made it real is it’s such an extraordinary story and it seems so farfetched, but everybody played everything as real as it could be, even the humor. You’ve got to be careful with the gangsters, because if you make it too silly, then it’s cartoonish. Everybody played it real. The humor was there, but all the moments were real.
You have an incredible supporting cast with Cathy Moriarty, Michael Rispoli, Burt Young and others. Did you have any actors in mind when you were writing the script and how did you attract all of these talented people?
FERNANDEZ: To have this kind of cast was just a dream come true because actors want to work with Raymond. So that was really a thrill to see all of that come together and to see the kind of performances he was going to get. Many of these performances are against their sort of types. To see Ray Romano playing against type, everyone knows he’s brilliantly funny, and yet here he was as the moral center of the good of the movie. Andy Garcia is a screen legend, and here he is reinventing the Mafia don. It was pretty exciting to get that.
ROMANO: And then, you get the bonus of these two young actors that are just jumping off the screen like crazy.
FERNANDEZ: Michael Pitt, you’ve never seen him like this. It’s just this brilliant performance. And then, the one to watch is Nina Arianda. She’s such a huge talent. How old is she? She’s got a Tony nomination and a Tony win, and she’s going to get another one.
GARCIA: The thing is, when you have good material, especially that’s out of the box, you’re always going to attract a good cast. That’s the essence of any independent movie. You never have any money for anybody or even to make the movie, but what you have is the ability to attract great actors because everybody is looking for things that… It’s like doing an Off-Broadway play in a sense, but you’re doing it in 20 days. It’s a testament not only to the director but to the cast and the story and the writing. Also, in the independent scenario, there’s a freedom when you’re making the film. Nobody really cares you’re making the movie. No one’s paying attention. They could care less what you do or what you’re doing. What you have in this is an innate freedom between all of us to go into a scenario, and if you have a director like Raymond, you really have a space to explore. You don’t have to check with anybody if it’s okay to change the script because the writer is on the set. Everybody is in this thing and it’s just like a big stew. That’s why Dallas Buyers Club is up for Best Picture. That’s a movie they shot in two weeks after 20 years. Nobody cared and they had no money, but look at the work that was done in it, because it’s the spirit with which you go into it. It stems from the material and the excitement of that, sort of the romantic idealism of making it. You go off like gypsies and make this thing and nobody really cares, but at the end of the day, people will care when they see it.
ROMANO: If you have good material, you’re willing to go on a project where you know when you enter your trailer, you can’t go left and you can’t go right. You’re just there. When it’s a big studio picture, you want to be able to go right and go all the way left. (Laughter)
DE FELITTA: And in New York you also get this incredible cast. I mean, all the actors you were mentioning, it’s like they’re all there and they love staying there. And so, when we were conceiving the look of the movie, it’s the look of the actors to me as well. It really became a little parlor game like, “Who from what iconic Italian-American movie or Italian-American mob movie could we get for everything?” The meta-film of it is you’re looking at here’s Burt Young. We’re in Once Upon a Time in America for a minute. Here’s Cathy Moriarty. You’re in Raging Bull for a minute. Here’s Andy and you’re in everything for a minute. (Laughs)
ROMANO: With me, you’re in Welcome to Mooseport. For like two seconds, you’re in Mooseport. (Laughter)
GARCIA: I’m not concentrating on my eyes. I’m not acting at all. That’s just a manifestation of what’s inside of you, the heart of the character that you’re working from. It’s got nothing to do with the eyes. I don’t want to get caught using my eyes. (Laughs) That’s just the behavior that manifests through… You’re in it. You’re inside of it. We, as actors, are looking for those moments that become sublime experiences for us where you’re in the character and the character is speaking for himself. You’ve done all the work around it, and you’ve set yourself up to have this journey, and then you’re in it and it’s manifesting itself off of your fellow actor. When I’m looking at that little boy, or if I do a scene with Ray, it’s happening off of Ray. It’s happening together. We’re pulling the performances off of each other and off of the situation, just like I’m talking to you now. We’re in it together. I’m not designing it and you’re not designing it. It’s just happening. It’s that kind of thing. Raymond will have his own perspective on what we do because he’s directing. He’s watching us do it, but we’re just trying to lose ourselves in it. Sandy Meisner (American actor and acting teacher) said something, which is we’re living truthfully within imaginary circumstances, and that’s what you do. You lose yourself in this world and you are the guy. At that moment, you are the guy and you have his joys and his pains, and you’ve got to dig for those things within your own fabric of who you are and your life experience.
What was it like acting in those scenes with the young boy who played your grandson? Was there a lot of preparation for that?
GARCIA: None whatsoever. I mean I did preparation personally, but we didn’t rehearse any of the scenes.
DE FELITTA: No. In fact, the boy’s name is Luke Fava. I tend to look at actors on tape, because I find it’s just too painful and embarrassing sometimes to do it in a room. I don’t know what to say, and sometimes I think it’s fairer for them. They can do it a few times and I can look at it later, especially with kids. I was like, “Please don’t put me into a room with these 10-year-olds and their mothers at the door.” So, I looked at this tape and there were these two or three really well rehearsed, professional young actors. And then, there was this little boy who did the scene, and halfway through he forgot, and he looked up like he was trying to read the script in his head. Then he went, “Oh yeah” and he started again, and my heart just melted. I was like, he’s just really doing it. He’s trying. We hired him and he was so human. That chess scene that we shot, I think it took two takes, two angles. It was not a big deal. To me, it’s beautiful. It’s so eloquent the two of them together.
GARCIA: The thing about working with kids, because I’ve done it several times, it’s like working with – and I don’t say this badly – but it’s like working with an animal, with a dog. Your total focus is to take care of the kid, just be there for the kid and be connected with him. It’s really all about the kid. It’s not about you. It has nothing to do with you. It’s about how you feel about the kid and who is the kid. It’s just concentrate on the kid, make the kid happy, let the kid steal the scene. It’s all about the kid. So, the moment you see the kid, the first time you meet him, you make it all about the kid. “What are you doing? Let’s go have lunch. What are you doing? Let’s go play cards.” You just build the relationship outside of the movie as quickly as possible, so when he starts to work in the movie and the cameras roll, he forgets that there’s even a camera rolling. He’s already kidding with you. He’s pulling you at your chain. He’s completely comfortable with you. That’s the homework. That’s the work. The work on camera is nothing. It’s the work that you prepare around it so he feels [comfortable]. So, you build a relationship prior to the relationship on camera. And, it’s not rehearsal. We’re not doing the lines. We’re not doing anything like that. I’m having lunch with him. I’m talking about it. We’re just talking about life. We’re just kidding with each other, and I’m spending as much time with him as possible. That’s all.
I loved the way you interpreted your characters. They’re like guys that have been around the block dozens of times. I’m curious if you had made the movie ten years ago, do you think your interpretations of the characters would have been the same?
DE FELITTA: I think ten years ago I was the opposite. I’m more rambunctious now. I would have been like, “Guns? I don’t want a gun in a movie. I don’t want to do gangsters.” No. I’m not trying to take your question lightly though. I think actually I wouldn’t have been as interested in trying to figure out how to make empathic and honest characters out of crazed kids who do insane things, and I wouldn’t have necessarily looked at a Mafia boss and thought, “Gee, do I really want to try and find the humanity in that? It’s already been done.” A lot of that gets better when you get a little deeper and a little older.
ROMANO: The answer is yes for me, because you are playing a character but you do bring parts of yourself into it. So, ten years ago, yes, I was different. I still have a lot of the same problems, but I could run away from them faster. (Laughs)
GARCIA: I don’t think I could have, because I don’t think I was old enough to do him.
DE FELITTA: But would you have wanted to? It’s an interesting question.
GARCIA: My beard wasn’t quite as white. Actually it was pretty white ten years ago. The thing is, the gimmick of saying if it was ten years ago, when I was 48, would I want to try to play a guy who hopefully looks 65, then you got to put the makeup on. It just takes you out of the movie, unless it’s just one scene and you’re playing the character as a 90-year-old guy in that one scene. I think it’s just that the timing is right for it. As Ray said, as actors, even though you might be a private person in real life, you’re a very public person in your work, and you bring all your emotional baggage to every part that you play and that’s infused. That’s the marriage because those are the tools you have to fill these characters. So, when Ray’s character has issues about where he is in his life and where is the moral line that he has to draw, or what does he feel about the choices he made in his life to get to where he’s at as a reporter, the first place he’s going to go to is to find some sort of parallel in things that are directly related to his personal life, because that’s what gives it weight and depth. We don’t need to know what that is, but he’ll show you.
ROMANO: It’s my father, just so you know. (Laughs) I always go to my father.
GARCIA: He chooses to say that, but I don’t need to know specifically. I’ll see it in the performance and that’s the beauty. If you want to ask, “How did you do that?,” I’m going to say, “I’m not going to tell you how I did it.”
ROMANO: I was thinking I can’t keep going to my father again who I keep pulling from, but you do find that part of yourself that you can draw from.
Ray, your last name and your Italian heritage have always played an important role in your career. What does it mean to you? You’re 80 percent Italian?
ROMANO: Why only 80 percent? (Laughter)
GARCIA: After this performance, it took 20 off. (Laughter)
ROMANO: My father was Romano and my mother’s last name was Fortini.
Isn’t there some French in there, too?
ROMANO: French? Maybe, if you go way back. I was born here and my parents were born here, so I’m proud to be an Italian-American. I don’t wear it on my sleeve, but my wife is from Sicily. I’ve been married 26 years and I’ve been around these rich Italian families and I love it. I see other families and they all have the same love and affection. We show it in different ways and I’m proud of it. I’m proud of the tradition and the values and the food.
DE FELITTA: And that’s why he agreed to be in a mob movie.
ROMANO: I’ve been to Italy three times. I hadn’t gone to Italy until Everybody Loves Raymond filmed there. That was my first trip there. Since then, I’ve been there twice. I’ve been to Sicily a couple of times because I have to. When my wife says we’re going, I have to go to Sicily. I can’t say no to a Sicilian.
GARCIA: You’ll be buried in Sicily, won’t you?
ROMANO: (Laughs) Yeah. All I can say is, “La luna mi fa pensare d’amore.” You know what that means?
GARCIA: The moon makes me think of love. He says it to me all the time when we play golf.