The first time I spoke to Matthew Bonifacio back in 2011, the filmmaker had been nominated for Spirit Award for his feature debut “Lbs.,” a drama that was shot over the course of nearly two-and-a-half years so that its lead to could lose an astonishing amount of weight to play a character trying to overcome his addiction to meatball hoagies and subsequently sat on the shelf for five years after its Sundance debut because of legal entanglements. While patience proved to be a virtue in the case of “Lbs” from conception to distribution, it’s a good thing for audiences that Bonifacio appears to have far less of it these days, making it an unofficial tradition to bring a new short film to the Tribeca Film Festival each year.
This year, Bonifacio delighted the New York crowds with the low-key charmer “Fortune House,” which centers on a man (Michael Aronov) with Asberger’s Syndrome who forms an unexpected bond with a waitress (Yuki Shibamoto) at his neighborhood Chinese restaurant. Under the auspices of the waitress’ doting mother who owns the restaurant, a friendship with the chance for romance develops for the two lonelyhearts, literally unfolding in simple gestures such as fortune cookie messages and the turning of tables between the pair. Shortly after the festival, I was able to catch up with Bonifacio to find out how his latest nine-minute movie, his longtime collaboration with its star Michael Aronov and how he initially got into filmmaking.
How did “Fortune House” come about?
Screenwriter Bob Linton, myself, and our lovely producer wives, Amber LaFrance and Julianna Bonifacio, all had been wanting to work together for a while now. We had some fits and starts with other possible feature and short projects but things didn’t materialize for various reasons. One day, Bob pitched me three short film scripts and saved the best for last. When he pitched me “Fortune House,” which, at the time was titled “Singapore Noodles, No Shrimp,” I felt very strongly about the story and immediately knew this was the one that would become a reality.
A lot of filmmakers stop making shorts after they try their hand at a feature, but you’ve seemed to embrace the form. What continues to be appealing?
I guess I did things in reverse. I made a feature first, then a few shorts, then my second feature, then a few shorts and following tradition, I currently have a new feature “The Quitter” and a short “Ana Smile” in post. It’s become a part of my fabric now, jumping back and forth, but regardless of length, they all have their challenges. With shorts, I can try different genres, work with new actors or crew, and yet it’s really difficult to engage an audience and give them a memorable experience in five, 10 or 15 minutes. When it works, it’s one of the most rewarding experiences for me – seeing an audience get invested in the characters and story in such a short of amount of time. And yet I have exactly the same filmmaking approach to my shorts as to my features, it’s just a difference in page counts, shooting days and budget.
This may be a superficial coincidence, but between “Fortune House” and Lbs., you seem to gravitate towards stories where someone has a something within themselves to overcome before they can begin to interact with another. What draws you to that conflict?
When I choose projects, I do gravitate toward characters in need of change, as this tends to lead to a nice character arc. With “Fortune House,” both characters — Pete [Michael Aronov] and Min-ling (Yuki Shibamoto) — have trouble communicating with the world, but this doesn’t stop them from communicating with each other. In “Lbs.”, the character Neil [Carmine Famiglietti] needs the support of his best friend Sacco [Aronov], to move with him to the country to overcome his food addiction. However, ultimately, the change comes from within himself.
It may have already been part of the script, but how difficult is it to keep things simple on a film like this? There are some really simple visual ideas that make this special.
The original script was simple but universally exciting for me. The characters and story really evolved when actors were cast, and then again on-set. I kept reminding myself to keep things simple in the telling of this story, both technically and creatively. The location was also small and the majority of the film takes place inside the restaurant, so it was important not to do too much visually to allow the audience to be right there with our characters.
I read you filmed conversations between Peter and Mei Ling that you ultimately didn’t include – did you actually shoot a lot more than necessary so their relationship could feel more lived-in?
Absolutely. When I’m on set I keep an open mind. I am always creatively challenging the material, the story, my actors. The more you explore, new discoveries develop before your eyes. You have to have a team of collaborators who share your vision and process in order for this to work, but we discovered a lot amazing, unplanned moments that made the final cut.
You’ve now worked with Michael Aronov on most of your films. How did that longterm collaboration come about?
Michael and I first met as actors in an Off-Broadway play. I was in pre-production on “Lbs.” simultaneously, and I asked him to read the part of Sacco for a staged reading. He was outstanding and eventually would go on to play the role in the movie and turn in an unforgettable performance. I cast him again in my second feature “Amexicano,” and he completely transformed both physically and mentally. He’s an actor who prepares and is meticulously specific in the details.
How did you first get interested in filmmaking in general?
I grew up during the film school generation of George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola and I wanted to be an actor. Later, I became interested in filmmaking with the independent film boom in the mid ‘90s. Films like “Sling Blade,” “Big Night,” “Affliction,” “Run Lola Run” and many others really inspired me with their gritty, independent voice and originality. I didn’t go to film school and instead obtained the reading lists from NYU and Columbia University Film School and just started buying as many books on filmmaking as I could find. “Lbs.” was my first film, and ultimately paved the way for me as a filmmaker. I’ve gone on to direct four features and 12 shorts, and I like to think it’s only the beginning.