Lorraine Bracco and Neil Jain in "Master Maggie"

Tribeca ’19 Interview: Matthew Bonifacio and Julianna Gelinas Bonifacio on the Teachable Moment of “Master Maggie”

When Matthew Bonifacio began teaching acting courses at Pace University, he began to notice students were being prepared well to perform on stage, but when it came to being in front of a camera, it was different story.

“A lot of the programs are beginning to weave that in, the film and TV aspect of it more than ever, but in the past you’d go to these programs and they were strictly theater, so I get a lot of gratification doing that and trying to give them a toolbox that they could use for their future auditions and self-tape auditions, which is big in the industry now.”

Based on his experience as a teacher, there’s always something else to learn, which is the driving force behind “Master Maggie,” Bonifacio’s latest short that spends an afternoon with one of the world’s most celebrated private coaches for thespians (Lorraine Bracco). Thanked by Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett in their Oscar speeches, Maggie can be seen giving counsel to no less a legend than Brian Dennehy when the darkly comic film Bonifacio co-penned with his wife and producing partner Julianna Gelinas Bonifacio begins, but her attention is soon diverted to an amateur off the street (Neil Jain), who asks for a crash course before an audition for “Law & Order.” She’s reluctant to give it, but appreciating that he’s got about as little patience for decorum as she does, the two match wits before she clocks out for the day, leading them both to be surprised that they discover something new.

While “Master Maggie” will surprise audiences as well, its premiere this week will bring back one of the Tribeca Film Festival’s most reliable charmers in Bonifacio, who previously graced its screens with the 2007 feature “Amexicano” and the 2013 short “Fortune House,” and shortly before the festival gets underway, he and Gelinas Bonifacio spoke of collaborating on their first script together, creating a visually dynamic battle of wits within the confines of a single location and finding the right theater to house all the action.

How did this come about?

Matthew Bonifacio: I’ve been a private acting coach for the last 10 years. I’ve also been a professor for the last few years, so I work with actors all the time besides making our films and I always thought it would be interesting to give a little insight into the life of a private acting coach, specifically one that works with celebrities. I brought this idea to Julianna and she actually came up with the twist that we’re not going to reveal right now. [laughs] And off we went running with it.

Julianna, while you’ve produced with Matthew, this is the first you’re credited as a co-writer. Was that much of a leap forward together professionally?

Julianna Gelinas Bonifacio: Yeah, there wasn’t really a plan for our working relationship. I fell into producing with Matthew and it just worked for us so well. I would always read scripts in the early stages and offer feedback and I did a little bit of script doctoring at certain points and before I knew Matthew when I worked at a production company where I started as a script reader and doing coverage, so I had some background, but I had never officially written one. With Matt coming up with this world and then coming up with this twist, it just made the most sense to just sit down and contribute our own vision of this into one cohesive screenplay. [laughs] Since then, we’ve written two other shorts and a feature screenplay together and I don’t see us stopping now.

It sure doesn’t seem like it. This is the highest-profile cast you’ve worked with, and in many instances, asking them to play a version of themselves looking for help – is it a tall order to get Brian Dennehy to say he needs to have more conviction in his performance?

Julianna Gelinas Bonifacio: He didn’t seem to have any problem with that. [laughs] He did request a phone call with Matthew after he read the script and was seriously considering the role and I think that was most important to him was just getting a vibe about who he would be working with. But he had read Matt’s bio, he loved the script. We were just lucky that he didn’t mind playing himself – or a version of himself, anyway.

Matthew Bonifacio: And it was hard for him to have a bad take. [laughs] No spoilers intended. And in terms of Brian Dennehy and Kenan Thompson, they just dropped into it and fully revealed themselves as actors participating in a coaching session. That’s difficult to do, but they totally embraced that notion and went along with it, so it didn’t take much convincing that hey, just really be yourself. We had conversations about it, but it was just like the camera was eavesdropping during these sessions – that’s what I was hoping to get. We’re getting these actors that we know in this private world of coaching and auditioning.

Julianna Gelinas Bonifacio: Yeah, and I think it helps to that they could read a script and see there wasn’t ill intention behind the characters playing themselves, like there was nothing that was mocking and they could bring their own take to what a good take and bad take would be.

Matthew Bonifacio: And also that they had somewhere to go within those scenes – they do improve, so it shows them having range and showing their talent in front of the camera as actors.

How did Neil Jain come in as the nonprofessional seeking a crash course?

Matthew Bonifacio: We were familiar with Neil’s work for a while. I cast him in “The Quitter,” which was our last feature and really enjoyed working with him, but that really showcased his comedic side and we knew he had this serious, mysterious dramatic side in his actor’s temperament and asked him to audition and he was definitely convincing. I had met him years ago through a mutual friend who wanted him to share his acting reel and it’s funny that on his acting reel was an episode he did of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” [the show he says he’s auditioning for in the film] with Vincent D’Onofrio, so maybe that stuck in the back of our minds, and we loved what was he bringing to the table and thought he would really contrast Lorraine’s style of acting as well.

How did you get Lorraine onboard?

Matthew Bonifacio: Lorraine responded to the script and then we showed her some of our past work and then ultimately we had dinner together and just all got along and we were all in sync on the same page.

How’d you find the right theater to set this in?

Julianna Gelinas Bonifacio: We made a list of smaller theaters that had availability to rent and we had certain looks that we were going for – very simple, not too shiny – so I was walking to meet Matthew at one of the locations we had an appointment at, and I walked past the Sheen Center on Bleecker Street. It had a sign that said “Black Box,” and I thought, “What is the Sheen Center?” I had never heard of it, so I texted Matthew, saying we should look at this place, but we went to the appointment that we already had.

It was a great theater, but luckily, our appointment fell in the middle of the afternoon and a school bell went off during our tour of the theater. Kids were swirling around backstage and we’re like, “What is happening?” And the guy giving the tour was like, “Oh yeah, that’s the only thing. The theater’s connected to the school and if you guys are filming on the weekday, the bell rings occasionally.” So we’re like, “How often?” And he says, “Every hour.” [laughs] So that wasn’t going to work. We turned back and returned to the Sheen Center and that ended up being the perfect location.

Matthew Bonifacio: Originally, we wanted an old off-Broadway theater and this was more contemporary, but it wound up working out perfectly because we feel like Lorraine’s character is a contemporary Stella Adler.

You really make this one location dynamic, particularly with the lighting. Was that a challenge?

Matthew Bonifacio: That was something that we discussed at length with our cinematographer. One of the inspirations for the lighting was “Opening Night” by John Cassavetes [where] the lighting has such a sparkle, such a glow, almost like it has this haze, so when you see light beams, they really pop. That’s something that we wanted to do with “Master Maggie,” so we used special filters to really have that smoky haze feel and it just really softens everything, but it really makes the high lights of the lighting glow.

Also, we used these vintage Prime lenses, called Panchro lenses. They come from the 1920s to the 1960s and this company Cooke redesigned them to work with today’s cameras. “Black Swan” was another big inspiration. We just loved the disturbing camerawork in it and that just got our creative juices flowing, seeing how that could inspire us to work with “Master Maggie,” essentially in one location, almost like a one-act play.

You build a lot of tension, but there’s also this great scene where Maggie unwraps a mint as if to intimidate her student because she doesn’t say anything, but there is this mischievous music – how’d you come up with that cue?

Matthew Bonifacio: The mint idea [itself] was inspired by an acting teacher who taught the Meisner technique and any actor that’s studied the Meisner technique know that’s really, really intense. I don’t know if that was a common [habit] for my teacher, but she would do that.

Julianna Gelinas Bonifacio: And I brought five bags of hard candy [for Lorraine to choose from]. We knew we wanted it to be hard and those were the ones that she selected. She wasn’t too picky. But she was like, “Sure, lay them on me. Let me try them.” And as far as the score for that moment, that wasn’t a place where either Matt or I had imagined there would be score, but we have to give credit to our composer Michael Bacon, who threw that in at one point during a session and it just blew our minds. It adds some humor there without looking like we were trying to add humor there.

Matthew Bonifacio: Yeah, it gives the audience permission to laugh if they want to laugh and also as you could see, the use of music in the film is very minimal – on purpose, but when it’s there, we feel like it really brings another level to the movie. We were just so pleased with how the score turned out. Usually, it’s a huge process and it takes very long to get the music, but Michael got the music really fast and what we were going for and he also loves to share his ideas. He did a terrific job.

What’s it like being back at Tribeca?

Julianna Gelinas Bonifacio: We love Tribeca and we have been fortunate enough to play films there in the past. Matt had a feature there before I knew him, “Amexicano,” but it’s getting harder and harder to land at any film festival, so to land at a film festival like Tribeca, we don’t take that for granted.

Matthew Bonifacio: Yeah, they’re 18 years old and such a significant festival and they responded to the movie very early on and were very passionate about it. We always imagined landing at Tribeca with this New York story and with New York audiences – we feel like it’s for all audiences, but it would be a great place to world premiere it and start our festival run, so we’re just really excited about it.

“Master Maggie” will screen at the Tribeca Film Festival as part of the Shorts Program: Streetwise at the Regal Battery Park on April 26th at 6 pm and April 29th at 9:45 pm and the Village East Cinemas on May 3rd at 3 pm and May 4th at 6:30 pm.

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