It was nearly midway through the filming of “The Quitter” when Matthew Bonifacio and his co-star Julianna Gelinas Bonifacio when the two thought about taking the advice of the film’s title. They were shooting the film’s climatic confrontation, playing ex-lovers testing the waters for a possible reunion, so emotions were naturally running high, yet the two had the additional stress of not only acting together for the first time, but being in charge of two nerve-wracking productions – the tightly-scheduled, low-budget film going on in front of the camera and another off-camera – their wedding. Things were bound to come to a head.
“We probably shot 26 days, so that’s pretty good math just to have one big disagreement on set, but that emotional scene was the only time we had a major fight. We were just both sensitive and tired, and doing 18, 20-hour days when we’re both wearing all these hats and it finally caught up to us,” said Bonifacio, who adds with a laugh, “We still got married.”
After making an indie film, the now-happily wedded pair surely can survive anything. Still, it’s nonetheless ironic you’re never sure that the characters Bonifacio and Gelinas-Bonifacio play in “The Quitter” can, with him starring as a former baseball player who chose a life in the minors over his pregnant girlfriend, a regretful decision he hopes to make amends for seven years later when he sees her and his daughter (Destiny Monet Cruz) on the boardwalk of Brooklyn. As with the previous films he’s directed such as “Lbs.” and “Amexicano,” Bonifacio finds a character pushed past his comfort zone to make an important change in his life, only this time he took on the part himself, a nod to the past he left behind when he hung up his own cleats and glove to pursue film.
Once again, Bonifacio handles the messy business of people in the midst of great personal upheaval with no small amount of both grace and humor, and shortly before the film is released in his hometown of New York, he spoke about how it came together, drawing on his past in baseball and acting for inspiration and how leaning on others gave him greater confidence in himself.
How did this come about?
I was a baseball prospect many years ago. I had played in Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium and this loosely started out as an idea of mine that I wanted to turn into a play originally. I had this idea of this failed baseball player who had left his ex-girlfriend when she was pregnant to pursue his baseball dream, then years later, he’s got nothing going on in his life and he wants to get in their life once he runs into them. Once we got some funding, we commissioned Bill Gullo, who wrote the screenplay. He’s the same guy who wrote “+1,” which was a completely different kind of genre, but he has great sensibilities for this kind of material and just started putting the pieces together.
I never intended to act in it although it was a close personal story. I could relate to it. Our producer Neil Jain, who said that he could raise the money for it, knew me when I used to act many years ago. He was like, “You know, it sounds great, but you have to act in it.” I’m like, “No, I don’t act anymore.” He’s like, “Forget it.” I’m like, “Okay, I’ll do it.” Then with my wife was originally an actress too, so I wanted her to develop this with her because it was just a once in a lifetime project that we would both acting in it, as well as producing it, and me directing it. We were also planning a wedding too during production, so it was an incredible adventure.
Is it strange when you’re playing characters who were once in love, but now at a distance just as you’re about to get married in real life?
In the film, our characters are on opposite sides of things, yet in real life, we’re in love and passionately working on this film. Believe it or not, it went very smooth. She had produced several of my shorts and one of my features. We work really well in the different parts of pre-production and production of things that we handle. She does a lot of management, and paperwork, and payroll whilst I’m doing, working on the shot list, and putting out fires. We have a great working relationship and we’re a great team in that respect. Acting together was something new for us.
Was it interesting to return to your past, both in terms of acting and baseball?
Absolutely. The reality of it is it’s terrifying. I don’t envy actors. They have an incredible job to do. I was terrified, it’s pure agony. The first day of filming, I wanted to keep it very light. There were no other actors in my scene — it was like the telephone call that I didn’t even make the cut. Fifteen takes later, I was like, “Wow, this is really difficult.”
The thing is you could argue that I have more acting experience than directing because I trained as an actor and spent many years acting in New York, then I became a director. Now, I really feel like I’m an actor’s director. My confidence as an actor definitely grew. I built a great support team around me, hand-selecting certain crew members to stand by the monitor [to watch my performance]. I’d head over to the video village and say, “What have you got for me?” In the beginning, they would all hesitate to find the right words. They were trying to make it kind, but constructive, but I didn’t have time for that. I’m like, “Bullets, give it to me in bullets.” Each day, their notes would get more streamlined. I was able to process that and go back and do another take, or multiple takes, fairly quickly. Then I began to retrust my instincts more and more. I didn’t rely on the feedback.
You’d get in a groove and you work it through. I didn’t even want to get like close-ups of myself at times. I’d get coverage of the other actor and I’m like, “Alright. Let’s check the gate and move on.” Deirdre O’Connell, who played my Mom, was like, “You’re doing some nice things there. You sure you don’t want to turn the camera around and get some coverage of yourself?” I’m like, “Nah, I don’t need it,” and that was a big turning point because I realized that I shouldn’t shortchange myself as an actor. That’s when it hit me that this production was going to be non-judgmental. I didn’t have to feel like I was too self-serving if I was going to do a couple of takes, or many takes of me, everyone was going to support it. Everyone was very patient and it was great to get that experience with actors. A lot of directors maybe haven’t taken an acting class or don’t have an acting background and I really recommend it just to get in touch with what an actor goes through daily. That was really rewarding for me as a director to act in it.
Let me ask about another skill you show off – during the daughter’s ballet class, you bust a move. Was that something you told your screenwriter to include in the script or was it spontaneous?
It was very collaborative. Bill Gullo took the idea of the failed baseball player and went to town on the script, but that was one thing [I insisted] — “We’ve got to add a scene of my character doing The Worm.” He used that skill. I had grown up in a very tough section of Flatbush, Brooklyn, Church Avenue and what you did to stay out of trouble was you played baseball, which I did, and you would also break dance with your friends. This is going to sound cliché, but you would get a cardboard box, open it up, lay it out flat on the sidewalk, play some music, and you’d practice break dancing. I can’t do any other kind of dance. I am the worst dancer. I can’t dance to regular music, but at a wedding, people that know me will get me out there to the dance floor and I’ll do The Worm. Actually, that’s going to be a future comedy about a guy who does The Worm to pick up chicks.
Considering how this has some personal elements to it, it’s been interesting to see you assign the writing duties to someone else after writing many of your early projects. Do you like having that distance from it?
Yes, there is an element that is not planned, but I like to weave fiction and nonfiction into my work, specifically “Lbs.” and even elements of “Amexicano” and my short, “Migraine.” The same thing with “The Quitter.” My wife did ballet for many years and it’s not apparent in the story, but her character probably quit ballet as well. Everyone quits something.
In terms of working with other writers, I’m very selective. First of all, it’s got to be a project that I’m passionate about, but also are they collaborative with their material? I don’t want to take credit for what they’ve written, but I just want to make sure that the writer that I’m working with is open to challenging the material and trying to improve it. Each day when I’m on set, I’m trying to make the next day better than the last. Bill is just such a great person in general. I know him well; we know each other, he knew my wife as well. He was just the perfect fit and really got everything right.
“The Quitter” will open in New York at the Regal Cinemas E-Walk on September 12th.