There are many revelations in “Rob the Mob,” a film that takes its deceptively simple title from the blaring, boldfaced headlines of the New York Post that accompanied the stories about Thomas and Rosemarie Uva, a down-on-their-luck couple from Queens who discovered during the John Gotti trial that the social clubs that would often serve as mafia hangouts had a no weapons policy, leaving dons and capos unarmed as they gambled with stacks of hundred-dollar bills and were a bit tipsy from a few too many shots of rum. With prior convictions already clouding their potential job opportunities, the two seize the moment to take advantage of the beleaguered ranks of the crime syndicate.
Yet as director Raymond DeFelitta discovers, the real opportunity is in mining the generational gap between freewheeling Rosie and Tommy (a breakout Nina Arianda and Michael Pitt, who’s never looked like he’s had as much fun onscreen before, respectively) and the duty-bound mob bosses, played by Andy Garcia and Michael Rispoli, they ransack for rent. While the elder statesmen of the mafia scramble to abide by their structure and their perverse rules of respect, they are undercut by a passionate pair whose ability to shake things up stems from the destabilization they faced while growing up, particularly in regards to Tommy, who lost his father to a mafia-related slaying. As deep as DeFelitta and screenwriter Jonathan Fernandez go with the story while still making it tons of fun, they have an even deeper bench when it comes to their ensemble, filling out the world of hoodlums and thieves with a cast that includes Burt Young, Griffin Dunne, Cathy Moriarty, Ray Romano and Frank Whaley, all of whom make an impression.
Shortly before the film opens in the city it took place in, DeFelitta spoke about how he came to learn of the crazy true story behind it, making “meta-films” within his films and why directing never gets any easier.
How did you get interested in the story?
It’s funny because I did not originate it. Jonathan Fernandez wrote the script, and I didn’t know about the story, even though I’ve always really dug true crime and New York stuff. When I read it, I thought that it was hilarious and mad, it was also indicative of something sad and maybe larger, the fact that it really wasn’t that well-known a story. Unless you’re a real mafia scholar, you probably really hadn’t heard of Tommy and Rosie and there was something poignant about that. The best true crime stories are the ones that aren’t necessarily famous. If you can find a true crime story that’s really interesting, but it’s not Bonnie and Clyde, it’s not Dillinger, then you have something that’s kind of beautiful because these stories are huge to the people they happen to. They’re life-changing. They’re scary. They don’t always last to the general public’s mind for long.
Do you actually feel differently about the ones you write yourself and direct rather than the ones you don’t?
I used to, and I don’t after this movie. The only other time I directed something I hadn’t written, I didn’t really have any input into that script. That was frustrating for me and I never really felt like it was my film. I said, “I don’t want to do that anymore; I only want to write my own things.”
But it gets boring writing all the time, so I started trying to identify something else out there that I could be interested and that somebody else may have written. When I read [“Rob the Mob”], I responded to it emotionally. I also saw that there was still work to be done on the script, and when I met Jonathan Fernandez, the writer, he was very open to doing more development and taking it to another level. He wasn’t defensive, and he didn’t look at me as the director who was going to screw up his vision. We had a really great collaboration and he stayed on through the whole movie. I had him on the set, but I was able to put my own imprint on this as opposed to just shooting someone else’s script.
I couldn’t help but notice that stamp in your use of 8mm film to summon memories of Tommy’s father, which pulled me back to your use of the format in “Two Family House.” Is that something you use just so you have a shorthand for the audience or is there something particularly meaningful about shooting on film?
Certainly, it works as memory, and it’s also easy to shoot. It’s Super-8, it’s handheld, and nothing too much to it. It looks beautiful because of its grainy, nostalgic quality. But the other thing I love about being able to do that kind of work in a film is that it has a meta-film aspect to it, like you’re inside someone’s head — in their memory — but you’re also outside going, “Oh, wow. I’m looking at a different film.” It reminds [audiences] that it’s a film that you’re watching, but at the same time it doesn’t take you out of it. It becomes texture and part of the technique. This film is interesting because we mixed this — I shot some of it, and some of it was old stock footage. We shot the stuff of Tommy’s memories, of his dad getting beaten up, but when Al, the mafia boss, has his flashbacks, that’s actually home movie footage that I got from a friend of mine because it had to be placed in the ’50s.
There’s a nuance here that there isn’t to a lot of depictions of the mafia. Was it something you were particularly sensitive to as an Italian-American or simply as a filmmaker who doesn’t typically work in this genre?
Definitely. Look, you’re not going to beat the greatest mafia movies ever made. That would be “Goodfellas or “The Godfather,” and if you’re not one of those mafia movies, you’re probably one of the many, many crappy ones that are out there. But I wasn’t really interested in making a mob movie. What I responded to was Tommy and Rosie’s story, which I really felt was the heart of the film, and also that I’d never seen the mob depicted in quite this way. They weren’t really menacing, and they’re not cartoons … at least I hope they’re not. They’re just these guys at the end of their road. They’re tuckered out, they’re befuddled, and they’re the victims. They don’t quite know what to do with what Tommy and Rosie are doing to them and what’s going on around them. That made it special, and unlike another mob movie.
Then when we got the Andy Garcia character, we developed that specifically for him, and he didn’t want to do a don originally. He was like, “You know, I’ve been in Godfather 3. What am I doing?” I said, “Why don’t we find a way to do a don that you’ve never met?” Again, it’s like, let’s not do the usual don. Let’s do the grandfather who wants to hang out in the kitchen and cook, and he just doesn’t have the heart for what he does anymore.
You mentioned the phrase “meta-film,” which I’ve heard you say before, but as it applies to casting. You’ve got this incredible ensemble cast and when you see Burt Young or Cathy Moriarty, even for a short time on screen, it plunges you into another film. Was that part of the appeal?
Just as I thought it would be great to step out of the film for a minute when you use the super-8, I thought it would be great to let you know that the movie is a little bit of a reminder of a lot of classic movies of the genre. You see Burt, and there’s a bit of “Once Upon a Time in America.” You see Cathy, and for a second, you’re going to think of “Raging Bull.” I love trying to find the icons of this genre and finding parts for them in the movie and it was great because the script was constructed in a way where none of them had to work for long. The scenes are spread through the script in a very measured way so that Ray Romano and Andy Garcia, they should only work like four days. Cathy, I just asked for one day, and we shot her two scenes and they’re at the beginning and the end of the movie, so it feels very substantial, but she was able to basically just come in for a day. It’s easier on everyone.
In a sense, you’re able to do the same with the music. I’ve heard it was quite the process to create the song “Love and a Gun,” which is played throughout the film, but morphing from an instrumental piece to something that’s sung in Italian and eventually English. Coming from a musical background, do you always know how the music will play out even before shooting?
It’s funny. That song was written because we couldn’t afford another song by an Italian singer named Mina. When we were editing the film, I always start using music immediately, and I do sometimes pick source cues before we even shoot because I knew I wanted to use the Staple Singers song and the Mina song is this Italian pop mystery song from the ’60s, and it turns out Mina is like the Barbra Streisand of Italy. They used her music in “Goodfellas,” but there was no getting that song for us. It would have taken a year, lawyers and a fortune. So Stephen Endelman, the composer of the score, and I said, well, what is this song, really? It’s a certain kind of genre, it’s got a little bit of James Bond, it’s got a little bit of retro mystery to it, and it’s sung in Italian. We said, “Let’s just do it, and we’ll place it.” Once we did and it worked, it became the theme of each robbery. That where it fell into place was each time they rob, you get into this song “Love and a Gun” again.
Was this as fun to make as it is to watch?
The funny thing about directing is it doesn’t get easier. It gets harder because each time you fail at something, and you’re determined next time not to fail at that. Frankly, I had more fun making films when I was starting out because it was a party, but now it’s like I never want to quit. They have to pull me off the set. We work long days because I always want to get more coverage, I want to make sure we’ve got it. It was a tough shoot because it was a lot of script to do in a short amount of time. Having said that, yeah, it was all goodwill. We were all into it, and the crew was into it, so I would call it a good, tough shoot.
“Rob the Mob” opens on March 21st in New York at the Angelika Film Center and March 28th in Los Angeles at the Monica 4-Plex.