Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following article, Sons of Gazzara, by award-winning filmmaker JOHN ANDREW GALLAGHER
Someday Productions and Pillow Talking are pleased to present this guest blog/article about filmmaking by John Gallagher. John is an award-winning director, writer, producer, teacher, and author who has made substantial contributions to the entertainment industry. Two years ago, John was one of Pillow Talking’s first interviewees (wow, time flies!) and helped launch the blog and gain exposure to the millions of readers we have had since that time. In this post, “Sons of Gazzara,” John explains how he was christened the “New York son” of late actor Ben Gazzara, and how Ben’s widow, Elke Gazzara, enlisted in his aid to assist Ben’s other “son” Roman neophyte filmmaker, Gabriele Altobelli, with an independent film project. John takes us on a fascinating journey of the evolution of their friendship and the background of the work, Uncomfortable Silence, to their second and most recent collaboration, American Fango, which currently is burning up the film festival circuit.
“SONS OF GAZZARA”
By John Andrew Gallagher
In the fall of September 2012, I received a call from my good friend Elke Gazzara, widow of the great Ben Gazzara [American film, stage, and television actor and director]. I once had the privilege of directing Ben a dozen years ago in one of his personal favorite movies, Blue Moon, and went on to enjoy a close friendship with him until his passing in February of 2012. During our conversation, Elke told me about a guy from Rome named Gabriele Altobelli. She explained that he was Ben’s “Roman son” in much the same way I had been his “New York son.” It wasn’t hard to figure out that that made us “brothers” – “Sons of Gazzara”! Elke then made a request of me – that I help him with a short film he was planning to shoot in Manhattan. Of course I would! Sometime later Gabriele and I met at my apartment, and sure enough, it was instant affection and simpatico. I then agreed to produce his film and brought on my friends Deborah Twiss and Sibyl Santiago to help; and since Gabriele didn’t know anyone In New York, he asked me to cast and crew the film.
Fortunately I have a deep pool of terrific actors, both from my own filmmaking experience, which dates back to 1980, and from my 25 years of teaching at One on One NYC. As the leads, I immediately cast Brian Kelly (a veteran of ten of my films, including Blue Moon) and Deborah Twiss; they happen to be a married couple who are rooted under the thumb of technology. They have a son and daughter, Matthew and Sydney McCann, who also are excellent actors, so they were obvious choices. I filled in the rest of the cast from my personal “stock” company at the time, including Kelsey O’Brien, Natalie Wetta, Cat Cabral, Kaitlin Owens, Bobby Kruger, Michaela McPherson, Angie Bullaro, and Sibyl. Finally, there was a young actress from my acting class by the name of Samantha Scaffidi whom I cast in a small role as a waitress. Suffice it to say, none of the actors had to suffer through auditions, a testament to Gabriele‘s trust in me.
Gabriele had a sensational cinematographer, Antonello Emidi, who flew in from Rome and expertly shot the gorgeous film on 35mm, a rarity in this digital age. At the time, Hurricane Sandy was wreaking havoc in the Tri-state area, but that didn’t faze the Italians. In fact, there was no power at an important restaurant location on Long Island, so they simply brought in a generator. Antonello comes from a filmmaking family with roots in Cinecittà and I must say his work is impeccable. Similarly, Gabriele’s editor, Paolo Buzzetti, bestowed on the project his brilliant expertise; he has worked in post-production on Paul Haggis’ Third Person and Ridley Scott’s The Martian, Exodus: Gods and Kings, and the new Alien: Covenant. The ambitious score was composed by Vivien Villani in Paris, the picture was locked in Rome, and mixed back in Paris. We then dedicated the finished product to the inimitable Gazzara and we were off and running to the film festival circuit. Through it all, Gabriele’s partner, Charles Randolph, a 60-something dentist from Stamford, Connecticut, proved to be a tremendously supportive executive producer.
Uncomfortable Silence played to great festival acclaim at Cannes, Paris, Madrid, Soho, Louisville, and Beaufort. Gabriele and I traveled together to Internationales Filmfest Oldenburg in Germany (my 16th time there!), noted by Chris Gore’s authoritative The Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide to be one of the world’s top five festivals – truly “A-list.” It is a perfect film fest, skillfully run by Torsten Neumann, and we were gratified that the German audience and international filmmaker guests loved the movie.
In the wake of Uncomfortable Silence, Gabriele now was ready for his feature debut, American Fango (the title refers to an ice cream dessert; “fango” means “mud” in Italian). He told me of his idea and showed me his treatment Roma New York via Hollywood, based on his own life. “Most of these experiences really did happen to me,” Gabriele had said. “I’m lucky I lived through all the insanity!” The premise: a young Italian falls in love with an American actress in Rome. Their romance continues when he follows her to Los Angeles only to discover that she just considers him a temporary fling. Broke, he makes it as far as New York City, where, after feeding himself out of garbage cans, he lands a job at an Italian restaurant. He goes through all sorts of unique NYC experiences before ultimately finding true love.
With Antonello shooting, Paolo editing, and Charles producing, I signed on as consulting producer. The big question for this micro-budget movie was, “How do we shoot in Rome, Los Angeles, and New York???” It was troubling – the movie just would not work without these locations, and bringing two of the leads (Brando Boniver and Emily Jackson) to Rome would be prohibitively expensive, not to mention all the red tape of the Screen Actors Guild. The solution? I suggested we shoot the actors here in front of a blue screen and add the Rome shots later. It would take a cinematographer of Antonello‘s caliber to achieve that, and ultimately he did it, seamlessly, flawlessly.
Of the project, Gabriele noted, “Antonello and I become the same person when we work together. On such a small movie we don’t have a dolly or a Steadicam, yet he is always able to simulate the same visual feeling. I hope on our next movie I will be able to give him more toys!”
Charlie Randolph rose to the occasion producing his first feature. “Since the movie was mostly funded by myself I had to make sure there was always enough to take care of everyone’s needs, but at the same time make sure we had enough to finish the film. I have to say that I brought it in on time and under budget, and only had to fight with the director once! I also feel that leaving the artists to do their thing and giving them the freedom to practice their craft was very important to the quality of the film.”
When the original casting director was fired, Gabriele asked me to step in. He’d had a wonderful experience with Brian and Deborah doing Uncomfortable Silence so they had been pre-cast, with Brian cast against type as an abusive misogynist. “Every time we have screened the movie,” remarked Gabriele, “the audience hates Brian. As you know better than anybody, in real life he is so lovable, but here he plays a total bastard. It’s a tribute to his great talent.”
By now, Samantha Scaffidi had made a dozen films since her bit in Uncomfortable Silence (including seven with me), and we cast her in a starring role. She gives a stunning, sometimes heartbreaking performance.
“When I got the call,” she said, “I knew that I couldn’t miss the opportunity to work with Gabriele again. It had been two-and-a-half years since our first film together. When I read the script I knew it was going to be a challenging role but I felt confident knowing I was in such good hands. It was an amazing experience and I am so thankful for the artistic freedom that Gabriele creates for the artist. And of course the bonus of working on the film was being able to improv a scene with John. That was definitely a highlight.”
Production began in Los Angeles with Brando and Emily, and shot for one week. “The best day on the set,” remembered Charlie, “was watching Gabriele directing Brando in a romantic scene. He was a little stiff at first, but Gabriele got him to loosen up, with great results.” Brando starts the movie with a deep Italian accent, Gabriele noted, “then as the film progresses his English becomes better. He did that by himself, he was so focused in the role, even though we were working so fast. “
After shooting the LA scenes, Gabriele, Charlie, and Antonello returned to NYC to shoot the bulk of the movie. I had interviewed the great cinematographer Nestor Almendros many years ago, who said he’d loved going from a giant production like Sophie’s Choice with a huge crew, to a tiny Eric Rohmer film in France where he carried his own equipment. I was reminded of this when watching Gabriele and Antonello with a crew of only six people, working like the wind. “One of the locations in the Bronx was a small apartment,” mentioned Charlie. “The only problem was it was empty, without a stick of furniture! Fortunately, a neighbor had thrown out a sofa, chairs, and tables, so their discarded furniture became our set dressing!”
In New York, I gathered a dozen actors, sometimes the night before, as locations were lost and gained (all indie filmmakers can relate). Once again I did not subject the actors to auditions, an advantage of knowing these artists’ abilities so well, and Gabriele once again wholeheartedly accepted them, enthusiastically embracing my judgment.
There were actors I had directed before — Joey D’Onofrio (who has done five films with me), Victor Colicchio (we’ve done eight films together), Maggie Wagner (seven films), Artie Pasquale (from my films We Remember and The Networker), Kohl Beck (We Remember), Donna Ross (The Networker), Gail Lawrence (from my film I Love You), and Stefano Da Fre, a former student from the Neighborhood Playhouse. Warren Bub and Eve Austin came from a class I had recently taught at Impossible Casting, and Gaetano Iacono who had been so good in my friend Lou Lombardi’s Doughboys. Rounding out the cast were more fine New York actors including Lacy Marie Meyer, Justine Griffiths, Jose Maria Sibaja, Swann Gruen, Alexander Mammara, and Jonathan Marimow.
Now I had done a cameo in Uncomfortable Silence with Gabriele and Elke, and then he returned the favor for me by playing an Italian director opposite Samantha Scaffidi in my short film Act, Naturally (https://vimeo.com/130281676). The finale of American Fango (and the last scene to be shot) features Brando and Samantha coming upon a movie as it was being filmed in Madison Square Park in Manhattan’s Flatiron district. Gabriele decided to write in the role of the director for me! I told him I hated to take a part away from a real actor but he insisted. I agreed but only on the condition that we could expand the scene and add more characters. He enthusiastically agreed. We spun off from the scripted pages into an improvisation with me as a beleaguered director who was at odds with the producer, and taking my frustrations out on my assistant director. Meanwhile the two actresses we were “filming” were being total divas — a typical situation in the real world of filmmaking!
And so it was that art imitated life once again – as the producer, I cast Steve Stanulis, the star and producer of The Networker and another longtime collaborator with whom I’ve made eight films; and as the assistant director, I cast Sibyl Santiago, who had actually been my A.D. on The Networker. I also cast two of my favorites, Tamara Skylar Jones and Ari Barkan, as my personal assistant and my bodyguard, respectively; and two brilliant actresses who are adept at improv as they demonstrated in The Networker – Kelsey O’Brien (who has done eight films with me) and Sarah Seeds (who has done two) as the divas. Kelsey and Sarah came up with so much great material, it was an embarrassment of creative riches for Gabriele and Paolo in the editing room.
So you might ask, how did this humble narrator handle his big acting break? I tried to bear in mind everything I teach my acting students – keep it natural, listen, and above all don’t overthink it. “There was so much great stuff in that sequence, which is the finale of the film,” Gabriele exulted. “Enough for a short film or a Broadway show! All the improvisations were so good. Maybe one day I’ll turn it into a short!”
“That last day of shooting was incredibly tiring but satisfying, and when it was over we all sat down on the curb and cried tears of joy and accomplishment,” Charlie said of the experience. “Gabriele and I didn’t talk to each other for about three weeks after that. We were both emotionally drained.”
Four months later Charlie showed me a first cut of the film. I offered my suggestions and Gabriele and Paolo worked their magic back in Rome. A lush, exquisite orchestral score was composed in London by Enrica Sciandrone and recorded by the Budapest Orchestra. The finished product is a picaresque romance with drama and humor, much like the classic Lubitsch and Borzage romantic comedy/dramas of Hollywood’s Golden Age, all beautifully balanced by Gabriele’s nimble hand. To say that I am proud of him is an understatement.
The festival circuit has been one big awards tour for the movie: Best Picture, North Hollywood Cinefest; Best Picture, London Independent Film Awards; Best Picture, New York City International Film Festival; Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Los Angeles International Film Festival; Best Director, Frozen Film Festival, Minneapolis; Best Actor, Utah Film Festival; Award of Excellence, Accolade Global Competition; Award of Merit, Indie Fest LA; and Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Musical Score, Best Original Song, Best Cinematography, International Independent Film Awards. There are undoubtedly more on the way. The film’s first review appeared on February 15, 2017 in The Huffington Post, calling it “that rare movie that transports you, not with big special effects, but with a warm and gorgeous cast…captures the magic of young love and wanderlust.”
And now we have the happy ending desired by all indies – we’ve just signed with Vision Films for international distribution for this truly international film (Rome, Los Angeles, New York, London, Budapest) – American Fango!