Exclusive: Christopher Kublan Talks ‘Friends and Romans’

Christopher-Kublan

Director Christopher Kublan discusses mafia actor typecasting with his film “Friends and Romans.”

“Friends and Romans” is a film that takes many typecast actors in Hollywood and depicts them in a different light. While these actors are commonly known for their mob or gangster type roles, “Friends and Romans” shows that their appearances can be deceiving as it explores their aspirations of being respected actors. Along this journey we see the prejudice that arises among Italian-Americans which are taken in both a comedic and serious tone as they attempt to put on a Shakespeare production.

We had the chance to speak with the director of this film, Christopher Kublan, about his influences and inspiration in regards to the film and also gained his perspective on the fascination with mob/mafia type films.

Film Fad:

Hey Chris how are you?

Chris Kublan:

Very well thank you.

Film Fad:

So you got the chance to do “Friends and Romans.” I gotta ask, how did the idea of crossing Shakespeare and the mob come about?

Chris Kublan:

The original screenwriter Greg Greenberg had an idea that I think came from his love of mob films, Shakespeare, “Guys and Dolls,” and Marlon Brando. He just had this epiphany one day that there was a connection between them and a film. And he wrote this early draft script that had the basic idea of the film. And when I read it, I immediately saw how smart it was and how much it aligned with my love of these very same genres in films and I’m also a major Marlon Brando aficionado, being a believer that he is the greatest actor in the history of cinema. And it just pumped out of me. The mob genre in America, in a way has become our Shakespeare. It has tragic proportions, complex characters, and resonates for whatever reason with the American experience. Just in the same way that Shakespeare resonated with the English European experience and then made it all the way to us. So I love the parallel with Shakespeare and mob films. It was there and I’m not sure that this idea that Greg Greenberg came up with, if anyone had seen that. It seemed like something that had never been done before and I love originality.

Friends-And-Romans-Cast-Set

Photo Credit: Vered Rodriguez

Film Fad:

So why do you think Americans in general have such a fascination with the mob? It seems like all of these mob type movies just do so well.

Chris Kublan:

I think that the mob experience, the organized crime experience has a very direct link to the American dream because it is entrepreneurial and yet these are people who shun conventional social mores. They’re entrepreneurial in the traditional American dream sense but they are not willing to play by the rules of American society or the law let’s say. So I think Americans inherently have a great love of risk takers and law breakers. In a way, America was formed by risk takers and law breakers. The pilgrims and the Boston Tea Party, they were taking risks and they were breaking laws that they didn’t feel were just. Just like the organized crime came about as response to prohibition which was clearly not a just law or it wouldn’t have been repealed.

Film Fad:

Yeah, that’s a great analogy! I hadn’t thought of it like that.

Chris Kublan:

(laughs) You know I just came up with that. The risk taker and law breaker one, that sounds like a tagline.

Film Fad:

(laughs)

Chris Kublan:

You know I thought about it but that really is it. It’s a great question. It hits it right on the head. It is a very American thing to be an entrepreneur but do it by your own rule and that’s what the mafia is…you know minus the killing (laughs).

Film Fad:

And there are also some elements in this film that kind of show the struggles of many actors attempting to break free from a stereotyped role. I think especially Michael Rispoli had a couple scenes where he was actually talking about that. Did any of these actors in particular draw from personal experiences?

Michael-Rispoli-Black-and-White

Michael Rispoli has a long and distinguished career as a character actor in Hollywood

Chris Kublan:

Absolutely. Part of the reason that I hired some of these actors was in order for all of us to draw from those experiences. Michael Rispoli has a long and distinguished career as a character actor in Hollywood. He was never an extra. He was a very highly studied theater actor to start with but he of course has had the experience of being hired or not being hired based on his appearance and the fact that he’s Italian-American. Every single actor who plays one of the gang as well as Annabella Sciorra, who was also a “Soprano,” has had the experience of being pigeon-holed into a role and typecast because they are Italian-American. And Paul Ben-Victor, who is one of the main cast who is not actually Italian, also is typecast for his physicality. Another great example would be Tony Darrow who was in “Goodfellas” in that memorable role as the restaurant owner that they end up beating up and they end up burning the restaurant down. He’s a guy who was cast in that film by Martin Scorsese because of the authenticity that he brought to the role because he grew up among mobsters and also because of his ability to improvise. Because if you create an atmosphere on the set and you have a script where everybody understands what you’re going for, then you’re able to improvise within certain parameters and the improvisations are relevant to the whole. So they’re not just tangents. Although there was not a tremendous amount of improvisation on the film because we had the script pretty strong and tight, I absolutely enabled the actors and sometimes needed to allow them to improvise or we would improvise together to find the truth of what the scene was about. And so this particular cast, everybody from Joe D’Onofrio who played Big Vinnie to Louis Vanaria who plays Tony who’s obsessed with becoming a good actor, they were in “A Bronx Tale” together. Joe D’Onofrio was in “Goodfellas.” And they’ve all had the experience of being typecast. So I was able to draw upon their cumulative experience in that realm and first and foremost Michael Rispoli had a real insight, many real insights, into what that feels like. So the whole theme of acting in general and wanting to become a better actor when maybe it started out as just something you did in your spare time, it was important to us. And I ended up adding quotes into the edit about acting from Marlon Brando and Laurence Olivier who are two of the greatest actors of the 20th century, specifically because I think that a lot of people think that acting is easier than it is and you hear people all the time saying, “I can do that.” And the truth is, the trick of it is making it look easy and that generally takes a tremendous amount of craft. And I think that gets lost in the shuffle. So it’s important to convey in the film that these guys couldn’t just get up there and do Shakespeare because they wanted to, they actually had to explore what the real meaning of it was and work at it to be able to do a presentable exploration of Shakespeare.

Film Fad:

Yeah and I definitely noticed that, especially with Michael. I was honestly caught off guard when I saw him fall more into the theatrical role. Because I myself, I’m so used to seeing many of these actors in these stereotypical roles. It was honestly kind of refreshing to see a variation from that.

Chris Kublan:

Yeah, without question. Again, Michael can do anything and the last film I had seen him in, before I thought of him for this, was “The Rum Diary” which he co-stars essentially with Johnny Depp. And he plays a character wayyy at the other end of the spectrum from any of the characters that you’re familiar with from him from his mob movie type work. He’s always done different types of roles, but that particular role he played a waspy writer who likes to drink living in Cuba in the late 50s early 60s. And he’s essentially unrecognizable in the role. Michael is an actor that can do anything but still even just like traditional movie stars are being unnecessarily typecast by Hollywood producers and directors because they underestimate the ability of the public to accept actors in roles that are different from what we’ve seen them in before. And you see that phenomenon all the time, they make sequels, they try to remake the same film over and over, remakes, copycats, etc because they don’t have faith as an industry in the intelligence and taste of the public. And of course it’s about money and they don’t want to take risks so when you make a film like this you have the opportunity to do whatever you want. Because you don’t have a studio telling you what to do and you’re able to explore things that studios don’t always want to explore and in this case the theme of typecasting and the climb of the mafia genre as a whole and so on and so forth.

Michael-Rispoli-The-Rum-Diary

Michael Rispoli – “The Rum Diary”

Film Fad:

I have to ask, were there any other films that you maybe drew inspiration from? Even indirectly? I saw a couple things with, and I know this is probably a stretch, but “Analyze That” where you have Robert De Niro trying to get into acting to play into that stereotype.

Chris Kublan:

Oh no, that’s not much of a stretch at all. Mob comedies, which there are very few successful ones, certainly I’ve seen them all. “Analyze This” was directed by Harold Ramis who is arguably the greatest modern director of Hollywood comedies. Everything from that to having written “Stripes” to having directed “Groundhog Day.” So sure, I was influenced in a certain way by those films. To be completely honest, I was way more influenced by films about theater in Hollywood or films about Italian-Americans that weren’t mafia related. So tone-wise, I loved “Moonstruck” and that was a film that accurately conveyed the Italian-American experience without condescension to it. And then “Sullivan’s Travels” by Preston Sturges which is a great film from the 40s about a director who decides he doesn’t want to make comedies anymore he wants to do drama and then sort of comes to learn that making people laugh is about as an important of thing that you can do in this business. Taking people away from the hum-drumness or the grittiness of their everyday life with an hour and a half of pleasant laughter has value around the world. And then “To Be or Not to Be” which is a film set during the Nazi era in Germany about Jewish actors and it’s got a lot of comedy of errors and misunderstanding between what’s going on in the play and what’s going on in reality which is very much a part of our film with the drama teacher and the high school assuming Nick is a gangster because he’s wearing a suit standing outside of a limo at the school as well as the Federal agents assuming that Nick and Dennis are gangsters just because they have vowels at the end of their last name. So yeah, I would say “Moonstruck,” “Sullivan’s Travels,” “To Be or Not to Be,” and yes, I would not discount “Analyze This” as a mob comedy that I love and that I was influenced by in terms of tone.

Film Fad:

Yeah, that was actually going to be one of my next questions which was, what were some of your favorite mob movies yourself. I know you mentioned a couple of the comedies, but I think you mentioned “Goodfellas” as well?

Chris Kublan:

Well “Goodfellas” is at the top of my list of films. “Goodfellas” and “Godfather” are sort of two sides of any coin. “Goodfellas” has tremendous amount of humor in it, there’s very little in “The Godfather.” But the texture in both of them is so rich because they are as mutually is the case, based on real stories one way or the other and one sort of explores it from the standpoint of keeping the family together, that would be “The Godfather,” and “Goodfellas” explores it from the relationships between friends who have found defacto family in each other and sort of the lack of faith they’re able to have in those family bonds because in fact in both cases, family are not family when you cross someone. But those scenes in both movies have to deal with how much these men or women cannot trust these people that they are supposed to be able to trust in their family or in their “family” not to betray or kill them. I will also say that I re-referenced “Donnie Brasco” in the movie which is another one of my favorite mob films because it’s very little violence in it. It’s not a traditional mafia film. A lot of people at the time were disappointed that Al Pacino was playing kind of a loser when they had known him as Michael Corleone and Tony Montana. But I thought that “Donnie Brasco” had a lot of humor in it as well with the different meanings of “fuhgeddaboudit.” Those are hilarious scenes. And then you’ve got “Married to the Mob,” also referenced in our movie, specifically because that’s the one that’s a straight comedy. Jonathan Demme is one of our greatest directors and what he did with that movie was similar to what we tried to do here which was show a love and respect for the Italian-American experience as it is understood in the culture at large while also poking fun at the perception of how real or not real those stereotypes are. And in particular, “Married to the Mob” did a really good job of finding the balance that we aim to find between making fun of these stereotypes that exist until they don’t. And also setting them up so that you realize that these men often times if not most of the time are not at all what they appear to be and they’re just generally humble family men who try to make a living as opposed to these scary enforcers that they play on the screen.

Film Fad:

And another thing as well, this is going off of the mob subject, but I noticed throughout that this is a really smart film. There’s a lot of quirkiness and a lot of Shakespearean references much like a smart Woody Allen film.

Chris Kublan:

Woody Allen is my favorite filmmaker on the planet. It was very influenced by Woody Allen. Particularly “Broadway Danny Rose” and “Bullets Over Broadway,” which both have mafia themes to them or mob related themes. The quote cards, which were not in the original script, I used as an editing tool to help propel the pacing and also as an ode to Woody. He used quote cards like that in “Hannah and Her Sisters.” And then some of the music is very Jazz oriented the way that Woody Allen would use in his scores, particularly the montage of the movie. I was heavily and will always be heavily influenced if not outright steal from Woody Allen. I think that Woody Allen among all American directors has by far the most great films. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 of them are timeless masterpieces and so yeah, I was highly influenced by Woody Allen. As much as I can say I can get anywhere near his ability to make people laugh and to explore profound issues or profound topics. We try to do our little version of that.

Friends-And-Romans-Michael-Rispoli

It was very influenced by Woody Allen. (Photo Credit: Vered Rodriguez)

Film Fad:

Well I think it was wonderfully executed. I was actually going to mention “Bullets Over Broadway” myself, that was a favorite of mine.

Chris Kublan:

I will say that the look of the film was heavily influenced by “Bullets Over Broadway.” And had the producers allowed me, it probably would have been heavily influenced by “Broadway Danny Rose” because I think the movie could have been made in black and white and would have worked really well but in today’s age it could alienate a lot of viewers so we didn’t go there but the look we found was somewhere in between “Bullets Over Broadway” and “Casino,” which of course is a Scorsese movie. So my two favorite filmmakers are Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese and there’s a lot of them in there. A lot of my love for them in there I should say.

Film Fad:

Well reiterating what I just said, it was wonderfully executed. I’m wondering what else do you have in the pipeline for the future?

Chris Kublan:

For me, the next film I intend to direct is a script that I wrote called “Later Days,” which is about a family living in a wealthy north shore, Long Island suburb in the 80s and trying to keep their family together among all of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that occur in a wealthy town and it’s set against the backdrop of the socio-political atmosphere of the 80s and how that’s relevant today.

Film Fad:

Well Chris, I want to thank you so much for your time. It was actually a pleasant surprise with this film, I really enjoyed it and I can’t wait to see what you have in the future.

Chris Kublan:

Thanks so much, it was a pleasure talking to you man.

“Friends and Romans” is currently playing in select theaters.

Ryan

Author: Ryan

Ryan has been fascinated with film and pop culture since childhood. Throughout college he "played it safe" taking the more lucrative route of being a computer programmer while squeezing in film related courses where he could...but even during his post college career, he could never escape his true passion. After following one of his favorite blogs for a long time, he approached the site's Editor about writing and they reluctantly gave him a shot. He later became their Senior Writer which led to a variety of other projects, radio show appearances, features, and high profile celebrity interviews. Despite his success with blogging, he still wanted more so in order to expand his creative addiction, he merged his IT skills and blogging know-how to create FilmFad.com which has continued to grow into a creative Mecca of pop-culture fun and integrity.[email protected]   Film Fad

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