Interview: Raymond De Felitta, Director of ‘Rob the Mob’ Starring Michael Pitt and Nina Arianda
New York City, 1991. Small-time crooks Tommy (Michael Pitt) and Rosie have two things in common: a crazy-passionate love for each other and — after they’re caught robbing a florist on Valentine’s Day — prison records. Trying to go straight, Rosie lands a job at a debt-collection agency run by Dave Lovell (Griffin Dunne) and persuades Tommy to join her. But he he soon starts skipping shifts to do something much more interesting — attend the trial of Gambino-family boss John Gotti. Tommy’s fascination with the mob is personal: when he was a boy he saw his father suffer a brutal beating at the hands of local gangsters. When he hears about a Mafia-owned social club where no guns are permitted, he has an idea: Why not job the joint? And so begins a series of Bonnie-and-Clyde-style stickups of mob hangouts around the city, with Tommy wielding an Uzi and Rosie driving the beat-up getaway car. The brazen daylight raids infuriate crime-family boss Big Al Fiorello (Andy Garcia) and draw the attention of verteran mob reporter Jerry Cardozo (Ray Romano). The only question is who will get to the young couple first.
Rob the Mob, based on a true story, also features Michael Rispoli, Frank Whaley, Cathy Moriarty and Burt Young. I recently sat down with Oscar-nominated director Raymond De Felitta.
Raymond De Felitta: It’s amazing what you can get nostalgic for, isn’t it?
Yeah. And I also find it hard to believe that the 1990s already constitute “period!”
I know! I feel like I’m the same age as I was then! Turns out I’m much older. I’ve definitely noticed that you have to explain what the early 90s was like to so many younger people these days.
What a great cast. I’ve always liked Michael Pitt but I was completely won over by Nina Arianda as Rosie.
Michael was the very first person we sent the script to. I always loved him — he’s sort of reminiscent of the old Actors Studio types — there’s an intensity in Michael that I find very charismatic. But for a long time we were stalled trying to find a girl. Our original financiers said that they loved Michael but that we needed a big name for the other lead. So you get the list and go through it — Scarlett Johansson, Mila Kunis, all these people who are just not looking to do a movie like this! At some point, Bill Teitler, the producer, and I just decided we’d cut the budget and re-conceive the movie as one that would cost about half of what we had planned. That loosened up the casting restrictions. I knew Nina from Venus in Fur on Broadway (she won a Tony Award for that performance) and she’d been in a few movies likeMidnight in Paris. I thought she was fantastic on stage and was very happy when she agreed to do it. She loved the script.
I have no idea what Arianda sounds like in real life but she seemed so natural in this role — not like she was “doing” an accent!
The thing she did that I think was so interesting is that she didn’t just do a generic “outer-borough girl.” She’s a very detailed actress and did a ton of research. She came in and did this whole monologue on how a girl from Queens talks and uses her hands — compared to a way a woman from the Bronx talks! I went, “My God, you’re right!” She could go from borough to borough. So she’s definitely not just doing an accent here, she really helped to build that character!
Pretty much everything you see them going through actually happened. They were both drug addicts, they both got out of jail, they had a fresh start, they worked for that collection agency, all that stuff happened. But the stuff with the mob and the FBI was considerably more complicated and lengthy and in some ways not as interesting. I thought it was very important that all the main important facts of their lives be integrated into the story but we took some liberties. I always wanted the center of the story to be Tommy and Rosie.
It’s just crazy all the amazing people you got to play the supporting parts — Ray Romano, Andy Garcia, Burt Young, Frank Whaley, and so on. I was especially delighted to see Cathy Moriarty as Tommy’s mom.
She is amazing! She did all of her scenes in just a day and she just completely blew us out of the water. Here’s the thing: These people are all there in New York, that’s where they live, that’s where they want to work, and they want to do good things. It’s just a different attitude out there — they don’t get bogged down in big negotiations through their agents, they’re very open to a few good days of work in the city. That’s how you can get these amazing casts together in New York.
And the “baggage” they bring to their roles is really fun.
I really wanted iconic New York faces in this movie. I love that you see Michael interacting with his mother and flash to Raging Bull for a second. It’s okay to look at Burt Young and think “There’s Paulie!” These are actors who can’t deliver a false note!
Did you have any reticence in making a movie about the mob?
Any reticence I had was more about the fact that they’re hard to do well — I didn’t want to make another crap mob movie! Look, I’m Italian-American. I’ve made movies about people like my family members who were certainly not gangsters! I wasn’t necessarily motivated to contribute to the pile of literature out there on the mob — it was more the Tommy-Rosie story that I was interested in and the fact that the mob guys you see in this movie are different than what we’re used to seeing. They’re these exhausted broken-down guys. I thought that was intriguing.
Given some of the violence that surrounds the film, did you have discussions on how much actual gore to show?
We never planned to show any murders in the movie except for what happens to Tommy and Rosie at the end. I don’t think I’m giving any big secret away there! But the closer we got to shooting that scene, the stronger I felt that the actual shoot-out on the street was not what I was going to focus on.
Right, even the fact that they were called Bonnie and Clyde, I wondered if you were going to evoke the ending of that movie at all.
Arthur Penn already did that scene beautifully, I sure wasn’t going to try to repeat it. I decided to go for something that was more emotional than violent. We never see them covered in blood.
Does it ever make you nervous to touch on that world in a movie? Do you find yourself checking under your car at some point?
(Laughs.) No, not at all! The the vibe I’ve always gotten is that they don’t seem to mind being dramatized. I mean, look how often it’s been done! And some of the guys from that world have actually become actors and have appeared in those movies! I think they find it flattering.
I really loved the music throughout the film, from the opening credits on. I know you’re a musician — did you have a hand in choosing all of the songs?
Yes, I did that myself, but I have to tell you, the person who picked the opening song was Steven Soderbergh! I showed him a cut of the movie and he liked it but he said he thought the opening could be better. He said, “If you just send me the footage, I’ll give you an idea of what I have in mind!” Because Soderbergh doesn’t have enough to do in his life, right — he also needs to edit my film on his day off! So he sent back the opening with the song “Groove Is in the Heart” and he had cut in some stock footage. I was like, “Oh, this is the movie! He nailed it!”
Do you think it’s harder these days to get smaller movies like this off the ground?
It was always hard. Every year you hear people talking about how impossible it’s getting but the truth is it’s always been an uphill battle. And yet many films like this still get made. It’s all about trusting that you can do it and getting people who are willing to work for not a lot of money. Unfortunately that usually means there’s just not a lot of money to be had in doing this kind of work anymore, but that’s what tends to happen in the arts. Hell — people used to make a living playing jazz!
Or writing —
Or writing, for sure! Now you’re supposed to write for free. And be glad someone is giving you the space!
What’s next on your docket?
I’m doing a comedy I wrote called Married and Cheating. And I’m shooting a documentary about Burt Young! He’s such an interesting cat — an actor, a painter, an ex-boxer. He’s got a lot going on and we’ve just been shooting him as much as we can.