Sunday, May 13, 2012

Sam Auster Speaks! (Part Two)

Sam Auster (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Here is part two of my interview with director Sam Auster about his upcoming film The Return of Joe Rich. The film opens later in 2012; I saw it at the Chicago International Film Festival in October of last year and sat down with Auster for a lengthy interview (read part one here).

The Return of Joe Rich is the story of a young man named Joe Rich (Sam Witwer), who after being laid off from his job and having his house foreclosed, decides to work with his uncle (Armand Assante) who is a member of the West Side Chicago outfit. The film has many stellar comic moments (especially with Talia Shire, who plays the mother of Joe Rich) and Auster spices things up with interviews of real members of the mob from the 1930s and '40s. These "wiseguys", now in the 70s and 80s are engaging, charismatic individuals who look and sound like everyone's favorite grandfather.

Tom Hyland: As far as getting Armand and Talia, is that something you planned or is this just a happy coincidence?

Sam Witwer: I always wanted Armand for this role. In fact, there were shadows of this script in a script I wrote a long time ago and when I met these guys when I was researching the Giancana script and I transposed some of that into this script. I couldn’t think of anybody better than Armand Assante. I mean he’s a guy that I had cheered since I was a little kid. Also, I had a girlfriend in college who would say, ‘God that Armand Assante is the best looking man I’ve ever seen.’ I’d say, ‘wait, what about me?” I mean she’s sitting right next to me and she’s talking about this other guy!

Anyway, I’d always been kind of captivated by his presence. I said this everyday on the set, ‘Welcome to another day in the Armand Assante school of filmmaking. ‘ He taught me so much.

I’ve got to tell you one quick story. The scenes between Uncle Dom and Joe in the cooler are very intense. Armand, although I don’t think he would call himself a method actor, because he’s a hit-your-mark, say-your-lines old pro. But he would work himself up to that tension, that power.

The first day we’re in the cooler, he’s walking around throwing furniture and swearing, ‘mother fucker’, throwing chairs at me, at my D.P. at the young actors. Sam Witwer is there like, ‘Holy Christ, I gotta get in there with him!’ And it’s funny because Sam, who is an incredible actor and a very smart guy, I saw him picking up on Armand’s motivational technique, so now I have two wild men walking around the set throwing furniture!

A lot of times as a director, you’ll have an actor sometimes, “Give me 20 pushups right now.” And it’s not about conditioning or fitness, a lot of times when people are at the limit of their physical strength, then they’re freer to expresss their emotions. And I think this is what Armand was trying to do; “loosen yourself up, get the emotions out, break down the physical barriers so that the emotions can come through.

So Armand is ranting and raving and throwing furniture and I’m, “OK, let’s walk through it,” and he and Joe are going at it hammer and tong and Armand takes a step and goes in the middle, ‘God damn, mother fucker…Oh, you know if I step here, I’m outside the depth of field.’ So in the middle of this torrent of emotion of acting, he knew when he would step outside the depth of field of our camera and he would mention that to me and boom, go right back to Uncle Dom, caged animal. I was in awe of it! Here’s a guy that’s worked with Sidney Lumet and Ridley Scott and everbody you can imagine and I’ve got him on my set!

TH: Are you going to work with him on the Giancana project? (Auster is working on a script about 1960s mobster, Sam Giancana.)

SA: I talked with him about it and he loved it. He grew up on Broadway, he sings and dances – he does that little dance step with Joe. I think the guy can do anything.

It was in the always in the script for Joe to the little dance step; I wanted him to do a softshoe, but Sam Witwer showed me he could moonwalk. I’m thinking, great! Sam’s an incredible guy because he’s got physical power and he is so limber and he can look really tough and really scary and then boom! In the alley when he’s walking in front of the camera and he’s doing the Michael Jackson thing. The guy can do anything, so I was very blessed.

Talia had read the script and she actually contacted my casting people. She was very interested in the script and I met with her. Talia has that cast on her arm in the movie – she broke her arm two days before she was supposed to fly to Chicago and she said, ‘Sam, if you want to let me out of my contract, no problem.’ I told her, Talia, if you’re up to it, I want you. We wrote the cast in. I think her best line in the film was when she said, “I’ll give you a rap in the head.”

I always wanted Armand. A friend of mine had worked with Armand who’s one of my producers. Armand had shot a bunch of things in eastern Europe. He had won a special award at Cannes for California Dreaming. He’s very well known. A friend of mine, a producer named Robert, had worked with a guy in Romania who knew him well. So he’s two steps removed. We got him the script and two days later I get an email from him. I was with my girlfriend and we immediately opened up a bottle of Champagne. Nothing else happened, we didn’t have the money for the movie yet, but Armand liked the script!

It was my calling card. Sam loved it and he loved it. Talia loved it. Let me get this right. She had heard about it somehow, contacted the casting company, go the script and then had me come to her house. Boy, talk about… I’m going to meet Connie Corleone in Los Angeles! Actually when I get back to L.A., I’m supposed to make meatballs for Talia.

It’s the whole thing with Italian mothers and their sons. I said, what’s really at the bottom of this? Let’s take it to its monstrous extreme. That’s what Talia said. “I get it, Sam. You want me to be a monster. I’m a monster.”

She was saying to me, “I don’t want to be this Italian momma cooking the meatballs, blah, blah, blah. “ I said, Talia, you may be an Italian momma cooking the meatballs, but that is not what this is about. You are a monster.

Mother of all.. it’s a beautiful, wonderful thing. But in most movies, there’s no movie that’s a wonderful thing. Where could this go if you push it too far? Honor, loyalty and friendship – those are wonderful things. But if you push it too far and it becomes the outfit…

TH: And of course, Joe has to drive a Riviera.

SA: Isn’t that a great car? When I was a kid, this guy I really looked up to, drove one of those cars. Split back seat, the tails, a ’73. I thought to myself I wanted Joe to have two possessions, a cool car and his gun. That’s all he has left and he came back from California with the only two things he didn’t have to sell, the only two things he didn’t lose. And obviously, they’re two potent phallic symbols, not to get too Freudian on you. We found that car in a barn outside Chicago.

Just like Joe, it’s always referencing the past. I’m going to be like Joe and drive down the street in that car. Joe in many ways until the end of the film is a very unformed person. He has to learn the hard lessons the hard way and come into the adult world of death and rebirth.

TH: You grew up in a Jewish/Sicilian family in Oak Park. I probably don’t even have to ask the question, but was your life growing up like that in the film?

SA: (Laughing) Very much so. My family is from Chicago. It’s interesting, the immigrant community. My father grew up on Maxwell Street, my mother grew up on Taylor Street, but they both made it. When they had their kids, they bought the house in Oak Park. Back then, people didn’t want to be identified by their ethnic groups, they wanted to be American. It was very important to leave the old neighborhood behind. Little did I know, as Joe said and I put it in the script, “one mile from where I grew up, Johnny Cross.”

In my Sam Giancana script, I don’t call him Sam Giancana, I call him Johnny Crucifixo –Johnny Crucifix. So one mile away, Johnny Cross’s house and Sam Giancana’s house is about one mile from the house I grew up in. But we didn’t know this because my family was shelter the kids from this, it’s not a rough and tumble neighborhood. We’re Americans growing up in the suburbs. There’s trees…

Oak Park and River Forest is ground zero for the outfit. Iaccardo grew up in River Forest, the long time head. As the Italian community moved west, they moved straight west. So you have Taylor Street. They didn’t want to live in the city anymore because they’re nice suburban guys. So right across from the city line, you have Oak Park. Then due west you have River Forest. Then a little bit later, Oak Brook- one more step. You have Elmwood Park, River Forest, a little west of Oak Park.

That’s what Joe was talking about – blood, death and rebirth. Obviously, a heavy duty Catholic upbringing. Jesus - you die on the cross and are reborn something greater than yourself. Joe’s fantasy is to be killed by a real man so that somehow he might be reborn as a man.

Joseph Campbell, the hero of a thousand faces. It’s all about the hero dying for a cause greater than himself. And that’s what Joe says, “every song, every movie, every everything is about that.” That’s what we see in life all the time, people die, but then they’re reborn in their children and their grandchildren and the buildings they make and the movies they make… so it’s a resonant message. So every religion in essence is about that.

That’s the thing about Joe being kind of an unformed character, an unformed person, not willing to really be in the moment and be himself and own his own feelings and very actions until the very end.

1 comment:

  1. Tom this is a great interview. "Two potent phallic symbols" LOL