Sam Auster (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
OK, I realize that the title of this post may not have the same ring or historical importance as "Jolson Speaks,", but once you read what this director has to say in this interview, you'll know why I used this headline.
Sam Auster was born in Chicago and attended Columbia College in the city. Shortly after, he began shooting new for NBC and CNN in Chicago. He has directed dozens of commercials for clients as varied as AARP, Burger King and Carbite Golf. He has also directed two feature films: Screen Test (1985) and 2002: The Rape of Eden (1994).
His latest feature film, The Return of Joe Rich, premiered at the 2011 Chicago International Film Festival and will be in theaters later in 2012. The film 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.
I sat down with Auster in October, 2011 to ask him about this film, which I enjoyed greatly (read my original review here). Sam was in rare form this particular day, as you'll discover when you read the text of the interview. This was as entertaining and as hilarious an interview as I've ever had with anyone in the film business.
Tom Hyland: I thought the movie was a lot of fun, especially with the rolling meatballs, and yet the whole point of Joe Rich coming back is that his job was outsourced to India and he couldn’t afford his mortgage, so there was a deeper message here. How did you see it as you wrote it?
Sam Auster: You know, it’s funny as research is really important. I’ve written 25 or 26 screenplays. To me, research is the heart of writing. I spent two years coming back and forth to Chicago from L.A. every month. I am developing a script loosely based on Sam Giancana. It’s going to be a big epic story about the outfit. Because to me, as one of the lines from the movie, Joe says, "No one knows this is the outfit. This has always been the most profitable, the best run mob organization in the country."
You see The Godfather, Goodfellas, it’s all about New York. Everybody thinks the mob began and ended in Chicago with Al Capone. Giancana was a visionary; he brought them international, he partnered with the government – for good or for evil – and many, many other things. Everybody knows he shared girlfriends with JFK, but there was so much more to it.
Anyway, a friend of mine said “I know some guys you should meet who you should talk to.” I went to this little restaurant on the West side and my friend vouched for me, so… these guys all played cards in the backroom. These guys were all aged 75-88 and after they got used to me, six months of going back and forth, they wouldn’t even look at me or talk to me and then all of a sudden, “OK, he’s okay.”
They started telling me all their stories. One thing that they kept coming back to is the Depression. No one had a job, people were losing their homes, being thrown out of their homes. And the only guys with money were the Boys. So if you had no options and no money, this was how you stayed alive, how you kept yourself alive, how you kept your family alive.
So I thought to myself, “what if this happened to a guy today?” It sounded so familiar, losing your job, losing you house – in many ways, it’s very similar.
But also something that was on my mind, is you look at the rise of desperation around the globe and fundamentalism around the globe. The outfit is a fundamentalist organization. It goes back to time-honored codes of tradition and loyalty and behavior – keep your mouth shut, stay in line and we’ll take care of you. Just like some guy in some Islamic country might say, “who’s the cool guy?” There’s no money around, there’s no jobs; the only cool guys, the one with the money and the guns are the Jihadis.
A guy growing up in Chicago culture – who are the cool guys, the guys with the guns and the money? One of the old guys says, “we looked up to them, they always had nice cars and new clothes.
So when society lets people down, when institutions let people down, when you don’t have a job, when you can’t trust the government, when you can’t trust the cops…
TH: You weren’t out to make any commentary about the current administration, were you? Maybe you thought it was a neat parallel.
SA: In a certain way, I am actually. I think that Joe’s big mistake, like a lot of people’s mistake these days, is that they think there is one simple solution to a very complex problem. If I join the mob, all my problems will be over. Like he says, “Do you think they’d have taken my house if I’d have been with my uncle?” And Bernard says, “You can’t muscle a bank.” You can muscle anybody. That’s the attitude of the Chicago outfit – you can muscle anybody.
And the thing that’s also interesting, Tom, is that when I was doing the research, is that these guys are seductive, they’re very charismatic.
TH: They certainly came across that way.
SA: You have no idea. I have 15 hours of those interviews and I want to cut a one hour companion piece to it. The only thing I was worried about was when I showed them the movie for the first time. If they didn’t like it… Talk about a tough room!
My deal with them was no names. I never asked them who did what. I never asked them who killed who. There are no names in the credits, there are no names on screen. I only have their names in a safe on release forms in my office. That was my deal with them.
But I was very concerned with how they would feel about it. I wanted to know the why – why did you do it? How did it feel? I didn’t want to know who pulled the trigger. These guys, I don’t know that any of them really are involved at all. But they grew up there and that’s the way they play. One of the guys says, “Oh, from what I’ve heard”.. yea. You take a guy, “let’s say me, it’s not me, but let’s just say it’s me.” That’s how they always couch everything.
They saw it and they loved it. It’s funny, it was mostly about their grandkids, cause to their grandkids, they’re just grandpa. I cut a three minute trailer of just them to help raise money for the film. One of the guys took it home and showed it to his grandchildren and they said, “Grandpa, it’s so cool, you’re a movie star like Tony Soprano.” There’s no more stigma with the younger generation; before they felt a little… the code, don’t say a word. But also, my grandkids, I don’t want them to know how grandpa made it in the world. I want to be the kind of grandpa… But now it’s cool!
Armand Assante and Sam Witwer in The Return of Joe Rich
TH: The world runs on sound bites these days and someone might say, “oh, if you loved The Sopranos or Goodfellas, you’ll love this movie. If you got that message across to people, you’d probably have to outdo those films with more killings, but it’s not that kind of movie.
SA: No, and we couldn’t afford to make it that kind of movie.
TH: What was the budget?
SA: Under a million dollars. We were operating on a ridiculous schedule, a ridiculous shoestring. But all my actors, Sam Witwer and Armand and Talia, they read the script, they were very interested in the script- three great roles.
Sam is doing such a brilliant job on being human. That whole vampire thing, I mean he looks the part, he’s got that power to it. But I think he was really attracted to playing a rounded character, playing a character who was down and with a real arc to it. But obviously, vampire is a metaphor for a lot of things in our society, but this is a very realistic portrayal. This is not glamorous, this isn’t fly to Vegas and strippers. This is a little restaurant on the West side, it’s downscale and that is the reality, One of the guys says it too; “For all the times it’s glamorous, there are a lot more times it isn’t.”
It’s not neorealism, but I think that realistic aspect of what mob life really is and how a normal, average guy could fall into it out of depseration. One of the guys says, “when you’re backed up with no options…”
Joe, coming from the Italian-Jewish milieu of suburban Chicago, his default is not to get out on the street with signs, but to go to Uncle Dom and he’ll take you anywhere.
TH: I love the scene in the kitchen where Joe tells Uncle Dom that he wants to join his business and Uncle Dom says, “no, you don’t.”
SA: That’s the reality of it. In The Godfather you get a little bit of the family, you know everyone’s born and bred to take over the family business. These guys don’t want their kids in at all, for the most part. Uncle Dom, from all my research, they said they would do anything to steer their kids away from it. Uncle Dom said, “you need money? I’ll give you money.” But he didn’t want him in, because he knows what it’s like.
That conversation he has is a conversation that I had with one of these guys. I mean it’s almost verbatim. I’ll be honest with you, like I said, these are seductive guys and it’s a seductive idea. What if I wanted to get in? What if I wanted to do this? It was like, “get the fuck outta here. Whatta talkin’ about?”
OK, but what if I did, what would it take? “Ok, I’ll tell you what it takes. Can you take the baseball bat and beat this guy’s head in?”
-Yea, if there’s a good reason
-“No, no reason.”
Somebody told you that’s the reason and if you don’t do it, they’re going to come after you.
We got so lucky with the actors; the guy that plays the young Dom. I loved the experience with the old guys and what they told me was so important and so powerful for me and I really wanted to give that sense of reaching back to history, you know the little subtitles, “this is Uncle Dom’s first job for the outfit.” I don’t know – the guy that told me this – that that was the case, but it felt like it, it felt like it.
It’s so funny because these guys are natural story tellers. They tell everything almost braggadocio, they’re so proud of their own myth. It’s always tinged with, “this is where I stepped over the line and there’s no stepping back.”
This is what Uncle Dom knew and what that guy that told me the story knew and he knew that that was the moment that the die was cast and there’s no coming back from that.
TH: The character of Joe Rich – was it a compilation of people you knew or something you just thought fit the character?
SA: The name comes from – again, someone told me this story – about their grandpa. The story that my grandpa Joe La Prada, when he used to be picked up by the cops – well, you know, you never tell the cops your real name.
So when I would go out to Las Vegas with some of my friends who are into horse racing. Even though we could bet on them here, we would fly to Vegas to bet on their horses running there.
So everybody’s got their Las Vegas name. So I heard this story and I thought, “that’s what my Las Vegas name is going to be, Joe Rich.”
But it’s based on stories they told me about young guys. Basically, it’s stories they told me about themselves as young guys and I just kind of transposed it all into the modern idiom. Those guys went to the movies, but pop culture wasn’t as all pervasive as it is now. So Joe is much more grounded in the moment, quoting Star Wars and The Godfather and the whole thing.
Unfortunately you always have to leave a lot of things on the cutting room floor, but when Joe’s in the back confessing to Uncle Dom’s body, I listened to this Star Wars riff – “Luke, I am your father” - and Sam does all the voices of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker and he’s just brilliant.
For these guys back then, they were always talking, “remember when Johnny the Bug did this? Remember this in Franklin Park?” Joe Rich is kind of the new millennium version of what they told me their childhoods were like. No, not their childhoods, but their beginning steps with their alternative occupational choice.
Part Two of the interview, in which Auster describes several outlandish scenes with Armand Assante and Sam Witwer, will run in the next post.