Click through for my interview with filmmaker and actor Chris Cordone about his feature film, Stevie D.
Interview w/ Filmmaker Chris Cordone about his film Stevie D.
1. Chris I really loved the story and laughed throughout. Can you tell us about your friendship to John Aprea and how it helped in this script?
Thank you so much, Gadi and thanks for this opportunity to talk about the film. I met John on my first gig in LA, which was an Exxon commercial for the European market. We played a father and son mafia team and during a very tense negotiation a chimpanzee drops in from out of the sky. I don’t really know why that happened but we had a lot of laughs about it in many bars over the years. During that time, we talked about creating work for ourselves and so the process began to find a story that suited us. If you are an actor of Italian decent of a certain age, you have probably played mafia guys a hundred times over. I haven’t experienced that as much but I still get typecast as “ethnic”. So the idea was to use that mobster angle as an entry into the story but then take it in a different direction. The father and son story, as well, is not played straight as Angelo is not Michael’s father but he realizes, or finally admits, that he could have had a son like Michael had he put in the time. I needed a lot from John’s character and it was wonderful to work with him because we had such trust between us.
2. 21 days back in June of '14. What days stand out? Can you talk especially about location shoots at La Dolce Vita for instance.
The location shoots at LDV fit very well into what we were just discussing as that scene at the bar between Angelo and Michael was very important to the film. Shooting in LA is very difficult unless you have a lot of money or are willing to shoot guerilla style on an iPhone. I didn’t want to make that kind of film, primarily because the story required different kind of look. I also wanted to work with actors of the caliber of Kevin Chapman and Hal Linden and I didn’t want to ask them to jump in and out of a car so we could shoot a scene without a permit. We had to be creative. The owner of La Dolce Vita is a friend of mine and he let us shoot there for nothing. But even that wasn’t free because we had to bribe the owner of the property next door to get after-hour access to the back door of the restaurant. We had to use a generator and that required a permit and a fire marshal and so you begin to see why the grass has become greener in Atlanta. That restaurant is quite wonderful to look at and sit in, and I felt we really needed that reality as we had to cheat on others (as is often done even in larger budget films). The estate we rented in Laurel Canyon off Mulholland was not cheap but it also gave us the look we needed and it was large enough to shoot some ancillary scenes. The most challenging locations to find were the various hotels that were needed. We ended up shooting them in a hotel in Palm Springs. Mostly what I recall from the shoot was that it was a wonderful time with a very hard working and understanding cast and crew. The collective creative energy on a good set is hard to beat and once the film is wrapped it is gone forever.
3. I loved the fluid pacing of the film. Can you talk about working with your DP Paul McIlvine on the look of the film.
Paul and I met to discuss the film and we both agreed that the steadycam/hand-held look was not right for this story. The story has an old fashioned feel to it and we wanted to shoot it that way. We wanted to create a noir-ish tone to some of the scenes with Angelo and the mobsters. We wanted that world to look different from the more benevolent, lighthearted scenes with Michael. We had no dolly and no zoom so there was a limit to what we could achieve with the camera. Paul had requested lenses from the 1960s which give the film a grittier look, something that helps when shooting in crystal clear HD. His experience as one of the most sought after lighting technicians in town gave him an edge in getting the lighting set up correctly. He has a great demeanor on set. There was very little drama. I think the look of the film (including the production design by Brandy Maasch) belies our budget. I also credit our editor, Bill Sebastian, with setting a great pace for the film. It is not a broad comedy and so it was never going to be a little frothy 90 minute meatball comedy as some may expect or want from the setup of the story. Bill knew where to let the moments build and settle and when to move on.
4. Loved the cast can you talk about the casting process & how long you got with the actors.
From the beginning, I felt that the supporting characters in the story were critical as they drive the story forward. The Michael character is more of a vessel, responding to the events as they unfold. For that reason, I really wanted great character actors. Spencer Garrett agreed to attach very early (along with John Aprea) before we went out to agents with the role breakdowns. He is a friend who loved the script and wanted to help. Spencer is very well known and liked in town so that lent some credibility to the project. I had two great casting directors, Kevin Mockrin and Karina Walters, who had recently started their own casting office after having worked at larger offices. They know their job well but they also had access to agents. I had brought them the idea of Hal Linden as the agent, not thinking we could get him. They said, “Let’s ask.” And we got him. They were able to get the script to Kevin Chapman’s agent and she recommended it to him. That was huge because we had a very short list of actors who could play that part. Torrey DeVitto’s character was not quite as challenging to cast but we needed someone who was believable as a lawyer and had good chemistry with me as Michael. To her credit, Torrey offered to come in and read. She was very well prepared. John brought Bobby Constanzo on board. I had originally wanted him for one of the hitmen but the shooting schedule was too involved. He offered to take a smaller role to keep his name in the film. This of course, opened the door for Phil Idrissi to play Big Lou. I had seen Phil work before but we had never met. He heard about the film and contacted me but I had already earmarked him for a role. I had wanted Darren Capozzi all along for Little Dom. I had seen him work in Jeffrey Tambor’s class but did not know him. They were fantastic together and worked at their rapport. We had very little time to rehearse anything so I gave some notes to a few of the actors but I relied on them to bring their work in. I think it is unusual for a low budget film to have such a deep cast of well-known and recognizable actors.
5. There seems to be a lot of connections back to Dan Perri's Sharkskin. How has he and the film help in your film process?
The most significant connection between the two movies is our line producer, Brandon Amelotte. John Aprea is obviously the lead in “Sharkskin” and has a big role in “Stevie D” as well. He had just filmed “Sharkskin” and kept encouraging me to shoot the film on a low budget contract. Another producer and I had been shopping my script for a couple of years attaching names and un-attaching them. It was clearly going nowhere. When I saw some of the footage from “Sharkskin”, I was very impressed with the production value and the look of the film. It was a particularly ambitious shoot given that it is set in the 1940s. I met with Brandon and we discussed my script. He fully believed we could achieve a high level of production value despite the challenges: we need to shoot in LA (and it needed to be recognizably LA), we had many locations, and many characters. I worked to streamline the script as much as possible but it was still a challenge.
6. What was it like working with Composer Ted Howe on the score of the film? Is there a particular sequence that stands out musically?
I was introduced to Ted by the jazz vocalist Giacomo Gates, who had recently appeared at the Jazz Bakery in Culver City. I wanted a jazz and blues score because it suited the film and it’s what I like. Giacomo recommended Ted, who is a solid pianist but more known for teaching and arranging. He taught many of the great musicians to come out of Berklee in the last 50 years. I sent him some tracks of music that had the feel of what I wanted – Kenny Burrell, Lee Morgan, Horace Silver. He processed it and composed a ton of music for me. We then listened to it all and every now and then I’d hear a chord I liked and I’d say “That!”. He’d make a note and come back with something great. I really like the piano music he composed for the part of the movie when we are introduced to Michael and he is becoming Stevie. It really helps move the story along.
7. The duality of acting and directing on top of having duel characters is bold. What scenes standout that you are in and one that you weren't in?
I wasn’t intending to direct originally. When we were shopping the film for a bigger budget, the idea was to attach an experienced director. Once we were ready to go at a much lower budget, it was clear we did not have the money to hire anyone we could bank on. We were all afraid to trust the story and the tone of the film to someone who, at that point, would have very little time to prep and have little experience. We needed to shoot immediately to take advantage of the TV hiatuses of many of the actors (everyone is working in TV now). That was when I decided to step in. As a filmmaker, I love the scene with Angelo and Michael at the bar at La Dolce Vita. It looks beautiful and gets at one of the main tenets of the story, the father and son relationship. As an actor, I don’t do much in the scene but listen (which many say is half of acting). I enjoyed the Stevie scenes as an actor because I don’t get to do that “bad boy” thing much. It was wonderful to watch Hal work on his monologue in the scene where he lets Michael go. Again, I was just along for the ride and happy to do so. Much of the hitmen dialogue was riffed so that was pure enjoyment to watch although I did need to step in every now and then to shape it for story. The phone call with Al Sapienza as Nick Sr. was a lot of fun too. He had accidentally dialed American Express and was screaming into the phone as if it were the hitmen.
8. The film was on the festival run at stops like Newport Beach, Sedona & Sarasota. What are your fondest moments of the festival circuit?
Sedona was our first festival and there had been some buzz about the film, probably from the cast and the trailer. We sold out the first night and it was overwhelming to see people, all strangers, for the first time responding to the film in such a positive way. By the second screening we had a line to get in. It was such an honor to win one of their Festival Director’s awards and a complete surprise. We had similar responses in Sarasota and Newport. Having the film play in front of audiences in such different locations was a great test run for the film in front of audiences of real people. If you are lucky enough to get into the big North American heavyweights like Toronto, Sundance and SXSW, you are playing in front of film industry crowds so there are way more chances to sell the movie, but also less of the average filmgoer there.
9. What actors and filmmakers inspire you?
My father raised me on the classics. I watched black and white films before I saw color. When I was very young, I would have friends over the house to watch a movie and show them William Wyler’s “Dead End”, which I love to this day, and they’d think I was crazy. Bogart was my first idol and I knew all of his films. Eventually I got into Brando and all of the actors of the 70s that he influenced. I also studied Italian in college and had a professor who loved film. He introduced me to the great Italian neorealist films of the post-war era – Mario Monicelli, DeSica, Antonioni, and culminating with Bertolucci and Wertmuller. “The Conformist” and “The Seduction of Mimi” were (and are) very influential as I started to think about making movies. Sidney Lumet’s book Making Movies was very important to me as a young man as he distilled many complex processes into very understandable terms.
10. What is next for you and your team?
As you know, in independent cinema, it is such a herculean effort to get a film into distribution. Despite the fact that we finished the film over a year ago, I have not had the luxury of letting anyone take over while I tee up the next one. That having been said, I have been working on a couple of scripts that I would like to focus on next. One is a noir-surfing thriller and the other is a private eye story, both set in LA. I would like to focus on directing next without any acting responsibilities. I would not turn down any good acting gigs but directing is where I hoped all of this would lead me so I am looking in that direction.
For more information about the film please go to Stevie D.