Nick Pileggi, author of "Wiseguys"
Published by mafia-news.com at 7:50 am under Movie
The mafia’s allure
ROME — This is the year of the mafia—at least at the box office.
Two films on organized crime in Italy, each fact-based melodramas, took top prizes at the Cannes Film Festival in May and are drawing packed audiences here. The Italian movie industry was giddy over the double win.
"Gomorra," the film adaptation of a diary-like book by journalist Roberto Saviano that focuses on the Naples-based mob known as Camorra, took home Cannes’ grand prize. "Il Divo," a film directed by Paolo Sorrentino, won the jury honor for its original portrayal and analysis of former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti.
The recently released article above illustrates one given: audiences respond very well to mob material. Of course, it helps if it is good mob material, not some of the garbage that passes for movies. That’s a point discussed later. For now the question is: If audiences respond so well to mob material, why is it so hard to get mob projects made? The answer is the keyhole theory, that there is a huge audience out there for every genre, but to reach that audience projects must fight their way through a keyhole controlled by a bunch of executives who practice the religion of Groupthink, or Follow the Leader, or He’s Smarter Than I Am So I’ll Do Whatever He Does. It is particularly practiced when mob or western projects come across the desks of the followers of Groupthink.
This religion is not new. When A-List director William A. Wellman wanted to do a mob movie he ran into a brick wall at Warner Brothers. "Not another mob movie," he was told by Jack Warner; there was nothing new in mob stories; audiences were tired of the mob; the writer was forty-two years old and had never done anything; yada, yada, yada. Wellman was insistent, and finally gave up his salary, with was huge for that time, for a back end deal. He attached Jimmy Cagney and Jean Harlow, and first time screenwriter’s 1931 movie "Public Enemy" became legendary.
That is not an isolated case. Getting "Godfather" funded by Paramount was a long and bumpy ride for producers in spite of the fact that the novel was a huge best seller. If not for the pre-publicity from the publication the film would not have been made. It was just an offer Paramount couldn’t refuse. Just recently, what is now a household word, "Sopranos," was turned down everywhere. David Chase has said that he was at the end of the road when he went to HBO; that everyone else had turned him down. I remember one of the stars of the show telling me at the very start, before a frame was shot, that he’d been cast in some show called "Sopranos," which was something about some mobsters and a priest. Who knew? Audiences. Who didn’t know? Execs at all the network and cable stations that passed on the project.
I’m constantly contacted by someone or another who claims to have written a mob genre screenplay, and wants to get it made. First, on scripts in general, I gave a talk in front of screenwriters a few years ago, and my opening line was, "The most disappointing day of your life is the day you realize that quality doesn’t mean anything." It’s much, much worse when it comes to mob genre material.
Going back to the two Italian films that scored so well at Cannes, I realized a while ago that a true mob story might be much more salable than fiction. After all, the "Gotti" movie on HBO, starring Armand Assante, was an award winning success. I had been approached by family of former mob boss Joe Colombo to do a project. I jumped at the chance. I knew Joe, and marched with everyone at the FBI Building in New York, and attended the first Unity Day rally in Columbus Circle. Straight talk: there is no better true organized crime story in the latter part of the Twentieth Century than Joe’s. I hadn’t written one word yet, when a friend who is a writer at a major magazine suggested I call a friend at Paramount, that he thought it was a hot property and shouldn’t be shopped around. The conversation with the Paramount exec went something like this:
"Hi, I was told to call you by ________."
"Oh, yes, __________. What can I do for you?"
"I just got the rights to do a story on Joe Colombo."
"Did you ever hear of the Colombo Crime Family?"
"Do you think it was named after the yogurt?"
"I don’t think that’s the kind of thing I want to do."
When I’d finally written a screenplay to encompass the last fifteen turbulent months of Joe Colombo’s active life, I sent it off to a producer friend who had done some big films. As a friend, he called me after having read it. His words to me were that it was another mob story, yada, yada, yada, but might appeal to him if…if…if it were done as a black comedy. I could only ask what part he thought was funny? The part where Joe got shot in the head?
That is only a couple of anecdotes from years of meetings with the top people in Hollywood; people who can green light projects. One precious response to my first novel, "Blood of Our Fathers," was from a network production company exec: "I didn’t get a chance to read it, but I knew by the cover it was something I couldn’t do." New Hollywood adage: Never judge a book by its contents.
Last year I had to fly to L.A. for a series of meetings for an interactive reality mob TV show. We met with producers in L.A. who had strong resumes of past and present reality shows. The meetings went great. Scheduled half-hour meetings turned into two hours or more. At one, someone there for a scheduled appointment was left sitting in the waiting area for nearly an hour. At the end of each, the producers would tell me that they were so fascinated by the material that they could talk to me for hours. I reminded them that audiences felt the same way. We left with my agent predicting we would have a bidding war for the show. They all passed.
Now, at this very moment, a reality TV producer from Hollywood is being kicked around by her inner circle compatriots at the networks and cable stations over a project she’s done with yours truly. It developed when she ran into a mutual friend with a famous mob name, in L.A., at a dinner party. She confided that she wanted to do a reality mob show; he referred her to me. Young, smart, and confident, she flew to Florida and pitched her concept for a show to me. She wanted real retired mob guys for it, and asked if I could help. I picked up the phone, and within a couple of weeks had a reunion with pals from New York, Kansas City, Chicago, Boston, and Miami, all in L.A. All had prison records to validate them. All had retired for a number of years. (Oh, they told you mob guys can’t retire? Think of a ball team’s injured list: inactive but still with the team. Same thing without the physical injury. Mental illness? Maybe). Producer did a super job in putting together a four camera shoot then editing a fantastic four minute demo from nearly twelve hours of footage.
Time to sell.
Hot property. Big time reality TV production house with a number of shows on the air offered a firm deal. She passed because she’d never grown up in the streets and didn’t think they offered her enough of a back end for us. I used to sell hijacked trucks full of merchandise for twenty percent less than the going hijack price, just to have my money under my pillow when I went to sleep. Old mob rule: A hundred percent of nothing is nothing. Anyway, buoyed by the great first response she got, she went off to her executive buddies at the networks and cable stations. Each and every one assured her that the show would be an audience favorite; that it was easy for it to create an audience buzz. Each passed. Audiences be damned. They were all worried about image, like no one outside of their little circles of gophers and other execs holds them in anything but the lowest esteem. They also worried about sponsors being attached to a mob project, like there were no sponsors for that "Growing up Gotti" abortion, or for those stations rerunning "Sopranos" episodes, or even Howard Stern. Down but not out, my producer-partner, now renamed "Godmother," takes on the challenge of a new round of pitch meetings. Like David Chase we only need one. Like Clint Eastwood, we may have to take it to Italy, which, as you saw in the beginning of this article, loves mob stuff.
Am I bitching and moaning? Some. The rest is a message to all my pals out there, even those I haven’t met yet, who have a mob project that they believe is the best thing since tapered boxer shorts, that their road is not just uphill, but nearly straight up an oil slick wall with spikes at the top. All I can say, from the heart, is: "Good luck."
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Other Features by this author:
DAGO: The Joseph Petrosino Story
There is one lawman from long ago that I’ve come to greatly admire; so much so that I’ve recently completed a screenplay based on his life.
R.I.P. ~ Bill Bonanno
Bill Bonanno did not choose a mob life; his father chose it for him.
"When We Were Kings"
A contemplative look back at the good old days of mobdom, brought on by the half century anniversary of the infamous Appalachian Convention.
Lansky and Miami
Outside of Las Vegas, there is probably no city in the United States that owes more of its development to the mob than Miami.
Arrivederci, Little Italy
The current demise of Little Italy can only be compared to the decades-long downward plunge of Atlantic City and Miami before their rebirths. Little Italy will have no such rebirth.
"Turning Mob Myths, From the Inside and Out, Inside-Out"
Some myths have been so ingrained in the public consciousness that gangsters themselves now believe them.
Why So Many Rats Today?
I asked a friend how many men who had testified against the mob since Joe Valachi had been caught up with and killed? He said, "None."
Good Friends Who Did Dumb Things
In the course of my life in the streets, I have had some friends, who did some really dumb things that resulted in their deaths.
To Mob Wannabes:
As someone who lived most of my life in organized crime, trust me, guys, there’s nothing left to wannabe.
Fooled you, huh? You thought I was talking about illegals crossing the Mexican border.
The Best True Mob Story
In the case of traditional organized crime, you're watching American history unfold.
Sonny Girard, a former mobster, decided to have his protagonist be caught between three agencies: the GRU (Soviet Military Intelligence), the FBI, and…you guessed it…the mob.
SONNY GIRARD BIOGRAPHY:
Though born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Girard spent most of his formative years in the Red Hook and Navy Yard sections of South Brooklyn. Making little use of an IQ of close to 150, he instead chose to follow the path of the only people in that desperately poor neighborhood who seemed to have money: "wiseguys."
By the time a three-and-a-half year undercover operation by New York’s Organized Crime Control Bureau, targeted at Sonny Girard, was culminated with the arrest of seventeen, Girard was characterized by the New York Post as "…a middle echelon member" of one of New York’s five mob families. As a result of the arrest, Girard was sentenced to three years in State Prison, which he served to maximum time in Sing Sing, Dannemora, Downstate, and Arthurkill.
In 1985, Sonny Girard was convicted of racketeering, under the RICO statute, by Rudolph Giuliani’s office, and was sentenced to seven years in federal prison. During that term, which he also served maximum time on, Girard became interested in writing. Along with another inmate, who had sold a manuscript to a major publisher, Girard helped form a fiction writers’ workshop. It was during that time that Girard completed his first novel, BLOOD OF OUR FATHERS (Pocket/Simon & Schuster, hardcover, June, 1991; softcover, May, 1992).
Due to his experience in and ability to communicate about organized crime, the author has been in demand from various television shows and newspapers as an expert on various crimes, including organized crime activities. He recently appeared on Fox Network’s "National Enquirer T.V.," to analyze the authenticity of HBO’s hit show "Sopranos," Fox News Channel’s "The Edge," with Paula Zahn, to discuss John Gotti’s legacy, and "The O’Reilly Factor," regarding the disappearance of Chandra Levy, and ABC’s "Politically Incorrect," with Bill Maher, for "Mob Week." He was also called in to consult with the screenwriter of record on "Mickey Blue Eyes," starring Hugh Grant, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and James Caan. Italy’s RAI T.V. has done a biographical piece on Girard, as have Italian national newspapers "Corriere Della Sera" and "Il Tempo."
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