So it's late 1998 and I've heard from Al Klingenstein and Jim Kohlberg (via Anne Harrison, my producing partner) that they want to make the film. This is the problem with show business. The least likely things happen and the most obvious ones don't. Which leads you to keep putting coins into the proverbial slot, waiting for the payout. In a sense I'm still waiting...though I have the feeling that even those who have hit the jackpot are still putting coins in, waiting for an ever bigger payout...
I told them that the film was makeable for the money they had, although probably not with big stars. They won my heart by telling me that they thought the script was so strong that it didn't need stars--it needed the perfect actors to play the lead roles. (I hope like hell they still believe this unconventional bit of wisdom...) After flirting a bit with Anthony La Paglia and getting turned down by the onerous Vincent D'Onfrio, I saw tape on a character actor who was one of those faces that you recognize from a hundred movies but don't necessarily now his name.
Michael Rispoli was Buddy. I knew it when I saw him on screen and I knew it for certain when he and I sat down and met at Rocco's, a pastry and coffee joint on Bleecker Street in the West Village. Michael exposed his feelings and desires about the part so fearlessly at our meeting that I left knowing not only that I had my Buddy, but that I had a movie. When big casting pieces fall into place, your work as a director is considerably less daunting...indeed I would argue that it practically becomes a non-issue.
Our casting directors, Sheila Jaffe and Georgianne Walken, happened to also be working on an HBO series that hadn't yet aired. They told me that it had an Italian-American theme and that they'd seen plenty of great actors for that show that would be great for my movie. Before I knew it I had cast Vincent Pastore, Matt Servitto and Sharon Angela. Most importantly I found the great Katherine Narducci for Buddy's wife, Estelle. If the above names don't suggest the name of the HBO show that they were putting together then I'll spell it out for you...S-O-P-R-A-N-O-S.
By the time "The Sopranos" aired, of course, my movie was done and it looked to the world like I had somehow raided David Chase's set. Cynics might well have thought (and they might well have been right) that I was trying to capitalize on the Italian-American faddishness that arose from the show. In fact, I was blindly following Sheila and Georgianne's instincts and woke up one morning to find my film tied to the wings of a legend. At the time we made the movie, however, the show had yet to air and the general feeling about it was that everyone liked it, but that HBO would probably pull the plug on it after airing a few episodes.
Most unusual of all, casting wise, was getting Kelly Macdonald to play the young, pregnant Irish lass. I'd seen her in "Trainspotting" and a strange movie called "Cousin Bette" and what I'd noticed about her was that, whatever the size of the role and however little she might have had to do, you couldn't take your eyes off her when she was on screen. This might be the single most important thing a film actor has--that kind of mesmerizing authority while on screen. We were fortunate to have attracted the interest of her English manager (no thanks, by the way, to her then American agents at CAA) who pushed the script on her while she was in mid-shoot on something else in Europe. When she showed up in New York, a week before our shoot, she presented herself at my apartment in the Village and was unbelievably assured, friendly and down to earth. How old was Kelly at this time? Twenty-two? Twenty-three? After we'd hung out and talked for a good long while (and I think gone to lunch...) I offered to get a cab and take her to her hotel uptown, figuring that she didn't know New York too well. With admirable spunk she declined and said, "That's okay, I'm a very self-sufficient girl!", a line that endeared her to me forever...
Below, a little taste of "meatball heaven"--a 1951 Frank Sinatra television show with guest stars Frankie Laine and Perry Como. Can you say "pisano"?