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Filmmaking | Interviews

Frank Ciota: Taking on the North End

1 Nov , 1997  

Written by Boston Film Video Foundation volunteer Joshua Sandler | Posted by:

From taking workshops at the BFVF to working with Martin Scorsese and directing his own feature film — how did he do it? Read and find out...

First-time feature film director Frank Ciota joins Boston Film • Video Foundation’s Meet the Director series on November 14 and 15, 1997. Ciota will present his critically acclaimed debut feature The North End in person at the Brattle Theatre on Friday, November 14 at 7:15 pm. The screening will be followed by a reception with the director, who will also be holding a master class the following day Saturday, November 15 from noon to 4 pm at BF•VF. Tickets for the screening are $8 for BF•VF and Brattle members/$10 non-members; screening and reception $16 BF•VF members. Ace BF•VF volunteer intern Josh Sandler had the opportunity to interview Mr. Ciota for this month’s BF•VF newsletter Intervisions.

Josh Sandler: After graduating from Harvard and then from NYU’s film program, you made some short films and worked in media related jobs, but not really the film industry, before working on Martin Scorsese’s Casino and then making The North End. Did you know all along that you eventually wanted to direct your own feature?

Frank Ciota: I don’t know if I would say directing my own feature as much as making my own film, which I look at as almost two different things. I wanted to make films. That’s what I wanted to do. At a certain point I started to focus on directing a low budget film. When I was in Boston, working in politics, I was taking a lot of classes in film, actually at the BF•VF — Tim Wright was my teacher. And I was then just trying to get up to speed. I knew I had stories I wanted to tell, but I didn’t technically know how to do it. My background in film was as a film fan. I just loved to watch movies. When I was in college I spent almost every night watching movies. So, in my classes at BF•VF and eventually when I went to N.Y.U. it was mainly to technically get a handle on how to tell a story through film.

JS: Working on Scorsese’s set must have been an amazing experience for you as a fan of film and as a filmmaker.

FC: I think the thing that was most interesting to me was to see a group of people who had worked together for a long time – the editor, the producer, a lot of the actors, and Scorsese himself – and to see after all that time how dedicated and into it they were. Every week Scorsese had a crate full of prints, that was shipped out from his office in New York, of classic films, a lot of which nobody had ever heard of, and he would come in on Sunday after working Monday through Saturday and watch films all day. So that was really wild to see that he was still a student of film. And at the same time he was making Casino, he was executive producing David Salle’s Search and Destroy, and they were editing that and Casino in the production office, and in another corner they were editing a documentary that he was doing through the British Film Office called Martin Scorsese’s Hundred Years in American Cinema. So, his whole day, every day was just film, day and night.

JS: Working on that set and being in that kind of environment, did you feel inspired to get to work on making your own film?

FC: Well, Casino was a 60 million dollar film, but even at that magnitude the basic elements are the same as making a movie for 100 dollars. When you see the final product of something like Casino projected on the screen you say, "How could I ever do something like this?" But when you see the whole process, it’s really just a bunch of pieces that people are putting together with the basic elements — you need a camera, you need lights, you need film, you need actors. So, in a way it helped me simplify things because I saw in a movie like that where 60 million dollars builds this "house," 3 million is going to refurbish the house. You start to subtract those things from the 60 million. I don’t have to build a house. I don’t have to hire Robert DeNiro. You know. Right away, there’s 30 million dollars I don’t have to spend.

JS: But you did get Frank Vincent for The North End. How did you go about getting him as your lead actor?

FC: Actually, I didn’t really meet Frank when I was out there. The only contact I had with him then was measuring him for his crew jacket. I was always a big fan of his, though, and when I had the script ready I had a cast and crew list with his phone number on it and I called him up and said I had a script and, "You probably don’t know me, but I’d love to send it down to you." He got the script and I really didn’t know what to expect but he called me two days later and said, "I really want to do this." He came on the strength of the script more than anything else. And he was really great to work with.

JS: Working with such an experienced actor who’s made a number of Hollywood films must have been a wonderful opportunity for you as a director.

FC: Yeah, it’s funny because I learned from watching him that the more experienced you get, the more relaxed you are in front of the camera. And he’s completely at ease, or at least he was when we were doing this. I kind of learned more just watching him. He was really easy to work with because all I really had to do was say, "Frank, here’s your lines," and then I’d just sit there and watch him. That was really great. And I think he really enjoys working on low budget films with first-time directors because he has a lot more input into what happens. He’s also a former drummer. He was in a musical combo with Joe Pesci for like twenty years. Joe Pesci was the guitar player and Frank was the drummer and they did a comedy act. Frank’s got really great rhythm, you know, and I think it comes across in his acting.

JS: What would you say was the most difficult thing about making The North End, your first feature length, independent film.

FC: There hasn’t really been an easy part of the whole process. You start off trying to get the money, and you get as much as you can, and then you go out and start to shoot, thinking you can get more money based on what you shot. And then you get through that process and you’re into the post-production stage, and that took a long time because we never had the money to make a schedule and say, "We’re going to start pre-production this date and start shooting this date and start doing our mix this date." It was always, "All right, we have money, now what do we do? Okay, we shot something, now what do we do?" We got a really great editor, but we didn’t get him until six weeks after we finished shooting. So then we had to go back and fill in some blanks once we cut the film together. So it was like a stop and go thing.

But I think the thing I was probably least prepared for was the stage we’re in now that the film is done. Now you’ve got to get it shown. That’s something you don’t even think about while making the film. It’s like, "I just gotta make the movie and then I’m gonna show it." But this whole stage has got its ups and downs just like the other stages of the whole process. And I think that anyone who makes a low budget or no budget film, whatever you want to call it, will look at something like what happened with The Brothers McMullen and think "That’s what I want to happen." But that’s like getting hit with lightning, you know, and if that happens that’s great but you don’t have any real control over that. The story I love about that film is that it went around to a bunch of distributors and everyone passed on it until Fox Searchlight wanted right of first refusal, which means if somebody buys it they get to match the offer. Next thing you know it goes to Sundance and it’s a hit with a 2 million dollar price tag.

JS: How have the showings been going for The North End?

FC: It’s good. It’s always great to show it to an audience, especially people who don’t know anything about it, because for me I’ve seen the film so many times, it almost doesn’t mean anything after a while. We screened it at the Montreal Film Festival – that was the premiere — and that went great. It was a completely objective audience and people were really into the film. Then we came back to Boston and obviously there’s some local interest, so that was really good. We showed it to some distributors in LA and New York and screened it at another film festival. This has all been in the last month and a half.

JS: What about shooting in Boston and in the North End in particular? Did you feel welcome as a filmmaker with your crew and equipment?

FC: Say we had 2 million dollars to make the film and we were coming down here with trucks and everything. Then it would be interesting to the people here for about a day and after that you’d just be taking someone’s parking space. But one of the coolest things now is people say when they see this film, "When did you guys shoot this. I never saw anybody ever shooting this." It was a really small crew and a van that we had our equipment in. And I had friends that were restaurant owners and they’d say, "Yeah, come on in," and we’d shoot there for a day. We also shot for two weeks in a condo that my brother owned. And the other two weeks were shot in restaurants and in a church and all over the place. People were really, really helpful. I mean, I never could have gotten the film done without people helping me out down here.

JS: What about the city of Boston, getting insurance bonds and permits?

FC: (laughing) Well, we didn’t get any permits. We didn’t really have to. We did for a couple of days, when we were on the street. But for the most part we didn’t have to deal with the city. But when we did they were always really helpful. Basically, we tried to do this without anybody really knowing about it.

JS: You mentioned your brother, Joseph, who wrote the screenplay for the film. Have the two of you always worked together creatively?

FC: After I’d finished NYU, I went on to an advanced program there, where if you came up with the money they’d give you the equipment to make a short film. My brother had written a script, a short story, that I did as a film called Five O’clock Shadow. That was the first time we worked together. He had done a lot of writing, but not really fiction writing — more like journalism. But he had different ideas for short stories and it just happened that I was looking for something to direct and I liked the stuff that he had written. So we said, "Let’s do something together."

JS: Do you plan to continue working together as writer and director?

FC: Yes. We have another script that he wrote a year ago that we couldn’t have done a year ago, but that we may be able to do now.

JS: It would have been impossible due to the budget it would have required?

FC: Yeah, the budget, and I guess for a lack of a better word, credibility among people that you’d want to approach to get involved in it.

So this is something that he’s working on right now. We’re trying to write out a treatment. But it’s funny because this project is something that will go through more of the channels of the industry out in LA. And everything has to be made… I hate to say categorized… so people will understand what it’s about. So, we’ll see what happens.

JS: The North End deals with a world of colliding values as it tells the story of two Harvard grads who move into the traditional Italian neighborhood of the North End. Although your brother wrote the script, do you feel that it is in some way a metaphor for your own experience growing up in a traditional Italian family and then going on to graduate from Harvard yourself.

FC: Yeah, I think that the basic conflict of the story relates to the conflict between the values that you grow up with, for me being traditional Italian values, and then the values you learn going through something like college — you’re always kind of stuck in the middle a little bit. And I think that the North End is a place that captures that conflict. A lot of college students move down here [to the North End], myself included when I graduated college. And then there are a lot of older, Italian, more traditional people, all in the same neighborhood. But I think it’s a great thing. I live down here and every day I see the opposition between the two played out in some funny situations. And I hang out with my friends here, mostly from school, but then I also bump into older friends in the neighborhood who remind me of my uncle. I really don’t know who I relate to more. But that’s kind of what I love about the North End.

JS: So, finally, there are a lot of aspiring independent filmmakers here at BF•VF. Do you have some advice to offer?

FC: The only advice I can offer would be from my own experience, but there are a million different ways you can go about this. And I think what you have to do is find the way that best suits your way of doing things and to just go forward. And also, try to keep everything simple. When it comes down to it, on Casino there was a camera, film, lights and actors, and anyone who goes to make a film is basically going to be dealing with the same elements. If you really want to try and go out and do it, just keep it as simple as you can, and go out and just start shooting. My feeling always was that as long as you’re out shooting, things would start to happen. You can plan and plan, but in order to make something happen you almost have to just go out and start shooting.

There’s two things I always try to remember. One is a quote from Francis Ford Coppola that says, "If you get a flag and march down Fifth Avenue there will eventually be a parade behind you. Or people will be throwing rocks at you." Just go ahead and do it, you know. And the other one is from Michael Correnti, who did Federal Hill. He gave me a poster and signed it "Keep Going," and that’s all he wrote on it. At first I was like, "What the hell is that?" (laughing). But that’s basically it, you know. You have a story you want to tell and you can get some equipment to do it, and that ‘s the starting point.

 

This month the Boston Film • Video Foundation hosts visiting Hungarian filmmaker Csaba Bollok from Budapest for a 5-week residency highlighted by a free screening on Sunday, November 16 at 7pm at BF•VF. Also now’s your last chance to enter the 23rd New England Film and Video Festival, deadline: November 28. BF•VF is the largest non-profit media arts organization in New England, offering ongoing professional workshops low-cost equipment access for independent producers, technical and financial assistance, and exhibition programs. To find out more and to become a member of BF•VF, call 617-536-1540, or e-mail: info@bfvf.org