Dreaming of Staten Island

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's as if you can hear Frank Sinatra crooning "My Way" in the background as "Two Family House" writer-director Raymond De Felitta discusses his circuitous route toward becoming a working filmmaker--a route that ended up being very personal.

"There's no real way to break into Hollywood," De Felitta says. "They either chase you or you have to find other ways to do it."

De Felitta, the 35-year-old son of novelist and screenwriter Frank De Felitta, was born in New York, but raised in the San Fernando Valley. After attending the American Film Institute and making the Oscar-nominated short "Bronx Cheer," De Felitta had the "CAA experience," as he puts it. At age 25 he was signed by Creative Artists Agency and dispatched to "pitch my heart out" to any executive willing to take a meeting.

"Everyone was very nice to me," he says, "but I wanted to write things nobody could set up, mostly about New York in the 50s."

He finally broke into the business--and yes, he did it his way. If he wanted to make movies about New York, he reasoned, maybe that's where he should be. Within a couple of months of moving back, he had begun filming "Cafe Society," a Manhattan mystery set in the 1950s, which was accepted into the noncompetitive Directors Fortnight sidebar to the Cannes International Film Festival in 1995. Reaching into his deep drawer of scripts, he resurrected another '50s tale he'd written while waiting for his big break in Hollywood. "Two Family House," which won the audience prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival and which opened in limited release on Friday, is based on a true story about his uncle Buddy, a hapless dreamer whose misadventures included buying a home on Staten Island and turning the ground floor into a bar.

As De Felitta describes him: "He had many schemes that never came off and he used to laugh about them in that wistful way Italians have of enjoying their failures as much as they do their successes."

The premise of the story is based in truth. His uncle did try to evict an Irish couple who were living upstairs in the house and the woman gave birth to a baby who ended up causing "quite a scandal," De Felitta says. But that's where the real story ends and fiction begins.

While he was writing the script, the character of Buddy led him away from his usual proclivity for downbeat stories. "I wanted to give Buddy a happy ending, so I rewrote his life," says De Felitta in the same wistful way his late uncle might have said it. "I wanted to explore the side of the family that remained blue-collar. I wanted to learn more about them."

'They Had a Real Island Mentality'

In the film, De Felitta has accomplished the difficult task of romanticizing Staten Island, that peculiarly pre-suburban borough of New York that rarely shows up in movies, "Working Girl" being one notable exception. In a recent episode of "Sex and the City," one of the characters compares Staten Island to a small European country where they listened to 20-year-old music and everyone still smoked.

But De Felitta found the steel-arched Bayonne Bridge, which connects the island to New Jersey, a perfect backdrop for his film. "It's a beautiful structure and I tried to get it into every shot I could," he said. Staten Island also offered the isolation he needed to delve into the tightly knit, fiercely clannish, yet surprisingly fragile Italian American community.

"They had a real island mentality," he recalls of his childhood visits. "You could be a hundred miles from New York, especially in the days before the Verazzano Bridge [which connects Brooklyn and Staten Island]. They probably went to Manhattan once a year for the Macy's dollar-day sale.

"To understand the '50s, you have to look at neighborhoods. They were central to life then. There was a tribal thing that went on in neighborhoods that were composed of a particular race, religion or ethnic background."

Buddy (actor Michael Rispoli) encounters the specter of racism--particularly against African Americans. De Felitta says he approached the topic in a realistic manner. "I don't think they were really racist. They were just ignorant. They were afraid of [different] people and they spoke that way to make themselves feel safe."

Disparaging comments about African Americans in "Two Family House" arise in a casual manner and De Felitta says he was careful not to underline them or make value judgments. "It's just the way they talked. In movies today we have a tendency to want to erase history and not show things that might upset people," he said. "I wasn't out to 'teach a lesson' in the classic Hollywood style. But it was important to include that and I think audiences will understand it in that context."

There are no African American characters in the film because Italian American neighborhoods were then strictly segregated. Even an Irish couple living in their midst are regarded as an anomaly. For De Felitta this demonstrates the fact that the characters' attitudes emerged from prevalent social attitudes and not from actual exposure to other ethnic groups.

The bonds that connect the Italian American families and friends in the film are also held up to scrutiny. De Felitta pays homage to the warmth of that bygone era when neighborhoods were united by ethnic ties and loyalties. But he also casts a harsh eye on the other side of that equation, the claustrophobic attitudes and the icy severing of those relationships if someone tries to assert their independence.

Italian Americans and the 'M' Stereotype

"That society is warm and comforting until it becomes colder than you could ever imagine. That's the price Buddy has to pay for his independence, for his attempt at self-fulfillment," De Felitta says. "There's a real cold at the center of Italians. There's a saying they have--"forgive and remember."

De Felitta's attempt to explore the Italian American experience in a multifaceted manner leads to a discussion of their treatment in American pop culture. "To this day," says De Felitta, who is also half Jewish, "Italian Americans are treated with animosity and belittled. They're the last group you can say what you want about. Someone like Joe DiMaggio is considered a baseball hero almost in spite of the fact that he's Italian American."

In particular, he's talking about the "M" word (Mafia or mobster) and he's aware Italian American filmmakers such as Francis Ford Coppola often play into the stereotype. De Felitta cuts Martin Scorsese a bit more slack.

"I don't think his characters are as stereotyped. I think he understands the very dark Italian humor," De Felitta says. " 'Raging Bull' is a very funny movie, if you know that way of being, if you understand the thought process of that kind of person."

Similarly, he sees the HBO series "The Sopranos" as high comedy, not a gangster melodrama. Three of his principal characters in "Two Family House"--Rispoli, Katherine Narducci and Vincent Pastore--had significant roles in "The Sopranos."

"We had the same casting director, but we made it just as 'The Sopranos' ' first season was beginning," De Felitta says.

With "Two Family House," De Felitta was prepared to have a film that would please him and maybe some of his friends. So he was surprised--and delighted--by the film's reception at Sundance, particularly since the first screening was held in Salt Lake City, not an Italian American ethnic enclave.

"At that screening I was thinking, we're going to die here. But everyone stayed afterward and they seemed to like the film," De Felitta recalls. "Maybe it's because there's something real and universal about it. I think a mistake with filmmakers today is trying to make all their characters likable. I think audiences are starved to see characters with flaws that they recognize and can empathize with."

If "Two Family House" does well, Hollywood may come knocking at De Felitta's door again. And he wouldn't be unhappy to have a budget higher than the $2 million he spent on the film and a schedule longer than the 25 days he had to shoot it. But if it doesn't, "I made exactly the movie I wanted to make. And I'd be happy to have to do it the same way 10 more times." His way.

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