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Posts Tagged ‘mafia’

“America was born as a rebel country, and Americans have always had a soft spot for the outlaw.”
Professor Maurice Yacowar
Married to the Mob by Mark Sauer

One of my favorite discovers since starting this blog in 2008 is being able to find the connective tissues between ideas, scenes, ideas, characters and sometimes entire stories found in movies and TV shows. Often writers are open about their influences and yet other times plead ignorance for similarities.

Many critics said The Sopranos was indebted to Goodfellas—I can’t remember who called it “the companion guide to Goodfellas.” But there is a key element to The Sopranos that I think was taken from Donnie Brasco. Much was made about how fresh and original it was for Tony Soprano—a mobster—to go therapy.

But Johnny Depp’s character in Donnie Brasco is an undercover agent who has infiltrated the mafia. And when what started out as a six month FBI assignment starts turning into years it causes friction at home with his wife. Like a military man or a truck driver his lifestyle is somewhat unorthodox, yet there is something about the job that he loves. In the scene below his wife (Maggie played by Anne Heche) says tells her husband that he’s becoming like the mobsters he’s investigating.

Eventually Depp’s character’s wife says she wants a divorce. He tells her, “There hasn’t been a divorce in my family since back to Julius Caesar. Divorce someone else.” They settle on going to marriage counseling.

The Sopranos first aired in 1999 , Donnie Brasco was released in 1997. Here’s the beginning of the first counseling scene from a Donnie Brasco script dated 1992.

INT. DAY. OFFICE

SHELLY BERGER, late 40s, flannel shirt, earth shoes -- PSYCHOTHERAPIST -- 
sits with Donnie and Maggie.

                                     MAGGIE
                         ...He comes home at all hours of the 
                         night, without announcing when or 
                         why, or where he's been for three 
                         weeks. Or three months. Then he 
                         expects everything to be just the 
                         way he wants it. He vacuums the entire 
                         house. Do you know another man who 
                         vacuums? It's abnormal. Of course, 
                         he expects the girls to drop their 
                         lives when he shows up...

                                     DONNIE
                         I'm their father, Maggie. I ring 
                         that doorbell I expect them home.

                                     MAGGIE
                         They think it's a Jehovah's witness.
                              (to Berger)
                         You'd think he'd tell me where he 
                         goes or what he's doing --

                                     DONNIE
                         That's for your own protection.

                                     MAGGIE
                         Ha!
                              (to Berger)
                         I know he's cheating on me --

While Donnie Brasco screenwriter Paul Attanasio used the book Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life as his foundation, he said the counseling concept came from his imagination. This doesn’t take any thing away from what the great David Chase created with The Sopranos, it just helps us understand how the creative process works.

And since Donnie Brasco was not a made man in the Mafia, but FBI agent Joe Pistone that means the Tony Soprano—unless there is a film/TV show I’m unfamiliar with—was technically the first Mafia man depicted in a counseling setting. File it under, “the same thing only different.”

In my post Where Do Ideas Come From? I quoted James Young Webb, “ An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.” Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and Orson Welles all acknowledged they built on what came before them.

P.S. Of course, Attanasio including a romance into Donnie Brasco accomplished many things including adding pressure (i.e. conflict) in Donnie Brasco/Joe Pistone’s. (On top of his pressure of some in the FBI questioning the operation, pressure from the mob itself, life or death circumstances if his cover is blow, and conflict with himself over his relationship with mobster Lefty Ruggiero, who will be killed or go to prison because of the undercover operations.

The Mike Newell directed film was not a box office hit when it first came out, but it has aged very well.

But about that husband/wife element of Donnie Brasco, Oscar and Emmy-winning director Sydney Pollack once stated something to the effect that each of his film always had a romance element. Certainly true of Out of Africa, The Electric Horseman, The Way We Were, and Tootsie.

P.P.S. I was enjoying The Dialogue series that was put on You Tube, but it went dark yesterday. Anyone know why. It now says those videos are private. If anyone knows why please shoot me an email at info@scottwsmith.com.

Related Post:
(Note: While I’ve used the term cloning before, I now prefer the concept of sampling to describe what goes on in connecting movies.)
Movie Cloning (“Raiders”) Some of the DNA of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Movie Cloning (Pirates) Some of the DNA of Pirates of Caribbean.
Movie Cloning (Part1) 

Scott W. Smith



					

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“When I started writing Donnie Brasco—first of all, it was right at the beginning of my career so I was just really grateful to have a job. It was the first thing I did with Barry Levinson, and really that experience with Barry—you know Quiz Show came out of that, Homicide came out of that—it was fundamental to my development as a writer because all I’d been hearing up to that point was a lot of that kind of Syd Field, Robert McKee kind of [story structure]. And Barry basically, if you wrote a funny scene—that’s what he was looking for. It was really like the Howard Hawks’ apothegm that a good movie is five or six scenes and something in-between. If you have the five or six scenes the structure would announce itself. That was eye-opening for me. And when found that I could do that, that was the experience of [writing] Donnie Brasco.

It was really zeroing in on this character Lefty (Al Pacino). And what was great with that too is there is a lot of tape because they were eavesdropped on by the feds all the time. You could understand Lefty through how he sounded. And there was just all of this tape. And it was that relationship. The basic spine of it was clear to me early on which was at the end he [Donnie Brasco/Johnny Depp] either had to betray himself or betray his friend. That’s all you really need to find the structure.”
Screenwriter Paul Attanasio on writing Donnie Brasco
The Dialogue interview with Mike DeLuca (part 1)

Donnie Brasco originated from the book Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia by Joseph D. Pistone with Richard Woodley.

“What [Levinson] got from the book was that mob life was really about guys in coffee shops scheming and bullsh*#ing, so that spoke to Diner, and Tin Men (other Barry Levinson films). Perception about people that he has mined for a while, and it wasn’t The Godfather and the beautiful Gordon Willis lighting, and the dignity of those guys. It was low life. And what I found in there is the relationship that gave it some heart and emotion.”
Paul Attanasio

P.S. Several years ago I interviewed former capo in the Columbo family Michael Franzese in Santa Monica for a TV program I was producing. I asked him what his favorite mafia film was and he said that he preferred the term “the family” and singled out Donnie Brasco. Fortune magazine once listed Franzese as number 18 of the “Fifty Most Wealthy and Powerful Mafia Bosses.”

Related post:
Filmmaking Quote #39 (Howard Hawks)
40 Days of Emotions

Scott W. Smith

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Then smokestacks reachin’ like the arms of God
Into a beautiful sky of soot and clay
Bruce Springsteen/Youngstown

Do you have an idea bank? A file or notebook full of articles and ideas that you’d like to explore and develop further? I have several notebooks and one of them I stumbled upon yesterday happens to tie in directly with the last couple posts on Youngstown, Ohio.

It was an article on a guy named Reece.  He’s an Ohio legend. He rushed for over 4,000 yards and scored 52 touchdowns playing high school football. His senior year he was named Ohio’s Mr. Football and USA Today’s national offensive player of the year.

He received a scholarship to Ohio St. University where he helped the team to an undefeated season and scored the winning touchdown in a national championship game to give Ohio State its first title in 35 years.

Reece gave a little pride to a part of the Rust Belt that has struggled for years. According to Nancy Armour in an AP article back in ’06 Reece, “grew up in gritty Youngstown, in a neighborhood on the hard and unforgiving south side. The steel mills and factories that once provided jobs for generations of families are long gone, and little good has replaced them.”

The area sounded like a lot of inner cities in the United States. By the time Reece graduated from high school he had already been to 10 funerals of his classmates. There are reports that he avoid the gangs, didn’t go to parties, and didn’t drink or do drugs. He had a gift and he was protecting it from the elements of the streets.

But Reece had no sooner finished celebrating being part of a national championship team when he fell off the mountaintop. Reece dreamed of playing in the NFL and at one time it looked like a sure bet, but as of this writing he sits in a prison in Ohio for a string of crimes.

It’s a familiar story. From King David, to Macbeth, to Bernie Madoff the story looks the same. The rise and fall of the powerful never fails to grab our imaginations.

If the name Reece doesn’t ring a bell maybe his given name does—Maurice Clarett.

The best thing about Clarett’s story is he’s still young.  He’s working on his college degree in prison. He’s only 26 so the story hasn’t ended yet. I’m pulling for him because I love stories of redemption. When I look at my favorite films the majority have redemptive themes.

In fact, Clarett is imprisoned in Toledo, Ohio just about 100 miles away from the Mansfield, Ohio prison used in the movie The Shawshank Redemption. “Hope is a dangerous thing.”

And I also have a sentimental tie-in to Clarett in that my mom and dad met at Ohio State, and I have an uncle who played football there back in the day. I grew up watching Woody Hayes coached teams. And I have a soft spot in my heart for Youngstown because it’s where my father grew-up.

I want to see some films set in Youngstown.  From the historic rise of the steel mills to their bitter closing, to the rebuilding process and the thriving arts community, there are stories to be told from there. Any town that’s lived through an unemployment rate of almost 25% has learned lessons that could help the rest of America at this time.

Any town that has had the influence of English, German, Irish, Scottish, Welch, Polish, Italian, Hungarians, etc. has to have some gripping stories. I’ve read that Youngstown was called the “melting pot that never melted,” and that it was common for steel mills to be divided into ethnic groups. There are stories to tell.

Youngstown is a fascinating town that at one time or another was known for pawnshops, a mafia presence, and a breeding ground for some of the greatest coaches in college football. (Florida’s Urban Myers, Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, and OSU’s Jim Tressel are just a few from in and around the area.)  It’s an area surrounded by beautiful gentle rolling hills that at one time in the 90s was called the “murder capital of America” with the highest per capita rate in the country.

Conflict is one of the main ingredients of drama and Youngstown is no stranger to conflict.

My grandfather earned a Zippo lighter for spending 30 years working at Youngstown Sheet and Tube before he died of a heart attack. I’m sure there are a lot of Zippo lighters floating around Youngstown. What I’ve never seen is a movie that captures that era.

So the time is ripe for a son of a son of a steelworker (or a daughter) to rise up and write some screenplays and make some documentaries on the area. Watch Gran Tornio (about Michigan in transition) and Country (about the farm crisis here in Iowa in the 80s) and start adding notes into your idea bank.

That’s what regional screenwriting is all about and there is still some magic to tap into down by Yellow Creek…there in Youngstown.

Clarett’s a WordPress blogger whose account from prison is called The Mind of Maurice Clarett (though it’s been a few months since his last post).  Reece, I hope you write your own story and that it has a happy ending.

Scott W. Smith

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