Thursday, November 19, 2009

Interview: Staten Island's writer/director James DeMonaco

SILive.com, 11.19.09
By Rob Bailey

Are you ready for your close-up, Staten Island?

"Let’s hear it for New York, New York, New York" ... yeah, in the now-ubiquitous words of Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, these streets can certainly make you feel brand new, the lights will inspire you and make you feel there’s nothing you can’t do, etc., etc.

But sometimes living in the shadow of Manhattan can sting, too.

Writer-director James DeMonaco tackles that reality in his new film, "Staten Island," opening tomorrow at Eltingville’s Atrium Cinema and the Village East in Manhattan.

When word of the films’ limited, Oscar-qualifying release reached the Island two weeks ago, local defenders of Italian-American honor cried foul over its "stereotypical" portrayal of S.I. as "a popular haven for mobsters and a choice dumping ground for their victims."

Outrage ensued. Protests were planned. Too bad they hadn’t even seen the film yet.

DeMonaco says his quirky dark comedy was never intended to be the definitive cinematic representation of Staten Island, but rather a highly personal "fairy tale" inspired by his beloved home. He also hopes Islanders will give it a chance before they rally to shut it down.

Q. So, you actually grew up on the South Shore, right?

A. I was born in Brooklyn, and moved at the age of 2 to Prince’s Bay ... Yeah, I went to Tottenville High School, played baseball, graduated in 1987. Went to Rutgers and then NYU for film, but I quit (laughs). But no, I don’t consider myself to be from Brooklyn in any way. I have no memory of it.

Q. S.I.’s "Forgotten Borough" status is confronted head-on in your film’s opening scene. Was it important for you not to tippy-toe around the second-class New Yorker thing?

A. I guess that was the inception of the whole idea for this film. Growing up here, there was always this feeling of being insignificant or forgotten. That’s the seed that made me create the story’s three archetypes: The mobster, the deli worker and the septic tank cleaner. Everything came from that sense of insignificance and fighting against it.

Q. Are there any true stories interwoven into the plot?

A. The feelings in the film were inspired by the truth more than the actual people, per se.

Growing up in New York, we all knew mobsters. You knew who they were, where they lived. I wanted to take the cliché and flip it. And I worked in a deli, so I always wanted to put a deli up on the screen. As for the septic tank cleaner, my cousins from Brooklyn always made fun of us for not being able to take long showers on Staten Island, because we didn’t have a sewer, we had a septic tank.

Other than that, this is just a fairy tale of the Island; the fable I wanted to create. But the feeling of being forgotten is very true.

Q. Whether it was perceived or real, when did you first experience the S.I. prejudice?

A. When I went to NYU, I always got the feeling we were looked down upon.

But even before that, every night when I watched the news with my Dad, and they would do the weather report, they would do every borough but Staten Island. They skipped right over us. I’d ask, "Wait, why did they leave us out?!"

It’s the same thing with the Zagat Guide: There are only a handful of Staten Island restaurants in there. You know there are other restaurants that are good, that should be listed.

And when I was a kid in the ‘80s, I remember hearing we were going to secede from New York City and go to Jersey. I thought, "Are we quitting? Or are they just giving us away? Do they not care about us?"

Q. I’m sure you’re sick of hearing about this, but did the cries of Italian-American defamation surprise you?

A. I never wanted to look down on or create a negative portrait of the Island. The stereotype exists — you can’t avoid it. The New York mobster exists. The Staten Island mobster exists. As an Italian-American, it’s such a small part of our culture. Knowing all of the great things Italian-Americans have done and will go on to do, I’m just not that sensitive to it. Like I said, I just wanted to take the cliché, address it and immediately flip it when he goes to the pool. It’s tongue and cheek, with an odd tone not to be taken completely seriously. This is about three characters searching for another way to exist in the universe. I never intended it to be a docudrama of the Island.

- excerpted-

Q. Was "Staten Island" a hard film to get made?

A. I’m really lucky. In the indie film world, it’s really rare to get to make a personal film. It’s even harder now, with the market crash. I wrote the script right before "Assault on Precinct 13," six or seven years ago. We were originally talking to Ray Liotta ("Goodfellas"), but then we thought that might be too much of a cliché. So we moved on to Vincent D’Onofrio, who’s never played an Italian-American mobster. Overall, I’m really happy with the result. Full interview


"Staten Island" is scheduled to be released 12.22.09

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