An earlier Hidden Films entry discussed “On the Make,” a 1989 disco drama that had a brief theatrical run and then more or less disappeared. But that film’s debuting co-writer and producer, Fred Carpenter, has stayed in the game ever since, eventually moving on to directing. He continuously shoots, on the cheap, in Long Island–where he resides with his mother–or Queens. With one exception–the Vietnam-era tearjerker “Just Like Joe,” which is Carpenter’s personal favorite–his films typically involve the mafia, crooked cops, double crosses and lots of blood. (In fact, he has proudly worked with relatives of late mafiosos, who chose acting over crime, and real-life police officers have appeared in and/or co-written some of his films).
After “On the Make,” Carpenter wisely avoided the high-risk theatrical distribution route, opting instead for VHS, DVD and VOD releases. To date, none of his films can be found on Netflix, but some are available for rental on Vimeo, iTunes and Amazon, and many can be viewed on his website iDriveinMovie.com, along with several entertaining behind-the-scenes clips and interviews. Most, according to Carpenter, have turned a profit (mafia films are still guaranteed sellers in foreign markets). And some feature recognizable character actors, including Eric Roberts, Sean Young, Armand Assante, William Forsythe and Wings Hauser.
(NOTE: Before launching into a Q&A/career retrospective with Carpenter, I wanted to briefly discuss Carpenter’s second and third projects, “Small Kill” (1992) and “Murdered Innocence” (1996), which landed distribution deals with Showtime and Columbia Tri-Star, respectively. So far, they are his most successful films. Carpenter also starred in these two pictures, as well as his 2000 directorial debut “Deadly Sin,” but since then he’s limited his on-screen appearances to cameos. I spoke with not only Carpenter about “Small Kill” but some of his cast and crew. I also asked Carpenter to respond–for the first time–to some public statements made about “Murdered Innocence” by its director Frank Coraci, who later rose to the big time with the Adam Sandler hits “The Wedding Singer“ and “The Waterboy.“)
As with “On the Make,” Carpenter shared screenwriting duties for “Small Kill” with long-time buddy and airline pilot James McTernan. Like its predecessor, it was made on a shoestring budget (a Newsday article at the time pegged it at less than $1 million), but the production values are considerably advanced. As opposed to being set and shot in one nightclub, there are multiple locations, including the weedy, industrial-looking lots underneath a Long Island Railroad station, where two cops chase down a naked madman. And there’s a gripping star turn from Gary Burghoff (famous for playing the eccentric Radar on TV’s “M*A*S*H”) as a child kidnapper who moonlights as a cross-dressing fortune teller. Director Rob Fresco–later of “Heroes” and “Ray Donovan” fame–obliged Burghoff’s wishes to direct his own scenes, which are the most powerful in the film.
In “Small Kill,” Carpenter, in true “Serpico” fashion, plays a hotheaded cop disgusted with police department corruption; he even sports a beard similar to Al Pacino’s in that film. He drafted “On the Make” actors Donnie Kehr (who’s still a regular theater performer and musician); Teresina Sullo (then billed solely as Teresina); and Mark McKelvey, respectively playing Carpenter’s partner, a child abductee’s mother and a cutthroat goon.
Interviewed by phone, Kehr said the action-packed shoot was hard work, but that the late actor Jason Miller, of “The Exorcist” fame, was a great mentor to him. “He was getting pretty wasted at that time. He was in a dark place,” said Kehr. “But he was one of my idols. I learned a lot from him. He was so committed.”
Line producer Gary Inzana, who also worked on “On the Make” and Carpenter’s next film, “Murdered Innocence,” also had fond memories of Miller. “He, [actress/model] Rebecca Ferratti and I spent an afternoon sunning/swimming at Jones Beach, when we wrapped up early one day. When Jason’s shooting days were done, I drove him back home to the Poconos, where he had an actors’ workshop. I played the Pogues album ‘Rum Sodomy & the Lash’ as we rode. It was a minor revelation for him–he really dug it. I was quite saddened when he passed [in 2001].”
Kehr’s most vivid memory of “Small Kill” was providing voice overdubs during a climactic scene in which Burghoff’s villain nearly stabs him to death. “You hear me going ‘Ehhh, ehhh,’ the heavy breathing thing. It’s so dopey, it just sounds so stupid,” he chuckled.
Sullo, who is now a meditation and movement instructor in Southern California, appears in “Small Kill’s” most wrenching scene, in which her young son is kidnapped from a mall department store. The boy is then dressed as a little girl in the bathroom, carried out of the mall, and later, post-ransom delivery, dumped unceremoniously in his mother’s garbage can. Sullo remembered that Burghoff directed these sequences and was “amazing to work with.” (Carpenter, too, loved the mall scene so much that he later re-edited the film so that it appeared at the beginning; he also cut some filler scenes, and called the new print–which is still unreleased–“Small Kill 2.”)
Via email, Fresco described “Small Kill” as “an impossibly low budget production, on the verge of collapse nearly every day. I was impressed and amazed with Fred’s endless tenacity, energy and optimism. No matter we were out of money, no matter our location fell out, no matter a department head just quit and walked off–I never saw him show a shred of doubt!”
“Gary Burghoff was a very focused actor with his own specific method,” Fresco continued. “He had given a lot of thought to his character and knew exactly how he wanted to play it. I found him a gracious collaborator, always ready to listen and change tack when a better idea came along.”
Reached for comment, Burghoff and McKelvey declined to participate in this story, as both have left the film trade.
Co-writer James McTernan said his chief aim was to avoid making Burghoff’s character too cartoonish. “That was a fun character to write,” he recalled. “The stuff [he says] about the Spartans, and relating himself to world history. It’s fun to write badguys. It’s harder to write the protagonist.”
In retrospect, Carpenter said that he wished “Small Kill,” and not “On the Make,” had been his theatrical premiere.
“That would have gotten word-of-mouth. Exploitation, shoot ’em up, the guy who played Radar…people would have wanted to see that movie,” he sighed. (In a 1997 interview with the online zine Vent!, Carpenter said, “It wasn’t like we had a script to present to [Burghoff]. It was, let’s have him do this, let’s have him do that. And we went nuts. We had him in bed with a guy, humping a woman in a chair, kidnapping kids. The only thing he wouldn’t do was cut up a teddy bear with a razor blade, because [he said], ‘Now Fred, I draw the line.'”
Next, Carpenter co-wrote, produced and starred in “Murdered Innocence,” as an ex-con who, upon release, heads home to avenge his parents’ deaths. (Jason Miller is back on hand, playing the investigating cop on the murder case). Alan Alda’s daughter Beatrice Alda was slated to direct the movie in 1992, but it took close to three years to raise the appropriate funds, and the job eventually went to Frank Coraci. It was Carpenter’s costliest film–in the ballpark of $1 million–but it earned a nice profit, thanks to the eventual distribution deal with Columbia/Tri-Star.
“Murdered Innocence” established certain patterns that reoccur in later Carpenter works. For one, though it was shot entirely on Long Island, stretches of the film are supposed to be set in the Deep South, a plot device repeated in the decent 2006 crime drama “Eddie Monroe.” (In both films, however, you can clearly spot Long Island area codes on the various “Southern” storefronts). And the plot in both films is quite similar: young drifter paroled from a Southern joint picks up a beautiful, daredevil hitchhiker, who instantly falls for him and joins him on his unscrupulous quest/journey back North. (The actress in “Murdered Innocence,” Jacqueline Macario, only made one other, rather obscure picture, a surprise as she’s a striking and talented screen presence).
Coraci met Carpenter at the local video store, and they soon struck up a deal.
“I read the script, which was very derivative of a 70’s TV police drama,” Coraci told Objectif Cinéma in a 2004 interview. “It needed work, so I said I would do the film if I could rewrite it. I immediately called one of my good friends and fellow classmates from NYU, Steven Peros. Both of us had a love for noir films from the ’40s and realized the script lent itself to that genre, with a detective haunted by his past, put into a morally ambiguous situation. Corny police exposition could be turned into stylized dialogue. Guns, flashbacks, murder, a femme fatale–it all fell into place and we had a script in two weeks.”
“Our 14-day planned shooting schedule turned into 33 days,” Coraci continued. “It wouldn’t be uncommon that the caterer would show up and pull Carpenter off the set to rough him up to collect money we didn’t have.”
Carpenter wishes all his films were more readily available today, but despite his frustrations, he’s not giving up the fight; at the time of this publication, he’s about to release a new movie called “Dinosaur,” starring Ed Asner, Joan Jett, Robert Clohessy and Chuck Zito. As noted in the earlier entry, he’s not thrilled with the budgetary constraints of his films, but he’s happy he was able to make a slightly more polished version of “On the Make,” 2015’s “Disco!” (Like its predecessor, that film also ends with a major character contracting AIDS).
Carpenter’s films have their fair share of gaffes: choppy fade-outs, overstated/shaky camerawork, repeated lines left in by accident, anachronisms (i.e., a line in the 1970s-set “Disco!” refers to the 1997 film “Boogie Nights“). Sometimes the soundtracks are incongruously goofy. In a lurid striptease scene in the 2001 vigilante yarn “Marie,” for instance, the accompanying song, by a jokey, obscure band called Mint Stick, contains the chorus: “I like crazy girls/Man, they like to party/I like crazy girls/They date my brother Artie.”
“I always felt that song could be a hit,” said Carpenter via email.
But love them or not, his movies have an unmistakable energy that is infectious even during the silliest moments. Occasionally, there’s a genuinely sinister sequence (like the beheading at the start of 2014’s “Charlie Mantle.”) And many of them boast solid performances, particularly Russ Camarda’s sinister turn in 2012’s “The Night Never Sleeps” (which was shot on my old street in Astoria, Queens).
Below are excerpts from my phone interviews with Carpenter, in July, August and November, in which we discussed his repertoire, his early days as a Paramount Pictures publicist, and the perils of remaining an independent filmmaker during a particularly unrewarding time period.
Sam Weisberg: What was the wildest or most colorful thing you witnessed while doing publicity at Paramount, back in the early to mid-1980s?
Fred Carpenter: I worked for Michael Berman, awesome guy, and his boss, Tamara Rawitt, she actually produced “In Living Color.” When we did movie premieres, a lot of the famous people would get fucking crazy, you know, drinking. But nothing too crazy. I worked with some pretty big stars in that job. I should have stayed a few more years and made films on the weekend. I was like the assistant publicist. I would have joined the union, I would have had a great pension. But I felt like I’d reached that stage where I could make movies. It was probably my worst business decision. I was in the middle of the power. New York City was the media capital of the world.
SW: How did you meet James Toback while at that job? [NOTE: This interview was conducted three months before the sexual assault stories about Toback surfaced].
FC: I saw him in the—what do you call it when you first walk into a big building?
SW: The lobby?
FC: Yeah. I’m a little tired today. [laughs] I met him in the lobby of the Gulf & Western building. I said, “Mr. Toback, I saw the movie ‘Fingers.’” And he said, “Oh, you’re a fan.” Because it seemed like everyone creatively ripped him apart [on that film]. I hardly knew the guy, but in the first hour of hanging out with him, he said Warren Beatty had him writing a movie. It turned out to be “Bugsy.” He was in the building, he was on payroll from Paramount, they gave him an office.
Nastassja Kinski called him, while we were talking. Someone was writing a book about her, asking her who she fucked. And she didn’t want to come across that way in the book, so he gave her advice on how to find a nice guy. Meanwhile, he’s going up to every woman on the street. [laughs]
SW: What was the biggest film you did publicity on?
FC: “Staying Alive.” Is that technically the sequel to “Saturday Night Fever?” It’s the continuation of the Tony Manero character. The movie did like $75 million at the box office, back when ticket prices were $2 or $3. That’s $150 million by today’s standards. If Stallone had a different last name, he would have gotten an award for what he did in that last dance sequence. But nobody says that, because it’s not cool, because it’s Sylvester Stallone. It’s a fight scene through dance. It’s basically Travolta and Apollo Creed in the ring. I’m surprised no one picked up on that.
SW: Which filmmakers did you admire growing up?
FC: I loved “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.” That movie is brilliant, where they combined drama and horror and comedy in one movie. That movie’s gonna be here for years and years to come. There’s another good movie of theirs called “The Time of Their Lives.”
SW: So you’re a big comedy fan?
FC: I like everything. I love the Sydney Pollack films, the ones he did with Robert Redford. I think Redford is phenomenal.
SW: Your first short film [directed by “On the Make” director Sam Hurwitz] was “Chase of Temptation.” It’s very similar to a later film you did called “Act of Contrition,” in that both are about priests tempted by crime and vice. Was one supposed to be a continuation of the other?
FC: No, I was trying to do that “Exorcist” thing, something that would fucking spook you. For “Chase,” the priest is tempted by sexuality. For “Act of Contrition,” the priest is in this neighborhood that’s overrun by drugs, the drugs are the devil. There’s so much you can do in movies with Catholicism and the church.
SW: Were you raised religious?
FC: Nah, mother’s side Jewish, father’s side Italian. One side makes money, the other side makes pizza. [laughs] Those two movies had nothing to do with my personal life.
I had seen Sam Hurwitz’s short films and they had movie stars in them, and these guys were trusting him and taking direction from him. So I thought it’d be really cool if we worked together. I am surprised the movie stars he worked with didn’t go back to their powers-that-be and say, “You know what? This guy should do a movie!” Look at Adam Sandler. If it weren’t for him, there’d be like 50 guys on unemployment right now. He sticks up for his friends. He’s a good dude. If Sam had met a guy like that back in the day, he’d have like 15 Hollywood pictures under his belt. Sam Hurwitz needed an Adam Sandler.
SW: You didn’t act in “Chase” or “On the Make,” but you were the star of “Small Kill,” “Murdered Innocence” and “Deadly Sin.” Do you still want to act?
FC: I’d love to have a really qualified director with a great script who believes in me and lets me act. You know what I’d call that? Vacation. [laughs]
SW: Tell me how Gary Burghoff ended up directing his own scenes for “Small Kill.”
FC: That was one of his negotiations. He wanted to show Hollywood he could direct and that he’s not Radar. He was top of the world on that TV show, and when he left, it’s like they cut him off. He’s a very talented director. But if you ever produce a movie, do not have two people directing. It’s chaos.
SW: Did he and Rob Fresco spar a lot?
FC: Rob was a laid back guy, so it never got to that point. Gary got involved and we didn’t have a lot of money and he felt like a fish out of water. It made him nervous. But he gave a great performance. There’s a lot of weakness in that movie, where if I took out the fat, it’d be a real solid fucking half-hour movie. There’s scenes that are very entertaining, but there were some where the acting wasn’t there. But it made some nice money. It was a Showtime world premiere movie.
SW: I saw your re-cut of it [AKA “Small Kill 2”] and it didn’t look all that different.
FC: The acting had a lot of deficiencies. The cut I did helped the acting. Burghoff, though…you could just put a light on him and he’d go.
SW: “Small Kill” and “Murdered Innocence” got some pretty widespread distribution. In what foreign territories do your films tend to make the most money?
FC: There’s no [definitive] answer to that, really. I will tell you this, though. I’m very, very lucky to have an amazing partner named Leonard Weintraub [producer on “Small Kill,” “Murdered Innocence,” “Eddie Monroe” and “The Blue Lizard”]. He’s a hero for me. I don’t think there’s a day goes by where we don’t talk. I wouldn’t be where I am right now if it weren’t for him.
When he audited these movies, we started seeing some big checks. After he audited “Murdered Innocence,” the first check that came to us was $512,000, then another one for $257,000. It just added up, because Leonard is very smart and realized we had to audit. The studios can’t really hurt you if you do everything by the book.
We did another deal, around $350,000, with this company Double Helix Films, [for “Small Kill”]. We were supposed to get $200,000 in three months, and a year later another $100,000. Thirteen days before the first payment, they told us they went broke. What are you gonna do? You can go after them, but they don’t have any money. It’s like these pyramid schemes. They get caught and go to jail, but no one gets their money back. People are animals.
Double Helix told me they were selling “Small Kill” around the world, like ten territories. My sister was married at the time to an Australian. They’re in Australia and they see it at a video store. I called the distributor and asked him if it was playing in Australia and he said, “No,” and I said, “Yes it is! My sister rented it there. Can you please give me the profit participation on that?”
SW: At what point did you decide to take the reins as a director?
FC: After “Murdered Innocence.” I don’t want to take [anything] away from Frank Coraci, who did an amazing job, but it would have been done for half the budget if I’d directed. We were doing three meals a day, which is fucking nuts. That beat the shit out of my budget.
What I do now is, we have people show up at seven or eight. I serve a very light breakfast, enough to get you to lunch. I have a very nice, good lunch, always 12:30 to 1:30. And come 6:30, I send everyone home, and I don’t give them dinner. In the old days, giving people three meals a day, you’re spending a lot of money.
I realized, from producing these films, that I might as well direct them. I’m the one getting the money, I’m the one who has to spend a dollar and get fifteen dollars worth of production out of it.
SW: When you finish these newer, smaller movies, how do you go about finding the right distributor?
FC: When I finish the movie, I feel like I’m the girl with the big tits and everyone’s running after me. They’re like fucking roaches. I’m talking about, like, everyone and their grandmother has a distribution company. And these companies close within a year, year and a half. And they need product. I can give you a list of 33 people that have called me already about wanting “Dinosaur” represented in the worldwide market. But the guys I’m involved with at Multicom Entertainment, these are smart guys that have been in the business for 30 years. I’m not gonna get involved with someone who’s been in the business a year or two years. I’m at this game so long. Why waste my time with people like that?
SW: What I meant was, you have a crew of trusted people that help market and distribute the films, but have you pitched any of the films following “Murdered Innocence” to bigger marketers? Maybe not the Miramaxes of the world, but—
FC: To be honest, I never found anyone at that second tier. Either they’re big-time Hollywood or they’re not at my level. Double Helix was known as second-tier. I’ve gotten hurt a lot, where people owe me a lot of money. People have made a good living off my films, where they’re overseas, in hotels, they’re traveling. I don’t want to be negative. But I’ll tell you that on a lot of [my films], I’m owed a lot of money, and I’ll probably never see it. It’s a rough game.
SW: You occasionally hear fairy tale stories about a small movie breaking even.
FC: But those fairy tale stories come from the distribution company or the studio that pick up the movie. It was phenomenal that the Weinsteins said, “Quentin Tarantino is doing an independent film, called ‘Pulp Fiction,’ for $25 million.’” That’s not an indie film. An indie film is me going to my cousin, my sisters, my brother, guys I went to college with, saying “Give me $10,000, give me $1,000.” $25 million? We should all be that independent!
SW: Your first film as a director, “Deadly Sin” [sold on DVD on Amazon, distributed by the Long Island City outfit Mr. Fat-W Video], was somewhat similar to “Small Kill” in that it involved child murders and abductions. How did you get fixated on that subject?
FC: Oh, I just try to make the storyline scary. If you have scary characters that are real, that can exist in our world, that’s fucking scary.
For “Deadly Sin,” we had no money. That was just me and [actress] Donna [DeCianni] fooling around. It’s a bad movie. How it got out there, I don’t know. I always have people ripping me off in this business.
SW: How’d you find Donna? I call her your muse because she’s in many of your films.
FC: She was in an acting class that I was involved with. She’s one of my best friends in life. When I need a beautiful, sexy woman who can act, I get her. She’s that Sofia Loren type of actress. She works hard, she doesn’t do drugs, she’s not an alcoholic, she’s a family person, she studies.
She’s very frustrated too, because she knows how much better she could be [in my movies] if there was a Hollywood budget. Anyone who does these movies has to feel this frustration. When you look at “Marie,” she did a great job, and these are like nothing fucking budgets. I always said she’s like Charles Bronson in a dress.
SW: Let’s quickly run through your movies, just to get your take on them. Since we’re on the subject, let’s start with “Marie.”
FC: Love “Marie.” I get more attention from that than any other film. When “Marie” opens, the cop is chasing a naked woman wearing motorcycle boots, on the sand dunes. Like the movie or not, everyone’s talking about that. I can’t tell you how many people contacted me about investing in some of my movies because of that scene. That idea came from Leonard Weintraub. He said, “Fred, you gotta bring them in, in the first couple of minutes.” When people want to make indie films, they shouldn’t worry about being artsy-fartsy. Think business. What can you do to make them remember? Anyone who’s seen “Marie,” they remember that.
SW: Anything you would change today?
FC: No, it stands on its own. Someone told me once that everyone laughs at it, that it’s a schmucky movie. And I said, “Yeah, but they’re all talking about it. And how many people watched it at your apartment?” And the guy tells me over 100. So there you go, my friend. Go naked and put on some motorcycle boots. We’re making these movies for under $100,000, competing with Hollywood movies that cost $100 million. So you gotta throw in the kitchen sink, man.
SW: How about “The Blue Lizard?”
FC: Great movie, solid movie, Hollywood-level movie. And I can honestly say, in my opinion, that’s Wings Hauser’s best performance. He’s one where I say to myself, “Why the fuck didn’t Hollywood put him in a big movie?” There are certain roles that Christopher Walken got that would have been better off given to Wings Hauser. And it’s also Joel Weiss’ best performance. You wanna talk about a class guy, that’s Joel Weiss. Hollywood fucked that guy. He was in “The Warriors” and they don’t give him a chance and he’s really good. He busts ass. It’s a great film. And the music holds that movie up.
SW: “Eddie Monroe”?
FC: Great movie. It starred Craig Weintraub, Leonard’s son. He’s a movie star waiting to happen, smart, good-looking. I’m so jealous of that guy. [laughs] I was really happy with it and thought Craig did a good job in the film.
SW: That movie has the same basic plot as “Murdered Innocence,” of someone getting out of jail and doing a cross-country drive with a cute hitchhiker…
FC: I felt like it’s been done a hundred times, so let me do it a hundred and one times. It’s easy to get these locations.
FC: It’s a combination of “Marie” and some other films I did. Either people hate the movie or they really dig it. There’s a lot of people I didn’t cast in my movies, so they’re gonna give it a hit job. I read something on imdb.com, like, “I had to turn the movie off after three minutes because the acting was so bad.” And I’m thinking, “The credits are three minutes!” So that had to be someone I didn’t cast.
SW: Tell me about working with Mitchell Walters in that film. With his long gray hair and glasses, he looks a bit like J Mascis from Dinosaur Jr.
FC: He was involved with Sam Kinison. They were the gangsters of comedy, that was their routine. Really talented guy. He has some health issues right now. I hope everything works out, because I think there’s a lot of him that the world still hasn’t seen yet.
SW: How did you end up casting Eric Roberts for “Jesse?”
FC: I went through an agent. He’s a pro. But here’s the thing that’s spooky with him. You gotta have cue cards for him. He strategically places his cue cards in certain areas that, when he’s doing his scene, he’ll read them and you never know it. When I change the camera angle, he changes the cue cards. It’s borderline brilliant what he does.
SW: In “Marie” and “Jessie,” there’s the same twist with a character taking life insurance out on himself and faking his death. How’d you get that idea?
FC: I’m always thinking, at the beginning, like a producer. What would be the twist that someone talks about?
A lot of people, especially young people, they wanna make these small, independent films where people tell them how great it is, the dialogue is like butter melting in the mouth, “Oh, you’re the next Quentin Tarantino.” No. Here’s what young people should know: when you make a movie, turn your sound off. If the movie is entertaining without sound, you have a great movie. Leonard told me, “You can do a comedy, and I can think it’s funny, but it may not be funny in Greece or Japan. But if we do action, it’s entertaining in all those places.”
SW: Almost all the films you directed are crime films. Do you have a favorite crime movie?
FC: “The Getaway” with Steve McQueen. That’s action, that’s shoot-‘em-up bang-bang. Now, I love the Alec Baldwin [version], but why would you remake a Steve McQueen movie? And if you did, why do it shot for shot? I love Sam Peckinpah.
SW: Does crime happen to be your favorite genre?
FC: I like making some action films, but I would say no. “Just Like Joe” is my favorite of all my movies. I can’t make my favorite movies. I have to make the most commercial movies. You have an obligation to people who believe in you and are investing in you.
SW: Was “Just Like Joe” the most wrenching film to shoot, out of all your films?
FC: Yes. If at the end of that movie you don’t cry, you don’t have a heart. These fucking kids were getting slaughtered in Vietnam. It was a sick, sick war. I don’t know the reason for it. And Joe Namath was their outlet. They worshiped him. And this kid, his father was a World War II veteran who got blinded, fighting the Nazi fucking bastards. But now his son wants to fight in Vietnam, and he doesn’t understand that war.
SW: How did that one perform?
FC: Debra Markowitz, head of the Nassau County Film Office, chose that one recently to kick off the 25 year anniversary of the Long Island Film Festival. My dream would be that a Steven Spielberg, someone like that, would come along and love it and remake it his way. And people could watch that and then see the original, down-and-dirty, low-budget movie.
I approached that one, like, if Hollywood is gonna pick up that movie, they have to pay for music rights and other types of rights. When I shot it, I got the internet-only music rights, back in 2006 or 2007.
You know, Scorsese loves the song “Gimme Shelter.” If I can take that song and lay it out in my movie, it will sound so much better. He can do that, but you know how much it costs to have that in your film? I tried getting that in 1995 [for a different film called “Disco,” never completed], and I think for a minute and twenty-seven seconds they wanted 350 grand. So imagine what it costs today.
A lot of these directors are great because they have the money and studio behind them. I love them, but [when I think of greatness], I think of a guy named Rob Weiss. I think of a guy named Hal Hartley. I think of a guy named Stevan Mena. These are [Long Island] guys that do what I do and made some amazing movies.
SW: Have you met any of them?
FC: I met with Rob way back when. Stevan is local, I see him from time to time. I haven’t seen Hal in years. I don’t get why these guys aren’t off making Hollywood fucking movies.
SW: I saw a behind the scenes special on “Just Like Joe,” where you’re furious that someone lit up a cigarette on set. Is that your biggest pet peeve?
FC: Here’s the thing: you’re not building sets, you’re shooting in people’s houses. And we say, “Don’t smoke or drink or fuck.”
SW: Is that one of the few times you’ve gotten pissed off on a set?
FC: I really try to be cool, but you gotta move forward. You can’t be so passive. But you can’t be an asshole either, because people are working hard and I wanna show people I appreciate it.
SW: How would you describe yourself as a director? Have you mostly gotten along with people?
FC: I’ve been the boss most of the time, so people don’t want to argue with me. I’m polite and I think I do a good job being the boss. But I really found a group of people in Long Island that are loyal, hard-working friends. I give everyone in the cast and crew a speech, at the beginning [of the shoot]. “We don’t know where this movie is gonna end up. Based on our budget, it’s probably gonna go nowhere. But I can’t think third place. I can’t think last place. I have to think ‘win.’ I have to think Super Bowl. So I want us to put our best into this.” Then I say, “More importantly, let’s develop great friendships.” You need camaraderie.
SW: What was the hardest shot you had to pull off in any movie, technically?
FC: I don’t know. Nothing stands out, where I say, “I love that shot.” The director of photography is looking for the pretty shot, but I gotta tell them to move on.
SW: Any films where you had to do many retakes?
FC: Nothing like Hollywood guys, doing 50, 60 takes. Having the Red camera [allows for] more takes. You get great coverage, and you can make these actors look phenomenal in the cutting room. When I shot with film, I would do five or six.
SW: Let’s continue reviewing your films. What’s your take on “Charlie Mantle”?
FC: [Lead actor] Robert Funaro did a phenomenal job, everyone did. It was the story about a cop who’s on the edge, his career may be over, he’s corrupt, he’s a degenerate gambler. It’s basically one night in the sewer. And by the way, you can see that on Amazon Prime right now.
SW: That movie begins with a rather elaborate killing spree, including a decapitation. How do you pull off those sequences on the cheap?
FC: That doesn’t cost much. But my advice [to anyone writing a movie] is that it has to be done in the now, without special effects or flashbacks, or they’ll never get the budget. Like, let’s say you’re doing a western. You have to rent the horses, you need a vet on set, there’s legality with the horses, you gotta pick up all the bowel movements and the urine. I tell people, “Write two scripts. The one you want Hollywood to finance, and the script that can be done for $50,000. Try to do a script that takes place in one location, and inside that place is a multiplicity of locations.”
SW: How did you bring in name actors for these shoestring budget productions? Like Eric Roberts, Armand Assante—
FC: You’re dealing with the agents. They don’t want their clients to be in something that’s not a quality piece of work. Assante was very much into the script and we talked about that, and as soon as he felt comfortable with me we moved forward.
SW: Are these stars as easy to work with as character actors?
FC: They’re all very respectful of my talent and they trust me.
SW: What movies do you show them to get them on board?
FC: I tell them to check everything out. And I say, “If you don’t like a movie, I bet you I made it for like $10,000, so cut me some slack.” No matter how good I think my movies are, the next day I’m like, “Fuck, it could have been so much better.” Because I never had a real budget.
SW: Have you witnessed any star blow-ups?
FC: Any stars that did that, their motive was the frustration of being on a low-budget film, which I understand. Or it’s their creative juices. So my whole thing is, “Let it out, blow up, and then move on to the next shot.” You’re dealing with a lot of different personalities, so you can’t escalate it. It’s not gonna help you.
SW: Have you dealt much with clashing casts?
FC: No, and I’ll tell you why. I’ve never had the cast together for more than a couple days. The movie I’m shooting now is 17 days, but I’m spreading that over two months, because I’d just knock people out.
SW: How do you feel about some of the films you didn’t write but directed, like “Send No Flowers” and “The Night Never Sleeps”?
FC: That was great. A lot of times when I write, I’m wearing the producer’s cap, so I’m writing for this and that location. It’s so refreshing when someone just gives me a script and I don’t have to worry about locations.
What I love about “Send No Flowers” is Vincent Nigro’s score. He took a woman’s operatic voice and used that as the score throughout the movie. Bona fide genius. I don’t know too many people who have used the human voice of the woman as the instrument for scoring the movie.
SW: How’d you hook up with that film’s writer, Lee Kolinsky?
FC: I was very good friends with Abe Slamowitz. Talk about “What is life all about?” He had two kids, a wonderful wife, he slipped on the snow, fell backwards, cracked his skull open and died [in 2014]. He was an art photographer, really good. And he knew Lee and Lee’s father, and I met Lee and we talked about “Blue Lizard.” We wanted it to be kind of a modern-day “Casablanca” type of movie.
SW: One of the night shots in “The Night Never Sleeps” was shot on my old block in Astoria. How’d you get a permit for that? It’s a very residential neighborhood.
FC: We shot guerilla. You have to. If I’m doing anything blocking traffic, you need a permit, but if you’re doing establishing shots, in the middle of the night, unless you have a crew of 20 people with you, no one’s gonna bother you. My father was a police reporter for years and I’m very into security. I got famous people on my set and I gotta make sure no one’s gonna shoot that person, in the name of Allah, or to make some statement. There’s a lot of crazies out there. On all my sets, we have police officers who are friends of mine, they’ll do security.
SW: Speaking of which, I noticed you have a lot of real-life or retired cops in your films, and relatives of mafiosi.
FC: This is the God’s honest truth. These are people pursuing their acting careers, and they auditioned, and they’re fantastic. People don’t realize I have more cops in my movies than people related to gangsters. My co-producer on “Dinosaur” is Edward C. Wahl, he’s been on the job 30 years, and I got three guys in the FBI playing agents in the film. I had a guy who was an undercover cop for Suffolk County, in the organized crime task force. He read for me and he was fucking great. He said, “You know what I did for a living, right? If my acting isn’t good, I don’t get bad reviews, I get dead.” Retired cops are the best actors.
SW: Did you ever have a cop play a mafioso or vice versa?
FC: I had two guys on my set recognize each other. And one of them said, “I know where I recognize you from. Four years ago, I arrested you.” All the cops wanna play badguys in my film—I shouldn’t say “badguys”—and all the guys from that part of the world wanna play FBI agents or cops. I don’t know any real-life gangsters. It’s hard for people from that world to do legitimate work.
SW: How’d you find Russ Camarda for “Night Never Sleeps”? He’s really menacing, especially in the opening scene.
FC: He’s a very good stage actor. I knew him from the Long Island scene and I needed a monster. I chose him to be my Frankenstein.
SW: And you got Sean Young for “Send No Flowers,” after years of bad press about her.
FC: There’s a lot of bullshit on her. I don’t know if it’s true. She’s one of the coolest, nicest people. I think she pissed somebody off, and the way Hollywood is, [one person said] “She sucks,” and another said, “Yeah, she sucks.” But my experience was fantastic. She listened to me, she trusted me. They ripped her off. She should have been in the “Blade Runner” remake. I thought she was great in “A Kiss Before Dying.”
SW: A lot of your movies have people speaking Italian and there’s no subtitles, a la “The Godfather.”
FC: It’s a way of sucking them in.
SW: You’ve done a ton of movies with Italian people. Do you think you’ll do a project about the Jewish side of your heritage?
FC: Italians are for my mob movies. I’ll be honest with you. When it comes to the topic of Jewish people and films, that Quentin Tarantino movie [“Inglourious Basterds”] desensitized what happened to the Jewish people in WWII. It kind of rubbed me the wrong way. My mother always said, “Antisemitism is like a weed. You pull it out of the ground, it’s just gonna go somewhere else.” The only way for it to stop is if the young generation knows about the horrific events of the past. I have a teacher friend who says most of her students don’t know what the Holocaust is, and they go to see “Inglourious Basterds” and think it’s like “The Dirty Dozen.” It really fucking pisses me off, man. I kept my mouth shut, because who’s gonna listen to me? But if someone gave me money to make a film like that, I could never do it.
SW: I haven’t yet asked about “Disco!” It has lots of similar themes and styles to “On the Make.”
FC: There’s “Disco!” now and the “Disco” from a couple of years ago. I’m still not done with it. It’s an independent filmmaker’s dream—one location, and multiple locations within that location, and a great story. I still love that premise and I want to do it right.
SW: I know you were trying to make a movie in the 1990s called “Disco” but there were music rights issues.
FC: I had a music attorney helping us. We just couldn’t get the money.
SW: But you did eventually make “Disco!” So how is it still a work in progress?
FC: Because I want to make another one with the actual disco hits. “Disco!” is original music, which is fantastic, done by the Alessi Brothers and Edward C. Wahl. It was a great collaboration. Wahl will actually be scoring “Dinosaur.” He’s brilliant. There’s a whole art form to score a movie. The Beatles never did it, Billy Joel didn’t.
SW: One movie of yours I cannot find anywhere—not even on Imdb.com, but I read about it in an article—is “Schmucks.”
FC: That movie…you’d be laughing your ass off at it, man. Unfortunately, I don’t have it. I got 50% of the profits, though. The [producer] is an entrepreneur, very smart guy, he has a private plane, he flies all over the world. Next time he comes in, I have to talk to him about that.
SW: What held that movie up as far as distribution?
FC: It played the [Long Island] Film Festival [in 1998]. It was sent out to distribution companies, but for whatever reason it was rejected. I think if we pushed it today it would get out there. A lot of films, just because they experience some rejection doesn’t mean that they’re dead.
SW: I was surprised because most of your movies get the green light.
FC: It could be timing, who knows? [aside, to his mother] Can you make me that BLT sandwich? Thank you.
SW: Did you ever, at any point in your career, consider moving out to California, to catch that big break?
FC: I never say I’m smart, but I say I have common sense. If I move out to California, I have to pay rent and get a real job. Here, I’m saving a lot of money so I can pursue this crazy nutjob career that I have. We live in the New York metropolitan area, and we’re the only ones that can state this fact: if you never leave, you’re exposed to every nationality, cultural background and religious belief. And that’s a breeding ground for talent. So why would I go to Alabama? I get a lot of trips [offered], where people want to show off their towns for us to film [in]. But it’s better for us to stay in the area.
[That said], I’m frustrated I haven’t gotten a Hollywood gig. I’d like to get that before I drop dead. I don’t know how to say this. Life has passed me by. I have no wife, no family, no children. The holidays every year get lonelier and lonelier. But this is my bed, I chose it. It’s a tough fucking game.
I’d love to tell you that I’m independent because I chose my independence. I’m independent because Hollywood’s not giving me $25 million. [laughs]