Most people know Michael Imperioli from his time on “The Sopranos” as Tony Soprano’s right-hand man, Christopher Moltisanti. But in the decade before the HBO juggernaut, Imperioli carved out an enviable career as a character actor in movies such as Goodfellas, Jungle Fever, Dead Presidents, I Shot Andy Warhol and Summer of Sam (which he also co-wrote). Post-Sopranos, Imperioli has turned up, mostly, on television. He had a brief stint as a detective on “Law & Order” (paired with Dennis Farina in a glimpse of casting heaven), was a lead in the short-lived American version of “Life on Mars” and, most recently, has played yet another detective on the new series “Detroit 187.”
For all the work he gets on the small screen, Imperioli hasn’t left film behind. He lent his voice to the animated Shark Tale and was part of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lovely Bones. On October 1st, Imperioli added “director” to his business card when his feature directorial debut, The Hungry Ghosts (which he also wrote), opened in New York.
The film follows five New Yorkers—Frank (Steve Schirripa), Nadia (Aunjanue Ellis), Sharon (Sharon Angela), Gus (Nick Sandow) and Matt (Emory Cohen)—as they work their way through their personal struggles, be they addiction, egoism or puberty. The Hungry Ghosts is flecked with the energy of a John Cassavetes film (Imperioli cites the legendary godfather of American indies as an influence) and flooded with the dogma of Buddhism, which inspires fulfillment and existentialism in almost equal measure.
Imperioli gets the most out of his cast, owing, no doubt to his own skill and prior relationship working alongside many of his actors (Schirripa and Angela were both “Sopranos” co-stars). Schirripa, for example, unearths the humanity in what could have been a thankless role of a gluttonous, coke-addicted, late-night radio host who doesn’t know how to be a father, while Sandow injects just the right amount of menace into the foundation of his outwardly-peaceful recovering alcoholic to make him seem liable to commit violence at any moment.
From the set of “Detroit 187,” Imperioli took a moment to discuss the film, its genesis, his own struggles (as a searching Buddhist and an independent moviemaker) and how the spirit of Cassavetes lingers over The Hungry Ghosts.
Dante Ciampaglia (MM): In your director’s statement, you say that the final draft of the movie was finished in December 2007, but how long had the idea for The Hungry Ghosts been kicking around your head?
Michael Imperioli (MI): The character Steve Schirripa played, Frank, I had that scene of him in the after hours club in another script that I eventually trashed. But there was something about that character that I kept revisiting. And he was a radio show host in this other thing. So I had it in another script, and that was about eight years ago, and I trashed it. But I just kind of had this character that I liked.
When I sat down to write it, I only had the scene where Frank and Nadia meet on the train. That was really kind of the jumping off point. There was something about those characters fleeing something dark in their lives—I had ideas of the themes I wanted to write about, but it was really just that scene and the scene with Frank. Those were the seeds, the germs that started it.
MM: What’s your interest in eastern cultures and religions?
MI: At the time that I wrote the script, I had been exploring eastern religions for a number of years. Basically just reading different books and different approaches. And not just eastern, but also even some western things like [George] Gurdjieff. Well, he’s not so western but he’s not what you think of when you think of the east. And [P.D.] Ouspensky and people like that. And then [Carlos] Castaneda was someone I was interested in. And then I even read some things on the occult. But there was something about mysticism that intrigued me. I kept getting drawn to Buddhism, and I kind of started getting a bit serious about Buddhism right around that time. But I was still very not committed to anything. After we shot the movie and it was edited, pretty much on completion of the edit, my wife and I met our teacher, who’s a Tibetan lama who’s based in Switzerland. We helped him open a Dharma Center in New York. So, when this movie was completed, we found our teacher, which was October 2008, and then we actually took vows of refuge with him and became Buddhists two months after that. So I kind of really feel that making this movie was part of that path.
MM: As you were making the film, did it open you to more experiences with Buddhism because you were telling this story?
MI: Yeah. I was opening myself to those ideas at the same time. I had been to some teachings, some Buddhist teachers, and there was a bunch of Buddhist stuff I had read before I started writing. I was thinking about those things. But, you know, most of the film is about confusion more than promoting Buddhism, promoting one approach after another. There is a running thread about compassion that’s there and that definitely is important in Buddhism.
MM: In that way, then, how much of the movie is you, yourself, as this sort of person who…
MI: I mean, none of the events and characters depicted are biographical or based on anybody I know or anybody specifically. But the idea of searching is definitely there. Searching and pursuing. My struggle is not the same as any of the characters. I took the idea of searching as a general theme and took it into these other characters. I just kind of let them run with it, to extremes.
MM: Outside of that scope of searching, is there anything in the film that is autobiographical or from your own experience?
MI: No. It’s all from the imagination. There are things that I’ve seen in life and things that I’ve seen people go through that are echoed in the movie. You know, like drug addiction and alcohol abuse and those things, I’ve seen time and time and time again in my circles and in the city and in people that I’ve known. Some people have died from it. I wanted to make the movie because I just saw so many people who, they just wanted something but they didn’t know how to get it. They wanted to belong or they wanted some kind of peace of mind or they wanted to feel good about themselves or they wanted completion somehow and just found a million wrong ways of trying to get that in their lives.
MM: How long had you wanted to direct?
MI: Well, let’s see. I directed theater—I directed a lot of plays. The first thing I wanted to direct was Summer of Sam, which I co-wrote and originally I was planning on directing that movie. And then as my partner and I wrote draft after draft the scope of that movie kept getting bigger and I just felt that I was way over my head. I tried to find another director, and that didn’t really work. And then Spike Lee, who had been attached as an executive producer when I was trying to get it made as a director, said, “If you don’t want to direct it, I’d love to do it.” And he took it over. So that was in the late ’90s, but that was the first thing I kind of finished as a writer.
I had been writing before that, mostly independent film scripts I wanted to direct. I don’t even know if I ever really finished anything, and I think most of it was garbage. I remember having stacks of stuff I had written—literally notebook after notebook and pages and pages and pages. And I realized I was writing because I liked the idea of being a writer, but I really didn’t have anything to say and I threw it all away. I trashed it all. And after I did that, I felt really relieved. I used to take this shit every time I moved apartments—and I used to move a lot then—and all this stuff… I was very attached to it. And when I threw it away, something lifted.
Victor Colicchio, who was the other writer of Summer of Sam and had the initial idea for that movie, was talking to me about that; I told him that I wanted to work on it with him, and finally felt there was something maybe I could actually have to say through writing. And then, you know, I was able to finish things after that. Not that it got any easier because it’s never easy. But I just felt I have something to say.
MM: Summer of Sam is a great movie and it’s not a movie that gets a lot of attention, for you or for Spike Lee.
MI: Yeah, I thought it was a real brave thing for Spike to do and I think he did an amazing job. I’m very, very proud of that movie. It kind of did fall through the cracks in a way, compared to his other stuff, but I thought a lot of the performances were just fantastic. When Spike decided to direct it, I was going to play Adrien Brody’s part. But when he finally got the greenlight to do it, I was already committed to shooting the first season of “The Sopranos.” The pilot had gotten picked up, so I wasn’t available to do the lead. I only wound up doing a small part. But it was ultimately a great experience and I think he did a great job.
MM: Did working as an actor, and as a writer, with Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese and people of that caliber influence you at all when you went to make The Hungry Ghosts?
MI: Absolutely. Definitely. Just having opportunities to work with those people and seeing how they worked on the set and the atmosphere they created and how they dealt with their crew and the cast, that made a big impression. I mean, the style of the film was, to me, mostly influenced by John Cassavetes, who is really my favorite filmmaker. The way he told stories, I just love. And I would say that influenced me a bit more than those guys, particularly with this movie.
MM: Cassavetes is one of those moviemakers who is influential to a lot of people—or should be influential to a lot of people—but doesn’t really get talked about as much anymore.
MI: No, I know. I think he’s very underrated as a writer. Everyone thinks he was this guy who turned on the camera and let his actors improv, but I have worked with a lot of people that worked with him. Zohra Lampert, who plays the guru in The Hungry Ghosts, was actually in Opening Night. She played Ben Gazzara’s wife; she has a really significant part in that movie. But I’ve worked with Seymour Cassel, who’s a friend, and Ben Gazzara. I wrote something for Peter Falk that he really wanted to do that never got made. I don’t think it’ll ever get made, but I got to know him during that time. But they said his scripts were very, very, very disciplined and scrupulously written. And they weren’t improvisations by any means. He was just a phenomenal writer.
His writing is no natural and truthful that people think it’s improvisation. His sense of storytelling, he didn’t spoon-feed an audience and he didn’t let the audience get ahead of the movie. It’s like he’d introduce characters and you’d have to sit with them a while before you actually knew who they were. Or you might have a man and a woman riding in a car together, and it might take you 20 minutes into the movie before you figure out they’re brother and sister. I mean, if you see Love Streams, his last movie, you don’t know for a long time that John and Gena are brother and sister in that movie. Ninety-five percent of other movies, as soon as they’re introduced, basically, they’ll put some exposition type line in there so you know it’s his sister and she’s having trouble with her husband. He just starts showing moments of these characters. And you just watch them, and you can’t make all these decisions about them. You just have to make decisions on what you see them do, rather than what you’re being told about them. I love that.
I think he’s one of the greatest screenwriters ever. He was able to do something very specific. And they’re not movies for everybody, because some people just hate his whole style. But I find them to be real visceral experiences when you sit and watch these movies and you’re not even aware of how time passes. It’s very transporting to me. That was definitely an influence. I can’t imagine ever being able to come close to what he did, but they’re definitely an influence.
MM: Did you have any improv in the making of this? Did you let your actors go, or did they stick to the script?
MI: No, we didn’t do much improv. I don’t know if we did any. We did rehearse for two weeks, which is very, very valuable. We shot the movie in 25 days, which actually is a decent amount of time for an indie, but we had so many locations it was still really hard.
MM: In your director’s statement, you say, “It is exactly the film I hoped to make when pen first paper, only more so and beyond.” What does that “more so and beyond” mean?
MI: Well that’s what everyone else brings to it. You don’t know what the actors are going to bring when they eventually come, and the crew and their dedication, and the different artists and what they’re going to bring to it. You’re taking it from this solitary thing to this hugely collaborative process and with all these great, talented people putting their hearts in it. So to see the result of that collaboration is very different than even what you imagined on paper.
MM: Now, with this film under your belt, the movie’s out, would you do it again? Would you sit down and write and direct again?
MI: Yeah. I finished one script last year, and I just put it away. I just felt I wasn’t ready to pursue it as something. I haven’t revisited it in a while, and I’m not sure if it’s something I’ll make next. I have a couple of things, when I’m finished working on this show. If we have a break for a while, I’m going to sit down and write again. It’s incredibly difficult to make independent films today. It’s difficult to make it, but it’s even more difficult to get it out and get it into theaters and make some money back on it to pay investors and stuff. It’s really, really, really hard, but I don’t think that’ll stop me. I think I’ll just try to do it anyway.
MM: Does it help that you’re a well-known actor?
MI: I think it helps get people on board, to work with you, like other actors and stuff. I financed the movie through two of our major supporters of the theater, and they were two people who always helped out at the theater and loved what he did there and believed in us. So when I brought them the script they already kind of understood what we were doing as a theater and as artists. You know, it wasn’t because I was on “The Sopranos” and they wanted to make a movie with me. It was because they knew what kind of sensibility I had and liked it, I guess. But it helps.
In some ways it’s difficult because… You know, we had a very hard time getting it into festivals in America. Some people obviously don’t like the movie, and that’s fine, but in some ways I thought it would help more that I was on “The Sopranos” and had success with that to get into some of these festivals. But it didn’t. The first festival we showed it was at Rotterdam; we were the opening night movie at Rotterdam, and that was great. Early on when we first started submitting it, I was very kind of like, ‘Okay, this is great.’ But it took a really long time before I got it into a festival in the U.S.; the first one was Santa Barbara. I had a lot better luck in Europe. We went to Warsaw Festival with it. We were invited to Copenhagen and somewhere else in Europe. But it was really hard to get it shown in America.
MM: It seems like there are so many festivals in the U.S. now. That’s a very odd thing to hear.
MI: Yeah, yeah. (laughs) It was disconcerting for a while because, obviously, you want to get it out here and have people see it. And then we had screened it, and the big indie distributors, it was right around the time they started folding. It was right after the recession hit when we were really trying to start selling it. So it was looking very, very grim. And then Virgil Films came and said they wanted to distribute it. So I felt very fortunate to find a distributor. But it was hard.
For more information and showtimes, visit http://www.thehungryghostsmovie.com.