When The Dukes screened at the International Rome Film Festival in October 2007, audiences gave it a standing ovation, critics applauded and the following day it was splashed across all the major newspapers in Italy. “They embraced the picture because they said I was one of the only guys able to make an American commedia all’italiana,” writer-director Robert Davi says proudly.
As a young man growing up in an Italian family in Queens, it was exactly these commedia all’italiana movies that first introduced Davi to the art of moviemaking. From Roberto Rossellini, Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini to Vittorio De Sica and Luchino Visconti, the giants of Italian neorealism served as the moviemaker’s inspiration. “La Terra trema, I Vitelloni, La Strada, The Bicycle Thief were my greatest influences,” explains Davi. “They told stories about human beings and their foibles and in the journey of looking for the truth of the human condition these films had a raw beauty about them. They were not glossy presentations, but unpretentious. Their imperfections were on purpose because life is imperfect and also, of course, because of the economic constraints a post-war Italy imposed on filmmakers.”
To achieve a look similar to the genre masters, Davi and cinematographer Michael Goi shot The Dukes on Super 16. “I didn’t want a shiny, glossy look for these guys. I wanted a rough, raw quality [to add to] the realism of the picture.” Also adding to the realism of the picture was Davi’s personal relationships with his actors, including the late Frank D’Amico and Academy Award nominees Chazz Palminteri and Peter Bogdanovich. Considering the movie is about a group of men who have been together through the highs and lows of life, this was especially important. “Chazz has been a great friend of mine since the mid 1980s,” Davi says. “Peter Bogdanovich I had met with Stella Adler. I met Peter at a screening of Saint Jack years ago—just very briefly—and found a certain kind of… pathos in his face. I thought he’d be perfect for Lou, our manager.”
The Dukes follows the story of Danny DePasquale (Davi) and his cousin George Zucco (Palminteri), two members of the titular doo-wop group that gained fame years earlier, but now find themselves sharing a small apartment and working the kitchen at their aunt’s trattoria. Their aspirations for getting back in the game haven’t waned in the year’s since the group’s demise. Unfortunately for them, their finances have. A happy coincidence leads them to hatch a plan to rob a local dental facility of the gold used for patient procedures. But, as with most things they have tried their hand at, the result is less than what they bargained for.
After successfully running the festival circuit for the past year, Davi’s first movie will hit theaters November 14. Here, he speaks with MM about the project that took him nearly 40 years to release, the state of independent film today and how The Dukes is more timely now than ever.
Mallory Potosky (MM): Distribution on this movie… it’s been a long time coming.
Robert Davi (RD): Yeah.
MM: What would you say to other first-time moviemakers who have gone through this, who are on the festival circuit right now trying to get a distribution deal for their movie? How do you go about it?
RD: I had a whole other game plan originally. First of all, I had a little bit of a strategy in terms of the film, because of the nature of what the film is and what it was. I wanted to do some festivals, one of which was the International Rome Film Festival because the Italian filmmakers that influences me were the neo-realists… There are certain kinds of neo-realists and then the commedia all’italiana, so it was a blend of a couple of styles. They had a rawness to their films to give it a sense of reality. It’s also what Cassavetes did and Elaine May with Mikey and Nicky, Henry Jaglom—those kinds of films.
This film is totally independent and a lot of these films that get releasing, they have a deal with one of the divisions [of a major studio]. To a filmmaker that’s making an independent film, what I’d say is try to get an alliance with the studio even before you start to shoot.
MM: Is that what you were aiming for?
RD: No, no. I wanted to make a totally independent film because I didn’t want any of the constraints. A lot of films today that call themselves independent films that are getting releases really aren’t. They’re part of the umbrella of a smaller division of a major studio. And the budgets aren’t really independent because you have budgets upward of $10 million, and they call themselves independent. That to me isn’t necessarily a truly independent film. If you want to sell your film the festival way, find out if audiences are responding to the picture and if you have a film that you feel could have a shot with an audience, then pursue and don’t let up on that belief until you get your distribution.
MM: Why did you choose doo-wop music?
RD: One of the reasons I chose doo-wop music is the initial concept of this picture started in the 1970s. I read articles in the 1970s about how 25,000 steel workers getting laid off, at a particular point when we were in a recession. And that, as a young guy, kind of concerned me. Here we have people who have been doing this their whole life, and suddenly the bottom drops out. How do they re-educate themselves and what other jobs can they get? At the same time, about a year later, my Dad got laid off from his job of 20-some-odd years. And that hit home because he was a real blue collar guy.
The first film I did as an actor was a thing called Contract on Cherry Street, with Frank Sinatra. On that film I met Jay Black… from Jay and the Americans, a huge doo-wop group. I used to sing along with them as a kid. I was hearing stories from him about how many venues he had at one time that were no longer available to him compared to back then. And I thought what an interesting way to tell this story with music and humor about entertainers, so cut to I had the first draft of the script, sat on that and put it in the drawer…
MM: And just waited until the time was right? You always knew you wanted to make this movie?
RD: Yes, I always knew I wanted this to be the first picture I directed. And kept it in a drawer until I met a gentleman, Frank Visco, who said he would get the financing and invest himself, and another friend, Paul DeJoria, who also said he would come in as an investor. There’s a bunch of guys—about six guys—who came in on the film.
MM: It’s a very timely movie for having held on to it for so long.
RD: Yes, and I held on to the releasing of it because my cousin [a partner in Lehman Brothers in the 1970s] said, “Just prior to the election, we’re going to go through a huge economic shift.” So I said, let’s see what happens and I pursued this path to release the film November 14 and about a month ago, you saw what happened to our economy. It absolutely speaks to the everyman. The timeliness of this and the moral choices people face in order to survive… these things are a basic necessity.