Small-time Chicago hustler Joe May (the incomparable Dennis Farina) always felt like a great destiny awaited him, but with his health ailing and his age advancing, he’s never looked more like a bum. Broke and evicted, he’s taken in by a troubled young mother and daughter, in whom he finds one last shot to be a hero. Pulsing with the spirit of classic urban dramas, “The Last Rites of Joe May” is a subtle, sophisticated tale of redemption. [Synopsis courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival].
“The Last Rites of Joe May”
World Narrative Competition
Primary Cast:Dennis Farina, Jamie Anne Allman, Meredith Droeger, Ian Barford, Chelcie Ross, Gary Cole
Director: Joe Maggio
Screenwriter: Joe Maggio
Producers: Stephanie Striegel, Bill Straus
Executive Producer: Tim Evans
Co-Producer: Carrie Holt De Lama
Director of Photography: Jay Silver
[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Tribeca Narrative, Documentary and Viewpoints sections to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, indieWIRE asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]
Responses courtesy of “The Last Rites of Joe May” director Joseph Maggio.
From sketchbook to film stock…
I was not a kid who loved going to movies or was obsessed with making movies, as so many of my filmmaker friends were. I loved to draw. In fact I was obsessed with drawing. My father is an artist and also taught art so we always had plenty of pencils and paints and fine paper in the house and when I got home from school I’d throw myself into my drawing. My subjects varied – usually hockey players or super heroes – but also presidents, animals and family members. I was obsessed with drawing “realistically,” and when I failed to achieve a suitable likeness, I’d throw a fit, rip the paper to shreds, and often cry with rage and frustration.
I was also a bit of a wanderer and from a very early age would set off to explore the neighborhoods beyond our neighborhood. At the age of five, I slipped out of school – this was 1971 so children were not so carefully monitored – and walked several miles to my grandmother’s house, following a complex and heavily-trafficked series of streets and avenues memorized from weekly trips in the car with my family. Even today, my ideal vacation is to go some place strange and unplanned and, without any map or agenda, just kind of exist and slowly discover things by accident. So it’s probably these two factors that account for my decision to become a filmmaker – an early obsession with creating highly specific, two-dimensional likenesses of my surroundings and my drifter’s heart. All that said, it’s my firm belief that movie directors are the last of the great bums, qualified to do nothing of any use to society. When given the opportunity to direct a film and be paid for it, I for one cannot escape the sensation that I’ve just pulled something over on someone.
From a bedroom Netflix Italian Neorealist Film Festival to “The Last Rites of Joe May”…
“The Last Rites of Joe May” has deep and varied roots. At the time I wrote the script I was doing a retrospective of Italian neo-realism (courtesy of Netflix streaming), and anyone who has ever seen “Umberto D” will not miss many of the references to De Sica’s film. At the same time, I was really getting into opera, Italian opera to be specific, and so, considering these two preoccupations, I thought it would be interesting to make an opera in the style of a neo-realist film. When I started imagining what this hybrid might look and feel like, I realized that the images and characters that bubbled to the surface bore a striking resemblance to those images and characters from the tough-guy films of the early ’70s – films like “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” or “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.” This excited me because I love those films and always hoped I’d stumble on a good reason to make a movie that felt like it was from that era.
In conjuring Joe May, I was inspired by my maternal grandfather, a larger than life character who worked and played with an intensity which, after a series of strokes and heart attacks, landed him in the grave well before the age of sixty. I was quite young when he died and so my memories of him are really more vague fantasies of a street-wise gambler, always dressed to the nines, moving about in a vapor of after-shave, cigarette smoke and Canadian Club whiskey. As a kid growing up in Buffalo, I imagined that when my grandfather went out at night, he met up with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin at a local nightclub called The Royal Pheasant. That’s probably the best way to describe the universe I tried to create for Joe May. Of course, the problem for Joe is that the world has changed to such a degree that the values and ideals of men like Sinatra and my grandfather are no longer valid, and so Joe is forced to live on, alone and impoverished, a man without a country so to speak, and this became the departure point for my story…
Filmmaking without compromise…
I begin every project with the same vow – that I will execute my vision without compromise; that come hell or high water, I’m going to stick to my guns and not chicken out. And of course, I always compromise and hate myself later. This is the greatest challenge I find as a director. By its very nature, filmmaking is a communal art form. As a director, you must work in conjunction with so many people – producers, production designers, directors of photography, actors, editors, etc, etc. – and each of these people has their own idea of the way things should go.
Part of my job is to take what is offered, examine it, turn it over in my hands and try to ascertain whether it adds or detracts from my overall vision. When you’re working with very good people, as I was on “The Last Rites of Joe May,” there are going to be a lot of disagreements because good artists have strong opinions. Being a non-combative person by nature, I’m at a special disadvantage on set because I find it difficult to work when their is disharmony, and yet everyone is constantly challenging me, feeding me ideas, telling me why I should be doing things differently, or maybe the AD is telling me I need to hurry, that we’re falling behind, or a producer thinks I need to drop a scene, or is telling me I can’t have a certain piece of equipment because it’s too expensive, etc. And so, invariably, a director is swayed this way and that, and it’s not until you get into the edit room and see that in fact you should have stuck to your guns and now there is nothing you can do but kick yourself in the ass and work with what you’ve got. On “The Last Rites of Joe May,” I can honestly say I did not make a single compromise, which is not to say I didn’t make mistakes (I made plenty of mistakes) but for the first time ever they were entirely my mistakes.
And what were the hurdles?
The usual – financing. I’ve made feature films for as little as $6,000, but on “The Last Rites of Joe May” I wanted enough money to be able to really show what I could do as a filmmaker. We weren’t asking for much, but there was a period of a few years, say from 2007 to 2010, nobody wanted to put any money into serious, adult dramas. Money came and went several times, but once Dennis Farina came on we moved things to Chicago, hooked up with a group of Chicago-based investors, cobbled the budget together and took full advantage of the Illinois tax credits.
Like a fish out of water, until the wardrobe department comes to the rescue…
We had a suite of production offices at Fletcher/Chicago and I even had my own office with a big desk and comfy couch should I feel the need for a nap. There were several weeks of pre-production, which was surreal for me – all these people buzzing about in the service of a story that just weeks earlier was nothing more than a few half-baked ideas in my head. But pre-production went on long enough that eventually I got used to being pampered and treated like a big shot, and before long it started to feel quite normal.
But then, on the first day of principal photography, a car picked me up and brought me to the set, and as we pulled up I was seized by panic. An entire Chicago block on both sides of the street was taken up by our production vehicles. Teamsters were maneuvering the trailers and honey wagons; each department had their own five ton truck; electrics were busy running thick power cables along the gutters between the apartment where we were shooting and an enormous mobile generator. In a vacant lot beside our set an enormous heated tent had been erected and inside I found an elaborate video village that looked like a mobile rocket lab out of a James Bond movie.
My first impulse – truly and without exaggeration – was to run away. It was just too much and I felt I would be crushed beneath the weight of the production. I took a walk around the block, calmed down and promised myself I would take it slowly, one set up at a time, which I did, and in this way, little by little, I survived. Another thing that helped was every morning I went to the wardrobe department and was issued a sport coat and tie. For some mysterious reason, all buttoned up like that and with a vintage tie cinched around my neck, I somehow felt like I was wearing a protective armor, a suit of respectability.
And down the line…
I’m writing a lot right now, but I’ve got two scripts ready to go. The first, “The Fall,” is a project I put on hold when “The Last Rites of Joe May” went into production. “The Fall” is an absurd drama about a terribly moral and respectable family man whose carefully-constructed existence comes unglued after he pushes his grandmother down a flight of stairs. In June I’m supposed to make a contemporary Western called “Two Girls,” set in southern Utah. It’s sort of like “Thelma & Louise,” only sexier and more violent, with two young women in their early 20’s – not yet women but no longer girls – running from the law on a tricked out Ninja motorcycle. I’m going to be working with Jeannine Kaspar again on that one – she was the star of my third film – “Paper Covers Rock.” Larry Fessenden and the boys at Glasseye Pix will be producing.