Keeping It Real: Eric Eason and Franky G Talk About "Manito"
by Brandon Judell
From Sundance to Tribeca, "Manito" has been keeping both critics and audiences enthralled. Besides garnering prizes at the latter two fests, honors have been flooding in from the Independent Spirit Awards, the Gotham Awards, the SXSW Film Festival, and Urbanworld.
Along with "Raising Victor Vargas," this slice-of-life bodega-drama is proving there's a whole new subject area to probe in the United States, one that everyone can relate to: Latino neighborhoods. That both these films have white directors might, depending on whom you're speaking to, have some relevance or none at all.
"Manito" star Franky G. feels a helmer's ethnicity isn't worth a darn if he's good. And why should he? Director/writer Eric Eason has made Franky into a hot property. Mr. G. has, since "Manito"'s Sundance debut, appeared in "Confidence," "The Italian Job," and the upcoming John Holmes tale of woe, "Wonderland."
Mr. Eason is, meanwhile, getting his next screenplay together now that his picture has finally gotten a distributor, Film Movement (www.filmmovement.com). (The film will open theatrically Friday and also be available to members of Film Movement's subscription service for DVD lovers).
To explore the two gents pre-New-York-opening frame of minds, I chatted with them one-at-a-time at Jimmy's Downtown on East 57th Street the other day. It was afternoon and the kitchen was closed, so no coffee. First up in the back dining room was the hyper, muscular Franky G.
indieWIRE: So have you switched apartments since you've become a film star?
Franky G: Have I switched apartments? No, not yet. I keep it real. I still live out in Flushing [Queens]. My mom, my sister, and my little nephew live there. The joy is in just doing these films. Just helping my mom out, and my family, even though they do well for themselves, my sister and my brothers. Just seeing the smiles on their faces is enough. I'm going to get my own stuff. I'm going to buy them the house, and then I'll move on from there. But I just like to keep it real where I come from and stuff like that. It's like people can look at me and go, "Awwwww! Aaaaaaaaaaay!" But as long as I bring a smile to my mom, I'm happy.
iW: I expect some people would see this film, recognize themselves, and tear up.
Franky G: Yeah. It was very emotional for me, too. In one scene, I literally just kept crying. Eric had to stop: "Take a minute!" Because I couldn't stop.
iW: Your crying scene in the film was amazing.
Franky G: Thank you. Thank you. Because I felt it. I felt it. I felt his pain. I thought of my family in a sense. Like my little brother when I was growing up, when I was living out in Williamsburg. And I thought of my friend who went through something similar to that. So all that just came together. It just hit home. Because when I read the scripts, any script, I fantasize a lot about it. And I like to get into that mind of the script: the character that I'm playing and the whole aspect. That's the joy of it, man. I love it.
iW: Now all the films you've made after Manito have been studio films.
Franky G: Big time, right.
iW: You're not priced out of indies?
Franky G: (Laughs) I'm not priced out of what?
iW: Are any indie directors coming to you or have you given up on indies?
Franky G: If there's any good ones, I would do it.
iW: So you might lower your asking price for the right indie?
Franky G: Well, depending on what my agent says, you know what I mean. It depends on what they say. If they like it, then maybe we can negotiate something. But if I'm going to be up there on the big range, it depends. It depends what my agents think of what's good for me. If I see a script, it could be [between] a $100 million movie and a $10 million dollar movie, and the $10 million movie is a fantastic movie, then I want to do it. The $100 million movie I can always do later on. Do you know what I mean? The action films and whatever. The $40-50 million dollar movies. You want to show longevity. You want to show what you can do. You want to show you're not just an action star. You're an actor. An actor, period. So that's what I look at.
iW: So growing up, what actors did you want to emulate? Did you see "Taxi Driver"?
Franky G: Oh, yeah!
iW: Did you imagine yourself as Robert De Niro?
Franky G: (Laughs) A lot come to mind. I like Marlon Brando. I like Katharine Hepburn. I like Spencer Tracy. I like Dustin Hoffman, with whom I worked [on "Confidence."] He's like my biggest [role model]. I like Benicio Del Toro. I admire him a lot. He was great in "Traffic," he got an Oscar for it. I spoke to him. In L.A., we ran into each other. I look up to him a lot. I'd love to do a film with him. I also admire Robert De Niro. He keeps it low profile. He lives in New York. Minimal interviewing and that's what I like. I think of just doing good movies. The press and the other things I know come with the territory but sometimes you just like to lay back. You know what I mean. And that's how I am.
...Franky exits and director Eric Eason enters. And Mr. Eason? Is he also laid back? On first glance, he appeared pleasant, a little nervous and restrained, or maybe it was just by comparison to Franky...
iW: When you won the award at Tribeca, did you meet DeNiro?
Eric Eason: I met all those people. I shook hands. That night everyone was there from Scorsese to De Niro and all those people. But it was more like a whirlwind shake-fest.
iW: One would think Scorsese especially would be enthused over "Manito" if he saw it.
Eason: Yeah, you would think. There's definitely a lot of parallels to what he was doing early on in his career to what the story of what "Manito" is.
iW: In fact, Variety wrote of "Manito": "An electrifying feature debut that merits comparison to its spiritual granddaddy 'Mean Streets.'" How do you react to that?
Eason: "Mean Streets" is definitely a masterpiece, but "Manito" probably has its roots more in something like the Italian neorealistic "The Bicycle Thief" and those sort of really heavy kind of melodramatic cinema verite works, such as the works of Italian neorealists like DeSica and Rossellini's stuff. Scorsese's... I think the remark is there because of the neighborhood, Little Italy to uptown.
iW: Now what about your distribution. You're hooked up with sort of a new enterprise, Film Movement.
Eason: What we're excited about is that they're committed to do this theatrical release for the entire year and rolling it out to more theaters. A lot of distribution deals that we looked at were going to be really traditional where they would open in New York and L.A. for a couple of weeks or a week and see how the numbers were. What Film Movement was saying was, "Well, look. Let's not do that. Let's open in seven cities, and then after these seven cities, let's go out to nine more and keep playing secondary and tertiary markets around the country. Then at end of a year, we're going to have a really respectable box office because we're not going to do a million dollars the first weekend, but we're going to try to steadily pad the numbers."
iW: Do you read the reviews of "Manito" at all?
Eason: Oh, yeah. Sure. You'd be crazy not to, only because sometimes it's great to hear what someone doesn't like about it. You definitely learn.
iW: Franky G. said he doesn't read the reviews because he doesn't want his head to swell. You'd like your head to swell.
Eason: Exactly. When you've been on the margins for so long and you've just dreamed about sort of making your first feature, you don't even care if it's a bad review. You just want to read [about it]. Having it be in print sort of validates that it wasn't a dream. That you actually made it.
iW: Now with your next film, is a studio already involved?
Eason: Not yet. It's being produced by Richard Gladstein. He produced "The Cider House Rules" and he was an executive on "Pulp Fiction" and "Jackie Brown" and "Reservoir Dogs." So he's the producer on it.
iW: So you're his next wunderkind.
Eason: (Chuckles) I'm not sure about that.
iW: Well, if everyone is embracing you, you must be good.
Eason: Now, I mean, it's great. But as great as it is, you still realize that it's still a struggle everyday to turn the computer on and to keep writing and to do something that's going to be good. This is kind of all in the past now. No one cares about it because it isn't "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." They say, "Okay, that's sort of a little taste but let's see you do something now that's going to appeal to wider audiences. That's the challenge.
iW: But there's always a chance "Manito" might shock them at the box office.
Eason: Sure. Yeah, we'll see. (Chuckles.)