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indieWIRE INTERVIEW | “The Dukes” Director Robert Davi

indieWIRE INTERVIEW | "The Dukes" Director Robert Davi

Robert Davi‘s “The Dukes” stars Davi and Chazz Palminteri as a Doo Wop group struggling for survival. Their manager (Peter Bogdanovich) is trying to get them work but things aren’t working out, leading them to attempt to pull of a heist. The film screened at last year’s Rome International Film Festival and has since won the Coup de Coeur at the Alpe d’Huez International Comedy Film Festival. CAVU Pictures is opening the film in New York on November 14th, and then nationwide on November 21st. indieWIRE spoke to Davi about the film and its upcoming release.

What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?

The genesis of it all is from a very young age. I was born in Astoria, New York. My grandparents being Italian immigrants used to take me to the cinema there. I would see all these Italian neo-realist films (by directors like) DeSica, Fellini, Rossellini, Antonioni, Ettore Scola, Pasolini and others — the whole gamut of these giants of Italian Cinema. When I looked at those films, I didn’t look at them just for the acting. I looked at them in terms of authorship and I would get excited as a kid. They told stories about human beings and their foibles. In their journey to find 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.

That was the genesis of my knowing that at one point I may want to direct. My journey for that included learning as much about acting and theater as I could. I received a Drama scholarship to Hofstra University and studied with the Great Stella Adler for three years, as well as becoming a member of the Actors Studio, and working with Lee Strasburg. I’d done seven hundred performances on stage before I stepped in front of a camera.

Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?

There is a saying “you can’t judge a book by its cover.” Well, for years as an actor while trying to imbue my characters with as much depth as possible, the types of roles I played limited me. That is part and parcel of the casting process. Directing is a way for me to open that book and express to the world much more of whom I am and what I would like to say. Ideally, I would like to continue to writing, directing, acting and producing.

Please discuss how the idea for “The Dukes” came about.

When I was studying with Stella Adler in the ’70s I was reading in the newspapers about steelworkers that were getting laid off. The fact that these trained laborers were losing their livelihood resonated with me. A couple of years later my father got laid off. Around that same time, I was reading a book by Alvin Toffler called ‘The Third Wave’ about the industrial age and the technological age and how we were moving through that, and how in between that transition America was going to look different. Jobs were going to fall through the cracks and how we were going to have to redefine who we were.

Then in 1978 I did my first film, it was with Frank Sinatra and was called “Contract on Cherry Street.” In it a guy named Jay Black [of Jay and the Americans] plays my brother. When I was a kid they were a huge group, but now music had changed and the demand for them had dried up. This was happening to a lot of Doo Wop groups. So it was not just steelworkers and my father, but also entertainers who were being affected. Times were changing so quickly I could sense that the security of one’s livelihood was no longer guaranteed. This was a frightening thought and a theme I wanted to explore.

The Doo Wop group angle came to mind because the same thing happened to them in the ’60s with their music. These guys were on top of the world, and all of a sudden times changed and they could no longer do what they had once done. I met James Andronica when we did “Gangster Chronicles” as actors and became friends. I wrote the first eighty pages of “The Dukes” and showed it to him and said let’s collaborate on writing the script.

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film.

I wanted to tell a story for everyman but with a light touch. By having a Doo Wop group whose music is no longer seemingly relevant parallel an industrial world changing to a technological one, I am able to explore the intricacies of re-defining oneself, dealing with lost fame and holding on to your true self in changing times through music and humour. The other thing that I was intent on doing with the film was in some way parallel the current devastating economic situation we are currently facing in America and around the world.

The film is sprinkled with metaphors expressing this state but all told as a dark comedy – an American Commedia all Italian. My goal was to tell a story about American spirit and this is the story of The Dukes. It makes people want to pick themselves up, get in the game and start again. One of the goals I had for the film was taking it to certain festivals. One of these being the Rome International Film Festival. It was beautifully received there in the Premiere section along with Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Redford, Sean Penn, Sidney Lumet, Julie Taymor, Gavin Hood, and several other world class directors.

We were applauded by an audience of critics, including Piera Detassis, who is the editor of Ciak, the most important film magazine of Italy. Detassis also ran the Premiere Section fell in love with the film and championed it. We then won two awards – Best First Time Director and Best Screenplay at the Monte Carlo Festival of Comedy. The President of the Jury was one of my heroes, Ettore Scola, and two others were Mario Monicelli and Claude Ziti. At the French Festival Alphe d’huez, “Juno” and “The Dukes” were the only two American films accepted there and we were given the Coup du Coeur.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?

I had a fantastically creative time writing and making the picture. Of course, financing can be a challenge but that fell into place very quickly. The biggest challenge is in the distribution process. The positioning of your film to distributors is very delicate and I encourage young filmmakers to stick to their guns in how they want to present their film. I had made several mistakes by getting pressured into situations I did not agree with. But luckily in the end, we went with CAVU Pictures, a NY-based distribution company which is opening the film in New York on November 14th, and then nationwide November 21st.

A film that is called independent is not really independent. The studios already have a vested interest, whereby those films are seemingly independent – they are absolutely developed and nurtured by the studio system under the pretense of being independent. Even when it comes to submitting your film to a festival, the studios, big agencies, and powerful sales rep have the control. So, unless you have an early alliance to one of these entities, it will be very difficult to roll the ball up hill.

You can have a film that is timely, wins awards, gets critical acclaim and is being enjoyed by the public but if you’re not able to get the word out, that’s the biggest stumbling block.

How did the financing and/or casting for the film comes together?

As far as the financing is concerned, my next-door neighbor, Larry Logsdon, said I should meet this guy named Frank Visco. He said to me, “You guys would get along.” I met Frank Visco and his family and our families became friendly. Frank was in my kitchen one day and he was telling me about Vegas. He’s a player in Vegas at times. So I jokingly said, “Frank, why don’t you invest in the film I want to direct?” He looked at me and said, “That sounds interesting. Let’s have dinner about it.” We did the next week. I told him the story. I told him I had the script in the drawer and wanted to rewrite it and that I knew exactly what I wanted to do with it. And he said, “Okay, I’ll raise the money.”

What I didn’t know at the time is that Frank had read an article about me wanting to do this even before we’d met and he wanted this dream of mine to become a reality. So he put together several of his friends to finance the film. Another close friend of mine, John Paul DeJoria, had asked me about the film and said he wanted to invest and help in any way as well. It is their belief that has made this happen and I am thankful to all of them.

What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker? What is your next project?

As long as the story is something I wish to tell, I am open to all genres. I’m working on a new script now with my co-writer James Andronica called “Little Al” which I will also direct. The story has a “The Sting” like element to it. It is already funded, and has a larger budget than what I had for “The Dukes” and I am very excited about it.

What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?

For me, an independent film is under five million dollars. It is independently funded from outside sources. There are no “wink-wink” side deals made with an existing studio. There is no negative pick up deal made with a producer who comes on board and has an output deal with the studio. The idea of independent film is absolutely no ties to agencies, studios – a film made truly outside the system. I have seen what is considered an independent film change over the years, from films that were made outside the studio system that were considered independent to what we have today – which to a large degree are films being called independent, but are really in fact not. This is not to say there are not those young Cassavetes out there who are still maintaining the purity and spirit of maverick filmmakers.

What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?

First, study great films and voraciously ingest the work of these giants of world cinema. Take an acting class. Read great playwrights and novelists. Have a historical and present day perspective on sociological events in America and around the world. Anything that will help deepens your connection to humanity. Study music, learn an instrument. Secondly, have a comprehensive technical knowledge of all aspects of filmmaking. Third, make sure your screenplay is the best that it can be. This is the beginning document in the process of making a film. “If it isn’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.” Fourth, choose and select a crew starting with your Director of Photography, who shares the passion and vision for what you wish to express. Fifth, be uncompromising and creative in your casting choices. Lastly, lead with respect, enthusiasm and inspiration.

Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.

I would have to say that it’s “The Dukes.”

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