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SPIRITS 2011 | John Cassavetes Award Nominee Matthew Bonifacio

SPIRITS 2011 | John Cassavetes Award Nominee Matthew Bonifacio

Premiering way back at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, Matthew Bonifacio’s “Lbs.” was finally released theatrically this year. Following a 315-pound man who decides to kick his food addiction by moving to the country, the film is finding a happy ending to its rather extraordinarily lengthy delay in release. This weekend, over seven years after “Lbs.” debuted at Sundance, the film will compete at the Film Independent’s Spirit Awards in the John Cassavetes Award category, which honors low-budget filmmaking. indieWIRE caught up with Bonifacio over an e-mail interview last week, and this is what he had to say.

Bonifacio on what lured him into becoming a filmmaker.

I didn’t always want to be a director. Originally, I wanted to be an actor and pursued that for many years, however the independent film movement in the ’90s changed my interest to the other side of the camera. Films like Sling Blade, Fargo, Big Night and Living In Oblivion really resonated with me and I loved the grittiness and authenticity of Laws of Gravity and Straight Out of Brooklyn. I wanted to know everything about how these films were made, so I got the reading lists from NYU and Columbia University Film Schools and bought every book I could. It truly became a passion.

On “Lbs.,” the film he was nominated for a Spirit Award for…

“Lbs.” follows the story of Neil Perota, who, at 27-years-old, lives at home with his parents in Brooklyn, works for his father driving a school bus and weighs over 300 pounds. Just two days before his sister’s wedding, Neil suffers a heart attack, creating family chaos and forcing him to re-evaluate his life. The next day, Neil heads upstate and buys a dilapidated trailer in the middle of nowhere with plans to kick his addiction to food in isolation. Two hundred miles from the comforts of home, Neil learns to compromise, love, and survive – and that change – real change – comes from within.

On what prompted the idea for the film…

In 1991, I was cast as an extra in Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” and met a fellow actor from Queens, New York, Carmine Famiglietti. He was hilarious, outgoing and looked like Ben Affleck. We immediately formed a great friendship and started to collaborate on theatre projects where we would write, act, direct and produce our own one-act festivals. By the late ’90s Carmine’s weight had dramatically increased to close to 400 pounds. I was concerned about his health and noticed that he no longer seemed to want to act. One day he showed me a screenplay he was writing called The Trailer, which would later become Lbs. I was completely taken after I read the first rough draft. In the script, the character ‘Neil’ (who Carmine would play) loses an incredible amount of weight. I knew right away the real reason Carmine wrote the script was to save his own life while doing what he loved most, act. When I gave Carmine my feedback, we were so in tune that he asked me to co-write and ultimately, direct Lbs. I was so excited to embark on a journey that would last ten years, culminating in the DVD release this year.

On his approach to the film…

Coming from an acting background, I wanted naturalistic performances. I read a lot of books on first-time directors and actors-turned-directors. However, reading was only half of my education — my ‘film school’, was the making of Lbs. I was able to embrace the highs and lows and problem solve, which taught me things I couldn’t find in books. Also, working with a crew that really believed in the film and a cast that seemed to truly enjoy being on set made the journey unforgettable.

On his biggest challenges in developing the project…

Of course, raising money was the biggest challenge. Lots of passion but very little experience was a tough sell. We were very fortunate Carmine’s family lead the way financially, and that opened the door for my family, friends and third parties to contribute.

On cautioning writing snow into your script…

Do not write snow into your script unless you live in Alaska or plan to sell your script to Hollywood. “Lbs.” was purposely shot over the course of four New York seasons, yet when it came to the ‘winter segment’ there was no snow in sight. The location in upstate New York where we were shooting was historically known for major snowfalls, year after year. This was supposed to be a lock for our free production design. We waited and waited and waited. No snow. We had the crew on call 24/7 and became so desperate that we were ready to drive to Wisconsin or even Colorado to get the segment done. However, finally it came. So much, in fact, that our production van almost slide off an embankment — but that’s another story.

On future projects…

I’m hoping Brickhead is up next. The screenplay, set in Detroit, was inspired by a true event that happened to me as a kid in a building courtyard in Brooklyn. Jordan Horowitz (The Kids Are All Right) is one of the producers and Khandi Alexander (HBO’s Treme) is attached.

Previous 2011 Spirit Award Nominee Profiles: Someone to Watch Award Winner Mike Ott “Rabbit Hole” Director John Cameron Mitchell “Please Give” Writer/Director Nicole Holofcener “Marwencol” Director Jeff Malmberg “Get Low” Director Aaron Schneider

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