A Talk with Robert Davi
A Slice of Italian-American Life
Italian-American Robert Davi has been working in Hollywood a long time, amassing over 100 acting credits since 1977. He is perhaps best known for his turn as Bond villain Franz Sanchez in the Timothy Dalton vehicle License to Kill. He was also a regular on TV’s Profiler, and has had recurring roles in Stargate: Atlantis and The Pretender.
Recently, though, he’s branched out into producing and directing. His first feature film, The Dukes, crept out to a very small, quiet release in November after winning several awards at festivals in the U.S. and abroad. I reviewed the film for Past the Popcorn a couple of weeks ago in support of its release in Seattle. Courtesy of a national publicist, I had the opportunity to speak with Davi over the phone.
First off, I really enjoyed the film—it was a very pleasant surprise. There haven’t been a lot of really good, gentle comedies lately, particularly this year. So this was a really welcome addition to the fall lineup.
Robert Davi: Thank you so much!
One thing that really surprised me was the very Long Island feel, given that the story is set in California. With the palm trees and everything, I was at first really confused. But you really nailed the Long Island relocation.
RD: The thing is, a lot of New Yorkers—East Coast people—are living in California.
Was the script originally written for a Long Island setting, and then reset in California for budgetary purposes?
RD: It was always written as guys who were transplanted here—you know, who wound up coming out for some reason or other, and then ended up staying. And there’s a whole contingent. And it’s funny—I picked locations that gave them a feel of being around their home town, you know? That would have a certain recollection, and not the typical L.A. spots that you would normally feel if you were doing an L.A. story. These are New Yorkers in L.A., and they tend to have a little different perspective in terms of their hangouts.
Right. I’ve set some of those L.A. films lately, and they’ve tended to feel a little artificial. But your film really felt lived in. And I was very impressed by your statement in the production notes about the extent you went to in establishing character relationships. It really paid off in how the film played.
RD: Thank you. Thanks! I appreciate that. Yeah, I wanted to have a— You tend to have a travelogue if you’re showing an L.A. film; you know, you don’t feel people are living in it.
Yes, exactly—which probably reflects the reality!
RD: Not for the guys who are here; but for the people who come to California and expect to see a certain thing—for the Jersey shore, there’s Venice beach: places that could look like someplace else…
Right. But for most people, I think, the L.A. setting feels more like a taxi ride from LAX to Beverly Hills—
—than actually living there.
RD: Right. Than when you are really living there, like these guys, not being exactly in the upper echelon of the Beverly Hills set, or Bel Aire, or Malibu. Just people who are surviving in the area.
I thought the way you constructed your story was very interesting, being rooted in your own very blue-collar experiences growing up in the Long Island area—with your own dad getting laid off from work. And yet in this story, there really is no tragedy because Danny, George, Armond, Murph, and even Leo are all kind of schlubs. They’re in bad situations, but for the most part it’s bad situations of their own making and own design.
RD: It’s partly their own design, and partly being lost in the circumstances. And you find that with people. I know a lot of guys who have a similar plight. So even in that opening shot, that circling shot that opens the movie, I wanted them on the sides of the frame: I didn’t want them centered in the frame, because their lives are like that, you know? They’re trying to get back into something.
RD: You find people like that. It’s a combination of their own circumstances and just being lost, in terms of being able to re-enter once something is taken away. I mean, look at what the car industry is going through right now, and the totality of the economy. What if those guys got laid off? And this is not a harsh reality, because most people don’t have that; not one where there’s actually a survival aspect to their lives. They’ve still got things together in some way. But I find it funny that you consider them schlubs. To me, they’re just regular guys.
But that’s just it: they’re regular guys, not tragic figures—not like Hamlet, or some grand character from literature that we have to take seriously. We can laugh at these guys because they’re pretty much like us.
RD: Right. Again, I didn’t want the dialogue to be pretentious, or overly clever: just like a bunch of guys hanging out wherever they might be—a Starbucks, or a diner. You know, an adult Diner kind of thing.
Exactly. Which actually brings me to one of my other questions. You mentioned Diner: that period when Barry Levinson was doing his early work and when Bogdonovich was still making films. With Levinson, obviously it was the Baltimore feel; but these films communicated something about what it like for people to just be hanging out. And we haven’t seen that for a long time. So I was wondering the extent to which Bogdonovich, being there on set with you, influenced that at all.
RD: No, not at all. I always liked the Diner aspect of it; I also liked Fellini’s I Vitelloni, where he had those guys just hanging out. I Vitelloni—the translation of that is “The Little Calves.” Just trying to figure out their lives. They were younger guys; but there are a lot of middle-aged guys who are in the same position: they never grew up. That’s why the wife says to my character, “Danny, when are you gonna grow up?” He’s still holding on to a dream when he says, “Lou got us this gig.” And in a strange way, he’s refusing to let go in his continued desire to sing, to put it together some way.
Well, one of the details you included that sort of exemplifies the things you did well in this film is a sequence about three-quarters of the way through when George and Danny are in the restaurant with their aunt, and they’ve got ashes on their foreheads. What was the inspiration for that?
RD: The paradox of guys who have a certain faith, but who would— It was a way of showing the time of year, but the juxtaposition of these guys knowing about their mortality and spiritual life and then discussing this heist: how good people faced with a desperate situation might be tempted to do something they wouldn’t ordinarily do. And that was just a subtle image that I always had for doing that. During Ash Wednesday you see people walking around with ashes, and there’s always a dichotomy of somebody’s spiritual life and at the same time faced with a temptation.
And I loved that, because it was so subtle. You didn’t find it necessary to work that into the dialogue to hammer people over the head with it. In films today, it seems that if you bring up religion it’s either to mock it or to hit people over the head with it. It’s not simply a part of the fabric of people’s existence.
RD: That’s right. And I didn’t want it to be proselytizing; I just wanted it to be a part of who they were.
And it was brilliant, because I got exactly what you were after there, without it having to be broadcast that this is what was going on. It just made the characters feel so well-lived-in and so real: that they actually had lives outside the boundaries of the script.
RD: Yeah, that was one of the intentions of the whole thing. I lot of films seem to want to answer every single question. Which is good, I guess. But I didn’t want to hit anything over the head.
Another thing that was very refreshing was seeing an Itialian-American family in the restaurant business. It reminded me of another film I saw earlier this year called Bella. Did you see that one?
RD: No, I didn’t see Bella—but I’ve heard about it. Was it about a restaurant family?
Well, it included a restaurant family. I believe it was a Cuban/Mexican-American family in the restaurant business. It was also very similar because the family live on Long Island. So that movie took us out for a look at a Hispanic Long Island family.
RD: I’m going to get that because it’s recommended several times.
It’s also a very fresh film with very lived-in characters and a very natural spirituality.
RD: In Bella.
RD: That’s interesting, because in The Dukes, the heist isn’t the answer to their lives. It’s inevitably them pulling together as a group, as a people, and in that final image of bringing light and love to the world in a certain way.
That was nice. That was nice, yeah. So what’s next for you?
RD: Well, I did a film that I acted in called Magic. And the producer on that film saw The Dukes and loved it; and when they got their cut of Magic, they asked if I would take it over. And I reluctantly did, because it wasn’t something I had authored, you know? And some other folks saw The Dukes at the Palm Springs Film Festival and they gave me the financing to write my next picture, which I’m writing now, called Little Al.
RD: I was also in Europe with The Dukes—I wanted to get the European pedigree. That was very exciting for me. We were in the Rome Film Festival, in the premiere section. I was the only first-time director in the premiere section, which had Coppola, Sean Penn, Redford, Sidney Lumet, Gavin Hood. The papers reported—I wasn’t at the screening—on a screening for critics, and they burst out into applause. We got tremendous reviews in Rome. And then we were invited to the Monte Carlo Comedy Film Festival, and the artistic director was Mario Monicelli, who did I Soliti ignoti, “Big Deal on Madonna Street.” And the president of the jury was Ettore Scola, who has won the Golden Palm several times, an Oscar, Italian Oscars, and French Oscars. He’s one of the giants of Italian cinema. And Claude Zidi, from the French cinema, my new partner with Philippe Noiret. And we got the best first-time director and best screenplay from them; and then the French Festival of Comedy, which is the only comedy festival there and the third-largest, which all the French comedy stars go to—The Dukes and Juno were the only two American films there, and we got the special jury prize, the Coup de Coeur: the “prize of the heart.”
That’s very apt.
RD: Yeah, it was lovely to have that pedigree from Europe. It was my kind of American comedie d’Italiane.
Well, good luck with the release. I’m glad you got a good reception at the festivals, and I hope it finds a decent niche this winter.
RD: Yes, it’s about getting it out there and building a strategy. Word of mouth is key there, and has been great; but we’re just hamstrung by not having the kind of P&A money that you need to publicize the film. But theater owners have told us that when people come out of the film they’re enjoying it a lot.
Alas, The Dukes never expanded beyond 11 screens across the country, and grossed a total of only $26,000 over four weeks. It’s a classic case of a fine film failing to find a market—so keep a watch for it on DVD, estimated for an April 2009 release.