Shakespeare and mobsters sound like an unlikely mix, but the two join forces in the upcoming movie Friends and Romans.
The movie’s original script was crafted by Jericho High School Class of 1988 alum Gregg Greenberg, who got the idea while he was casting parts for a production of his off off Broadway play, Clemenza and Tessio Are Dead, which was a re-working of The Godfather, in 2008. Throughout the audition process, he noticed there was a number of Italian-American actors who were typecast in movie roles, regularly playing mobsters and members of the mafia. That observation sparked an idea in Greenberg’s mind—what would happen to these actors at the end of The Sopranos, and as the era of the mob movie declined?
“I used that as the starting point of the film,” said Greenberg. “What happens to these wannabe wiseguys once this genre, like the Western, dies?”
Greenberg finished the script for the film in 2008 and for the next four years, kept pushing to get it made. But as it turns out, getting a script into the hands of Hollywood producers wasn’t an easy task.
“It was very, very hard,” Greenberg said on the process. “Hollywood is a tough industry to crack. It takes a lot of perseverance, but I thought the script merited the effort.”
He submitted his script to producers, film festivals and screenplay competitions, doing whatever he could to get someone to notice him. In 2012, he finally got the script into the hands of producer Michael Mailer and that’s when things began to take off. The independent movie producer took on the project and suggested Christopher Kublan, a Jericho High School Class of 1987 alum, direct.
In addition to films, Kublan has produced and directed commercials for clients such as Revlon and American Express, and music videos for artists such as Beyonce, The Black Keys and Kanye West. He said when he was sent Greenberg’s script, he quickly saw its potential.
“Ten pages in, I saw how smart it was and how great the jokes were,” Kublan said. “As a writer I’m always interested in anything involving Shakespeare and the whole idea of the script was smart and compelling.”
Michael Rispoli, a veteran actor in film and television, including The Sopranos, and a second-generation Italian-American, was Greenberg and Kublan’s first choice when casting their lead character. Rispoli said he resonated with the character’s experience of being typecast and accepted the role, joining the creative team.
Once Rispoli got on board, the creative trio worked on fleshing out the script, adding characters and rewriting scenes to put together a screenplay. It was a collaborate process, said Greenberg, and the team came up with a smart, funny script that Kublan said turns typical Italian American stereotypes on its head.
The movie centers around Nick DeMaio (played by Rispoli), a frustrated Italian American actor who wants to rise above the typecasting that finds him and his thespian friends unendingly playing the role of a mobster. When he and his friends decide to stage a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caeser, their late night coming and goings for rehearsals arouse the suspicions of federal agents, who mistake them for genuine mobsters using the play as a front for criminal activity.
And though it stars eight former Sopranos actors, Friends and Romans is far from a mob movie. It’s a comedy that seeks to show that people are always more than they appear. Through the writing and casting, it was important for Greenberg, Kublan and Rispoli to fight typical Italian stereotypes.
“In the casting, I consciously cast all the roles physically to type so that we see how different the characters are from their physical stereotype,” Kublan said. “It hits home that judging individuals based on appearance, background, race, etc. is a slippery slope that can lead to unintended consequences.”
Once it came time to film, the creative team was met with a different set of challenges—namely funding and weather.
The filming was split between Staten Island and Carle Place in the winter of 2013-14. Greenberg described it as a “stressful” process because bad weather often rescheduled shooting.
“We were held up by the weather a few times and had to change locations. We only filmed for about three weeks, but it’s not consecutive and it’s very difficult to shoot because you have to get everyone’s schedules to match up,” Greenberg said. “And you need to finish shooting within the time the actor is available, and not run out of money.”
In addition to friends, family and his temple, Temple Beth Torah, Greenberg credits his childhood friend from growing up in Hicksville, Greg Martin, who served as an executive producer on the film, for playing a big role in terms of financial support. Martin said initially, he got involved in the project to support his friend and what he thought was a brilliant script. As he spent more time on set, he learned how much went into making a movie and was amazed at how well everyone got along.
“I came on as a smaller investor initially but what struck me about the whole cast and crew was the way they all got along and seemed to like each other,” Martin said. “It felt amazing to be on that set so it was an easy decision to put more capital at risk.”
Now that the movie is finished, the creative team is excited to have it out there for the public to see. Friends and Romans is being released by Paladin in select theaters across the country and on Nov. 6 will debut at Bow Tie Cinemas in Roslyn.
Friends and Romans is Greenberg’s first foray into the movie world, though he has written two plays which have done well. A financial journalist by trade, he said it’s exciting to see something he’s worked on so long finally come to fruition.
“It’s exciting to finally get to see it on the big screen and get your friends and family to see it with you,” he said. “I come from the financial world and I’ve been calling this my IPO. I talk about this all the time in regards to Wall Street so it’s nice to see it in my real life.”
And as for doing more films? Greenberg said it’s definitely a possibility.
“After I recover from the making of this one,” he said with a laugh.