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ROB THE MOB

About the Production
In 1992 Thomas and Rosemarie Uva, a couple of ex-cons from Ozone Park in Queens, New York, embarked on a year-long crime spree that captured the attention of the media. What made the fling so notable was its sheer temerity-they robbed, of all people, the Mafia. More specifically, they held up social clubs throughout the city that were owned by the two major crime families, the Gambinos and the Bonannos. The 28-year-old Thomas did the robbing while his 31-year-old wife drove the getaway car, earning them a reputation as a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde.

Figuring the real-life story had the makings of a movie, screenwriter Jonathan Fernandez (Y2K, "Star Trek: Enterprise") penned a script about the couple that found its way to William Teitler, a New York-based producer, who brought it to Raymond De Felitta, a New York-born writer-director best known for the acclaimed drama City Island (2009) and his Academy Award-nominated short, Bronx Cheers (1990). Up to that point, De Felitta had focused on material he had written himself, but he was keen to direct a script by another writer. Rob the Mob provided that opportunity, while giving him a chance to make a different kind of film-what he calls "an anti-mob movie."

"As an Italian-American, I've always been very wary of doing a film about the mob," says De Felitta, who won the Sundance Audience Award in 2000 for his second feature, Two Family House. "Those are usually the only stories that are done about Italian Americans." And, he adds, masterpieces such as Good Fellas, Casino and "The Sopranos" have already defined the mob film. But Rob the Mob turned that screen version of the Mafia on its head. "The mob here is kind of a faltering, crumbling business enterprise that isn't nearly as glamorous or powerful as it is usually portrayed in the media or pop culture," says De Felitta. "In a strange way, the mob is the victim here."

The film offered the director a chance to combine elements of the mob genre-complete with a few shoot-'em-up action scenes-with an offbeat love story. "I'm not an action director per se; I like human stories. What I liked about this was that there's a real emotional tale to be told in the guise of a genre film. It's a romantic and relationship movie that uses the events the mob was going through at that time as the underpinning of the story of Tommy and Rosie. And the fact that it's true makes it even better."

As an avowed fan of De Felitta's City Island, producer Bill Teitler (What Maisie Knew, Jumanji) saw Rob the Mob as a possible companion piece for the director. "It seemed like a natural segue to me," Teitler says. "When Raymond read it, he immediately responded to it because it has the kind of very vivid characters that had been characteristic of his earlier work, and it also had the genre element of the doomed love story set in the Mafia caper context."

Teitler says he was also drawn to the script's New York setting and true-life basis, but he was skeptical about the veracity of the story. Could a couple really have been so brazen as to rip off the mob? To check on the facts, he called Oscar-nominated screenwriter, author and journalist Nicholas Pileggi.

"I asked him if the story really happened," Teitler recalls. "He remembered Tommy and Rosie right away and said, 'Those two kids had a death wish because you don't rob the Mafia without having some kind of a death wish.' Knowing that Tommy and Rosie had really shared this doomed love in real life was immensely appealing to me. I thought it was an amazing story."

At first, the film's male lead, Michael Pitt ("Boardwalk Empire," Seven Psychopaths), says he also assumed some aspects of the story that were based on fact had been dreamed up by the screenwriter for dramatic effect. "Some things I thought they had embellished I was surprised to find out were true," he says. A case in point was the all-important list of mobster names Tommy discovers after one of the raids-an item that plays a pivotal role in the film's plot. "It was something I didn't think could be real," Pitt says.

For Emmy-winning actor Ray Romano ("Everybody Loves Raymond," "Parenthood"), the story offered a number of personal connections. The actor grew up a few miles from where the real life events took place, and recalls hearing about it, as well as the Gotti trials, in news reports at the time. He says the project was attractive not only because it gave him a chance to step out of his sitcom comfort zone, but also because of the uniqueness of the story.

"If you break it down, it's the blending of a Mafia story and this quirky love story between these two young, naive kids who are a little desperate," says Romano, who plays the character of longtime mob reporter Jerry Cardozo in the film. "And the fact that they are actually robbing from the Mafia-turning the tables on the mob-makes it very different."

Academy Award-nominee Andy Garcia (The Godfather: Part III, Ocean's Twelve) was approached by De Felitta to play roles both in front of and behind the camera. The actor, who had also starred in and served as a producer on City Island, plays conflicted crime-family head Big Al. He also signed on as a producer, and helped to shape the film with another City Island alum, editor David Leonard (Goodfellas).

"Ray wanted me to be a fresh eye and voice, and a collaborator in the editing process," Garcia says. "We had a very good working relationship on City Island."

Teitler says Garcia's involvement was invaluable: "It was a big plus for our movie to have the benefit not only of his acting, but also his help as a producer. He gave a lot of very meaningful and terrific feedback, criticism, advice-all of the above."

With De Felitta, Fernandez and Teitler fine-tuning the script, the story evolved to focus more and more on Tommy and Rosie, and less and less on the mob. The director says the script retained many of the real-life exploits of the couple, but also incorporated changes needed to bring out the dramatic storyline. "We were not writing a piece of journalism or making a documentary," De Felitta says.

Early in the casting process, the filmmakers brought in Michael Pitt for the leading role of Tommy, working with him to develop his character. The actor loved the story, had a great rapport with De Felitta and found the character of Tommy compelling in several ways.

"He has a big heart," Pitt says. "He's also a product of his environment a bit. If he'd been dealt a different hand, he probably would have been a successful person. What I liked about him was that there seemed to be this very strong love for his family-particularly a really strong love for his father, who he lost."

De Felitta believes he found the ideal actor for the role of Tommy in Pitt. "He has this remarkable combination of charisma and danger and beauty," says the director. "He springs from a tradition of the Actor's Studio and has a little of James Dean about him. He was absolutely right for the part."

Teitler concurs: "We loved the qualities Michael brought to the role. He's so believable in it. He really identified a lot with Tommy. In a different world, it could have been his life. He gave a lot of feedback and great ideas on how to develop the script."

In preparing for his role, Pitt did extensive research into the lives of Thomas and Rosemarie Uva. Along the way, he discovered there were a lot of holes to be filled. "I took pieces from Thomas's real life, from my family members and friends, from people who grew up in Brooklyn and Jersey," the actor says. "A lot of my preparation came with my research-things I knew about the Bronx in the '90s-and also workshopping scenes. The character came very organically."

And then there was Tommy's relationship with the mob-which the actor calls "a love-hate thing." On the one hand, he shared that American fascination with the Mafia and gangsters, but on the other, he saw the pernicious effects the mob had on the neighborhood where he grew up and, most directly, on his own family. "He blames the mob for the death of his father," Pitt says. Alongside these weightier elements, Rob the Mob has distinct strains of the comedic and the absurd, which Pitt also found fascinating. Teitler says that comedic element was something the filmmakers kept in mind as they cast the film.

"It's not the sitcom kind of comedy; it's real-life comedy rooted in the situations they find themselves in," Teitler explains, citing the robberies that Tommy and Rosie carry out as a case in point. "There are moments when I can't believe what I'm seeing. The robberies were both real and also funny because they were so incongruous. Portraying the disbelief on the part of the mobsters that anyone would have the guts to stick them up was a delicate balance of jeopardy and humor."

For the filmmakers, finding the right actor to portray Tommy meant nothing if they could not find an equally strong match for his other half-Rosie. For Pitt himself, it was a deal-breaker. "I said to Raymond and Jonathan, the writer, that I loved the project, I love you guys, I want to make it, but I can't fully commit until we find the girl," Pitt recalls. "For me, the film was really about this couple, and in my mind if you had the couple right, then there was a film."

Pitt goes on: "Finding a young actress with the chops to play a strong woman mixed with some comedy who can also show a very fragile, sensitive side is easier said than done. When you start throwing names around, it's actually not the easiest person to cast."

De Felitta was equally aware that the movie would live or die on whether audiences believed Tommy and Rosie were madly in love. In the end, Pitt's manager, Gene Parseghian suggested Nina Arianda (Midnight in Paris, Tower Heist) for the part. De Felitta and Teitler liked the idea. "I had seen her in 'Venus in Fur' on Broadway," the director recalls. "For the most part moviegoers don't yet know her, but they will soon."

Once Arianda came in to read for the role of Rosie, it was immediately clear to the filmmakers that she was what they were looking for, and Pitt solidified his commitment to the project. "Nina just nailed it from the moment she came in," Pitt recalls. "We instantly had chemistry. I think she's great in the film. She was great to work with, too. She never really left character the whole time. Even when we were talking about scenes, we would do it as Tommy and Rosie and there would be this banter between us, which hopefully shows up on screen."

"We had a mutual respect and love for our characters from the start," says the Manhattanborn Arianda, who received dazzling reviews for her turn as Vanda in the two-character, comedydrama play "Venus in Fur." "I think we approached our work with a shared willingness to play in a collaborative way with our roles and challenge each other."

The actress, of Ukrainian descent, calls the magnetic chemistry between Tommy and Rosie "a true folie a deux"-a sort of shared madness. "They share some of the naïveté of Romeo and Juliet, some of the rebellious spirit of Sid and Nancy, and of course the penchant for grand theft of Bonnie and Clyde," Arianda says. "Also, like these couples, despite their bond, the looming sense of fate surrounds them at all times. No matter how strong their love for each other, fate has other plans for them."

Romano says he greatly enjoyed the experience of working with Pitt and Arianda. "Both of them are, first of all, much younger than me, but that doesn't mean anything-I was still intimidated by their talent," says the actor. "Michael was Brando-ish. Nina was the hottest thing on Broadway. You can just tell when people have the 'it' factor, and they have it."

Romano and Pitt both grew up on the East Coast-Pitt in Queens, Romano in Jersey-and hit it off immediately. When relatives of Romano's who were huge fans of Pitt's showed up on set, Pitt went out of his way to make it worth their while, the older actor says.

Arianda also went the extra mile for Romano, coming to the set on her day off to rehearse a pizza restaurant scene with him. "We shot the scenes out of order, so it was my first scene with her," Romano recalls. "I needed to see her and just talk to her and try to get a vibe on how our characters talked and their rhythms. She actually came to the set and we went into a room and rehearsed the scene. She couldn't have been nicer."

Andy Garcia was instrumental in shaping the character of Big Al, a role very loosely based on real-life Bonanno-family crime boss Joseph "Big Joey" Massino. Teitler says the actor brought "a gravitas and richness of characterization" to the part. He and De Felitta worked together to further develop the character in Fernandez's script, and came up with something rarely seen in the genre-a mobster with a heart.

"Ray had the idea to create a guy who was the antithesis of what we'd seen before as a mob boss," Garcia says of Big Al, who for years hid from the law in plain sight as a restaurateur. "We wanted to shed a light on who these people are. They have a darker side, but they also have a human side."

In the case of Big Al, that human dimension stemmed from a past in which he unintentionally drifted into the mob, via the relatively innocuous task of delivering manila envelopes from bookies to bars around the city. But what started out as a means of supplementing income from his food-truck business turned into something sinister that cost him dearly.

"The essence and tragedy of the character is that he lost his entire family based on his decision to continue in that life," Garcia explains. "In his mind, he really was doing everything to protect and serve and enhance the livelihood of his family, but at the end of the day, it was the very thing that became his downfall."

Having lost his son to a mob hit and his wife to a broken heart, Big Al cherishes his relationship with his grandson above all else. But in a further ironic twist, this gentleness also ends up having dire consequences.

"I wanted to avoid mob clichés," De Felitta says of the Big Al character he honed with Garcia. "We met and talked about creating a Mafia don who was sorrowful, who showed a gentle nature. But it winds up being his undoing because he makes the fatal mistake of not ordering hits on Tommy and Rosie as soon as they rip off the club."

Romano is best known for his work on successful TV sitcoms-nine years of them. The chance to act in an independent, live-action feature film was a change he welcomed.

"With sitcoms, you're doing a play in a sense," he explains. "The subtleties are lost. Whether it's dramatic or humorous, you're projecting to a live audience of 300 people that are 40 feet away from you. But in a movie, especially an independent movie, there's so much room for subtlety and playing it internally, because the camera reads it. As a performer, that's fun. You don't have to be so literal. With indie films, you can do a little more, improvise a little more, which is cool."

De Felitta says he had initially thought of Romano for a different part-that of Tommy and Rosie's amiable, psycho-babbling boss, Dave Lovell, at the debt-collection agency. That role went instead to Griffin Dunne (Dallas Buyer's Club, "House of Lies"), while Romano nabbed the part of journalist Cardozo.

"I wanted to step out of my zone a bit and not play the friendly guy," Romano says. "The Cardozo role had more grit to it. Griffin was great in the Dave Lovell role."

To prepare for the role, Romano grew his hair for a '90s look, didn't shave for a few days and drafted a two-page backstory for his character, which he e-mailed to De Felitta the night before his scenes. "I'm a backstory guy," Romano says. "That's my thing. I try to write down what got this guy to where he was. I just want to get it down on paper so it feels like it exists."

Romano says his character feels empathy for Tommy and Rosie, in part due to having grown up in the same general environment. But he says there are also big differences between him and them. "He gets a kick out of these guys," Romano says. "He isn't on either side; he's somewhere in the middle. He would be friends with them, and there is an excitement to that, but he also has a different sense of right and wrong."

As a reporter, Cardozo recognizes he's onto a juicy story, but once he meets Rosie and Tommy face to face, it all becomes more personal to him, Romano says. According to his backstory, Cardozo finds himself at a vulnerable point in his life-something of a midlife crisis. Having dedicated himself to his job at the expense of everything else, including his marriage, he is a little burnt out.

"He feels a bit like he hasn't accomplished much," the actor says. "Then with these two characters, he finds a renewed zest for his work. Here's this couple who are in love, there's this weird innocence to them, and they're doomed. There's a crack in his heart. It just appeals to him. He knows that his newspaper story is not going to make it easier on them, so he has a bout of conscience and tries to help them out."

Teitler says Romano brought a balance of believability and comedy to his performance. "Of all the actors, I was not exactly sure what his characterization would be," the producer says. "In a way, he represents the conscience of the movie-somebody who, coming into contact with Rosie and Tommy, reawakened his moral sense. I think he gave an absolutely great performance." For both Pitt and Arianda, working with Romano was a great experience.

"He was just awesome," Pitt recalls. "I really enjoyed my time with him-everyone really did. He was really easy to talk to, down to earth, super humble and hilarious. We were shooting in Queens and his family came out. We all just sat in a little pizzeria and had some pizza together."

"Working with Ray was an incredible privilege," Arianda says. "I'm very grateful that he shared his experience as well as his generosity and support. His character is one of the few people who is looking out for the welfare of Rosie and Tommy, and he approached that responsibility with such care in his work both on and off screen."

Rounding out the film's ensemble cast are Frank Whaley (Pulp Fiction) as FBI Agent Frank Hurd; Michael Rispoli (The Taking of Pelham 123, "The Sopranos") as Sal; Yul Vazquez (War of the Worlds, American Gangster) as Vinny Gorgeous; Burt Young (Rocky, Once Upon a Time in America) as Joey D; and Cathy Moriarty (Raging Bull) as Constance Uva.

"I wanted to fill the cast out with iconic New York character actors," De Felitta says. "I got these terrific faces-a lot of them are actors I'd worked with before."

Teitler says the film's secondary roles were filled with great actors who were chosen for their ability to bring specific qualities to the part-something for which he says De Felitta has a gift. "Raymond is talented in many ways, but particularly in terms of his recognition of what makes a particular actor right for a certain part, and then working with them on the set to get that perfect take. We had some extraordinary luck with our secondary characters. There were so many interesting colors in the overall mosaic of the cast."

The shoot lasted five weeks and took place in four of the city's five boroughs, primarily in Queens and Brooklyn. "I love the outer boroughs," De Felitta says. "They aren't used nearly as much as they should be. There's something so colorful and real about them. Manhattan has been shot to death."

Arianda credits the film's location scouts with finding places that preserve part of New York's unique flavor and history. "Filming all over the city was an experience I'll never forget," she says. "I was able to see and experience the city I love so dearly, and the people who live in it in ways that I haven't yet, even as long as I have lived here. We filmed in neighborhoods, homes and businesses that have been around for decades with the people who have made this city what it is today."

The film's climactic ending sequence was shot during Christmas week of 2012 in Manhattan. "That scene was actually done as a second unit shoot four months before we started making the rest of the film," De Felitta recalls. "We weren't ready to shoot, but Bill (Teitler) knew we needed that scene to be done during the holidays. That's the benefit of having a great producer-he was betting on the fact that we were going to get the film done. He said you have to go out and shoot this. And we did."

For his part, Teitler credits De Felitta with his complete understanding of the characters and the milieu, which translated to a powerful sense of authenticity on screen. "You really feel like you're there watching Tommy and Rosie," he says. "It really feels very vivid and very real."

According to executive producer and actor Garcia, working with De Felitta was a very positive experience that allowed for ample collaboration. "We're simpatico with one another," Garcia says. "Ray embraces and trusts the exploration on set-the improvisation and the freedom to create a space where actors can contribute. It's like jazz. You're thematically linked by the story and by what you're trying to do, and as long as you stay within the objectives and 'in the pocket,' so to speak, there's room to discover and see what happens. That's what I enjoy about him, and what he enjoys about me."

For Garcia, the approach brings to mind the late director Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude, Being There), with whom Garcia got his first turn as a leading man in the 1986 film 8 Million Ways to Die. "After a take, he would say, 'That's great. We got that-now try something else,'" Garcia recalls. "If there's an instinct on the day, you just do it, because you never know down the line what the movie is going to call for. Everybody working on the movie has a subconscious activity going on, including the movie itself. On the day, something might seem odd, but it might be exactly the take the movie needs. Sometimes you don't realize it until three months later in post-production. If you resist the opportunity to explore it, you're probably doing yourself a disservice. So you grab as much as possible while you can, and then move on."

Romano, who was on set for about a week, agrees: "Ray is very collaborative," the actor says. "If something felt more organic, he had no problems trying it that way-which is something I like. You get great stuff and you get stuff that goes on the editing-room floor. As long as you keep the essence of the scene, he's fine with it."

Plus, Romano says of the director, "He's a very nice guy. He let me see a couple of cuts during editing, too. I was very impressed with how Ray pulled the film off."

Naturally, the production was not without its challenges. For De Felitta, time-or the lack of it-was probably the biggest one. Five weeks was barely enough to accomplish what he wanted to, and the crew had to work some long days as a result.

"I really didn't want to cut the script," he says. "I thought it was all important. But I realized to do it in the amount of time available, it wasn't going to be the most fun shoot. We had a great crew who saw we were really committed to doing something. A good, tough shoot is what I would call it."

Needless to say, that made for some potentially stressful experiences on set. "We were shooting so quickly," Pitt recalls. "Sometimes it was two takes and we had to move on, so you really had to be on your toes."

However, Pitt adds, De Felitta was great at dealing with the tension that sometimes erupted on set. "He always seemed to be able to calm the situation, to calm everyone and put everyone at ease. It's such a great quality. He never seemed affected by the limited time. And he did it with humor; he has a great sense of humor. That's the biggest thing I learned from him."

A different challenge was how best to shoot the scenes in which Tommy fires his Uzi in the Mafia's social clubs, drilling lead into walls, ceiling and everything except people. The more conventional approach would have called for wide shots first, perhaps followed by tighter takes on the actors' faces. But De Felitta points out that these were not your typical action shoot-'em-up scenes.

"What was most challenging was to make Tommy and the way he behaved in each club both funny and scary and also emotional," explains De Felitta, who used two cameras for the purpose. "They were not just action scenes, they were also rooted in emotion, because part of him being there is vengeance for what he thinks the mob may have done to his father. We shot Michael's close-ups first instead of the usual wide shot. Then, once we found the emotional truth of the scenes, it made more sense."

Also tricky was a romantic scene with Tommy and Rosie that takes place on their apartment rooftop-though in this case, it was the actors who bore the brunt.

"That's a long scene out there in the cold of midnight," De Felitta recalls. "Actors are champs at those moments. They know this is the heart of the movie, so they stay there till it's done right."

For Romano, one of the more difficult scenes was his final one, in which Cardozo tries to persuade Tommy and Rosie to accept a pair of airplane tickets to a safe destination. The actor says daylight was fading and they were pressed for time.

"We kind of just winged the ending," he recalls. "Tommy's refusing the tickets and I'm asking him to take them. We didn't know how that was going to come out. There's always one scene where you come away wondering if it's going to work. But this one seemed to."

"These days it's never easy to get a movie made-period," says Teitler. "The single biggest challenge was maintaining both the emotional complexity of the relationships and the real-life complexity of the story in early-'90s period context, and making it a quality film without a huge budget." Teitler adds that much of the crucial work that helped accomplish this was done during post-production, with De Felitta collaborating freely with his talented editor, David Leonard. "In the post-production process, you have all kinds of great material that has to cook down. We kept finding the central moments. It was hard work, but it was a true joy."

Romano believes the film will move people, as well as entertain them with its unique blend of humor and crime-thriller elements. He's also sure audiences will appreciate the film's performances-especially those of Pitt and Arianda.

"I just think they're worth seeing," he says. "And I wouldn't mind people seeing me in a role other than a TV character."

De Felitta agrees, adding that it's the love story between Tommy and Rosie that drives the film and has the power to touch audiences.

"I remember reading that real love is very destructive; it plows through every obstacle," the director says. "I really do think if this film works emotionally, it's because it's about the powers that intense love can bring-even if it brings catastrophe. Tommy and Rosie had no other fate they could have taken. They went all the way with their commitment, and they completed their mission. Wow! That's really a once-in-a-lifetime love."

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