The Wannabe: A Gangster Love Story
Nick Sandow discusses when to ignore notes, the influence of Scorsese, and how his background as an actor informs his writing style.
By Christopher McKittrick.
On the hit Netflix series Orange is the New Black, Nick Sandow portrays prison administrator Joseph Caputo, who tries (often in vain) to maintain control of Litchfield Penitentiary. It’s probably not much different from trying to write and direct a film while sustaining a career as an actor.
Yet the longtime character actor, who has been working in theater, film, and television for over two decades, saw The Wannabe, his second film as a director (and first as a screenwriter) premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
The Wannabe is based on the true story of Thomas (Vincent Piazza) and Rosemarie (Patricia Arquette), a married couple who humiliated the New York mafia by robbing over a half-dozen of the mob’s social clubs during a year-long period. However, before he began his crime spree, Thomas was obsessed with the mafia and actually attended John Gotti’s 1992 trial that resulted in the conviction that put the infamous mafia boss in prison for the rest of his life. Sandow used this fact to cast Thomas as the type of obsessed mafia movie fan who is desperate to be a real-life wiseguy and hasn’t learned from his favorite movies that crime doesn’t pay.
Sandow, Piazza, and Arquette all appeared on the HBO crime drama Boardwalk Empire. One of the show’s executive producers was Martin Scorsese, who also served as executive producer for The Wannabe. Speaking to Creative Screenwriting, Sandow reveals how he used Thomas and Rosemarie’s real-life story as jumping off point to create The Wannabe, as well as discussing when to ignore notes, Scorsese’s influence on the film, and how his background as an actor influences his writing style.
The true story behind this movie is really unique. Can you explain the inspiration behind it?
There was about a half-dozen news articles about this couple, and it was about ten years after they had been killed that the press got ahold of it because someone was being tried for their murder. A friend said to me, “Hey, look at this story” and gave me one of the articles. It had maybe a half-dozen facts about them in it – there was this couple who was married, he was from the Bronx, they were doing drugs, they robbed mob social clubs, they were killed Christmas Eve 1992, and he attended the John Gotti trial. He was sort of like a fan. That was all I knew, but that’s what set me off. How do you get from A to Z? You see single character protagonist obsessives go from A to Z, but how did a couple do it? I was fascinated by that.
You grew up in the Bronx, so this is a world that’s pretty familiar to you and you’ve also had a good deal of experience acting in gangster movies and crime shows. How much of your own background is reflected in the script?
As a kid I was a cinephile, and the gangster genre was my way into movies. I immediately made Thomas a cinephile. The early 1990s was also when I was in my twenties in New York City, so that whole world was all built around my own experiences in New York City. Now I didn’t do any of those things that the couple did, but all the life around it is mine. I also related very much to this desire and hunger to be something that you’re not. I knew at its core that’s what our movie was about.
It’s interesting that you bring that up, because the morality of gangster movies has been an issue even before the original Scarface in the early 1930s. There have been concerns that they glorify the lifestyle. Thomas is obviously a person who does fall for that. What are your thoughts on that kind of hero worship?
I think that hero worship is real, though I wasn’t trying to take a stand on it other than what happens if you put things into the wrong hands. If Thomas grew up in Ohio, he probably would’ve worked at a video store. Being in the proximity of that world was just a lethal cocktail. I was trying to make a comment on the genre, to open up questions about those myths. The gangster genre is the true American genre, and I wanted to ask why. What’s the spirit behind it that we relate to?
I worked in that genre for a long time as an actor, and at a certain point I was like, “I am done playing heavies! I don’t want to be in this stuff anymore.” I stayed away from it for a long time. But the outsider aspect is what really inspired me.
In addition to the gangster genre, The Wannabe is very much a love story. But it’s a love story about two people who bring out that really bad kind of “crazy love” in each other without even realizing it, even though everyone else tells them to stay away from each other. Could you talk about writing that relationship?
When I started writing it became very clear to me that the story almost wanted me to make it single character obsessive story. It’s probably because we’ve all seen that so much and it’s also easier to pull off. You can drive a movie around a character’s obsession because that justification is in that person. As a writer, you only have to justify one human being’s bad behavior. But if you make it a couple, that’s a challenge. I had a lot of people early on say to me that I should lighten up on the love story because maybe it wasn’t about that. I remember having a notes session like that and trying to sleep that night. I woke up in the middle of the night saying, “I can’t get rid of that love story!” It made me commit even more to the love story and building Rose’s character. The more I strengthened her, the more it started to make sense and the more I could see her and what she was about.
I was also committed to the age difference. Early on I was also steered away from that, but I thought it was significant because it meant that she’s been in this neighborhood, she knows these guys, she’s been through these guys, and she knows this world already.
Speaking of getting notes, at what point did Martin Scorsese get involved in the project?
We gave him a script after working on it with Vinny Piazza a bunch. We were attempting to raise money to make it as a smaller film, and Vinny was a great help in bringing Thomas alive even in script form. When we felt comfortable about the script, we thought about trying to get it to Marty. He sent it to him with a bottle of wine before the holidays. We didn’t have expectations, but after the holidays they were having a table read for the first episode of the next season of Boardwalk Empire and Marty came up to him and said he loved The Wannabe.
Did Scorsese give you any notes on the script?
He did, but not too many. He was really taken with the script. We got more notes from him during editing. He was super generous and kind. You know, you sit with a lot of people to get notes and everybody has an agenda. The thing about Marty is that he didn’t have his own agenda. He wanted to point me in the direction of the story that I wanted to tell.
He was also incredibly specific. He would say things like, “Well, if you come into that shot four frames later, that’s it!” I would go into the edit four frames later and I’d say, “How the hell did he know that?” The guy’s a master and was incredibly generous.
I also saw a lot of Rupert Pupkin from Scorsese’s The King of Comedy in The Wannabe. Was that an influence?
I knew I had this love story and Rupert was never capable of that. [Laughs.] Well he was, but only within his own mind. It was an influence, no doubt. The biggest influence in terms of storytelling was Mean Streets. It was just the idea that you’re never too hung on the narrative as you watch how real but also poetic this stuff was. Another movie that influenced me was Mafioso (Alberto Lattuada, 1962), an Italian movie that has a comedic that blew me away because it was a combination I hadn’t seen in any film. Another Italian film, Salvatore Giuliano (Francesco Rosi, 1962), was another inspiration.
One scene in particular that stands out is the recreation of the Sparks Steak House mafia hit, which actually predates the events of the film by several years. Why did you decide to include this sequence in the script?
To me it was where they crossed the line between reality and fantasy. Thomas is a man of inaction. If he didn’t meet Rose, he probably would have never acted on any of this. It’s where he steps into his own fantasy. I always imagined Sparks to be what propels them to cross over and start making their own myths.
As an actor you’ve worked with numerous talented filmmakers in your career, including Sidney Lumet and Ed Burns. Have any of the filmmakers that you’ve worked with in particular influenced your writing?
Lumet’s movies were an incredible influence on me. I’ve worked with a bunch of great people and over the years I just started to say, “I like the way this guy does this.” Also, going to movies and asking myself, “How do they get it to feel like this?” John Cassavetes is a big influence. I never worked with him, but I remember going to an arthouse to see Love Streams and it was like a bomb got dropped on me, thinking, “What just happened? I don’t know what that movie was about, but I just want to see more of that.” [Laughs]
Does your background as a stage actor have any influence on the way you write, perhaps in how you write dialogue?
It’s strange, I think it does have an effect, probably even more than I even understand. I know when I write a script I write for one character and I’ll take him or her through every scene. That’s from me as an actor, because a play could be about many, many things and feature many different characters, but in your own mind it’s all about your character. [Laughs] You play this character for two hours on stage and you build all the connections and structure around the span of time on stage that’s all interior and motivational. When I write, my focus is that small. I think that has a profound effect on the films I make. Some people call the movies I make character studies, and I think that’s why.
I have a passion to make bigger films though. I’m working with another writer right now, Frank Pugliese, who is a playwright and writes for House of Cards. He wrote a beautiful script of a film I want to do, and when I watch him he’s like a chemist. He takes all these elements and all these characters and starts mixing them together and seeing what could happen. To me it’s all interior, which takes me into multiple rewrites to build up the other characters. That’s the only way I can do it.
Featured image credit: Momentum/Orion Pictures