Aspiring to follow in the professional footsteps of your hero is often believed to be an admirable goal to have, especially when you’re transitioning into a new phase of your career. But that ambition isn’t always the most commendable one to have, as your desired line of work could be illegal, unethical and dangerous, and the people you wish to emulate aren’t guaranteed to appreciate you.
With the new crime drama ‘The Wannabe,’ which marks his second turn behind the camera, writer-director Nick Sandow proves that trying to mirror the achievements of those people he respects, like Martin Scorsese, who served as one of the film’s executive producer, is a fulfilling objective to have. But the main anti-hero in the independent movie, which is set to open in select theaters nationwide on Friday, is set on being accepted into the corrupt world of the mob, which he has over-glamorized after watching films that glorify the business.
‘The Wannabe,’ which is inspired by true events, follows resolute New Yorker Thomas Greco (Vincent Piazza), who determinedly sets out to fulfill his goal of working for Gambino family boss John Gotti. Driven by his passion for crime dramas, Thomas hopes that his obsession of following the media coverage of the Gambino crime family’s boss’ trial will help him become a major player in the mafia.
As Thomas struggles to rise above his presently meager financial situation, he meets Rose (Patricia Arquette) at a street fair in Gotti’s Queens neighborhood, where he’s hoping to see the mob boss. While the two form an instant connect and start dating, Thomas doesn’t let his new romance hinder his quest to be accepted into the Gambino family, and make money quickly.
But Thomas’ attempt to rig Gotti’s trial with the help of a confidant, the Twin (Doug E. Doug), ultimately fails. He also tries to run a propaganda campaign against Sammy Gravano, who turned against the Gambino family and testified in Gotti’s trial, to little success. He also garnered a personal grudge against Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa (Daniel Sauli), who also spoke out against the mob boss.
In a last-minute effort to achieve his dreams and avoid further humiliation, Thomas and Rose embark on a crime spree together, despite her initial reluctance to participate in acts she knows are illegal and immoral. As the two begin robbing local poker games that are run by the mob, they fail to realize that their latest attempts to be accepted by the mob are only alienating them more, and leads crime bosses to finally retailiate against them.
Sandow generously took the time recently to talk about writing, directing and starring in ‘The Wannabe’ during an exclusive phone interview. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how he was driven to pen and direct a script that was inspired by a real-life New York couple, who were determined to join the New York mafia in the early 1990s, but also took took creative liberties in expanding their story after reading newspaper articles about them; how Piazza expressed interested in the screenplay after receiving it from the filmmaker, who later collaborated with the actor on his acclaimed HBO period crime drama series, ‘Boardwalk Empire;’ and how he enjoyed bringing the movie back to New York, where it filmed, and premiering it at the Tribeca Film Festival, as he appreciates the sway the festival celebrates the city.
ShockYa (SY): You wrote the script for the new crime drama ‘The Wannabe,’ which follows Thomas, a New Yorker who would do anything to be part of the mob world he knew from the movies. What interested you in chronicling the story in a film, and what was the process of developing the script?
Nick Sandow (NS): Well, I read a lot of articles about a couple from the early ’90s, who went on this crazy journey. I was just fascinated by this wannabe and outisder character, who’s desperate to be on the inside. So I was blown away by how the couple went from A to B, which really inspired me to write the script.
SY: Since the film is based on true events, what was the research process like for you as you were working on the screenplay? How much creative license did you take with the story while you were crafting the script?
NS: I took all the license I wanted. I had these five or six concrete facts about this real couple, such as where they were from, that they were a married couple who was doing drugs and robbing mob social clubs and that they were killed on Christmas Eve. He also would attend the John Gotti trial as a fan. But I think that was all the facts I had.
SY: Besides penning the script, you also directed ‘The Wannabe.’ How did writing the screenplay influence the way you approached your directorial duties once you filming the drama?
NS: When I wrote the script, I wasn’t sure if I was also going to direct the movie. I originally thought I would sell the script. But writing the sceenplay was a long and hard process, so I ultimately decided that I wasn’t going to sell it.
Before making this film, I had directed my first feature (the 2011 drama, ‘Ponies’). So I thought, I want to direct again. The first film I directed was based on a play, so it wasn’t something that I wrote. But once you write a film, you become tied to the project, as it becomes personal.
SY: How did you decide to cast Vincent Piazza, who plays Thomas in the drama? Did you previously know, or work with, him when you both appeared on ‘Boardwalk Empire?’
NS: Well, I didn’t know Vincent before we began casting the film. So he did a reading of the script, and I thought he was amazing. I was blown away by what he did.
Then about two weeks later, I was on set shooting ‘Boardwalk,’ and I was in a scene with him. (laughs) So as we started working together, he asked me, “What are you doing with that script?” I told him, “I just decided that I’m going to direct it.” He said he would also produce it, so I said, “Let’s do it.”
SY: Besides writing and directing ‘The Wannabe,’ you also played as Anthony in the drama. Why did you also decide to star in the drama? How did your duties as the scribe, helmer and actor all influence each other as you were filming the movie?
NS: Well, I wasn’t in my first film that I directed, and I really liked just doing that. So I didn’t originally plan on being in this movie. But the casting director jokingly put me on the list to play Anthony.
There were a few guys in New York who were the top choices for the role. I happened to be one of them, because that type of character is in my reelhouse. So as the casting director was trying to convince me to take one the role, Vincent and Patricia called me one night. They said, “You have to do it,” so I decided to accept the role.
But I shot the role in one day, so I wasn’t so concerned about acting in, and directing, the film. By that point, I had a good relationship with my DP (Director of Photography, Brett Pawlak),so I felt confident that I could do both.
SY: Once Vincent, Patricia and the rest of the actors were cast in the drama, were you able to have rehearsal time to build the characters’ relationships and the story?
NS: There was about a year where we were hunting money and putting everything together before we could start filming. But I immediately started working with them. Since I’m also an actor, I know what actors can do and bring to a project when they’re a really big part of making it. So a lot of the nuances were brought into the script because of their ideas.
SY: Since Thomas is such a fan of gangster films and aspires to live that life, how important was it for you to honor the genre in ‘The Wannabe,’ while also showing that the lifestyle isn’t for everyone, like with the anti-hero?
NS: I didn’t read that aspect in any of the newspaper articles about the couple. But I was highly informed by those movies as a kid. I think watching those movies was a big reason why I became an actor. I would watch (Martin) Scorsese’s movies and think, wow, look at those people. They’re my people, and this is the world I grew up in.
So I was attracted to making this character a cinephile and gangsterphile, and how the lines and realities between the two are so easily crossed, especially in the neighborhood he lived in. I think if Thomas lived in Ohio, he’d work in a video store. But he didn’t; he lived in a neighborhood where the mob lifestyle was very real.
SY: Speaking of Martin Scorsese, he served as one of the executive producers on the drama. How did he become involved in producing ‘The Wannabe,’ and what was your working relationship with him like on the film?
NS: At one point, Vinnie said, “I’m going to try to get the script to Marty.” I think Vinnie sent the screenplay to Marty with a bottle of wine. They already had a relationship from the show. (Scorsese served as an executive producer on ‘Boardwalk Empire.’)
I think it was about four months later when they were doing a table read for the show. Marty came in and told Vinnie, “I love ‘The Wannabe.’ What do you want to do?” So we asked him if he would want to executive produce it. He said, “Alright, go see my lawyers,” and that’s what we did.
We were already on track and raising money for the film. But as soon as Marty came on board, that really helped us move the funding forward.
SY: How did shooting ‘The Wannabe’ independently influence your creative approach as a filmmaker?
NS: Well, filming independently is the only way I know how to make projects. I also shot my first movie independently. We didn’t have a lot of money at all, and we only had 20 days to shoot in 35 to 40 locations. We had this incredible uphill battle, as we had a really small budget for what we made. We had a big story-we didn’t just have to characters in a room. But since shooting independently is the only way I’ve made movies, I certainly know how to make films on the cheap.
SY: With ‘The Wannabe’ being set throughout several boroughs of New York City, including the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens, what was the experience of finding, and ultimately filming in, the locations that are featured in the movie?
NS: I worked with my location scout to find the places where we wanted to film. We didn’t have the money to build sets and stages, so we had to find real locations to shoot in. We were looking for places that could pass for the early 1990s. But I think that once we got out to the boroughs, like Brooklyn, we found incredible locations that fit our time period.
SY: The drama had its World Premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in Manhattan. What was the experience like of bringing the movie back to New York for its premiere?
NS: I loved bringing the film back to New York and premiering it at Tribeca. There’s something about the way the festival celebrates New York, and this is such a New York movie. I’m also a New Yorker, through-and-through. There was something different about my other film festival experiences. But there was something very special about showing this movie at Tribeca, and it felt right.
SY: Besides ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ you also have starred on several other television shows throughout your career, including your most recent work on ‘Orange Is the New Black.’ As an actor, what is it about television that you enjoy working on? How does working on a series compare and contrast to acting in movies?
NS: I think acting in the two mediums is are very different processes. I love working on TV, and am enjoying acting on (‘Orange Is the New Black’)-the writing is great. But there are some limitations to acting on television.
I think TV is a writer’s medium, and film is a director’s medium. You really try to express yourself with all the tools you have on any project. On TV, the directors are for hire, and it’s all about the writing. The writing on television shows now is so great, especially with ‘Orange.’
SY: Besides ‘The Wannabe,’ do you have any other upcoming projects lined up that you can discuss, whether as a writer, director or actor?
NS: Yes, I have a film that we’re looking to shoot in January, but we have a little bit more money to raise. The script was written by Frank Pugliese, who’s also a writer on ‘House of Cards.’ It’s set in the weekend of a retired football player, who’s first coming to grips with having dementia.
Written by: Karen Benardello