Anti-heroes who determinedly set out to interprete the ambiguities of the situations they encounter as they struggle to survive in the film noir genre have long remained timely and provocative. Writer-director-producer Nick Stagliano has once again provena his skill in a making a viscerally modern crime thriller by creating a story that thrives on the subtleties and mysteries that drive the main character and plot with his latest feature, ‘The Virtuoso.’ Also fueled by compelling supporting characters, dynamic compositions and visuals, and bold suspense, the movie is a cinematic achievement, as it explores universal themes of identity, fate, guilt and redemption.
Stagliano co-wrote ‘The Virtuoso’ with James C. Wolf. The drama is now playing in select theaters, and is also available on Digital, On Demand, Blu-ray and DVD, courtesy of Lionsgate.
‘The Virtuoso’ follows a sleepy country town that’s taken over by danger, deception and murder after the title professional assassin (Anson Mount) accepts a new assignment from his enigmatic boss, The Mentor (Anthony Hopkins). Given only the details of where and when to commit the crime, along with a cryptic clue, the methodical hit man must identify his mysterious mark from among several possible targets, including a local sheriff (David Morse). Meanwhile, a chance encounter with an alluring waitress (Abbie Cornish) at the town’s rustic diner threatens to derail his mission.
Stagliano generously took the time recently to talk about writer, directing and producing ‘The Virtuoso’ during an exclusive interview over the phone. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed that he was inspired to pen a new script that includes a main character that’s similiar to the one that’s featured in his 2011 crime thriller, ‘Good Day for It,’ but also has unique, surprising characteristics. The helmer also mentioned that he enjoyed the experience of collaborating with the movie’s performers, particularly Mount, who showed a different side to his acting abilities with his portrayal of the epoynomous anti-hero.
The conversation began with Stagliano sharing why he was interested in helming the film, and what his collaboration with Wolf was like while they were developing the screenplay. “I created the material as the filmmaker. It’s loosely based on a previous movie that I made, called ‘Good Day for It.’ I wanted to explore that same kind of leading character, only with a twist,” he explained. “In that movie, everyone thought the lead character was a bad guy, but he was really a good guy who had to do one bad thing, and had to pay for it.
“I was always interested in what would happen if the same guy came back to town, only as a genuine bad guy. That was the basis for the idea for this film,” the director revealed.
“So I contacted James, who’s a friend of mine, and with whom I had co-written ‘Good Day for It’ with, so we knew that world well. So I told him the idea that the character in this film would be a real bad guy, but he starts to turn good, which I haven’t seen that often in the film noir world,” Stagliano pointed out.
“So I told him that I also have this character called The Mentor, who’s the head guy, and The Waitress, who’s the femme fatale,” the filmmaker continued. “That’s what started it, as I was always interested in telling this story; the script didn’t just come to me. We then worked on it until it got to the point where we felt good enough to take it out.”
Once the script was written and production on ‘The Virtuoso’ began, Stagliano embraced his experience of helming the feature. He then delved into what his experience of directing the drama was like during the shoot. “In most of my projects, I’m always interested in making character-driven stories…My first approach as a director always is to focus on the actors and their characters, and let them advance the plot. We had a strong plot-it’s a thriller concept with twists and turns. But it’s the characters that drive the story, so that’s usually my focus,” he shared.
“I try to work with the actors and make sure they feel comfortable. I then let my partners, including my DP (director of photography), Frank Prinzi, take over on the technical end,” the filmmaker divulged.
Further speaking of the actors, Stagliano delved into what the casting process was like for ‘The Virtuoso.’ “To me, starting with The Virtuoso was key because he had to be a certain level, but not a classic leading man because of the arc he takes. I met Anson Mount years before we started casting this movie for a different project that hasn’t shot yet. But I was so impressed with him,” he shared.
“I was also watching him on the TV series that he was on at the time, a Western called ‘Hell on Wheels.’ I also knew that he was theater trained and intelligent, and had the talent to do this movie,” the helmer continued. “His agent liked the script, and so did he, so I flew out to Calgary to meet him when he was filming the final season of the show. and we got along.
“He was the first one to become attached to the movie, really, and his agency, UTA, was supportive of the material, and we got Abbie Cornish through them. I liked her in ‘A Good Year,’ Ridley Scott’s picture, and ‘Bright Star,'” Stagliano added.
“I also took a shot through UTA for someone with weight to play The Mentor. So I asked our casting agent if he thought we could get any of the legends that the agency has. UTA said that Anthony Hopkins has made it known that if he likes material, he might be interested in doing something small, if everything works out,” the filmmaker shared about casting this year’s Academy Award-winner in the Best Actor category.
“I was like, ‘You have to be kidding.’ He wasn’t even on my wish list, as I thought we couldn’t get him. But we ultimately took a shot, and he liked it, so that was it,” Stagliano revealed
“After those three, we waited two years for their schedules to finally work out. We then cast the other roles pretty easily,” the director added.
Once the actors were cast in the film, Stagliano wasn’t able to have much time to rehearse with them to build their characters’ arcs throughout the story. But he was able to spend a few days collaborating with Mount to further develop his title character.
“Unfortunately, like my other movies that are lower budgeted, there wasn’t much time to have rehearsals, due to the scheduling hurdles, since all of these actors work a lot. So I didn’t have the opportunity to rehearse that I would have liked, like a theater director who has a week to work with everyone on location,” the filmmaker divulged.
“But I spent an entire weekend with Anson, since he was the first one who was cast and the lead role. We broke the script down from page one all the way to the end, and went over every question he had,” Stagliano also revealed. “That was the most work I put in because he was so important, and carried the weight of the film.
“Once we started shooting, it was very simple. I had two two-hour phone conversations with Anthony Hopkins prior to the start of the production, and we also met in L.A. a week before the shoot began to talk about the characters. He doesn’t really need much direction, as he’s on point and clear,” the helmer pointed out.
“It was the same thing with Abbie-we had phone conversations, and then she showed up before shooting began to meet the rest of the cast,” Stagliano added. he also revealed that he wishes “that I had more itme to work with the actors.
“As a filmmaker, it’s just about casting great, professional actors. They do their own research, and if they have any serious questions about their characters and where they’re supposed to be in the story, they ask you, and you go over it with them,” the filmmaker noted.
“Other than that, you just need to guide them, scene-by-scene. You shoot out of sequence so much that as the director, you have to make sure that their emotional level is at a certain range on the days you’re shooting. But they usually nail it, if you made the right decisions,” Stagliano added. “I had a great working experience with all of the cast members.”
‘The Virtuoso’ takes place, and was shot on location, in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania. The director delved into what the process of shooting the thriller on location was like during the production.
“We shot the majority of the movie in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania. I’m from Pennsylvania, and have shot a bunch of other movies there, specifically ‘Good Day for It.’ It wasn’t shot in the same diner as ‘The Virtuoso,’ but in the same general area, so a couple of the locations were similar,” Stagliano shared.
“So I knew the area very well, and it was part of the writing process. The cold and bitterness were also ingrained in the story,” the filmmaker continued. “But when we shot the film in early 2019, it was still a challenge to find places that I wanted to shoot in. But everything was practical locations we found and acquired, and I think they added their own element to the story.
“The diner was particularly difficult, and the one we ended up choosing was a little bit out of our circle. But it was worth it because it’s so vital to the movie,” Stagliano shared.
“But we shot all of Sir Anthony’s scenes in L.A. to fit his schedule. I like what the design team did with The Mentor’s lair, which is what we called it. He has this gun room that has a great look and feel to it,” the helmer also divulged.
“Everything was important, especially the look and feel of the movie. The work that Frank did as the DP, and Norman Dodge did as the production designer, was really special, and added to the film’s overall tone; I think it keeps you intrigued as a viewer,” Stagliano professed as he complimented the crew’s visual work.
Besides directing ‘The Virtuoso,’ the filmmaker also embraced having the opportunity to also serve as one of the producers. He delved into why he decided to also produce the movie, and how he balanced his helming and producing duties on the set.
“That’s the old double-edged sword!,” Stagliano admitted with a laugh. “Some days, you sit there and think, what was I thinking? Then other days, you think, I know why. I’m the one who got this person, or I’m the one who knew this location. So what we were doing each day influenced which side of the table I wanted to be on.
“You need good people around you, obviously. I prefer to think of myself as a filmmaker because I had the germ of the idea for the story from the start. Then we developed it and wrote the script, and then I polished it. Then we financed it, and got everyone together as producers, and then I directed it,” the director explained.
“On the plus side, you initmately know everything about the production. You know why you had to do this, and you can’t do that,” the producer continued. “But that’s the way I like working. When I got out of film school, that was the way things panned out for me; I’ve never really been a director-for-hire.
“But I would like to have something really good sent to me, if they just wanted me to direct. Sometimes the weight of all those hats bears heavy,” Stagliano admitted.
“But this film turned out pretty well, and I’m grateful that Lionsgate picked it up. Hopefully the audience will get it,” the filmmaker concluded.