Like many American actors of Italian descent, Michael Imperioli got his start playing gangsters. His performance as Christopher Moltisanti on HBO’s The Sopranos not only earned him an Emmy award, but helped give birth to the concept of the modern mobster. Although Imperioli has been writing screenplays for over a decade now, it’s only recently that he made the jump to directing. His debut feature is The Hungry Ghosts, a sprawling ensemble drama about the lives of a group of dysfunctional New Yorkers. I had the chance to talk to Imperioli via telephone about baseball, David Berkowitz, and Detroit as a metaphor for America.
Off the top of your head, who’s your favorite director? Living would be Kustirica. Dead would be John Cassavetes.
Watching your film, I could see a Cassavetes influence for sure. What’s your favorite movie of his? I love A Woman Under the Influence. I mean, that movie’s just a feat of possibility of what you can capture on camera. I also like Love Streams, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Husbands. He didn’t rely on exposition. If you look at a movie like Love Streams, the two main characters are brother and sister, but you don’t really know that until halfway into the movie. He just didn’t like the audience to get ahead of the movie at all. He really wanted you to go on a journey, and to just get lost in this world with him, and I definitely had some of that in mind when I was writing this.
Have you ever worked with anyone from Cassavetes’ troupe? I’ve worked with Ben Gazzara a couple of times. And I’ve worked with Seymour Cassel many times, he’s a really good friend of mine. And Peter Falk – we never worked together, but I wrote a movie for him and he wanted to do it, but we never got it off the ground. I talked to them a lot.
What was the script about? It was a black comedy and it was about a very weird secret society of people who were bound together by blackmail. But through their bond of blackmail, they help each other accumulate wealth, mainly through the real estate business. We wrote it with Peter in mind, and we got it to him, and one day he called and he loved it. We went out to LA and met with him a couple of times, but we were just never able to get producers on board. He’s one of my favorites.
I’m a fan of Big Trouble, although I know a lot of the Cassavetes purists sort of write it off. I like a lot of things about that movie, but I think overall it doesn’t quite hold together, because they were trying to repeat the success of The In-Laws. That for me is a masterpiece of comedy. It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.
Where did The Hungry Ghosts come from storywise? I just had this germ of an idea with two characters on a train, to be honest. I wasn’t sure how they got there, what their relationship was, and where they were going, but somehow that stimulated me exploring everything else, and that’s how it began. I’d seen a lot of people get lost in my world and in the world around me, and in my immediate circles and in the wider circles of downtown New York. A lot of it’s addiction. I saw a lot of suffering, people in pain, and I wanted to address why that was and explore that the possibility of a way out of that.
Does the NYC you portray exist? New York is the type of place where you can go out, and when I was younger I had a lot of adventures like this. You’d go out at night and have dinner with friends, or just go out by yourself. All of a sudden, something happens or you meet someone, and you wind up somewhere else. If you’ve ever seen the movie After Hours, it depicts that very well.
When did you start writing? I started writing in my early twenties, right about the time when I started producing theater. I didn’t finish anything for about ten years. I had a big stack of things that was not very good. After ten years, I just threw them out and started over again. I started working with a friend who had an idea for the screenplay that eventually became Summer of Sam and we wrote that together and brought it to Spike Lee.
So for Summer of Sam, are you a David Berkovitz expert or what? It was initially the idea of the guy I wrote it with, whose name is Victor Colicchio. He was from the Bronx and I was from Mt. Vernon, which actually border each other. The Bronx is where some of the murders happened, and Mt. Vernon is like between Yonkers and the Bronx, and Yonkers is where Berkovitz lived. During that time, when he was on the loose, we were very much aware. There was a lot of fear and suspicion in the neighborhood. My writing partner knew someone in his neighborhood where that actually happened, where people started suspecting some guy for being the killer for some arbitrary reason. That happened to a cousin of mine as well, and he was beaten almost to death by people he grew up with. When I saw his early draft of the story, I had a lot of other ideas about what we could do with the script and we started collaborating.
What’s your favorite pizza place in NYC? This restaurant Cinque on Greenwich street in Tribeca. They make a pizza with Gorgonzola cheese and pears with white truffle oil.
Sounds good. Onto another New York topic. Are you a baseball fan? Yeah. Yankees.
What do you think about their starting rotation this year? So far, not bad. Pleasantly surprised. Nova’s going to turn out to be somebody special, I have a feeling.
Phil Hughes’ velocity is way down this year (he’s currently on the DL for a “dead arm”). Yeah, but that’ll change, I can feel it. He’s got a lot of talent, that guy.
Do you have a favorite ballplayer of all time? I like Mariano.
I got him on my fantasy team. I think he’s incredible. His consistency is just…he’s inhuman.
What is he, like 40? Yeah.
Do you have a favorite episode of The Sopranos? There’s one called “White Caps,” which is when Tony and Carmella are kind of breaking up and they’re buying this house. I thought it was an incredibly written and acted episode.
Who wrote that episode? I think it might have been David Chase or Terry Winters.
Matthew Wiener was a writer on the show for a bit, no? Yeah, for the last couple of years.
Did he do the episode where you and Pauly get lost in the woods? No, that was Terry Winters.
Did you ever jam with Steve Van Zandt? No. I only jam with the 2 musicians that I play with.
Do you have a favorite show on television currently? I watch a lot of reruns like Seinfeld and Simpsons actually.
Me too. Do you shoot Detroit 187 in Detroit? Yeah.
What’s it like? The city has a lot of problems, and is going through a lot of difficulties, but I think it’s on an upswing. You see a lot of abandoned buildings and a lot of poverty. It’s a very good metaphor for America, because the city was once very prosperous, and you see where it’s gone.
Did you hear about the movement to erect a statue of Robocop in Detroit? No I haven’t. It doesn’t sound like a very pressing issue.
Who do you think is going to be president of the United States in 2 years time? Barack Obama, probably.
What do you think about Sarah Palin’s chances? I don’t think she has a chance. People are wise enough to know that she’s not the right person for that job.