Sitting backstage at a recent screening of his film, “City Island,” waiting to go on for a Q&A session with the audience, writer-director Raymond De Felitta’s head snapped up at the sound of a gale of laughter from within the theater.
“Are you sure,” he asked hesitantly, “that they’re watching my film?”
But audiences respond to de Felitta’s work. He won the audience award for “City Island” at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival. Yet de Felitta claims he doesn’t aim for laughs when he writes.
“I’ve never made a film to provoke an audience,” the 45-year-old filmmaker says. “I didn’t expect this movie to do that. I’m struck by the visceral response. One of the odd things is that people talk back to the screen. I love it when the fourth wall breaks down like that.”
“City Island,” which stars Andy Garcia, Julianna Margulies and Emily Mortimer, centers on a Bronx family living on City Island, a former fishing village on Long Island Sound. Garcia plays a prison guard with two secrets: He is surreptitiously pursuing his dream of becoming an actor by taking classes in the city without telling his family – and he has found the now-grown son he never met because he abandoned the mother before the child was born.
The movie blends character comedy with what could be tragic situations. But De Felitta keeps his focus squarely on the shifting family dynamic, in a story that has farce trappings involving multiple secrets, all of which eventually come to light.
“Everyone has secrets, always,” he says. “That’s the sad truth of the perplexing journey of life. But if one of us starts to tell the truth, everyone is relieved. To me, it’s a very strange fact of our humanity. Why do you believe polls? People say what they assume everyone wants to hear. But go tell a secret and all of a sudden everyone wants to confess.”
The story had several germination points. One had to do with City Island itself, which De Felitta, a Bronx native, read about in a piece in the now-defunct Escapes section of the New York Times: “I was so fascinated with the idea of this fishing village in the Bronx,” he says. “I thought it was this brilliant thing that had never been shot. In fact, it had been – it’s been used for Connecticut in other movies, including ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night.’ But never as City Island. So it was this great opportunity to use this location. And I love writing about families in the outer boroughs.”
De Felitta also was drawing on some of his own family history: “I had a cousin who started as a corrections officer, who found a son he never admitted to within his family. You can make any kind of story out of that. The B story came from my interest in how do actors become actors. Well, they get on line and get picked. So the two were fused together and I wrote ‘City Island.’”
De Felitta, whose film, “Two Family House,” won an audience award at Sundance in 2000 and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, has made one feature (“The Thing About My Folks”) and a documentary between “Two Family House” and “City Island.” He’d like to work more often, but convincing film companies that his straightforward, emotionally open films will appeal to an audience is always a struggle – audience awards to the contrary.
“To me, they’re movies anybody could understand,” he says. “Mike Leigh’s movies are totally understandable, too – if you’re interested in them. But you’re in a business that rewards money-making. The stress of my existence in this business is that, on the one hand, I feel I’m able to accomplish things a lot of people can’t. I’ve made personal movies on my own terms.
“But I’m not part of the club because they don’t make a shitload of money. I’m 45 and the older I get, the more philosophical I become. I mean, the movies I’ve made are mostly the movies I wanted to. But you can’t make a living doing this. Fortunately I’m married and my wife works.”
A graduate of the American Film Institute, De Felitta has had his opportunity to direct studio films, though generally ones that were a rough fit with his sensibility.
“When I got out of the AFI, the movies I was initially offered were things like ‘Problem Child 2’ and Disney movies of the early ’90s, things like ‘Camp Nowhere’,” he says. “I could never see myself doing those because I wanted to write my own work. People were saying, Well, go make those and then you can do what you want.
“But I remember when Alan Parker spoke at AFI, and he said, ‘You’ll always be told to make money first, then make art. But don’t. Make art first, then get rich.’”
De Felitta has found distributors for all his films – an increasingly rare feat in the shrinking market for theatrically released independent films. Still, even when “City Island” won the audience award at Tribeca, distributors found reasons to say no to it.
“Nobody had a compelling reason to buy it – thankfully, Anchor Bay did,” he says. “That was the important thing. This is a weird time in the business. You can’t take it personally. I’ve got a high threshold for that sort of thing.
“I’m fortunate. I’ve sold every one of my movies at a festival. I’ve never had a huge sale. But even the doc I made, which was a pure labor of love, we showed it at Sundance and a guy said, I have to put this out, even if I lose money on it. So I’m still essentially an optimist and a utopian. The art of the thing never dies. People respond to movies emotionally. And that’s what I continue to offer.”