Method rage, true-life killers and a Rom-Com specialist . . . In the first of a series on modern classics, Total Film sits down with director Mike Newell to uncover the making of a Mob movie to die for.
Spring 1996, New York City. The sky is gunmetal grey and the air is heavy with the leaden taste of exhaust fumes. On the Queensborough Bridge, high above the swirling bilge of the East River, a Cadillac is being towed along, movie cameras bolted to its bonnet. Inside are two of Hollywood’s biggest players: Al Pacino playing Mafioso “Lefty” Ruggiero and rising star Johnny Depp as undercover FBI agent Donnie Brasco.
Ahead, in the production truck towing the Cadillac, British director Mike Newell sits hunched over a monitor. They’ve done a dozen takes of the scene already: Lefty, a veteran mobster, can’t believe that Donnie’s just frightened a debtor into giving him the keys to his Porsche 911. “Twenty-six fucking hits under my belt and it’s you he’s afraid of?” he bristles. The lightly ironic tone is a bitch to nail. They repeat the scene again . . . and again. The tension’s palpable.
“Did I do it yet?” Pacino finally growls into the microphone. Newell, a soft-spoken, 54-year-old Cambridge graduate, grabs his radio: “I’m sorry, Al. I don’t think so.” Pacino flies into a trademark Big Al rage: “Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you! I want you to know that this is my last movie! I’m retiring at the end of this one!” Newell sighs. Working at Granada Television was never like this . . .
December 2007, Hatfield, England. Ten years and three-and-a-half thousand miles from the shadow of the Queensborough Bridge, Newell still remembers that moment. Total Film is at the University of Hertfordshire, where the director is about to address an auditorium of students who’ve just been treated to a free screening of Donnie Brasco.
Friendly and vaguely donnish, Newell seems more like a middle-aged lecturer than a Hollywood filmmaker. The only clue that he’s not about to lead a seminar on TS Eliot’s poetry is the diamond-encrusted Cartier watch that occasionally slides out from under his shirt cuff. It’s an elegant reminder that this unassuming English gent and former TV director is also a box-office doughmaker: Four Weddings and a Funeral, Mona Lisa Smile and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
Before the screening ends, Total Film is ushered into a room next to the auditorium. With its single mirrored window it could double as an FBI interrogation cell, a suitable setting for our chat. “I think they’re watching us,” Newell whispers as we shake hands. He’s in a chipper mood, especially since Donnie Brasco remains a personal favorite. “I watched it again this afternoon. First time in years . . . It still stands up pretty well. I’ve always been proud of it. It’s one of my favorites because there’s a tremendous human story underneath all the genre stuff.”
Donnie Brasco is based on the memoirs of Joe Pistone, an FBI undercover agent who went after the notorious Bonanno Family in the late 1970s. A hard-bitten Sicilian-American who claimed he never sweated when under pressure, Pistone’s infiltration led to over 100 arrests. He was a hero to the FBI; but a dirty rat to his betrayed Mafia associates, who offered $500,000 to anyone who’d send him to sleep with the fishes.
Pistone’s frank memoir Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia is the kind of book studios pay top dollar for: gritty, dramatic and unarguably real. Pacino was attached early on with Tom Cruise a shoe-in for the Pistone/Brasco role and British director Stephen Frears (Dirty Pretty Things) in pole position for the director’s chair. Then Martin Scorsese went into production on GoodFellas and Brasco was suddenly nixed, the studio understandably concerned about going head to head with the man behind Mean Streets.
Six years later, on the back of Four Weddings and a Funeral’s runaway success, Brit helmer Newell rescued it from development hell. “I joked that these British directors didn’t know enough to be afraid of Martin Scorsese,” producer Mark Johnson said at the time.
If GoodFellas is the gangster film of the 1990s, what does that make Donnie Brasco? Depp knows the answer: “It was a motherfucker of a movie.” He had good reason to see it that way, too, exhausting himself trying to emulate Pistone’s mannerisms and tough guy walk. “I put great pressure on myself to make it fucking right for the guy,” said Depp. “He lived it. I was just pretending.” Pistone was impressed: “He was so like me, it was eerie.”
Brasco was a breakout role for the young actor. He plays Donnie with his eyes (forever shifty, nervous, guilty), teasing out themes of friendship and betrayal. At its heart, the film’s an intimate tragedy about the love between two men: hunter and prey. No sprawling epic, it turns down the volume on Coppola’s operatic thunder in The Godfather and tones down the s(l)ick violence of Scorsese’s GoodFellas.
Unusually, it’s a mob movie that’s about a low-flier not a high roller. Lefty’s the guy you wouldn’t want betting on your team. He’s had “cancer of the prick,” his kid’s a junkie, he’s old school but forever little league. Still, he’s willing to go out on a limb for Donnie, the surrogate son he greases into the Brooklyn crew run by Sonny (Michael Madsen), little realizing he’s an undercover Fed. It gives Lefty’s ultimate betrayal by Donnie a heart-squeezing pathos. “If you’re a rat,” he tells Donnie, “I’m the biggest mutt in the history of the mafia.” It’s one of Pacino’s great roles: understated, underplayed and unforgettably tragic.
For Newell, the combination of Pacino and Depp was too good to be true. “It’s a wonderful double act,” he says, having apparently forgiven the two actors for testing his patience with puerile jokes. Depp was the worst. “I carry round this little fart machine,” the star told a reporter who visited the set back in 1996. “I love it. It’s so blatantly anti-social. Newell was really sick of it.” Pacino, on the other hand, had a ball. “I’ve never laughed as hard,” he said later. “The lighter I am about things when I’m going to do a big scene that’s dramatic and takes a lot out of you, the better off I am when I come to it.”
Newell had more to worry about than flatulence, though. “I desperately didn’t want to have to tell Pacino to tone it down,” he admits. “Al was at a stage in his acting career then where his performances were very large in scale. The acting was BIG! Big voice, big gesture, big everything . . . This needed to be very small. Fortunately, Al was amused that he’d gone from playing Michael Corleone to being this little failure. He was very aware of the irony of that.”
January 1996, New York. “Ya fucking English fag!” The thick Brooklyn accent spitting out these words could be straight out of The Sopranos. Naturally, it belongs to a wise guy; but not just someone connected—a made guy, in fact. And he’s directing his anger straight at Newell. The director’s hanging out in a Mafia social club, a disused nail parlor that’s complete with a bar and an enormous jukebox filled with nothing but Frank Sinatra records. He’s supping with the Cosa Nostra to get a taste of the real deal (no “fugazi” for this helmer) and right from the off, things have turned ugly.
“I’d gotten an introduction to this Brooklyn crew,” recalls Newell. “They were obviously very, very suspicious of me to start with but one of them decided to strike up a conversation to test me out. This was around the same time that Hugh Grant got into a little bit of trouble on the Sunset Strip. So this guy sidles up to me and says [Newell adopts a Mafia accent as heavy as a concrete overcoat]: ‘Dat Hugh Grant . . .’ That was it. Major uncomfortable silence. So, I just said, ‘Yeah.’ Again, he repeats the same single line: ‘Dat Hugh Grant . . .’ The guy obviously wanted a reaction. ‘You know what,’ I said to him, ‘If I had been directing him, the blow-job would have gone a lot smoother.’ That got a big laugh from the room. After that I was OK.”
Well, OK with most of the crew, but the same guy who had challenged him didn’t want to let it go: “Ya fucking English fag!” Looking back, Newell can laugh about it now. “That same guy was ribbing me all night long. He took a real dislike to me. I kept my mouth shut and kept smiling it off. But when we left, I mentioned it to one of the other guys. He was really angry: ‘What did he say? Tell me what he said to you!’ I realized then that none of the crew liked this guy and they’d fix him given an excuse. These are guys who’ll kill someone for $20 if the person’s not liked. If I’d complained, he’d probably have been whacked.” Newell, English to the last, didn’t push the point. “I don’t know if that guy’s still alive,” he muses. “Somehow, I rather doubt it.”
Chewing the fat with real-life gangsters gave Donnie Brasco an authentic feel that other mob movies couldn’t touch. Mirroring the nature documentaries that Lefty loves to watch, Newell’s movie has a taste for the finer anthropological details that make this underworld so unique: from the unforgettable ‘forget-about-it’ diction heads-up to the definition of a fugazi (fake diamonds) to an etiquette lesion in how a wise guy carries his cash (ditch the wallet for a roll, big bills on top).
The refreshing depth and intelligence helped win the film a host of plaudits when it was released in 1997 (“A very involving and dramatic piece of crime lore,” claimed Variety). What really sealed the deal was the casting of the two leads: “Pacino and Depp are a match made in acting heaven, riffing off each other with astonishing subtlety and wit,” wrote Peter Travers in Rolling Stone magazine. Oscars should have followed the tributes but didn’t. The most Donnie Brasco could manage was a single nod from the Academy for Best Screenplay, who were too busy lavishing gongs on Titanic, As Good as it Gets and Good Will Hunting.
Just over 10 years on, though, Donnie Brasco retains its power as a gangster movie with a heart, soul and—in a genre overrun with lazy caricatures—character. Its story may not go in all guns blazing, but it has the authority of great tragedy, a quietly affecting human drama about honor among thieves and one crook’s betrayal by a good man. Does it deserve classic status? Forget-about-it!
Becoming mates with the Mob . . .
So you’re a British director making a movie about Italian-American gangsters. Where do you start? Try the location assistant . . . “I’d been looking for real mobsters for weeks,” remembers Newell. “Finally, someone pointed out this location assistant and said: ‘See him? He’s not a made guy but he’s connected.’” The man’s name was Rocco ‘The Butcher’ Musacchia (“He said he’d trained as a butcher . . .”) and he became Donnie Brasco’s unofficial technical advisor.
“He was about 50 years old,” recalls the director. “He had a very expensive silver haircut, wore powder-blue jumpsuits and used to sing Frank Sinatra songs like ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ under his breath.” It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Musacchia met Newell every weekend and took him out for dinner. “He drove a top of the line Cadillac, wore handmade crocodile shoes and $2,000 silk suits. We ate endlessly in empty mob restaurants in Brooklyn. Always empty because we were there too early to see any action. What he was doing was exactly what happens to Donnie in the movie. He was showing me around so the barmen would get to know me and nobody would go, ‘Who’s he?’”
Eventually, Newell got his introduction to a real Brooklyn crew. “They were a lot of fun. They have no formal education at all but they have an incredible street cunning. So they can sort of judge you at a distance; they have your number down in a nanosecond.” Impressed, Newell set up some meetings for Johnny Depp, but the mobsters were only really interested in Pacino. “Of course, they all wanted to meet Michael Corleone! One of them said to me, ‘You know, we like to think that we’re Michael; the cold, long-sighted, far-thinking Mafia general. But we’re not. Who we really are is that instinctive, stupid fuck Sonny!’”