PRODUCING, DIRECTING AND WRITING WITH NICK STAGLIANO

Producer, writer and director Nick Stagliano told Giles Alderson and Dom Lenoir that “when you finally get a chance to direct a motion picture, you’re supposed to be at the best you’ve ever been, or you might not get a chance to do it again.” 

He went on to say that in most industries, you become an apprentice, but in the film industry if you’ve not been to film school, you need podcasts (like The Filmmakers Podcast), learning on set, or making shorts to learn the ropes of the business.

Making The Virtuoso

Nick said “two of my previous movies were plays. The third one, the predecessor to The Virtuoso (Good Day For It) was written like a play. And this was a continuation of Good Day for It.”

His film are always character driven. “Character drives the plot and drives the action in my movies. We have some action, we have some body count, but it’s the characters.”

“When I came up with the idea to extend Good Day For It, I contacted James Wolf who had written that movie with me, and I said, let’s go again. I love that concept. I love ticking clock thrillers. The way they’re set up in the first act, it’s pretty simple. And so we started there.

I said, what happens if the guy that walks into the diner in Good Day For It, who had to leave town because he was a villain but actually he was a good guy that did one bad thing and left to protect his family. What happens if that guy’s really a bad guy? And he walks in and he thinks he’s going into one simple thing. And all of a sudden it’s a whole different adventure. And that was the genesis.”

Nick had always wanted to make a noir. “I just wish more people understood that at the beginning it is clearly a slow-burn throwback to a vintage forties noir.”

They mapped out the characters – the virtuoso (anti-hero), the femme fatale and the mentor. “A mentor is pretty good because you need the master and you need the apprentice. And that’s the way I saw that relationship.”

James then created “a classic three act structure, 100 page script” and Nick polished it.

“I brought on Fred Fuchs, my executive producer. Fred and Francis (Ford Coppola) produced my first movie The Florentine. I hadn’t talked to Fred in years, but I sent him the script and he just loved it and wanted to come on board.”

But Fred suggested that something was missing from the first act, something that would separate it from a standard assassin movie. “He said, I think the mentor and the virtuoso need to have a scene together.” This prompted Nick to write in the cemetery scene, to be played by “one of those old legends”.

Using Tone in Filmmaking

Frank Prinzi shot the film. “He went to film school with me. He was a couple years older than me, so I actually worked for him on the electric department, coming up the ranks. He was shooting a lot of high-end television; and I told him that this wasn’t going to be it, so he had to get the right guys.”

Nick says the key to working with other artists is: “I knew what the look was in my mind, but it was his job to make sure it gets translated to the screen with the technology and the budget that we had.”

Frank wanted to depict the virtuoso as someone who is haunted, full of remorse and regret. With that in mind, they focussed on using blue tones – a coldness for him and his mentor. 

“And then when he enters the diner and he meets the waitress, who we’re hoping is the one ray of sunshine, the tone starts to turn amber, but it’s still at shadows. We created those pools of light so that there was still something sinister about it.”

They used some classics for inspiration, the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple and No Country for Old Men, and David Fincher’s Se7en. “Tony Hopkins and I talked about The Third Man and more modern stuff – The Long Good Friday and Layer Cake – kind of raw but stylised. It was kind of a performance, a staged version, but exactly what we were trying to get.”

Attaching Anthony Hopkins

Nick said that the tricks is “to believe that your material is the greatest on earth. If you don’t believe it, no one else will believe it.”

He had known Anson Mount for over 10 years and had attached him to the film, just before he signed with UTA. Nick arranged to meet with a guy at UTA’s New York offices “because I wanted him to know that this wasn’t just another script that may or may not happen.

I want him to know that when I say I’m going to shoot a movie, I’d shoot a movie. I had some money. I had Anson Mount and Abbie Cornish – two of the leads from UTA, and I said I needed the mentor. I’m looking at your list of guys over seventies. It was small, but impressive.”

Nick then asked UTA to find out who was available and interested in working on the film. At this point, he found out that for the right project, if he liked the material, if it gets finished and if it’s not a big time commitment, Anthony Hopkins is interested in looking at stuff and it was suggested that Nick make an offer. He did it without telling his team.

“A month and a half later, Fred Fuchs gives me a call and says I just got a call from Anthony Hopkins’ agent. And he likes the script. But he has three conditions: He wants more money. His schedule – he was shooting Westworld, Thor 4 and he was about to go to London to do Two Popes. And he doesn’t fly commercial.”

Working with Actors

Nick learned a lot from watching other directors. “Motion picture directing, to me, less is more. You don’t have to be the guy yelling and showing everybody else that you know everything.”

He hadn’t directed in ten years, but day one scene one, he directed Anthony Hopkins on a nine page monologue. “There’s a scene in The Florentine – Hal Holbrook had a four page monologue. And all I did was dolly it from a wide shot to an extreme close up.”

Because this scene was longer, Nick decided that he couldn’t use the same technique. “To me, it’s the simplicity of that kind of coverage. Just let the actor tell the story. If he doesn’t need any help, I don’t need to do any tricks, any gimmicks or anything.”

He focused the second part entirely on the actors, a scene that was crucial to the plot.

“When (Anthony Hopkins) gets close to Anson it’s the most important part of the movie. When he looks at his eyes and he says ‘Next time, answer your phone’, it’s not just a throw away line. If you would’ve answered your phone, I wouldn’t have had to come here and look this close into your eyes to know that you’re broken. And I just said, Tony, remember what’s going on here. You’re about to set the rest of the plot in motion. That was the amount of direction I gave.”

You can listen to the podcast with Nick, here.

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