It seems like every other week a friend, or Facebook associate, is either promoting their own fundraising campaign, or plugging one for a friend. I have to be honest, I’m probably not the go to guy when it comes to writing about successful crowdfunding campaigns. I initiated a campaign for my feature doc Warriors of the Discotheque that raised about $600.00 or so. A far cry from the cost for the feature. (I wrote an article for Film Courage here and here) I actually got the money from a script I wrote years ago that got put in dreaded turnaround. And myself and the WGA had to go after the company for rest of the money they owed me. Despite the fact I haven’t demonstrated the ability to raise money online via crowdfunding. I do believe this is a unique situation in that I’m looking to take a pretty successful short film and enhance and build upon that foundation to create the full, feature length version. We’re trying to raise money to hire a camera crew and shoot “the rest of the story in Las Vegas.” Now, I’ve heard it said that crowdfunding for Indie films should be thought of as sort of a down payment on your copy of the film after it’s finished. We’re going one better, you actually get a copy of the short film if you contribute. Also there’s a newer version I’m offering with the incentives along w/ the original DVD which makes this a special 2 disc package that includes bonus disc of the new version w new footage, and never before seen interviews, etc. But first, let me tell you where it all came from….
My film, Back Home Years Ago: The Real Casino, aired on WTTW, Channel 11, Chicago’s PBS affiliate back in 2000. It started as a commissioned segment for John Pierson’s show Split Screen on the Independent Film Channel and aired on the 18th episode of the second season, the same season The Blair Witch Project first saw the light of day. Pierson,(the author of Spike, Mike, Slackers, and Dykes – the bible for aspiring Indie filmmakers) was a very well known Producer’s Rep who sold the first films of Spike Lee, Michael Moore, Kevin Smith, Richard Linklater as well as working with filmmakers like Errol Morris, Terry Zwigoff, Rose Troche, Nick Gomez, and Rob Weiss (part of the creative team behind Entourage.)
As you’d guess from the title my film is about the real people who formed the basis for the Scorsese mob epic, who were originally from Chicago, as well as Milwaukee. I spent a significant amount of time in both cities, Milwaukee because I attended Marquette University, and Chicago is where I lived after I graduated. I worked in the restaurant business in both towns and gravitated to Italian eateries because my maternal grandfather was from Napoli. I should state very clearly and up front my Grandfather hated the whole ‘La Cosa Nostra’ or ‘Black Hand’ association as he felt it insulted and sullied the reputation of honest, hard working Italian- Americans like himself. Being a naive youngster, I thought the whole thing was kinda cool.
I first heard of Frank ‘Lefty’ Rosenthal (Robert DeNiro in the film) when I was working at a Chicago style pizzeria. He was never referred to by name, but was simply called ‘the guy’. ‘The guy’ is coming out with his bowl picks. ‘The guy’ knows if the quarterback is on coke, he knows about crooked zebras, doped up horses, the way the ball bounces on a certain court. Flash forward ten years and I heard these almost exact same lines coming out of Joe Pesci’s mouth in the film Casino, when I first saw the film in a suburban Chicago theater. Pesci’s character, Nicky Santoro, was based on a man named Tony Spilotro, who was from Chicago, and who I would learn later I had an indirect connection to.
GoodFellas was one of the reasons I wanted to become a filmmaker as I was electrified by it’s reality. These were the kind of people I really knew from the restaurant business and was blown away by the veracity of it, as well as the South Ozone Park, Queens, Brooklyn, and Long Island locales. I’m from New York originally, and have met Henry Hill, the man the film was based on, many times. When I read Casino I was surprised by the fact that I actually knew, or knew of, many of the real people who formed the basis for the picture. It didn’t register when I saw the Scorsese film because all the names had been changed due to legal constraints, but I remembered the way Pesci described ‘Ace’ (Rosenthal) in the film.
In my treatment sent to Mr. Pierson, I explained who the real people were and their characters in the film. I was able to interview a man, who we’ll call Mr. B., whose brother was the basis for the composite character Remo Gaggi, the mob’s top boss in the film, and who in reality, along with his brother, were Sam Giancana’s right hand men. They were the muscle. Mr. B. also got ‘Lefty’ (DeNiro) his job at the Stardust casino (Tangiers in the film.) Also, I was able interview a good friend, whose restaurant I made a commercial for, Mike G., and whose first cousin was part of Tony Spilotro’s (Pesci) crew and who grew up in the same neighborhood as ‘Lefty’ and Tony. The Grand and Ogden neighborhood in Chicago’s northwest side. Also, I spoke with a good friend whose family was close with the Spilotro family and close to Alan Dorfman (Alan King). I tried to get some friends in Milwaukee to talk as well. The top boss in that town was a man named Frank Balistrieri who also served as the basis for the composite Remo Gaggi character. The actor who played Remo (Pasquale Cajano) actually looked almost exactly Balistrieri. I had worked in several places that were ghost owned by ‘Uncle Frank’ and was at Marquette University as the real trials going on in Kansas City, and knew several of his relatives.
After a bit of haggling over the budget, Mr. Pierson agreed to finance a short seven minute segment for his IFC show, Split Screen. We left for Chicago and I brought down three other guys: A camera man, a sound guy, and a friend who served as a P.A. These guys were pretty white bread and wouldn’t know the difference between a ‘made’ guy or a cable guy, and they would be a good barometer for what the normal audience reaction would be. On the first night, we shot an interview with my friend Mike G. who regaled us with several mob stories about Tony Spilotro and some of the big bosses like Jackie Cerone, whom he didn’t care for much. One particularly harrowing story was about Mike’s cousin Leo who was part of Tony’s crew and got into an argument with his brother in their father’s bar, he went out to his car, got a gun, and shot his own brother. The bullet severed his spine and after living in a wheel chair for several years he finally died. Leo didn’t spend a day in jail as his father was heavily connected, but when the stuff hit the fan, as documented at the end of Casino, Leo did fifteen years for Spilotro, otherwise he’d have wound up in a car trunk. After the interview I’d asked the boys what they thought and they were definitely blown away. I knew I was on to something. We went on to the hotel where Allan Dorfman (Alan King) was gunned down and continued interviewing these friends of mine who had grown up around the film’s major players. We finally got to Mr. B.
Before the interview he said, “Now Joe, I want you to understand I always tried to save guys from their own stupidity. But, if a guy was stupid I had to get rid of ’em. Capishe!” Given the fact that I had known Mr. B.’s daughter for a number of years it wasn’t until much later that I realized this little comment was for my benefit. I must also say that Mr. B’s brother was one of the most feared guys in Chicago mob history, as he was Sam Giancana’s personal henchman. As a matter of fact, it’s rumored that Giancana would never have been killed in 1975 if Mr. B’s brother were still alive (he died in 1973 of cancer) as the fear of his wrath was that great. Between the two brothers, they probably accounted for personally putting away more than 50 guys. That’s a lot bodies in car trunks.
On the way home we stopped in Milwaukee to shoot some footage of the east side, the Italian- American community where I worked while in school, and expound on the Milwaukee connection to the film. Alan Glick (Kevin Pollack) first approached Balistrieri for a loan from the central states teamsters pension fund in order to buy both the Fremont and Stardust casinos. Balistrieri, as well as the bosses in Chicago, Kansas City, and Cleveland really controlled the teamsters and they all conspired to skim the casino’s dry. Balistieri also had a funny connection to the film Donnie Brasco. The real FBI agent Donnie Brasco was a guy named Joe Pistone and he had infiltrated the New York mob and tried to do the same to the Milwaukee boss. He tried to convince him to go in on their night club operation in Florida, but somehow the beer city don found out that he was working for the ‘Gee’ and just pulled out of the deal. In essence the Milwaukee mob was even smarter than the New York mob. Go figure. Anyway, it was time to edit and as you could probably imagine this piece might be a little longer than the five or so minutes that was initially suggested.
In addition to the 7 minute Split Screen version, I went on to edit a full version of my segment which came in at just shy of thirty minutes and screened at New York City’s Anthology Film Archives in June of 1999, and a twenty five minute version of the film which will air on the aforementioned Chicago PBS affiliate, WTTW, in 2000. (And is on the current DVD, along with deleted scenes, the making of featurette, and the IFC and TF 1 versions.) The film also played in a plethora of festivals from New York to Santa Monica, (actually the film screened in LA at different three fests.) It was also included and licensed by French conglomerate TF 1 who co-financed Casino for a special edition 3 disc DVD release in 2003. It was also licensed again in France on cable channel Shorts TV France as well as Moviola in Canada and Air Canada airlines as well as Universal Cable Spain. Despite this exposure the film still has not screened in Las Vegas, but that’s about to change! I was thrilled with the success of the short film, but always felt it was somewhat incomplete. The focus of the film was always the “back home” part, but Las Vegas itself was sadly not as prominent as I’d like. That is until now!
We hope to generate some revenue for additional shooting of interviews of people close to or knowledgeable about the Casino story. We feel we’re exploring an important part of the history of Las Vegas as well as impact the “Mob” has had on the image of Italian- Americans. In addition, we’re proud to say we’re in talks to bring The Real Casino to the brand new Las Vegas Mob Experience at the Tropicana Casino. As well as getting ready to initiate a new crowd funding campaign to shoot more footage in Las Vegas and explore the real characters Geri McGee, Lenny Marmour, and Frank Cullotta (played by Sharon Stone, James Woods, and Frank Vincent respectively.) And to interview several family members of Tony Spilotro (Joe Pesci) and Tony and Lefty’s attorney and former Mayor of Las Vegas Oscar Goodman. This would bring the project full circle and to a complete feature length documentary.
Of course, this is not as easy as it sounds. In many cases it seems that a successful crowdfunding campaign is contingent upon how the film would appeal to a young web savvy crowd. For instance, a film like Four Eyed Monsters with it’s various innovations in using the web to harness it’s audience strikes me as the perfect example of a crowd funding type film. (It should be noted that the film was sold and completed well before Indiegogo and Kickstarter became de riguer.) While The Real Casino wouldn’t jump out as that type of film, it seems a bit more old school, I maintain that if a film has some sort of appeal or niche then it’s a matter making the best possible presentation for that ideal audience. I think the simple fact of the matter is if you believe in your project you have to go to any length to find your audience. Help me find mine. Also if you are interested in the story of the making of The Real Casino you can read a more detailed version of the story here.
In addition to his Independent film work, he has worked on larger budgeted films like the BMW Film series, The Hire, specifically, “Ticker”, which was directed by Joe Carnahan and starred Don Cheadle, Ray Liotta, and Clive Owen. Also, Alexandre was commissioned by Film Engine (“Butterfly Effect” and “Lucky Number Slevin”) to write a script for Carnahan to direct that is now in turnaround.
Joseph F. Alexandre (WGAw) is repped by Michael Lewis & Associates and is a member of the WGA west.
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