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Hard Luck Story: Joe Maggio on The Last Rites of Joe May

Silver fox Dennis Farina stars as a short-money con artist in this Chicago story of redemption, a throwback to tough-guy films of the 70s. See it this week.

Note: This interview originally ran as part of our TFF 2011 Faces of the Festival series.


The Last Rites of Joe May is now available on demand across the country via Tribeca Film VOD. The film will also open November 25 at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago. Find the platform that's right for you.



Tribeca: Tell us a little about The Last Rites of Joe May.

Joe Maggio: The Last Rites of Joe May is a film that harkens back, it’s an homage to the tough-guy films of the early 70s—films like The Friends of Eddie Coyle, The French Connection, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie… And even in naming the film The Last Rites of Joe May, I wanted it to have a ridiculously long title like those films. It’s also supposed to feel an opera, but one that’s told through the tropes of film. I sort of stumbled upon this by accident.I got really into opera when I was first imagining this story, but I also wanted to tell a very naturalistic film story. I didn’t want it to be stylized like an opera. As I started to combine those two elements, what I arrived at were those films from the early 70s—I realized, "Wow, those movies really were very operatic, with the outsized characters…"


Tribeca: What inspired you to write and tell this story?


Joe Maggio: The film chronicles the last days of what’s called a short money con artist [Dennis Farina]. A short money hustler is someone who has a supplier who acquires his goods through semi-illegal means—a box of Rolex knock-offs that fell off the back of a truck, that kind of thing. Joe's supplier gives him stuff to sell, and then Joe kicks back maybe fifty cents on the dollar. It’s a dying profession.


I've always been fascinated by that kind of hustler lifestyle. These guys worked very hard. They usually had higher aspirations, but there was little opportunity for them. Despite this, they always believed there was something bigger out there, that they were going to get their big break, and they believed this until the day they died. And when you're a guy like Joe May, no family, nothing to fall back on, that margin between life and death is very small. Joe’s getting older, getting towards the end of life. He suffers a couple of setbacks and suddenly the world becomes like the wild kingdom, and he’s gotta survive somehow.


In conceiving of the story, although he does not really resemble my maternal grandfather, there are elements of my grandfather in Joe May. My grandfather was a salesman, a real man about town. He would work all day selling whatever—wine, bath soap. I remember his hair was always combed, he was always wearing a great suit, he shaved, had a nice car. He would go out all hours of the night and wake up at 6, making breakfast. He was like Superman. But he was imperfect as well. That was kind of the inspiration.



Tribeca: Is your family from Chicago?


Joe Maggio: No, my family’s from Buffalo, New York, which is remarkably similar to Chicago in many ways. Street names are similar, people have the same accent. Same kind of mentality, same kind of neighborhood feel, very segregated, a tough working class town. But that is not why I set it in Chicago. I’d set it originally in Brooklyn.


Tribeca: The first few scenes, I thought we were in Red Hook.


Joe Maggio: Yeah, yeah. Well, when Dennis got involved, I mean, it’s gotta be—


Tribeca: That was one of my questions—which came first?


Joe Maggio: Dennis came first, then Chicago. Then a lot of things fell into place. One of my dreams has always been to do something with the Steppenwolf Theater Company, and its evolution. Dennis became really, really interested in wanting to do it, and I thought: This is an opportunity. Dennis is a Chicago guy, Chicago would be a great setting, and once there we could possibly entice Steppenwolf to come on board.


Tribeca: Did they?


Joe Maggio: Well, we discovered that there was a Steppenwolf FilmsTerry Kinney, Tim Evans, Gary Sinise—and they read the script and said, “Yeah, we’d love to be involved.” They’d already done one film. But the real motivation to set it in Chicago was Dennis. When I think of Dennis, I think of Chicago. I would never buy him as someone who grew up in Brooklyn. So if he was going to be Joe May, it had to be set in Chicago.


Tribeca: So they funded the film?


Joe Maggio: It was a co-production with You're Faded Films, which is Dennis’ development company. We were able to do the film on a low enough budget that Steppenwolf came in and investors came on… [we] cobbled it together that way.


Last Rites of Joe May


Tribeca: What's the craziest thing (or "lightning strikes" moment) that happened during production?


Joe Maggio: I wanted to shoot in December and everyone was saying it was impossible, you can’t shoot in Chicago in December. And I kept saying, no, it has to be in December. This is part of the story. I want there to be Christmas decorations, and I don’t want to pay for them. And I want it to be cold, and I want there to be snow and see the actors' breath, I want it to look dangerous for Joe, like he could die if he doesn't find somplace warm to sleep. Dennis thought I was nuts; he said, “You have no idea how cold it is in Chicago in December.” And I said, "I’m from Buffalo, I know what December is like." Finally I had to relent, and we set it for October.


But at the last minute, Dennis had a scheduling conflict—he was shooting a film in New Orleans, so we pushed into late November. So I was like, Woo-hoo! So we were shooting in December and there was snow. It didn’t look that cold; it was kinda sunny. And we were shooting in tiers, and our first day of exteriors, we were like, God, this could be springtime, I’m so disappointed. We couldn’t afford to do the snow machine thing, and anyway, that always looks ridiculous.


But the very next day, we woke up, and it was disgusting. It was snow and sleet and it was the Chicago that I wanted. And we were shooting in the same neighborhood we were the day before. And I told Carrie Holt, the line producer, I want to reshoot all those exteriors from yesterday. And she said, no, that’s impossible. Dennis, of course, was ready for anything. And in a few hours we rattled off everything, reshot everything. And from that day on, we had it all: if we needed it to be slightly melty, or we needed fresh snow, we got it. It was one of those things that felt like the stars were aligned on this movie. Things happened. Things just worked out.


Tribeca: What's your advice for aspiring filmmakers?  


Joe Maggio: My advice would be to always trust your instinct. I can count on all my fingers and toes really crucial moments when I let someone persuade me that an idea or story just wasn't worth pursuing. And then a few years later, someone else does it and it works, and it’s like, God, why didn’t I have faith in my instincts? And I think the reason is sometimes what your gut is telling you to do is difficult, or frightening. You want it to work out, you waste a year, and of course it doesn’t work out.


I’d say trust your gut, and if you’re passionate about something—whatever it is, shooting in a location, flying to Timbuktu to make a film—don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it, because you can. And you will probably regret not listening to your gut.


Last Rites of Joe May


Tribeca: What are your hopes for The Last Rites of Joe May at Tribeca?


Joe Maggio: I think it’s a real populist film, and my hope is that once audiences see it, they’re going to fall in love. My hopes are we pack the audiences and people start talking about the movie, and start talking about Dennis, and of course all the actors. But Dennis—he has such a defined character as an actor: when people think of him they think tough, smartass, heavy, but he’s so different in this movie, he goes places where no one would dream he'd ever go.


Tribeca: If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead), who would it be?


Joe Maggio: Krzysztof Kieslowski. I would have a dinner party with Kieslowski, John Cassavetes and Fellini.


Tribeca: What piece of art (book/film/music/tv show/what-have-you) are you currently recommending to your friends most often?


Joe Maggio: The movie Dogtooth, which I thought was extraordinary. It just blew me away. It’s beautiful to look at, though they didn’t spend millions. It’s so beautifully composed, [with] some of the best acting I’ve seen in a long time. It’s disturbing, but it’s funny.


I always say I’m not going to be rushed, I’m going to tell a very specific story of someone going from point A to point B. I’m not going to cut things out, and I’m not going to add montage, ‘cause I hate it. If something takes x amount of minutes, I’ll do it. And then you chicken out—someone always convinces you it’s not working. But you can tell they didn’t do that in Dogtooth. It is so specific from beginning to end, it’s so engaging. You’re so sucked it into this universe. It’s just beautiful.


Tribeca: What makes The Last Rites of Joe May a must-see?


Joe Maggio: I think Joe May is the kind of film you rarely see anymore. It’s got an incredibly simple but compelling story, fantastic acting, and it will leave you absolutely crushed, and you’ll be thinking about this movie for weeks.


The Last Rites of Joe May is now available on demand across the country via Tribeca Film VOD. The film will also open November 25 at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago. Find the platform that's right for you.


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