A chat with Michael Imperioli, Michael Imperioli interview, The Hungry Ghosts, The Sopranos
Michael Imperioli

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As we observed in the intro to our interview with Jamie-Lynn Sigler, there are a lot worse credits to hang your career on that having been a regular cast member of “The Sopranos,” but Michael Imperioli’s done an outstanding job of picking top-notch post-“Sopranos” projects that he’s finding himself remembered for. Okay, sure, so they haven’t necessarily been massive ratings successes – “Life on Mars” got the axe after a single season, and while “Detroit 1-8-7” is still alive as of this writing, it’s generally considered by TV industry insiders to be a goner – but the people who love them really, really love them.

Fortunately, if “Detroit” should go dark (though please still keep your fingers crossed that it doesn’t), Imperioli also has a few other industry options: he’s a well-established writer, having penned several “Sopranos” episodes as well as Spike Lee’s “Summer of Sam.” Recently, however, Imperioli added the title of “writer/director” to his resume with the film “The Hungry Ghosts,” which can now be seen on Hulu.com.

Bullz-Eye got the chance to chat with Imperioli in conjunction with the film’s online debut and got a great deal of insight into how the project came together and what it meant to him, but rest assured that we also discussed his television work in some detail as well, including the differences between his characters on “Mars” and “Detroit,” the finales of “Mars” and “The Sopranos,” and whether he thinks Christopher was actually a rat…not that it really matters now, right? (Actually, given his tone during the answer, it apparently still matters very much.).

Bullz-Eye: You’d done some screenwriting before “The Hungry Ghosts,” but this was your first time actually helming a film. What led to you finally making your directorial debut?

"I knew from the type of movie ('The Hungry Ghosts') was that getting a very wide release was very, very unlikely. It’s just the nature of the subject matter, and stuff like that. Yeah, I would’ve loved for it to go worldwide in every movie theater…but I’m pretty realistic about those things. It’s a very little movie. It’s a small movie, and it feels very specific, with themes that are, uh, not known to be popular in the mainstream, so the fact that we got it released at all was a good thing."

Michael Imperioli: Well, it was really that story, you know? When I started writing that script, once I got into it, it felt like something that I really wanted to direct, to have the control to cast who I wanted to and work with the people I wanted to. The script started… (Hesitates) Actually, some of the character of Frank’s story was from an older script from about ten years ago – maybe more – that was never finished. The first scene in the movie, in the club, and the scene with him on the radio, they were from an old script, with different characters except for him. But I liked that character, so I kept that and started this other story, and…I just wanted to tell the story.

BE: Was it a tough decision deciding to bring a couple of “Sopranos” actors (Steve Schirripa, Sharon Angela, John Ventimiglia) into the cast? Not that you didn’t have easy access to them, but did you have any hesitation about diving into that particular talent pool?

MI: No. Well, that part was written for Steve. And Sharon’s role was written for Sharon. John Ventimiglia’s part was not necessarily written for him, but…Sharon and John Ventimiglia, I started out in acting school with them when I was 19 years old, so I’ve known them since way before “The Sopranos,” and I’d done a lot of projects with them, both on the stage and in independent film, before “The Sopranos.” So it was just kind of logical that they would be in the first movie that I directed. But I didn’t have any problems casting them.

BE: I feel like Steve Schirripa is a particularly underrated actor. He’s really done some nice work on, of all things, “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.”

MI: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I know him really well, he’s one of my closest friends, and I just had a gut feeling that he, y’know, would be able to shine in a role like that. So I was really happy that he did just that.

BE: Was there any temptation for you to also take a role in “The Hungry Ghosts,” even a small one?

MI: No. None. I had enough to do. (Laughs)

BE: As the director, did you give the cast a certain amount of leeway to improv, or, as the writer, did you prefer for them to stick as closely to the script as possible?

Michael ImperioliMI: I’m open to it if they feel the need to. There wasn’t really a lot of it. There wasn’t much of it at all, really. I never said you couldn’t or anything, but I think they just felt secure enough with the words that… (Hesitates) You know, I mean, if your script is good enough, you don’t really need to improv. I find improvisation works a little bit more when a script is a little looser and when there are scenes that are not really…like, when I worked with Martin Scorsese, I remember the scenes that I did there were not scripted out. The scenarios were just really there. So he expects improvisation. And Spike Lee, he’s a director where his scenes are sometimes a little bit sketchier, and he encourages his actors to improv. You know, if you’re deliberately trying to write something, really trying to work out the dialogue, then you don’t often have to do that. Or at least not as much.

BE: You took “The Hungry Ghosts” on the film festival circuit, but did you have hopes of getting wider exposure, perhaps a full-fledged theatrical release?

MI: Well, I mean, I knew from the type of movie it was that getting a very wide release was very, very unlikely. It’s just the nature of the subject matter, and stuff like that. Yeah, I would’ve loved for it to go worldwide in every movie theater… (Laughs) …but I’m pretty realistic about those things. It’s a very little movie. It’s a small movie, and it feels very specific, with themes that are, uh, not known to be popular in the mainstream, so the fact that we got it released at all was a good thing.

BE: When you were deciding on the soundtrack for the film, did you find it difficult to pick songs to fit scenes without having their lyrics feel too on-the-nose?

MI: Well, there’s the original songs that Elijah Amitin wrote, and…I kind of gave him a feel of what I wanted, and he went off and wrote some songs based on the footage that I was showing him. I think he just gets it enough to know that you have to walk kind of a fine line, and I was just really pleased with what he brought. The other songs that we bought…well, they got lent to us…was already-recorded material that I chose that I just thought fit.

BE: As far as the rest of the cast, talking about underrated actors, Aunjanue Ellis is also someone who’s in that category, and she’s particularly strong in “The Hungry Ghosts.” How long have you known her?

"The good thing (about 'Life on Mars') was it that they really got to end the show, ‘cause they knew it was getting canceled, so they were able to write a real proper final episode. But with 'Detroit 1-8-7,' our future’s more uncertain."

MI: Oh, I’ve known her for quite awhile. We have the same manager, so I’ve known her for at least a dozen years, and I’ve always really liked her work a lot. We were in the same movie way back, one called “Girls Town,” an independent movie that a friend of mine, Jim McKay, directed. That part (in “The Hungry Ghosts”) was written for her. Actually, besides those two scenes I told you about that were leftovers from another script, the germ of “The Hungry Ghosts” was Steve and Aunjanue on the train, and that was kind of like… for some reason, that image was in my mind. And I didn’t know why they were on the train or where they were going or what their relationship was, but somehow I felt there was something there. My challenge was to figure out how they got there, and then what happens after that.

BE: Did you gain any new respect for directors by being on the other side of the camera? Or was that respect already there from having directed in other mediums?

MI: Yeah, I mean, I’ve directed a lot of plays, and I directed some commercials, so it wasn’t a totally foreign shift for me, really. So, no, not necessarily. You know, it’s a very hard thing to do. My goal was to be really patient, because I hate when directors are impatient, to be honest. I really don’t like it. And I don’t like when they yell and lose their temper and stuff like that. I find it to be really disruptive and unproductive. And I felt really good that I was able to not do that.

BE: The last time you and I crossed paths was at the New York Comic-Con…

MI: Yeah! For “Life on Mars.”

BE: Which was hanging by a thread at the time, one which ABC cut only a few days later. And now we’re talking, and “Detroit 1-8-7” is in much the same position. Is it still technically alive as of this conversation, as far as you know?

MI: I think they have to make their decision by the beginning of May.

BE: I know you did an interview a few months ago where you did not sound entirely optimistic about a second season. Are you still keeping your fingers crossed just in case?

MI: Well, it’s just because the ratings were very, very low, and there was not a lot of… (Hesitates) I mean, absolutely, they’re crossed. But I just wish they’d make their decision. I mean, if the ratings were higher, I’m sure we’d get a pickup, but if the ratings are low… (Offers a hollow laugh) …your chances are not so good.

BE: Have you enjoyed the experience thus far?

MI: Yeah, I enjoyed the show a lot. I liked playing the character, and…yeah, it was a lot of fun.

BE: I’m sure you guys didn’t panic, per se, but when you found out about the change in policy in Detroit, was there some twitching going on when it was realized that it would affect the original conception of “Detroit 1-8-7”?

(Writer’s note: The actual Detroit Police Department suspended documentary camera crew ridealongs after a shooting during the filming of an episode of A&E’s “The First 48”)

MI: I don’t think that’s why they changed the show, to be honest. That was just kind of coincidental, because there was already a lot of talk about changing the concept, more from a creative point of view. They were kind of worrying what kind of limitations it was going to put on storytelling. Once they finished the pilot, I think they were really happy with what they got and the characters they got, and they were afraid that the documentary conceit could become very gimmicky. And I think they were really dead-on about that. I mean, when we shot the pilot, Fitch on several occasions was, like, “Get that camera out of my face,” but by the time you get to Episode 12…I mean, how many times can he say, “Get that camera out of my face”? I mean, if he already doesn’t want the camera around in the pilot, that could quickly become an extremely repetitious theme, you know? And, also, if you think about all the moments we wound up having on the show where there wouldn’t be a camera allowed, like in Fitch’s house, or when Sanchez is alone, dealing with her grief…there’s a lot of situations where there just would not be a camera allowed. The scenes with Fitch and Bobby. Ultimately, I think it was a really good choice. But the fact that they changed their policy…? I mean, the show’s not based on reality. It’s a fictional show. So they could’ve easily said, “Well, in our Detroit…” (Laughs) So I don’t think that was what made us make that final decision.

Michael Imperioli

BE: Do you see any similarities between Fitch on “Detroit 1-8-7” and Ray on “Life on Mars”? They’re far from identical, but I think there’s at least a bit of crossover between the characters.

MI: Similarities…? Well, you know, it’s the kind of stuff that any big city cop who has a lot of experience has. There’s a certain jaded kind of quality and a certain distance. But Ray was someone who was very self-centered, a selfish person.

BE: Fitch is certainly more complicated.

MI: Fitch is kind of… (Hesitates) He’s self-centered, but not in a way where he wants to be the center. He’s self-centered because he’s pushed everyone away. Ray is a self-centered person because he wants everyone to give him a certain amount of respect and attention and credit and stuff like that. Fitch puts everybody at a distance, and because he does that, he winds up…there’s a certain selfishness about that, because he’s not really the most outgoing and giving person. Although he’s obviously a lot more introspective, a lot more aware of what he does. Ray was more prone to doing what he wanted, a lot more impulsive.

BE: Oh, one other thing about “Detroit 1-8-7” that I have to ask: I know it’s not like it was your decision, but can you offer any insight into why they decided to kill off Stone?

MI: Uh…

BE: I mean, was it just the way the plot fell out, or, like, did D.J. Cotrona get another gig?

MI: I gotta tell you, I don’t know. I’m not sure. They never told me. (Laughs)

BE: What did you think of the “Life on Mars” finale? I know it took some heat, but I thought it was really creative, personally.

On Adriana getting whacked on "The Sopranos": "It was pretty tough. That was the weird thing about that show: we knew that everyone had a limited shelf life. There was a due date on everybody. But that one was a little rough, because we knew that we wouldn’t be seeing (Drea de Matteo) every day anymore."

MI: So did I. I felt it was…not what I was expecting… (Laughs) …but the good thing was it that they really got to end the show, ‘cause they knew it was getting canceled, so they were able to write a real proper final episode. But with “Detroit 1-8-7,” our future’s more uncertain. There’s kind of an ending to the season. It can kind of end there and be a satisfying last episode, but at the end, there’s obviously room to go on. But I though the “Life on Mars” ending was great.

BE: Did you get the impression that it might’ve gone differently if they hadn’t had to rush to a conclusion the way they did?

MI: Maybe. Although, y’know, there were those weird things with the space toys and stuff like that going on, so, I mean, I’m not sure if they were alluding to that before they had to choose the ending. I mean, if they had to end it that way five years later, I still think it would’ve been a good idea.

BE: To talk about your film work for a second, I know that you already knew Spike Lee by the time you did “Bad Boys,” do you think playing a character named Jojo in that film had anything to do with you being cast as Detective Jo-Jo in “Clockers”?

MI: (Laughs) Actually, he originally wanted…he was originally thinking of having (John) Turturro and me as the two lead detectives, having Turturro play (Harvey) Keitel’s part and I’d play Turturro’s part. But that didn’t work out. I think they needed bigger names for financing and stuff like that, and it never worked out. So, yeah, those two films did happen around the same time, but it was just coincidence with the names.

BE: How did you and Spike Lee hook up in the first place? Had you known him at all before you first worked with him?

MI: I auditioned for “Jungle Fever.” “Goodfellas” had just been screening…it wasn’t out, but Spike had seen a screening, ‘cause he’s friends with Scorsese…and he cast half of “Goodfellas” in “Jungle Fever.” (Laughs) ‘Cause, you know, “Jungle Fever” is about African-Americans and Italian-American clashing. Hooking up and clashing. So, yeah, he cast, like, half of “Goodfellas” in “Jungle Fever,” and that’s how we met.

BE: Given how many times you’ve worked with him in the past, do you anticipate collaborating again in the future?

MI: I hope so. I love working with him, and I think he’s a very important filmmaker. I have a lot of respect for him, because he’s always done exactly what he wanted to do, and that’s very hard. A lot of directors do what they want, and then they’ll do a commercial film to keep them in good standing with the studios and blah blah blah. But he’s always seemed to just do exactly what he wanted to do every step of the way, and all his stuff is very singularly his. And I really respect that.

BE: Okay, you knew it was coming: can you endure a couple of “Sopranos” questions?

MI: Sure.

BE: First of all, I’m sure you know about the reruns that are running on A&E every other hour. Have you ever found yourself drawn into an episode while flipping through the channels?

Michael ImperioliMI: I did once last year. I think I was in a hotel, and my wife was watching TV and she left it on. I…I don’t really watch stuff from the past, to be honest. I don’t even watching anything that…well, the last couple of years, I don’t watch anything that I do. I’ve never seen “Detroit 1-8-7.” So I don’t really watch stuff from the past, but my wife was watching and stopped on it for a minute, and…I just watched for a couple of minutes, but, basically, I was really impressed with how well done it was, just how specific and resonant the writing was, and how well-acted it was. After having some distance and time, I was able to really appreciate that even more.

BE: How hard was it on the cast when Adriana was killed off?

MI: It was…yeah, it was pretty tough. That was the weird thing about that show: we knew that everyone had a limited shelf life. (Laughs) There was a due date on everybody. But that one was a little rough, because we knew that we wouldn’t be seeing her every day anymore. And I think it was hard on Steve to actually had to do that scene.

BE: As far as the way Christopher died…well, our “Sopranos” blogger in particular was pretty depressed by that, but I think a lot of fans were thrown by that, some of them thinking that he deserved better, given how long he’d been on the show. How did you feel about your character’s death?

MI: What do you mean by “deserved better”?

BE: Uh, well, ultimately, I think they probably just meant that he should’ve lived to see the end of the series. (Laughs)

MI: Oh! Well, I mean, there were only, what, another four episodes after that? But I think it was very important, the way he died, because it really showed who Tony is. When you’re doing a show like that, you constantly have to walk the line, because people get sucked in by him, they feel they know him, and they like him. And (James Gandolfini) is a likeable guy, and he’s such a good actor. But the reality is that Tony is a cold-blooded criminal who, in the end, will kill his kin because, basically, he wants to keep his wagon train rolling and his money coming in. So it was really important to have him do something so…disgusting. I think it was brilliant. It was a brilliant choice of David Chase to do it that way.

BE: What do you think of the theories that Chris was a rat?

MI: (Adamantly) That’s not true. No, he wasn’t a rat. His girlfriend was a rat, but he wasn’t. But I think Tony was afraid that, because Chris couldn’t keep straight and, y’know, he kept falling back into the drugs, and he was rising up in his rank in the family. It just made everything too vulnerable. His girlfriend was a rat, and he was…maybe too high to be on top of it, to know that this was happening. And if things went a little further down the line, maybe he would become a rat.

BE: Inevitably, I have to ask: what were your thoughts on the finale?

MI: I thought it was genius. I mean, I think it was… (Hesitates) I would never expect David Chase to wrap things up in a neat package, like with Tony dying or killing his enemies or whatever. I just thought the ambiguities were great. I’ve come to think over time that…he’s dead. That Tony Soprano is dead. And it’s, like, what we were seeing were the last things he was seeing before he died.

BE: Given that you liked the ending, would it disappoint you if they decided to prolong the show with a movie?

MI: Not if it was good. (Laughs) I don’t think there will be, though.

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