Tony Spiridakis is a screenwriter, a playwright, and an actor. His first film will be out this spring. It’s called Queen’s Logic. Besides having written it, he also acts in it, along with co-stars John Malkovich, Kevin Bacon, Chloe Webb, Joe Mantegna, Linda Fiorentino, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Waits, and Ken Olin. So far so good. His play, Self Storage, just ran in Los Angeles and he is currently writing a screenplay for Paramount Pictures called Iggy and the Worm. He writes beautiful dialogue, so I’ve cut several sound bytes from his work into the interview. Or as John Huston once said, “First you find the character and then an actor finds the voice.”
Amos Poe When we met, you were just coming back from England, right?
Tony Spiridakis Mm-hmm.
AP And you were acting in Full Metal Jacket?
AP So tell me about your experience with—what’s his name? The bearded guy from the Bronx? Kubrick. First, how did you get the part in Full Metal Jacket?
TS I was there doing Death Wish III, and some guys on the crew told me about these screen tests that they were having to find two parts that were not cast: Lt. Lockhart and Captain January. So I found out where the auditions were and I went and I crashed. I said, “I’m here doing a film, and I heard about this.” And they said, “Wait.” It was at the end of the night; about 11:30. I went in and did a monologue, and they put it on tape. Kubrick doesn’t meet people, so he has them put on tape. The next day Kubrick called my hotel. He said, “I’m sending over two sets of sides for these two parts. You could do either one, or both—whatever you want. We really liked your tape, and I want you to come back and put on tape, again, both these things.” So I did that. They called me back after and said, “Which one do you want to do?” By this time I had become friends with Kubrick’s assistant, I said to him, “Which one do you think I should do?” He said, “Do Capt. January, because it’s a five-page monologue, and it’s a wonderful part and it’ll never get cut.” So I picked Capt. January, and, of course, I got completely cut out of the movie.
TS Because it was the middle third of the film. What wound up happening was, he went from Parris Island right to combat, so the whole middle third was cut.
AP How did that affect you?
TS Oh, man, it devastated me. It was like . . . it was awful. What was even more awful was that American Film magazine called me, and said, “You know, you have like the second-largest speaking role in the entire film, and we want to do an interview on you.” Stanley had called me two weeks earlier and said there’s a 50-50 chance you won’t be in the film, which I thought was a wonderful to do. So when they called me, I said, “Listen—you can interview me, but I don’t think I’m gonna be in the film.” And they said, “We’ll go ahead and interview you.” Well, that came out June 1st, and the movie came out June 15th. And for the first half of the month, was getting all these calls saying, We can’t wait to see you in Full Metal Jacket. And the movie came out June 15th, and I got a whole new series of calls saying, Where were you?
We used to pay Arnold a nickel to kiss stuff. Fences, fire hydrants, for a quarter, he’d kiss dog shit in the winter y’know, when it was frozen. Fifth grade, he comes over an’ blames Dennis for his life. “You suck,” he says, “I’m weird cause you paid me to kiss stuff, and just for that I’m gonna land on your block.” An’ Den’s like, hey Arnold, go fuck yourself . . . but then he figures it out. Off the Hellgate bridge an’ onto his fucking block. Then he’s like beggin’ him, don’t say that shit, Arnold, it’s just a phase, it’ll pass.
Almost. Dennis adopts Arnold. Their lives had meaning.
His lips don’t touch inanimate objects for months.
We get detention, bell rings, school’s out, Octavio Machiorolo’s in a bad mood, makes Arnold kiss Tina Fabio’s gym sneakers in the yard, in front of the whole school. So, we get to Den’s house an’ there’s cops an’ ambulances, an’ Arnold’s mother screaming somethin’ in Greek, an’ they’re puttin’ Arnold in a baggie.
An’ I’m like . . . thanks a lot Arnold, very fucking polite, stupid motherfucker, nice aim.
To Al and Arnold. The only two to climb the line on the Hellgate Bridge.
Arrr-nnollddd . . . hey, Arnold . . .
They all join in—"Arrr-nolldd . . ."
[From Queen’s Logic. Used by permission of the author.]
AP So then what?
TS I was desperately unhappy. I read for John Patrick Shanley’s Five Corners, the part of Sal Annunzio, the guy who sells his fiancee for five bucks, and then I lost that. I remember thinking, that’s it, I gotta write my own Five Corners, I was completely fed up with a life of being dictated to.
AP Understandable. So you got some number two pencils and got to work.
TS Yeah, I tried writing a play about Picasso, but I was just treading water with two tons on my ankles and I got a job as a computer mover at NBC news. I was down and then my best friend in California, left me this incredible stream-of-consciousness message about being from Queens and having to explain his jokes twice in California and feeling like, you know, what it’s all coming to, at 30-years-old and we don’t have shit. And when I heard that message, I sat down and just said, I’m gonna write that, a movie about that.
So what’s your story, Grace?
Me? I grew up with a John Wayne complex . . .
A very uncontrollable need to save every troubled person I meet.
Thanks a lot . . .
I have this dream . . . I’m in this office full of people, who’ve been taken hostage. I’m hiding in a bathroom. A security guard’s lying dead in the hallway. I sneak out and quietly slide his gun from its holster . . .
Without Al noticing, she takes the .38 from its holster
I crawl to the main room, two gunmen are torturing an old woman . . . I wait till they’re standing side-by-side, then I jump out into the doorway and scream . . .
She jumps out in front of Al, aiming the .38 at his head.
FREEZE OR I’LL BLOW YOU AWAY!
Al scampers behind a gravestone.
Grace comes around the gravestone, the gun is still trained on Al.
Wow. So this is what all the fuss is about. Guns. Incredible.
Grace, what the fuck’re you doin’?
She fires. He runs across to another gravestone. And again—BANG. He scurries across the cemetery like a duck in a shooting gallery. Several shots ring out.
Grace sneaks up behind him and puts the gun to his side. He freezes.
Al . . . undo your shirt, come on. Good. Now, take that lobster thing off your neck . . .
Thank you. God, I hate this.
Know something? I really like you. And with people, I usually don’t. I don’t usually really like anyone. But you . . . I do. And you know what?
Al shakes his head desperately.
I usually never do anything about it . . .
You don’t really have to, Grace.
No, I do, you don’t understand, this complex is very strong. It’s something I have to do. Now close your eyes . . . I promise this won’t hurt . . .
Al closes his eyes tightly, ready to die.
Al, when you dance, you gotta let the other person lead once in a while.
Al peeks up at her. Opens both eyes.
You have to make some changes. You have to take a big deep breath, get all that bad energy together, find a wide open space and dump it. A big open space and get rid of it. Just throw it away. Just get it all together and throw it away.
[From Queen’s Logic. Used by permission of the author.]
TS After I wrote the first draft, I did a reading in Circle in the Square. I put together a bunch of New York actors—I wanted to do it as a low-budget film, try to get a limited partnership, and oversee the project to keep control of it. So I did a reading and realized I needed more rewrites. Then I had about two or three possibilities that fell through for one reason or another, until a friend of mine, Jim Thompson, started lending me money and supporting the project. He wanted to be a producer himself. He said, “Look, just come to LA, and we’ll try to get it done in Hollywood.” So I moved out there, thanks to him, and stayed on his couch and kept rewriting. Eventually, I think we ran out of money. He couldn’t stay on, and I wound up getting my own apartment and getting a job as a waiter.
TS Yeah. You know, it kinda died down, and I just kept rewriting it. Then another producer became interested, and I did another rewrite. And then we did a reading, and I realized that I didn’t like the way he was taking it. So I said, Okay, let’s just stop, and I’ve gotta go back to the drawing board. And then another friend of mine, Dane Lutsky—she’s a wonderful art director—helped me tremendously. And I did another major rewrite. I kept rewriting.
AP Were you still going out on auditions?
TS Yeah, but that died down. I mean, I didn’t have the energy. I basically waited tables.
AP When did the break happen, when you got to meet the people who actually produced it?
TS It was the fall of 1988: I had been attached to a director . . .
AP Who’s that?
TS David Burton Morris. It was a fucked-up thing, because we were good friends, and he really helped me a lot. And we had no luck for about, I don’t know, six months or something.
AP David was the co-writer initially?
AP Who was the co-writer?
TS Joe Savino. He dropped out because it had changed so much. We hadn’t talked to each other—when I moved out to Los Angeles, I just kept writing, you know. And finally, when I saw that the thing was gonna’ start to become—it was becoming a film—I sent him a copy of the script and said, “You can stay co-author, or you can take ‘Story By’ credit and split that with me, and I’ll take the ‘Screenplay By’ credit.” In the final versions—he hadn’t done any of the writing, and he realized that it had changed way more than he wanted it to, and so he decided to just take story credit. When he saw that the movie got made, he turned around and . . .
AP He got pissed off.
TS He got pissed off, you know.
AP Has that been resolved, legally?
TS Legally, it’s resolved. I’m sure emotionally, unfortunately, it’s not resolved. I feel bad about that, but he made the choice to take money upfront. In other words, it’s either what’s in the envelope or what’s behind door number one. He went with the envelope, and two months later the movie got made.
TS Yeah. So, sorry.
Ho, man, shit, sorry.
S’O.K. Smells great, actually.
Well, the whites are for purity an’ the reds are for passion.
I meant the cannolis.
It’s good to see you, Den.
Patty, it’s good to see you. Its just that, I come home for your wedding an’ there’s all this craziness happenin’, an’ I say to myself . . . its like this. I . . . I . . . uh . . . mm . . . (beat) I was gonna drop these off for my aunt Gail.
How’s everything goin’ in Hollywood?
Everything’s great. Couldn’t be better. Tons of studio work, yeah, it’s just a matter of time.
What? OH, well, y’know, before, you know, a record, ha, could you imagine? God, I miss this place.
Yeah, the neighborhood. Hasn’t changed. So . . . how you doin’ . . . ?
I can’t stop dreaming about you . . .
. . . an’ I feel like a mutant for sayin’ so, but I heard all this shit was going on an’ I got dizzy to say somethin’ thinkin’ this might be the last time I’m able to an’ if I didn’t, well, then shit, I might’a spent the rest of my life regrettin’ it, an’ life’s too short, don’t you think so? I don’t know. Well, I better get out of here. Its gettin’ late. Jeez, I think you better say somethin’ here before I pass out and die.
How can a guy wit’ such lousy timin’ be any kind of musician? Den. I’m a woman in crisis.
Oh my God, I know, I knew that, it’s just that what could I, I had to, you’re right, you’re . . .
Den, stop. It’s fine. I’m flattered. I am. But the cards are on the table, as in, I’m in the middle of a hand here an’ I ain’t budgin’ till its over.
Hope I see you at the wedding.
[From Queen’s Logic. Used by permission of the author.]
TS It all happened at once. It went from nobody wanted it, and then all of a sudden these five people wanted it. And it was very frustrating, because a lot of them were good people. And it was the first time that I had to deal with people wanting it. And, of course, my attitude was I’d love to do it with all of you. And, of course, that got me into trouble, because I think they all thought they were being . . .
AP Who directed it?
TS Steve Rash.
AP And so then you started production like when?
TS That’s when this thing with David Burton Morris happened, where they didn’t want David. And I had stayed with David up until then.
AP Was that rough?
TS Yeah, it was really rough. That was like, Welcome to the big time. Bend over.
AP The grown-ups.
TS Yeah. And I lost quite a few friends in the process of making a movie about friendships.
AP It’s ironic.
TS The wicked irony, you know? It’s like, fuck.
AP Have you seen the film?
TS Yes. Twice.
AP What do you think?
TS I think it’s okay. (laughter)
AP That’s pretty good.
TS You know? I’m trying to dismiss my judgment, I pray to God they find the rhythm of Queens.
AP Who’s doing the music?
TS I don’t know.
AP Who’s distributing it?
TS I don’t know.
TS This is my movie—I don’t know.
AP When’s it coming out?
TS I don’t know.
EXT. ASTORIA PARK—LATER THAT DAY
Monte stands by his Monte Carlo, in a crushed velvet tux, holding a bouquet of flowers. He looks at his watch and looks around for signs of the wedding. The park is empty.
“I’ll Take Manhattan” continues and OVER we hear Vinny and Dennis still talking.
Did you know Ethel Merman went to our junior high school?
No, really? She’s from Queens?
Yeah. And Tony Bennett.
No shit. Bennett and Merman. Real heavy-weights . . .
Hey Simon and Garfunkel, Jimmy Caan, John McEnroe . . .
No way, Mac?
Douglaston, I’m tellin’ you. Telly Savalas, Christopher Walken, Max Factor . . .
Stop, you’re killin’ me . . .
The Ramones, the Little Rascals . . .
ANOTHER ANGLE IN THE PARK
Carmine, also dressed in a crushed velvet tux, waves to Monte as he makes his way into the park.
Hey. How come they never mention Queens in this song?
A long moment of silence.
Yeah, you’re right.
That really pisses me off
Yeah, me too.
AP Then what happened?
TS During the summer I had two ideas I started developing in my head. And I had written the first three pages of something that started in a flashback and went into real time about two guys. It developed into Iggy and the Worm. And then what happened was, when I got back, everybody wanted to meet me and say, “Well, what do you want to do next?” And I said, “Iggy and the Worm.”
AP So you play the worm? Or Iggy?
TS No, I play the saintly DA.
AP The DA.?
TS The DA. His sister is kidnapped by a Mafioso gone bad, a psychotic Mafioso.
AP That sounds good. How many brothers do you have?
TS Two older brothers, John and Harry.
AP And you have a sister?
AP ’Cause you write a lot of male stuff.
TS Uh-uh. No, I think that the women’s stuff in Queen’s Logic is some of the better stuff.
TS Yeah, I do. I like it a lot. I mean, looking at Iggy, I would say you’re right. I would say you’re right. But . . .
AP I’m not saying that it’s purely that. But some of what you write seems to be more realistic, maybe because you grew up with two older brothers. You got to watch them interact.
TS Maybe. My brothers were nothing like the guys that I write about. The guys that I write about are more from my friendships with the Italians in Queens than my family.
AP You grew up in an Italian neighborhood?
TS It’s mostly Greek now, but it used to be 50-50, Italian and Greek—Astoria.
AP Were your parents first-generation?
TS My Dad was born here, but before he was a year old he was back in Greece. And he didn’t come to America until he was like 17 or 18. So, yeah, and my Mom was born in Astoria. I’m really second-generation, technically, but I feel like first-generation, ’cause my Dad was very . . . very Greek.
AP Does he still speak it?
TS Yeah, he speaks it. He speaks both, but he’s got a very thick accent.
AP Did your parents speak Greek together?
AP At home?
AP So you speak it.
AP So what about the play? When did you start on the play?
TS Right about . . .
AP What’s it called again?
TS Self Storage. I co-wrote that with Shem Bitterman. I had auditioned for Shem for another play of his and worked with him. We went for a drink one night and he said, “You know, I’m also an actor turned writer.” And I said, “Great.” He said, “You know, I read Queen’s Logic and I really liked it, and I love the fact that you wrote a part for yourself. As an actor, you tried to get yourself back on track. How would you like to do that with me?” And I said, “Fine.” So we basically wrote two parts for ourselves. That’s how it started. We felt that we both loved this book by Knut Hamsun called Hunger, and that…
AP By who?
TS Knut Hamsun?
AP Knut Hamsun?
TS Hamsun. He’s a wonderful writer. He was like the father of the short sentence.
AP I didn’t know the short sentence had a father.
TS He was like a Nazi sympathizer.
AP No wonder we haven’t heard of Knut.
TS (laughter) Not the kind of guy you want to have over to dinner.
AP Right. So what is Self Storage?
TS It became—it’s a black comedy about two guys who come to Hollywood with $10,000 and in two weeks become homeless people and have to live in a self-storage bin. And they meet another homeless person on the street who turns out to be a serial killer, the Westwood Strangler. And instead of turning him in, they kinda option his life story and get a deal on it by keeping him hidden in the self-storage bin.
AP No kiddin’?
Arnie spills in, dressed as Santa, carrying a sack of office supplies and a bottle of champagne.
Hey, hey, are we having fun yet? Is this place a sex palace or what!
Arnie, where have you been?
Me? I’m right here with you guys. Look at this list. Where the fuck is it? It doesn’t matter. You’re number one on that list. I had travel. I had frequent flyer obligations in the creative skies.
Didn’t I say, Tig . . . He’s like a . . . like a . . . like a . . . what? A bundle of laughing branches . . .
At Christmas time . . . like a . . . like a . . . what’s his name?
YOU BET’CHA! C’mon, bring the dancing ladies out here. Where are they, where, in one of those boxes? Nah. You boys are milk and cookie boys. Boy scouts boys. BOY SCOUTS! Where’s the cookies? Hey, you don’t have that problem here. No one rings your bells, Baby . . . sellin’ cookies . . . I had to follow breadcrumbs to find you boys . . . It’s like little red riding hoods . . . Oh. Man, have I got a headache.
He grabs his chest. Tiger and Max sit him down.
What are you doin’ here, Arn?
My kids. I love you, my kids. Even though you give me grief . . . Even you, Maxipad . . . Hey, come on, what’s the matter?
Don’t call me that.
So put a dress on. Be my bitch. ‘Ats prison talk. Couple of days, boys, we’ll break out of here. We’ll be rich. Go on, get my desk. It’s downstairs . . .
You wanna MOVE IN here?
Hey, this kind of doubt, this kind of negativity, I can do without, you know what I’m saying?
Yeah, but Arn?
What kinda neighborhood is this, anyway? I’m partners with homeless people. Its Mashuga . . . Where’s my room?
This is kinda a loft type situation.
Sure, its bohemian. We’re gonna be poor artists, then we’re gonna get rich. Just like this town. One minute, you’re shopliftin’, next minute you’re buying the shop. Hey, let’s have a party.
(He pulls out a bottle of champagne)
What about your office?
Yeah, what happened?
You gonna force, you gonna force this outta me? You gonna break my arm? Ow, my arm is breaking. Oh. Snap. There it goes. Snap. Right in half Ow. Ow. Ow.
[From Self Storage, written by Tony Spiridakis and Shem Bitterman.]
—Amos Poe is a screenwriter. He lives and works in NYC.