So here’s the deal: Rob Weiss wants to make a movie—he’s got no money, no experience really, but the 24-year-old’s got a plan—his dad, who runs gambling junkets to Atlantic City, donates some dough and goes to his players for the rest—"You bet on the horses, you bet on the dogs, why don’t you bet on the kid?"
In two weeks time, Weiss bangs out a script about love, loyalty, and bloodlust on his home turf, “the killer streets of Hewlett Harbor.” The protagonists are three boyhood pals who don’t relate to their peers, all off to college and success in the city, definitely don’t relate to their parents, wealthy residents of Long Island’s fabled “Five Towns,” but do relate to their granddads, rough and tough Jewish gangsters.
Amongst Friends caused a Hollywood feeding frenzy when it was screened at Sundance, garnering Weiss, at 26, a deal at Tri-Star, as well as a three picture deal at Universal, complete with plush offices on the Universal City lot.
Susan Shacter Did you feel scared or panicky making your first feature?
Rob Weiss Not at all. The only loss I could have was financial—that I’d never be able to get money from the people who’d let me make this film, again. I was pretty comfortable doing it. I was pretty exhausted, too.
SS The most important thing to do when you’re directing a movie is to get comfortable shoes.
RW It’s really good to get clothes you can sleep on—really fluffy. Wear a jacket at all times so you can wrap it under your head when you pass out. It’s rough, man. You need serious, serious physical stamina. This thing almost killed me. I would sleep about an hour and a half, and have that taste—you know, that taste you get when you don’t sleep. You walk in and have four bagels, nine donuts, 14 cups of coffee. Shit happens to you when you’re working 23 hours a day for so long. Your hair falls out. I had this rash on my stomach. And one day, I couldn’t open my mouth because I had blisters all over it from exhaustion. It fucking scared me. You’re not sleeping. You can’t think straight. You have no more energy. It’s rough, man. It’s rough. But it pays off because a couple of years later, you forget all about that. Then it’s a matter of what’s up on the screen. It takes on a life of its own, somehow.
SS You were shooting in the fall of ’91?
RW Yeah. I was able to write it, develop it, cast it, and get it shooting in a couple of months.
SS That’s incredible.
RW It’s insane. Most of the time spent on it was in post-production running out of money.
SS What are you working on now?
RW I’m doing a film for Cary Woods and Rob Fried at Tri-Star.
SS How did you sell them? With an outline?
RW Yeah, I sold them on a pitch. I know what the thing’s about. Now it’s a matter of structurally getting it on paper, so that scene by scene, moment by moment, line of dialogue by line of dialogue, the reader understands these people, and understands what the film’s about.
SS You’re a really good writer, did you write before?
RW No, I hadn’t written anything before Amongst Friends. It just poured out of me. I based those characters on people I knew, to a degree. A lot of the characters were an amalgam. Some of the characters were more one person than anybody else. Billy’s based, dialogue-wise, on somebody I know. A lot of things my friend would say are Billy’s viewpoints; but a lot of things Billy does, my friend wouldn’t do. So now, I’m starting to get a little nervous because people, reacting to the film, are approaching this friend of mine and saying . . .
SS . . . You killed that guy!
RW Well, not quite that, but he’s a little upset because he doesn’t want to be known as a drug dealer. He’s not a weed dealer. But because of that process, writing in a stream of consciousness, I wasn’t really so in tune with what the repercussions could be. It’s a fictitious film. It’s not real.
SS A writer friend of mine wrote a very thinly disguised roman à clef about her closest circle of friends, and she was devastated. She got rave reviews for the book, but she couldn’t figure out why several people stopped speaking to her.
RW I think it bothers me more than it’s bothering these guys. I mean, I know who’s upset. If you see the film and you’re from the area, you might say, “This guy is so and so.” Because this guy would say that, wear that, does that for a living. I’m saying yes, I pulled that from one guy. But I didn’t pull what he would really do in life, you understand? He would not kill his friends, this guy is an honorable guy. He would not steal. I feel worse about this than anybody in the neighborhood, because I didn’t set out to make a film like that. I wrote this so quickly because I felt personal about it. I felt I was involved in it. There’s a price you gotta pay when you write about things you know. The big thing in LA—about Edward James Olmos being hunted down.
SS Yeah, I heard that rumor, by the Mexican mob. That’s really frightening.
RW Because he depicted them a certain way in prison and they’re not happy about it. The two consultants for the film have already been murdered . . . . This is what I hear.
SS Since the film has been released, what has changed for you, personally?
RW My values, the more successful I’ve become, have gotten better. I won’t surround myself with assholes and people I’m not friends with. I value my old friends even more. I value the guys who are with me and hanging out with me every night of the week, before I made a movie, before my face was in GQ.
SS In the movie, Billy says to Andy, "You’re a fucking, walking . . .
RW . . . identity crisis."
SS Right. Did you feel that was true about yourself when, at 24, you were back living at home, not knowing what you wanted to do with your life?
RW Well, part of going through an identity crisis is not knowing you’re going through an identity crisis. If you acknowledge it, then you say, “Hey, I’m a guy going through an identity crisis.” (laughter) But if you’re going through one, you don’t have a clue. I mighta gone through one. I’ve always felt like my life was more like living in a movie than making one, you know. I’ve done some pretty strange shit. I was a maniac. Some wild friends, that’s all I can say. It’ll make some good films.
SS You write from experience.
RW I’m not adventurous, I don’t want to travel and shit like that. I like to just create the surroundings of my life and write about that. If I’m going to write a film about ten, 15 kids together who are bonded, like a new Dirty Dozen type thing, I want to get those guys actually around me. I want to feed off of them while they’re actually in motion.
SS It seems like you were living the life in the movie. All those guys sleeping in that house after the heist, waking up on couches . . .
RW But that’s the way I live. I always have a crew of guys with me, that’s how I’m comfortable. These are my buddies from Long Island, guys I grew up with.
SS Are you happy, not just with the reception of the film but with the actual film?
RW My standards for myself are way too high. I expected much better, I don’t know what to say. There are people looking at this who are blown away by the quality of this film-for-no-money by a first-time filmmaker, and I’m like, fuck, this thing could’ve been so much better. We were shooting for the fucking stars, we were so fired up about it. The way I look at it is, I have a problem with every scene in the film. That’s because I made it, I remember the shit that happened off camera, and it’s a big part of me, so, I had my problems.
SS How did you find those guys?
RW Backstage newspapers.
SS You must have seen a lot of people.
RW Let me tell you something. Everyone should cast their fucking films out of that. I saw a million headshots, we called in a couple of thousand. There’s some fucking great actors in this town, in this city, man, and they’re nowhere. No names, no agents, no money and so talented. There were so many guys that came in and read that I just could not get into the film . . .
SS How did you hook up with Mira Sorvino? I read that she was one of the ADs and had a hand in casting the movie.
RW We met at the Goodfellas premiere. She was really involved in the casting process and the whole time she was asking about the part of Laura. I had a different physical presence in mind originally. But she read and I knew that I was going to get something from Mira that I wouldn’t get from a chippy. I knew I was going to get depth. I knew that she was going to bring something substantial to the role, so what do I do, go with the cutesy thing?
SS I don’t even know what a chippy is.
RW Nah, I don’t even know how to say it: shorter, blonder hair type of thing. I was ridiculous, it was just one of those things, it was not what I really wanted. I really wanted someone like Mira, ’cause that’s what I went with in the end.
SS So what were you doing at the Goodfellas premiere?
RW I scammed in there, me and a bunch of guys, just scammed in . . . and tried to bullshit Scorsese . . .
SS What did you bullshit him about?
RW Well, we wanted him to start some club action at Tribeca Film Center with young filmmakers. There are so many young filmmakers in New York. It would be good to get a community and interact with professionals—come down and talk. Scorsese’s definitely very supportive of that kind of stuff. It would be like going back to the old days with the Actor’s Studio and that whole community: Harold Clurman, Kazan, Joanne Woodward, Newman . . . all those guys.
That’s the way it is in LA, I’m friends with loads of filmmakers out there, young filmmakers who are starting out. They know me—know that as soon as they have something cool, man, a script that they want to put together, I’d love to get involved producing something I believe in. I know these guys with a production company. They said, listen, make five films a year in the one, two million dollar range, you know. Just bring us the talent involved in the package, and we’ll give you the money to produce the films. So now, I can reach out to these kids who want to make their first films, and as long as we can get name guys so the producers will be happy, we can make a film. That’s important stuff. There’s a lot of good voices out there. Now’s a really good time to be a young person with a voice.
SS Yeah, it seems like it’s more open right now than it’s been for quite awhile.
RW They took me.
SS What are you going to do for Universal?
RW This film, Mecca. A biopic about this guy who runs this empire, Mecca Records, which was the pioneer movement of disco.
SS Is this true?
RW It’s a fictitious biopic. It’s as if it was true. It’s an amalgam of dead disco tycoons. About this guy who founded this company, pretty much founded disco, and how he makes these stars. And it’s about him submerging himself into the lifestyle of the ’70s, its excess and watching what comes out of that time. It’s about excess.
SS What kind of excesses, coke?
RW The whole party scene: Studio 54, Plato’s Retreat . . .
SS Did you hang out at Studio 54? Well, not in the ’70s, obviously.
RW I was like 14.
SS You were wild, weren’t you?
RW Yeah, I was crazy. But I was on the second Studio 54. I was at the Fleischman Studio 54, with kids from Queens and Brooklyn and Long Island. I used to go to Xenon a lot.
SS Why are you doing a movie about the club scene?
RW It’s not about clubs, it’s about this guy’s life. This guy who can only reach a certain level. A guy smart enough to get to a certain place and what happens when he doesn’t have the ability to go any higher. All he can do is fall from that grace.
SS Did you have a gangster grandfather like the ones in Amongst Friends?
RW No. I never had the chance to know my grandfathers that well. The point was to show why these kids are struggling. They respected their grandfathers so much because their grandfathers had to struggle. These kids reinvented struggle.
SS Was that the only reason they made it tough for themselves? They did choose to live a street life.
RW These things are not decisions. These are just paths that appear in front of you if you have no money, and you want money. You make a choice, you go to the left, and this is what you become. That’s the way it is as opposed to, “I really feel I need a little more struggle in my life.” It’s like, “Come on man, let’s just do this shit.” No one sits around and thinks about it.
SS What was the writing process like when you wrote the script?
RW I went to the Wild At Heart premiere and stole the boards off the wall. They were like framed stills, I tacked them up all over my walls. I write really weird. I have my stereo on, my TV is on, all the lights are on, a bottle of fuckin’ Johnnie Walker or Jack in front of me. Some of the really good scenes I wrote when I was drinking. A couple of them. At least I had a couple of drinks and then I wrote. It’s weird man, you get some different shit. If I drink too much, the next day I look at what I wrote and think, this sucks. This stuff is so bad, man. But’s that how it was, we’re talking two and a half years ago. Now I’m writing in topless places on cocktail napkins, like Bukowski or some shit. Some of these fucking women say some of the most insane shit, they make so much sense, so brilliant. I mean, I don’t know female dialect that well, because I’ve never taken the time to listen . . .
SS Take the time to listen.
RW The reason I’m writing in topless bars is because I want to make this character a topless dancer. But not like a divy topless dancer; more like Miami girls who have money and come up here to dance.
SS What’s a great bit of dialogue you heard when you were in a topless bar?
RW Hearing some of these girls talk about Bukowski. This girl made me read, The Most Beautiful Woman in Town. To see depth in certain places. She said, “I’m gonna be like Bukowski’s ‘Selby’ of the topless world.”
SS Do you take notes when you’re out with friends? When you hear something good do you whip out a pad?
RW Most of the time it just sticks in my head. That’s how I got myself into all this trouble in the first place, by listening to my friends say all this great shit and putting it in my movie, and then making the characters different than the guys who they’re supposed to be and catching all this grief from people.
SS So do you think someone’s going to shoot you?
RW No, I don’t think I’m in danger, because I’m friends with these guys. And I do have a girlfriend, so make sure you print all that strip stuff, then she can kill me.
—Susan Shacter is a photographer and Contributing Editor in Film and Theater at BOMB.