Born in Italy, raised in Brooklyn, Francesco ‘Frank’ Pugliese continually puts a conscience in the minds of thugs and hearts in the blouses of women from ‘the neighborhood.’ His Obie winning play Aven-U-Boys received a well deserved love song from Frank Rich in The New York Times, while the film rights were snatched up by Madonna’s production company, Maverick Films. Frank will be directing the film, which is loosely based on his growing up in Graves End, a section of Brooklyn next door to Bensonhurst. Frank will also direct a script he wrote for Barry Levinson called Dion, based on the singer’s life. His screenplay, Mob Girl, is in the works at Castle Rock Productions and meanwhile, Frank and writer/director Nick Gomez are in New York writing Buddy Boys, a film about corrupt cops. Frank’s Homicide episode, “Night Of The Dead Living,” won him the 1994 Writers Guild Award. Frank is resident playwright at The Naked Angels Theater Company.
Nicole Burdette Now, I’ve spoken to your mother and she does not seem very surprised that you are a writer.
Frank Pugliese I wrote a book when I was seven-years-old.
NB So like most playwrights you became a playwright by default?
(tape clicks off)
NB Hi. We’re back with Frank.
FP We were both looking at a dog.
NB An adorable dog. (laughter) Okay, Frank, where were you born?
NB Where in Italy?
FP In Bitetto-Bari. B-I-T-E-T-T-O-Bari. Bitetto means two roofs. Town of two roofs.
NB When did you move to America?
FP When I was two-years-old. We came over on a boat. You wanna get some background information or something?
NB Yes. When did you learn to speak English?
FP When I was about five or six, with a tutor, Bernadette. I had a crush on her.
NB How old was she?
FP She was about 13, 14. And her father showed me his gun with a box of bullets. He wanted to make it really clear who was the boss.
NB So I guess he was.
FP Yeah. My mother did the assignments with me and my brother. She ended up having this entire education through us. We’d read The Stranger, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Catcher In The Rye, and in the morning my mother would say, (Italian accent), “Why do you think he kills the Arab? What do you think that was for?”
NB (laughter) Okay, listen. What drives you to write? Is it the people, the language, the situation … What’s your point?
FP I really do believe that there is power in speech. It is a kind of poetry. And I like to find that in everyday language, in everyday people. People need to be poetic, it’s a necessary part of being in a civilized culture and when you get rid of culture—that’s when things get a little scary.
NB How does English, being your second language, affect your writing?
FP English is such a part of me because I spent a lot of time on the outside looking in. Even now, I listen to the way people speak. Keep in mind in this restaurant are five conversations happening at the same time. It’s like a symphony.
NB I know you like poetry because we’re always talking about poetry. What about rap?
FP It’s probably cliché by now to say rap is poetry. It must come out of that tradition. Still, it’s a beautiful way to communicate. I’m satisfied to a certain extent that you can use anything and take power out of it. You can take rap and use it.
NB It’s like theater to me. Rap always feels alive.
FP That’s why I like theater. I don’t pretend to be writing reality. A lot of things I write seem realistic. The only thing you can do to capture the essence of someone or somewhere or someplace, is to create artifice. If you and I stood on this corner and watched people for a couple of hours, we would see something real. The reality of the theater, which I love as well, is the event of going to the theater. I think that’s fantastic. That in itself is the whole rising; walking in, buying a ticket, sitting there watching the show, seeing the actors afterward …
NB What do you want to give an audience when you write a play?
FP I want to share a story. To me, this is when it’s the most fun. When I watch an audience watch my show I end up watching what they give to the show. Collectively, they make moments that you never expected to be important and you learn something about the play, and then it goes back and forth. When it’s going well, there’s a dialogue with the audience. I rewrote 30 percent of Aven-U-Boys during previews. The audience was giving me something and I wanted to give something back to the next audience. I’m not a tyrant about my work. I never think anything is finished. Even now. I don’t have a play that really seems finished. I mean, I’ll put it down and that will be it and it’s at where it’s at, but it’s never really done. Nothing’s perfect. Even Cézanne in his seventies would go back to people’s houses and steal back his paintings and work on them for a while. It’s all about the process, the on-going forever process.
NB I just saw your episode, I should say, your award winning episode of Homicide, and I just couldn’t get over the language, I see it in your plays as well—it’s very visceral, almost visual. When your characters talk you can see things, you can see smells, you can see inner emotion—through the language, in that way it’s almost cinematic …
FP I’m really tired of movie references in life. I’m so tired of the movies. I’m tired of living at the movies. You go to a beautiful place and people say, “This would be great in a movie.” And you have a conversation—this would be really good in a movie. What I say to you is: films are like dreams, when they’re really good they’re like good dreams. And my writing is like dreams but I don’t think my writing’s like films.
NB What made you tired of the movies and their references?
FP It’s a big concern of mine. Because I think we’re living in a time of pretense. People aren’t experiencing, they’re watching experiences. Kids play baseball, but out of a video machine. It’s really disconcerting. I preferred it when people used to go out and do incredible things, and then talk about them. Now they go out and see incredible things and come back and talk about them. It’s all once removed.
NB (sigh) Doesn’t it seem that the only sane thing to do is direct your own plays?
FP I’m dying to meet a new director where my soul and his or hers would be completely in sync. But that hasn’t happened yet. So until that happens, I’d rather direct my own stuff.
NB Why do you think it’s so hard to find a theater director? Where are they hiding?
FP The whole idea of directing only started at the turn of the century. Before that the lead actor or writer or stage manager would do it. So this formal idea of having a director is fairly new, and it might actually be dying. A lot of times, I get a director who has a vision and I have a vision and those visions are in conflict. No one gets anything out of it. Then it is no longer about services to the art—you know, it used to be that the actors would change the endings, if the audience wanted to have them changed. Shakespeare’s plays were rewritten. Romeo and Juliet didn’t always die at the end. That was the popular ending at one time.
NB I believe that language is set apart by the writer, and that’s how you tell a story.
FP The best theater is a celebration of the story. The best productions happen when the directors and actors come in and celebrate the writer’s words. So, you’re right. You do get into trouble when one, the words aren’t really doing their job and two, actors and directors fight the words.
NB What kind of actor do you like to direct?
FP I don’t want someone who’s going to say to me: me, me, me. So everyone I’ve ever worked with has to understand that on the first day of rehearsal, you give it all up. I don’t give a shit about your baggage or your agenda, it’s gone. The more you give to the text, the text will give back to you. And so will I. If you build that kind of atmosphere, it can become a very powerful piece.
NB Action becomes reaction in a positive way. It’s not like a sport, it’s more like force of nature, a storm. It’s not offense/defense.
FP It’s more about how an actor reacts. The best actors I know, acting is the easy part. The great stuff happens after they’ve just said their lines, that’s what I look for.
NB How does writing for you translate into directing?
FP Obviously the desire to direct is the desire to put all the elements together in a beautiful way—clarifying the text. I get very detail-oriented when I get into directing because with specifics, you get better story telling. All the movements get choreographed and it all mixes with the language and the lighting, and all the elements get layered in very specifically. And so you tell the story.
NB You seem much less story and plot obsessed than most people. I agree that movement and language make the story …
FP It’s the difference between writing a play and writing a symphony. A lot of playwrights don’t write symphonies, they write ditties. You know? In this day and age, with everything becoming two-dimensional, generalized, with a lack of intimacy, things get categorized. It’s your responsibility, if you chose to become a writer, to say no, it’s more complicated and nothing is stereotypical. Nothing is a given. That pretense about understanding the world easily—it does not exist. It’s a more complicated place and that’s what you want to explore.
NB Did you have any heroes as a kid?
FP Yeah. Starting from age seven on, it was Da Vinci. He painted, he wrote …
NB He was a scientist!
FP Yeah. He was a scientist. All those guys in the Renaissance were talking reason and politics during the day, and at night they would try magic in their basements. (laughter) We need alchemy.
NB This is a psychological question: if you came back as an inanimate object, what would you be?
FP If I came back as an inanimate object what would I be?
NB Yeah, you can’t think.
FP A nectarine.