Gavin Schmitt Interviews Producer Stephen David
Not often in my writing life do my two passions come together, film and organized crime. But today there was an exception, as I was able to chat with producer Stephen David, who (among other things) is the driving force behind AMC’s “Making of the Mob”. (affiliate link)The first season (New York) is out now on DVD, and the second season (Chicago) (affiliate link) should be hitting your television in the not-too-distant future.
Here Stephen and I talk a little about what went into making the first season, and offer a few sneak peaks on what is going to be in the second… this is breaking news, folks, as not even IMDb has confirmed the very existence of season two yet.(This conversation took place October 16, 2015.)
GS: So, Stephen, how did “Making of the Mob” come across your desk?
SD: As you know, I have a company, and we make these historical hybrid docudrama series. And for me in particular, I’m very involved in these shows. I’m not just there while they’re filming, but I also take part in the writing process. We’re always looking for interesting worlds to do these shows about, and we realized that we did not know the story of how organized crime became organized. It was really interesting. We approached AMC, because it seemed to fit them and they have a lot of mob-related programming.
GS: While doing the research, you no doubt found a lot of conflicting history. The mob is drowning in myths and legends, as well as outright falsehoods. How were decisions made on what would make the cut?
SD: You know probably more than I do about the topic. But we did what we could on the research, and went through hundreds of books to figure out what story to tell. And then we have only 42 minutes over eight episodes to tell the entire history of the New York Mafia. (affiliate link) So there was a lot of discussion on which stories we were going to tell. What decides it for us is the character. The idea is to have a character that’s accessible, so people can watch it like they would a movie or a scripted show. They can latch on to a character and care about what happens to them. Along the way, they learn some information. The information we decided to include is mostly included to move the story forward. So we ended up using about 5% of what we had. So, for me, I’m happy if people like the show and it piques their interest so they can look further into it.
GS: You ended up making the driving force of the narrative being “Lucky” Luciano. Was there a discussion on whose story would be told before focusing on Lucky?
SD: I didn’t actually know the story before we began the research, but once we looked into it he really came across as being in the center of it all. Even though it was all illegal, he [Lucky] came up with some brilliant ideas. He drove the mob forward, sort of acting as the George Washington of the American Mafia. I feel like the reason he did so well is that he was an equal opportunity gangster. His predecessors would only work with Sicilians, but he worked with everybody, bringing in Lansky, Siegel and Murder Inc. There’s something very American about an immigrant coming to this country and working with anyone if he could make a dollar.
GS: With casting, what did an actor have to do to stand out and land a role like Lucky or Bugsy Siegel?
SD: There were really two things. One, we were looking at the photos of these guys and we really wanted someone who looked the part. And two, we want someone who is as good of an actor as we find within our budget. We simply don’t have the budget of a giant show. In fact, the guy who played Lucky Luciano — Rich Graff — in real life has red hair and blue eyes. I kept thinking about him, but we didn’t really have a part for him. We thought, maybe he could be Lepke Buchalter. After looking at the photos some more, I thought if we cut his hair, dyed it black and put in contacts he could be Lucky Luciano.
I remember the day we were doing fittings. We had the main five guys there doing a fitting. I was on a phone call, so they were outside waiting for me to approve the fitting. I went outside, walked around the corner and there they were, all five of them, sitting by a Dumpster and smoking. I thought, “Oh my god! It’s already done!” They had become their characters and were already hanging out. I knew they were cast well because they took on the right dynamic instantly.
GS: My understanding is you were on set for the reenactment aspects, but weren’t involved in the author interview segments.
SD: That’s correct. There’s a group that goes out with a crew and gets the interviews. We had about twenty-five interviews taking place in different settings, so I wasn’t at all of those. There’s an art to interviewing, and it’s something I don’t have. I do love the interviews though, because even after the research we can still get different perspectives from experts like yourself and it adds something more. To me, I’m always thinking of the project like a documentary.
GS: What stage is “Making of the Mob: Chicago” in right now?
SD: We haven’t filmed yet, but we’re just a few weeks away from filming. It’s a very interesting story, as you know, and it’s focused around Al Capone. What I found is a completely different story from what happened in New York. Which was great, because I didn’t know that going in. Umberto Celisano played Capone in the first season, (affiliate link) but we haven’t settled on an actor for the second season yet. It’s still in casting.
GS: As you said, the focus is Al Capone. Will the story extend beyond him?
SD: We’re actually going from Capone to the 1970s with Accardo.
GS: That’s exciting to hear. We don’t often get the story beyond the 1930s.
SD: What’s really interesting about Accardo is he’s basically the most successful gangster of all time that you’ve never heard of. And there’s a moral in there if you watch both seasons (affiliate link) to the end. You’ll realize the guy you’ve never heard of was the actual winner, the guy who was really untouchable. And that’s the reason.
GS: That’s Accardo’s claim to fame. Lived to old age, died a natural death and never spent a night in jail.
SD: Yeah. He started out as “Joe Batters” and ended up on top. It’s a great story arc, very much like Tony Soprano.
GS: We’re all looking forward to it. Thanks, Stephen.
SD: Thank you!
Update: Gavin was a consultant for Making of the Mob: Chicago (affiliate link) due to his expertise on the Chicago mafia.