Interview: Danny A. Abeckaser Talks MOB TOWN, The Apalachin Mafia Meeting And THE IRISHMAN
The existence of organized crime in the United States was a debatable matter until late 1957, when more than 50 gangsters were arrested at a major Mafia meeting that took place in Apalachin, New York. That raid changed the course of history and led to the FBI’s public admission that the mob was a real threat.
According to Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses –certainly the basis for Martin Scorsese’s latest masterpiece The Irishman – Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci’s character in the film) was one of the organizers of the Apalachin meeting and Frank Sheeran himself (the titular “Irishman”, played by Robert De Niro) drove him there. While Scorsese’s cinematic adaptation does depicts briefly the murder of Albert Anastasia (which was a key factor to the subsequent organization of the Apalachin meeting), and makes a quick reference to Bufalino’s involvement in all of this, the historic 1957 Mafia encounter is never mentioned expressly. Enter Danny A. Abeckaser’s Mob Town, a movie that’s entirely about the Apalachin meeting.
Based on the real events, Mob Town stars David Arquette as Ed Croswell, a state trooper who, after some incidents, becomes very suspicious and starts researching criminal activity in Apalachin involving a mobster that he knows from back in the day: Joseph Barbara (Abeckaser himself gives what is, for my money, the most memorable performance of the movie), who has connections way beyond his home town.
When capo Vito Genovese (Robert Davi) decides to set up a huge meeting with Mafia bosses from all over the U.S. – with the intention of communicating to them that he’s the new capo dei capi after ordering hits on both Frank Costello (Ray Bouderau) and Anastasia (curiously enough, Garry Pastore plays this mobster here and also in The Irishman) – Barbara’s house is chosen as the reunion spot, because Apalachin is a perfect low-profile town.
With the help of his wife Josephine (The Sopranos’ Jamie-Lynn Sigler), the energetic Barbara does everything (including buying an extraordinary quantity of meat and booking every room at the local hotel) to not disappoint as a host and to please Genovese. But what none of the mobsters imagined was trooper Ed Croswell‘s willingness to do real, meaningful police work against all odds, particularly his superior’s disapproval though he had the support of both his love interest (a widower and mother-of-three played by Jennifer Esposito) and his work partner (The Wolf of Wall Street’s P.J. Byrne).
Mob Town is definitely a fine movie to watch following The Irishman; in fact, the other major connection between both films is that Abeckaser has a small role in Scorsese’s epic, as the indebted deadbeat who has to face both Sheeran and “Skinny Razor” (Bobby Cannavale) after lying, for the zillionth time, about his mother’s death.
So with Mob Town hitting theaters, VOD and Digital HD on Friday, December 13th, and with The Irishman already streaming on Netflix, it was an appropriate time to chat with actor and director Danny A. Abeckaser.
ScreenAnarchy: How was your first approach to the real-life story of the Apalachin meeting?
Danny A. Abeckaser: When I first spoke to my lawyer and I was telling him I’m looking for a great script, he came back and said there’s this movie called The Sit Down and it’s about the 1957 Apalachin meeting, which I heard of growing up ‘cause I’m a big fan of all that whole world.
But when I read the script it was terrible, it was all about gangsters and they used weird languages, and I was not interested in it.
But I thought about it, I was like “I really love the story, the meeting but I don’t like the approach that they took.”
So I approached the guy who had the rights to the story, who got the script written, and I said, “look, if you let me hire a writer and we do the script the way we like it, I’d be very interested to make this movie.”
What I found interesting is the state trooper and his world, he comes from such a small community of 500 people; stumbling on this is what was interesting to me. We tried to tell the story through his eyes and that’s why I thought that it was interesting, you know? I didn’t want to do just another gangster movie that you feel you've seen a million times.
That’s exactly what I found interesting: a gangster story told from the perspective of a small-town police trooper. In that sense, was there any challenge to greenlight the movie?
Yeah, it was challenging because it’s a small movie, we had to duplicate 1957, with the wardrobe and the cars. It’s very difficult but I loved it. David Arquette, I thought he did an incredible job carrying the movie. But what was really difficult is trying to keep both worlds interesting; people don’t find it to be so interesting to see a small-town of upstate New York, but because “Joe the Barber” [Joseph Barbara] is buying all this meat and is being followed, it creates this energy and we thought that was great.
I felt that MOB TOWN is like a homage to what Ed Croswell did, to the value of his work that pretty much changed the course of Mafia history in the U.S. How important was for you to highlight what this trooper did?
Absolutely. Because if you think about it, nothing happened! They all [the mobsters] ran out of the house [in Apalachin] and no one really got arrested, they tried to charge a few people and none of it stuck, so what happened? It felt like there was a shootout, it felt like somebody died, you know?
But what I found interesting is because of this, the FBI had to acknowledge the Mob obviously, for the first time publicly. I thought that’s incredible. Up until that time, J. Edgar Hoover tried to keep it very low-key but then he exposed that. And then the most important part of this, is because of this meeting the RICO Act started, the RICO Act is how they were able to get all these gangsters, Mayor [Rudolph] Giuliani used it to get John Gotti and all these people. That changed the course of the Mob because once you had the RICO Act, you’re guilty by association. It was very important to me to highlight this.
People running out the house and hiding was fun… if I was gonna make up the story there would have been a shootout, but this is exactly what happened. But I felt like by telling the story like that and then hitting people with the facts of what really happened is important, that was a big part of me putting the movie together and how I wanted to show it.
I read some articles about the Apalachin meeting and, indeed, your movie is pretty faithful to reality. How was the research process?
We tried to do as much research as possible to find out what exactly happened. And we found out that right after Vito Genovese actually showed up, then they noticed that there were cops there, and they all started running outside the house. Nothing really was talked about, there was nothing really happening in the house, they weren’t there long enough to actually like do anything. So I wanted to make sure that we got that right.
Well, we don’t know exactly what happened in the home, you know? We assume a bunch of guys come together, they smoke cigarettes, they eat food, they drink whisky and they talk, you know?
You play one of the protagonists of MOB TOWN, the actual host of the meeting…
Yeah, I play “Joe the Barber.”
I think it’s my favorite performance in the movie, because you bring so much color to a mobster who wants to stand out and who’s nervous preparing everything for the meeting with the help of his wife. How was your approach to this very peculiar character?
Thank you for saying that, I appreciate it.
When I decided to play him, I didn’t know how I was gonna play him, I was like trying to figure out. When I had a vision for the movie and the vision was: when we’re on Ed and the stakeouts, where he’s like watching the house, I wanted to be very quiet and very steady. And when we’re inside the house I wanted to be very loud and crazy. That gave me an idea of how to play Joe, so when you see Ed everything is very simple, he’s just like “yes sir, no sir”, you know? I wanted just a total contrast, a total difference, and so I realized I needed it to play it so crazy; it got so nuts I would have to do like push-ups right before a scene just to get my energy off, you know? But I love my character, it was so much fun to play.
You also appear briefly in THE IRISHMAN but aside of that, MOB TOWN has a lot of connections to the Frank Sheeran, Russell Bufalino story. Even in the book [I HEARD YOU PAINT HOUSES] there’s more information than in the film about Bufalino and Sheeran’s involvement with the Apalachin meeting. Do you consider MOB TOWN as a companion piece to THE IRISHMAN?
When I shot The Irishman I wasn’t even like thinking about making Mob Town, so that was just a coincidence.
Vito Genovese is actually the one who chose to make the meeting. Russell Bufalino was a big part of inviting people and making sure people showed up. But we decided just to follow the Vito character and his journey, and not going to all the other characters.
But it’s such a famous meeting, I was shocked that there’s never been a movie about it. In Analyze This the first three minutes is all about Apalachin meeting and they have footage and everything. They mentioned it in Goodfellas, so it’s been mentioned and talked about but I was shocked that no one has ever made a movie about it.
So you actually shot THE IRISHMAN before MOB TOWN, right?
Yeah, I shot The Irishman in February 2018 and right after that, in August, I shot Mob Town. So six-and-a-half months later.
What did you learn about the process of someone like Martin Scorsese? You also share the screen with Robert De Niro and Bobby Cannavale, so what did you bring from that experience to your own movie?
The one thing I learned by acting for Martin Scorsese: he’s very giving to his actors. He doesn’t say much, he doesn’t go “I need you to do it like this and this.” He just says, “look, you're playing this and this guy, this is who you are, this is who your character is, this is what kind of world you’re living in, and this is the situation you’re in, Frank is gonna come."
I remember my first scene with De Niro, Scorsese said to me: “Hey, you’re playing a deadbeat, you owe everybody money, and then Frank, he’s got a gun… you guys figure it out." And what he did was, I didn’t realize, I was like so nervous, but he put me in that world, he made me understand why, he made me understand who Frank is. Learning from that, I tried to apply that in my movies, ‘cause I’m an actor, I know how I wanna be talked to, every actor loves to hear “great job, that was great, let’s do that again a little bit louder.” We’re all insecure, we all don’t understand if we’re doing it right and we want people genuinely tell us if we’re doing it right. Just the way to work with the actor is what I really learned.
I also wanna move the cameras as much as I can and create shots that are going to be interesting, but I don’t have that kind of money [laughs], to do all these crane shots and stuff. But we got creative with the drones and we moved the camera with some dollies… I think I learned a lot of that.
And De Niro, just acting with him I learned you have to be in the moment, you have to really take it all in and act like this is really happening in your life. I can’t explain it, but when Robert De Niro pulls a gun on me in The Irishman there’s a step back I took, it was honestly a reaction; if someone pulls a gun you go “wow!”, even though I know the gun is not real.
You love the gangster film, so what were your main references for MOB TOWN?
Again, I tried not to make it a gangster movie, I know this is funny to say… it’s obviously a gangster movie ‘cause all these gangsters are in it. It’s funny because these characters, I don’t know anybody in real life like that. I’m just fascinated with the way they talk and the look, but I can’t believe these people actually do that, they’re so violent. It just comes off really attractive on screen because we obviously don’t do that in our everyday life, so I’m just fascinated and interested in it. But I wanted to stay away from like doing the whole The Sopranos cast, I wanted to cast people that you’ve never really seen so you can really believe those characters, ‘cause they’re all playing real-life people. I just find those characters so interesting.