Interview with composer Stephen Endelman and filmmaker Raymond De Felitta

Film Music Institute > Film Music Magazine (Current) > Industry Spotlight > Interview with composer Stephen Endelman and filmmaker Raymond De Felitta
(Stephen and Raymond)

As a English-born composer schooled at his country’s prestigious institutions, it’s ironic that Stephen Endelman would get his cinematic start on such distinctly American working class films as “Household Saints” and “Imaginary Crimes” before embarking a prolific, and stylistically varied career in which he’s played Gustav Mahler (“Bride of the Wind”), ultra violent jewel thieves (“City of Industry”), a devoted Irish father (“Evelyn”) and David Mamet’s judo master (“Red Belt”). As the Manhattan-born son of the supernaturally inclined writer (“Audrey Rose,” “The Entity”) and director (“Dark Night of the Scarecrow”) Frank De Felitta, Raymond De Felitta’s own work has been more down to earth. Specifically, giving a sympathetic, street level view to his city’s neighborhood types – most often in the musical company of Stephen Endelman.

It’s a partnership that’s brought out some of these friend’s best works. Beginning with a look at De Felitta’s own family’s past in the 1950’s, Endelman crafted a beautifully yearning, Italian-accented score for the relationship between a wannabe crooner and the pregnant Irish woman upstairs in 2000’s “Two Family House.” The duo would reteam many years later with 2015’s “Rob the Mob,” an eccentrically percussive and romantically haunting true-life tale of two Queens lovers with the very bad titular idea. De Felitta and Endelman went more upscale, though morally even lower for 2016’s ABC miniseries “Madoff,” a powerful recounting of the king of Manhattan pyramid schemes, for which the composer again showed his rhythmic inventiveness as he dramatically played the wages of sin.

Now the duo who are linked at the NYC-hip are back in a borough with “Bottom of the 9th.” It’s a heartfelt look at Sonny Stano (Joe Manganiello), a player who was already a major league Yankees contender before an encounter with some toughs ended in an accidental slaying. Now back after 17 years on the streets of The Bronx (a neighborhood Endelman knows well from the masterful “A Bronx Tale”), Stano seeks to make amends and make something of his perilous freedom. One beacon of hope is Angela Ramirez (Manganiello’s real wife Sofia Vergara), an almost angelically forgiving old girlfriend. The other is baseball, a sport for which a nearly aged-out Stano has never lost his talent. Feeling some measure of guilt in Stano’s’ fate, his old friend Hannis (De Felitta regular Michael Rispoli) invites him back to the Yankees training team to coach a fiery hotshot – paving the way for the ex-con’s seemingly impossible return to the big leagues.

Where a big Hollywood movie might have given “Bottom of the 9th” more typical feel-good plays, leave it to De Felitta’s humanistic touch to deliver a darkly moving, angst-filled picture that’s unsparing in the odds facing Stanos as he tries to reclaim his lost life. It’s a low-key approach that Endelman responds to with a powerfully thematic, yet intimate chamber score. Beginning with the pulsing electronics of an anger that Stanos had better contain, Endelman’s strings and piano bring out a beautifully heartfelt theme of a guy struggling to stay afloat, let alone keep his position on the team. Giving warmth to the natural chemistry between Stano and Angela, Endelman creates a striving, intimately operatic feel of batting against the odds, an unexpected honest approach for a cross-genre film that still delivers the feel-good redemption / big hit moment with subtle emotion to spare. It’s yet another winner for this unflashy teaming of cinematic street smarts and deeply felt film music, one that goes to the “Bottom of the 9th” with hard life lyricism and redemptive rhythmic grit.

Raymond, when did you first notice Stephen’s music, and what made you realize it would be a good fit for your filmmaking with “Two Family House?”

De Felitta: I think ‘Household Saints’ was the first music of Stephen’s I heard. I knew immediately that he had a great and yet simple emotional range that I knew “Two Family House: would benefit from. After we hired him he played me the first cue he wrote—which is at the emotional climax of the movie. What nerve! His music totally blew me away. I saw that my movie was going to another level by the simple addition of his artistry.

Endelman: I wanted to write a beautifully romantic but quirky theme for this unlikely love story. Because I was a clarinetist I wanted to write the theme for a solo clarinet. It was to be accompanied by an odd blend of other solo instruments. Piano, accordion, cello Tuba and string quartet. It made for an intimate chamber-like score. That suited the film because it’s about odd balls learning to communicate, much like chamber music.
My favorite cue is “The Birth.” Raymond, to my excitement, left it in because it’s starts off with the main theme and then disintegrates into a kind of Stravinsky sound – a la “The Soldier’s Tale.”

It would be 14 years before you’d team together again on “Rob the Mob.” How do you think you’d artistically grown by this point?

De Felitta: I became looser and more willing to indulge in the ‘accident’ of art by the time I made “Rob The Mob.” It was less carefully scripted than my previous movies, with a good deal of improv and on-the-fly creativity. That took confidence from me that I might not have had earlier. In fact, I used to shot list every scene before getting there and rehearsing with the actors. On “Rob The Mob,” I just saw what the actors wanted to bring and encouraged their ideas, then slid into shooting. I think this carried over into our work on the music—no set expectations, just a philosophical agreement as to what we wanted to accomplish.

Endelman: Raymond and I are close friends and timing and life got in they way of us collaborating. But we remained and remain in close contact, aware of both of our artistic endeavors. For my part I think I’ve developed a deeper understating of character motivations and how that relates to the music I write for them. I started off writing lush orchestral scores with lilting melodies and now I’ve found a freedom to
explore any number of emotional beats in any number of musical vernaculars.

What were the challenges of creating a real life-based film, and score that could capture the “fun” of a couple ripping off the mafia, but yet be destined for a bad end – something that you still managed to capture romantically?

De Felitta: The trick for me (and I think I speak for Stephen) is to direct against the genre as opposed to with it. A “crime movie score” wouldn’t have helped “Rob The Mob” because it’s not a crime movie per se. It’s a story of deep and doomed love and that’s what we wanted the audience to have in mind. I felt that the “fun” part would be better served by the R&B soundtrack stuff we licensed and the score would be the emotional core of the movie.

Endelman: Simply put, it’s a love story destined for disaster. So, I needed to write a love theme that was romantic, but off-kilter. So although it feels like a waltz, it’s not. Its meter is fractured. I balanced that with a tapestry of sounds, melodies, and harmonies that drive some of the action and make us feel for the bumbling Mafia and the absurdity of the situation.

What was it like taking on “Madoff?” another real-life film that shows how is never good?

Blythe Danner and Richard Dreyfuss as Ruth and Bernie Madoff

De Felitta: It was a tremendous privilege and just a little bit of pressure to be handed the opportunity to make an epic New York true crime movie. The Madoff story is so eternal, so universal, sad and yet—in a very bleak way—satisfying. Karma catches up (let’s hope!)

Endelman: It was fun and challenging, especially because it was our first show together for a major network. We navigated that really well and for the most part, I was able to write a score that served the picture and met all of ABC’s demands. Musically, I approached the score with three clear musical ideas. The Madoff theme is a mixture of rhythm neo-baroque strings. I wanted to contrast the sinister with the opulent elegance
of the trickster. Then I wrote his loyal wife’s theme. The percussion for that came from me by sampling shoes because she was a shoe fetishist. It’s a theme that has an innocent, unknowing quality. And then there’s the investigative theme, which sounds like numbers being crunched.

Raymond, what attracted you to “Bottom of the 9th?” And do you think in its way that it fit into the mold of a seemingly over-the-hill player showing he had the right stuff that we’d seen in movies like “The Rookie” and “Invincible?”

Filmmaker Raymond De Felitta

De Felitta: I’ve actually never seen either of those movies since I’m not really a sports guy. I have no particular interest in baseball. What I responded to was the story of a person who is an artistic talent who throws away his gift and, once he has the opportunity to regain it, isn’t really sure he wants too. Being an artist is not always a happy thing, and Sonny wants to leave that part of his life behind and be ‘normal’. But if you’re a true artist – as he is – you can’t keep a lid on it forever. His art is also his soul and that’s what he can’t help but express.

Stephen why did you take an instrumentally intimate approach for the score?

Composer Stephen Endelman

Endelman: Raymond and I talked a lot about what we wanted to do with this score. We knew from the get-go it was not going to be a straight-ahead sports or urban score. At its core, it’s about second chances in working peoples’ lives and it’s a love story. To that end, I didn’t want a big orchestra to explode onto the screen. I wanted something more intimate but with flexibility. So we have chamber-size string orchestra piano percussion and various synths. Raymond and I talked about “Chariots of Fire.” We’re in the Bronx, familiar territory for me because of “A Bronx Tale.” So I thought I’d fuse the electronics of “Chariots” with the feeling of Puccini’s “Bellissimo” along with my unique style and approach.

Would you describe this as a “sports” score at all, given that it’s set around baseball?

Endelman: No it has sports elements but it’s a slice of life score about two people caught in a situation that they need to grow from. It’s not an underdog story like “Rudy.” It’s about a man who as teenager had already made it to the big leagues when he makes a fateful mistake. But his love of his sport, which is in his DNA, will not go away. So my score has a nostalgic sense of yearning because he’s trying to move forward and does so with the love of his girlfriend from the past.

How do you think that Sofia and Joe’s real-life chemistry benefitted the film and score?

Endelman: I think it’s obvious they’re in love and all I had to do was write a love theme that was honest, and fit their motivations. Raymond always sends me the most emotional scene in the film to start with – the scene that encapsulates the motivation behind the characters’ actions. In “Bottom of the 9th,” it was the scene in reel 3 when Joe and Sophia kiss outside her apartment. You could feel their love. But it wasn’t the hand gesture that caught me it was her thumb lovingly stroking his hand. It was believable and palpable.

With Joe giving such a dynamic, inward performance here, does that make you take a less-is-more approach?

De Felitta: I guess I always take that approach. Because if you believe in your material, then you don’t need a bullhorn to make your point.

Endelman: Joe gives a delicate, textured, sometimes tortured performance and that has to be represented in the score. I don’t believe, nor do I think you can reshape a performance with music. It becomes disingenuous and the audience knows it. When he returns home from prison and goes into the apartment he’d left behind, you can feel his sadness and his memories. My job was to elude through the music what he was missing, not his feelings because that was captured by Joe and Raymond’s camera and direction.

How do your themes develop through the score?

Endelman: The heroic theme develops the most. It’s the first theme we hear in the prison courtyard that opens the film. It’s a simple piano motive. As Stano evolves, so does it in its complexity of its harmony and orchestration. By the end, it’s full on “hero music.” I remembered the last cue in “A Bronx Tale” and how excited Chazz Palminteri and Robert De Niro were when they heard the cellos and basses bounce along. I decided to do the same in the film with the last, and most heroic cue.

Given that there’s a lot of heavy drama in the movie, how important was it to give a sense of tenderness, hope, and lightness when needed?

De Felitta: I actually thought there wasn’t an overabundance of “heavy drama’ and that the trick to the whole thing was to sneak in the heavy while concentrating on the tender. I had a lot of fun with the scenes with Manny (the rookie) and showing how ridiculous and enjoyable out-of-control arrogance can be. But having Sonny and Angela take that walk on the old Yankee stadium grounds also made me feel that we were telling a truth. We all have places and people that we look back on that make us feel both happy and poignantly sad at the same time.

Endelman: For me it’s a balance between the Light and Dark. Life is complicated and these characters’ have difficult lives that need to be expressed in the music. But it’s not black and white and neither is the music. It breathes when they breathe, sometimes forcefully but always in step with their emotional beats. I think of my favorite series of cues is the reveal of the crime that Stano committed. It doesn’t happen all at once, but is spread over the film. That’s a combination of the coming home cue at the beginning and the violent cue just before the climax of the film.

Movies like this have that “home run” moment where the fate of the person, and team depends on scoring a vital point, an act that’s given a sense of myth making. How did you want to capture at mythic do-or-die feeling for climax?

De Felitta: Sports movies (if that’s what you want to call this) have certain architecture—you’re probably not going to get away with making one without that last scene. I wanted to honor that tradition by giving the movie a big, emotionally satisfying ending. But I also loved having Sonny get beat up and tell his coach–who doesn’t want to put him in and says that there’ll be other games, that “I think this one might be it.” Because that means that Sonny isn’t doing it to become a famous hitter. He just wants that one last attempt. When I thought this through, I realized that what the ending really meant was that he wasn’t yet truly free, even though he’d finally gotten out of prison. That final at-bat and the slam over the wall and the run around the bases was what finally made him free.

Endelman: For my part, it’s when the heroic theme flies and feels like it’s free, like the ball that Sonny hits over the fence in the last scene. It’s interesting because it’s not like Sonny is going to return to major baseball. It’s about him finally leaving his past behind.

Raymond, beyond your films’ settings, do you think there’s a theme that runs through your movies?

De Felitta: I’ve never consciously sat down to make this a theme, but it seems like I’m often telling stories about everyday people who have an inner artist/poet in them and need to express this side of them in order to grow. In “Two Family House,” Buddy the factory worker is really Buddy the lounge singer and he doesn’t even want to be famous—he just wants to be able to express himself. In “City Island,” Vince (Andy Garcia) is a prison guard who secretly years to be Marlon Brando. But it’s not fame—it’s the need to make himself feel whole that drives him (and winds up leading him to find the son he never knew). In ‘Bottom Of The 9th’ Sonny is already a full-fledged artist but he wishes he weren’t anymore and wants to tamp it down. Yet he can’t—because his art reveals his inner self.

Stephen, as an Englishman, how do you relate to Raymond’s New York stories?

Endelman: I’m as much a New Yorker as I am a Londoner. In fact I feel more at home in the streets of NY than I do in London. I think the energy and swagger of the city just suits my ideas and me both artistically and spiritually. I’m not Italian but for some reason I relate to the characters and their energy in a very honest and genuine way. Raymond’s movies inspire me. I feel his characters and their emotions.

What do you think makes a good “fit” between director and composer?

Endelman: We enjoy each others company — a drink a chat, but mostly we empathetically agree with one another. For my part, it’s a pleasure and an honor to continue to have Raymond as a friend, and collaborator. friend and my collaborator.

What’s up for both of you next?

De Felitta: A series of cocktails I hope!

“Bottom of the 9th” hits the bases in theaters and VOD on July 19th, with Stephen Endelman’s score digitally available July 26th on Lakeshore Records

Buy Stephen Endelman’s soundtracks HERE, and find out the news about his award winning short film “A Boy a Man and a Kite” HERE

Visit Stephen Endelman’s website HERE