Interview with Stephen Endelman

For an Englishman who went up the hill in Hollywood, Stephen Endelman has created a stylistically diverse career on both sides of pond, playing classical angst for Gustav Mahler (“Bride of the Wind”), the neurotic headspace of a parent-finding road trip (“Flirting With Disaster”), the kick-ass rhythms of Jackie Chan (“Operation Condor”), Irish heartstrings for a child-robbed father (“Evelyn”) and the epic drama of Israel’s creation (“O Jerusalem”). Yet the one genre that keeps re-appearing in Endelman’ repertoire is American crime, illegality which has proven just as invigorating for this somewhat imposing composer with the poignant music of a grifter’s family (“Imaginary Crimes”), the head-bashing, hard-boiled percussion of jewel thieves (“City of Industry”), the darkly tender music of an impressionable kid learning the pitfalls of the wiseguy life (“A Bronx Tale”) and the Asian-inflected underbelly of the martial arts circuit (“Red Belt”). But whatever the case, Endelman has always provided these dangerous, often quirky characters with solid dramatic footing, a seriousness that now finds itself upended with both whack-a-doo comedy and romantic fatalism in the NYC underworld of “Rob the Mob,” a score, and film, that stand as one of the composer’s most creative works in capturing the kind of rogues gallery so hard to believe that it must be true.

Where most “mob” movies concentrate on the code of goodfellas, the 80s-set “Rob the Mob” is most pointedly about those distinctly un-made people just outside of criminals’ orbit – yet deeply affected by it. One is a likeable young punk named Tommy (Michael Pitt), the son of a familia-crushed florist with a mad-on to get even. Proving himself to be smarter than he looks, and incredibly stupid as well, Tommy gets the idea from the John Gotti trial to stick up the “social clubs” that are littered throughout the boroughs, pocketing the wisguys’ cash and humiliating them in the bargain. His partner in crime is the vivacious Rosie (the scene-stealing Nina Arianda), who serves as the far smarter, and gun-savvy Bonnie to Tommy’s Clyde. What this couple nets in their crime spree not only brings them dangerously longed-for celebrity, but also the attention of the Feds and a reluctant mob boss named Big Al (Andy Garcia), a true family man who’s long felt his own wages of sin.

Where “Rob the Mob’s” trailer might understandably be selling itself as a zany comedy with no shortage of gun-shooting hijinks, there’s a surprising amount of seriousness to the way in which the film views its characters as far more complex than your usual goombahs. I’s a deeply felt resonance for the little “neighborhood” guy that marks the work of filmmaker Raymond de Felitta, with whom Endelman first teamed to play the unlikely multi-cultural, and multi-ethnic relationship of the Staten Island-located “Two Family House” (clan chemistry that DeFelitta would next take to even more operatically Italian heights in the Jan A.P. Kaczmarek-scored “City Island”). Not only does Endelman help De Felitta hit “Mob’s” cash-rich targets with jangling, energetic percussion and dark menace, but he also captures the duo’s impossible dreams with crafty rhythms, as well as subtly jazzy and beautifully elegiac music that hears how crime doesn’t profit anyone involved in it. But if there’s a humdinger to this score, then it’s Endelman’s simply gorgeous love theme for Tommy and Rosie, a gut-wrenching, poetic melody told in waltz-time that captures two people as hopelessly in love as they are hopeless in ambition, giving two neighborhood mooks a resonance worthy of tragically-destined lovers that Shakespeare might create.

Not given the richest of resources, Stephen Endelman has crafted a truly memorable, and offbeat score with “Rob the Mob” in a way these real-life crooks would likely have appreciated for all of their ill-advised grand schemes, an unlikely break-in that Endelman accomplishes with emotional gusto and a sense of unexpectedly touching irony.

“Rob the Mob” marks your second collaboration with filmmaker and writer Raymond De Felitta after the excellent “Two Family House.” How would you describe the way in which he sympathetically captures working-class characters? And how did your collaboration differ a decade later?

Raymond has made a career out of capturing Italian American working class characters with a myriad of interesting features. He knows the world so well and is able to capture it in a beautiful and quite lyrical manner, always with taste and integrity. I hope my music reflects that. Raymond loves melody in all its forms. He is a brilliant pianist, mostly jazz and the American songbook.

On this occasion Raymond was in the same studio – my studio. Raymond and his editor David Leonard worked in one room and I was in the other. He would edit. I would write, then throw what I’d written back to his room. He would change things in the picture or ask me to adjust the music. It was the most creative experience I’ve ever had with a director. It was fabulous how closely we worked.

As an Englishman, how interesting is it for you to be scoring movies about archetypical American characters like those in “Rob the Mob?”

I’m a composer, I draw inspiration from the moving image and I will write music to anything. I’m also now American so to me it seems completely natural. I love the Italian American culture, which I scored in my first movie “Household Saints.”

The album starts off with your song “Love and the Gun” How did it come into play?

Raymond had an idea to write a song for the movie. He wanted to make it a big 60s “Italianate” song, and that’s what we wrote. Ray came up with a lyric, which I then recorded it with a great band and string players Tamela D’Amico came in, translated the lyrics into Italian and sung it in both English and Italian. The song just fits the movie perfectly.

It’s shocking as it is fun to watch Tommy and Rosie’s idiocy at points. What was your own reaction to their characters when you first saw the film, and how did you want to capture it musically?

I love their crazy romantic behavior and their crazy love. I was able to reflect that in my main theme which is really quite beautiful. And also to answer your question I wanted to write a very delicate very beautiful, but rhythmically complicated main theme to reflect how I loved the film’s offbeat nature.

How did you want the music to balance the comedy and drama?

Morton Feldman, the great American 20th century composer, once said to me “There is no such thing as ‘funny’ music,” and I believe that to be true. I never think about music as being “funny.” I always think about the comedy, and the beats of the drama and dramatic situation, and I write accordingly. So I don’t know if there’s any “funny” music in this film. It is dramatic music, but often placed in funny situations which in this film highlights the oddness of some of the characters.

How do you see the characters of Tommy and Rosie?

I see Tommy and Rosie as two sad, misguided, somewhat silly but beautifully romantic people desperately in love. The love between them is palpable. I fell in love with them. I think as a composer I have to fall in love with the characters I’m writing for. I also I have to see some of me in them.

Could you talk about creating a terrifically memorable love theme for Tommy and Rosie?

Thank you for calling it that. I see Tommy and Rosie as diamonds in the rough. They are ignorant, but yet there is something so beautiful about them. I wanted to capture that in the “simplicity” of their music, although it isn’t simple at all. It’s a topsy-turvy rhythm, and these odd meter help to show the audience who these characters are.

Do you think it’s even more effective when a piano plays Tommy and Rosie’s theme?

Raymond talked about a piano theme, and I love the piano. For me it seemed to be the appropriate instrument for their love. I also knew I could build my strings, wind, and percussion around it. The piano is the soloist, not just for Rosie and Tommy, but for his mother, and Al, who’s the head of the mob family.

How did you want to capture the couple’s optimism that they’ll somehow get away with their scheme, along with the indomitable, dark forces they’re hopelessly outmatched against?

It’s hard to believe that two people could be so stupid as to think they could get away with robbing the social clubs of known Mafioso. I used a lot of homemade pads as textures for their darkness. I also went to a now-unused Wilton prison and recorded everything you could possibly imagine hitting inside a cell. That became my percussion ensemble, because Tommy and Rosie get sent to prison in the beginning of the movie.

In a way, do you think that even being involved with the mob is a life sentence? And if so, how did you want to capture that sense of tragedy?

For many it’s a life style choice. Like working in Hollywood or being a policeman in NYC. It’s a job, a business that’s illegal. Some people get away with it Tommy and Rosie had no chance, just like Bonnie and Clyde.

You also dealt with a street-smart career woman in the show “Made in Jersey.” Do you think that musical character translated to Rosie’s similar dreams of being a “professional” as it were?

Martina, who was the young lady in “Made in Jersey,” was very street smart and an Italian-American, which is the total opposite of Rosie. There was something terribly sad in the Rosie’s optimism that I tried to reflect in the music, which is heard in its poignancy, harmony and the piano melody and the filigree in the winds.

Almost two decades ago you also scored “Witness to the Mob” about Sammy ‘The Bull” Gravano, whose trial we see in “Rob the Mob.” How did you feel about coming full musical circle in that way?

My first movie was an Italian America movie called “Household Saints.” After that there was “A Bronx Tale,” “Witness to the Mob and “Two Family House.” So I guess I’ve scored lots of Italian American movies, not bad for a London Jew. However, my grandmother claimed to be related to Legs Diamond. I’ve always found the wise guy world fascinating. Yet I start any subject with a clean slate. I just try to bring my musical self to every project. I think that’s why I’ve never been tied down to any particular subject.

What were the budgetary challenges of “Rob the Mob,” and what’s your advice towards making the most out of a sampled orchestra, as you do here?

I was able to use enough real musicians to make the sound feel real. I know how to write for a small group and make it sound big. But most importantly, each movie requires a different approach. A 75-piece orchestra would not have been right for “Rob the Mob.” Also, I love chamber music I like to hear the contrapuntal lines as they weave in and out. Each instrument becomes a character and they talk to one another. That’s very much in the forefront of this score, and my music.

How did you want a jazz sound to figure into the score?

The music is syncopated, which creates tension, especially in the robbery scenes but I don’t think I’d call it “jazzy.”

You have some interesting instruments you wouldn’t expect in a mob score, especially what sounds to be a didgeridoo in “Worlds Falling Apart,” or Asian-style percussion in “Hit Goes Down.” How did you come up with those ideas?

It’s my pallets of sounds. I love combining eastern, Indian and western instruments. Even in “Evelyn” you’ll here the gamelan along with the Irish fiddle.

The most powerful cues in your score is for the conclusion of the film in “Christmas Day, 1992,” which accompanies Tommy and Rosie’s big date. Could you talk about the challenges of writing this piece?

I was in love with Tommy and Rosie from the moment I saw them on screen and I knew I had to write something that would be beautiful, sensitive and memorable, but not necessarily totally straightforward because it would reflect their mercurial love affair

How do you think the film, and your score subvert the “Goodfellas”-like expectations some people might have from the story? And in the end, do you think the goal of “Rob the Mob,” and your score is to see the humanity in people who are seemingly easy to classify,” especially when they do something so ill-advised?

What I love about this movie is that it’s not “Goodfellas,” which I love. “Goodfellas” was a different time. “Rob the Mob” is set in 1992, which is the end of the “Mafioso” era. It’s a bunch of old men in shorts being held up by a couple of kids.

Are you particularly drawn to films with flawed “heroes?”

I love flawed characters because we are all flawed. No one is perfect even when they think they are. That’s being human.

“Rob the Mob” opens in theaters on March 21st, with Stephen Endelman’s score available on Lakeshore Records HERE

Visit Stephen Endelman’s website HERE

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