Interview with Joe Maggio, Director of The Last Rites of Joe May
by Ruben R. Rosario
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Ruben Rosario: The first thing that I wanted to ask was about something I read in the press release, you mentioned being inspired by Umberto D. That was something that I noticed while watching the film even before reading about it, especially in the way that you had photographed Chicago and having Dennis Farina walking around this big city. Were you trying to recreate a sort of Neo-Realist approach in making The Last Rites of Joe May?
Joe Maggio: Absolutely. It’s funny because Umberto D was one of the biggest early influences. I had been doing this Italian Neo-Realist little home film festival and I was just so blown away by Umberto D. It had felt so timely with this idea that here’s a city where everyone’s going about their business, it’s very civilized and everyone feels as though they’re removed from the wild. That they’re living in a safety net by living in such close quarters in this city, but in fact for a character like Umberto D or Joe May, death in the wilds of the streets is just one step away. If you just loose one little thing or you get sick, you lose a little money, your car gets towed, your friends are gone, it’s like suddenly, this city’s not a safe place. The street that everyone’s going down, that people are happily going down to meet friends…for Joe… it’s like going around the corner may be
RR: It’s like death looming…
JM: Yeah it’s like the going down the road of some forbidden jungle. So it was very important for me to shoot this in the winter because that just adds a layer of seriousness to the situation, like a gravity you know. It’s cold out and if you stay out too long, yes you can die if you’ve got nowhere to go and it’s very possible that that can happen and it does happen a lot. So we did want to lovingly photograph Chicago because I think it’s an amazing city and for me coming to Chicago with fresh eyes and seeing all the little back alleyways and it was very cinematic and it’s something you don’t really see it much in films. So I wanted to shoot it that way and even also during the color timing of the film, we wanted to give an edge of menace and show that this was not a very nice place, for certain people like Joe May.
RR: One of the other things that I love about the film is this quirkiness that you portray Joe May. One of the early scenes of the movie is when Joe’s on the bus and he gives up his seat on the bus for a woman to sit down. Right afterwards another woman just gets up and makes him sit down, to give us an idea of his mortality and his age. Was that something that you and Dennis always wanted to portray in order to make Joe a much more likable character and have Dennis bring his witty charm to such a tragic hero.
JM: It’s funny because Dennis just brings that charm and charisma to the table. The only directorial assertion that I made everyday was to just bring Dennis back from that. Because that guy, when he walks into the room, he just so warm and there’s a charisma and he’s very personable. He can just shake your hand and make you feel like you’ve been friends from the old days from the neighborhood for forever. So, I felt that it was important that we uncover other layers and not have Joe be this sort of…uh…I don’t want to say sympathetic but that he’s a guy in a very serious situation. He’s been knocked down and he’s scrambling and trying to get back on his feet and it’s a desperate situation for him. With that being said, Joe May is a character from another age or era, where walking in a place, giving everyone the glad hand and kind of working the room is his bread and butter, so he is that…
RR: Showing off his digs and his jacket.
JM: Yeah man, he’s a social animal and going to the bar to him isn’t like me going to a bar and meeting up with some friends. That’s work for Joe. You gotta go to this bar or go to that bar and talk to this guy and make sure that everyone knows that you’re still around. You’re still working, you’ve still got some goods and that’s who Joe is. Dennis, by just being a cop for 20 years, knew those kinds of guys and really used that for the role. One thing also that Dennis would do would just approach it with a little comedy and he would just be like “This is really funny” from the very beginning. A guy like Joe gets himself into a bunch of these situations that are…not that you would laugh if you were in them…but it’s just kind of pathetic, you know and you gotta have some sort of sense of humor about it.
RR: I mean it’s sad when you see Joe walking down that alley with a hunk of meat in his arms, but you can’t help but laugh when the dog just runs up and snatches it out of his hands. [laughs]
JM: Exactly! [laughs] That’s exactly it.
RR: Another moment that I wanted to address is that there’s this moment between Joe and Jenny Rapp [played by Jamie Anne Allman] where she’s asking him for this sort of warmth and comfort and Joe sets up a boundary between them and doesn’t cross this line. Most films would have used this to sort of give the film a nice little romantic story and you never go there. Joe kind of stands there and tells her No, I will not fulfill this role for you. Why did you choose to approach this scene this way?
JM: Well, I was coming from that scene from one angle and Dennis was coming at it from another and we both used those two different approaches to get to the same place. I think for Dennis, his character is from another age, he’s got a set of rules and a code that he lives by and he’s faithful to that code.
RR: Absolutely, he’s faithful to it till the very end.
JM: To the very end and it’s just that…he’s holding devalued currency basically. Those rules no longer apply and guy’s like Joe May have no place in this world. What’s happened is that time has past him by. So, for Dennis, it was important for a guy like Joe to not have romantic feelings for this much younger woman. He lives there as an honorable man and he wasn’t going to, like you said, step over these boundaries. Even if all she wanted was just a hug or just a connection between two human beings, he sticks to his own grounds and makes sure that she knows that, look I’m only here renting the room and nothing else…
RR: and that’s that
JM: That’s that and it is what it is. I was coming from the approach where Joe is one of these characters who is capable of incredible nobility at one moment and then in another, just becomes really petty. He’s worried about what other people think about him. He’s a guy who, as ill as he is, would risk getting even sicker, just to look good in his coat. There’s a smallness there and it’s endearing maybe and it’s what probably drove his wife and his son away, so there’s a smallness there, a pettiness and I think in that moment is a moment that Joe can control. He can deny someone something and he can be someone like Lenny and say “No, I don’t think so” and in need as she is, he cannot help himself, it’s the one opportunity to be in control and to deny someone something. I don’t think he feels too good after it and I think that at that moment, a chapter is turned and we go somewhere else in the story. So there were two different approaches, but we ended up in the place we wanted to be.
RR: It’s such a strong scene in the film.
JM: It was such a hard scene to do because its a weird thing that she asks him. We did not want for her to come off as if she was coming on to him. It could have gotten really awkward, we wanted some of that but we didn’t want it to be that. So we were all coming at it from different angles, I think even Jenny was having a different approach to it as well.
RR: I mean the way that Jaime delivers the line “Joe, can you please hold me?” never comes off as her coming on to him. It never comes off as inappropriate, it’s more like, I kinda need your help right now I kinda need some human connection and the only real human connection she has is her daughter [Meredith Droeger]. Now Joe has sort of filled a role of a fatherly figure but he still let’s her know, when he tells her that he can’t do that, I’m not your father and I will not do this for your and its such a strong reaction and makes it such a powerful scene that was just so well executed.
JM: Well, thank you so much. Thank you
RR: Speaking of Meredith, how hard was it guiding her to get to the places that you wanted her to go?
JM: Let me tell you, Meredith is one of the most professional people I’ve ever worked with. She showed up everyday fully prepared and had done so much work with her father so that when she’d get to set, she knew her lines and she’d know the other actor’s lines. When she’d be in a scene with another actor, she’d be able to feed them lines if they’d stumble and she’d be able to always give me a number of options. Her father really really spent a lot of time working with her and you know, there’s a lot of stuff that a 6 year old girl wouldn’t necessarily wouldn’t understand but he worked with her to come to some sort of understanding of the material and she’d act like a total professional. So, I worked with her just like I would any other actor on set and she’d be able to bring that level of professionalism but at the same time be a little kid. When we were auditioning these actresses, we were running three little scenes and when we had the call backs it was Meredith and a couple other girls. We had Dennis there and we were auditioning a few other parts, so we had to limit the initial three scenes down to two. So the scene that we left out was the one where Meredith is in the bird coop, Dennis finds her says “You scared the s#!t outta me!” and she says “You scared the s#!t outta me!”. So we finish the two scenes and we say thank you and she looks really concerned, so we ask her what’s wrong. She looks at us and then says “Well….When do I get to say the word, S#!t?” [Laughs].
JM: So we’re all like “Oh no, we’re not doing that scene today.”, but she came really prepared and she was really hoping she could say s#!t. So, Dennis got up and did the scene with her and again, she’s a little kid but the upmost professional. [Laughs]
RR: As far as the ending of the film is concerned, was the fact that Joe makes headlines in the newspaper sort of his last hurrah?
JM: Well, the real repercussions most people will never know. People wont know that Jenny and her daughter are now free and that’s why Joe does it. He also though does it in order to get to get his picture in the paper. There’s always that bittersweetness to Joe and I wanted it to make an impression on the one man [Lenny played by Gary Cole] that he’s been trying to impress throughout the whole movie, but it’s only for a split second. I think Gary kills that scene and makes the most out of it. Just one second and then he just does the knock and then life goes on.
RR: The page in the paper gets turned and then life just moves on. It really personifies his embodiment of that lifestyle of a low-level hustler. He gets this one big break and that’s it.
JM: Yeah it’s not even 15…
RR: 15 Minutes of fame [laughs].
JM: Yeah, it’s not even 15 minutes, it’s just 15 seconds [laughs]. Life goes on, he’s forgotten and that’s just the last rites of Joe May. [laughs]
RR: I was really glad that I saw it and…
JM: Were you there last night ?[The festival opening with the premier of The Last Rites of Joe May]
RR: No, I was at the press screening the other day. It was the first time that I had encountered your work and I was really glad I did so.
JM: Netflix! [laughs]
RR: Thank you so much Joe and I hope you have a great time here at the festival.
JM: Thank you, Thank you.
Ruben R. Rosario is a graduate from Columbia College Chicago with a degree in Audio for Visual Media. He works as a freelance location sound mixer, boom operator, sound designer, and writer in his native Chicago. He’s an avid collector of films, comics, and anime.
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