When you hit the rock bottom, you can only look up. Which is what makes the act of rebuilding lives interesting. View it through the prism of humour, and it might not seem all that bad at all. Mark Janicello’s The Finellis Movie is a case in point. Having served a prison sentence, recording star Tony Finelli returns home to find his wife has fallen out of love with him and daughters, while being empathetic, have no vivid memories of their father. Tony then embarks on a journey to reclaim his life, which puts him through some extraordinary circumstances.
The Finellis Movie trailer
The film’s writer, co-director and lead actor Mark Janicello talks about drawing inspiration from his own life and why Finellis is a story for Everyman.
Edited excerpts from an interview:
Tell us about your formative years.
I was born in New York. My father was an electronic engineer for Nasa. I inherited my artistic talents from my mum, who was born with an operatic soprano voice. She never took piano lessons, but could have very easily sung opera professionally. She is a songwriter, poet, painter, a gospel singer; she has written hundreds of gospel songs. Everybody in my family is artistic, except my dad who is the brains in the family (laughs). When I was six or seven, my family moved to North Carolina. My father then forayed into the furniture business, something he knew nothing about. Working with my father gave me the work ethic that has accompanied me my entire life.
What drew you towards scientology?
I was in a marriage that wasn’t doing well. When I was a young man, I was a bit of a jerk. I had never failed in anything in my life, but I was failing in my personal life. I tried everything to save the relationship because I had a young daughter and my oldest daughter was also very small. After trying everything, a friend of mine in New York, who was involved in scientology, gave me the Dianetics book. Now you must note that this was 1993, a time before the age of the Internet when none of us had any information about scientology. They were good at having celebrities like Tom Cruise and John Travolta market them. I read the book and thought maybe there is something to it, and got involved. It did not save my marriage. It did not solve any personal problems. But then I moved to Europe and was singing at an opera house in Zurich; my ex-wife was Swiss and I thought she’d be happy because living in New York is not for the faint-hearted (laughs). I abdicated all my responsibilities thinking scientology would fix it for me. Having gone through that whole process, I have realised that the only person who will save you is looking at you in the mirror every morning.
What are the aspects of your personal life that you have woven in Tony Finelli?
I went from earning $60,000 a month playing Elvis in this musical when Scientology happened. I went from that to nothing. I didn’t get an audition anywhere — Germany, Switzerland or Austria, which were the main markets. I was blacklisted. I couldn’t pay my bills anymore; I couldn’t pay child support. At the same time, I went through a divorce. I lost everything at once. The only thing that kept me going was humour. It wasn’t funny. Underneath great humour is usually a lot of pain. The reason Finellis works is because these characters are authentic. Tony Finelli started out as a version of me. He was married, had two daughters, but Tony actually became his own character during filming. I wrote the story because I should be dead and I’m not. I stood and fought for all those years so that my children could be proud of me. I want The Finellis to give people hope. I am not a pretty, young thing anymore. I am 59 years old. I have gone through the drill and have had four or five surgeries on my joints. But I never gave up. And because I did that, I can tell that story to the world. You can’t fake that.
I love Tony because he is a good and simple guy. He is not the brightest. There is certainly a part of me that’s like Tony. I am a lot more complex. The audience cannot relate to me; I am too much for everyone (laughs). Tony is a simplified version of what people can understand because it allows them to go on this journey. Every experience Tony has, the audience has an opportunity to learn something along with him.
The Finellis is also a story of rebuilding life and identity, which can be an extremely difficult project. How did humour help?
What’s important to me is to always offer my hand to the audience. If you want your audience to experience this with their heart, you have to offer them your hand to embark on this journey with you. It was important to me to take a microcosm and tackle one problem at a time. First, he gets out of jail. Then he finds out his wife does not want him anymore. The audience goes in steps. It keeps them engaged, and allows them to put it together.
Was the trope of a story unravelling through an interview also a commentary on the celebrity culture?
When I was a little boy, I wanted to be as famous as Michael Jackson. Now as an adult, one knows what actually happened to that man. All the people I grew up idolising achieved the pinnacle of success, and they all died awful deaths. That’s not success. One of the messages in The Finellis is that success is not what you think it is. Are you happy? Are you proud of what you are doing? Who is around you? Are you healthy? Are you content? On your way back to rebuilding, you appreciate everything because you’ve had nothing.
How did you choose the physical spaces where you shot?
I was living in Berlin then. It is a city of immense historical significance, with World War II and separation between East and West Germany. I wanted to show the diversity of the city. We shot at a real prison in Berlin. There is a scene where I am being escorted through a long tunnel to the police headquarters; that was actually underground in East Berlin where the stasi officers would practise their gun skills. The villa where Tony Finelli lives — I looked at 84 different villas to find one. I wanted to find places in real life that would reflect where Tony had been. Which is why we shot everything in location.
Music is very much a character in the film. How did you weave it into the narrative?
Music speaks to the human soul. It goes past the ability to think logically. Music has its own wavelength, which is why people can react to it even if they don’t understand the language in which it’s sung. It was important to me to not simply tell the story through comedy or drama, but also music. Also, music allows you to take flights of fancy. In this film, it is mostly a performance. But there are times when music takes over the narrative. It allows us visually to go to another place. I believe a person’s singing voice is a reflection of their soul. If you listen to Eartha Kitt, she sounds a certain way; if you listen to Maria Calais, you can hear the pain. The first time I heard Amy Winehouse, I thought this girl was not going to live very long. Her pain and psychic trouble was evident in her sound. You could hear it from the very first note.
There is a poignant dinner table scene where the Finellis come together with Kim and Jorge and what unfolds is a conversation on tradition versus modernity. What was the thought behind writing that scene?
We live in an age where “normal” adult discussion about political, moral or societal differences of opinion and viewpoint no longer take place. There is a degree of polarisation in society that has never existed before at this level. This change has been created by social media, because, if one so chooses, on social media, one can surround themselves in cyberspace with people who exclusively share your opinions and viewpoints. This is detrimental not only to the individual, but to our society at large.
However, none of us live in cyberspace. On a daily basis, and over the course of a lifetime, we meet countless individuals who are different to us in ways great and small. The confrontation with others allows us to learn from each other’s experiences and opinions. We may not agree with someone, their viewpoint, politics, religion or lifestyle, but we can be informed and perhaps find understanding if not acceptance for those who think, live or believe in a manner foreign to ourselves.
I may not agree with everything in my own movie. I am presenting various points of view in order to allow my audience to make up their own minds. I am not here to make a moral judgement about any person’s decisions, as I am not God. In America, we have a saying, “Don’t judge a person until you have walked a mile in their shoes.” These are very wise words.
The dinner table scene was written expressly to show four adults, from completely differing points of views, beliefs and life experiences who are thrown together. The conversation clearly delineates each individual’s standpoint, but shows that through open and honest communication, understanding for each other can be achieved.
The film also features legendary designer Mario Garcia. How was his role woven into the film?
He was among the 1,174 men I auditioned to play Tony’s father. I loved him but thought he was wrong for the part. So I called him up and asked him to tell me a little bit about himself. And then he told me his story. He worked his way to where he is now. I felt that story was so extraordinary that it had to be in the show. So I wrote the role into the movie for Mario because I was so impressed.
Can we expect a spinoff?
I hope we make a series, I also want to do children’s animation. When my oldest daughter was still little, I used to read her stories about the Flying Finellis. So these are actual stories that I told my children. It’s about empowering young girls to do anything they want. It’s my hope we make the series a success.
The latest edition of wknd. conversations addressed the growing relevance of OTT and content creation in the entertainment industry