Q & A with Writer-Producer-Director Tommy J. La Sorsa


“Circus Maximus” writer–producer–director Tommy J. La Sorsa

“Circus Maximus” writer–producer–director Tommy J. La Sorsa

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with leading filmmakers Martin Grove talks to writer–producer–director Tommy J. La Sorsa about his dark comedy “Circus Maximus,” which played recently at film festivals in New York and is now being shown to distributors.

The Daydream City Films presentation stars Julian McCullough, Mario Cantone, Kevin Corrigan, Sal (The Stockbroker) Governale from the Howard Stern Show, Bianca Hunter, Rachel Feinstein, Joe D’Onofrio, Joseph Gannascoli and Serafina Fiore. It was executive produced by Miguel Tirado and Allan Goodstein.

The Story (official synopsis – spoiler alert):

Acclaimed filmmaker and screenwriter Cal Neros (Julian McCullough) has just been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for his upbeat, male–bonding film “Skylight Harmony.” For his next film, Cal is given a million dollar advance by a Hollywood studio to write a screenplay that’s due in seven months.

After severely neglecting this deadline, Cal meets with Romano (Mario Cantone) an angry studio executive who forces him to deliver the screenplay within one week — or return his advance. Unfortunately for Cal, he lost every dollar of that advance after investing it in a chain of tanning salons located in Harlem.

Ruined financially, Cal buckles down in a race against time to write three short stories within one feature length film. Furthermore, the studio wants each story to be more sick, twisted and vulgar than anything Cal is accustomed to writing. “Circus Maximus” unfolds as Cal’s characters come to life in their respective stories.

Tommy J. La Sorsa’s first feature, the cult classic “All Saints Day,” put the Brooklyn native on the indie film map. After winning the Best Comedy award at both the Long Island and Brooklyn Film Festivals, “All Saints Day” was released worldwide by Winstar Cinema/Wellspring Media. After its theatrical release in May 2001, it went into DVD release. “Circus Maximus” is La Sorsa's second film.

Since making “All Saints Day,” La Sorsa has been actively producing and directing broadcast commercials for local and national brands, including DKNY, Honda, CMP Music and Metropolitan College of NY. He also founded the boutique ad agency Speak Media (www.speakmedianyc.com). La Sorsa continues to create feature projects with Speak Media’s sister company Daydream City Films (www.daydreamcityfilms.com).

Q: How did “Circus Maximus” come about?
A: When my first film “All Saints Day” was released in 2001 it was acquired by Winstar and Genius. When I was in the office about a week before its theatrical release — it was just New York and L.A. and then six months later they were releasing it to DVD — I remember the president of Winstar, Al Cattabiani, asking, “What else do you have?” At the time I didn’t have anything else. He said, “Well, you really should put something together because we may be looking to produce something” because they were happy with the first film.

I remember not having one individual idea. I had more of a collection of stories that I had been able to uncover from the neighborhood where I grew up in Brooklyn. And that was kind of the origin of “Circus Maximus,” where it was just a couple of short stories that really didn’t have a unifying theme. Over time, I was able to develop “Circus Maximus” into a feature where you have a writer who’s writing three short stories and take it from that straightforward angle.
Q: What happened after that?
A: The idea has been going on for maybe a decade. I’ve been writing and rewriting the script a trillion times since. After the release of “All Saints Day” I spent most of my time directing commercials here in New York and it kind of sidetracked me a bit because I was making money. I was very fortunate and started my own ad agency called Speak Media. It was around 2007. It had been five or six years since my first film was released and I woke up one day and I said, “I’m having this burning hole to get back in the saddle. It’s been too long now. Let’s get it going.” I went to my archive of screenplays and said, “Which is the one that I think I can get produced? What’s the most feasible?” And “Circus Maximus” was at the top of the list. From there we started getting everything going.
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(L–R) Julian McCullough and Joseph R. Gannascoli

Q: What is the film’s story about?
A: It’s about a writer who really treats it as a hobby out of the sheer love of writing and with one project becomes bigger than sliced bread. Right at that moment all that that writer wants to do is reclaim his anonymity. That’s what this film is about. In a nutshell, it’s about someone who comes from nothing, becomes somebody and realizes they were happier when they were completely unknown. It’s about taking that long walk that everyone wants to make and then regressing and being like, “You know what? I was happier cleaning toilets in Coney Island!”
Q: That, of course, is a point of view we don’t usually encounter in Hollywood.
A: I feel like it can go both ways. For example, any creative person enjoys creating. Then when you start making creativity a business, it’s a different kind of creativity. It’s creativity with deadlines and under the approval of someone else. It can snowball in a manner that may not be conducive for a creative person.
Q: How did you get the financing to make the film?
A: It was all private financing. It was pretty straightforward. I was able to leverage the performance of my first film to get it. It was so much different the first time around. I remember when I’d never made a film it was a lot harder. This time it wasn’t so hard to get the financing.
Q: What kind of budget did you have?
A: It was well under a million dollars.
Q: Tell me about casting the picture.
A: Casting is always challenging. Due to “Circus Maximus” having multiple narratives, casting was difficult. It’s a very intimate character and dialogue driven film, so casting had to be at the forefront next to the screenplay.
Circus Maximus

Circus Maximus

Q: What kind of actors did you want?
A: I needed performers who could really bring out the characters and give them life in addition to whatever development there was in the screenplay.

I cast the comedian Julian McCullough. He’s on Comedy Central all the time. He has his own show. I remember seeing his act and I said to myself, “If this character became a standup comedian, he would be Julian McCullough.” And I thought that was pretty cool.

Mario Cantone is one of my favorites. I thought that he would be a really good counterpoint to Julian as Julian plays the negligent writer Mario Cantone has to be in his face to really put the pedal to the metal. Also, most people usually have Mario playing a really, really gay character and this one is straight up. Just something a little different, but I knew he would be able to execute it. So that was fun.

Mario plays the enraged producer who is also attached to the project that Julian is supposed to have written. Julian’s character was given six months to write a screenplay and given a million dollar advance and it’s a year later and he still hasn’t written shit! So Mario’s kind of in his face and basically says, “If you don’t have it within a week, you’re fired and we need the advance back.” He realizes he doesn’t even have a week. He has a weekend to finish the screenplay that he hasn’t even started. So he locks himself in his grandmother’s apartment and just starts cranking on it.

Kevin Corrigan has been in a trillion New York films. He always plays that quirky character. I had one specific quirky role for Kevin that I thought he would be perfect for.

Another cast member I want to tell you about is someone who is a bit of a curveball casting choice. I’m a big fan of Howard Stern. One of the characters who’s on the show every day is Sal (“The Stockbroker”) Governale. He’s nuts with the stuff he does on the radio. In this film, he gets raped by a dwarf, but it’s actually funny. I know it doesn’t sound funny when I say it, but when you see it it’s funny.

Each short story is about 15 to 20 minutes long. When it was completed, I was able to show people the first story. Kevin came on board for the third story. So they actually had an opportunity to see what they were getting themselves into. Of course, they went on the merits of the screenplay, but they saw the other parts already filmed and edited so it gave them a certain comfort level.
Q: Where did you shoot?
A: We shot across New York City — Manhattan, Brooklyn and Staten Island. It was actually shot in 13 days over two years. The film is basically four films in one. You have the writer who’s writing three stories. So what we did was start by shooting the actual stories. There are three short stories in a feature length film, all bound together by the main story of the writer and his struggle as he writes these three.
Q: Are you talking to distributors now?
A: We are. We have a producers rep in L.A. — Circus Road Films. I work with Tara Reynolds. Basically, we have two offers on the film right now. (Since we spoke the film has gotten good exposure in New York at the CMJ Film Festival and the Big Apple Film Festival.)
Tommy J.La Sorsa and Kevin Corrigan on the set of “Circus Maximus”

Tommy J. La Sorsa and Kevin Corrigan on the set of “Circus Maximus”

Q: Does your background in directing commercials help you when you direct features?
A: I think so. In commercials you have to convey a message within 30 to 60 seconds. Film is really no different. With a film, you’re selling the story (rather than a product). You’re not doing it in 30 seconds, you’re doing it in 90 minutes, so to speak. You’re selling the story. You’re selling the performances of the actors. Are they genuine? Is the story, itself, something that people are willing to invest themselves in?

When I’m doing commercial work I have to really get to the point. Thirty seconds isn’t a lot of time to do something creative and do it well. I take a lot of that with me into filmmaking. My first two films are exactly the same length — 80 minutes long, both of them. I don’t think that is coincidence. I really link that to my commercial production (background) because 80 minutes is really the low end of the feature film (time scale). I try to really chop a lot of the fat and get right into it.
Q: You mentioned before that you shot your film in 13 days over the course of two years. Why was that?
A: It was a combination of the way it was financed and doing it around shooting commercials and in a manner where I could use each piece I completed to acquire different cast members to come on board.

For example, Mario Cantone, Julian McCullough and Joseph Gannascoli from “The Sopranos.” I would not have gotten them without showing them not only their part in the screenplay, but also that I was able to say, “Look, 75 percent of the film is completed and edited. It’s shot.” And then they would see that it was shot on film. It wasn’t shot on hi–def. I was able to pull this out on film, which was a miracle. I shot 35mm and I processed it hi–def. Not patting myself on the back — there are way better filmmakers out there than me — but a lot of work went into this. But for the money I spent, you wouldn’t think it was less than a million dollars because it’s 35mm and processed hi–def and full sound mix and Dolby. It really looks like it could have been (done on a much bigger budget).