Mark Janicello, writer, director and lead actor of The Finellis Movie, on life through the lens of humor
Bianca Karsten in a still from The Finellis
When you hit rock bottom, you can only look up. This is what makes the act of rebuilding lives interesting. See it through the lens of humor, and it might not seem so bad at all. Mark Janicello’s film Finellis is a good example. After serving a prison sentence, recording star Tony Finelli returns home to find his wife has fallen in love with him and his daughters, while empathetic, have no vivid memories of their father. Tony then embarks on a journey to reclaim his life, which puts him in 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 electronics engineer for NASA. I inherited my artistic talents from my mother, who was born with a lyrical soprano voice. She never took piano lessons, but could very easily have sung opera professionally. She is a composer, poet, painter, gospel singer; she wrote hundreds of gospel songs. Everyone in my family is artistic, except my father who is the brains of the family (laughs). When I was six or seven, my family moved to North Carolina. My father then got into the furniture business, which he knew nothing about. Working with my dad gave me the work ethic that has stayed with me my whole life.
What drew you to Scientology?
I was in a marriage that was not going well. When I was young, I was a bit stupid. I had never failed at 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 eldest 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 should note that this was 1993, a time before the internet age when none of us had any information about Scientology. They were good at getting celebrities like Tom Cruise and John Travolta to market them. I read the book and thought maybe there was something to it, and got involved. It didn’t save my marriage. It didn’t solve any personal problem. But then I moved to Europe and I was singing in an opera house in Zurich; my ex-wife was Swiss and I thought she would be happy because living in New York is not for the faint-hearted (laughs). I abdicated all my responsibilities thinking that Scientology would solve the problem for me. After going through this whole process, I realized that the only person who will save you is looking at yourself in the mirror every morning.
What are the aspects of your personal life that you have woven at Tony Finelli?
I went from making $60,000 a month to playing Elvis in that musical when Scientology came along. I went from that to nothing. I didn’t audition anywhere – in Germany, Switzerland or Austria, which were the main markets. I was blacklisted. I could no longer pay my bills; I couldn’t pay child support. At the same time, I went through a divorce. I lost everything all at once. The only thing that kept me going was humor. It wasn’t funny. Beneath the good mood usually hides a lot of pain. The reason Finellis works is that these characters are genuine. Tony Finelli started out as a version of me. He was married, had two daughters, but Tony became his own character while filming. I wrote the story because I should be dead and I’m not. I stood up and fought for all these years so that my children could be proud of me. I want The Finellis to give people hope. I am no longer a pretty young thing. I am 59 years old. I went through exercise and 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 pretend.
Still from the movie Finellis
I like Tony because he’s a good, simple guy. He’s not the brightest. There’s definitely a part of me that looks like Tony. I am much more complex. The audience can’t identify with me; I’m too much for everyone (laughs). Tony is a simplified version of what people can understand because it allows them to take this journey. With every Tony experience, the audience has the opportunity to learn something from him.
Les Finelli is also a story of reconstruction of life and identity, which can be an extremely difficult project. How did the humor help?
What is important to me is to always reach out to the public. If you want your audience to experience this with their hearts, you need to reach out to them to embark on this journey with you. It was important for me to take a microcosm and tackle one problem at a time. First, he gets out of jail. He then discovers that his wife no longer wants him. The audience advances in stages. It keeps them engaged and allows them to put it together.
Was the trope of a story unfolding through an interview also a commentary on celebrity culture?
Janicello with Timo Merkhofer
When I was a little boy, I wanted to be as famous as Michael Jackson. Now, as an adult, we know what really happened to this man. All the people I grew up idolizing reached the pinnacle of success, and they all died horrible deaths. It’s not success. One of The Finellis’ messages is that success isn’t what you think it is. Are you happy? Are you proud of what you do? Who is around you? Are you in good health ? Are you happy? On the way back to rebuilding, you appreciate everything because you got nothing.
How did you choose the physical spaces where you shot?
I was then living in Berlin. It is a city of immense historical significance, with World War II and the split between East Germany and West Germany. I wanted to show the diversity of the city. We shot in a real prison in Berlin. There’s a scene where I’m escorted through a long tunnel to police headquarters; it was actually underground in east berlin where stasi officers practiced their firearms 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 reflected where Tony had been. That’s why we shot everything outdoors.
The music is really a character in the film. How did you integrate it into the story?
Music speaks to the human soul. It goes beyond 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 is sung. It was important to me to not just tell the story through comedy or drama, but music as well. In addition, the music allows you to take flights of fancy. In this film, it is above all a performance. But there are times when the music takes precedence over the narrative. It visually allows us to go to another place. I believe that 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 that girl wasn’t going to live very long. His pain and psychic disturbances were evident in his sound. You could hear it from the first note.
Amy Winehouse (1983-2011)
There’s a poignant table scene where the Finellis reunite with Kim and Jorge and what unfolds is a conversation about tradition versus modernity. What was the thought behind writing this scene?
We live in a time when “normal” adult discussions about political, moral, or societal differences of opinion and viewpoint no longer take place. There is a degree of polarization in society that has never existed before at this level. This change has been created by social media, because, if you wish, on social media you can surround yourself in cyberspace with people who exclusively share your opinions and points of view. This harms not only the individual, but our society as a whole.
However, none of us live in cyberspace. Daily, and over the course of a lifetime, we encounter countless people who are different from us in great and small ways. Confrontation with others allows us to learn from each other’s experiences and opinions. We may not agree with someone, their point of view, their politics, their religion or their way of life, but we can be informed and perhaps understand, even accept, those who think, live or believe in a way foreign to ourselves.
Still from the movie Finellis
I may not agree with everything in my own film. I present different points of view in order to allow my audience to form their own opinion. I’m not here to pass moral judgment on anyone’s decisions, because I’m not God. In America we have a saying, “Don’t judge a person until you walk a mile for them.” These are very wise words.
The dinner table scene was written expressly to show four adults, of completely different viewpoints, beliefs, and life experiences, being thrown together. The conversation clearly delineates each individual’s point of view, but shows that through open and honest communication, mutual understanding can be achieved.
The film also features legendary designer Mario Garcia. How was her role woven into the film?
He was one of 1,174 men I auditioned to play Tony’s father. I loved him but thought he was wrong for the role. So I called him and asked him to tell me a bit about himself. And then he told me his story. He made his way to where he is now. I felt that this story was so extraordinary that it had to be in the series. So I wrote the role in the movie for Mario because I was so impressed.
Kim Tatum and Mario Garcia
Can we expect a spin-off?
I hope we will do a series, I also want to do children’s animation. When my eldest daughter was still little, I read her stories about the Flying Finellis. So these are real stories that I told my children. It’s about empowering young girls to do whatever they want. I hope we will make the series a success.