Thursday, March 25, 2010

LBS -- and the shedding of them -- highlight Bonifacio/Famiglietti's new film; Q&A with director and star

When one encoun-
ters a movie as jarringly personal as LBS, any critical reaction will probab-
ly be every bit as jarringly personal.  For TrustMovies, Lbs proved a difficult experience but one that grew more impressive and meaningful as the movie went along, culminating in a rush of emotion and thoughtful consider-
ation that made the experience one-of-a-kind.  An odd combination of narrative and documentary (the latter captures the actual weight loss of its leading man), Lbs tracks a very chubby Neil Perota (played by Carmine Famiglietti) as he interacts with family, friends -- and food.  When a life-changing event happens, change piles upon change and we are thrown, like our hero, into a very strange world that only grows stranger as even more change occurs. 

Directed and co-written (with Famiglietti, who also produced) by Matthew Bonifacio, shown at right, whose first full-length film this was, the movie is rough as hell in many aspects, starting with its homemade look.  The director had little film experience at this point (see interview below), though he and his star went on to make the interesting and more sophisticated film-wise Amexicano. Fortunately, with Lbs, Bonifacio went after truth-of-performance above everything else, and this paid off in a kind of honesty and moment-to-moment realism that is difficult to fake, despite a sometimes choppy mise-en-scene and screenplay.

What happens to Neil is often bizarre (and just as often self-
inflicted) but it is not unbelievable. As an actor, Famiglietti (left) is able keep us with him through thick and thin, love and loss (pounds among other things).  He's a likable screen presence who never begs for sym-
pathy. Consequently, he get ours, along with occasional annoyance and surprise. One of the film's best and most difficult scenes takes place in a restaurant on a date, as the "new" Neil talks with a young woman he's longed to know better and now finally can.

Bonifacio was an actor before all else, and he has cast his film with some very good people: the versatile Michael Aronov (above) as Neil's coke-addicted best pal; Susan Varon as his mother, Fil Formicola as his dad and Sharon Angela (in wedding dress two photos below) as his sister; and especially Miriam Shor (below) as a young woman Neil meets upstate. Because the movie was filmed over a 27-month period, the cast had to make itself available, complete with the right appearance and emotional state, throughout.  I'd guess that Lbs proved a labor of love for more than just its star and director.

What is best about the movie, however, is its refusal to preach.  Or to make anything seem easy.  The weight is difficult; the situation is difficult; how these impact all the other characters makes for more difficulty. Through it all, Famiglietti's Neil soldiers on, taking us with him and showing us the pain, gain and loss (in both good and bad ways) of this journey that is both personal and universal. Making its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005, the film has taken five years to reach even limited theatrical distribution (see interviews below for some of the reasons), but at least it is here.

Last December, during the Film Society of Lincoln Center Spanish Cinema Now series, another film about weight and self-image -- Gordos -- made its American debut.  What a double-bill these two movies would make!  Gordos comes at its topic from all angles and a raft of characters, at last zeroing in on the key.  Lbs starts small, slowly expanding outward, even as our hero reduces, to reach the same important conclusion.  I don't know when, if ever, Gordos will see a theatrical release herein the US.  For now, we've got Lbs.  It's a thoughtful antidote to much of the simple-minded weight-loss blather we're bombarded with daily. Don't let this one pass you by.

Distributed by Truly Indie, Lbs opens Friday, March 26, at the Village East Cinema in New York City; on April 9 in Boston, at Landmark Theatres' Kendall Square Cinema; on April 23 in Minneapolis at Landmark Theatres' Lagoon Cinema; and on May 7 in Washington DC at Landmark Theatres' E Street Cinema.


So affecting and unusual is this new movie that TrustMovies was delighted to get the chance to speak with  its director/co-writer and its co-writer/producer/star.  We had a half-hour conversation with both of them, highlights of  which appear below.  TrustMovies' questions are in boldface; Famiglietti's and Bonifacio's answers appear in standard type:

Note: Carmine tells me that he pronounces his last name with a hard “g” sound, rather than in the Italian manner – fah-mee-lee-etty – in order that people will spell it correctly.

This movie is so personal that it was sometimes hard to watch.

That’s what we set out to do. There are all kinds of reasons when you set out to make a movie. With us, one of these was definitely to make a movie that defined what we considered eating disorders.

Did you happen to see the Spanish film Gordos, which was shown at the FSLC’s Spanish Cinema Now festival last December?

I think I heard about that movie, but I didn’t see it.

Gordos tackles the similar subject but its canvas (and budget) is huge next to your film—in which you whittle everything down to the very personal, just your one single story.

True. And Lbs is just one story.

I particularly liked the scene in which you and your friend Sacco trade ideas about addiction—yours to food, his to coke.

It can be any kind addiction or flaw. I’m not educated enough to know if you can really have an addiction to food. But it feels like I do have one. And I don’t like it, either. It robs me of so many things I’ve wanted: girls I wanted to date, and acting jobs! It’s awful, when hundreds of people are looking at you, say at an amusement park and they won’t let you get on the ride. It’s really embarrassing. That’s happened to me. We had that scene in the film, too, but we couldn’t fit it into the final film, so we’ll probably have it as a DVD extra.

Do you still go up and down noticeably in your weight?

Oh, sure. People talk about how they fluctuate by ten pounds. Well, the highest I’ve been is 385 lbs and the lowest is 185.

What are you right now?

The low 300s.

Whew! How long have your director Matthew and you known each other -- and how did you meet?

We actually met as extras on set of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X @ in 1991

Wow—so almost 20 years! How long did it take you to film Lbs overall?

We began in June of 2001 and finished in September of 2003: 27 months, and then we premiered at the 2004 Sundance.

So why are we are only seeing the movie now?

What happened was that the first year went by with us looking at one deal and then saying no, and then at another, then another and another. Then we were at the end of 2004, about ten months after Sundance, with what we thought was a good deal in place. Then that deal fell through. And there’s no ill will, either. It just didn’t work out.

Can you talk about how and why all this happened?

People wanted to release Lbs, but they also wanted control the movie.

You mean make changes to the movie?

Yes: Make changes, but also, then it became clear that they didn’t have the money to properly distribute the movie – only the expertise. So then the deal wasn’t so attractive. But I have to say that the distributor made incredible efforts to raise the money but it didn’t work out.

I guess things can change: I noticed recently that Maya Entertainment, the company that released your next film, Amexicano, has changed from distributing Hispanic-oriented movies to something quite different now.

Yeah: One of the amazing things about our country is there is this tendency to believe that when immigrants come here, we think that America as a whole is going to become more like them. But no: they actually become more Americanized. My old neighborhood is mostly Korean. But ten years later those Koreans are as American as we are. It takes a generation.

How hard was making Lbs for you – I mean, to dwell on the subject and get into something this personal? Did you find yourself using the making of the film as a kind of therapy?

I did. And it worked! But it’s no surprise that the minute the film was over, I began to struggle all over again. By the time we got to Sundance, I had gained 40 pounds back. There was something about the structure of the filmmaking that had a strong impact on what I ate, and how I ate, and how I exercised. Even with the prospects of more acting work -- and I’d be getting more work if I were thinner -- I still put the weight back on. Casting directors never can know what I might weigh, because I bounce around so much—it’s like I need a new head shot every month. I wake up every single day with good intentions, though. I never give up. I found that it’s about a 30 day period. If I can keep it up for 30 days, then I can keep it up longer and more easily.

Now, with the film opening in Boston and all over, it should be easier for me. But I am still struggling. I’d love to be on Oprah. But with my going up and down all the time, this is not what audiences necessarily want to see. With the movie, I had something I liked just as much as food. That was making the movie. And though I had a dual passion, the movie always won out. But after it was over, the food came back.

How do you feel now about self-help groups like Over-eaters Anonymous and its like?

I think it’s different strokes for different folks. That is never been something I’ve been into. I don’t like talking about it in a group. I don’t want advice. I know what I am supposed to eat and what exercises I should be doing. The whole point is: Don’t quit on yourself. Keep going -- even though you will have setbacks and false starts.

While I’ve got you, is there anything else you want to say?

You know what? I think the reason we’re doing these four cities – we’re opening in New York, Bopston Minneapolis and Washington DC -- what we need is what Oprah and Tyler Perry did for Precious. I know somewhere out there, there is someone like these two who will see Lbs and want to grab it and push it. We have a great team in place. And we’re hoping somewhere in these four cities we’ll meet someone who will want to -- and can -- put the movie on more screens.

And one more thing: I feel that what my character is saying to audiences is this: If you don’t deal with childhood obesity early on, then you will probably have to deal with it for the rest of your life. But don’t come off as a sad sack about it all. I am fighter and you have to be, too. Oh – and if I could pick one person to show the film to, it would probably be our First Lady, Michelle Obama.

Immediately after our conversation with Carmine Famiglietti we spoke with the Lbs director Matthew Bonifacio, to whom I mention what a nice, and very real, guy Carmine seems.

Yeah -- Carmine is very humble, genuine guy.  The way he talks to you is the way he talks to his parents and me and all his friend. He uses a lot of self-deprecating humor.

Can you tell me something about how it was to film Lbs?

Lbs was my first movie. I never went to film school. Instead, I got some film books and just read them.  I just started educating myself.   I’d been acting for many years off-off Broadway, so I felt confident going into Lbs that I could get good performances from my cast.

And you did!

Thanks. The movie was shot over 27 months, in conjunction with Carmine's weight loss and raising the money. But it was always about the performances -- never about me or the camera. I didn’t want to concentrate of visuals and camera tricks so much, but rather on the actors.

Lbs has such raw energy to it.

A lot of spontaneous elements came out of it. Later, filming Amexicano, I really made an effort to make that one more visually-oriented. With Lbs, I didn’t want to be influenced too much by outside forces, camera shots, etc. Instead, I wanted to eavesdrop into Carmine’s world. So I didn’t even want to move the camera unnecessarily.

How hard was this to dwell on Carmine and his weight and get into something this personal?

It was easy, really, because we had known each other, by that time, over ten years. I had seen him down to 175 and up close to 400 lbs.

Did you have to natter away at him to lose weight?

No. And I didn’t ask his family to get in on it, either. I took the approach that I am on board to make this movie and to help save his life. During the shoot, crew members would sometimes call me up and tell me, “I saw Carmine the other day, and he has not lost the weight.” I’d say, “Never mind: He will be there for the deadline.” And sure enough , when that deadline came, the weight was off. He trusts me as a director, and I trust he him as an actor. That was always established.

How did you go about casting the movie?

We didn’t hire a casting director. .Being a former actor, I cast many of the actors I has already worked with – like Michael Aronov.

God, he is wonderful – and versatile. He was so good in Amexicano, too.

Exactly. I knew what I was getting and I knew the strengths and weaknesses of these people. We had staged readings, too, so we could get the feel of things.

And then Michael Aronov brought in Miriam Shor, who plays the girlfriend upstate. Susan Varon plays mother and Fil Formicola is the father. Fil’s been working forever.

Anything else you’d like to say?

I think it’s important that this film started out as something that might save Carmine’s life. Once we saw the footage, we felt we had captured something special. And audiences at Sundance and since then seem to feel this, too. This is a film about an over-weight guy who takes responsibility for himself. He doesn’t blame others. I am really proud of this film and of the commitment of all the actors and crew who kept coming back and back to it -- after 27 months! This should not go unnoticed. It’s really hard to do when you are shooting linear, like this. I’ll probably never have a chance to have something like this happen again.

On that note, what is next for you?

I have a few projects is various stages of development. Two of these I’m attached as director, and another as writer/director. I hope to get one or another off the ground this year -- or next.

Amexicano has been performing well, too. Well over 16,000 people have seen it via Netflix’s DVD and streaming facility and have rated it three-and-one-half stars.

We thank Carmine and Matthew for their time and wish them very well for the success of Lbs.


Unknown said...

Thoughtful, interesting review and lovely interview.

Correction though!!!! The actress playing Neil's mother is SUSAN VARON. Please could you correct this?

TrustMovies said...

Thanks, Susan (I am assuming you are THE Varon mentioned!) It's corrected now via new wording in that paragraph above -- which should make things clearer.

Anonymous said...

Great movie, great story

TrustMovies said...

Thanks Anon, for your simply-put critique. And I agree: This is a film lots more people should see and that should have been given a wider release.

TrustMovies said...

Oh -- and Susan (above) I just realized that the mother's name appeared wrong TWICE in the post. I just now caught the second one and have changed that, too. Sorry for the long wait time....

Anonymous said...

I empathized with the struggles he went through during the movie, but I think all the f-bombs is what kept it from Oprah and a wide audience release. It's just my opinion, but I think the target audience for this movie would be women since it seems we're always on a diet and watching shows like The Biggest Loser, but I don't want to hear crude language.

Nancy said...

I just saw the movie through Netflix streaming and found it poignant and sincere. Thanks for the interviews. They cleared up many of the questions I have been mulling around in my mind.

TrustMovies said...

Thanks, Anonymous, for your interesting and thought-provoking comment. Maybe you're right. I am now so used to this sort of language in films that I don't give it a second thought, but for some, the f-word still riles, I guess. Seem to me that the positives regarding the content of the movie far outstrip any negatives to do with bad language. But this may not be true for a lot of people, especially, as you say, the women in the audience. But it's a shame that, because of "just a word," they might deprive themselves of a movie this different and good.

TrustMovies said...

Thanks, Nancy, for your comment, too. It is encouraging for me to hear that someone found the interviews worthwhile. These take so long to set up and then do (and even longer to transcribe, as I am the world's worst and slowest typist). So hearing your comment makes me very happy! (I am also glad that the film is now on Netflix streaming, where it should find a much larger and appreciative audience.)

db stl said...

I just watched the movie on Netflix. I loved it. We all have our battles and our "eating buddies". The friends story is heartbreaking but shows us that we all have demons to deal with and hopefully we choose the right path. Best of luck with future success!

TrustMovies said...

Yes, db stl, we sure DO all have demons to deal with. And I hope that Carmine checks into this blog occasionally, just to read the comments and learn that some new fans are now rooting for him. Thanks for taking the time to post your comment.

Anonymous said...

An impressive share! I've just forwarded this onto a co-worker who was conducting a little homework on this. And he in fact ordered me lunch due to the fact that I discovered it for him... lol. So allow me to reword this.... Thank YOU for the meal!! But yeah, thanx for spending the time to talk about this subject here on your site.
My web site > Diet Solution

John Hurt said...

This movie is just the beginning of greatness for the director and writer. It was so honest and real ! I give it 4 stars.
I have been up and down with weight my whole life and can relate to the story.

TrustMovies said...

Thanks for posting your comment, John. Yes, this film should REALLY appeal to those like you who've wrestled with their weight for so long. I hope you're currently winning the struggle!

Anonymous said...

I had the great pleasure and opportunity to view this wonderful movie "Lbs." on channel 13 a local PBS station here in NYC, NY.

What a great story with real characters and actors who truly "bring to life", the people and story they so earnestly portray.

This refreshing movie is an enormous departure from "the same old Hollywood movies, genres' and scripts which are horribly type cast, dull and often times down right, terrible.

This movie "LBS." and others such as, "The Station Agent" are tremndously heartfelt with great actors proving once again you don't have to be a super star to be a great talent. This cast won me over from the beginning to the very end.

I felt a connection to each and every character and wanted so much to watch it again.

This was a fantastic movie, with a terrific story line / plot and well worth watching from beginning to end.

Well done and very much appreciated.

I give it 5 out of 5 Stars *****

PS: Could you tell me where the country scenes were shot...look's like Sussex County, NJ or possibly up state New York? Would love to know.

Thanks so much!


TrustMovies said...

Thanks for commenting, Bob. I don't actually know where the locations for this movie were shot, but I am guessing some of them took place in upstate New York.

If anyone connected with LBS is still keeping tabs on this post (which was written over three years ago but still seems to get a lot of mileage), please post a comment to let Bob know where those "country scenes" were filmed. Thanks!