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Reality is looking back at you


Former Chicago cop Dennis Farina still lives on the Windy City’s North Side, because, he says, there’s no other place like it. It’s clear, though, from his relaxed posture in a sitting room at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons, that he also doesn’t mind traveling, especially when it has to do with movies, the career he didn’t even consider until age 37, when director Michael Mann tapped him to appear in Thief, with James Caan and Willie Nelson. From there, Farina picked up more tough-guy parts, and then, in 1986, Mann made him the cop-star of the critically acclaimed TV series, Crime Story. Since then, Farina has worked steadily, as the title character in TV’s Buddy Faro, and in films as different from one another as Steven Soderbergh’s Get Shorty, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, John Frankenheimer’s Reindeer Games, and Ed Burns’ Sidewalks of New York (opening later this year).


Right now, Farina is talking about his latest film, Guy Ritchie’s Snatch, currently being advertised as “the coolest movie” of the year. Depending on how you define “cool,” there may be something to this description, given that Snatch not only features cool returnees from Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (including Jason Statham and Vinnie Jones), but also cool U.S. actors (Benicio del Toro and Brad Pitt), a loony-tunes editing rhythm, and a completely insane pit bull, who, Farina says, “went nuts” in one scene and attacked everyone while Ritchie let the camera roll, resulting in one of the funniest scenes in the film. And of course, it features the 56-year-old Farina as Cousin Avi, a Manhattan gangster (he keeps an “I [HEART] NY” coffee cup on his desk) who deals in stolen “ice.” When he hears that an 86-carat diamond he has commissioned to have stolen has ended up somewhere other than his hands, he hops a plane to London to get back what he feels is “rightfully” his. Echoing the style and themes of Lock, Stock, Ritchie’s new film focuses on the sundry blunders committed by separate groups of London thieves and thugs, as they all try to get hold of this diamond.


Farina is at that point in his career when cool directors like Ritchie and Soderbergh ask him to be in their movies. I asked him how he responded to the Snatch script when Ritchie sent it to him.



Dennis Farina:

I had seen Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and I thought that was a different kind of film than I’d seen before, with that kind of editing and slick camera movements. So when they sent me the script and asked me to do it, I looked at Lock, Stock again and said, yeah I think I’d like to do this. I think he’s a good director. I think [my character, Avi] is very funny. I think he takes himself very seriously but I think everyone else is laughing behind his back. I think he was in a way the most honest guy in the movie, because he just wanted that diamond and that’s all he wanted. And when he sent other people to get it and they didn’t get it, he got his hump up a little and decided to go get it himself.



CF:

What is it like to act for that kind of rhythm in a film?



DF:

You can’t act for the editing. You have to leave that to him. So you just go in and do the scene the way you think is right or whatever you’re directed to do, and leave the rest of that technical stuff up to the director. I saw a version of this, and I’ve never been in a movie that quite looked like this, you know. Usually you’re in movies with a lot of dissolves and things but this was kind of quick, more jarring than usual. That’s what I thought about Lock, Stock, and I thought it would be fun to be in a movie that’s unconventional. And then I talked to [producer] Matthew Vaughan on the phone, and met Guy and I liked him. I think he’s a good man.



CF:

I hear the was some fun on the set.



DF:

It was a lot of fun. And I found that while we were doing it, I think he started out with one movie in mind and everybody started doing what they were doing and the movie took a turn on him. And I remember him saying that at one point he had a three and a half hour movie, because he didn’t want to cut anything out of it, because guys were having a good time and saying a lot of things that he thought were just funny. He would let scenes roll on and yell stuff at you while you were doing the scene. But one of the good things about him is that he didn’t indulge himself, and come up with a three hour movie. He’s so smart that he was able to take all that stuff and make the movie he wanted to make. Nowadays they do that DVD cut, and all that stuff from the floor will be on that. I remember him saying, I didn’t think that this was going to be this way. We would discuss the scene and he’d say, “This is what I want,” or “Do this,” and then either myself or whomever, Vince or Brad or Benicio, would say, “Maybe we should try this,” and he was open to changes.



CF:

Are there generational differences between filmmakers you’ve worked with?



DF:

You know, I’m guilty sometimes, of thinking, “Oh this young director, oh my god.” But so many of these guys—Guy Ritchie, Soderbergh, Sonnenfeld, Eddie Burns—they know what they’re doing. So I’m not afraid anymore, if someone says to me, “This is a young director and this is his first film,” because of the track record of the people I’ve been fortunate enough to work with. These guys have already made their bones. Now that probably happened in the 20s and the 30s and throughout time, too, but this generation of filmmakers is very good. They’re seasoned, for some reason.



CF:

You’re happy with your work in the Burns movie?



DF:

I don’t know.



CF:

You don’t like to watch yourself?



DF:

I really don’t. I’m more comfortable now with it than I was for years, but I still don’t like it. And sometimes you’re forced to do it, for sound or editing, but I’m not comfortable with it. I know people who can go back and check themselves, but it drives me crazy. You looks in a mirror and sees one thing, but reality is looking back at you. Everybody wants to look in the mirror and see Cary Grant looking back at them, but that’s just not the case.



CF:

Do you think that you bring a kind of “copness” and that’s why you keep getting these roles?



DF:

No, I think that’s a dangerous thing to do. Michael Mann a long, long time ago told me, this is reality and this is the movie business, and don’t confuse the two. What you might do as a policeman might be the right thing to do but it’s not entertaining. So I left that behind me. Maybe it’s because I was too much reality, but I’m not interested in seeing too much reality anymore. I’d rather watch a Dean Martin concert and let the world go by.



CF:

How for real are those ridiculous criminals in Snatch?



DF:

You see it all the time. When you read about someone who does something, for instance, a jewelry robbery or a fine art robbery that goes off successfully, you have to remember there are many more that don’t go off. But these guys, they think they’re good. Avi thinks that this is life: “That’s my diamond, I’m going to go over there and get it and come back.” The thought process of a thief or a bank robber is pretty much the same everywhere—those guys are a certain breed.



CF:

Have you come up with a technique for acting, in speech or behaviors?



DF:

I’ve learned that it’s a pretty collaborative thing. I read the script and try not to bring anything personal into it. I make notes, and I talk to the director and we decide what kinds of shades should be in the character. I don’t know if I have a technique. I’m just trying to remember the words, mostly. I don’t get up and say, “I’m going to live in the other room for a day and discover myself.” I’ve worked with people who are very process-oriented, and sometimes I think it works and sometimes I don’t. And it’s the same thing with me—what I do works sometimes and sometimes it doesn’t. I don’t think there’s a formula to do it. If there was, everybody would be real good all the time, but it’s a hit and miss process.



CF:

For script choices, you’ve had more hits than misses. Do you look for anything particular?



DF:

If I read it and I like it, I want to do it. I don’t like to be talked into anything. Sometimes a manager or an agent will say, “You should do this,” but I don’t want to be cajoled. If I like it and think I can have some fun with it and there’s nice people involved and there’s not going to be a lot of angst for three months, dealing with all kinds of personalities, I’ll do it. I think first impressions are important when you pick up a script.



CF:

How hard was it to adjust to the slang used on the set?



DF:

I had no idea what they were saying. I’d just go, “Yeah, okay.” I think it was George Bernard Shaw who said that the British and the Americans are two people separated by a common language. I had sometimes a very difficult time understanding what was going on, and the first AD [assistant director] would explain it to me, speaking very slowly: “We. Want. You. To. Stand. Over. There.” And they have slang words, as we do, for different kinds of people and like that, but it was fun. I had a hard time crossing the street and getting into cars. So I didn’t do any driving. And I hardly did any walking. I remember one day running for a cab and almost got killed, because the traffic was coming from the other way. I was all screwed up. They provided a driver for me.



CF:

But Ritchie’s regular crew were welcoming to you?



DF:

They were very welcoming. I think he’s got a nice stock company, Jason Statham and Vinnie Jones, that he can call on and say, “This is what we’re doing,” and they can fit right in.



CF:

How did you like working overseas?



DF:

This is my first experience working in a foreign movie, but the mechanics, I think, are pretty much the same all over; you still have to wait in the trailer and that kind of stuff. The trick is deciding where you’re going to put the camera, and that’s Guy’s difference, not the fact that he’s British.



CF:

What do you think of Ritchie casting first-time actors?



DF:

I think that’s great because that’s what happened to me. Bring ‘em in! It’s great, you can change a person’s life in an instant; he taps someone and puts him in a movie, and you start thinking differently, you want to be in another movie. It’s like an addiction almost.



CF:

And how was it working with that crazy dog?



DF:

That dog was nuts, I’m telling you! He had a mind, he wasn’t listening to anyone. That scene where he attacks everyone, Guy just said, “Keep rolling, keep rolling.” I know there’s more footage of that scene and it’s going to pop up somewhere. I was afraid to be around that dog.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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