Home Movie Director Laura Terruso on Family & Robert De Niro

Director Laura Terruso on Family & Robert De Niro

ComingSoon Editor-in-Chief Tyler Treese spoke with About My Father director Laura Terruso about the Sebastian Maniscalco-led comedy movie. The film is now available digitally and will be released on Blu-ray, DVD, and On Demand on August 1, 2023.

“The film centers around Sebastian (Maniscalco) who is encouraged by his fiancée (Leslie Bibb) to bring his immigrant, hairdresser father, Salvo (De Niro), to a weekend get-together with her super-rich and exceedingly eccentric family,” reads the synopsis. “The weekend develops into what can only be described as a culture clash, leaving Sebastian and Salvo to discover that the great thing about family is everything about family.”

Tyler Treese: What elements of the script really grabbed you the first time you saw it? What aspects really grabbed you and made you want to be a part of this?

Laura Terruso: Well, when I first read the script, I was immediately drawn to the character of Salvo. I just felt like he was so well-written and it just felt so true, because not only am I Italian, I am Sicilian American. My mom immigrated from Sicily when she was like 12 years old — it was around the same exact time that Sebastian’s father Salvo immigrated. I have two uncles who are also Sicilian. So I just felt so connected to the character and the world. I felt like I had lived the story in many ways, where I’ve dated people who were from a more waspy background, and I have my Italian American family. It just felt so personal while also being this really fun Hollywood comedy. I called my agent and I was like, “I have to direct this.” You know? I felt like I was the perfect person for it.

We’ve seen a lot of great art recently about being the child of that first generation of immigrants that come over. In this movie we see that there’s a bit of a divide between father and son, but ultimately, he realizes everything Salvo has done for him has been with his best interest, and we get a really nice story there. Van you speak to that general generational kind of divide there?

Yeah, I mean, one of the things that really struck me about the script and about the character of Salvo was how much he is shaped by loss. The loss of his country and his culture, the loss of his wife, and now he feels like he’s losing his son, and that’s the last piece of his family that he’s got. So that feeling of, “Oh my God, I’m losing everything” is what’s driving him throughout the film. Comedy and pain … they’re linked, you know? There was so much about the character and about that feeling of like, “Oh my God, I’m losing everything and now I’m going to lose my son.” So of course, subconsciously, he’s going to act out and try to sabotage him in many ways, and it just felt so rich to me.

Robert De Niro is perfect for the role that had to be a dream to see that he was attached to it, because I can’t think of anybody better in this role as he really gets to show his complete range here. He is great at being a very negative old man, but he’s also great at showing such genuine emotion throughout. Can you speak to getting to work with De Niro as an actor and what he brought to this performance?

So when I signed on the film, De Niro wasn’t attached yet. We sent the script to him. He was the first actor that we went out to, and two days later I was on a Zoom with him, and he was so kind and so warm and just made me feel so comfortable. I was able to talk him through my vision for the film and how I saw it and how I plan to direct it and talk with him about how I work as a director. He was like, “Come out to New York, let’s do a table read,” which is such an incredible gift because with a screenplay, you often don’t even get to hear it until it’s all cast up and it helps so much to hear a script read out loud by great actors.

So Sebastian and I went to New York and we did this table read with Bob and a few other incredible actors. This was all during the pandemic, so we were like six feet apart in this loft — it was really bizarre. But I was able to see Sebastian and Bob side-by-side, and it was just so clear that this was going to work because they really felt like father and son, even though Sebastian’s Chicago and Bob’s New York, there was some Italian American … like they spoke the same language, you know? Their Italian-ness sort of superseded regions. I knew it would work. So afterwards, I spoke with Bob and I said, “This is the part of the script I want to work on and let’s get this party started.”

And, and he was like, “Yeah, let’s do this. He was such a partner throughout the whole process. He was really a collaborator from beginning to end, in pre-production leading up to the shoot. He would call me every week, “How’s it going? How’s it going on locations? Where are we with cast?” He wanted to read with every single cast member, which is so rare that you get the cast not only to audition, but to read with the actor that they’re going to be playing opposite. So we were really able to test this cast’s chemistry with one another thanks to Bob. I’m so grateful to him for that because their chemistry is exceptional and I felt like I gained so much through working with him and learned so much in the process of working with him.

One of my favorite scenes early on is the flashback sequence when we see Salvo with the ponytail. How was it when you saw Robert De Niro come out with that whole getup? That had to be incredible.

That was amazing. So Sebastian’s dad looked exactly like that when Sebastian was growing up. For Bob, authenticity is everything. It’s the most important thing there is when you’re making any work of art. It’s no wonder that he often plays characters that have existed because there’s something for him to pull from. So I sent up a bunch of pictures of young Salvo and I was like, “Here’s what we’re thinking.” And he is like, “Yes, ponytail, done.” We just did it.

And at one point there was a conversation about de-aging, and I was like, “No,” because when you’re a kid, your 40 year old dad looks 80 to you anyway. It doesn’t make a difference. It just worked. It’s so funny, he just was completely all-in and when it came to the hairdressing stuff, he really wanted to make sure that he was doing that properly. So we had Sebastian’s dad Salvo actually come to set and teach him how you would highlight a woman’s hair, how you would do it. It was like really, really cool.

Speaking of Sebastian, this is such a personal story for him, and we get to see him blend parts of his stand-up act into the movie as well. How was working with him to blend those two mediums between stand-up and a more scripted entertainment like this?

I mean, Sebastian is probably one of the funniest comedians in the world right now. I love that this is the movie he chose to make because it’s a love letter to his father. In a way, it’s like less about … I mean, it’s a love story, right? Ultimately, I described this film as a romantic comedy between a father and a son. Sebastian has such a big heart and this is just such a love letter. Working with him was just seamless. A lot of his stand-up, we were able to kind of plug and play right into the movie and then we’d talk to him about a scene and he’d have these great ideas where he’d be like, “Oh, when I was on the helicopter and I freaked out, my dad gave me a lemon.”

Things like that, where we’re like, “Oh, we’re putting it in, we’re putting it in.” So it was really seamless and I feel like comedians can do anything. It’s hard to get a dramatic actor sometimes to be funny, but I feel like it’s a lot easier to get a comedian to perform dramatically. The moments that I think I was really most surprised by on set were where he really was like able to lean into some of those more dramatic scenes and get to a really true place. And it was just cool, working with him on that and seeing that side of his, because I don’t even think he knew it was there, but seeing that side of him emerge, that this guy’s got acting chops as well.

Those are some of the best moments. One thing I really loved was the opening 10 minutes. Can you speak to using that narration? There was some really great editing to communicate the histories of both families. Can you talk about that opening and adding your own style to that beginning?

Yeah, that was in the script from the very beginning, and I think it’s so important. There’s so much setup that has to take place with a film like this, because ultimately you really want to get to the meeting, right? Like you want to get to the good stuff, but you have to understand where Sebastian’s coming from and where Ellie’s family’s coming from. It was such a really fun piece of writing at the top of the film. Then when it came time to put it together, I knew we’d be pulling from lots of archival stuff and we shot a couple of things here and there. Like that family portrait of the Collins family where we kind of pull out from one portrait and they’re posing for another portrait. [Laugh].

I had to, as a filmmaker, think about, “Okay, what is this going to look like? How are we putting this together?” It was actually kind of a nightmare because a lot of the archival … there were photos and archival footage that we loved that we couldn’t use because of rights and stuff and legal reasons. So we had to keep coming up with … “Okay, here’s an alternative that will work. Alright, we’ll do this and then we’ll put him in a casino.” It felt like a lot of exercise in that section [Laughs]. But I’m glad it resonated for you and it’s really fun and funny and it sets up the whole movie. I loved shooting those flashbacks. De Niro was completely game and it was awesome.

I loved David Rasche on this — he was great in Succession. He gets to really show off his comedic skills here, and he and Kim’s chemistry’s is so great. What really stood out about getting to see him as the patriarch of the wealthier family?

I think for me too, he was the real surprise, because so much of his greatness in this film … a lot of it’s improvised. A lot of these lines that he says that are just gold [are] improvised. He’s a Second City guy. He’s been doing comedy for a really long time and this was such an opportunity to flex his muscles and to play. Everybody was there because they wanted to play with Bob. They wanted to play with De Niro and get a chance to work with him.

I felt like David just nailed it. He just killed the assignment. It’s funny, in a way this is like his Succession character’s private life. [Laugh]. Although Karl seems a lot more … kind of evil than than Bill Collins [Laughs]. Bill Collins seems like a pretty sweet, nice guy.

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