Last week was a big one for the multihyphenate whirlwind Frank D'Angelo. His film No Deposit – which he financed, wrote, produced, directed, starred in and sang the soundtrack for – had a seven-day run on the big screen, at Toronto's Scotiabank Theatre.
D'Angelo has made films before, but they've mainly been available through his website, frankdangelo.ca. (His first, 2013's Real Gangsters, gets its TV debut Saturday night on CITY-TV. His second, The Big Fat Stone, is available on Rogers On Demand.)
As well, he's recorded eight albums and written an autobiography (Being Frank: The Inspiring Story of Frank D'Angelo); and he hosts a cable-access show, also self-financed, called Being Frank, which airs Fridays at midnight on CHCH.
Plus, he's a restaurateur (the Forget About It! Supper Club on Toronto's King Street; Mamma D's in Mississauga) and a beverage tycoon (D'Angelo Brands, whose energy drink, Cheetah Power Surge, was shilled by disgraced runner Ben Johnson in a TV ad: "I Cheetah all the time!").
He's had his share of troubles: His ambitious attempt to enter the beer business, Steelback Brewery, went bust, and in 2007, he was charged with sexually assaulting a 21-year-old woman. (He was declared not guilty in a 2009 trial.)
No Deposit, however, represents a new leap for the 56-year-old. "I thought we'd sell about 10 or 15 tickets the whole week," D'Angelo told me in a phone interview. "But it did way beyond any expectation. I'm not gonna disclose the numbers, but they were substantial."
In conversation, he's both self-aggrandizing ("We just held a private screening for some powerful people in the film industry, and every jaw dropped") and self-deprecating ("I'm a little psychotic"), as well as generous and wide-ranging. We covered everything from films that inspire him (Fargo, The Deer Hunter, Glengarry Glen Ross) to his beloved mastiff, who, though ailing, "just ate 15 meatballs as if they were Tic-Tacs."
"Frank is a human Duracell battery," Tony Nardi, a Toronto-based actor who's made three D'Angelo films, tells me. "I think of him as energy." He laughs. "It's not an energy I totally understand. But Frank defines himself. He will not have anyone else define him."
"He's mad as a hatter," echoes the actress Janet Burke. "I really like him."
No Deposit is the story of a man (Michael Paré) pushed to the brink by the financial crisis, who decides to rob a bank with a pair of anti-Semite thugs (Daniel Baldwin and Michael Madsen). It begins with a long narration by someone trying to sound like Barack Obama (D'Angelo, naturally), and ends with the kind of serioso credit roll – one by one, the actors' names appear next to dramatic black-and-white stills – that you'd expect from, say, 12 Angry Men.
In between – well, it looks like a movie, and smells like a movie, but it's not like any movie you're likely to see. Scenes come and go without a lot of shape. Margot Kidder and Doris Roberts get emotional in a bingo hall. Robert Loggia delivers a monologue about forgiveness (which D'Angelo freely admits made him weep). D'Angelo plays Jimmy Valenti, who is adorned with much jewellery and a shrieking wife, but whose purpose is not strictly necessary. The tag line of the film – "Anger and hate are a total eclipse of the soul" – gives you an idea of the writing style, and the whole thing clocks in at 80 minutes.
To fully understand D'Angelo – whose oeuvre resembles the arc on The Sopranos where Christopher writes and finances a movie, only D'Angelo does it with beverage money and a lot less roughing-up – you have to understand the way he works.
Where most films shoot for three weeks to four months, D'Angelo shoots an entire movie in three to five days. Most directors shoot a scene or two a day; D'Angelo shoots 30. Most films use one or two cameras; D'Angelo uses six or eight. This requires a lot of choreographing to stay out of one another's sightlines, and it's a nightmare in the editing room. But it means he can shoot a scene in one or two takes, and doesn't have to worry about coverage (getting separate closeups and multiple angles on each actor). A scene with five ambulances and 150 extras gets as much time as a scene with two guys talking.
He's equally speedy with his own scenes. "Doing a take or two to get warmed up, that's not Frank," Nardi says. "If he could, he'd do one take for every scene." D'Angelo won't disclose his budgets, only that they're over $5-million. "You can spend $2-million with your eyes closed," he says. (Okay, some of his scenes look like they were shot that way, but snark is easy.)
Before a shoot, D'Angelo throws four-course, sit-down dinners for his cast and crew at his restaurant on King Street, where he takes everyone through the story of the film and the characters. Then, during the shoot, he'll change it all up – add or jettison dialogue, include new plot points or forget to include old ones. Nardi calls it "kamikaze filmmaking. Frank's a musician, and he approaches filmmaking that way. He gathers people he thinks can jam with him."
He uses the same crew from his talk show, stands hard by the director of photography, and shouts, "Action" right in his ear. He pays scale, and then some, in cash. (On the set of No Deposit, he counted out Kidder's payment while she sat in the makeup chair.) A black limo picks up actors in Toronto and drives them to his set in Hamilton, a train station converted to a soundstage of sorts. The catering is great.
Yes, it's not unheard of that an actor will speak dialogue from a different scene than the scene he's in, or that there are continuity issues. In No Deposit, for example, two bingo hall scenes are supposed to occur on two different days in the story. In traditional filmmaking, the actors would change clothes and the extras would move into different seats. D'Angelo didn't have time for that. If some of the actors cared, he didn't; bing bam boom, he's moving on.
Yet Oscar nominees such as Eric Roberts, and actors such as Paul Sorvino and James Caan – who've worked with Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola – work with D'Angelo, then work with him again. "It's the scary and thrilling feeling of improv; you have to throw yourself in," Nardi says. "I've never done live TV, but I think it must have felt like this. For his actors, it's a joy to be in that process of weird risk. You give over to it. The thrill of the jamming takes precedence over the final product."
While making D'Angelo's next film – Sicilian Vampire, about a mobster (D'Angelo) who is bitten by a bat released from a container of bananas (that's the official synopsis) – Caan took one look at the way D'Angelo works and said to him, "We're gonna get three more signatures and have you committed." (D'Angelo loves that line.)
But D'Angelo is fiercely loyal, and he talks to everyone the same way, whether they're a pauper or the Pope. At a restaurant in Hamilton, he didn't hesitate to shush hockey great Phil Esposito, who has a small part in Sicilian Vampire, when he was having a side conversation. "We're not here to talk about hockey, we're here to talk about the film," D'Angelo told him. People respond to that authenticity.
D'Angelo is also a secret softie. He's distressed when his movies wrap – "When you've gotta say goodbye" – and he's hurt when people call him a hack. "It blows my mind," he says. "I don't mind if you don't like my movies, but you don't have to be malicious."
He's just always been creative, he says. He writes songs, and they inspire script ideas ("I've got 30 scripts I'm sitting on"). So a few years ago, when friends urged him to finally make one into a film, he met with a few directors. Each one said it would take six months. "You crazy?" D'Angelo remembers thinking. "By then I'll be selling Tupperware or something." So he "got a guy to call another guy to call a bunch of actors," rented some high-end Sony RED digital cameras ("at $200,000 a pop") and did it himself.
He bristles a bit when I use the phrase "novice filmmaker" – "I've done six seasons of Being Frank, 110 shows. I'm not exactly a novice. I've written 500 songs. Most of 'em suck, but some are good."
But he also laughs at himself when he disconnects me to answer his call waiting: "I can make a movie in three days, but I can't work a phone." He adds that he sleeps three hours a night – "I'd love to bullshit you and say it's thanks to Cheetah, but I've always been this way" – drinks a bottle of Barolo at lunch, and won't touch a Scotch under 25 years old.
D'Angelo knows he's not making Casablanca (which he's watched "742,000 times"), but he's happy with the results. "If you buy a pair of shoes, and they're comfortable and they look good, you've got a good pair of shoes," he sums up.
No matter what you think of his work, D'Angelo raises an interesting debate about who's "allowed" to make movies. No one bats an eye at the weekend painter with her easel in the park, or office mates crooning at karaoke. People post YouTube videos and Instagram photos no matter how banal. There's no shame in asking for Kickstarter funds so you can document your road trip. But there's a snob factor in filmmaking, mostly because they're so staggeringly expensive.
D'Angelo's contribution is to be the Etsy of filmdom, with a DIY aesthetic that feels of the moment, and is celebrated in "real" movies such as Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind (video store clerks make their own no-budget versions of the films in their store) or the current Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, where high school friends riff on classic pictures. His hubris isn't like Donald Trump's, running for U.S. president. It's just movies.
"There's nothing better in life than doing something you love and accomplishing it," D'Angelo says. "I'm blessed and lucky, because when I say I'm gonna do something, I do it. Then I pour myself a Macallan and sit down and watch one of my movies or Being Frank, and there's a huge satisfaction for me that I pulled it off."
But being D'Angelo, he can't just leave it there. "I'm making a movie in September called Red Maple Leaf," he says. "The daughter of the American ambassador to Canada is kidnapped, and the RCMP fights the FBI for jurisdiction. I'm almost finished with the soundtrack. One song combines the U.S. and Canadian anthems in R&B style. I can't tell you yet who's in it, but it's big names. Huge. It's gonna be big, big, big, big, big."
Whatever else it is, it's gonna be Frank.