William DeMeo Discusses Writing Dialect And His Film, ‘Back In The Day’
[This Interview originally published in Creative Screenwriting Magazine.]
William DeMeo lives the classic advice to “write what you know.” In his new film, Back in the Day, DeMeo pens, trains, and breathes the life of a half Italian, half Puerto Rican boxer named Anthony.
Anthony grows up in a racially divided New York neighborhood with an alcoholic father. His world is shaken by the unexpected death of his mother, leading him down a path of violence, and meetings with criminals, played by heavyweights Alec Baldwin and Michael Madsen.
The film co-stars Danny Glover and Shannen Doherty, with a special appearance from boxer Mike Tyson, and like DeMeo’s other films (Once Upon a Time in Brooklyn, Searching for Bobby D) it’s directed by Paul Borghese.
We spoke with DeMeo about writing from your own experience, racial tensions in Brooklyn, and big name writers jumping on a script.
What led you into screenwriting?
From the beginning, I always thought that for the best way for me to excel in my career was to make my own projects and write my own scripts. When I first started, this could help me showcase myself as an actor and a filmmaker. My first film was called One Deadly Road (1998).
Can you elaborate on the process of writing and acting?
As a filmmaker and screenwriter, if you can get your work done, then you can raise the money to do your projects. The collaboration showcases you in many ways.
This is actually my fifth script, so it’s the fifth movie that I’ve gotten distribution for. And making my own movies helps me get other roles, because I’m also showcasing myself as an actor.
A lot of actors are involved in their own projects, either as writers, directors or producers — which also includes “big actors.” Not all of them write, but they are involved in one way or another. I love writing. I love telling stories and I think I can capture some of those stories from my youth.
I grew up in a tough neighborhood in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, which gives me a unique perspective from those things that I’ve seen on the streets. Growing up in those surroundings, I have a very good idea of how to write these types of projects and how to show the street and the gangsters present in that time period.
So that childhood was your influence for Back in the Day?
100 percent. Things like the racial protest scene actually happened in 1989. Yusef Hawkins came to the area to look at a car and was killed through an act of racism. That led to a racial protest where Al Sharpton was stabbed, which was one aspect of the era. Then, showing the strength of the mob back in the day versus how it is today, where it’s depleted and under-seen, is another.
What’s it like writing these stories that are both historic and personal? Can you elaborate a little on the research and your writing process?
I did have to do some research on the boxing, but I didn’t need to do much outside research to capture the feel of the streets. I lived that. I grew up like that. I understand how it works. I understand how people talk. I understand how things happen and those things make me really proud about this film.
Besides starring in a movie and getting another movie complete — which is an ultimate achievement — I’m the most proud of creating a story within a genre that’s been done so many times, and making it fresh. I’ll take that to my grave.
I felt like the backstory was even more important than the boxing. The story really comes together and it’s less predictable than most boxing movies. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You’re going to be on edge, but you’re going to leave the theater with a really good feeling.
It’s the first time we’ve really seen a movie that touches on the half Puerto Rican, half Italian ancestry. Can you elaborate more on that dynamic?
That’s a good question. I’ve had numerous friends that grew up that way. In that time period, I didn’t really know any Italians. I knew a few people that were Jewish, Irish, or Greek, but other minorities simply weren’t in my neighborhood. I remember that racial tension. A Spanish person or a Black person couldn’t buy a house in the neighborhood.
The Canarsie real estate endeavor is also a true story. So a person of half Italian, half Puerto Rican heritage would certainly deal with some adversity. Not everyone experienced that, but someone with Puerto Rican blood in that neighborhood, in that time period, amongst those people, would certainly face those hurdles. My friends who grew up in that time have seen the movie and expressed how real it felt to see it again on screen.
You’ve written five films now. Can you elaborate on some of your writing rituals?
For me, it’s better to write at night, when my brain is clear. I actually go up to my house in the Poconos to do my writing because I can get away from it all and lock myself in.
It’s hard to focus when you have some much going on, especially with smart phones and social media. But I was determined to finish this script alone because I’ve shared writing credits and I didn’t get everything I wanted out of that experience.
With this script, I didn’t want anyone to touch one word in the script. So most of what I wrote is on the screen. There are a few things that I envisioned differently, but on the whole, I am very happy with this film.
Can you discuss the characters played by Alec Baldwin (Gino Fratelli) and Michael Madsen (Enzo)? Were those based on real people?
No, but I know how those types of people would act. I know how they would talk. Generally, there were just people in the neighborhood who existed at that stature that I had come across or seen in other movies, but those characters were not based on any particular people.
What do you find to be the most difficult step in the writing process?
Trying to get the most out of the ending. For me, that is the hardest thing that I’ve encountered. Finding that ending and staying focused.
What was the time frame involved for writing Back in the Day?
The initial script took about a month, but I worked it and worked it for about six months to tweak and fix it. I worked on it a lot. I didn’t stop and it kept getting better and better.
Do you work from an outline or do you follow the character when writing?
I do an outline, but sometimes the character will take me in a different direction. For me, if you get the beginning to flow, then everything else will come together. What I wanted to do with the script was keep you thinking. I wanted the audience to keep guessing. I think there are at least seven aspects of the film that keep the audience guessing.
Since the initial idea for this film, is there any advice or anything that you’ve learned that could be helpful for upcoming writers?
I’ve been in the process of some very big films falling apart, despite the equally large attachments actors, directors, producers and I really just think you need to believe in the project. I’ve seen great projects get passed along to other writers for so-called doctoring, and they screw shit up all the time. I’ve seen it firsthand like six times.
There are several stories out now that could have been different. I’m involved in something now that came from an unknown writer and these known, big name writers come in and they fuck it up. If it’s really good and you really believe in it, you don’t need all these people jumping on it. Be passionate about what you have and don’t let other people get in your head.
Would you recommend having multiple roles — writing, directing, acting — to get the film made the way you want it to be made?
For me, I have to be in tune with the project because I want my vision made right. Many writers want their visions made, but I make sure I’m involved with the whole process. If I’m writing it, I’m going to be involved in everything.
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