I sat down with the writer, director, producer, Frank A. Caruso, who is a true everyman of entertainment. In fact, he has produced 45 stage plays.
Born in Southern Italy, he and his family moved to Canada in 1954. His father got a job in the railroad, and this form of employment took the family to Northern Ontario in North Bay, where the ONR, CPR, and CP Rail all passed through. At that time, North Bay was an intersection for highways, a transportation center.
For the first 38 years of his life, he grew up in North Bay, and he moved to Toronto in 1992. In his time, they made no films in Northern Ontario but now they have the Heritage Fund, and the government gives producers a lot of money to film up there. “Small Heritage Moment type clips in the CBC?” I asked, cautiously.
“No,” he differed. “Imagine going up there with 10,000 million,” he added, “a Hollywood, big budget, the government will give up to 50%. The exchange rate is excellent for film production companies, helping producers save up to 20% to 25% in budgeting costs.”
If one came to Canada with American dollars, before one even shoots a frame, producers save 2 million dollars. Think about it. Who would not want to come to film in Canada? If they hire producers from Northern Ontario, production houses get a huge grant from Heritage Ontario. Half of the budget is covered. Basically, a 10 million movie will cost 5 million dollars. Going back to Frank, when he was a kid, he played the accordion. “I loved the accordion.”
When he went to school, however, no one wanted an accordion player, and this led him to play the guitar and keyboards. According to his biography, somewhere along the way in his younger days, Frank formed a folk trio called “The Frolickers” with Vicki Virgili and Paul Aultman. They performed in many “hootenannies,” as they were called back then. They also appeared on local television, “The Vic Virgili Show” on numerous occasions. Then he realized music was not his calling and this led him to promote bands.
In the summer of 1968, Frank opened “The Furnace Room,” a club which featured folk music during the week and rock bands on weekends. “Back then, there was no license, and I brought in in Edward Bear for a couple of hundred dollars,” recalled the filmmaker. He also booked other “soon-to-be” famous bands such as the talents of Paul Pruneau, Tim Clarke, Jake Thomas, John McGale and Breen LaBeuf, to name a few.
He organized and performed in many folk concerts and in 1968 booked Gordon Lightfoot into Memorial Gardens, where over 3,200 fans attended.
This entrepreneurial man then opened another entertainment hotspot “The Carlo Club” on Cassells Street, and again featured many local singers and bands. Many present-day entertainers got their start in that venue.
As life moved on, he opened up other entertainment venues, got married, had kids, and eventually, he found himself performing in theater. He did theater in high school, and this led to him starting his own theater company in 1980, which consisted of a hundred seat theater area. He never got involved in theater in Toronto. He did, however, did direct one show at the Tarragon Theatre back in 1994. “There is no money in theater. It is a labor of love.” For the record, this multi-talented man performed 21 lead roles in theater.
“You must have a photographic memory. How long does it take you to memorize all that dialogue,” I asked with interest.
“I haven’t really timed it. But I put together a play in about three weeks,” came an answer. Remember, up until that time, he had done 45 plays. Then one day, he decided he wanted to make a movie, but he never went to film school, was way up in Northern Ontario and had no experience in the industry. In 1988-89, he called up a friend in Toronto, who was working on an independent film. Caruso then volunteered on this show.
“I used to come up to Toronto quite often, and I knew the city well.” For six weeks, he worked for free on a film, learning more what he would be learned in film school. For the first comply of days, he was sweeping the floor. He worked so hard, impressing everyone, and this led him to be promoted to 3rd AD. The 2nd AD quit because of the no pay, and he was promoted.
When the 1st Ad was gone, Caruso was promoted. He knew the theater inside and out but at that time was a film novice. He occupied that position for a few days and then they brought in someone who was experienced. When the Continuity Lady got sick, this eager man took that job for a few days. By the end of the film, he was the Associate Producer. That experience led him to make his own movie. “How did you do that?”
“I knocked on doors in North Bay,” he replied, “found 35 investors. I never asked any money from the family,” he maintained, “I was crazy. If I did the same way now, I wouldn’t do it. I was crazy back then!” he said with a laugh. One year later, he raised $350,000. No Go Fund Me Campaign. “If I had to do it all again, I wouldn’t do it. I was so naive at that time. I just went out there and did it. When you know it can’t be done, you go out and do it!”
In 1990, he filmed No Angel. It made it to A & E which was aired out of New York. Remember, back then he had no confidence whatsoever. It was his first film. With limited resources, one could have the location for a set period, capture the scene, get the shots, and then move on. At that time, it was raw, gorilla filmmaking, you get it, and go on. No Angel was 100 minutes; all made in North Bay and it was sold to 24 countries.
At this juncture, Caruso felt inclined to share a tale. Remember, when he was starting out; he had no confidence, was naive, and was embarrassed for the people that helped him on this debut feature. “It was a piece of shit,” some would tell him, repeatedly and he believed them too. So he got the call from the distributor, who has long since retired. This is how the phone call went:
“Frank, are you sitting?”
“No,” came his response and he was expecting the worst news imaginable.
“Do you have a fax machine?” came another question.
“Turn it on!”
“I am sending you a contract.”
“A & E. They bought a month window for the film.”
Without thinking, he did something that he would regret. “Larry,” he cried back, “I am not really in the mood for this! Don’t play games!”
In a blink of an eye, he hung up on the distributor, who would promptly call him back.
“Don’t hang up on me again,” came the warning.
Yes, Frank was at a low moment in his life. “When everyone around you is saying the movie is bad, and you have no confidence, you get upset!”
“I’m sorry,” he apologized, continuing the narration of his tale.
“So you say you have a fax machine?” continued the conversation.
“Yes, I do.”
“Turn it on.”
The contract was faxed to him. It clearly said A & E on it.
He calls up the distributor. “Is this a joke?”
“No, it’s not a joke. It’s going to air on A & E for about three months. Are you Ok with that?”
“Yes, I am,” he cried with excitement. After some heavy thinking, Caruso then called up all the naysayers, informing them about No Angel’s TV debut date.
“When everyone sees the film on a mainstream TV network, they shut their trap,” said the filmmaker. The day that it aired on A & E, this filmmaker was covered in paint, painting the home, while wearing dirty shorts. Suddenly, the movie manifests on the TV. “I ask myself: what’s with this picture?” Frank was alone in the house because his wife was out working. He is covered in paint and there is a set of mirrors on the wall where he can see himself smiling.
“What a crazy life!” City-TV then played No Angel a lot. UK came next, Spain followed, and South America. This industrious man never made any money on it. In fact, he had to pay back the investors, the distributor took their share of it, and there was not much left. “Let me be very blunt,” he stopped narration to clarify, “It is very hard to make money in this industry.” This film veteran laments how people now watch this movie for free on the internet.
“On one of the website, 64,000 watched it for free. No people will buy it-they want to see it for free.” He has three films on Video on Demand. Club Utopia, Risk Factor, and Final Dance, all made in the last 3, or 4 years. He shot a lot of his films on 16 mm but as soon as the digital revolution occurred, he switched to digital. “It does not matter what you shoot it on. You need a good story, good actors, and a good editor—all the necessary ingredients,” argued the moviemaker. In the late 1990’s, he saw a brilliant movie called The Celebration; all shot on mini DV, and it won all kinds of awards too. He sees the camera as a great tool.
“If it doesn’t matter what type of camera one uses,” he insisted. “You can be the greatest chef in the world, but if the meat is rancid, it does not matter what type of camera you have.” His favorite film of all time is the Godfather. Frame for frame. Every frame tells a story. EVERY FRAME. FYI, he hates gangster movies because it glorifies violence. “The wedding scene in The God Father, yes I come from an Italian background but this is the best scene I have seen filmed ever, FC proclaimed. “From the little kids, the grandmother. Not leaving a lot on dialogue. Lots of people say a lot of great films have to be heavy on dialogue–not true!” This Italian expatriates made a lot of commercials years ago. In fact, he does a little lot of everything.
Frank teaches on-camera training, and he had his own school for years, ending when his wife passed away three years ago from breast cancer at age 56. Caruso would like to resurrect it again but it is tough to do so. Angela, Johnson, his fiancé, is his new love in his life and he is actively promoting her. She is a singer, grandmother at age 45. He showed me the picture. “She has a 27 year old daughter too!” In the past, he promoted bands and always has been a good talent scout. Yes, he still does acting, but he has a big project in development.
Frank’s latest venture is a Historical Documentary titled “In Search of God’s Gold.” This doc will be accompanied by a feature film and book, all based on the same subject. They have raised 2 million for it, but it needs 4 million to get this production going. He plans to shoot it in Southern Italy. “When you have no formal training, you just do what you want to do, not what others tell you what to do, whatever your creative mind comes up with.” He teaches actors how to create their own experience. “Don’t rely on other people’s method–so I don’t teach method acting. I want my own students to rely on their own instincts. This multitalented man recalled something he read about Dustin Hoffman who is a method actor. Laurence Olivier, who had no formal training in acting, was reading a newspaper. Hoffman came onto the set, looking tired.
“Why are you so tired for?” the British legend asked the other.
“I was up all night running,” came a response, “I must be tired for the next scene.”
“You’re an actor,” replied Olivier, “Act tired.”
Olivier then went back to reading his newspaper. So Frank Caruso is a critic of method acting. “If you are a good actor,” he exclaimed, “you don’t need to run all night to look tired for the next scene. If I wanted to play tired, I could play tired in 2 seconds, if I wanted.” As a matter of fact, in a live theater production, he performed three different acts, where he played different periods of a person life. For example, in the first act, he was age 25, next act, he was age 45, and in Act 3 he was age 75, all with no makeup. This thespian has the ability to let out an enormous pot belly when he does not have one- “I just let it sag, along with all my body.”
So look out for Frank’s latest venture is a Historical Documentary titled “In Search of God’s Gold.” This doc will be accompanied by a feature film and book, all based on the same subject. It is slated for production in fall of 2015, or winter 2016. Look out for more on Frank Caruso!