Jennifer Esposito, who accumulated about 70 credits as an actress in movies and series before making her debut as writer and director with Fresh Kills, has signed with Echo Lake Entertainment. The management company is tasked with helping her forge a new career path.
When you have mortgaged your house to make her first film as Esposito did, it stands to reason you would not be happy thinking you got that out of your system and go back to waiting for the phone to ring with acting jobs.
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Echo Lake will work with WME, which reps her for writing and directing, and attorney Chris Tricarico, while Authentic continues to rep her for acting.
When most of us think of the wives of mobsters in the movies, we visualize those frumps who raised the kids and kept up those gaudy homes in Goodfellas. Esposito, who grew up in Brooklyn and Staten Island, and knew a lot of the women who grew up in those families and wrote a script that focused not on the goodfella but rather the wife and two daughters of one, who are left to wonder where he is, or how to feel about a life furnished by crime. Fresh Kills debuted in June at the Tribeca Festival to strong reviews, and it just won awards at the Hamptons and San Diego film festivals as it continues its festival rounds before hopefully getting distribution that will help Esposito pay back the money she owes on her house.
Hearing her talk about redefining her place in movies reminded of similar tales told to me by Taylor Sheridan, who quit acting cold turkey and started writing after being denied a raise on Sons of Anarchy and being coldly told he would never rise above fifth on a call sheet. Sylvester Stallone has also told me those stories, about refusing to step aside and let someone else star in his Rocky script. This make-or-break strategy doesn’t always pan out; I recall writing about Madeleine Stowe and Unbound Captives, which she wrote to direct and star in. She refused as much as $5 million to step aside when Ridley Scott wanted to make it with his Gladiator star Russell Crowe. Stowe tried for years, but the film never got made.
While Esposito’s in a hole financially, she already can feel the value of digging herself out of another hole, one that would feel familiar to actresses who round 50.
“I got frustrated seeing what there was for myself and seeing what was happening to actresses around me,” she told Deadline. “I was being placed in a box I didn’t agree with. I was so disappointed in this, taking jobs just to make a living, that I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I thought, ‘I have to do something that I’m capable of, rather than just what I’m being given.’ I took a hard look and said to myself, ‘No one’s coming, no one’s going to give you the shot. So you either do it, or you quit.'”
She’s no quitter. The Fresh Kills story had rattled around in her mind for years.
“I’d start it, pitch it to some people and they’d say, ‘Great idea, go write it,'” Esposito said. “I wrote a book, I opened a bakery trying to go in a different direction. But this haunted me, and I felt deep down that I was supposed to do this and I’m going to give it a full shot. So four years ago I sat down and said, ‘Every day, I’m going to do something to move this forward.’ Writing the script, calling somebody to read it, seeing if I could get someone attached. I did everything I could think of to move it forward, until I found myself on set. And that experience was insane. But I did it.”
She too was faced with temptation of compromising her vision for money. “I was offered $5 million for the script, but only if I cast a big name lead for the male character,” she recalled. ” I said, what about just for the girls, could you give me half the money to make that? The answer was no, and it was clear that female driven content by a female filmmaker was just not going to get funding. That’s when I mortgaged my house, put it all on the line to get this done.”
She felt that swinging the focus toward the mob boss would have risked becoming a close cousin to every other New York mob movie. “This was something I needed to do — for me, for the women I grew up around who were these characters,” Esposito said. “And thinking, ‘We all love these mafia genre movies and yet we’ve never seen an accurate portrayal of these women.’ I did it to show you can have a female at the helm who is new and has something to say. I did it for a lot of reasons, but mostly I did it for myself, for the opportunity I knew no one else was going to give me. I am nowhere near recouping, but I would do it again”
Esposito still is making the festival rounds to promote her film, but her agents now are bringing her scripts — a big change after years of being unable to get many to even read hers. You watch Fresh Kills and you can see Esposito was paying attention while working on movies from Crash to Summer of Sam, and series including Blue Bloods, The Affair and others. She does a lot with a micro-budget.
“I’ve given myself the opportunity to move forward, and that is something you really can’t buy,” she said. “I was able to show what I was capable of, and now I can get someone to read a script I’m interested in doing. People listen to the ideas I have. Scripts are being sent to me. All that means so much to me.”
Esposito has several projects percolating, including one large enough in scale that she’d like to make it her fourth film so she can get a couple more under her belt. Maybe with fewer hairpin turns than her debut, which, she said, “should have died 10 or 15 times.”
Barely enough money for a 22-day shoot in the winter in Staten Island, culminating in her key ending shot that was permitted to shoot on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. That night, they closed the bridge because of a brutal snowstorm. There was too much dysfunction behind the scenes to restage the shot. “That’s the Cliff Notes version, and if I told you everything, I’d need to open some wine first,” she said. The ending she used is very touching, and she found a way around that and other creative obstacles in the editing room. Most important to her was keeping intact the love of a wife and daughters of a mob guy mixed up in nefarious deeds who still loved his family but traps them in a cycle that needs to be broken.
“How we got to the finish line came down to that nothing was going to stray from the ideas and the goal that was in my head,” she said. “The ending of the movie I love more than anything else in the movie, even though it wasn’t the ending I had planned. The beauty of the work speaks for itself, and you get in there and you have some happy accidents.”
Esposito starred in her debut, and she might well take some roles to help with those second mortgage payments while setting up the next one. But, she said, “I found the place I’m supposed to be: behind the camera, creating a story, working on scripts. I definitely will need to work at some point. If the acting job is fulfilling, great, but lately, they hadn’t been that way. As you get older as a female, you get pushed aside.”
That happened in high-profile fashion when, after playing the major role of a detective in Blue Bloods, she came down with Celiac disease. Rather than work around her limitations, the producers wrote her out and gave Danny Reagan a new partner.
Esposito hopes the things that happen to actresses is in the rearview mirror.
“I’m not going to be pushed aside,” Esposito said. “I have so much more to say.”
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