If you Google Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather, you can pretty much tell from photographs that he looks like a 'wise guy'. That same slicked back hair that Brando stylized in the film adaptation, the sharp suits. In fact, withstanding his Deirdre Rashid milk bottle-bottom specs, he aestheticizes the stereotypical Mafioso.
If you Google Sergio Casci, opinion may be divided. Sure, the resultant photographs illustrate a man of dark features and olive complexion, obviously Mediterranean in origin. But it is when you meet him that you at once recognise his tell - his polite, soft-toned South Side Glaswegian accent. With my first glimpse of Casci at our meeting before a screening of his film American Cousins, as part of the South Side Film Festival, I immediately thought "Yes! I can totally see this guy putting horses heads in people's beds!" But alas! With his warm welcome and well-mannered conversation, I was disappointed to conclude that he in fact was more Shawlands than Staten Island. It was only later, following the screening, that I was happy to conclude that this ambiguity allows Casci to personify his own screenplay.
Glasgow-born Casci wrote American Cousins in the late 90s, having worked in television and media for years. After working with director Don Coutts on various projects, including a documentary about Casci's ancestral hometown in Tuscany, the pair decided to collaborate on a feature film. And it was Casci's family background which would act as the catalyst for the project as he began to wonder what would have happened if he had that New Jersey accent. What would have happened if his Grandfather had emigrated to the States instead of Scotland?
"What if I had gone to New York and ended up in the Mob? I'd be wearing sharper suits, I'd have a bigger car, I'd go to nightclubs more. I just thought how my life would have changed. So then I came up with the idea of having two branches of the same family, one coming to Glasgow and becoming fish fryers and one moving to the States and becoming mobsters. I then developed the story so that the two sides were forced together."
The film, first released in 2003, and serving as the opening film for the South Side Film Festival, focuses on Roberto, an unassuming cafe owner and fish fryer in the East End of Glasgow, whose life takes an unexpected turn when two cousins visit him from America. The Godfather meets the Gallowgate. The film itself is a great addition to the Scottish back catalogue. Lightening up from the usual grittiness of Celtic filmmaking, the script is laced with far more humour than expected, and yet still encapsulates Glaswegian idiosyncrasies, especially the partiality for fish and chips. However, it also goes further than that. American Cousins explores the fish frying niche, with Don Coutts using the food-preparation scenes brilliantly to develop the story and characters.
The screening took place at South Side nightclub The Shed on Friday evening, with a questions and answers session with Casci following. Despite the chilliness of the venue (I imagine all the drunk sweaty nightclubbers generate their own heat on the dancefloor!) the screening seemed to be enjoyed by all, and the unusual location added a quirky touch to the opening of the festival's first year.
The Q&A session was valuable, giving further insight into the making of a Scottish production, from start to finish. Casci hung around afterwards and proved to be very approachable for all audience members, giving advice on his writing process (it differs from project to project, although most of his scenes involve food, meaning that when he writes for River City one poor crew member always has to prepare a meal!) and sharing his experiences of the on-set production (which proved to be more of a cold than creative involvement). "We needed a scene with a windsurfer out on Loch Lomand during winter, and Don suggested me. And I felt I couldn't say no, so I found myself naked from the waist up on the sixth of January in the freezing cold. The scene was so short but it took hours! So I decided to get Don back. We had a linking scene later in the film with a security guard being dragged into the toilets, beaten up, stripped naked and then chained to the WC. And so Don also couldn't say no." But with this anecdote we get a glimpse at the power struggle within the film-making community. "If you watch the film, you see me half naked in Loch Lomand, but you don't see Don in his underwear, beaten up and chained to a toilet. For some reason he decided to drop that scene...time pressure don't you know!" Ah, the dominance of directors.
However, it was through the efforts of Don Coutts and producer Margaret Matheson that the film secured such an impressive cast, including Scottish star Shirley Henderson who is best known for her role in the Bridget Jones films, Trainspotting, and as the high-pitched moaning ghost in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Also look out for Stephen Graham, who is now infamous for his portrayal as the leader of the right-wing hooligans in This Is England, and most recently as a young Al Capone in Martin Scorsese's series Boardwalk Empire. Danny Nucci (Titanic) acts as the younger American cousin, while veteran actor Dan Hedaya, seen in The Usual Suspects and Mulholland Drive, is the wiser, more mature Mafioso.
Casci notes that, "Dan Hedaya, who is a fantastic actor, arrived in Glasgow on a wet Tuesday in January and it was pissing with rain. I think he was utterly shocked, as it was his first time in Glasgow, coming from California. The first day of filming in Loch Lomand it was freezing, raining, and Dan went up to Don Coutts the director and said "Aw, that's too bad - first day of filming and we have to call off the shoot." And Don replied, "Ok, and why do we have to call it off?" "Well it's raining." "If we called off every time it rained in Scotland, there wouldn't be many films made here!" Dan was totally shocked that we filmed under such heavy rain and weather. I think it was a record breaking 28 days of rain during our shoot. And I remember Dan, by the end of the process, after having being so stunned, he ended up really loving the place. He really loved the people and had so much respect for Scottish film crews, because they are up against some tough conditions. I think the whole American contingent left with a great affection for Scotland and an admiration for our film makers."
And so it should be. American Cousins, despite lacking the financial backing needed to promote and distribute the film the way it deserved, is very much a positive addition to the country's cinematic legacy. And Casci's career as a screenwriter continues to rise. His next project, supernatural thriller The Caller, is notable as being the project that actress Brittany Murphy was rumoured to be fired from just weeks before her tragic death in 2009 as well as boasting a cast including Rachelle Lefevre of the Twilight frenzy, and Steven Moyer who can be seen on the cult show True Blood.
However, Casci promises that there will be no vampires featured in the film. Phew. Clearly, this Glaswegian writer is heading in the right direction, assuming he leaves his windsurfing board at home.