KILL THE IRISHMAN – From Reality, to Book, to Script, to Screen

Christopher Walken in Kill the Irishman

by Danielle Alberico

Over the summer of 1976, thirty-six bombs detonate in the heart of Cleveland while a turf war raged between Irish mobster Danny Greene (Ray Stevenson) and the Italian mafia. Based on a true story, Kill the Irishman chronicles Greene’s heroic rise from a tough Cleveland neighborhood to become an enforcer in the local mob. Turning the tables on loan shark Shondor Birns (Christopher Walken) and allying himself with gangster John Nardi (Vincent D’Onofrio), Greene stops taking orders from the mafia and pursues his own power. Surviving countless assassination attempts from the mob and killing off anyone who went after him in retaliation, Danny Greene’s infamous invincibility and notorious fearlessness eventually led to the collapse of mafia syndicates across the U.S. and also earned him the status of the man the mob couldn’t kill.

 

Written and directed by Jonathan Hensleigh and also starring Val Kilmer, Paul Sorvino and Linda Cardellini, KILL THE IRISHMAN is inspired by Rick Porrello’s true crime account “To Kill The Irishman: The War That Crippled The Mafia.”

Meeting police chief, author, and now credited movie producer, Rick Porrello, in our hometown, and setting of the new feature, Kill the Irishman, is an exciting and nostalgic feeling. Rick is eager to talk about the film and his experience while writing one of the most powerful stories of Cleveland’s history.

This movie is going to put Cleveland on the map. Do you think the people of Cleveland need something to relate to, especially now, during this tough period?

Rick Porrello: Anything pertaining to Cleveland, Clevelanders are proud. And certainly anything relating to sports. Cleveland is a big sports town, a little too heavy with the sports, so I don’t relate too much on that level. I’m not a huge sports fan. Maybe this will be something in another field that they can take ownership of it.

Of course, if it was filmed in Cleveland, it would have been a bigger impact. But I have a feeling even though it wasn’t filmed in Cleveland, people will take to it either way, and be proud of it. I’m already speaking to people who are so proud of this movie being done, though it was filmed in Detroit.

Interesting for film news, this might be the only movie to have a select opening feature in Cleveland, along with entertainment capitals like Los Angeles and NYC.

RP: Yeah, and Detroit a week later.

RP: Some people confuse the title. It’s To Kill THE Irishman. It wasn’t just any Irishman. It was one guy. I don’t want to get all the Irish men in Cleveland after me. It took years of research. Some of the research overlapped from the first book I wrote. Irishman was sort of the like a sequel, or extension.

Did you ever feel in harm’s way or scared while writing? Obviously all these mobs guys were local.

RP: No, but my mother did. My wife did. So, I went to one of the (mob) guys. I developed some relationships with some of the guys on the other side, who knew what was going on. And he said, “The guys that you need to be worried about are the guys that aren’t mentioned in your book.” Cause I was worried, ‘oh man I mentioned this guy’s name in the book, I hope he’s not going be pissed off.’ My wife and my mother were scared, but I wasn’t. I’m a cop. I have a lot of protection, and I’m used to threats. There are people that are angry because they are going to jail, or I would get an occasional threat, so I was kind of already in the business of threats, kind of prone to violence. It wasn’t that much of a concern.

But this guy was right. These guys that are involved with the mob, they need to be validated. There was a great episode of The Soprano‘s, where it shows Christopher, who wanted to be this big guy. He wanted to be inducted. He wanted to be more involved. One day he finds his name mentioned in one small article. So, he goes to the newspaper machine, puts in a quarter, and takes out a stack, and starts handing them out to people. That was him being validated. They either have to be arrested, recently done prison time, have their name in a book, or all the above. They thrive on all that. It’s like gangs, or wanna-be gangsters, or the thug mentality. To serve some time is like a feather in your cap. It’s an image thing, it’s a reputation.

Why do you think audiences gravitate towards characters like Danny Greene? He is a killer, which is not morally right. And he’s not only killing enemies, but at times friends.

RP: I lump them in with criminals in general. Part of our human nature is that we have this curiosity about extremes of people. The extreme on one end, where you have the rich, the powerful, the famous, the celebrities, the politicians, and then on the other hand you have the serial killers, the child molesters, and people that do the most heinous things. But we are so curious to know about them, and we want to know the gory details. When it comes to the mob, it is a large part of the American culture, from The Godfather movies, to the books, and the movies that have followed; Goodfellas, Donnie Brasco, A Bronx Tale. I think a big part of the obsession with the Italian American organized crime story is because you have beautiful Italian culture in the background, and I think most people love the Italian culture, whether the food, the Roman Catholic religion, the music, and when you have all that in the background, there’s a balance for the violence. It’s a culture that a lot of people can relate to. When you’re talking anything mob, you’re talking something that’s popular in entertainment, so you add somebody, or a character like Danny Greene, not an associate, who is a different ethnicity, an Irish rogue who wants to take over the association and you got a problem. And with such a fascinating character, you have a great story, and that’s what Tommy Reid (producer) saw in the beginning.

How do you think religion plays into the film? There are various symbols, churches, crosses, etc.

RP: Danny Greene was very proud of his heritage. He was a faithful Catholic. That’s not to say he was a good Catholic, but he had a strong faith, and thought that god was ultimately in charge of what was going to happen. He twisted everything, and it’s not the normal way to think about religion. He would refer to god as “the man upstairs” or “he pulls the strings”, he grew up for part of his childhood in an orphanage that was run by nuns, so those were the first women that gave him any sort of love and care, and he remembered that in later years. I think it serves as a striking contrast to the violence that took place in his life. Compared to the mob guys, Danny had more of a faith in God. Every time the mob attempted a hit, Danny would look to god for the answers. He wasn’t afraid to do that, he wore a cross, and gave away crosses to his friends.

Yeah, in the film, a Jewish guy gets killed on Holy Saturday, outside of a church.

Ironic.

RP: Yeah, I was on the set with Christopher Walken, and he said he was shocked to learn that Shondor Birns was a real person. So, Chris went and played it with this smirk on his face, almost like he was playing himself.

A movie like Irishman, reminds me of the movie, Goodfellas, because in Cleveland in the forties, fifties, and sixties, the mafia’s action was quiet, behind the scenes. The mob was skimming money from the casinos, gambling, and then there were new guys who started to get greedy, and that’s when things got really out of hand. When these guys started getting involved with drugs it all came crashing down, and that happened in reality. In the film, Goodfellas, the music changes abruptly, it went from Tony Bennett to Jimmy Hendrix, and then the murders happen left and right, and that’s exactly what happened in Cleveland. And a lot of the action in Irishman, 36 bombs in one year, is set to some great music.

While writing the book, who or what was the biggest influence for you? I know at times your wife wanted you to stop, because it was demanding on all aspects of your life.

RP: The first book was a nine year project. From the time that I got a publishing contract, until the time that I received the books, was probably six months or longer. I vowed after that, because the first book took me so long, that it would be the last. You know I’m getting like a twenty five hundred dollar advance, then like six percent of each book. I thought I would never do something this crazy again, but once I had the book in my hand, I saw my name on the bottom, I thought, I have do this again.

Well look at where it took you. Irishman has big names.

RP: I know. And Irishman is a self published title. I mean the first addition was so fraught with mistakes, and errors, because I did not hire a professional editor, or a professional proofreader. It was a major investment. It cost me. Now, the third book I wrote is in talks for a film too.

When Tommy Reid came to you about the rights, what made you trust him that it would be made into a movie? I know the process was long.

RP: I know that I had two guys contact me for the rights to the film, and interested in writing the screenplay. One was Tommy Reid, and the other was this guy who was in the investment business who moved west, and wanted to make movies. So I retained an agent, Peter Miller, who looked at them both, and chose Tommy because he knew the business.

Now Tommy was on fire. Tommy is such a motivated and ambitious guy. I mean there were a couple of bumps in the road. Even with the amount of time it took, sometimes it takes a long time for a film to be made, Tommy’s ambition and his motivation was just infectious. You can just feel it. You can almost pull it from him. This was like our Baby. He was determined that it would be a big screen film. He never talked about it being a TV film. He never talked about it being a cable film. Now if somebody came to me and said they wanted to do a made for TV movie, I would have done it. Tommy knew it would be made. He really loved the story. He identified with it. He had the potential. All the ingredients were there for a recipe I had no idea could be made…

…The formula for the perfect movie. I never do this but I saw the movie before I read the book, and it’s incredible that it wasn’t a movie a long time ago. You have this big explosive action, the snappy dialogue, the setting descriptions on point, everything needed for a script adaptation. You say what we hear and see, and it’s not this internal character reflection, that would have been hard to capture on screen.

RP: I know Danny Kelly, the first son of Greene, had been trying to get a movie done about his father, but it’s so hard. I mean it’s so hard to even get a book published. Even though I we have a deal for a reprint. The film has done great things for the future of the books.

I had no clue how to develop this into a movie, a movie script. I feel lucky to be contacted by such a bright kid like Tommy, and then later the writer Jonathan Hensleigh. I read it and was very excited. I gave my comments, and the rest is history.

You played the drums with Sammy Davis Junior; You became a cop, then a writer. Where did you…

RP: Have my psychological testing done? (laughs)

…find the discipline to write through all that?

RP: It took nine years. I mean in nine years you can build a house. I didn’t have discipline. I wrote when I felt like it. I didn’t get up, you know how the books tell you, two hours before work, and write for forty minutes. I didn’t do that. If I was disciplined there would have been a lot more. I started writing when I got off the road with Sammy Davis Junior, and started researching in 1984. Now it’s 2011. Figure it out. Do the math. What’s my average? A book every ten years or something like that? It’s not so much the discipline to do it, but it’s the ambition and the belief that I could do it. And people that come to me who want to write a book, I tell them its perseverance. You got to stick with it. First you have to make a commitment to do it. As soon as you have doubt or put it away, it’s going to fail. And it’s not about writing skill, because if you look at my first book, you will see a shift. I’m just starting to learn, after my third book, how to write. I’m starting to learn craft, and how to use some of the fiction devices, and tactics. It’s not about how you write, but I think it’s what you choose to write about. Writing a book, as huge of a task that is, that’s just half the battle, then you have to try to get it published. I’ve always been an ambitious person, and that got me through it. And I know that this all applies to finishing a script.

For police safety training, the first rule for survival is never give up. The same thing applies here. You really have to believe in what you’re writing about, and for me that was easy, because the first book was about family. It’s about my grandfather. I had a personnel attachment to it, like a labor of love. I didn’t see the film potential, but I thought it would make a good story. I had no thoughts it would be a film until I was approached.

What was your involvement in the adaptation of book to script?

RP: I had minimum involvement. He called me about names. One of the agreements we had was that I did not want any of the names used of the people that were still alive. I was very concerned out of respect and sensitivity towards these people; you know whose fathers or husbands were killed. I was concerned about that. I was also concerned about my family and my father. He had his father killed, and then three of his uncles killed, so he didn’t want me to do it in the beginning. However, as I started to do more research, I kind of won him over. And then he would tell me what was right. My father taught me that these were men, with families, not just criminals. I was just contacted by a girl whose father was killed in one of the books and she just wanted more information, she wanted to talk about it. There’s some sense of closure for them to talk to someone. And so I agreed to meet with her, and go over the case with her. Because my father lost his father at the age of four, I’m very sensitive to that. There were seven Porrello brothers and four of them were killed. A lot of time has gone by, but the family was traumatized.

Were you able to read the script?

RP: Yeah, I read the shooting script. I gave suggestions to names. I did have one interesting thing that happened on set, and I don’t know if they kept it in the movie, but they were filming a cop car getting blown up with cops inside, and I felt uncomfortable going up to Jonathan, the director, because I’m just the book writer, but I really felt like I had to say something. So I said, “You know there were no cops killed, if you are going to kill a cop it’s going to change the tone of the story.” I’m not sure what happened with that.

Well, I think this is a hell of a movie, and I think it’s going to do well because finally somebody stands up to the big guys, and he doesn’t back down. And that’s Danny Greene.

RP: One thing that I think is so ironic, all the cops I know, every October, they get together and celebrate a Danny Greene day. So the last two they invited me to, we were talking about how ironic this whole thing is, that I would become the chief of police in Lyndhurst, the same area Danny Greene’s fate ends. All these years, I’ve been driving past that parking lot, drinking coffee and reading the paper at four in the morning, all at the spot where Danny was killed, thinking ‘Is this film going to get made?’ Years later, all I knew was that Ray Stevenson had accepted the part of Danny. I still didn’t think it was going to be for the big screen, I just about fell out of my chair.

Kill The Irishman opens on March 11th, in Cleveland, Los Angeles, and New York.

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3 thoughts on “KILL THE IRISHMAN – From Reality, to Book, to Script, to Screen

  1. Leona

    As a Native Clevelander I was one of the lucky few that got invited to the screening on Weds. before Fridays release. The articles and the news coverage and all the positive excitment this movie is brining to Cleveland our city is much needed. I am sure the memories are ones which some Clevelanders would not like to bring back into life rght now. The movie is done with extreme respect to all. Very well done at that!! It is history weaather it be positive or negative and it is and has been dealt with. Many lifes have suffered but still have pushed forward and in positive ways. They say we all learn by our mistakes and this movie brings only a positiveness for Cleveland. The Book author and Interviewer have covered things very well.

  2. kirby

    Really love this article. It is authentic and inspiring. I am from a place where film festivals and select openings never happen–I was under the impression that it didn’t happen in Cleveland either. That is why I love the hometown pride. Not only does the movie seem like it’ll be amazing, I am very glad to have such a personal experience with the writer because it makes me feel like a part of this movement.

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