The long-awaited drama Vault, based on the audacious 1975 robbery of the Hudson Bonded Vault company in PVD, a private safe-deposit company used by big-time criminals to store their loot under the protection of organized crime, opens to the public June 7 for a RI sneak preview at Showcase cinemas in Providence and Warwick (the one on the East Greenwich line, not Warwick Mall). Starring Theo Rossi, Samira Wiley, Clive Standen, Don Johnson, Chazz Palminteri, William Forsythe, and an all-star cast, it opens in nationwide release a week later. No one is really sure, but the take may have exceeded $31 million, at the time by far the largest heist in American history, making little Providence even more internationally notorious than it already was.
For more information: facebook.com/VaultMovie
For tickets: (Providence) showcasecinemas.com/film-info/providence-place-cinemas-16-and-imax/vault (Warwick) showcasecinemas.com/film-info/showcase-cinemas-warwick-quaker-lane/vault
Motif interviewed director and co-writer Tommy DeNucci, a RI native who wanted to tell this story about his hometown, making the movie in RI with a RI production company.
Michael Bilow (Motif): So tell me about the film to begin with. I mean, I obviously know the general subject of it.
Tommy DeNucci: This film’s about one of the greatest heists in American history. It happened right here in Providence, Rhode Island, and it’s this story that I’ve been hearing since I was a little kid. I’m an Italian-American kid from Cranston-Providence area and when you grow up around here, especially, I think, again being Italian-American and kind of growing up, I always say we don’t really have sports teams in Rhode Island so we follow organized crime. They’re like our athletes that we follow, at least as a kid I remember. There’s always been this sense of intrigue by those guys, and the fact that this massive heist took place right here in Rhode Island in our backyard, and it’s kind of interesting in the sense that there’s a slight Robin-Hood quality to it: Nobody was killed, nobody was murdered during the robbery, or anything like that. They were kind of like these almost-gentlemanly bozos that just got lucky on this job, and that always kind of attracted me, just the story, hearing it over and over again word of mouth style as a kid. So the second I got a chance to become a filmmaker and realize, “Okay, what’s the movie that I really want to make that speaks to me?” It was very simple, I knew right away that telling the story of the Bonded Vault made sense.
MB: What do you remember of it personally? You told me you originally heard of it as a kid and grew up with the legend, so what did you think about it then and what did you learn as an adult, especially in researching the movie?
TD: I was born in 1984, so I was born almost a decade after the actual heist took place. So I wasn’t alive during that time period, but spending a lot of time on Federal Hill and Atwells Ave just talking to a lot of those types of guys, if you will, and hearing about the story has just always, I’ve always heard it as this great fishing tale, this great legendary fishing tale of Providence, Rhode Island, of the mob, and what always intrigued me to it aside from the nuts and bolts of it just being a pretty intricate heist that went fairly well, I always liked the flip at the end which I don’t want to talk about in this article, because of course it would give away the entire ending of the movie, but what’s really unique about it is there is a very big surprise at the end that we find in terms of everybody has a boss, basically, that they work for in organized crime, and sometimes you may know it and sometimes you don’t know it, and that’s kind of all I can say without giving up too much. But this movie, this story itself, had a really cool hook to it at the end and, again, I can’t give it away because we’ll be spoiling the end of the movie, but that’s when I first heard that and when I first heard who was behind it all, that’s why I was like, “God, this has to be a movie.”
MB: How true to life is it?
TD: Well, that’s a hard thing to answer in one sentence. This is a story that took place over many years involving many, many characters, many people, and, when we make a movie, we’re not making a documentary so we don’t have it be exactly like the way it happened. It’s not a beat-for-beat depiction of events. People could watch a documentary or they could read a book or whatever; this is a cinematic film, this is the retelling of events but through a cinematic eye. So what ends up happening is you have several years of events that take place and you have dozens and dozens of people that were involved in this event, and I have the dubious task of telling that story in 90 minutes, so I can’t possibly include every facet that happened in real life. I can’t possibly include every “real life character,” and what you end up doing is you find the interesting moments of the story and you find the interesting characters, and sometimes certain characters get combined and something that this gentleman might have said, he said something really cool but there’s not enough time in this movie to have him be a character, we’ll throw that line to this [other] guy. So there’s a lot of that stuff that takes place when you’re taking a true event and making it a film, because if I told it the way it really happened, it would be a 40-hour movie and no one would watch it.
MB: That anticipates my next question, which is: Which of these characters and events were particularly interesting or memorable to you?
TD: There’s no question that Raymond Patriarca is a very interesting character. I mean, this guy, and a lot of people don’t realize how powerful Raymond Patriarca was, and they don’t realize the fact that Raymond Patriarca essentially was a guy who was very much respected by the Five Families in New York to the point where, if there was a dispute among the Five Families, Raymond would be called upon to settle the dispute and make a decision, and he was highly respected. This is something that’s actually in the film that we came across in our research, but in the power rankings of organized crime in the 1970s, it went New York City, Chicago, Providence, Rhode Island – number three in the entire country, and I always found that fascinating. Of course, you’ve got Raymond Patriarca as the leader of Providence, Rhode Island, but I always found it fascinating that you’ve got this tiny little state that’s really just, you could blink and miss it if you’re driving down the highway, and here it was the top three organized crime-heavy cities in America, and a lot of that has to do with the natural sense of who Rhode Islanders are as people. Rhode Islanders tend to be thick as thieves, it’s a small state, there’s not a lot of people here, everybody knows everybody, everybody’s kind of into everybody’s business, and if there is a bit of corruption, well, it’s a lot easier to have corruption in a small Petri dish society like Rhode Island. So it was a kind of thing where, culturally, it was easy for the mob to thrive in Rhode Island and also geographically, what is it, it’s a stopping point between Boston and New York, so if you’re moving lots of products, whether it be any kind of illegal activity, the stopping point between two major cities is often a hub, so I always found it fascinating – I don’t know about you but I’m from Rhode Island – so as Rhode Islanders, I feel like we always try to grab on to something to say, “Hey, look at us, this little state ain’t so bad.” So I think, to me as a kid, I would hear these things about Providence and what Providence represented in organized crime, and primarily that was all Raymond. He was very much a highly respected member of that society, and he’s certainly the character that was most interesting to me.
Also the two main characters that we follow throughout the movie, this movie is basically a buddy movie, there’s a lot of buddy elements to this, and our two buddies that we follow are a guy by the name of “Chucky” [Charles Flynn] and a guy by the name of “Deuce” [Robert Dussault], and those are two real gentlemen that were behind this heist, and what I find interesting about them is these are two guys that, they’re not young, sexy, Hollywood types; this isn’t Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, these guys are aging criminals that – they’ve had their mishaps, they’ve had their missteps, they’ve done time in jail, there’s nothing cool about it – and they realize, “Hey, we got one shot to do one more job that could be the retirement gig, this is the payday that we don’t have to do this ever again” kind of a thing, and I think that no matter what level of work you’re involved in, what you do for a living, I think people have this feeling of, when you hit a certain age – maybe it’s 40, whatever it may be – where you say to yourself, “Wow, my life isn’t nearly as fulfilled as I thought it would be at this point, and I need to do something, I need to have something matter,” like “What’s it’s going to say in my obituary someday?” And I think that these two men, Deuce and Chucky, were [each] very much feeling that pressure of becoming an aging gangster in the world of organized crime, being on the outside looking in – these guys weren’t Italian, they couldn’t be “made men,” they would never be allowed to be in the organization – so they knew that and there’s a level of desperation that comes into play, and I think that everybody can feel that level of desperation in their life in one way or another, like the clock ticking. “Whatever my passion is, I gotta get it going or I’m gonna run out of time.” For these guys, their passion happened to be robbing and stealing.
MB: There’s been an awful lot of attention paid to the robbery in very recent years. It seems from my point of view as if the robbery happened and sort of faded out of public awareness, and suddenly it came back with a vengeance. I’m wondering why you think that might be?
TD: I think entertainment is very cyclical, and I think that they run in trends, and I think that organized crime is hot right now. It really is. If you look at a lot of the industry trends, there’s a lot of films that are coming out right now, you’ve got The Sopranos rebooting and they’re going to have a movie, you’ve got a very big film about Al Capone coming out, you’ve got The Irishman which is a Marty Scorsese movie [and] is a who’s who of gangster movies with Joe Pesci making his reappearance into the world of acting and Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel. I just think that film and entertainment is cyclical. There are trends that come and go, and I think for a little while the mafia movies had their day. We had a great run of mafia movies in the early ‘90s: we had Goodfellas and Casino and a nice little run there and then, like you said, things fade sometimes and they come back, and I can’t think of any better way that I have a comeback than this story. Because in a lot of ways it is a comeback story: It’s a story about these two guys who tried to pull off a big job, wound up in jail, and then what do they do the second they get out of jail? Well, they try to go on the biggest heist in American history!
I just think that people are enamored of the mafia and it will always be a thing to a degree because we get to escape. We’re not allowed to tell our boss to go F himself – we can’t do that, we’ll get fired – but we can watch the mafia movie and we can watch the hero of that movie tell somebody to go screw, and we can live vicariously through him and say, you know what, for two hours I want to be a cowboy and I’m going to see how these desperadoes live, and I think that’s what’s always going to be attractive to the mafia genre because those guys do things that we could never do, and – let’s face it, we probably wouldn’t do them – because there is always a story that’s told, most of these stories don’t end well, usually the guy who tells people to go F themselves and does whatever he wants, usually by the end of the movie he ends up dead or in jail or his entire friends and family are dead. It’s never a good ending, but the truth is I think we like to escape [through] the eyes of these gangsters and just kind of see what life’s like in their shoes for a couple hours.
MB: A lot of the true crime genre does not take that approach, and, if anything, I suppose there’s an element of the true crime genre glorifying these guys, which strikes me as odd, frankly. And I don’t know whether you do the same in this film or how you feel about that or whether you think it works.
TD: I think that nothing is concrete, nothing is one way or the other way, and I think that we might glorify these guys in Act 1 but by Act 2 or Act 3 there’s nothing glorious about it. If you look in the trend of most mafia movies, look at the great ones, I don’t know how glorified it ever is really by the end. I don’t know if I agree with that.
MB: I think the best mafia movies are ones that work on epic scale. The archetype of that would be The Godfather trilogy.
TD: Sure, but I don’t want to get into particulars. But I don’t think anybody likes Godfather 3, [laughing] so I don’t know if you want to talk about how that one ended.
MB: I’ll concede that.
TD: But at the end of the day, let’s take Godfather 2 because that’s almost a perfect movie, is that glorified? Is Michael Corleone sitting there with gray hair as an aged man with his wife left, gone, and a lot of his brothers are dead, is that glorified?
MB: No, and I think that’s why it works.
TD: Yeah, I’m with you 100 percent, and I think that that’s the importance of these movies: The beginning must seem glorified, we must seem, “Wow, look at what things can be like on the other side,” and then you usually realize that when you look up close, the paint job’s not as tight as you think, and there’s a lot of cracks everywhere, and, as corny as it sounds, you do the crime you pay the time, and that’s usually where these stories end up.
MB: What do you think Raymond L.S. Patriarca would have said if he could be around to see your movie?
TD: That’s a good question. I don’t know. I never met Raymond Patriarca, in fact this is kind of an interesting note. Raymond Patriarca and I both roamed the earth for one day together, meaning I was born July 10, 1984, and I believe [correctly] Raymond died July 11, 1984.
MB: That’s quite a weird coincidence.
TD: Yeah, it’s pretty interesting when you think about it. So there was a time when we both stepped foot on this planet together. I don’t know what Raymond would have said, but I know that those guys were big on respect, and, I tell you this, I have nothing but respect for that guy, and there are no shots taken at anybody like that in this movie. I don’t think we glorify it, but at the same time I think we give a very true depiction of who he was as a man.
MB: There have been, as I said, a number of true crime presentations that brought attention to this. Probably the two that come to mind would be “Crimetown” which was the podcast radio series, and the book by the trio of Providence Journal guys and press guys, The Last Good Heist. I don’t know if you have any comments or observations on those or how much that influenced you.
TD: Again, I’ve been hearing about this story since I was 12 years old, so that’s long before that podcast came out, that’s long before that book was written, and I will say this: It’s a great story so of course there’s going to be podcasts written about it, of course there’s going to be books written about it. I’d expect nothing less.
MB: But your your film is your cinematic take on it.
TD: My film is a 100 percent original screenplay and it is my cinematic take on the events, it is not by any means a documentary of any kind.
MB: I think that going into it, people are going to understand that.
TD: Yeah, I think so.
MB: What’s your release schedule? You’re going to run it in Providence, I know, and then what?
TD: We’re looking to run it in Providence for a couple of weeks. We’re giving people in Rhode Island an opportunity to see the film first because we really couldn’t have done this without the people of Rhode Island. This was as home game of the home game can be. It really was watching the Rhode Island state tax credit at its best do its thing in terms of: You have a Rhode Island production company, you’ve got a Rhode Island producer, two Rhode Island writers, a Rhode Island director, you’ve got tons of Rhode Island crew and [cafeteria service]. We were eating in restaurants every day right in Providence, we were using the hotels every day. We really utilized, it was the model for like why movies should come to Rhode Island, so it was great in that sense and for that reason we’re allowing Rhode Islanders a chance to see the movie before anyone else. One week here we’re playing it at the Showcase in Providence and the Showcase in Warwick [near the East Greenwich town line, not the one in Warwick Mall]. We hope to put up a really great number in Rhode Island, I think a lot of people in Rhode Island are going to be excited to not only hear some names that they’re familiar with, but see some places that they’re familiar with. We shot in downtown Providence; a lot of recognizable spots that people are going to say “Oh my God, that’s Westminster Street! Oh, look at that,” and that’s going to be fun for people around here.
Beyond Rhode Island this is going to be released worldwide in over 50 territories throughout the world, many different countries. As far as our domestic release schedule, it’s going to be theatrically played in 10 cities, all the major markets – New York, L.A., Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas – so we’re just really excited. There’s a lot to look forward to in the next couple of weeks, and this is the moment when every artist gets to be excited to see what people are going to think. This is the part where perfect strangers get to weigh in on what you’ve been slaving over for a couple years.
MB: Are you the sort of director who is really excited now, “People are going to see my film,” or are you the sort of director who every morning gets up, vomits into his toilet, and thinks, “Oh my God, people are going to see my film?”
TD: [Laughs.] Depending on the mood, I’ve probably been at both ends of that spectrum. I would be lying if I said [otherwise]. I think every every filmmaker has that, “Ooh, what are they going to think about this?” kind of feeling, but the truth is it’s hard for me to judge because I’ve been so on top of this movie, I’ve seen it, I don’t know, a thousand times. I can’t wait for other people to see it, so I’d say more than not I’m excited about it because it’s like this thing’s been tattooed on the inside of my eyelids, and now I’m ready to get it out to the world and have other people enjoy it and weigh in on it and discuss it, get the ideas rolling. Like I said, just at the end of the day, what we try to do as filmmakers is just make it so that the guy or girl who’s been working 10, 11 hours that day, and they come home and put their feet up on the couch, they can just relax and go to a different place for an hour and a half or two hours. That’s the ultimate goal, and I think that with Vault, we provide that little escape and little window into 1975 and tell a nice little story about a heist gone bad – or good, depending upon how you look at it.
MB: Did you ever get to meet any of the actual principals?
TD: As in like guys that were actually involved in the heist?
MB: Either that or investigating it.
TD: You know, I did. We got a really great chance. The Providence Police [Department] was really great, and they opened their doors in terms of the archives, and I was able to read a lot of the police transcripts and things like that, and, yes, I was able to chat with some of the investigators, and that was a lot of fun to hear their take on it. And I did get a call, I won’t say any names, but I got a call early on from one of the gentlemen who may or may not have been involved in the heist, and just wanted to politely offer their well wishes.
MB: We’re you worried at any point that people who still seem to have a hand in the game might be upset with you?
TD: The answer is no, and that is because I handled this material with a great deal of respect. I made sure to not besmirch the name of anyone who was involved in that whole game, if you will, and I have respect for those men and I would never want to do anything that would be untruthful. The truth is, in my telling of the movie, I feel like those men are depicted in a fairly respectable way and, at the end of the day, it’s a give-respect-to-get-respect world, and no, I don’t think I’ll have any issues with that.
MB: You’re saying you come from an Italian-American background. I’m curious if you’ve shown the film or had discussions with elders in your family?
TD: I have, I’ve gotten a chance to show it for my parents, they’re old-school Italians from Knightsville in Cranston here, and they enjoyed the film, but the truth is that it’s always hard to get a judgment when your parents are watching anything you do. They’re not going to tell you that the movies stinks.
MB: I suppose that depends upon your parents.
TD: That’s true. I will say this: I cut my parents out of the film. They were extras in a scene and they were all excited because they got to dress up in ‘70s clothes and they were there for the day, and I always like to have my mom and dad on set, it’s always nice. Then I shot the scene and I got to the editing room and I just didn’t like it, just didn’t feel like the way it looked, I didn’t like the vibe, and I said “Mom, Dad, the good news is it was great to have you on set that day, we took some nice pictures. The bad news is I had to cut you from the movie.” So that was a fun conversation to have with mom and dad, but they understand.
MB: No one will ever again accuse you playing favorites on the cutting room floor.
TD: That’s right, that’s right!
MB: That’s an hilarious story, though.
TD: Yup, had to cut ‘em.
MB: How many other people from your real life did you involve in the film like that as extras or collaborators?
TD: I think quite a few. I love to make movies, there’s nothing more that I like to do, it’s kind of all I do. Every day is spent in some way, shape, or form, either writing something or gearing up for a film, so I love to have my friends and family involved because I get so much excitement out of all that, so oftentimes you’ll see I’ve got a friend named Jon Del Ponte who’s in almost every one of my movies, and I’m talking background actors. I would never put the responsibility of a serious performance on any of these guys, but I always, always get my friends and family to be background actors and show up and hang out, and it’s a lot of fun. I always say making movies should be fun because, if we’re not having fun when we’re making them, how could you ever expect anyone to have fun watching them?
MB: There are some directors who would disagree with you 100 percent, who see making movies as hard work and crack the whip.
TD: Hold on a second! I didn’t say it wasn’t hard work. I didn’t say that it wasn’t something that we do around the clock. Like I just told you, I literally spend my entire life doing this. A lot of times the word “fun” can be misconstrued for we’re goofing around or we’re playing; there’s none of that, but, damn it, we have a good time when we’re working our asses off to make these movies, and if you can’t keep it light and still get your work done, I don’t know. That’s a little too stuffy for my taste.
MB: That’s a great answer. That’s exactly what I was trying to clarify.
MB: I’m trying to think of what I can ask you about this film that doesn’t cause you to have to present spoilers or anything of that sort. Let me put it this way. Do you see yourself doing future movies about crime or the mafia specifically, or do you plan to move on to a completely different subject?
TD: That’s a good question. I think that, if you look at my track record, I’ve made a lot of different types of movies. I started off in the thriller-horror genre. I’ve even made a couple of family movies, comedies, things like that. Part of what I love to do and what I love about filmmaking is the ability to jump around and tell different stories in different genres, so I don’t want to marry myself to any one genre, but at the same time I wouldn’t say no. I never say never. Again, these are the movies that I grew up watching that made me want to make movies, movies like Mean Streets and movies like Casino and movies like, all of these, even Abel Ferrara movies from the ‘80s. I’ve always, always loved this genre. So if I ever had a chance to come back at it, I would do it with a smile on my face.
MB: Is there another story that intrigues you?
TD: There is. I’ve always been fascinated by original Vegas and how Vegas first started and Lucky Luciano and lot of those kind of guys. The problem is a lot of those stories have been done so many times. But the nice thing about the mafia genre as a whole is at one time they were organized crime outfits in every state in the union just about, so you can imagine there are just so many stories out there that haven’t been told yet, ripe for a film. Who knows? We might not even know if the next best gangster story might be untold somewhere that a couple guys in the federal penitentiary are the only ones who know about it. It’s one of those things where I don’t really have a specific one that I would want to do, but I do love this genre. Like I said, I’d be happy to do it again.
MB: What’s on the planning board for you right now?
TD: I have a film called Jungle Room, working with essentially the same team that brought you Vault. It’s totally different because I went in the past for Vault and I’m going into the future for Jungle Room. I’m going to be making a movie that takes place in the not-too-distant future, but certainly in the future a couple of decades from now – the 2030s, the 2040s, somewhere in there – and I’m kind of taking a look at what happens to mankind when AI [artificial intelligence] becomes a little too big for its britches, and what happens when social media takes over, and what happens to us as people when this technology that’s at our fingertips gets a little too out of control. Not to go down a whole wormhole, but I’ve seen the way people interact with each other change drastically in the last 10 years, since Facebook and Instagram and all the things became a thing. I can only imagine what people are going to be like in 30 or 40 years to each other. So I love to extrapolate and think about what’s going to happen down the road. Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve always been fascinated with the future, technology, and what’s going to happen, and I’d like to take my own attempt at a window into the future and tell my version of what it’s going to be like in 2045.
MB: How do you think people will be different?
TD: Communication between one another will change drastically. That’s the biggest thing. I think that people have a hard time doing what we’re doing right now, getting on the phone and talking to each other, and I think that’s something that’s been kind of phased out, and there’s more and more text messages and things often get misconstrued via message because we don’t hear the tone of the person’s voice, or things like that.
MB: That’s true, but the telephone itself is not even 200 years old. Did that radically change human culture when it was invented?
TD: The telephone, if you’re talking telephone compared to social media, you’re literally talking about like a rock compared to like a mountain. Social media is so vast. A telephone is, yeah, I can have a conversation with somebody, but a social media platform – I can see your whole life and not even know who you are so, yeah, it’s drastically different.
MB: That’s an interesting observation. You can see somebody’s whole life and not even know who they are because they present a false facade?
TD: Maybe it’s false, maybe it’s not. I’m not going to accuse anyone of portraying a false facade. I’m not accusing anyone of what they put on Facebook is bullshit. I’m just saying I could find out everything about you; I know what you did last night, I know what you had for breakfast. That’s kind of a new thing, and I think that it’s deeper than that because, like you said, there are people who – again I don’t want to, I never make blanket statements, it’s not fair – but there are a lot of people that are putting on a false front for social media. And I know that’s a thing. It’s changing who we are and, hell, this is awful but on the drastic end kids have committed suicide over social media. That’s a real thing. That’s no joke. So it’s a very serious thing, and it’s something that is really changing us as a society, and, again, who knows what’s going to happen when these platforms become more interactive?
MB: It’s an interesting idea. I don’t have a sense of what your project is. I have a very vague sense of some of the issues that you’re bringing to it, but I don’t know where it’s going.
TD: The thumbnail sketch is it’s about a man who basically goes on a downward spiral as a result of artificial intelligence and social media and technology and the way that technology is shaping us. You know what it’s almost like? It’s kind of like Falling Down. You remember that movie? It’s kind of like if you took falling down and put it in 2040-something and surrounded it with artificial intelligence that is suggesting us. Imagine if there was an element of artificial intelligence that followed you around and suggested everything that you do, right down to, “Hey, it’s a little rainy today. You should bring a jacket.” And “Hey, your phone bill is due.” You have to do this, and “Oh, I bought you, I purchased this lamp because I knew that you would like that. I bought this for you.” When AI will actually be able to, what If they have access to our money and they know what we like? It’s a deeper story than we can explain on a phone conversation, but Jungle Room is going to be very interesting. It’s going to call into question a lot of things that are just, just starting to involve us on a daily basis.
MB: Things like self-driving cars are going to have to make software decisions of whom to kill.
TD: Exactly: Do I swerve and save myself, or do I take out that old lady walking down the road? Or rather, do I swerve and kill myself and go into the wall, or do I swerve and take out that old lady who’s walking down the street?
MB: Those are issues that have arisen. So far self-driving cars have killed only one person.
TD: Which is pretty amazing if you think about it.
MB: She was walking a bicycle across the street, so it didn’t realize it was a person; it thought she was trash and debris in the road.
TD: Oh, wow, I didn’t know that.
MB: You’re always going to encounter unforeseen situations.
TD: That’s a fact.