First-time Director Mikki del Monico Sings Out About “Alto” His Fabulous Lesbian Mob Story which Redefines Rom-Com

In director Mikki del Monico’s “Alto”Rising singer-songwriter Francesca “Frankie” Del Vecchio (Diana DeGarmo) is engaged to her promising musical career and to frozen-food entrepreneur Tony, happily devoted in equal measure to traditional Italian-American culture, her famiglia, and Mom’s lasagna. Frankie’s bella vita is perfectly peaceful—until a dead body shows up in the trunk of her rental car. Obsessed with the exploitative (and hugely popular) TV show Mob Hit, Frankie’s sister Heather convinces Frankie to attend the mafioso’s wake, setting off a string of fateful introductions to the real mobsters in their midst. The entrancingly seductive Nicolette, the daughter of newly minted mob don Caesar, takes a particular interest in Frankie and her music, paving the way to commercial success and an unexpected love interest. Which path will Frankie choose? And what’s up with the feds suddenly tracking her every move? What family secrets will be revealed along the way? Has everyone gone oobatz? This buoyant and boisterous debut feature from director Mikki del Monico—executive produced by Ellora DeCarlo, produced by Toni D’Antonio, and co-produced by and featuring Annabella Sciorra (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle), filmed in New York City by award-winning cinematographer Valentina Caniglia, scored with original music from Antigone Rising and Ace Young, and showcasing a star-making performance from American Idol runner up Diana DeGarmo—will rock its way into your heart.

“Alto” will be showan at the Roxie Theatre Tuesday, June 23 at 9:30 p.m. at Frameline39: The San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival (which started off back in 1977 with one evening of short Super8 films projected on a bedsheet) runs from June 18-28 at five different Bay Area venues including the landmark Castro Theatre.

We caught up with Mikki as he prepares to head our way for his exciting Frameline premier.

Congratulations on “Alto” which is a sexy and hysterically funny lesbian rom-com. How did the story come to you?

The story started with a character. I always knew she was a musician. A lot of my friends are musicians, and I would go home from their shows so inspired. I had blasts of creativity. Not that the story directly came out of that, but there were a couple songs that helped me bring out the themes of the story: in the early days, the song, Desire (by Marilyn D’Amato), and later, Everywhere is Home (by Nini Camps and Daniel Tashian), both of which made it into the final cut, re-sung by Diana DeGarmo. The other part of the Alto equation was my Italian-American upbringing and that of some of my friends. I knew and understood these characters. I appreciated them.

Alto, the title, refers of course to the lead character being a musician but also, it was a play on The Sopranos. Italian-Americans actors get a lot of work as Mafiosi—we know those stories as part of our American cinematic history—and I didn’t want to shy away from that, at the same time as I wanted to showcase alternative stories of Italian-American life. I wanted to take the mobster genre and the romantic comedy genre and give both a fresh face. I wanted real people, not caricatures.
My use of the Mafia in this film was as intentional as the use of comedy. While I see the shadow Cosa Nostra casts on the many Italian Americans who have no part in it, I wanted to acknowledge that something besides its criminal element has cemented its place in the American psyche: the idea that in a culture that venerates the individual, there is a way to celebrate family and find a secure place within it—a sense of belonging—while still leaving the question mark of uniqueness enough room to materialize.

One of the lead characters is a musician and her music figures prominently, which almost qualifies “Alto” a musical. How did you go about incorporating great tunes into the story?

I love that you ask this question early on because music is definitely another character in the movie. There are two separate identities: the original songs and the score. Sometimes they feed each other, and other times are almost in counterpoint, but as a whole, they help create the mood of the story. I made sure the film would work without music, but one of the most fun parts of working on this film was my work with the composer, Thom Rotella, and the selection of original songs from the likes of Marilyn D’Amato, Nini Camps, Antigone Rising (Nini Camps is the lead singer and also played Kat—the bass player—in Alto), Ace Young, Trina Hamlin, Scout, and others, as well as Musicàntica, who gave us that wonderful folk music for the pizzica dance scene.

I don’t know how deep you want to get into the music, but Thom and I spent time talking about how we wanted to create music that accented the Italian roots of the film while not banging people over the head with it. So he used classical guitars, mandolins, and several other instruments that you’d find in southern Italian folk songs.

I should also mention that Natalie Knepp, who plays Nicolette, actually plays the harp. It’s her harp we use in the film. Later when Diana DeGarmo’s character, Frankie, sings a cappella, I thought of that folk song as an answer to Nicolette’s harp. It’s not something I need other people to pick up consciously, but I think unconsciously, it enriches that moment.

We’re working on a soundtrack now. In addition, I’ve been writing “Alto the Musical” for the stage. It’s something I’ve thought about almost since I first wrote the script, but it took making the movie to realize that I actually had more of the material I wanted to mine, ways that the story hasn’t exhausted itself and its usefulness because the stage and musical theater offers different ways to learn from story. Coincidentally, it happens that Diana DeGarmo (and her husband, Ace Young) have years of experience on Broadway, off-Broadway, and national stages. So does Lin Tucci (Mrs. Cappelletti), who you can see on  ‘Orange is the New Black. ‘

Talk about your process as a screenwriter. How quickly are you able to get your ideas expressed on the page? What is your approach to re-writes?

So I wrote the first draft of this story in two or three weeks, but wow, the rewrites. I actually like rewriting. That’s where you really get to find the story. I try to work through rewrites by focusing each time on a few different items. I can’t rewrite everything at once without something suffering, so instead—if I have the time—I write my way out of problems. I created the problem so I believe the solution is also inside me somewhere. That doesn’t mean, however, that I lock myself up. I listen to critiques, I listen to what people like, and then I get quiet and listen to myself.

As both writer and director of “Alto” do you see complete images as you’re writing and how do those images change once you’re on the set?

When I first read this question, I had to laugh. I thought of all the challenges and hurdles throughout so yes…I mean, hell yeah, those images changed on set! I’d say that’s the nature of low-budget filmmaking, but I think that’s the nature of filmmaking period. I do see images when I’m writing. That’s all I see, but they’re not complete because they can’t be. In order to make a film, I think a shooting script has to leave room for change. I didn’t know I was going to direct Alto when I wrote it so initially, I was leaving space for another person, a director, to interpret those images. What happened on set was that Mikki the director showed up and combined with enormous talent from the cast and crew so that we could get the visual pieces of the puzzle we needed to make a finished film.

How many folks do you show your screenplay to during the writing and re-writing process and how open are you to both criticism and suggestions?

I may have answered this already, but I’m extremely open to critique. Even when I don’t agree with it, I try to see what made the person feel that way. I’m not one of those writers who feels precious about every word or every scene. I have a background in editing, so I took those skills to heart. Writing a script that works means you keep carving till you get your David.

The main characters are enriched by compelling backstories and many interesting layers that are revealed as the story progresses. Would you consider this a character-driven film and is that how you prefer to tell your stories?

Yes and definitely :). I know people who think of a great story and then find the characters to populate it. I’m not one of them. It’s not a preference, just the way my process works. It isn’t that I have to know what toothpaste my character uses. I need to know what my character sees when he or she looks at the world. I have to know what that character cares about, so the questions I ask myself focus on that.

Your lead actors are all very talented and bring amazing depth to the film. Talk about how you managed to find and cast such wonderful actors.

My producer, Toni D’Antonio, also worked as the casting agent. She’s worked as one previously and has been in the New York acting world for more than twenty years, so she knew where to put ads. She had also worked for years at Endeavor Studios, which provides studio space for auditions, among other things, so Toni just knew a ton of really talented New York actors. We auditioned every role with SAG actors. That was something that Toni and I discussed and knew we wanted to quality that came from experience. Because of that, some of the decisions were difficult. Such talent out there. Toni had known Annabella Sciorra through her work after Hurricane Sandy. Both gave a lot of their time to help rebuild the affected areas. Annabella read the script and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to work with her. Our supporting actors I could talk about all day long, but I’ll give you the shortened version: David Valcin from Person of Interest came in to read for the role of Bellafusco, but he truly owned the role of Mike del Vecchio, Frankie’s dad. Lou Martini, Jr. (Chinzano) has been a part of Alto since a very early reading. He still auditioned, which showed me how much of a generous actor he is. He gives so much, every take, and still manages to make you laugh in between each one. Melanie Minichino (Heather), who is one of our few LA-based actors, was also part of the equation from an early reading. She auditioned as well, but truly, the part was hers to lose. That character in particular, because it’s the only one directly based on a family member, had to get the tone right, and I think Melanie nails it. She’s an unintentional scene stealer, in the best way possible. That was reinforced when I was talking with Jake Robards (Tony) today. I have outtakes of Melanie, Jake, and Diana just losing it with laughter from something Melanie either did or said. Jake is someone that Toni had known from the world of voice-overs, and he had that ability to create the kind of guy who took the idea of frozen lasagna seriously, yet still make that guy invested enough to feel hurt deeply. Anthony J. Gallo (Gagoots) carried that understated presence that gave a nice balance of humor and perilous candor that the character needed. Wow, I haven’t even gotten to Billy Wirth, another LA-based actor. Like many, I knew him from Lost Boys, but Billy is an incredibly intense actor. He brought a true exploration of that character to the set each day. As a director, I couldn’t ask for more. So I purposely saved our two leads for last because that is how we cast them…LAST! I know, completely backwards from how it usually goes, but we built our cast as an ensemble. So we were maybe two weeks out, and I wasn’t seeing anyone that made me feel like yes, that’s Frankie or yes, that’s Nicolette. Natalie Knepp came in to read for Frankie. Ellora DeCarlo, Alto’s executive producer, looked over at us and said, “How about having her read for Nicolette?” Natalie will tell you that she knew she wasn’t right for the Frankie role and had prepared for Nicolette, but either way, she was definitely the person to bring depth and breadth to that role. Natalie has great comedic timing, too, and the person who played Nicolette had to be able to infuse a subtle layer of humor into the performance to stay true to the tone of the film. Now, Diana DeGarmo. She’s a very special person. This was her first starring role in a film, and she gave it her all. I would give Diana a note and bam, next take, she had it. Like all the actors, she mixed a respect for the words on the page with a playful sense of inquiry…and on top of that, you could sometimes find her steaming not just her own but other cast member’s clothes. Talk about a team player. So much respect for her talent, as an actor and a singer. Anyone who’d seen her on American Idol will know that it’s her voice adding to the musicality of the film.
Chemistry is always of great concern when a relationship is explored on film. What’s your secret as a director for recognizing that certain special spark between actors and then capturing it on film?

Diana DeGarmo shared a manager with Richie Allan, who plays the priest, and late in the casting process, Toni was on the phone one day with Richie’s manager, who asked if we’d cast our lead and whether we’d considered Diana. No, we hadn’t, but we certainly would. Diana happened to be in NYC at the time doing a reading, so we asked her to come in and do a “chemistry read” with Natalie. A chemistry read is exactly what it sounds like: an opportunity to see if two people have the elusive “it” — that dynamic magnetism and tender tension that make people believe in the power of love. Recognizing it is easier than capturing it, but if it’s palpable, as a director, you’ll find it. So I’ll set the scene. In attendance: Diana, Natalie, Ace (Diana’s husband), Ellora DeCarlo (our EP), Toni D’Antonio (producer), and me. I had chosen a few scenes, but to tell you the truth, I really only needed the one: the first kiss. Toni, Ellora, and I were seated across a high-top table from Diana and Natalie. Ace was sitting to the side. When they kissed, my first thought was, sweet. They’d bumped noses in that awkward way you do when you’re kissing someone new, and though I knew I’d never be able to recreate it, I also knew I didn’t need to, because my next thought was: wow, hot…and I was far from the only one in the room who thought so. We finished the scene, said our good-byes and as soon as they were out the door, I said to Toni, “Call their agents, managers, whatever. We’re cast.” Now, what I didn’t know till later was that Natalie, Diana, and Ace had walked out together. Natalie said, “See you on set.” Diana replied, “Well, yeah, I mean, I hope so. I don’t know.” True to Natalie, she said, “Were you just in the same audition as I was because we killed it in there.” And there you have it. Capturing it is just a matter of using the raw materials in front of you and staying out of the way. Create a comfortable atmosphere that allows the actors to bring it.

“Alto” is populated by many familiar faces. What was it like working with such seasoned performers?

It allowed me to take chances. I could give a note and know that if it didn’t work for the scene, the actor would be able to adjust. We didn’t have a lot of time for each take and coverage was not always an option, so with seasoned actors, I also had the confidence to play some scenes in a one-shot. We covered a lot of ground and a lot of pages in a total of 21 days (18 original and then went back in for 3 more), and as a first-time director, these actors gave me confidence. They built off each other, and were able to bring nuances to the characters that less-seasoned performances often lack.

Your film finds humor in many situations without resorting to sophomoric humor. Do you have a background in comedy or did you learn from those master cinematic comics and the directors who are known for delivering the big laughs?

I learned humor first in kitchens and back yards and front porches, meaning I learned from the people around me. I didn’t have comedians around me per se; I had people who took life as it came and found the humor in it. I think I learned from that how to laugh at myself. I was the kid who read Dr. Seuss and Camus on the same night, so I think my humor is definitely infused with a healthy dose of recognizing the absurdity of this thing we call life.

This is the point at which Alto begins: la famiglia…for many Italian-Americans, a source of great pride and responsibility, as well as a repository for allthe complicated emotions evolving from that. Admittedly, I was thinking of my family from the first draft. Their hard work and sacrifice, through generations, made my life possible.

As an Italian-American, I was taught that my life experiences are not all about me. It just so happens, some of those lessons are the stuff of comedy. Alto is, first and foremost, a love letter to the people who made me: for the hours they dedicated to my upbringing and to the communities in which they lived. Through them, I learned that what matters in the world is simple but getting there is not. Alto emerged from a place that knew both. It emerged from family.

How did you go about getting the production funded?

Alto almost didn’t happen…many times over. Toni had optioned the material about 7 years ago, and picture yourself at the end of the year, evaluating and re-evaluating. She was having one of those moments, talking to her husband and saying that she probably needed to let the option on Alto go, that she’d tried and tried to get it funded and didn’t know where else to turn. According to her, she was about to let it go when she said, she just couldn’t. Alto was in her heart, and so she called me and said, let’s just try Kickstarter. If we can raise $50K seed money, that will be enough to entice some private investors and we’ll make the movie. We just will. Who can argue with that kind of determination? So we held a campaign, exceeded our goal by a couple grand, and based on that success, our executive producer Ellora DeCarlo was able to bring in private investors. To Toni’s credit as a producer, she got us access to a lot of fantastic locations and as mentioned before, we were determined to use SAG actors…and I lost count of the number of speaking roles, but there were a LOT, and Toni will tell you, we made this on “spit and a band-aid.” I don’t think either of us can ask anyone for a favor for the next ten years.
Tell us about the talented crew that helped you bring your film to life. Are they a combination of seasoned professionals, longtime colleagues, and bright young things?

This is another question I’m really glad you asked. Money was definitely a factor in hiring crew so we did have a fair share of folks on set who lacked a ton of professional experience. That said, we did have experience in some key crew positions and many hard-working PAs. We had about ten different first ACs, some more experienced than others, because it was hard to get folks to work for more than a few days in that role for what we could offer. This made it more difficult for my very seasoned director of photography, the award-winning Valentina Caniglia, AIC-IMAGO, who truly made magic with very modest lighting and equipment packages, and limited crew support. Valentina and I didn’t have much time to prepare. She came onboard only weeks before we were scheduled to shoot. I’d been working with a DP, doing pre-production, but there were some budgetary issues and we wound up having to let him go. Toni is great because when she brings me a problem, she also usually offers me a solution, or at least options for one. Through our line producer, Graziano Bruni, who’d been with the project since the beginning, we gained access to Valentina. She and I talked about palette, about my desire to use the rich colors of fall: the ambers, crimsons, burnt orange, that sort of thing. I also didn’t want to shoot it like a broad comedy, with relatively flat lighting and a reliance on medium shots. We knew we weren’t going to have a lot of time for coverage but still needed to convey emotion, so we opted favoring a combination of long shots and close-ups as a stylistic choice.

We also had the kind of on-set support you often don’t hear about. Toni’s husband of 25 years, John, would wake up at 4 AM during the shoot to drive the rental truck, pick up gear, do whatever. I like to joke that we rewarded him with playing the role of a dead body stuffed in a pint-sized trunk. Toni’s cousin, Jimi, as well as John, made sure that people ate well! Ellora’s husband, Gary J. Cooper—yes, it’s his real name!—helped almost daily, crafting designs we needed for props and running to print stuff out in the middle of the night. My longtime friends, Marilyn D’Amato and Nini Camps, gave so much of their time and talents as well, both during production and post. So many people did. I should mention that Marilyn won a VisionFest award for Outstanding Achievement in Production Design.

I also wound up editing Alto. (We’d hired an editor, paid him, and then been so disappointed with the result that I started over, from scratch.) It wound up being for the best. I’d had previous experience editing independent features but it was the combination of comedy and heart that was so important to get right. I reworked Alto till my eyes bled, and I mention it because I wrote Alto on the page, I re-worked it as a director, and then put the finishing touches on in the editing. I knew the film was in there but it took a number of rough cuts, screening for some folks who gave honest and valuable feedback, and then having a willingness to take risks with the raw materials.

I also want to mention the great folks at Post Factory NYC, who worked with us on color correcting and in so many incredible ways to get the final product that we have today. Oddly enough, our sound engineer, Keith Hodne, actually grew up in the neighborhood where we’d shot a number of scenes (Marine Park, Brooklyn), so he felt a particular kinship with the material.
Will this be your first time presenting a film at Frameline? Tell us what being part of the famed festival means to you as an out filmmaker?

Yes, this is my first time presenting a film at Frameline! When we got the news we’d been accepted, I kind of just stood there, stunned, in the best way I could be. To be invited to this festival means a sort of visibility for the film that we couldn’t get in other locations, a unique combination of a rich Italian American history and LGBT community all in one city. In addition, the professionals who coordinate Frameline and make it run have been so responsive and on top of everything. I was recently at a festival where filmmakers didn’t even receive a badge so we had no way to identify anyone, our film wasn’t introduced, and I felt completely invisible. Frameline has felt like the complete opposite, and I couldn’t be more excited for this opportunity to be a part of it, not only for my own film but for the chance to meet other filmmakers and see their movies. I see the care and love that goes into putting this festival together. People at Frameline love film and they love filmmakers. It’s an honor to be part of the magic.
You’ve shown your feature at other festivals. What has been the reaction to the film and how do you react to both praise and criticism?

Alto was always intentionally a movie to make people laugh, and through humor, help heal the wounds that separate us, particularly from those we love.

I think it’s important to lead with that because my experience has been that Alto has been extremely well-received by audiences but often a tough sell with programmers and judges. I think a good part of that is possibly a bias against comedies as being serious pieces of work. I made the film for people to enjoy so winning or even being a finalist for an Audience Award means so much to me. It means I did my job. I do think it’s a mistake to think that comedies are easy to make. Thankfully, our actors have been recognized with nominations for their performances and with enthusiastic applause from audiences and praise from other professionals in the business.

I do want to mention the importance of respecting criticism. You don’t have to believe it and you certainly can’t make it personal, but you do have to ask yourself what it is they’re reacting to. If it’s a particular vehement response, I consider that it might not be about the film at all but about something getting triggered in the other person. In any case, as a filmmaker, you need to bring your self-confidence “A game” to bat for the entire filmmaking team. It’s easy to go only where the love is, but growth happens when you inch past comfort zones.

What manners of distribution are you considering for “Alto?”

We have been picked up for distribution by Cinema Libre. They took Alto to their sales booth at Cannes this year and are in talks with international markets as well as working on a digital roll-out plan for the States. People can sign up at http://www.altothemovie.com/contact.html to get updates.

Talk a bit about your education and when you decided you wanted to become a filmmaker.

Oddly, I went back and got an Associate’s Degree AFTER receiving my Bachelor’s because I wanted to get involved in music management. After one semester, the school closed their music program and offered people the chance to continue in their video production degree track. I took it, wrote my first screenplay, learned how to use digital cameras and digital editing systems, and made a living for a while as an independent editor. A roommate at the time suggested I apply to graduate school, which I’d never even considered. I was living in NYC then, and so I applied to Columbia University, from where I then got my MFA. I tell this because although I have written since I was a child and have always written visually, I kind of wandered into filmmaking as a profession. I want people to know that there are a thousand pathways that lead to being a filmmaker, but the only certain one is to make something. Learn from your mistakes and then make something else. Learn from THOSE mistakes and make another something else. They’re not all going to be feature films unless you have access to large supplies of money on a regular basis, but education comes in lots of ways. I appreciate the formal training I got but just as important for me was growing as a human being. When I decided to become a filmmaker, I was actually saying, yes, I can handle rejection, disappointment, criticism, and nay-sayers, and I can do so in a way that brings something valuable to the world.

In the end, I wanted to make a film that would break through the differences between people and encourage authentic lives. When I considered what I’d written—a character whose planned life disintegrates when she questions what she’ll do to stay true to herself—it felt impossible to explore the story thoroughly without acknowledging the creative pressure inside me to do so, and it felt impossible to explore that creative pressure without letting it push me into the world. Through directing this film, I found a voice willing to expand beyond what I previously found comfortable.

I say this because during the process of making this lesbian mob rom-com, I came out to my family as transgender. I’d tied myself up in knots for years because I didn’t want to hurt them. Instead, they gave me the gift of any great family: their love. I am very fortunate in that respect, but I became a filmmaker in order to save myself. I needed to express myself creatively rather than destructively, and my hope is that I can share what I’ve learned along the way. I didn’t know any transgender filmmakers at the time, but after watching Lana Wachowski’s HRC acceptance speech for the first time last year (even though it was recorded in October, 2012), I wrote and told her how it had given me hope and strength, and you know what, she wrote back. It meant a lot and I keep the card in my work area to remind me that making a movie is a gift and none of it should be taken for granted.

You have an impressive resume with much work as a script researcher. How much research went into creating “Alto?”

I love working as a researcher. It gives me the chance to find great stories and great characters while learning about things I might never otherwise hear about, but for how much research went into Alto? Actually, not a whole lot. I wrote it AFTER I’d written a script which won both a Sloan Screenwriting Award and their Production Grant, and let me tell you, that one, I researched a ton, creating a fictional disease and a fictional (but believable) cure…and I’m not a scientist. In fact, it was my intense research on that project that made me want to write a story I DIDN’T have to research. I did do some, on Italian folk dances and music, but that was after the story was already on the page.

What advice would you offer filmmakers out there who are plugging away to make their film, tell their story?

My advice: don’t give up. If you don’t give up, eventually, you make your movie. You absolutely cannot let NO stand in your way. You have to treat it like a bad blind date and move on. You have to look at the big picture and set smaller goals along the way. I would also say, take care of yourself emotionally. Learn some self-care skills because if you try to make an independent film without them, you might just be the hole that sinks the ship instead of its fearless captain. As a filmmaker, you set the tone, and if you don’t know how to deal with your own stress, you’ll rain that down on everyone around you. The other component of that is self-forgiveness because I can tell you, you’re not going to do it perfectly. You are going to fail, sometimes more publicly than others, but learn the art of giving yourself a break. It will help you give others one, too, and it’ll go a long way toward making a piece you can be proud of, both for the process of it as well as the final product.

What’s next for you?

I’m writing Alto the Musical, revising the outline now, and having a fantastic time going back into the material and mining it for different elements. I’m also revising, with a co-writer, a quirky comedy pilot that we might wind up turning into webisodes. I have a detective novel I’d started writing before Alto went into pre-production, and I’m hoping to direct again soon. I’m also spending a lot of time trying to get the word about Alto out there. If anyone is interested in helping with that, say the word!

Mikki, congratulations once again and I wish you the very best for ”Alto” and look forward to your next film.