Writer-director Thomas F. Mazziotti started in television production at WPIX in New York before graduating both from college and into filmmaking at the same time. He attended the International Film and Television Workshops in Maine, as well as, Laguna Beach, CA. His first effort, The Beep, a 20-minute short film about a killer answering machine received theatrical distribution in N.Y. and L.A. due to a Fast Track article in New York magazine. This attention enabled him to option a play by Neil Bell performed at Playwrights Horizons in N.Y. and bring Sidney Lumet's producer on board to oversee the project. Undertow opened theatrically in N.Y. and garnished much attention due to its controversial subject matter of a young policeman entrapping a gay congressman on videotape. It stars Peter Dobson from Last Exit to Brooklyn. Tom then turned his attention to comedy and optioned a Canadian short story by Peter Sellers. Charlie Hoboken opened theatrically in N.Y. and stars Jennifer Esposito, Amanda Peet, Austin Pendleton, and Tovah Feldshuh. It tells the story of a fast-talking insurance salesman that makes ends meet by being a part-time hit-man.
The Mimic is Tom’s third feature and first original screenplay. It’s very rare that a writer is able to adapt an intimate life moment in the way that Tom has and done so in an impassioned - yet incredibly dark comedy.
The film’s synopsis and trailer provide a foolproof glimpse of the rollicking parable.
“Based on a true story, this clever, intriguing, and hyperbolic comedy follows the main character - 'the Narrator' (Thomas Sadoski) who is befriended by his young new neighbor 'the Kid’ (Jake Robinson), after he joins the local newspaper team. Obsessed with the idea that the Kid may be a sociopath, the Narrator goes to extreme lengths to uncover the truth about him and his wife, a woman he ultimately begins to fancy. Between long walks down the street, a twisted dinner date, and a car drive gone terribly wrong, the Narrator gets closer and closer to the truth about the Kid. But the truth, as he finds, is anything but what he expected. “
I had the pleasure of speaking with Tom about how he got his start as a filmmaker, his writing process in meticulously adapting his true story, and how the cast collectively embraced his vision for single long takes to focus and enhance performance.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: Before we jump into talking about your movie The Mimic, can you tell us a little bit about your filmmaking background?
Thomas F. Mazziotti: Oh sure! I started in the 90s, with a short film that got into theaters. It was very interesting. It was a little horror film, and they put it on with the wrong picture – it went on in front of Pinnochio. And because of that, kids ran out screaming [and] the audience were given their money back. [laughs] It was picked up by AP and the newspapers. It went all over. And I got flown out to California and they all want to know how I got into theaters. So that was the beginning of how I got into it. And I went onto other features from that.
Sadie: What gave you that itch to become a filmmaker?
Thomas: I had something to say and it was important that others heard it.
Sadie: Who are some of the filmmakers, writers, or authors that influenced you?
Thomas: On my first picture, I was lucky enough to get Sidney Lumet’s producer on-board, and so then I went to the set and saw how Sidney was doing things and working with the actors – he goes for performance, very direct, and that really resonated in my head. I just carried it through.
Sadie: The Mimic feels like a love letter you wrote for writers and actors. You offer so much for an actor to play with in terms of nuances and levity. The writing is so incredibly precise and fluid. I loved the use of homonyms in The Narrator and The Kid’s spitfire dialogue. Every word seems to have a reason that it’s on the page. How were you able to make this feel so organic, especially for the actors to perform off of?
Thomas: Well, it is based on an actual event. So, I remember when some of those things were happening in real life. How people around me, like in the restaurant scene, were reacting and watching. And I’m saying, “OK, what’s happening here is grabbing people’s attention.” So, I kept to the way that was done that day live and just carried it over. But I figured, if people are listening then, they’re listening now.
Sadie: Each individual scene felt as it was staged and paced liked a play. Was that a device you thought of while writing, knowing that you were going to direct this?
Thomas: I’ve directed off-broadway, but I haven’t directed a play per se. Although, there’s play elements in The Mimic. There’s no question. And you could probably make it a play if you wanted to, but that really wasn’t my intention.
Sadie: I definitely could see this as a play. Each scene felt like I was right there in the room watching them on a stage.
Thomas: Thank you. I know you must’ve liked the writer and director scene. [laughs]
Sadie: Loved it!
Thomas: I can tell [you] quickly how that came about because it has to do specifically with screenwriting. I hate exposition. So, if I’m going to do it, I’m going to put it all in one scene. And there’s things said in that scene that no character in the film would know to say. The only people that would know to say it, are the people that made it. That’s why it’s in there. It works.
Sadie: Did you heavily outline? It’s so well developed and crafted, knowing that it’s based on a true story, how much prep work did you put in?
Thomas: I think a good script takes a year to a year in-a-half to write. To fine-tune. The first scene I wrote in that script was the Austin Pendleton scene. So, I wrote from the center out, which I never do. I was very angry at the time, and you know, anger is great for comedy. And the East Coast is great for comedy, because the weather is terrible. And it’s really easy to get mad. So, that was the first scene I wrote, and I branched out from there. And the second scene was the restaurant scene. It really took form from there.
Sadie: That’s such a great scene. Especially how you’re able to play off of sociopathic tendencies, and creating this limbo between the main characters, The Narrator and The Kid, in who’s really crazy in this scenario.
Not to get into too much spoiler territory, but in the end, there’s this really high moment of closure between the two leads and the theme really comes into play here, with the loss of love.
Thomas: Oh, absolutely. Loss is the word, because of the writer’s loss that he has and how he gets help from the most unsuspecting source. And which is why to have a script where there’s no names in the script until the last page. There’s also not one curse word – not one – which I’m really proud of. But it’s not that kind of movie. When the characters are fully developed like that, you don’t need to do that, I think.
Sadie: It was well done, notably in handling the grieving process. The Narrator is still in those trenches processing the loss of his wife and now he has this challenge of dealing with a sociopath who essentially pushes him to the limits. The Narrator begins to second guess himself as the crazy one in their relationship. Needless to say, the character development is there on the page.
With this being such a dialogue-heavy piece, how many pages was the final draft of the screenplay? And how many pages were able to shoot a day?
Thomas: That restaurant scene was the first day of shooting, we shot fourteen pages in one day. Which is unheard of. The entire crew was stunned. On all the movies they had worked on before because it was so concentrated, and they were so into it. The way I like to shoot is that I don’t like to break their emotions. So, I shoot from one angle. See, that was Lumet does. He shot from one angle really long to get the performance, because you break their emotion every time you change a camera angle. The liked doing that – I liked doing that, but you have to know the lines. If you make one mistake, we have to go to the top, so that gives really heavy pressure on them. So, I would go to them and say, “Listen, I think you can do this, but if you can’t, I’ll change the angle.” And they’d say, “No, no, no! We can do it!” That’s how we did it. It was eighteen shooting days, and it was about a 105-page script. You’re supposed to average a minute a page – I was more thirty to thirty-five seconds a page. I actually wrote a little while we were shooting, just to expand the library scene a bit, because I could estimate where my running time is. With comedies, you really need to keep tight [and] short. After eighty minutes it gets difficult. I think it’s the right running time.
Thomas: Jake I saw earlier on immediately after the first reading was done. I never saw another actor for it. I knew that was him. That had never happened before. Tom came in later on in the process. But you read that and either you get it, or you don’t, you know? And there’s no convincing you. It has to hit you immediately. So, I do really well with actors that have heavy theater background, because it reminds them of when they started. In Tom’s case, he goes back to theater once a year whenever he can, so he doesn’t lose his roots. So, you’ll see other members in the cast like that. Plus, Austin Pendleton was in my last film in the 90s. He’s a really interesting character and I know how to write for him, I know how many words he says in a sentence because he’s just super interesting. He hadn’t seen me in almost twenty years, and he says, “Hey, how are you?!” Just like I saw him yesterday. [laughs]
Sadie: That car scene is so well done, especially how the three characters interact, and The Narrator is trying to warn the Driver that The Kid is a sociopath, but at the same time The Narrator is enjoying how this interaction is playing out and he’s along for the ride.
Thomas: That’s how sociopaths work. They dismantle you, in front of you, so that you get insecure. That poor man ended up getting a divorce. [laughs]
Sadie: How were you able to get Jake in the headspace of a sociopath? His sociopathic stare is absolutely unnerving.
Thomas: That’s directly out of real life. I had never had that before. And when it’s happening, you don’t know that it’s happening. It’s only until after it ends that you piece together what happened. The beginning of the film is verbatim. When that happened, I knew it was time to end it, because something bad was going to happen. And then I slowly started to write, and it all came together. You have to make it end before you can begin. It wasn’t fun actually going through it. And writing for someone you dislike is difficult. [laughs]
Sadie: I’m sure that’s a therapeutic process for you as a writer to push through that and see it all again. Relive it. [laughs]
Thomas: [laughs] But bringing other people into it, makes it fun.
Sadie: Are you free of sociopaths in your life now?
Thomas: You know, there’s not that many. That was really the one that I ran into that clearly. It’s OK, I’m not a paranoid guy, that was just one that I couldn’t let it pass. I said, I just have to do something, this is too good. [laughs]
Sadie: The use of colors and symbolism, such as red on the Kid and black for the Narrator – was that originally written on the page for these characters or did your costume designer help in selecting these color choice pairings for your characters?
Thomas: No, that was all intentional and written into the script. It was very specific because I find the more specific you are on the page, the more time you have to work with them when we shoot, which was the important thing. And plus, I storyboard, I even show you those boards in the film. Between writing it into the page itself and storyboarding, that’s the best way to get the maximum input when you’re shooting.
Sadie: What was the editing process for you like on this film?
Thomas: It took a long time to edit because it’s very specific. But I wrote another film, so I know exactly what I’m going to do while I was cutting this. Cutting was almost a year because it was so specific. And that kind of dialogue has to hit and then go onto the next thing. If it pauses too long, it’s not funny. If the pause is too short, it’s not funny. So, cadence takes time.
Sadie: Definitely. And the music choice is so whimsical, making such a dark comedy feel so light.
Thomas: Yeah, you go opposite of what you’re seeing. That’s right. [laughs]
Sadie: When is The Mimic coming out and where can we see it?
Thomas: It opens February 5th on-demand and in theaters. So, I think you’ll hear about it, so go see it. Also, I hear that it’s the kind of film that you see at least twice, because there’s so much in it, that people go back.
Watch The Mimic in select US theaters and on VOD. Find your local showings and more on The Mimic website.
Learn more about writing true stories in our SU course, How To Write Based On A True Story