Whatever happened to all of those mafia guys from the heyday of the Scorsese epics we loved watching growing up? Even the genre-resetting scope of the The Sopranos is now a full generation removed from its final episode. So where are they now? It’s a curiosity that tickled filmmaker Jimmy Giannopoulos, who makes an impressive debut with The Birthday Cake. Boldly billed as “the sequel to all of your favorite mob movies” and setting his original story against a very contemporary Brooklyn, it’s a dynamic look at a changed empire and the struggling heirs of one colorful Italian-American mafia family. For a particular set, it’s a movie offer they can’t refuse.

Working from a screenplay co-written by Giannopoulous, producer Diomedes Raul Bermudez and the film’s leading star Shiloh Fernandez, The Birthday Cake is the coming-of-age story of Giovanni (Fernandez), who could be best described as the anti-Henry Hill, the erstwhile protagonist of Goodfellas. Gio is a gentle soul—a naively innocent young man who desperately tries to avoid conflict. As such, he’s unfit for the mafia-family lifestyle he was born into, and on this particular day, conflict seems to be everywhere. It’s the tenth anniversary of his father’s death and his long-suffering mother, Sofia (Lorraine Bracco), has once again baked a cake, continuing that tradition. Gio is tasked with delivering the cake to Uncle Angelo (Val Kilmer), a local mob boss, in time for their memorial celebration. For Gio, it’s another reminder he’s caught up in a lifestyle he wants nothing to do with and from which there’s no alternative. Then two hours into the night, his life devolves into violence when he’s witness to a murder. A one-night odyssey across Brooklyn, Gio must piece together the truth behind the mysterious circumstances under which his father perished.

Giannopoulos fills out Gio’s vibrant surroundings with a murderer’s row of stacked talent, which also includes Vincent Pastore, John Magaro, Ashley Benson, Ewan McGregor, William Fichtner, Luis Guzmán, Paul Sorvino, Aldis Hodge, Penn Badgley, Emory Cohen, and Jeremy Allen White.

Anthem reached out to Fernandez via Zoom recently to get some behind-the-scenes intel.

The Birthday Cake hits select theaters and goes On Demand on June 18.

Shiloh, this cast is bananas.

Oh, I know. We were so lucky.

It feels like an ensemble piece in every sense and not just chalking that up to a crazy roster of talent. Every player shines in their respective roles. How did you guys Tetris this thing?

It was incredible. Since the film is following my character and I’m having to interact with all these amazing actors, at first, I was completely overwhelmed. How am I gonna go toe to toe with all these giants? I really had to take it scene-by-scene. I’ve been doing this for a little while now so I got to call my friends and say, “Look, I’m putting together this movie. Will you come and do it with me?” Aldis Hodge, John Magaro, Emory Cohen, Ashley Benson—so many people were like, “You’re putting together a film? Yes.” Then we were lucky enough to get Ewan McGregor, Val Kilmer, Lorraine Bracco, and Luis Guzmán. They all read the script and wanted to help us. What’s so incredible is that—I wouldn’t say these characters were underwritten, but—everybody came in and made it completely their own. It was just a treat to see everyone bring these characters to life.

And despite this larger than life cast you guys were able to ultimately assemble, the film still has that handcrafted feeling about it. It feels like an intimate project that just snowballed.

You’re absolutely right. It’s one of those things where you’re wondering, “Gosh, is this gonna be distracting to have all these recognizable people come in for a moment?” But they pulled it off. I think the cinematographer was a huge factor in this. Sean Price Williams, who also shot Good Time, another frantic New York movie, really got it. I give a lot of credit to him for creating the look and the feel and making the city a character. It all takes place over the course of one night, and it is sort of an intimate art film. And you’re right, these great actors came in and participated in the film, but it could’ve also been done well with no names. Me and Jimmy [Giannopoulos] had talked about shooting the movie ourselves with no budget and just getting real people to do it. So it did snowball and became this bigger thing, while keeping the heart and soul of an indie film.

From what I understand, you weren’t originally gunning to play Gio. In the beginning, you were simply there to help Jimmy out with the writing. Your creative involvement evolved.

Absolutely. So Jimmy’s an incredible musician. I’d known him for years. We made music together a little bit. I’m not very talented musically, but I always wanted to participate in that. Then I saw that Jimmy was directing music videos and he was really into film so we started kicking a bunch of ideas back and forth. One day, he brought me a thirty-page story, which was sort of the beginnings of The Birthday Cake. He had never written a script before so I put it into script form for him and we were by that point working together. And like I said, we didn’t know if we were going to shoot it ourselves in some neighborhood in Brooklyn or make a “real” movie out of it. As we were developing it, I didn’t necessarily think I was right to play the role, whereas Jimmy felt like, “God, you know this so intimately. We’re so close. I want you as my co-pilot on this. You and I can really steer the ship together.” That’s essentially what happened. And beyond the mob aspect or the crime drama, I really did feel like I understood the relationship between the mom and son characters. I felt like I could add something to the family secret aspect of it. Also, as an actor, I’m sort of growing out of the younger roles and coming into older characters and this was a great opportunity to transition. Gio starts out as this young man who’s sort of naive and innocent and then he ends up standing on his own two feet, becoming the man that he needs to be.

Once it was decided that you would play Gio, did you make further adjustments?

Yeah. What was important to me was that Gio has an arc so I certainly built that into it. Had a different actor played him, maybe that wouldn’t have been as important to them. But for me, it was really important that, at the end, I stand up and make this speech. That wasn’t there in the beginning. Part of that involved me doing the speech as the cameras were rolling, and without telling Jimmy or anyone else that I was gonna do it beforehand. I felt like it was really important that if I’m gonna play this part, there needs to be an arc where we see his growth.

How were the other parts negotiated with the actors? With Luis Guzmán, for example, I believe he was given freedom to improv for comedy. Was that an entirely unique situation?

First of all, I hadn’t seen the final cut of the movie so I put it on this morning to sort of remind myself. When I catch up to Luis and knock on his window [in the film’s Uber scene], I look like I’m almost laughing. [laughs] That’s because his improv was amazing and he was literally cracking me up that day. It was hard not to laugh while we were shooting and remain in character. Then at Angelo’s house, there were so many of these Italian personalities that, basically, the art department would bring out the food and it’s like, “No, no, no! The bread comes first!” They were like, “This is how it really goes!” There was some improv like that in those special moments. Even Val wanted to improv and he did. But at the same time, for the most part, they were drawn to it because of the story. Jeremy Allen White brought a lot to his character. John Magaro’s part wasn’t written as fully, but once he came on and started performing, we realized, “We gotta put the camera on him.” There were changes that were made based on each person coming in with their own personalities to these roles. We just didn’t expect that they would be so full. With the great actors we had, they really did bring them to life in a way that was unexpected.

With the writing, it must be so validating to receive that kind of enthusiasm from your peers. As an actor, you know exactly what it feels like to be given good material, right? 

I love that you say that. It’s overwhelming to think that people believed in me enough to come and do this with me. They didn’t even think twice: “You’re putting together a movie? I’m there.” Seriously, it meant so much to me and I think that speaks a lot to the community and the fact that movies are changing. There are all these tentpoles out there, Marvel and whatnot, and it’s a bit of a dying breed with these independent films. They are so much harder to get made these days. The fact that they all sort of understood that and came in—and we obviously couldn’t pay them what they should be paid—and for them to all believe in me and do it for me, it’s seriously overwhelming and I’m so grateful. It meant so much to me.

Your love of writing is something that’s been written up in interviews throughout the years. You also have a previous co-writing credit on Queen of Carthage. I would think that this is something you will continue to explore. In my mind, you have stacks of scripts ready to go.

I do, I do. But I love writing short stories more. A dream obviously is to write a novel. I’m such a fan of the art of screenplay writing, but the parameters of it—the dialogue—is something I do struggle with. I have a lot of different partners that I’ve written with. I have completed a lot of scripts. To be honest, I’ve never written a script on my own. I always have a partner. I find it to be such a difficult thing to do by myself. I think you hear from a lot of screenwriters that it’s a hard job. Because it really is a hard job. I would say that, yes, I will continue to write with people and create stories, but I’m also on my own writing short stories more. Short fiction. Things like that.

Do you also have plans to direct down the line?

I can’t wait to direct. With every movie that I make and with every new director I work with, I learn something new and it teaches me another skillset. It is something that I really look forward to doing. I find it interesting when people put themselves in the movies they’re directing—I think that would be overwhelming for me. I hope to direct a movie and sort of stay behind the camera.

Going back to the film, I was surprised to learn that Jimmy at one time explored the possibility of shooting it in one long take and even reached out to the DP of Victoria. I think it would’ve been hard on you, too, because, for one thing, you’re practically in every scene.

Yeah. Jimmy was really gung ho about doing that. Of course, you support your director so if that’s what he wanted to do, I would’ve participated. I love theatre. I love doing plays. To me, doing a long play is a dream. So in terms of memorization or anything like that, it didn’t necessarily scare me. I just didn’t know that this movie had enough tension to hold one shot. I wasn’t sure why that would make sense in terms of the story that we’re telling. So I’m glad we didn’t go that route. But we did get to do some takes that were longer and that was great. I think it’s fun and tension-filled when you do have long takes. Exploring that was so neat, as was talking to the Victoria guy [Sturla Brandth Grøvlen] and learning what their process was and how they had to do it. We were like, “This is impossible.” Can you imagine having all these incredible actors waiting around? We would have to rehearse for months. It was just unfeasible. I think doing it in one shot is also something that a lot of young filmmakers really wanna do. I’m glad that Jimmy sort of understood that this maybe isn’t the right one for that. I imagine he will in his future do it.

This marks Jimmy’s feature-length debut, but you wouldn’t know it. He has a steady hand. There’s always a curiosity about first-timers because actors talk about those experiences—good and bad. How would you describe his style? Was it different to what you’re used to?

Well, we really developed a shorthand together because we’d written together and we understood the character together. We talked about Gio so much before we shot. So there was this shorthand that I wouldn’t necessarily have with other directors I’m not friends with. That part of it was awesome. And like I said, Sean brought a lot to the experience, considering that Jimmy was a first-time feature director. Jimmy is so creative. He really has his hand on the pulse of what’s new. He will have genius ideas that come out of nowhere. I think that shows—these weird interactions that happen that you wouldn’t normally expect in a traditional movie. I think really great directors understand not only directing actors, not just cinematography, not just lighting, not just editing, but the whole thing. Costume. Make-up. I gotta give him credit for that. He had an understanding of each department, and he allowed people to do their jobs because we hired incredible people. 

Were you already a fan of mob movies going into this?

Not as much as Jimmy. This was sort of Jimmy’s thing. I really focused on the relationships, the family aspect, the coming-of-age story, and the family secrets. Those are the things I identified with. I certainly do love the great movies that Scorsese has directed. But I didn’t watch a lot of movies growing up in the country. I probably saw like forty movies by the time I was 18. So I sort of got a second education when I grew up and started watching these incredible movies. Donnie Brasco is another movie I actually love. That idea of being undercover and having to play dual roles is something you see in Gio. He’s this naive young person, a good guy, who exists in this dark crime family by association. I like that duality.

Man, Donnie Brasco. That’s a blast from the past. I need to revisit that one.

Do it!

Speaking of dualities, one of my favorite scenes is where Uncle Tiny Tony sits Gio down at the memorial dinner and makes the point that he has heart intelligence, whereas his father had head intelligence. To me, it’s just another instance where it dawns on Gio how much he doesn’t belong in that world with this violent, extended family. It’s like putting oil in water.

That was one of my favorite moments in the script as well. Nick Vallelonga, who actually co-wrote Green Book, played Uncle Tiny Tony. What was really fun about that was the relationships I had with each different uncle in those scenes. They were individually unique in themselves. Nick did play somebody who was a little bit kinder and softer, but then of course everything goes haywire. So I did love that and that really was the moment where Gio is starting to put together something he doesn’t know. These little clues are being dropped and there’s something bigger afoot that he’s unaware of. That really starts turning the wheel into him discovering what maybe happened to his father and maybe what’s going to happen to him, and what he has to do about it.

What do you hope audiences will take away from going on this odyssey with Gio?

I hope it’s a fun, thrilling ride for them. I hope that they understand this slice of life. I hope they take away that, in a night, anything can happen. I think we’ve all had those moments, where we’re swept into the night and we can’t believe it and it’s a story we’ll tell forever. Of course, cinematically, it’s a little bigger than maybe most of our nights, but I think it will resonate. The naïveté of this young man and the things that happen to make him learn and grow—we can all sort of relate to that. Really, for me, it’s about family secrets. There’s this podcast called Family Secrets that I listen to. We all have them in our families. They can create such trauma generationally. I really hope that people examine that, go home, and decide to tell the truth and be honest so that we might grow out of it and be peaceful together. Heal the trauma.

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