“The film explores both sides of the gangster world: the family side, with the vulnerability of that family and the depth of emotion, as well as the dark side.”
Multitalented artist, Leo Rossi, who wrote the screenplay for Gotti and also plays Bartholomew “Bobby” Boriello, Gotti’s enforcer, brought a unique angle to the narrative.
His text was directly influenced by his conversations with John Gotti himself.
By getting to know the men, Rossi knew that the movie needed to show both sides of Gotti’s life.
“The screenplay that I envisioned after talking to Gotti had the Mafia element, of course, that’s a certain element to it, but, also the situation of the family. To me, to see how a life of crime in the Mafia affects the family was just as compelling as the Mafia life itself. I tried to interweave them,” he explains.
Talking to Gotti shaped the way Rossi approached the project, especially because he felt that the notorious gangster wanted to come clean and be truthful. He wanted to set the record straight. “I talked to John at length, and he was very forthcoming. I really appeared that he wanted to tell me exactly the way it was, which was exactly what I wanted. John was nothing more than totally honest with me, and we got along fabulously.” Besides his time with the man himself, the writer also heard from other members of the family, which added to his perspective of their complex lives. “Four and a half months I spent in Oyster Bay, Long Island, with John and his lovely family, Kim and all the kids. But it was gratifying.”
Rossi knew that the core of film had to be the relationship between Gotti and his son, and the repercussions that his actions continue to have on those he loved. He flirted with other titles that spoke that complex father-son dynamic.
Rossi knew that the core of film had to be the relationship between Gotti and his son, and the repercussions that his actions continue to have on those he loved. He flirted with other titles that spoke that complex father-son dynamic. “It was originally called In The Shadow Of My Father. After being around and talking with John at length, and really finding out what that life was, it could really be called The Sins Of My Father, because it effected not only the next generation, but the generation after that, because of the name John Gotti. To this day, every little thing about Gotti it sells newspapers, but there’s a family behind that, there’s a family that suffers from that,” notes Rossi.
Not surprisingly, the decision to play “Bobby” also came from his time with Gotti, who believed he was perfect for that part. “After I had been with John for like three weeks, he said, “You’re like Bobby.” At that time I was so confused with all the names, I said, “Bobby is who now?” He said, “Bobby was one of my dearest friends, and he was my father’s driver, bodyguard, confidant, and then when I took over my crew, he was with me.” Unfortunately he was murdered in his own driveway, and it was very difficult for John, but he said that I was like him.” Despite initial hesitation, Leo Rossi, like John Gotti himself suggested, eventually agreed to take the part.
Defined by a particular set of values, famed gangster John Joseph Gotti (John Travolta) ascended through the ranks of New York’s Italian mob with a lethal and effective blend of loyalty and ruthlessness. By becoming the head of the Gambino crime family through a bloody coup carried out in the streets of Manhattan in the 1980s, Gotti secured his place in the history books as “Teflon Don” – the protégée of underboss Aniello Dellacroce (Stacey Keach).
Arching back and forth between the crucial events that shaped his illicit career during the 1970s, and the aftermath of those glory days in the 90s when illness ravaged his health, the film presents an honest portrait of a man whose path was marked by violence, ambition, and, despite it all, love for his family. A 1999 conversation between Gotti and his son, John Gotti Jr. (Spencer LoFranco) that took place in prison, serves as framework for the narrative, as the protagonist reminisces about his choices as a leader and as a father.
With an avid mind for strategic planning and to manipulate the pieces of the underworld’s puzzle to his benefit, Gotti managed to transform an already successful operation run by the Gambino family into one of the most powerful criminal organizations in NY history. Racketing, drugs, loan sharking, gambling, extortion, and murder became commonplace for Gotti and his crew, thus making betrayal and any involvement with police absolutely taboo.
Weaved into the intense and compelling sequence of events that led to Gotti’s rise to power, is also young Gotti Jr’s decision to leave a much safer career in the military to join the family business, as well as Gotti’s relationship with devout wife Victoria (Kelly Preston), who makes sure the home front is a stable place for the mobster to return to.
Given his prominence and gruesome antics, Gotti quickly became a highly desired suspect in the FBI investigation to derail the group’s profitable illegal activities. Unable to bring him down on several occasions, the authorities turn Gotti’s right-hand man, Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, into an informant for the prosecution. Sentenced to life in prison, and never taking a plea deal, Gotti died of throat cancer at age 61 in Federal prison in Missouri.
“The film explores both sides of the gangster world: the family side, with the vulnerability of that family and the depth of emotion, as well as the dark side,” says legendary star John Travolta who brings John Gotti to life in the film.
The role required a full understanding of Gotti as a person, not only of his actions, but also the things that really mattered to him on a human level.
The emotional core of the film is the relationship between Gotti and his son, thus the filmmakers decided to use this throughout the narrative.
“The through-line of the movie is a conversation with his son, where his son is asking him permission to get out of the life, and not be a part of this anymore, because of how he deeply feels about his own family. Kelly I and were both very appreciative of John Gotti Jr. and Victoria Gotti allowing us to research their family for authenticity. John Jr. was on the set most of the time to make sure we were on target which was great. I even got the opportunity to wear the jewelry and certain pieces of clothes that were Gotti Senior’s personal effects.”, he confirms.
For actor-turned-director Kevin Connolly, the prospect of being on set with someone of the caliber of John Travolta was a once in a lifetime opportunity to work with one of his cinematic heroes. “The idea of directing John Travolta as John Gotti was the first thing that jumped out at me. I was born in 1974, so to call John Travolta iconic would be an understatement. That was what first attracted me to the project. “ A big fan of the gangster movie genre, Connolly knew the actor would elevate the project on all fronts.
“Getting to direct John Travolta I’ve learned a lot about acting, and watching his process and how he approaches a character and how he approaches a scene. His overall approach on a movie is wild.” As an actor himself, Connolly was impressed by the way John’s preparation and the dedication he shows at every step of the way. “He’s prepared like no other actor I’ve ever worked with. He works hard and he does his homework at home. He’s not a guy that shows up on set and figures it out in his head. He’s already done the work and figured it out on his own time, so his process has been amazing to watch.”
The up-and-coming director felt that he was able to experiment and allow the film to take shape organically because Travolta, the project’s beating heart, was able to adapt to his necessities. “I have my ideas of how I like to do things, but if an actor, particularly an actor with as strong and as much experience as John Travolta, has a different idea and wants to do this or that, I’m always open to actors making their own choices. I want to let them to explore their choices, and then try to readjust to make them as comfortable as I can,” Connolly adds.
The bond between the director and performer enhanced the way Gotti was constructed on the screen and allow them both to imbue their work with authenticity. Connolly recalls a conversation with John in which the actor shared memories of his beloved father. “ John’s opened up to me about his relationship with his father. It’s really no different than anybody else’s relationship. He really looked up to his father, his father was his everything, he idolized his dad, and I think it’s evident in any conversation that you have with him.”
This helped them realize that even for those who have slipped away from the righteous path, family is everything. “It just goes to show, no matter what it is, your father’s your father, and your mother’s your mother, and there are special relationships for everybody, and it’s no different with the Gotti’s. He really looks up to his father, and his father is everything,” continues the filmmaker.
For Travolta, Gotti was not just another project. His involvement goes back several years and he embraced it fully aware of the implications of playing a real-life character, as he did recently in the hit miniseries THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY. “John’s been on the movie for six years, so the wheels have been kind of cranking in his head as to his thoughts on the character. It was just a big sigh of relief for me on that first day on the minute he opened his mouth, because I knew he had nailed down this character,” says Kevin Connolly. “Working with John Travolta, it’s kind of like a Chinese menu: you just ask him for something different, or ask him to play with it, and the things that he can do, it’s pretty impressive. It’s humbling as an actor, that’s for sure.”
Portraying someone’s father or husband is a task that the actor doesn’t take lightly, especially when Gotti’s family wholeheartedly entrusted him with their story. “I was one of a few actors who were approved to play this role by the Gotti family, and that had a different kind of statement to me, that they had the confidence that I could play their dad, or this character. I was enthralled by the idea that they thought I was a chosen one, let’s say, and that gave me a bit of inspiration to say, ‘Let me see what I could do with this,’ and see if I could portray it in a fashion that they would feel was accurate, and that’s a challenge,” says Travolta about taking on such responsibility. “There’s a lot of detail to this character. His style, his cadence, his behavior, his way of thinking, all of those are things that are the joy of acting, so they’re giving me a role that’s asking me a lot to do, and that’s a beautiful challenge, to take it on,” he concludes.
Working with a Director That Acts
Due his experience on the other side of the camera, Kevin Connolly was in a unique position when working with his talented cast. Being a director that also acts provides him with insight into the way actors work and their needs. According to John Travolta, the helmer knew how to balance the subtle aspects of the storyline with those that are more visceral.
“He brought a freshness and a willingness to tell the story in an original way. I think we both agreed it would be told more as an art film, and allow it to be inviting to the audience, versus a kind of in-your-face, unabashed gangster film,” says the lead actor. “We’re going to let those moments happen, not unlike PULP FICTION, let those shocking moments happen, where you’re kind of calm for most of the film, and them bam, you get these moments of shock or surprise.”
Connolly fully trusted Travolta’s decisions about his character and allowed him to showcase his craft. “Kevin is an actor, and he understands what an actor needs. He always said to me, ‘You haven’t misled us yet, so if you feel we need to do it that way, we’re going to do it that way.’ There’s an understanding of each other, and he trusts me, and that’s important. He admires my interpretation, and that’s very important,” adds Travolta. Their partnership throughout the production created the magic audiences will enjoy on screen.
Similarly, actor Pruitt Taylor Vince felt that Connolly’s acting background made a lot of difference in their interactions. “I like directors who are or were also actors. I’ve worked with all kinds of directors from different backgrounds, from camera and from editing, but there’s something about having walked a mile in our shoes,” adds the seasoned thespian that plays Angelo Ruggiero. “With directors that were or are actors you feel a little safer, you feel that they’ve got your back, and know what you’re doing. It also lends itself to a kind of shorthand. It can be a word, it can be the tiniest little things back and forth, and that’s the kind of relationship I have with Kevin. That’s the kind of thing that’s been going on, on the set.”
Newcomer, Spencer LoFranco, who gives life to John Gotti Jr, echoes Vince’s sentiment, “Kevin is an actor. He started as an actor. He understands an actor’s perspective.” To which actress Kelly Preston, who lends her talents as Victoria Gotti, adds, “He’s got great ideas as a director, but he is also an actor, so he speaks to you as an actor, and when we’re working on scenes, it’s very much as an actor, so he’s got that perspective down. He’s really got great insight in his director’s viewpoint.”