Middle Village is ready for its close-up.
The neighborhood is the backdrop for a soon-to-be-released film focusing on an ex-mafia captain (“capo”) as he comes to grips with how his former life has changed after spending the last 20 years in federal prison. The movie also features a 10-year-old actress from the neighborhood, Olivia Panepinto, in her debut role.
Director, writer and producer David Rodriguez was inspired to make “Once Upon a Time in Queens” after seeing a program on the Investigation Discovery channel about an FBI agent who went undercover in the Gambino crime family in the Bronx. There was one member who was recently released from prison and came home to reclaim his old rackets, but most of the people from his former mob life were dead, in prison or informants.
“In his mind it was still the early 90s … where you could still survive in this world and be untouchable, and what he didn’t realize was that it was the opposite,” Rodriguez said.
In the film, Paul Sorvino plays Joseph Scoleri, who was sent away for racketeering and conspiracy to commit murder. After his release, he goes to live at his Middle Village home, with his 43-year-old daughter Rita (Renee Props). In addition to leaving his gangster lifestyle behind and being forbidden to speak to former associates, Scoleri must reestablish his relationship with his daughter and come to terms with how she has been living her life.
He also becomes reacquainted with his neighbor Bobby DiBianco, played by Michael Rapaport, whom he last saw as a teenager.
Bobby now has a family of his own and runs his father’s deli, and agrees to help run errands for the ailing Scoleri. The character represents a progressive, professional lifestyle, instead of a wannabe gangster, according to Rodriguez.
“He speaks to [Scoleri] like nobody has ever spoken to him,” Rodriguez said. “That is another shocker to him.”
Part of Bobby’s family man image is his daughter Liv, played by Olivia.
The current fifth-grader landed the part after three impressive auditions. She was so good that her part was changed from a boy to a girl.
“She really knocked it out of the park in the audition,” Rodriguez said. The part was also changed to make the film less male-centric and more heartfelt.
Olivia’s dream of acting started at two years old when she was watching TV and asked, “How can I be in the box?”
After a trip to LA where she visited the Hollywood Walk of Fame and asked her parents how she could “get one of those stars,” Olivia started taking acting lessons, and landed her first part in “Once Upon a Time in Queens.”
“It was like my dream come true,” she said. “It was even more cool that we shot it in my neighborhood.”
Filming was somewhat challenging, but mostly fun, Olivia said, especially when Sorvino would sing opera between takes.
The young actress has also appeared in a web show called “Mona in Manhattan” with her older sisters, Alessandra, 14, and Emmanuela, 12, and will be filming a movie with them in LA this January called “Marilyn Monroe Zombie Hunter.”
Olivia’s father Ignazio was also involved in “Once Upon a Time in Queens,” receiving a co-executive producer credit for helping find most the locations for the film, which was mainly shot in Middle Village and Ridgewood. Some scenes were filmed at Juniper Valley Park and Village Gourmet on Eliot Avenue, a stand-in for Bobby’s deli.
Though the film was shown at several film festivals around the country last year, including the 2013 Austin Film Festival, its official premiere, with its new name, will take place this Wednesday in the East Village.
In February, Lionsgate purchased the movie, which was originally called “Last I Heard,” and renamed it “Once Upon a Time in Queens.”
It also will have an LA premiere on Thursday, which will be followed by a seven-day theatrical run in the city. On Nov. 11 it will be available on DVD, iTunes, Netflix and Amazon Instant Video.
Rodriguez hopes audiences “see the film for what it is.”
“I don’t want people to see the movie and think it’s a mob movie,” he said. “It’s a slice of New York life.”
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