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Thursday, July 13, 2017

Interview: AD Jon Fortunato shares his memories of Di Palma, Scorsese, Coppola and De Niro

On the occasion of Carlo Di Palma's upcoming retrospective hosted by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, I am republishing an article I wrote for Fra Noi Magazine in 2007. The interview is with Jon Fortunato, a former colleague from my video editing days at CBS News in New York. He worked as an assistant director and the two of us would talk for hours on end about his early days in the film industry. He had some great stories about filmmakers like Di Palma, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Roberto De Niro that I wanted to share with our readers. We still keep in touch, so he gave me a few updates to add to our interview.

Cinematographer Carlo Di Palma
Jon Fortunato grew up in Bensonhurst, an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn. His grandmother was one of 13 children. He was always surrounded by "family, pastries and cannoli." Most of his family members lived within in a five block radius and he saw them often. Fortunato always loved cinema and remembers as a boy, sitting on his father's lap watching movies. One day in 1963, the magic of the big screen came right down to earth. Fortunato was in Manhattan with his father. They were walking through the old market district on 14th Street and 10th Avenue when they passed a film being shot. As they weren't in any hurry, he and his father stopped to watch the filming. The movie being shot was  Love with a Proper Stranger starring Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen. The director, Robert Mulligan, spotted the father and son and invited them onto the set and allowed the young Fortunato to stand behind the camera. He was so mesmerized by what he saw, he knew that one day, he'd be the one looking into the lens.

Fast forward about 20 years later. Fortunato moved out west to begin his career in film but found people illusive and contacts hard to make. It seemed that unless you knew someone, it was nearly impossible to break into the business. So he moved back to New York and before long, found himself working with the best filmmakers in the business. During our countless conversations, he shared memories of that exciting time in his life. 

With Assistant Director Jon Fortunato and Producer Jennifer Niejadlik at CBS in New York
So how does one become a camera operator for feature films?
Well, I first volunteered at Panavision in New York. Panavision is where film companies rent camera equipment. I volunteered there twice a week for two years, learned the equipment inside and out. Then I took the union test, IATSE 600, which is very involved. The test is divided into two parts: a written test, which has to do with set etiquette and a practical hands-on test, which lasts for about 12 hours. When you pass the test, you pay an initiation fee, which back in 1991 was $4,000. Then, you enter a trainee program.

The trainee program was where you had your first brushes with Italian filmmakers?
Yes, I worked on Woody Allen's film, Husbands and Wives. Carlo Di Palma was the director of photography.

What was he like?
Carlo Di Palma was very intense, very quiet.  I worked with him twice, also on Manhattan Murder Mystery. He was very intent on the movie having a certain look while also doing what the director wanted. He collaborated closely with Woody Allen. He was a nice man. I wasn't intimidated or scared around him. I also remember that he liked to have a little paper cup of red wine while lighting his sets. He would always say "Porco Dio" when things weren't going well. I saw him on Broadway a year or so before he died. He was walking, deep in thought but I was too shy to go up to him to say hello. So sorry I didn't.

Carlo Di Palma and Woody Allen
After the two Woody Allen films, you worked on The Age of Innocence... What was it like working with Martin Scorsese on that film?
Martin Scorsese was super professional. He always knew exactly what he wanted. He did 5 to 10 takes on every scene. He would say that every scene was great but always wanted to shoot another because he felt that he could get one more better take out of his actors. It was clear to me that family is very important to him. He always had his mom and dad on the set and his daughter worked as a production assistant.

Although you didn't technically work with him, tell me about your experience with Frances Ford Coppola on the set of The Godfather III.
I just had to deliver equipment to the set, but Frances Ford Coppola invited us to stay while they were filming a scene. It was the scene in The Godfather III, which takes place in Little Italy. They closed one street there and recreated the San Gennaro Festival. I remember Frances Ford Coppola directing from his 13-inch screen while eating from a plate of zeppole and Italian pastries.

Tell me about your work on A Bronx Tale and what made that experience so special.
Robert De Niro was the director on A Bronx Tale. There were eight cameras for that shoot and I was working on camera D. Robert De Niro came over to check the shot. He looked into the eye piece of the camera, then to us, the assistants and cameraman. He introduced himself and wanted to know our names. So, we each said our name; Dick Mingalone, camera operator, Mike Caracciolo, first assistant and Jon Fortunato, second assistant. He laughed. It was obvious he was pleased that a bunch of Italians were operating his camera!  I love and respect his work, so meeting him was really special. It was the greatest moment of my career.

Robert De Niro on the set of A Bronx Tale (Photo: Savoy Pictures/Phillip Caruso)
Now, you work as an assistant director for network news and programs.  Why did you leave the film industry?
Well, I had a young family and my son was born with a rare lung affliction, so I needed something more steady and secure. Today, I get a nice feeling when I watch the credits of a film and I recognize the names of people I trained who are now at the top of their field. Who knows what the future holds... I still have a love for film. I still have my union card and I still pay dues!

Perhaps Jon Fortunato will one day return to film. But in the meantime, he is watching the next generation bloom as his daughter Francesca is picking up where he left off. She recently worked on the new Woody Allen film starring Justin Timberlake, and her proud dad couldn't be happier. "The really neat thing is that she's working with a lot of the folks I worked with years ago. They all remember me and have really taken her under their wing!"

"Shot by Carlo Di Palma, From Rome to New York" begins July 28 at Lincoln Center. Click here for more information.

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