One of my favorite things about working in this industry is having the opportunity to talk so many really talented people. In our ProductionHUB exclusive series The Directors, we’ll take you behind the scenes to find out about the styles, techniques, and equipment that are shaping the future of film and television production today.
Director Tom Denucci is no stranger to hard work and determination, starting out as an intern from sweeping floors to directing his first full theatrical feature film. Tom has already worked with some of the biggest names in the business and has put his unique directing signature on all of his pictures. We caught up with Tom as he shared his journey as an artist and director.
PH: Tell us a little bit about your background and how you became a director.
Tom Denucci: I was always fascinated by the illusion aspect of filmmaking. As a kid I wanted to learn the tricks behind the “movie magic” I saw on screen and ultimately just wanted to figure out “how they did that”. As I got older I started to commandeer my dad’s video camera and mess around with it. I’d put together short films with my friends and learn how to tell stories trial by fire style. Then as a senior in high school I took my first organized film course of any kind and that was it—I was immediately hooked. I said to myself, oh wow, you mean this could be…like a job? High School ended in a flash and it was time for everyone to figure out their future, so the next year I enrolled in film school at New England Tech and was pretty much off to the races.
PH: Tell us about some of your more recent high profile directing efforts.
Tom Denucci: That would have to be “VAULT”. It’s the first film I got to direct with a seven figure budget behind it. Prior to that my films had been made for a fraction of that so you can imagine I was like a kid in a candy store, able to play with a whole new set of toys and equipment on a much higher production level. Not to mention the key crew and the talent we were able to bring in was just unbelievable. Being surrounded by so many talented artist was such an incredible learning experience for me. It was that feeling of being “called up to the majors”.
PH: What are some of the tools of the trade you use as you move up the ladder?
Tom Denucci: Artemis Director’s Viewfinder. Also we have shot a lot of our stuff on RED, we shot VAULT on a Arri Alexa Mini. We cut everything in Premiere.
PH: You have worked with some high profile actors. Did that make you nervous? Tell us a "feel good" story if you can.
Tom Denucci: It really has been a privilege. I mean you write a script and you recite the words to yourself over and over again, and even out loud, in the mirror, whatever - but once a world class actor says those same lines- it’s like hearing it for the first time. The nuances they bring are part of what makes a particular film so special.
I hate to single any one actor out but there are a couple stories that come to mind. Watching Samira Wiley perform was something else. The way she captivates an audience and puts them in a trance is like nothing I’ve ever seen. I’ve actually been put in that trance before! She nailed a scene in VAULT so perfectly that when the scene ended she was kind of just looking around confused because she had got to the end of her monolog and nobody said anything - that’s because I forgot to call cut - I was hanging on her every word and just lost in the moment!
I also got to work with Chazz Palminteri. As an Italian American kid from a city like Cranston, Rhode Island (known for its heavy Italian American influence) I grew up idolizing, Chazz. We were raised on movies like “A Bronx Tale”. Chazz was really terrific to work with and had a lot of trust in my process which gave me a lot of confidence right off the bat. That meant a lot to me. His last day on the movie, he took me aside and told me I had a similar style and a lot of the qualities of the other Italian American Filmmakers he’s worked with and been around. He referenced a couple guys that I’ve idolized for many years. It was one of the greatest compliments an actor ever paid me.
PH: Did you ever have a bad day directing? How did you deal with that?
Tom Denucci: I’ve had plenty of tough days at the office while making movies. It’s like any other job. Sometimes it seems like the entire world is against you making your day on time or getting the perfect shot you want. I’ve flat out made some major mistakes along the way—and it’s been gut wrenching thinking about how easy it could have been to fix them—but I try to keep it in perspective and not let one bad decision carry into another bad decision. Like when a quarterback throws an interception. You need to develop a short memory. Always learn from the mistake. Never make the same mistake twice. But don’t let it haunt you—stay positive and move on.
PH: Tell us about your best day directing.
Tom Denucci: It’s hard to narrow it down to any one day. It sounds like a real cornball thing to say but the truth is every day I get to make movies feels like the best day. Every movie takes on its own identity with very different highs and lows.
Usually the best days are when you’re dealing with a lot of moving parts and it all goes off without a hitch. One day in particular that stands out was on the set of VAULT during the prison yard fight scene. We had a lot of obstacles and a lot of work to do that day - stunts, plenty of dialog, freezing rain, the whole nine. Through all the adversity the cast and crew prevailed and we ended up filming one of the stronger scenes in the movie. It always feels good to overcome challenges like that and walk off set with footage you’re proud of, on time and under budget for the day.
PH: What advice would you give to young(er) directors?
Tom Denucci: Direct! A lot of people like to claim they’re a director yet they haven’t actually directed anything. To those guys and gals I say hey, that’s great—it’s nice to be able to identify the job you want—but now it’s all about putting the work in to get it on a daily basis.
Don’t just say you’re a director—go out and direct. We hear it all the time—content, content, content. It gets to be borderline annoying. But it’s true, you really need to just create your own content and slowly develop a style and ultimately a brand. And don’t let limitations become excuses. I’ve heard it so many times - I don’t have any money to make a movie. The technology we have available to us on our phones alone is really incredible. So go shoot something. No matter how down and dirty. No matter how rough around the edges. Tell a story with a camera. Then you have a proof of concept. Then you’re a director.
PH: Have you been able to keep working through the pandemic? Doing what? Can you tell us about any upcoming projects?
Tom Denucci: It was an unusual year to say the least. I’ve been very fortunate that 2020 was actually the most productive year of my career. I’m also really thankful I had these projects to work on. I spent the first portion of lockdown writing away. I actually kind of loved it. I live alone and spend a lot of time by myself so there’s no doubt staying in a work routine and keeping busy helped get through those first few months of pandemic isolation. I felt like Jack in “The Shining” a few times, but we got it done.
I’m excited to be working with Chad Verdi and the Verdi Productions team on a few really exciting projects. One of the projects is a documentary I’m co-directing with Rick Lazes (which will eventually be made into a feature) called “Kellie” about British boxing promoter Kellie Moloney. The doc features several stylized vignettes. So as soon as the lockdowns lifted we hit the ground running and safely produced those segments. From there it's been countless hours in the editing room putting the pieces together (from six feet away) with my editor Robbie Savage.
In the fall of 2020 producers/writers Robert J. Morgalo and Ozz Gomez brought me on to direct their debut feature titled “The Mick & The Trick”. This was my first Covid era feature. Making a movie during this time had its challenges and hurdles, but to everyone’s credit, we followed protocol and stayed safe. We made what I think is going to be a great movie and thankfully nobody got covid as a result of the production.
My final project of 2020 is one of the more interesting ones. Chad Verdi brought me on to co-direct “My Father Muhammad Ali” with him. It’s a fascinating behind the curtain look at arguably the most famous man to ever live, Muhammad Ali, and it’s all told through the perspective of his only son.
It’s also the first film Chad Verdi’s been inspired to direct. I know how much the story means to him so it’s an honor and really cool to be a part of. Chad and I are both big boxing fans but this story goes so far beyond the fight game. This is a very unique father and son story that we can’t wait to share with the world.
PH: Was there anytime you had to stop and say wow I am directing Chazz Palmeri! Was that intimidating?
Tom Denucci: When you direct a film there are so many things to pay attention to. So many people are coming up to you on a minute by minute basis asking you for approval, opinions, do you like this? Do you like that better? So with all those decisions being made on a constant basis - it’s almost like a natural defense mechanism - you’re so damn busy you don’t really have time for those kinds of feelings. You’re just playing the game as hard as you can. But there’s no question once in a while you look up at your monitor and then you look over at the actual actor standing within an eye-shot of you, in the flesh…and you’re like, holy shit - that’s Don Johnson..and he’s in my movie! So yeah that definitely happens. But you try to just keep a lid on it and just do your job the best you can so people will want to work with you again next time.
PH: What role has Chad Verdi played in your development as a director?
Tom Denucci: I’ve been so lucky to have a guy like Chad in my corner all these years. I started off as an intern, literally sweeping the floors and taking out the trash at the production office. Chad’s seen my career grow from the beginning and has played a big part in developing it.
He recognized my creative abilities early on. I remember he heard about my idea for “Self Storage” which would go on to be my directorial debut - and he really thought it was cool. Hearing that early on gave me the extra kick I needed to work hard and show up to work everyday ready to get after it. He’s one of the best motivators out there and I still get fired up when we have a good business call. Nobody works harder and we feed off each other’s energy. This is a crazy business with a lot of strange people, so if you find a producer you can trust that inspires you it’s a very rare thing.
Before we say “it’s a wrap”, what do others in the business have to say about Tom? We reached out to Steven Feinberg, the Executive Director, Rhode Island Film & TV Office. "Tommy DeNucci is not only a super talent from Cranston, Rhode Island, he's a genuine good guy with a warm heart. I've seen him on set, surrounded by his loyal, professional, hard-working crew, over the years and he continues to mature as a leader and filmmaker. He has also expanded his horizons regarding more complex, sophisticated story choices and I expect his career will soar at the highest altitudes. The Rhode Island Film & TV Office is proud of him and so am I."
PH: Last question. Who are your favorite directors?
Tom Denucci: The first name that stands out is Martin Scorsese. He’s pretty much the Yoda of movie making. Then I would say 1-A would have to be Quentin Tarantino. Those guys paved the way. I’m also a huge Jon Favreau fan. His work on Swingers inspired the hell out of me early on in my career and I wish I could watch 1000 new episodes of The Mandalorian…one after another.
If you want to catch up with Tom: Find him @tomdenucci on Instagram & Twitter.