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“So you want to be a filmmaker?” That question has crossed Frank Lisi’s lips many times during his time as an actor and producer.

Frank started out just like many other actors in this industry, as a background extra. He followed his daughter, who was 12 at the time, to the set of shows like Law and Order andThird Watch, and would get to talking with the crew and learning about the industry. After a few months in the background, Frank signed with his daughter’s agent and started going on bigger auditions for “juicier” roles. One of his first big gigs was as a background actor on theSopranos.

Just as Frank was getting started, he took on one role no one wants to be cast as, that of a cancer patient. During his treatment he started putting together a “bucket list,” and towards the top was to produce independent films. Now that he’s cancer free, he has plenty of time to do just that!

When it comes to philmmaking, Frank is a big phan of Philly. “The people from Philadelphiaare the friendliest people in the country, just don’t disrespect their city or they can be as tough as New Yorkers or even tougher. The city itself has so much history and beautiful locations to choose from to shoot a film.” Some of Frank’s phavorite spots to shoot in the city include the art museum and surrounding area as well as south Philly.

So if YOU really want to be a filmmaker like Frank he suggests you get organized and start putting a plan together about exactly what you’d like to accomplish. Also, no matter how many films you do (in front of or behind the camera) it’s best to “treat everyone as if they are the star attraction, and you’ll get the same treatment from them.” Just be careful, the excitement that comes with making your own film can be addictive, so make sure to save up some of that creative energy.

Photo: Frank and Mr. Sonny Vellozzi at The Big Apple Film Festival, November 2009 at Tribeca Cinemas for Frank’s short film A Sicilian Tale, which was shot mostly in Philadelphia in 2008.

 

Rutgers’ Frank Lisi: ‘A Sicilian Tale’ screenwriter, ‘Sopranos’ extra, and dreamer
BY AMBER E. HOPKINS-JENKINS

FrankLisi_optRUTGERS TODAY

Frank Lisi has been a boiler engineer and shop steward on Rutgers’ Newark Campus for 22 years. But he spends his spare time directing and acting in his own award-winning films.

He began writing the screenplay for his first film, A Sicilian Tale, in 2005 while working as an extra on the set of the HBO drama series, “The Sopranos.”

Lisi did not begin acting and filmmaking until well into adulthood, but he has been fascinated by the film industry since his childhood.

“Movies have always been a part of me,” says Lisi. “The first time I saw Elvis Presley on screen – that did it for me. I wanted to do whatever he was doing.”

A self-described “Jersey Guy,” Lisi and his two brothers were raised by their Sicilian mother in Lodi, New Jersey. Although she hardly spoke English, their mother had an affinity for magazines featuring Hollywood celebrities, particularly Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, and encouraged Lisi’s high regard for the cinema.

But his film dreams were placed on a back burner; after all, he and his wife Elizabeth had three children to raise in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. Lisi was pleased to pass his esteem for movies along to his children, particularly his daughter Nicole, who is now a sophomore psychology major at Rutgers’ Newark Campus.

Nicole studied acting at the renowned Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in New York City as a pre-teen. She would go on to book television and film roles, appearing in Law & Order, Third Watch, and the remake of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner with Ashton Kutcher and the late Bernie Mac.

But Lisi’s young daughter became exhausted and no longer wanted to pursue an acting career or take the acting technique classes for which he’d already paid. “Nicole was burnt out,” he says, “but they weren’t going to reimburse me for the classes, so I took them.”

Lisi took advantage of the unexpected opportunity to take his daughter’s place in the acting classes and began working as an extra for film and television shows, including The Sopranos and Law & Order.

In July 2005, however, his foray into acting was interrupted when he was diagnosed with tongue and tonsil cancer. Lisi spent the remainder of his summer in chemotherapy followed by 10 weeks of radiation.

After being declared cancer-free the following year, Lisi believed he had received a second chance at life. When his wife asked what was on his bucket list, he knew he wanted to make movies. “I told her, ‘I have a dream and I’m going for it.’”

Lisi returned to work at Rutgers and to acting, treating each day on set as filmmaking practicum. When he was not on camera, he acted like a sponge, following and observing members of the various television and film crews, from directors to carpenters, to learn more about their duties. His renewed enthusiasm compelled him to complete the screenplay for his first film, A Sicilian Tale, just months later.

The 56-minute film tells the story of a man who chooses to join the Mafia. “It’s a decision that goes against his principles and has consequences for future generations,” Lisi says.

Following the success of A Sicilian Tale, which was honored as Best Crime Drama Short at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival in 2009, Lisi began to work on his second project, a feature-length film called The Red Corvette, which premiered at the New Jersey Film Festival this February to audience praise.

“The Red Corvette takes a look at what happens when a good girl falls into bad company with a mob princess,” he says. “It’s Thelma and Louise meets Basic Instinct and The Sopranos.”

Lisi says that he learned the most about the interpersonal rapports required of directors by observing Steve Buscemi as he directed an episode of The Sopranos.

“I thought, ‘This guy treats everyone the same.’ From [James] Gandolfini to the extras and all the guys on the set. And I noticed that everyone gave him 110 percent, so I try to make everyone on my sets feel like movie stars, too.”

Lisi is working on a screenplay about Empress Elisabeth of Austria, who was murdered in 1898, and will direct the film version of Monster in My Brain, a musical monologue, later this year.

“Don’t let anyone tell you can’t do something,” he says to fellow dreamers. “Write up a plan and every day, do a little something to move closer to your goals.”