Places, everyone, places! The Women’s Film Festival is about to kick off its fifth year of presenting 10 days of films “By, for and about women.”
This year’s festival opens March 14 at The Kimmel Center with “This Changes Everything,” a documentary about gender equality in media that features a who’s-who of prominent women in the film industry, including Geena Davis, Meryl Streep, Shonda Rhimes, Sandra Oh, Reese Witherspoon, Taraji P. Henson, Natalie Portman and Cate Blanchett.
The documentary calls attention to sexism in Hollywood and beyond. Did you know that when it comes to directors, though males only slightly outnumber femails in the general population, male directors outnumber women 22-1? The stats for women of color and members of the LGBTQ community are even worse. And, according to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, when there is a female lead, she’s onscreen and only speaks about a third of the time that a male lead does. Fortunately, as the festival demonstrates, things are beginning to slowly change.
The 10 days of programming include knee-slapping comedies, soul-stirring dramas and moving documentaries along with networking events, receptions and parties.
Also being shown on opening night is “Turkey’s Done,” a film that bucks all the statistics: It was written, produced and directed by women. Filmed in Philadelphia, it stars the hilarious “Saturday Night Live” alum and local native Cheri Oteri and is directed by South Philly’s Monique Impagliazzo.
PGN: What’s a favorite Philadelphia moment?
MI: When the Eagles won the Super Bowl! I was here and out on Broad Street after the game and it was amazing. Strangers were hugging and high-fiving; it was like an extended New Year’s Day. The whole city was electrified!
PGN: Describe something that made your house definitively South Philly.
MI: Well, one of the funny parts in the film is when Peaches, played by Cheri Oteri, is at home on the phone. It’s one of those old wall phones with the long cord. We had one of those and it went clear across the kitchen. I remember my mom on the phone cooking dinner or doing dishes with the phone in hand, cord stretching across the room. The cool thing is that we didn’t have to find one for the shoot. The house we shot in still had theirs!
PGN: What were you into as a kid?
MI: I played a lot of sports. Early on, my mom could see that I had a lot of energy and she wanted me to have a place to channel it. So I got into gymnastics and then soccer, basketball — which was my favorite — and tennis when I was in college. I’m a runner now and even managed to complete a half-marathon.
PGN: What was a best sports moment?
MI: It would be in eighth grade when I helped my team win the playoff game that got us into the softball championships by sliding into home plate … headfirst.
PGN: Wow! Speaking of heads, who is Red Headed Rita?
MI: That is my mother, Queen Rita. The name definitely suits her. She is one of the most fiery people you’ll ever meet. She’s the type of person who does whatever she wants and doesn’t worry about what people think. If she feels that something is right, she goes with it no matter what.
PGN: Which parent do you take after?
MI: I’m a combination of both my parents. My mom is very outgoing. She’ll stop and talk to a stranger for 30 minutes at the grocery store. I’m like that too. My dad is a workaholic, and I’m just like him. We both always need to have some kind of project going. We have to be doing something at all times. He’s worked in the labor union for 30-plus years and he’s barely missed a day. Freezing cold or blazing hot, he’s out there at the construction site no matter what.
PGN: You have an impressive bio as an actor, director and producer. What got you involved in the arts?
MI: I used to watch a lot of movies with my mom. She’d take us to the Free Library and we’d rent films. She loved all of the old musicals. So, I always kind of knew I wanted to get into the business somehow, some way. I mean, in the summers I would dream about being able to go to the Walnut Street Theatre, but it was not something we could really afford. Then in my senior year in high school, I took a theater class and I was like, OMG, this is amazing! I was hooked and decided that I wanted to go to school to study theater or film. It was a scary decision to go to school for something like that. But my parents, who never had a chance to go to college, told me to go for it. I wanted to go to NYU [New York University], but they didn’t want me so far away, so I went to Temple. I agreed to stay at home if they agreed to let me study abroad for a semester. My junior year, I got to go overseas for the first time and study history and film and theater in London. I absolutely loved it.
PGN: How did you start your career?
MI: While I was still in high school and interning at Mike Lemon Casting, I heard about Mary Anne Claro, who runs a talent agency right in South Philly. When I got to college, I needed another internship asked if I could intern for her. She said, yes. It was one of those weird things that when we met, we felt like we’d known each other for years. I also took acting classes with her, which I loved. She was working with a producer named Diane Kirman. She and her husband, Stewart Raffill, had a movie called “Standing Ovation” with James Brolin as an executive producer. Mary Anne got me a job on the film, and that’s where I got connected with two old friends from high school, Jennifer and Krystal Tini. When the film was over, Diane and Stewart asked if I could come to L.A. to finish post-production. Jennifer and Krystal were already there and invited me to stay at their place. It was a studio apartment with one shower and one sink for all three of us. It was like an “E True Hollywood” story. When we finished post-production, James Brolin, who we called Jim, contacted me and said, “You know my wife’s looking for an assistant. Do you want to come over and meet with her?” I couldn’t believe it. I actually read the email a few times to make sure I wasn’t mistaken.
PGN: Because of course his wife is the one and only Barbra Streisand!
MI: Exactly! I couldn’t believe it. I’ve always loved her not only for her music, but because growing up she was one of the few female directors I knew about, so I studied everything she did. So of course I said yes, even though I had no experience as an executive assistant. I met with Barbra on a Thursday and started working for her Friday morning at 9. I was incredibly nervous, but as soon as I started talking to her, all my fear went away. She was so relatable. It was like talking to someone from the neighborhood. In three days, I was knee-deep in her projects. She was shooting a movie called “The Guilt Trip” with Seth Rogan. She also was finishing up a CD called, “What Matters Most.” She’s very involved politically, so she was invited to a lot of different events. Later, I went on tour with her in the states and Europe.
PGN: What was a highlight of working with her?
MI: Well, soon after I started working, Jen [the old high-school friend] came aboard too. It was always exciting when we got to go on set. But I think touring with her was life-changing for me. It showed me how much I could handle. Working with someone of her status and executing everything that needed to be done even with all the moving parts made me very, very proud.
PGN: Your story is such a great one of women helping women to make it. We so often are painted as competitive and mean, especially women like Streisand who have always stood strong.
MI: Yes, like my mom, Barbra knows what she wants. She has an instinct like no one else. But when women vocalize what they want, they get labeled as aggressive and bitchy. When she makes a decision, she gets called a diva, but when a man does it, they praise him for his great idea. But let me tell you, she’s a genius. And in so many areas including music, film, politics — you name it. My experience with her was great. She’s actually really funny and super down to earth.
PGN: Something else that’s really funny and down to earth is your film, “Turkey’s Done.” We are so excited to give it its Philly premiere! And the story is another one that fits right into TWFF’s mission of supporting women in film.
MI: Definitely, and it was totally by chance. It started when Jennifer was walking her dog in a park. She was saying [with a Philly accent], “Do you want some wooder mah-me?” And a woman next to her said, “Excuse me, are you from Philly?” And Jennifer said, “How did you know?” The woman was Cheri Oteri [who’s from Upper Darby] and that was the start of getting her onboard!
PGN: I understand half of Philly got onboard.
MI: It was amazing. There was a deli named Pastificio that sold turkey hoagies for a day. They gave us all the proceeds and gave us a ton of food to feed the crew. A guy named Mark Leuzzi, who has a plumbing company, let us have space in his building for a month so we didn’t have to pay for an office. Both of the houses that we shot in were donated, so we didn’t have to pay location fees. People on Jessup Street, where we shot, all pitched in to help. It pulled at my heartstrings.
PGN: One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you was that I saw the segment with you on “Right This Minute.” There was such camaraderie and support. It was heartwarming for me. It perfectly dovetailed with our mission of supporting women and refutes the old trope that women can’t work together.
MI: Absolutely. And that’s what we did. “Turkey’s Done” is a spinoff from a feature film I wrote called “Shenanigans.” When I was in L.A., the three of us worked on it. Then I had the idea to make a short based on one of the characters. I knew it would be hard to make a feature on our own, but I knew we could do a short. Interestingly, when I wrote [the character] Peaches, I always had Cheri Oteri in mind. I knew she was from Philly, and I always wanted her for the part. So, when Jennifer randomly met her in the park, it was unbelievable. We sent her a script and she loved it. And here we are! By the way, it’s somewhat based on a true story.
MI: Yeah. We have a friend whose grandmother actually threw the Thanksgiving turkey, fully cooked, out the front door at his grandfather. We took that and ran with it.
PGN: Any mishaps on set?
MI: So we had a red Cadillac in the film. As we wrapped up filming, someone — well me — had left the trunk open. When we went to start it, it wouldn’t start. Then when we finally got it jumped, it caught on fire! Luckily, Johnny Baum Baum [his last name is Baumgartner] from Expressway Cinema Rentals had an extinguisher and we were able to put it out right away. But not before someone dialed 911, so we were soon surrounded by fire trucks and the police. It was one hell of a way to end the filming.
PGN: So, getting personal, how did a nice Italian girl from South Philly get married to a nice Irish girl named MacKenzie?
MI: [Laughing] Ah! My wife was married when she was 21, and that was her married name. She’s actually Spanish and Hungarian.
PGN: When did you come out?
MI: I was late to bloom. I kind of knew in college, but pushed it away. But when I was 33, I told one friend. She knew [now- wife] JoAnn, and introduced me to her. It was a set-up and neither of us knew, but it sure worked!
PGN: You mean you attended St. Maria Goretti, an all-girl high school at the time, and it never came up?
MI: No, not at all. I didn’t have a clue!
PGN: What’s next?
MI: Well, now that we have the short in the bag, we’re hoping to make the full-length film “Shenanigans.” But there’s been talk of making it into a sitcom as well, so who knows? Stay tuned!
Find more information about “Turkey’s Done” and all the festival films at www.thewomensfilmfestival.org.