EXCLUSIVE: John Travolta told Deadline he is upset that fast-spreading news reports twisted the truth as Lionsgate pulled his upcoming film Gotti off its release calendar 10 days before its bow. He worried the reports marginalized what he considers one of his better performances as the iconic Gambino crime family head John Gotti in the Kevin Connolly-directed film. Given how the subject matter lends itself to phrases from mob movies, it’s easy to see how the blogosphere might speculate this film would, well, sleep with the fishes. The truth is far different, Travolta said.
He is underwhelmed with the tiny release that Lionsgate planned for the film through its multi-platform arm Lionsgate Premiere, which is devoted primarily to genre fare that finds its audience through ancillary lanes. Looking to protect what he believes is a worthy theatrical film, and his own performance, Travolta sought out a financier to change that fate. He found one in Edward Walson. The producer of five Broadway plays and eight films that include the Woody Allen-directed Café Society and upcoming Wonder Wheel, Walson and cohorts found the money to buy Lionsgate out of the equation. A new deal is close with another theatrical distributor that will make Gotti a wide release, they said.
“Unfortunately, the reports were speculation bordering on fake news,” Travolta told Deadline. “Lionsgate was planning on a minimal release, and I did an investigation into people who might have the interest and financial wherewithal to better release it. Ed is a fan of mine and of the Gotti story and really wanted to see the movie. I invited his group, they saw it and bought it. That is the simple explanation for this. It wasn’t dropped. It wasn’t easy to get Lionsgate to give it up. They said no, twice, and I literally begged them to reconsider and they finally and generously let it go. We signed this deal about three weeks ago, to purchase back the film from Lionsgate. Our mistake was we should have said something right then and discussed our plan for the film. We didn’t anticipate this speculation that is so grossly wrong.”
Walson initially was drawn in by his fascination for the larger-than-life Gotti legend. “When I heard John was doing it, I wished that the project had been brought to me and that I could have been a producer,” he said. “I know one of the writers, Leo Rossi [who wrote the script with Lem Dobbs], and John and I first connected on an airport tarmac last year and developed a friendship. Not knowing anything about the release plans, I saw the film and loved it, especially John’s portrayal as Gotti. It’s a supreme piece of work I thought deserves proper recognition. Having produced eight films, I’ve seen the frustration that sometimes happens when distributors don’t think of out-of-the-box ways to promote a movie, let alone spend any P&A money. I thought, ‘Here is an opportunity to take a magnificent movie, and get it seen.’
“I’ve been struggling for the past few weeks with John, and Phil Glasser, to put this deal together with Lionsgate, which wasn’t initially ready to give it up,” Walson said. “This is a big movie-star film, with a multi-dimensional, iconic character portrayed by one of the great multi-talented actors. We are hoping to take this movie to Cannes; it’s a movie-star film that deserves the glitter of Cannes and then a wide release shortly thereafter.”
Travolta and Walson said they are near a deal with a significant distributor they wouldn’t divulge, to facilitate that. They will submit to Cannes as an official submission, but they hope the film will premiere on the Croisette one way or another.
The Gotti movie has been a years-long struggle to mount, with financiers falling in and out. Initially conceived with John Gotti Jr’s rights, the film’s focus has not surprisingly swung around to his father, called the Dapper Don for his sartorial splendor, and the Teflon Don for his long record of evading prosecution. That luck ended when his enforcer Sammy “The Bull” Gravano became a star witness against him and Gotti was convicted in 1992 and sent to prison, convicted of five murders, conspiracy to commit murder, racketeering, obstruction of justice, illegal gambling, extortion, tax evasion and loansharking. Gotti died in prison in 2002. Travolta said he had the time to dig deeply into solving the mystery of how a leader in an inherently violent business emerged as something of a folk hero to the masses.
Said Travolta: “My style as an actor is to research and observe the behavior of a character, and my goal was to accurately portray him to where you thought you were watching John Gotti, as I tried to do with Robert Shapiro [in last year’s FX series The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story]. I learned quite a bit about the family, the mafia and how things worked in that world. What I needed to know was why the public loved John Gotti so much. I was aware of it, because his fame paralleled when I became famous, but why was he so adored?”
Mobsters have driven many rags-to-riches stories where villains inherently become anti-heroes who get the audience rooting interest as underdogs, despite the violent crimes they commit. Travolta said Gotti was more complicated than that; there was an empathy to him that kept him from being simply a ruthless criminal.
“I found there were a lot of good will gestures on his part, like how if a local business was in the red, he would help make deals that put it into the black,” Travolta said. “The social events, helping people out, the fireworks shows. There was a very humane part of him. But this movie focuses on the truth of how you behave when you are head of a group that is set up to behave notoriously. There is a balancing act that I loved being able to play — this smart, clever genius mafia guy who at the same time had this strong sense of family, where he cared deeply about his wife and children. I think it’s the first time you really see that true dichotomy, and I believe it helps you understand how his world worked and why he became such an iconic part of gangster history.”