To New Yorkers Fresh Kills is a landfill on Staten Island but for those who attended the recent Tribeca festival it’s the best film of the selection. Rather than make the obvious comparisons with Jennifer Esposito’s Tribeca debut which, due to the mobster genre of her film likens her to another Italian American filmmaker and New York native, I chose to highlight her against a historical context. I do so because to call Esposito a “Female Scorsese is not only too easy but it overlooks the significant contribution she’s made to filmmaking history.
Esposito is a talented actress at home in both comedy and drama. She also happens to be from Staten Island, with a resume that puts her in good company. A century ago, there was another talented actress of both the comedy and drama from Staten Island who was not only a director but Hollywood’s first woman filmmaker, Mabel Normand. By directing the likes of Charlie Chaplin Normand opened the way for women—both in front and behind the camera. Esposito is the first woman to pick up the bullhorn in her hometown and just as Normand was entering the male-dominated world of comedy Esposito faces similar boys club dogma directing a film about mob life. We spoke about her personal and professional journey.
After two decades of creating memorable characters in both film and television, it’s strange that this was Esposito’s first year at Tribeca. As she herself proudly stated “It’s so exciting […] this film couldn’t be in a better premiere space.” Esposito’s debut is not only overdue but the culmination of a childhood dream. “I wanted to be a filmmaker as a kid and wanted to go to NYU to study film, but I couldn’t afford it, so I waited tables, put myself through acting school and became an actor instead. But the desire never left me.” She adds, “I felt unsatisfied with what I was able to reach as far as telling stories, so I had the idea for this movie for a long time and I finally said, ‘stop complaining and do it’–so that’s what I did.”
The script, written by Esposito herself, is a gritty yet heartfelt look at mob life as seen through female eyes. Esposito explained “The mafia genre has been around so long, but we’ve never really seen anything about the women in this life, especially the young women, so I wanted to show where they are in all this.” Esposito fleshed out the characters through women she had seen growing up, thereby making them an extension of herself. With various zingers sprinkled throughout the dialogue to help balance the drama, it’s obvious Esposito writes the way these people actually speak.
“Fresh Kills” is about two sisters and how they adapt into the criminal world they were born into on the “forgotten borough,” the aforementioned Staten Island. Where one of the sisters embraces family by enjoying the pros and defending its cons, the other fights tradition for a more conventional life. Esposito plays the matriarch of the crime family trying to raise her daughters while her husband is “away on business.”
When making mob movies like “The Godfather” and “Goodfellas” one can’t help noticing they’re usually directed by people of Italian descent. When asked if her ethnicity was an advantage, the Italian-born Esposito commented, “it definitely helps knowing the culture which includes Sunday dinners, respect and loyalty.”
Esposito pointed out that as a first-time female director it was predictably hard to raise funds but she had support. “Everyone told me I had to be the one to direct this!” Thankfully, less money sometimes results in a more creative way of storytelling, especially one that doesn’t display a glitzy subject matter. In fact, Esposito actually plays it to her advantage. Scenes taking place in basements, garages, and parking lots couldn’t look any more real with an “Avatar” like price tag.
Along with her budget, Esposito also dealt with the pandemic. She mused “It was an added craziness, put onto an already crazy circus.” That circus being a 22-day shooting schedule. As the director as well as a cast member Esposito admitted there was no time for the vanity of shooting a scene, then running behind the camera to watch herself. “I was literary in my spot for the character holding a hand monitor, I would see the shot, hand the monitor to someone and yell ‘Action.’”
Yet another challenge for Esposito was that “Fresh Kills” takes place in the late eighties to late nineties, so it’s technically a period piece complete with clothing, hair styles and props from that era. Esposito not only utilizes them to help create a nostalgic look, but in certain cases to magnify the drama. For instance, a simple wall phone (which no one under twenty has ever seen, let alone used) helps convey the secrecy of a conversation by focusing on the cord being stretched by the user to escape the ears of children.
The fact that Esposito not only overcame her trials but did so while pulling quadruple duty as director, writer, producer, and actress should earn her the same respect given any mafia crime boss. “The directing felt very natural, the writing was a process that for me is character driven and the producing part taught me a lot.” claimed Esposito before adding “I really love filmmaking in general, I love to write the story, tell the story and see it come to fruition.”
If Esposito can do so much with so little money and so many obstacles, one can only imagine what she could accomplish if given the same opportunities allotted male directors with large budgets. As for how she feels about the term “female director” as opposed to just “director” Esposito honestly answered, “We shouldn’t have to, but I think we still have to say, ‘female director,’ it’s not equal yet. It shouldn’t matter, but sadly, it still does.”
To sum up, Esposito is not merely a “female Scorsese” or a “Modern Normand.” Although she may have qualities of both (showing ethnic culture and graphic violence ala’ Scorsese while giving her characters the heart and soul Normand gave Chaplin’s Little Tramp), Esposito is indeed her own artist with her own naturalistic style. She not only checks off all the boxes as a filmmaker but gives justice to the mob genre while carrying the torch for women in film, which ironically was lit on Staten Island over a century ago.
“Fresh Kills” film will premiere at the Cinequest Film Festival August 15-30.