Who: Frank Dante lives in Youngstown, Ohio; he’s always lived in Youngstown – on both sides of the law, although the lines are quite fuzzy.
What: Youngstown, as is well known, is a mob town; always was and as far as the last remnants of gangsterdom are concerned, always will be.
Along the Mahoning river – Day
First pan the rusted out blast furnaces, and empty mills lining the river. Then the river itself, clean, peaceful.
Frank: (V.O.) The problem is, “clean” never worked in Youngstown. Especially in regards to steel. Dirty water meant everybody had a paycheck and the mills were pumping it out.
Back on the mills.
Frank: (V.O.) Five million tons annually. That’s enough steel to fill one million freight cars, twelve thousand miles long... Ships, planes, cars, bridges, all molded out of the steel from these mills... But that’s not what people remember...
Ext. A driveway in a Youngstown suburb – Morning
A man exits his house on his way to work. He spots his neighbor, smiles and waves good morning, then gets in his car.
He puts the key into the ignition and starts it. The car explodes.
Frank: (V.O.) That’s what they remember... Welcome to Youngstown.
Frank Dante, formerly a detective on the local force, fired under a cloud of suspicion but still highly respected in town, now runs a restaurant, the “Two Deuces," not even marginally successful; but all of his previously crushed dreams are stored there. Before the steel mills shut down, Frank’s father, now deceased, ran the restaurant and catered to the neighborhood – now there are no steel mills and the neighborhood, such that it is, has seen far better days. In order to make ends meet, Frank allows an after-hours club aka craps parlor to flourish in the back room. For Frank, it’s a stopgap so he can pay off his debts and put the restaurant back on firm footing; for Frank’s younger brother Joey, it’s his life. Joey, equipped with only half a deck and the deck is marked, revels in being a big man in this mob controlled town. Frank, determined to shut down the operation, especially when one of the town’s many crooked cops comes for a pay-off, informs Joey that the club will close at the end of the week. Joey is less than pleased.
Fred Ruffing, a high ranking cop who was resentful of Frank when he was on the force, is even more resentful of him now. Ruffing hasn’t dropped by for a chat; he’s arrived, palm wide open, for his share of the “club.” The squeeze on Frank is from both sides of the law – Ruffing, on the one hand, and the Debrasios on the other; although in Youngstown, it all seems to be the same dirty side. But Frank has only just tapped the keg of misfortune. Into the bar walks his deceased sister’s ex-sister-in-law Helen. In tow behind her, carrying the sum total of their possessions in a couple of cheap suitcases, are Frank’s niece Annie, 14, and tough guy nephew Angel, 16. Helen’s tired of babysitting her brother’s kids and deposits them with Frank. Their father Angelo is due to be released from the slammer in 6 months and now it’s Frank’s turn. Not waiting for the negative response that will come from Frank, Helen disappears as quickly as she came. Annie, beautiful, psychically wounded and unable or unwilling to communicate relies on her brother Angel for protection; Angel, armed with the bravura of the macho teen has good protective instincts and bad judgment on how to use them – especially when he decides to take on one of the local mobsters attempting to molest his sister. Even at 16 you can become a marked man.
But before Frank can contemplate “fatherhood,” Angelo, his ex-brother-in-law arrives, having been released early from prison. Annie’s terror at the sight of her father and Angel’s undisguised anger and disgust immediately eliminate any relief Frank might have felt; protective instincts he didn’t know he had, kick in as he tries to decide what’s best for the kids.
When two FBI agents arrive at the club, it’s just the cherry on top for Frank. But they don’t want to close him down.
FBI: How about you and your brother sit down with me?
He doesn’t wait for a response. He takes a seat at a bar table. Frank follows, nodding to Joey to do the same. Joey sits.
FBI Guy: Cute name, the Inferno... Dante’s... I get it...
Joey reacts as if it’s curtains.
Joey: Okay, let’s cut the cute shit. You gonna bust us, then bust us!
Frank shoots him a look to shut up.
FBI Guy: Actually I wanted to tell you how helpful the club’s been to us. We’d like to use it for surveillance...
Joey has a confused look on his face. Frank winces. He knows what’s coming.
Joey: You’re not going to bust us?
FBI Guy: Actually, we’ll bust you if you close it.
It’s Christmas for Joey. He can’t believe it.
Joey: Yes!... I love you! No shit, I love you... You want a steak? Have two...
Frank doesn’t feel the same.
Frank: So, we’re supposed to be your rats?
FBI Guy: No. You just have to keep the doors open. That’s all. We’ll do the rest.
Joey: (to Frank) What’s so hard about that?
The FBI Guy’s cell phone rings. He sees who it is, signals to the brothers that he’ll be back, then moves to the bar to take the call.
New angle – Joey and Frank
You can’t wipe the smile off Joey’s face as he looks at his brother and rubs his fingers together, indicating lots of cash ahead. Frank isn’t smiling.
Joey: I’m sorry, Frankie. Now we can’t be broke and destitute like you wanted.
Frank: Now we gotta pay off Ruffing and the Debrasios.
Joey: Who gives a shit? It’s worth it.
Frank studies Joey for a long beat, then looks over at the FBI guy. Something registers. He heats up.
Frank: Did you think I wouldn’t figure it out?
He quickly gets up.
Joey: Frankie, I don’t know what –
Frank: Shut up!.. You tipped off the FBI and made a deal...
Joey is silent for a long beat. Then:
Joey: We need the money, Frankie!...
Frank wants to rip his brother’s head off, but remains frozen in one spot.
Frank: I’m your brother!
Betrayal lays in wait for Frank at every turn and Joey, short sighted and greedy, has turned him into a snitch; and in this mob-controlled town, there is a clear-cut expiration date on the life of a snitch.
No Meaner Place: “Welcome to Youngstown,” sharp, incisive and cynical should have been some network’s follow-up to “The Sopranos.” With elements of the Michael/Fredo conflict from “The Godfather Part II,” police corruption straight out of “Serpico” and family drama with hidden secrets, depth and room for character growth, I just don’t see any major shortcomings (actually, I see very few minor ones). Characters are well developed and LoGiudice has thoroughly created the world in which they live. Frank Dante is the kind of complex, interesting and conflicted character on which shows should be based and rarely are so many different story threads intriguingly jumbled; none resolved but all tantalizingly left to dangle and live a 100 episodes. This is family drama in the most diverse sense – Frank, Angel and Annie; Frank and his co-workers at the restaurant; Frank and Joey; and, of course, “the Family.” Like so many excellent stories, “Welcome to Youngstown” is as fresh today as it was when it was written, as it was when it was first considered.
Life Lessons for Writers: Here today, gone here tomorrow.
Neely: I’m curious about the choice of Youngstown, Ohio as a setting. Any personal history?
Jack: I’m Italian and I grew up in Youngstown. Youngstown, when I was growing up, was the third largest steel producing valley in the United States. It produced a substantial amount of the steel for the ships we used in the Second World War and the Korean War; it was a major manufacturing hub that went the way of the Rust Belt in the late 1970s when all the steel left the country. And once that happened, that was the demise of Youngstown.
Neely: Was your family involved in the steel industry?
Jack: No, my father was in real estate. He was very involved with all the people in the town – selling them their homes. All my uncles worked in the steel mills. When people would come into town, we would take them down to a district called Camel where you could see the blast furnaces at night. The people of Youngstown were very proud of the production that was being made there. At night you could really see how active it was. When those furnaces died, so did the town.
In so many different ways, it was really a fascinating place. As late as 2000, The New Republic magazine called it the crookedest town in America. I’m not sure it’s the case now.
Neely: It doesn’t sound as if there’s much of anything left to be crooked about.
Jack: You’re right. But the town was full of real survivors. We lived in a suburb, so I really can’t say I was part of that; but we were all proud of the town. You did hear a lot of bad things about Youngstown, but there were a damn lot of good things.
Neely: Let’s talk about the unspoken. I grew up in Chicago and was well steeped in its “history.” There was such a magnetic allure. Chicago Heights, a neighboring suburb from where I grew up, was Capone’s South Side den (it’s where Geraldo discovered the empty safe – what an idiot). And I can still see the headlines in the Chicago Daily News when one of the last remaining Capone henchmen, Roger Touhy, was gunned down. But I knew Chicago couldn’t have been the only stronghold, because sometimes Eliot Ness (Robert Stack) and “The Untouchables” went to New York. I grew more savvy when I went to St. Louis for college and discovered that St. Louis was where the mob lived (on the Hill), so it was quite safe under the old adage of “don’t defecate (they used a different word) where you eat.” But Youngstown? I’d never heard of Youngstown until I met my future husband who grew up in Las Vegas – now there was a Company town! He was the one who knew about Youngstown because his former girlfriend with a very Italian last name (actually fiancée, but we won’t go into that now... or ever) had moved to Vegas from Youngstown. Her father worked for the gas company and refused to have anything to do with the gambling industry; but her uncle... now that was a different story. Suffice it to say that he moved up quite rapidly in the casino business. Ironically, of course, when her father died, her mother and slow-witted brother immediately took jobs at a casino and were lucky to escape with their lives when they were caught with their hands in the till. The fiancée? She’s lived happily ever after married to a pit boss. I’m surmising that organized crime for you in Youngstown was similar to organized crime for my husband in Las Vegas. It wasn’t spoken of, it was never in the papers, and he was almost entirely unaware of it (even though his Catholic high school was populated with the scions of casino kingpins and Murder, Inc.).
Jack: Can’t quite claim the same ignorance. There was definitely organized crime in Youngstown, but it just wasn’t talked about. My father, whose father was born in Sicily, spoke four languages and thought Sicily should be regarded as something other than the Mafia. It’s important to note that Youngstown wasn’t just filled with bad Italians. I hope Frank represents that.
Neely: Very long story short, I loved that you chose to intertwine the story of the death of one industry, steel, with the slow death of another, organized crime, in a town that was uniquely suited to tell that story.
Jack: I think that the death of both “industries” was very hard on the town.
Neely: You’re right because organized crime is an industry. Very much like St. Louis, they lived there, therefore they took their work elsewhere.
Jack: That is true. I hung around with a lot of people from Chicago and from New York. We were writers who met later on in life and all had similar stories. It was interesting to me, obviously I wrote this because of the dying town. I looked for a way to incorporate family that was now fragmented.
Neely: You have so many different families in there.
Jack: The story of Family is a big influence on me. I was really influenced by the portrayal of family by writers like Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, and by the darkness of Joseph Conrad. Youngstown was fascinating because so many people had an angle. They lived by having an angle, if you know what I mean. And when you get out of there you think the world is like that. When you leave and you go someplace else, like I went to New York, or when I went to college, people had different kinds of lives and weren’t living by an angle.
Neely: That’s definitely a way into the material. Everyone had an angle. I remember as a little kid visiting my grandparents in France and when I’d meet people and say I was from Chicago, they’d go “Oh! Les gangsters! It was assumed that being from Chicago meant you knew gangsters; and of course, especially by that time, it wasn’t that way at all (if, indeed., it ever had been). That’s just the old Al Capone history which was a very very long time ago. Old habits die hard and Chicago, no longer “Hog butcher for the world,” was still tommy gun to the world.
Jack: Of course. I remember when Mario Puzo was on “The Tonight Show,” they asked him two places he would not go after writing The Godfather. He said Chicago and Youngstown, Ohio. That scared the hell out of me.
Neely: Well, it seems as if there was a transfer from a big city operation to a smaller city operation.
Jack: And boy was it bustling. When I was a little kid I got to meet John Kennedy. I remember standing on the top of a hotel marquis because he was speaking in his campaign for president. The people who owned the hotel knew my father and they invited us up. I got to shake his hand. It was a huge town then. Now there’s so much of it that’s been grown over with weeds. In so many ways it’s sad because it was so vital. I really want the town to have a rebirth. It deserves it.
Neely: Was this script written on spec or commissioned?
Jack: It was a blind pilot for Sony. I did a show for Showtime called “Street Time” about a drug dealer who was out on probation and his relationship with his probation officer. It ran from 2001 to 2003. When I took the job, part of the deal was to do a pilot for them. So in 2005 I wrote the pilot and this was it.
Neely: Who saw this and what was the reaction?
Jack: I think it was too dark for Sony at the time, and I was shocked by the reaction because I was sure that this was something I was going to be able to set up at a network. Sony never got behind it. But every job I got after that was a direct result of “Youngstown.” I got a pilots at HBO and NBC from this; “Sons of Anarchy” from this; and I just finished “The Walking Dead” for AMC.
Neely: I read that pilot and loved it.
Jack: “The Walking Dead” is based on the graphic novel by Robert Kirkman. I think it’s the number one graphic novel in the country now.
Neely: But “Youngstown” is yours again, isn’t it?
Jack: Technically it’s mine.
Neely: No, no. I mean that it should have reverted to you at this point.
Jack: Yes, it reverts, but if something happens with it, Sony would still get something, I’m sure.
Neely: I’m a bit rusty on this (and I’ve always had trouble with Separation of Rights – I’m told I’m not alone), but I think the applicable provision in the WGA Basic Agreement is Article 16. B. 2. a., Separation of Rights, referring to the reversion of material to the writer. My reading is that you would have the right to shop it again and the only (eventual) obligation to Sony would be the repayment of writer fees, and I think only those fees that are over scale, because they never produced it. I’m pretty sure that the WGA BA doesn’t allow them to recoup any of the “funny money” such as overhead.
Jack: I’m not sure how it works. My attorney would be able to tell me. But my agent hasn’t been able to sell it. I’m always thinking that someday it’s going to happen because it’s still fresh. But once “The Sopranos” ended, there was a little bit of a lull on Italians and I knew it would take a couple of years before that passed.
Neely: I think you should investigate this more thoroughly because, ironically, I think Sony does a better job, at least now a-days, of looking at the material that didn’t make it one year and going back and saying “what can we do with it now.”
Neely: What kind of comments and notes did you get?
Jack: It’s funny. I got very few notes on it. Everybody seemed happy. They were happy at the beat sheet; they were happy in the outline. The only thing they wanted was more of Youngstown, so I added a little bit in the front. It was the first time where I didn’t have notes piled on notes that I had to go through. That made me a little bit suspect, thinking they weren’t really behind it. I did have people there at the time who would call me raving about it, but Sony never went through with anything. They loved the characters; they loved the children and him; they loved his relationships. I think they would have liked to have seen more cops, as well as his relationship with the cops down the line.
Neely: It’s about developing and deepening the world. They always want everything right at the beginning. It’s ironic that they’re called development executives.
Jack: I’ve always felt that sometimes you just want things seasoned so that when they do reappear… you had a question about Angelo… well when Angelo eventually reappears, we will now have lived in that town and lived with the memory of him for so long that the color of Angelo coming back might be a little different to us because now we’ve lived with Youngstown. You always want to have Angelo in your pocket for him to walk back in that town sometime. I would have held that for a long period of time.
Neely: Obviously, like all good pilot writers, you had thought not of just the pilot, but of the whole ongoing series.
Jack: In my head I had this for 5 years.
Neely: You did an outstanding job of creating Frank’s open-ended world, but one of the tantalizing threads left dangling is about his former career on the force. What did he do, or rather what went wrong?
Jack: We had talks about that at Sony at the time because we were going to put it in the pilot and then we didn’t because we thought it was better not to. It was their idea not to put it in the pilot and I agreed.
Neely: I completely agree with the decision but I’m asking because I’m curious. What did he do?
Jack: Here’s what happened. It was all over a friendship. He had to look the other way once for somebody he had grown up with. It was a favor to a mother, a woman who had been kind of a mother to him almost as much as his own mother. Her son had done something and Frank looked the other way and was caught doing so. I don’t have any real specifics in mind over what he did but I didn’t want it to be just Frank taking money; I didn’t want him to be all good either. You grow up in that pool of people like I did, and some of your friends go to jail and some of your friends become doctors. Sometimes you grow up with them and they’re almost like your brothers and what do you do? Cops are put in that position all the time, especially in New York; and that’s what happened to Frank. He had to look the other way because there was nothing in him that said “I have to think about the law here.” And that crushed Frank. It will turn out that that guy ended up being a bad guy and would have fucked him over. I’ve seen that happen time and time again where guys get into meth or go into cocaine and their lives turn around and they just become bad. I can think of two guys from Youngstown who are dead from drugs. I really thought they were going to have great careers.
Neely: You just mentioned a little bit about Angelo and it would actually make perfect sense to never see him again – but you clearly had some other plans.
Jack: You always want that in your pocket; you want as much story in your pocket as you can. Or Frank’s father; he’s dead and I’m sorry he’s dead but by the time the first year is over you’ll know a lot more about him. Do you remember in “The Godfather II” when Brando wasn’t there? The scene where they were preparing for the birthday?
Neely: The presents, yes.
Jack: Brando is so loud in that scene even though you never see him. And hopefully, I’ll make Frank’s dead father that loud. There is a restaurant on Market St., no gambling in the back but I remember watching these Italians working there. They’d suffer to try to get business because they were surrounded by Burger Kings but their customers were dead; they grew up, got old and died. Their kids took over and there’s nothing there; it’s a sad situation. It’s like in New York. There’s no real Little Italy now; it’s only about two blocks and they don’t even own that land. The Chinese kind of own all of it. But that’s because the kids grew up and the real estate got very valuable – there was much more money to sell it than to keep it. Now they’re in Staten Island or in Brooklyn.
Neely: I see that you’ve worked on “Sons of Anarchy.” Clearly you are recognized for your ability to create a “home environment” for typically homeless groups. Where do you think that comes from?
Jack: I wonder what you mean by “homeless?” Are you saying that on “Sons of Anarchy” that these people join together because they have no other home?
Neely: That’s part of it. I’m not referring to anything like a suburban environment but they are nomads for the most part.
Jack: Yeah. As it happens what was always interesting to me was my friends who came back from Viet Nam. Their lives changed. Some of them had killed people over there and they could never talk about it unless they were talking to someone else who had been there. Suddenly they belonged to a club or fraternity, a secret fraternity, and they had this pain inside them because they didn’t know where they fit in society. I saw that growing up. Like when the mills closed and you no longer identify with something. Nobody had an identity. It was like “what do I do?” You collect unemployment. You’re lost because your father worked in the mills, his father worked in the mills, and you planned on working in the mills. The mills always stayed with me; watching that, watching people’s lives just disintegrate. Marriages fell apart. And growing up, it always felt to me like the female ego was stronger than the male’s in every regard. The man would fall apart and the woman would try to hold it together.
Neely: Do you mean ego or strength.
Jack: Both. Women had strong confidence, or at least they faked it pretty good; the male confidence just fell apart. I watched it fall apart; men had to have something to belong to. That’s really how motorcycle clubs started. It was after the Second World War, especially after Viet Nam. A lot of those motorcycle clubs came out of Viet Nam. Kurt Sutter, the creator, and John Linson, the producer, did a really good job of studying that culture.
Before that, there was “Street Time” about a guy out of prison who had been a major dealer. He comes out of prison and he’s no longer big time on the street anymore. He has no identity. People say they want to mold him into society but he used to be able to walk down the street and give children money. He was delusional in the sense that he thought he was all good. For these guys, this was their life and they don’t know who they are anymore. They’re supposed to get a job and get along with society and nothing makes very much sense. To them a motorcycle club makes perfect sense. It’s like being in the army makes perfect sense to some people. At least there’s a regimen, something that is consistent in their life. Kids that I knew whose parents broke up, they really didn’t have “familia.” I had a sister and brother and something like 15-20 cousins and at least I knew where I could go to kind of feel at home once my father died.
Neely: How old were you when your father died?
Jack: 21. He was a major influence on me. With him I felt that the world was my oyster, there were endless possibilities. That stayed with me – he had this kind of Zorba magic about him. He was also a great storyteller and I’m sure that that’s part of everything for me – wanting to be like him.
Neely: There’s so much more to talk about that I want to roll the rest of this conversation to a Part II. We’ll continue with more of personal story next week.