Interview: Filmmaker John Martoccia talks ‘Death of a Tree’ and Religion

Religion can be a rather touchy subject and when that subject is touched upon on film, it can raise some questions. Fortunately the new independent film Death of a Tree is handled in a way that is tasteful, direct and at times, rather artfully. Filmmaker John Martoccia is an artist in every sense of the word. Not only does he write and direct films but he dabbles in abstract artist through paint and gasoline, yes gasoline. He is also a gifted poet. All of these artistic mediums are touched upon in his latest film and he was even kind enough to speak with me. Here’s how that interview went:

So John, the film. Really, really good. Good job on this.

Thank you.

How did this project originally come about?

I’m a right-to-life activist and a practicing Catholic. I go to daily mass, and I was just integrating my life experiences with obviously fictional characters. I based it on personal experiences and fictionalized personal experiences and created this film. I know the character because the character in many respects is a lot like me.

Right, so let me ask, what is it about religion that moves you so?

I believe in my heart it’s not something that I’ve intellectualized. Something in my heart says my conversion that leads me to understand that I’m the way, the truth, and the life. So I believe in the gospel message of Jesus Christ, and it’s difficult as it is, I try to live that message. It’s a toxic world, and it’s not always easy to live as the Lord wants me to live. That’s for sure.

And it’s evident in the film. So John, you’re an accomplished artist. Out of all your mediums, film, painting, sculpture, do you have a favorite medium of art?

I think I’m a painter first and foremost, and it’s like, also poet, but the painting and like, I think filmmaking and painting, it takes a while to get to a mature level. I think that as a filmmaker, I’ll continue to grow. You know, my art has matured, my painting, and I hope my filmmaking can mature as well to a level that I’m like, wow. I sort of achieved that with Death of a Tree, in many respects. The character comes across as a didactic, preachy type of fellow, but I deal with characters like that. I know people like that. It takes many people who are not rooted in Christian faith, this character that’s very tough for them to identify with, but I do think that if people look and think objectively, why do they have to identify with that character to understand the film. I could not identify with the mobster culture, but I can appreciate and relate to a film about the mobster culture, like wow, that’s different. That’s pretty cool, and I think unfortunately, a lot of critics don’t get it. They don’t understand to look at things objectively, even though they may not agree with this perspective, they say, well, this is a culture. Let me look at it and learn from that.

So what do you hope audiences take away from this film?

I just want to provoke thought. I want them to look at issues. You know, our secularized culture, in many ways, this film is in opposition to the secularized culture. Sex is used in many respects as recreational. Right-to-life is something that they don’t buy in. They believe in choice. So in many respects, it’s contrary to the prevailing norm in our culture, so I just want people to say, you know what, let me look at this film and maybe give me a deeper understanding of what it’s trying to say. You know, that sex is sacred, that life is sacred. They have free will, that’s their decision. All I’m trying to do is provoke some thought. Through God’s grace and prayer and people have a, you know, a respect for life.

Did you reach out to churches or community centers regarding like screenings of the film?

No, no, I was thinking it might be a good idea, but I have yet to. You know, I have limited time, limited money, limited budget, you know, everything is, but things are a little difficult for me, so everything takes time, and time is money in many respects. And I just don’t have the time. I can’t hire someone to do it. It’s a full-time job to do it well and do it right. It’s a great idea. Perhaps I will try that on a limited basis. I wish I could afford someone to just do that for me, to solicit churches and different organizations to watch the film.

I mean, personally, I have some publicity experience, so if you need help in that arena, I’d be more than happy to.

That’s good to hear. We need a lot of help, trust me.

No, it’s a really strong film, and I think people should see it.

I appreciate that.

Really, really good. I just spoke with Ronnie, and I praised his performance. I thought he was the strongest thing about the movie, him and Gracie. They did a great job. They were terrific, the chemistry was perfect, and it’s a sweet film, you know. It doesn’t have a sweet conclusion, but it’s thought-provoking.

Thank you.

It was done really, really well.

You know, one thing I’ve noticed is that the actor, Ronnie, there’s not a person who watched that movie who didn’t say he did a great job. A lot of the critics shy away from that because if he did a great job, the character is believable and the film must be good. So it’s sad they didn’t look, I mean, they couldn’t validate the acting because if they do, then it sort of validates the film. It’s good acting if the actor is believable. So that says something, and people say the acting is wow and they’re believable, so the film is striking a chord of reality to them.

I’d say Ronnie’s performance was the best thing about the movie.

Yeah, that’s subjective. I can’t dispute that.

My opinion, I’m sorry.

No, no, no, no, it’s subjective. Like I said, I can’t dispute it because you may be right. It’s subjective. I think that if he can’t carry that role, then you don’t have a movie. So in many respects, it has to be the best thing about the movie.

I’m curious, how close to reality was the role of James?

Pretty close. I mean, obviously without getting specific, he’s a fictional character. But it’s pretty close to reality for that character, you know, I know many chaste Catholics. I know Catholics from being in a Catholic life, and this is often an issue they struggle with. You don’t want to repress it, but you also don’t want to understand it. Pope Paul John, the last pope prior, Pope John Paul II addressing the theology of the body. Repression can lead to something that’s not good, and in many respects, somewhat repressed in the character of James. But it’s a struggle, it’s a struggle for Catholics trying to lead celibate lives. It’s like the people who really are overwhelmed by this film are, that can identify with it the most are Catholic monks who struggle with this issue. I like the fallen nature of the character too, simply because it’s reality. You know, people do fall, and the greatest, I don’t want to just keep blabbering on, but –

No, no, that’s fine.

Because everything I say leads to another thought. During the screening, a priest said, made a comment, and the comment was this. He said, “James, we live in a culture where characters like James and me are not represented. James truly knows how to love.” And it sort of took a few people like, “Really?” Because he cares about his soul, he cares about Erica’s soul. He wants to do what’s right in God’s eyes. Even though he made some poor judgements on his part, he’s still trying to follow God’s will regarding this relationship.

Right.

He truly had a deep love for Erica, a deep love simply because he wanted to do what was best for Erica as well as him.

Right, okay.

His judgement was off.

I’m curious, where exactly does the title Death of a Tree mean?

It’s an allegorical title. I mean, it’s subject to interpretation. To me, it symbolizes, you know, why did this have to happen? I’ll be, on a very superficial level relatively speaking, I’ll be walking around my hometown, and I’ll see, for no apparent reason, an extraordinary tree, twenty years old, and people just cut down.

Right.

Why? That’s pretty sad. It sucks. Why would they do that? You know, and you don’t have to rake leaves to get greener grass, it’s just so bizarre, so on a more profound level, why did this tragedy have to happen? So it’s mostly metaphorical and in a sense allegorical but also metaphorical. Why, just why? What’s the purpose?

Right.

And that’s what, for us, to delve into. It’s a mystery, perhaps. It’s obviously a mystery.

Yeah, also the poetry was very emotional. How did you come up with such moving words?

Poetry was just how I felt in the moment during that scene. So it’s just, it’s my emotions, my feelings during that moment in the movie. The only way I could express it is through the poetry. Effectively, anyway. Any other way, I don’t know how.

Was the artwork in the film, the gasoline paintings, was that all you?

Yeah, the paintings you do see in the film are my paintings because I’m a painter. As of late, I haven’t been painting, but I do have a collection of them, a body of work. It’s sort of like, as a practicing Catholic, I don’t want to say bizarre, it’s sort of a different mix because I’m an abstract expressionist painter, and you know, I’m sort of artistically directed in my life. A lot of Catholics that I deal with, you know, they’re great people, but there’s a more conventional approach to their life. It’s sort of like, sometimes it’s difficult for me to identify with the art community because they’re very left, very liberal and also sometimes difficult for me to identify with devout Catholics. Sometimes it can be very, not, like very conventional, very conservative in their taste.

Tell me, what was the casting process like? What did you look for in your actors?

Took me forever to find Ronnie. I was really particular about that. I mean, I went to New York, I hired a photographer and I auditioned and auditioned. People come to Utica, I had some interest from some pretty big-name actors, and one guy, Richard Grieco was interested in it, but for whatever reason, it didn’t materialize. But when I’d seen Ronnie, via Skype, I knew immediately. He goes, “You want me to come out there?” And I was like, “No, I don’t think you have to. I know that you’re the guy.” He was the only one that never really went for an audition. There was no audition for him other than the Skype, and I knew immediately, I mean, I just knew. I just had a feeling. It’s like people say this character, he’s just like you, John. And I said, well, this is a fictional film, number one, but number two, he’s got your walk down, and people like conflate his character with me.

Yeah, I was very curious. It did seem like a lot of the film mirrored your own life.

It does, in many respects, yeah.

So let me ask you, are there any actors or other filmmakers you want to collaborate with in the future?

You know, at the juncture, it’s, perhaps Ronnie again. The problem is, you know, just making a film takes a lot out of you. I’m not a rich man, so I finance my own films. It’s just, it’s difficult. You know, I have a, hopefully we’ll shoot another film in another year through God’s grace. I’ve got an outline of a script.

Is that Awakening?

Awakening? It’s funny, because yeah. Did I ever mention Awakening?

I read on the official website in your bio about a film titled Awakening, it came up.

Isn’t that funny, because I was just thinking of that title today. I wasn’t aware that I had put out anything about that.

Yeah, it was on the official website.

That the third film would be called Awakening?

Yeah.

That’s probably going to be the name, yeah.

Can you tell me a little bit about the premise?

Well, I just did a rough draft. It’s related to Death of a Tree. Just leave it at that for now. It’s direct, it’s derivative. In fact, it’s an integration between my first and second films, Vito Bonafacci and Death of a Tree. And the third film is derivative, a huge derivative of Death of a Tree.

So would you call this a trilogy or…?

No, I just would want the three films to be seen as one, in a sense. So I guess you could call that a trilogy, but in a pure sense it’s not a trilogy, but the three films are definitely related. I think they show an evolutionary process of myself as a filmmaker, they will, God willing if I do the third film. I think my second film in many respects is better than my first, in many respects. There are some aspects of Vito that were pretty profound, but I think my spiritual, I’m gonna probably be much more, I feel that I want to be much more lush, didactic. I want to be, I want the character to, through the acting and the study of the character, to get the message across. Not a lot of script as far as character communication. There will be characters, but the communication will be more non-verbal.

That sounds very interesting.

Between the lead actor and the other actors, yes. I mean, that’s actually, as an artist, I really, for some reason, this character had to be, he’s sort of a preachy guy. I’m sort of a preachy guy. That’s not always the best method to go. I probably learned that since I made that film. Preachy is good, but there is a limit too.

Okay, nothing wrong with that. So the music in The Death of a Tree, very haunting score. Very emotional. Composed by Emmett Van Slyke?

Right.

How did you come across this gentleman?

A friend of mine that I knew. She had some work done by him, so she recommended him, and he worked with Ray Chung, who was the editor of the film, and Ray Chung is sort of one of these all-in-all type movie guys. He sort of coordinated it, in a sense, like the musical director. Coordinate the song with the creativity, but he did a great job. And I think with the coordination of Ray Chung, it just, the timing was, I think superb.

Speaking to the editing, the editing in the film was amazing. Was that an arduous process? What was that like?

Well, I had my ideas, but Ray Chung is truly a professional, and unlike Vito, I gave him more free reign, let’s see what you can do Ray. And I was pretty much pleased throughout. I mean, there’s obviously adjustments, a little here, a little there, but it’s sort of like the approach, you know, I’m going to a mechanic, he’s going to fix my car. I’m gonna let him fix it. You know, if there’s a problem, I’m gonna let him know. The next approach I took with Ray, I let him, I gave him free reign and just adjustments here and there, but he did a great job. This is truly a professional, he’s a pro. I’ve got a lot of respect for him. He is very good at what he does.

That’s great. So John, are there any particular film genres you want to tackle in the future?

I don’t know, there’s definitely a neo-realistic quality I think in the first two films. Are they truly neo-realistic? I would say no, but definitely, there’s a neo-realistic quality, especially in my third film like I think there is with Death of a Tree in a lush sort of way and Vito Bonafacci, my first film, but I do want to make the film, you know, personally, I would make the film just for me. I would, like, The Death of a Tree is a suicide, but I know there’s other viewers that are watching the film and have to, oh god, I need something uplifting. Because I have a responsibility, I don’t know what it is going to do emotionally if I don’t do that.

What were some challenges you faced on set?

You deal with a lot of personalities, and you had, you know, maintain the vision. I had the vision, so to maintain the vision, you know, it took quite a bit of energy on my part, to be honest with you. There’s personalities, there’s tensions, they are overworked, but just to, you know, maintain your ground. Obviously, it’s a collaboration, but that collaboration can’t take it off my track, off my vision, off my path. The film is the way it is because I just had to keep order in a sense amidst sometimes tension on-set with the crew, you know, but I think everybody essentially works as a collaborative process. Ronnie is great, he did some great input into this collaborative process. The director of photography, Johnny Sousa, he put some great ideas into it with this collaborative process.

So what was it like when the cameras weren’t rolling? Did you guys hang out off-set?

Yeah, it was pretty cool, you know, during lunch and dinner. We were pretty much shooting so many hours a day, we were just hanging out like at breaks, essentially. After we were done shooting, everyone else pretty much crashed. The crew would go out some nights, but I just essentially crashed. During the breaks, you know, during the course of the shooting, obviously we did hang out.

The film was shot in New York?

It was shot right in Utica, New York.

Okay.

All in Utica.

The setting was almost like a character itself, you know? It was great. I’m curious, were any other titles ever considered, or was it always Death of a Tree?

I just came up with Death of a Tree, and it was never any other consideration of another title, to be honest with you.

Final question, are there any artists who have influenced your own work?

That’s interesting. I’ve watched a number of films in the symposium years ago, and I used to be quite into film years ago when I was younger. Now, I actually don’t watch TV at all. I watch films occasionally. I know there’s films that could have impacted me, but at this juncture, I couldn’t really specifically say the film or director. One film I can mention of films that I’ve seen recently, one that is probably the most extraordinary, the most recent one, it’s probably a little dated by now, was The Wrestler.

Oh, with Mickey Rourke?

Yeah, that film was, to be honest, like wow. It was sort of hard-core in many respects, but I just love what they did with that character.

Do you see yourself making a movie like that?

No, simply because, well, maybe. You’d have to have a lot of money. I’m just sort of a, I just make very simple, small, independent films. I can’t, you know, through God’s grace in the future, if I was called to that, because I could never see myself being like a real Hollywood director. Huge, mega-budget sensational film. But that film would be probably, as far as the top, as far as independent projects, that would be a dream to have that type of money to do that type of film. I wouldn’t want to do anything beyond that because that had a very independent feel to it.

Yeah, it did, actually.

And him working in the deli department was just, that was unbelievable.

Well, it was a great film, and you’re a great filmmaker.

Well, thank you. Really appreciate that.

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