It is quite apt, really, that director Nick Stagliano brought Oscar winner Sir Anthony Hopkins on board his latest movie, given its title. As it happens, Hopkins does not play the titular role in The Virtuoso (2021); Anson Mount assumes that character, in a measured and moody set-jaw performance.
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Nevertheless, there’s a fitting connotation: the coveted Academy Award for Best Actor was claimed by the Welsh actor just days ahead of this movie’s release date, with his role in The Father (2020). Technically one could say that Tony (as he is known to friends) accepted the statuette in his sleep, in fact, given the COVID restrictions.
Indeed, Hopkins plays something of a father figure in The Virtuoso (2021) – quite literally a supporting role as “Mentor” to Mount’s “Virtuoso”.
The film is bolstered further by key appearances from Australian actress Abbie Cornish (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing , Missouri (2017)) and David Morse (The Green Mile (1999)) who give convincing performances.
In the following interview indie filmmaker Stagliano talks to us about a love of classic movies and Hitchcock, his seemingly predestined path to film school, and making this modern day film noir with one of the best British actors of all time.
As you will shortly read, Nick is very generous with his time, with insights from life on a film set, how he and his filmmaking team brought the script to screen, and advice for budding filmmakers looking to make it in a competitive film industry.
THE VIRTUOSO is now available in select US theaters and everywhere you rent movies on Blu-ray and DVD!
FF: Could you tell us a little bit about your filmmaking journey and what led to your current project? For example, did you attend film school?
NS: Hi Richard and thanks for the interview, I appreciate it. I like your website and wish you and the team continued success!
A father figure and…British film and TV as early influences
So, my father was a big fan of the movies! From my earliest memories I remember watching movies on television when there were only 6 channels in the suburban Philadelphia region I called home. Not sure why exactly, but he was especially fond of British film and television shows, and I clearly remember watching the original Doctor Who (2005– ), The Benny Hill Show (1969 – 1989) and Fawlty Towers (1975–1979) on the tv side and the films in the Carry On series, classics from Rank Film and the Ealing Studio comedies.
He would let me stay up late on Oscars night until midnight to see the Best Picture winner and I would rush to school the next day to share with my classmates, though they had no idea what I was talking about…
A love of classic movies and a new direction
So flashforward to college (Villanova University) and I am an English major with a minor in communications (hoping to be the next F. Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway). One class I take is called Super 8 cinematography (dating myself here), and the teacher shows old movies on 16mm prints which I know, from the days when my father and I would have watched them on TV years earlier. My professor is impressed with my knowledge of the old classics and especially my knowledge of the cast and even supporting actors and suggests that I might consider pursuing film as a career.
When I let him know that it is probably too late since I am about to graduate and not sure if I can sell that idea to my parents, he advises that he is speaking about graduate film schools and he himself was a cinema studies graduate of NYU. I thank him and tell him I will consider it and then, after graduation, head off to do my youthful cross country trek across America with 3 friends in the hopes of finding adventure and purpose…
Making it to film school
We sneak on the campus of UCLA when we finally make it to Los Angeles, and sure that we will be found out as trespassers, while sitting out in front of their main library and quad hang out, I pick up a college magazine, open it up and see an article titled “So, you want to go to Film School?”. Taking that as a sure sign of fate, the article mentions the 3 best graduate programs in the US – UCLA, USC and, in the East, NYU.
Making it back home months later, I show that magazine to my parents and convince them that it is now pre-destined for me to pursue this! And, luckily, first my father, and then my mother, agree.
I ultimately got accepted to NYU Grad Film based on my writing samples and that was the start of my career in the motion picture business.
The Virtuoso (2021): a modern day film noir
FF: What is The Virtuoso (2021) about and how did you become involved as the director and producer?
NS: The Virtuoso (2021) is a modern day film noir filled with intricacy and ambiguity; a visceral thrill ride with something to say. It contains everything I love in a movie. There is cinematic style to burn: bold visuals, muted colors, strong performances, dynamic compositions and Hitchcockian suspense mixed with Peckinpah violence. But it’s also filled with compelling and unconventional characters. A clever and gripping story told in an unorthodox manner. And a riveting plot filled with moral dilemmas and heartbreaking realities.
I was looking at my previous film Good Day For It (2011), which was similar in tone but with one specific twist – that film was a “ticking clock” thriller in that our hero, long thought to be a “bad man”, was in reality a good man who did some bad things when he was younger.
Coming to a small diner to meet the daughter he left behind, we realise that he is actually a good man, and the circumstances of the plot, with a twist of fate, force him to confront the bad men that he ran away from all those years ago. I personally love those ticking clock pressure cookers – when we all know that the timing is against our hero and something must happen before that specific time runs out.
The impact of guilt on character
With The Virtuoso (2021), I thought: ‘What if our hero was actually a bad man, who makes a mistake, and starts to become “good”’?
Fascinated by the impact of guilt, I wanted to create a slightly different version of Good Day For It (2011) here, so that a likeable, handsome hero, who is actually a “bad guy”, can be affected when guilt/conscience/compassion/emotion start to infect his being.
With that, I contacted my friend and writer James C. Wolf, who I had worked with on Good Day For It (2011), told him the story of The Virtuoso (2021), and sent notes for him to work into a first draft. Once that was finished, I started to take it out as the producer but always had it in my mind as a project for me to direct, since it had originated from me and was related to my previous film.
The Virtuoso (2021) observes the interaction of three symbolic leads – “the Virtuoso”, “the Waitress” and “the Mentor” – who respectively represent the tragic hero, the femme fatale and the deus ex machina of classic drama.
The strong, silent type
“The Virtuoso” is the strong, silent cowboy, a lost soul who finds his calling ultimately through what he does best – killing people, seeking to interpret the ambiguities of the world he encounters.
“The Waitress” is a good woman, just trying to get by in her rather bland existence, searching for her ticket to a better life – or is she? And “the Mentor” is that ever-lurking power who lords over the world around him, making life and death decisions with the blink of an eye.
I would like audiences, of course, to be entertained by the film, and to be taken on a ride for which they do not know the ending, for as long as possible. While the style of the film as we have discussed is film noir, filled with themes of death, and despair, and decay and the blue tint of coldness, the overall and underlying theme is universal – a love story, which just happens to be about bad people, doing very bad things!
But what I hope will really make us think afterwards is this: the impact of guilt infects your soul and continues to grow inside, and must be dealt with before it can destroy you.
FF: How, as a director, did you approach creating the atmosphere you managed to achieve in the film? Can you give us an idea of the methods/strategies/techniques you employed?
NS: Once the script was polished by me and ready to shoot, I began to think of the core creative team that would help me create that vision on screen.
Harnessing the vision: DP Frank Prinzi & DP Norm Dodge
I knew just from the general subject matter and noir genre that the overall “look” would be cold, dark and full of shadow. Director of Photography Frank Prinzi and Production Designer Norm Dodge, both of whom I’ve known for 25 years, were clear on the final “look” of the film before we started, and even though budget limits had us compromising in some areas, the look and feel of this noir piece is spot on to what I had envisioned. Couple that with the great ensemble cast and their overall look and performances; it all combines to create the final vision.
With Frank, his first comment after reading the script was that the main character “The Virtuoso” was haunted. So conflicted and lonely that he wanted to portray that on screen.
The blue tint of death
So you may notice that most of his scenes – either alone or with his “Mentor” (also a creature of death) – are filled with the blue tint of death, coldness (both physical and emotional) and despair. We shot the movie in widescreen to make sure that we used all of the frame and to separate him from others; oftentimes even the props and art direction, within the frame. Only later in the film, when he meets “The Waitress” do we start to introduce the warmer colors and bring the characters and sets closer within the frame.
With Norm, he agreed with Frank on that style and created a world of set design and propping that is really pretty cold and stark, both for “The Mentor” and “The Virtuoso”. Sterile and military, like in their separate solo existences.
Working with Academy Award winner Sir Anthony Hopkins
FF: What was Sir Anthony Hopkins like to work with, how did he come to be involved, and were you a little apprehensive about working with a screen legend or did you already know him?
NS: Sir Anthony Hopkins… yes, well, I’m happy to say I can now call him “Tony”.
Really nothing surprising here, in that it was one of the great experiences of my life to meet him and then direct him in this film. I thought that the role of “the Mentor” needed and deserved an actor of his level (the highest), as that was what always elevated this film above a simple action film.
I wrote the scene in the cemetery (which was not in the original script) where the Mentor has a 7 page soliloquy, and I was thinking of who could pull this off and there were very few people on that list. When Anson’s agency, UTA, came to us with a short list of men they represented, Tony was on it, and though I never really thought I would get him, I also thought I HAD to take that chance.
But thankfully, the script read well to him, and that cemetery scene especially touched him as he had similar feelings of the impact of guilt and redemption on the human character.
So, on set, in person and on screen, working with Anthony Hopkins was the greatest experience. He was very warm and very giving to the crew and fellow cast, not pretentious at all, and very much the “Tony” that he introduces himself as when he meets you.
FF: Without giving away any spoilers, the second half of the movie felt somewhat Hitchcockian (as you’ve alluded to). Is the infamous director an influence on your work?
NS: Yes, and thanks! Not so much in the overall noir style of the film and its initial conception, but most definitely in the later stage, the suspense elements of the plot. Also, Hitchcock was the master of the smallest detail and the MacGuffin, which I clearly used here in the note with “White Rivers”.
Films, filmmakers and actors of classic cinema
FF: Who else has inspired and informed your filmmaking career – whether contemporaries or filmmakers of the past?
NS: Having come up with the general storyline and plot for The Virtuoso (2021), I have always wanted to create modern day noir and my love for that genre goes back since my early years when I used to watch them all with my father – The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Third Man (1949), This Gun For Hire (1942) – just to name a few.
All of the great actors that worked in that world – Bogart, Ladd, Garfield, and the supporting casts – Greenstreet, Lorre, Ward Bond, Edmund O’Brien and the femme fatales – Veronica Lake, Barbara Stanwyck, Audrey Totter, Ava Gardner… I felt that this storyline was in keeping with the rules and demands of noir, and I found the perfect balance between the modern feel of today’s faster paced films, with the must-have elements of the classic genre – lighting, shadows, music etc.
On deeper thought, what makes the film so thrilling is the subtlety, the precision and the mystery of the plot and how “the Virtuoso” guides us through what we first believe is just another job, in his case – a murder, to ultimately – a mystery thriller with plot twists that will have the audience on the edge of their seats until the stunning surprise climax.
Francis Ford Coppola: mentor and inspiration
Having been inspired in my directing career by the early masters of cinema like Michael Curtiz, John Ford, William Wyler, King Vidor, Billy Wilder, Orson Welles, David Lean and my mentor Francis Ford Coppola – my main focus on set is very simply the directing of actors. Two of my previous films were adapted from the theater and a third was written specifically so the actors would be the focus of the drama.
My main inspiration who constantly drives my work, however, is Frank Capra. I approach all of my films with this essential theme which Mr. Capra expressed many years ago: “forget techniques, forget zoom lenses and subliminal cutting; remember only that you are telling your story NOT with gimmicks, but with actors…”
On a more modern note, I was inspired, on this film, by movies like the Coen Brothers Blood Simple (1984) and No Country for Old Men (2007), The Usual Suspects (1995) and more recently Memento (2000) and Drive (2011).
Anson Mount: providing depth of character as a lead actor
FF: I found myself mesmerised by the restrained performance from Anson Mount, as well as his voiceover performance which was very effective. How did he come to be involved? Did you think about actors who have distinctive masculine voices and go from there?
NS: We met many years ago on a different project of mine that will finally go in 2022. I was impressed by his talent, intelligence and his overall demeanour. A theater-trained, classic actor who happens to have leading man good looks.
His depth of character and work ethic are second to none, and his on set behaviour was inspirational to myself and many on the set. A real team player who was always prepared and focused, but willing to listen to my direction and adjust whenever necessary – though, that was very rare; from our very first meeting on this film, he got the character exactly as I saw him, so working with Anson was a great pleasure.
Casting an anti-hero: a tough ask
When we originally sent the script out for casting, I knew that part would be difficult since he really is an “anti-hero” and considering the ending, might be tough to get a conventional movie star to play the role. I thought Anson had that perfect mix of talent, enough recognition (he was then starring in his television series Hell on Wheels (2011 – 2016) and, again, the leading man looks to pull it off.
Happily he responded immediately to the material and I flew off to Calgary with my executive producer Fred Fuchs to meet him. After a weekend of going over the script one page at a time, we agreed to move forward together.
Regarding the VO, I knew I wanted that in the film from the very beginning as a necessary element of the classic noir genre, and James Wolf did a great job of creating that in the 2nd position. Anson also hosts his own podcast so I knew he had the voice for it.
What is a day on a film set really like?
FF: Can you talk us through a typical day on set from a director’s perspective?
NS: I have made only small independent films in the past, so going into this one, l thought that our 25 day shooting schedule would be very reasonable.
I chose to set the film primarily in winter, in the mountains to give it that cold, blue look of classic noir and the general tone of death and despair. The location chosen was the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, and while it elicited what I wanted for the setting, it didn’t make the task any easier. While the look was perfect for the film, the weather was exactly that – cold and gloomy and full of despair.
Shooting low-budget in the winter in the mountains does add some very realistic challenges to your schedule, and it would have been nice to have had at least a few days more to deal with the snow, cold, equipment and human needs.
In addition to the harsh physical conditions, I had to start the film with one of the most dramatic and demanding scenes due to the limited availability of Sir Anthony Hopkins.
Making the most of having Anthony Hopkins on set
The same cemetery scene that had attracted him to the project two years earlier would be the very first to go before the cameras. To start with, that scene put immense pressure on me. How to cover that many pages with so much dialogue in the middle of a cemetery and make it exciting, visually captivating, as well as help the actors get all those words out in one day. It was challenging and frightening, and yet, finally so rewarding when Anthony Hopkins delivers some of the most moving lines and sentiments of the film.
So, as the director, I would show up on set, immediately hit the coffee line, then meet with my Assistant Director to go over the shot list and shooting schedule for the day. Once that got put into motion, I would meet with my DP and review the current scene and more intensely review the shots and any specific details that I absolutely had to see in either a specific shot or the entire scene.
Then, over to costume design to double-check how that was going and if there were any new issues or “looks” that I needed to see and approve or not. And then finally, when all of the mechanics of the day’s shoot were in motion, I would reach out to the cast and just talk to them about what we were shooting that day, answer any questions or discuss any specific moments that were essential and then go back to the set and get ready to call action.
Advice for aspiring filmmakers
FF: Finally, what 3 pieces of advice would you give to a budding filmmaker – perhaps things you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
NS: I always give this little speech to any seminars, or classes that I have been asked to speak at, and sometimes it comes off the wrong way I suppose – having come from NYU Graduate Film School and gone through the educational classes there, sometimes directors feel they have to let everyone know that they know everything… I have faith in my team of professionals that they will do their job well and my main focus on set as a professional director is to make sure the actor knows what he/she needs to know to deliver what I need them to deliver.
I believe Tony refers to this in his EPK, as to what we both discussed is our love for the “good old days” of film – show up on time, know what you want to see in the scenes, be prepared with your shot list, and make sure the actors are on the same page. When that happens, your on set directing is very sparse – ready, set, action, cut! Was it good for everyone? Anyone need another? If the answers are yes and no, then move on.
Secondly, you should be physically prepared for the task at hand. I was always a good athlete in school and continue to maintain a pretty good exercise regime even today. But directing a feature film, especially the low budget truly independent ones that I prefer and I think your audience will connect to more, are extremely demanding both physically and emotionally.
Nick Stagliano’s final thoughts: filmmaking is like running a marathon
It’s like running a marathon with a few one mile sprints in the middle. So, long before production begins, I would recommend you start training like a prize fighter about to get a shot at the title. That’s how tough it is.
Thirdly, know the script and all of its key elements as much as possible before you start shooting. That kind of goes along with #1 and #2 – but, once you start production, and everyone is asking you a question, and 50 or more crew are standing around waiting for something to do, you need to know what that “something” is…
The pressure is great on set and, as the hours get longer, and the coffee colder, and the craft service table gets emptier, you need to keep going, with strength and conviction – because if you don’t exude that to the cast and crew, they will know.
So, take a minute, maybe go off either to your trailer, or a private room, or behind a tree, somewhere and regain focus. Know what you need to accomplish that day so you can go back on set and get it.
Editor & Artwork: Richard Williams
Images: Courtesy of Lionsgate / Katrina Wan PR and as credited.