'Fear City' director on 'utterly charming' mobsters, exploring New York's mob takedown
If you were a member of New York's Mafia crews, the 1970s and '80s were heady times. And if you were an imaginative kid growing up across the pond during that time, the Big Apple might have seemed like a gangster's paradise.
In Netflix's "Fear City: New York vs the Mafia," a true crime docuseries that premieres Wednesday, director Sam Hobkinson focuses on the FBI's investigation of the mob's Five Families -- Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese and Lucchese -- culminating in the Mafia Commission Trial in 1985.
Even the gangsters look back with fondness.
The "utterly charming" mobsters Hobkinson interviewed "were as proud of what they achieved during this period as the FBI agents and prosecutors ... because they stuck it to the government," the director told the Daily News this month on a call from Belgium.
"And they'll tell you that. They stuck it to the government for two decades, almost, and they were masters of their own domain, and they ran things in the way they thought they should run them," he explained. "So even though they are, to some extent now, reformed characters, they look upon that period with a lot of fondness."
The docuseries, from production company RAW, is an example of Hobkinson "taking a small story to tell a big story about the city at the most dramatic point in its history."
The prolific director, whose films include 2018's "The Kleptocrats" and 2014's "The Hunt for the Boston Bombers," felt that focusing on the probe and trial was another way to get under the skin of New York.
He was drawn to the period's grittiness in large part because he'd been so removed from it.
"I grew up in Britain in the '70s and '80s, and you know, New York was like a mythical place," said Hobkinson. "And because it was so far away, it was dangerous, and it had this dirty glamour and exoticism that in our minds, as kids growing up in Britain, it was the place from movies."
And though mob stories are a dime a dozen, on screens big or small, Hobkinson's series stands out because it's less about the Mafia than those trying to dismantle it.
"In a way we take the other side. ... And that attracted me as well," he said. "I think it's fair to say that most mob stories, certainly movies, are very much told from the point of view of the mobsters."
A lover of Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation," Hobkinson found the bugging element of the FBI's work on the case "hugely attractive."
He added that the 1974 thriller significantly impacted his interest in the project and influenced how he told the story, which was largely dependent on archival material and who could be secured for interviews.
Though he may not have interviewed any mafia boss for the series, it wasn't for lack of trying.
"There comes I think a sort of, a point in your mob career, where you decide you either speak to people or you don't," he explained. "A lot of the mobsters that are available are available in a way because they have turned state's witness, so they have an element of protection ... or they've done time and they're out."
He reached out to Colombo don Carmine Persico in jail amid filming, before "The Snake" died in March 2019.
"I don't know if he received our letter before he died. But I'm pretty sure I know what his answer would have been," Hobkinson laughed.
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