Brixton-born City trader Robert Fucilla had succeeded in everything he had put his hand to, from selling oil to backing British hip-hop acts, and believed his Italian ancestry gave him a shot at being a British Al Pacino. Of course, millions dream of breaking into the movies, but what underpinned Fucilla’s ambition, friends and workmates agree, what made him stand out from every other fantasist and wannabe, was self-belief and a monumental ego.
Too impatient to train as an actor, and having briefly tried the traditional route of castings and pumping connections, Fucilla decided to buy his way in. At first, this approach proved remarkably successful. Somehow, the novice film-maker secured more than £1m from investors, assembled a solid, homegrown cast that included Phil Davis, Paul Kaye and Steven Berkoff, and in Michael Madsen – the psychopathic Mr Blonde in Reservoir Dogs – he even had a bona fide Hollywood name. Having slated himself as executive producer, found his story (a young thug’s brutal coming of age) and recruited a reputable ad director to shoot it, all that remained was for Fucilla to cast himself. What better way to be spotted than in a tightly managed, low-budget Brit movie supported by an ensemble of proven talent?
The story of Fucilla’s unlikely foray into the film business begins in 1998, with a young man making a radical decision. Bored with his architecture degree at the University of East London, 21-year-old Fucilla jacked it in and got on a plane to LA. “I just woke up one morning and wanted to be something else,” he says. “What was I waiting for?” Blagging a sofa in a friend’s apartment, he hired an agent and sent headshots of himself to casting agencies while paying his way by waiting tables. After two years, in which the closest he came to a co-starring role was serving breakfast to Robert De Niro (“I got as far as joking that we had the same first name”), Fucilla retreated from LA, determined to find another entrée.
Back in London, he scored a job as a runner for Nic Auerbach, a seasoned commercials director. Auerbach, too, had always wanted to get into movies, and on any given night could be seen around Soho in his Bentley or Range Rover with the personalised plates MOVIES and FILMS. In Fucilla, he saw a younger version of himself. “Rob was a young, brash, brazen guy who had that balance of cockiness and chutzpah. We both had towering egos.” They were both also sensitive to ageing in an industry that prizes youthfulness – Auerbach had been telling people he was 30 for so many years that they referred to it as his “screen age”. For a few months they worked together on an advertising campaign for Thomson holidays, but that was not Fucilla’s idea of stardom. Soon after, they went their separate ways, although Auerbach “half expected to see Rob again”.
By 2006, Fucilla was transformed: he had a diamond ring bigger than a peach pit on his finger, a Porsche in the driveway of his large north London house. He had done well in the City. “You could say I was a millionaire before I was 30.” But he still harboured aspirations towards a more glamorous career. Now that he had the cash, he might as well use it to finance a film. And after the two lost years in LA, he was in no mood to wait for agents to come calling. “Why wait to be cast and all of that palaver when I could take a short cut?” He went back to Auerbach and said he could raise the money for him to direct his first feature.
At first Auberbach thought he was bluffing – “This business is full of people talking up their money when the cash is a long way from the bank” – but Fucilla persisted until, in early 2007, he gave in and the two began discussing ideas. Auerbach had been toying with one pitch for some time. The story of a London joyrider who falls in with some criminal heavyweights, it featured gangsters, brasses, geezers, Beemers and a smattering of violence. A script was commissioned from unknown writer Tim Cunningham and, having had feedback from readers and studios, it was chosen as the vehicle for Fucilla’s film debut. Its name, aptly enough, was The Big I Am.
Almost immediately, however, producer and director began pulling in different directions. “I saw our film as a classic English gangster movie,” Fucilla says. “The investors were happy because we thought it was more likely to make everyone some money.”
Auerbach, meanwhile, “had no intention of making another English gangster movie. For me, it was a coming-of-age drama about a young guy facing hard choices in order to become a man.”
Then there was Fucilla’s on-screen role. “As exec producer, and having helped raise the money, I wanted a strong part to show my ability,” he says. “Is that unreasonable? It was my film.”
Auerbach, however, saw Fucilla’s part as “top of the non-stars, something credible but not too large, because no actors of worth would agree to be in a vanity project, and I didn’t want to shoot one.”
Fucilla rages at the thought of this. “All I wanted was a chance to show off my acting,” he says.
The friction between the two men was immediately apparent to David Ball, the veteran British producer Auerbach approached to pull the project together. He remembers thinking the set-up was odd from the start. “I was told Robert Fucilla used to be Nic’s assistant. We had to give him a part because he was putting up the money. I said, ‘Fine. We have loads of thugs – he can be a thug. He’s only 5ft 9in with a 39-inch chest, and he doesn’t exactly frighten me, but if that’s what it takes, so be it.” Ball was more concerned when he saw the script: “This was Guinness Book Of Records stuff, a BMW going up on two wheels performed by a driver of the capabilities of the Stig.” When Ball asked about financing, Auerbach told him the budget was just over £1m, which to Ball’s mind would barely cover the stunts.
Ball claims that he repeatedly asked Auerbach to arrange a meeting with Fucilla to discuss the budget shortfall, but by this time Auerbach was swept up in casting. Vincent Regan, an Irish actor who starred alongside Brad Pitt in the 2004 Hollywood epic Troy, was put forward. Auerbach was ecstatic: “I said, ‘Sign him now, he’s like Michael Caine at the beginning of his career. Get him before the price goes up.'” Regan accepted the role of Barber, a vicious gang lord. Soon Phil Davis, Paul Kaye and MC Harvey of So Solid Crew were on board, too, along withBeatrice Rosen, who is Batman’s Bolshoi ballerina connection in The Dark Knight and one of the leads in this winter’s blockbuster 2012.
In early 2007, Auerbach flew to the US in an attempt to hook self-styled Hollywood “bad ass” Michael Madsen. They met at the Chateau Marmont hotel, where Madsen had been living on and off with his two rottweilers. The role Auerbach had in mind for him was Martell, a washed-up casino owner. The debutant director returned triumphant, but casting Madsen added another layer of difficulty. The actor liked Harley-Davidsons, guns and writing poetry on his own skin. What he did not like was being bossed. “I knew things could go wrong with Madsen,” Auerbach admits, but he was excited, too, about the film’s growing momentum. “Madsen was to wear silver shoes, Berkoff an aqua blue latex suit. All the stylistic things were coming off.” Finally, Auerbach found his lead – young British actor Leo Gregory would play Skinner, a car thief who steals the wrong vehicle only to find Barber (Vincent Regan) tied up in the boot. All spent up by now, Auerbach and Fucilla cast friends in smaller roles, with Fucilla himself taking on the part of Floyd, a small-time mobster eager to move up a division.
Ball recruited his crew and finally met some of the financial backers, including Fucilla and Andrew Frangos, another City trader. The producer says he immediately warned them about costs: “I told them this film felt like £3m to me. No one was listening.” Fucilla recalls the meeting somewhat differently: “Ball said, ‘Come to Wales, everything is cheap here and you’ll get hundreds of thousands back in grants and your tax credit.’ He said he could do it for the agreed price.”
The regional grants never materialised, but Ball blamed Auerbach for the rising costs. “We could have saved money in some places, but for that you need a very flexible director, and Nic wasn’t.” Particularly irksome was Auerbach’s method approach to directing, especially when it came to coaching Gregory. “I took Leo on a tour of London’s finest and filthiest nightspots,” Auerbach concedes. “I hired bodyguards to make him feel he was in the business.” He also got menacing figures to call Gregory round the clock demanding money, to simulate his character’s experience.
Shooting was just days off when Gregory, the would-be joyrider, confessed that he could not drive. Visualising all the car chases that could not now be shot, Auerbach went ballistic – and then sent him off for driving lessons. Worse, when the cameras did finally start rolling in April 2008, a stunt backfired, smashing Gregory’s nose in three places. Ball was dismayed: “He was supposed to be in every scene and now he was hospitalised. We virtually had to shut down.” Gregory was rushed to a private hospital in London for emergency treatment. Sets were held over. Hired equipment sat idle. Actors were paid for doing nothing. “What is Leo’s face going to cost us?” Fucilla wondered as two weeks went by and the bills mounted.
From the wings, veterans such as Phil Davis looked on with increasing foreboding. The Big I Am was a curious mix. “The first 20 minutes were amusing in a Tarantino-esque way,” he says. “Then there was a darker element when all these prostitutes arrived from eastern Europe, gangsters carved in half with Samurai swords… But I was just there to play my character and go home at the end of it.”
When filming restarted, however, Davis was pleasantly surprised by the scale of Auerbach’s ambition. “We were shooting on film, not digital. We had two cameras running. We had a major Hollywood star. It felt like a genuine, pukka movie.” Even so, he still had the odd misgiving. “Once or twice there were some folks who were high five-ing each other and talking about going to Hollywood, and here we were on the outskirts of Cardiff doing this low-budget gangster movie… It all seemed a bit daft and inappropriate.”
Behind the swagger, Fucilla was wondering what he had got himself into. “I was now being told it was going to cost upwards of £1.6m, perhaps more. I told them to keep it tight. I tried to get on with my day job.” Back in the City, the global financial crisis was threatening to cripple his business. “It was all going mad in the office – 30 guys on the trading floor crying like children.” At home, his wife was expecting their second child in a difficult pregnancy. “After I finished my 12-hour day in the City at 6pm, I had to drive two hours to Cardiff and fight my corner on set before driving back to London in the early hours.”
Then Fucilla learned that filming was to stop again, so Auerbach could take the cast to the Cannes film festival. He even proposed shipping over his Bentley and Range Rover so that they looked the part. “They were having a laugh,” says Fucilla. “We still had no film in the bag, so why play at movie moguls? We had no money.”
Auerbach was adamant, however. “What Rob could not understand was that Cannes is the one place where the entire film world comes together. We had to be there.” Auerbach won that battle, but Fucilla had the last word, sending them by easyJet.
Filming restarted three days after the festival, and by the end of May Auerbach was delighted with the rushes. Then, one morning, he heard screaming coming from Beatrice Rosen’s trailer. Ball heard it, too. They ran towards the noise. Inside, Rosen’s hair appeared to be on fire. Ball stood at the door, transfixed. “Her hair was shrivelling up and vanishing before my eyes. We were agog.” Fucilla got a call at his desk in the City. Auerbach explained how a shampoo had reacted badly with Rosen’s hair extensions, leaving him with no choice but to send her, sobbing, to a specialist hairdresser in Knightsbridge. “Do they not have hairdressers in Cardiff?” Fucilla raged into the phone. “It’s not fucking Zimbabwe.” This led to another costly delay to filming, and with the budget now rising to £1.8m-plus, Fucilla was running out of cash.
For the first time, he decided to scrutinise The Big I Am’s escalating expenses. “I talked to one of the cast drivers and found out people were staying in penthouses and lovely hotel rooms. They took the piss out of me so badly.” Days later, he found out that some in the cast and crew had also been hiring limos to ferry them from Cardiff to London and back at £1,000 a time.
Incensed, Fucilla drove to Cardiff to bang heads together, and on arrival discovered that a new set had been built on an old SAS training base. He was staggered: “This was a low-budget film and they had constructed an entire nightclub to film one scene. We could have bought a real nightclub and gone out in it every night this year for the amount they had spent.” The film was already £700,000 over budget and everything was piling on top of him. “My wife was suffering. My business was struggling. I was arguing with everyone on set. I hated them all and felt I was on the verge of a breakdown. One day David Ball said to me, ‘Why don’t you sell your house?’ I felt as if I was being bled. I wanted to sue everyone.”
Then Michael Madsen arrived from LA. Wearing a bandana and full of unorthodox demands – such as insisting all costume department mannequins be turned to the wall lest he be spooked by the wigs – he was at first charming. But as the days went on, he became “a handful”, Ball says.
Auerbach was feeling the pressure, too. “By now I was plate-spinning. Getting up and thinking, OK, run towards that plate. And then it’s Michael calling. ‘OK. I’ll be with you in 30 minutes, Michael. What do you mean you have not gone to bed yet? You should be getting up now.’ Spin another plate. ‘Phil Davis? Phil’s not having a good time in the rain.’ Spin his plate. Then suddenly I was in Michael’s trailer and he was lying on the floor saying, ‘Nic, you’re a fucking dictator. Quentin never makes me do it like this.'”
Everything came to a head on Madsen’s big day shooting in the exorbitant, all-white nightclub set. “There were five cameras, cranes, 300 extras,” Ball says. “It was a £100,000 day and had been planned to the nth degree. Planned. Planned. Planned.” Fucilla and Frangos drove down from London to witness their star turn, but Madsen did not show up. Ball was apoplectic. He tracked the star down to his hotel room, but he wouldn’t come out. “He had suffered some sort of stress attack,” Ball says. (Madsen’s lawyer claims “the project was unprofessional and my client wanted out”.)
Auerbach and Ball concluded that they would have to write Madsen out of the film by killing his character. The only problem was that the superstitious star never died on film. “I eventually broke it to him that if he wanted to be released, he had to die,” Auerbach says.
The death scene would take place on the nightclub set, with Davis delivering the fatal shot. “Madsen was kitted out in a white suit and placed behind a white piano,” Davis says. “I put two bullets in him, but he wouldn’t die. I shot him again. There were these squibs throwing out blood, but he was still staggering about. Then he made up a poem – something about the nature of true love. We were all gobsmacked.” They would have to do it again. They cleaned up the set and found a new white suit for Madsen. “I put all my bullets inside him,” Davis says, “and he began singing Green, Green Grass Of Home.” And even then Madsen rose up from the floor. As Auerbach peered above the camera, he screamed, “Am I fucking dead enough for you now, Nic?”
A few nights later, police were called to the Dorchester hotel in London, where Madsen had gone to recuperate with his wife and five-year-old daughter. Guests had complained about screaming and shouting coming from the star’s room, and shortly afterwards he was led out through the ballroom to avoid waiting photographers.
Fucilla read about the Madsen episode in the tabloids, head in hands. In fear of his investors, his alienation only deepened when his car windows were smashed by what he believed to be a disgruntled crew member. “I was stuck in Cardiff with people I could not stand. I wanted to go home. I wanted out.”
Ball was having an equally terrible time, accused of incompetence and profligacy by City investors while he claimed to have had to write 37 new schedules to contain the chaos. Davis remembers seeing Ball crisscrossing the set one morning. “There was this shock of white hair struggling along, cursing to himself, ‘What else is going to fuck up now?'” He didn’t have to wait long for an answer: his production manager was diagnosed with terminal cancer and an assistant had a car crash and ended up in a coma.
With the production now even deeper in the red, Fucilla finally lashed out, sacking Ball and removing his credit. “We were up to almost £2m and nowhere near finished,” he says. Auerbach contested the figure, saying the £2m included moneys that would be claimed back from insurers and maintaining he had completed principal photography as the shooting schedule dictated.
Nevertheless, Fucilla instructed Auerbach to stop filming and sat down alone to view the raw footage. What he saw horrified him. “I had been cut out of my own film. I spoke to the script supervisor and she said, ‘Basically, Rob, you are a featured extra.’ I went mad. I wanted to kill everyone. I was on the rampage.” Fucilla regrouped. He got a friend, Jack Landoli, who had also been cast in the film, to write extra scenes for his character. Without telling Auerbach or any of the actors what he was doing, he hired a young director, Arun Kumar, and called back some of the cast to act beside him in the new scenes. Kumar could not believe what greeted him. “It was chaos,” he says, “I had seen nothing like it. I agreed to go ahead only if they paid me in cash.”
The Big I Am finally wrapped last October, with Fucilla inserted, Zelig-like, throughout. Off screen, controversy continued to dog the film. “We were accused of causing £80,000 damage to an apartment we borrowed,” Fucilla says. “Six more writs came in claiming unpaid bills. I settled all of them – another £70,000 down – while everyone told me to draw a line and get out.”
The Big I Am appeared to be bankrupt before it had even made it into post-production. But earlier this year, Fucilla relented and called Auerbach. “Film is so intensive, and Rob and I benefited from some time out,” the director says. “Despite it all, we both loved this film and wanted it to work.” Auerbach agreed to supervise the edit for free, while Fucilla tried to get the film sold. All at once things began to fall into place. Impressed by the cast and direction, distribution companies began vying for rights. There were offers for a UK cinematic release with talk of a US deal to follow.
When the film premieres in April, the boy from Brixton will get his longed-for turn on the red carpet and then watch as his name appears fourth in the opening credits, above Berkoff, Davis and Rosen. Davis is incredulous. “Sometimes a film looks fantastic. Everyone’s excited and talking about the genius of this and that, how it’s going to be a masterpiece, and it turns out to be poop. And sometimes the opposite is true. It seems to be a complete nightmare, but then it all comes together. And no one would be more pleased than me if that happened to The Big I Am.”
Auerbach is now preparing to shoot his second feature, while Fucilla is putting together a new movie deal through which to narrate his life. “We’re going to do a story, LA Dream,” he says, forgetting the heartache of the last three years. “It’s about two British guys who pitch up in LA to become movie stars but don’t have a cat in hell’s chance.” More on this film