It’s not everyday you get to interview someone you find truly inspiring both because of their work and their outlook on life. This was the case when I sat down with Director-Producer-Writer Raoul Mongilardi at The Polo Lounge at Beverly Hills Hotel to discuss his company, OM-RPM Productions, slate of projects.
Prior to meeting Raoul, I’d been impressed by his body of work and only heard countless compliments about his character. He is the type of guy that ‘means what he says and says what he means,’ I’d been told. It did not surprise me then that when I asked to interview him, he promptly invited to take me to dinner at The Polo Lounge, a Hollywood staple and a symbol of class and elegance in the entertainment industry. As it turns out, this place could not have set a better tone for an interview that covered everything from his childhood, his Hollywood legacy, his close friendship with Sharon Stone, his love of music and opera, to his experiences surviving the AIDS epidemic that took many of his friends. His own life is one of Verdian operatic substance, as he would later admit, and perhaps that is why he has become such a great storyteller. However, his story is one I prefer he tell himself.
So, I sat down with Raoul to discuss his upcoming feature M.I.A., based on the life of his war hero father, and his science fiction series of books Next to the Gods, which are also on a track to the screen.
PPLA: Your career started in theater but now you mainly produce feature films and documentaries. Can you take us through your early work and how you became involved in the entertainment industry?
RM: I was born in Carmel, C.A., a Navy brat but I grew up on the east coast because my father was killed in Vietnam so we moved back to N.Y. and also Virginia. Then I went to a military boarding school, which I was fortunate enough to get myself thrown out of before attending an arts centered high school called the Hoosac School in N.Y., which I loved. Later, I did some touring theatre- who didn’t (laughs)- and then I moved to California where my first professional job in town was at the Geffen Theater during their inaugural season. It was really interesting because I had come to Los Angeles to be with someone that I loved and cared for who was dying of AIDS. His friend introduced me to the powers that be at the Geffen and I became an assistant stage manager there. That segued into working with Glen Larson Productions on television projects with Neil Lundell, and through that experience, I worked with Paramount and then Disney Imagineering, with Nick Stamos. I was also fortunate to be mentored by Dick Lindheim, a legend at Universal and Paramount television. So, my portfolio of production experience was expanding. I also did some work with composer, director, Mark Edward Lewis as well. Then, Celia and Sherwood Ball brought me aboard their feature as Associate Producer, which they produced with SONY and was originally titled Love.com. I loved the title but it was changed to Primal Instinct after release into distribution. After a haul in film production, I realized I needed to learn contracting and distribution so I went to work for the Peter Rodgers Organization. I was hired as their Director of Operations under CEO Stephen Rodgers. I was there for three years during which I was responsible for 8,000 hours of television programming and client assets. I handled everything from contracting to bicycling forward content. Founder, Peter Rodgers invented the idea of cherry picking programming and was an original founding member of NAPTE his concept allowed his clients to choose what they were going to air, which became a very successful practice. During that time, we had begun making my first documentary called The Changing Face of Autism. I was also writing spec script material and heavy into my series Next to the Gods but it wasn’t published yet. I was working with a fabulous editor from Harper Collins and things were beginning to shift in my career. I really felt that this was in my blood. My Hollywood Legacy began with my godfather, Sam Spiegel and my Auntie Mame was Betty Spiegel.
PPLA: Tell me more about what drew you to your documentary on Autism. Was their someone personally affected by Autism in your life?
RM: Yes, my neighbor’s son. She is a passionate, powerful woman with a wonderful boy. And we believed Autism is something that needed to be addressed and wasn’t, so we started the documentary. When we were making the film, building it over five years, Autism awareness began to explode in the media. It was on the cover of Time Magazine, it was talked about on Oprah, it was on CNN, and Kathleen Kennedy did her series on this topic. Therefore, when our documentary was released, we were almost behind the card a little bit but the film ended up being the little engine that could! It was nominated for the 2009 Voice Award and is now included in the Autism Speaks International Resource Library sponsored by the Federal Department of Health and Human Services. National Film Network distributes it so it’s in a lot of university libraries as well and I’m very proud of that.
PPLA: Did you always have a love of storytelling? What attracted you to this profession?
RM: I was a story teller as a child, my sister remembers riding pack train in Yosemite with Dad and me going on about imaginary Indian battles over there and this waterfall hiding cowboys—who knows, maybe I was channeling something, (laughs) In fact, I started writing my science fiction series Next to the Gods when I was around fifteen years old. I traveled around with notebooks for years. Three of the four books in the series are published with number four on slate for sometime next year. I was enamored with how I was going to get what I was seeing in my mind- the Technicolor fantasy in my head- onto the page. Whether I was going to make a film or a story, I was fascinated with how it was going to be manifested. As an adult I honed the skills of producing content and polishing projects, I realized more quickly if things would be a short film, a feature or a documentary. They would claim an identity. When you are writing, they often don’t have an identity because you are in the passion of the moment and just getting it down. Later on, the calmer mind, outside of ‘the zone’ takes over and says this is obviously a short story, a documentary or a film. They claim their identity, which is very helpful! (laughs) In antiquity, Greeks saw not only the inspiration of ideas but also the identity of creation under the muses in which we finally recognize and say ‘Okay, this a song, a poem, a play or in our modern world a film or a show.’
PPLA: After your first feature Love.com your next project was the Autism documentary. Was that a conscious shift? Did you have a desire to do more features at that time?
RM: Oh yes! I had ideas popping left, right, and sideways! I wrote a fantasy called Lovecraft during that time which placed well in a Zoetrope competition. Then I wrote another science fiction adventure called TerraRossa, a romance fantasy called Magic Reeds, and a short story subject called The Story Of Jacques: The Adventure of a Terrible Dog. Since then, the slate has expanded to about 14 projects. Then the Walt Disney Concert Hall Organ came into play (this became his second documentary). Classical music is part of my essence. I love all music- jazz, rock- but classical music in particular. The organ is to me a bizarre, wonderful, ancient, crazy instrument! I think it’s only when you hear an organ live in its natural setting like a cathedral or a theater such as Radio City Music Hall that you get the intense vibration, gravitas and color palette of what an organ can do. I love the crazy sounds that an organ can make. The real great lady of all theater organs – and if you ever hear it live, you know- is the Black Beauty. She is the great old lady of Broadway at Radio City Music Hall. A 5,000 pipe, twin console organ, in the most prestigious theater in the world. They are like alchemists these theater organists, because normally they don’t have sheet music in front of them. They just put tunes together in their head and jam on these gigantic instruments. When you have someone who really knows what they are doing, and you can feel the organ in the lobby on 6th Avenue before you even hear it, it’s a thing you will never forget. A nostalgia element to be sure but it attracted me like a hypnotic force. I thought, ‘what is this thing’ and I’ve been in pursuit of them ever since.
PPLA: Is that what inspired you to pursue your current project, a documentary on Radio City Music Hall?
RM: That’s an integral part of it but only one aspect of it because Radio City Music Hall is an icon to the world of theater. It’s the ‘Showplace of the Nation’ and it has that title deservedly. The theater opened in December 1932 and was in regular service showing movies and stage show six days a week from 1932 to the late 70’s If you think of the 6,200 people who regularly attended those shows, you are talking about conservatively upwards of 100 million people who went to Radio City- saw the shows, saw the movies, saw the organ, saw The Rockettes, saw the Christmas, Easter and seasonal shows until the theater almost went bankrupt in the 70s. Fortunately, then Governor Hugh Carey proclaimed it a landmark, saving it from being destroyed. It was gradually restored after that until the 90s when it underwent a significant restoration- I believe it was upward of $70 million. After that, the music hall once again flourished. The ballet troupe was gone, the ushers were gone, and the sitting orchestra was gone but the hall, organ, The Rockettes and all the accouterments survived and the hall is now thriving, hosting The Tony Awards, rock concerts, and all kinds of events. It’s booked solidly all the time now. Just this spring, Harvey Weinstein and the Radio City Corporation mounted a show called the Spring Spectacular and this was the first time in some twenty or thirty years they did an in-house show produced by Radio City, other than the blockbuster Christmas show. That’s a good thing because Radio City is a part of Americana. We hope to move forward with the project with a wonderful gentleman and marvelous producer named Sam Nappi, and potentially his son Justin, auteur of Tree House Productions. Sam is a visionary in many ways. I’ll be proud to be a part of it.
PPLA: What about your book series Next to the Gods? I hear you are also bringing that to the screen.
RM: Next to the Gods is set in the world building science fiction genre like Star Wars, Star Trek, or even Game of Thrones. You build your own universe, set of ideologies, and your own culture. I am very interested in that genre because I have always been a student of history. The NTTG world came into my mind as I said beginning many years ago. I was anxious to get it out there. Someone once advised, ‘Be comfortable with the process,’ which allowed me to relax and realize that I didn’t have to be on an artificial timeline but could instead delve and polish it in an episodic journey. I’m glad I took my time with it because that led me to formulate the novel into four books- When Gods Walk Among Us, The Fate of Worlds, Great Is Our Number, and The Secret Place of Thunder– and by doing the work, that in turn led me to my fantastic editor John Douglas. I’m elated the books have a 5-star rating on Amazon and Kindle. This type of content is vastly popular as you can see by tent pole box office and many network and cable series. Just look at the Marvel Universe, Star Wars reboots, and Star Trek reboots. So, Next To The Gods is being eyed for episodic TV or feature platforms.
PPLA: You also have another feature called M.I.A. you are currently working on that is based on your family. Can you tell us more about that project?
RM: M.I.A. was previously called The Burning Blue and is a true story. It’s actually about my father, who was a naval hero, and his passionate, Greek tragedy relationship with my mother. My Dad was a native son of New Jersey, a national hero. He was a highly decorated Air Wing Commander who was shot down in Vietnam. He was dashing, handsome and cultivated. His wife, my mother, was a beautiful, sexy Torch singer. They had this incredible relationship during WWII, the Korean War and Vietnam. When my dad was shot down, the horror of it was compounded because he was voicing his opposition for the war. Our fraternal grandmother, the formidable, “Grandmere”, tried to take my sister and I away from my mother just months after my Dad was reported missing. It was awful. And not much later, we learned that we had a brother, which became a beautiful thing, because when Thomas came back into our lives, a broken circle was mended. My Dad’s classified crash site was one of the first cases to be excavated after the Clinton administration opened the doors to Vietnam in 1992. At that time, there was a forensic process that was about 30% reliable at identification and we said we would not accept that. But in 2007, we were contacted and told the government had a new, revolutionary forensic process that would guarantee findings at 100%, which was a success so we were able to hold his full military honors in Arlington Cemetery, 41 years after he had disappeared. What was even more marvelous and compelling about the situation was that the forensic process used to find my father is being employed in other cases going as far back as WWI. I immediately thought, ‘my Dad’s a hero again even in death.’ Now the findings for all of his comrades in the Army, Navy, going all the way back to Doughboys are going to gradually, over time, be resolved.
Around the same time, Sharon Stone and I were going to the Kennedy Center Honors where she was presenting to Robert DeNiro. Let me just pause a moment to tell you what a true hero Sharon is. Sharon is not only a muse to the art world. She has worked on projects for clean water, and substantive peace initiatives, she is also in her 20th year as the global chairman of the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR). She’s raised hundreds of millions of dollars for these causes. She and her sister, Kelly, have a charity called Planet Hope, which specifically helps unwed mothers and orphaned children. Sharon is one of the funniest, obviously most talented ladies in the world, a magnificent mom, a true blue friend, and a genius. She won the Nobel Peace Summit Award last summer. So, when we were in Washington together during the Kennedy Center Honors, it was a beautiful thing. We went to the State Department dinner with Hilary Clinton, we had lunch with Janet and William Cohen, the Former Defense Secretary under Bill Clinton, and then as we were on our way to rehearsals to the Kennedy Center she told the driver to take a detour and go over the bridge to Arlington Cemetery. While the driver and I fumbled with maps of the labyrinth that is Arlington, Sharon called out, ‘Stop. It’s right here,’ in this amazing way she has of knowing exactly where you are in a moment. The car stopped and we went over to visit my Dad together. That will remain a private moment. It was and is a very wonderful place to be in your life. So, the development ofM.I.A. is under full swing with manager extraordinaire, Chuck Binder.
PPLA: Well, you can visibly see the passion you have for this project.
RM: I believe that without passion, you’re just a transparent glass, but when you have passion, everything tends to coalesce. Somebody asked me years ago, ‘Why do you want be a filmmaker?’ When people come out of a theater and they are in tears or laughing or they are inspired, it’s like watching somebody read a great book, look at a fantastic piece of architecture, or listen to a great piece of music. They are moved beyond themselves. Film does that to people and that is the most beautiful thing about the entertainment business. Just look at the testament of film over the years. It moves boundaries M.I.A. is not just the story of another fallen warrior. It’s the story of what society has and is going to be dealing with for decades to come as our veterans come home and we must take care of them. Politics creates the lie that we don’t have the money or resources to take care of them when we clearly do. When children, mother’s and wives- not just in America but all over the world- have to come to grips with this tragedy of human struggle, that is the need. That’s why it is important to tell stories like M.I.A., where human beings are in contest with the sociopolitical world. That is why M.I.A. is so beloved to people who are involved with this project. People keep saying what your mother did and what your family did is what people need to understand they can do. We haven’t seen this story yet. We’ve seen things close, but we haven’t seen this one. So, whether it was my story or your family’s story, it requires sharing for that very reason just as we join forces in medical crises. I have an address book at home that has a black ribbon around it because every single person in that address book from A to Z died from AIDS, all between 1983 and 2006. All of them. I tied a ribbon around the address book not as a memorial but to remind myself to keep going because I’m still here for something. I believe it’s important to persevere through grief so that it washes into action and service. When you really love each other and you go through triumph and tragedy, you have an identity with each other. You can’t invent that. Resist the tempting imp urging being territorial and instead be a team player. I’m so honored to be mentored and work with great minds and hearts that want to work with me!
Like Xaque Gruber, and Anthony Young-we have a very hip project called LA Fashion Wars in the pipeline- and also producers, Ken Johnson and Nick Byassee. And, I’m grateful to you, Jennifer, for taking time to seek me out and care what my vision is. It keeps one grounded when you count your blessings don’t you think? My life has been very black and white. I’ve had very little grey in my life. I wish I had more grey, (laughs) I’ve had an operatic experience with royalty, national heroes, persons of power and substance. I’ve known so many beautiful, wonderful people. To this day, my Dad speaks to me from an ethereal plane. I’ve woken up at night while working on M.I.A. and I can smell his pipe and his flight uniform, and I’ve heard him say ‘Good job son. Keep at it and don’t worry.’ I know some might suggest this is my imaginary self at work, but I believe we are energy, and energy can only be transformed not destroyed. I have been a lot of things; a butler, struggling writer and Hollywood producer, and I’m proud of it. Now, I see the new generation and our family’s children and how wonderful and bright they all are. I just want to leave them something potent and meaningful. When my transcending time comes, I want to be the guy that meant what he said what said what he meant.
PPLA: I hear you are a gifted voice artist.
RM: Oh! I’ve been miming voice impressions for a long time.
PPLA: As our interview closed, Raoul spoke as Richard Nixon, Jimmy Stewart, then Ronald Regan and even President Kennedy. It’s only too bad this part of the interview was not recorded because we left the table crying with laughter!