Michael Notarile unearths a piece of American crime history

December 24, 2020 Danny Munso

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Black List Tales
The Mother
By Danny Munso

How can one woman be responsible for creating organized crime in America yet be almost completely lost to history? This is precisely the case of Fredericka “Marm” Mandelbaum, a German immigrant to the States who wound up starting a crime syndicate to support her four kids, moving millions in stolen goods and pulling off the largest bank robbery in the country. It was this tale that Michael Notarile captures in his gripping, intense and yet funny script The Mother, whose brilliance was rewarded with an appearance on the 2019 Black List.

Notarile’s blossoming writing career is a lesson in persistence. Even screenwriters with immense talent—and Notarile certainly is among them—need a considerable work ethic, both in terms of honing their craft and in seeking out the connections needed for success. While a student at Hofstra in 2005, he landed a coveted internship at Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Productions and gained enough encouragement to become convinced he could write movies for a living. “For a New Yorker and an Italian guy, it’s basically like Robert De Niro is my grandfather,” he laughs. The following years were balanced between Notarile doing various up-and-comer industry jobs—an internship with Conan O’Brien and a programming gig at AMC among them—and honing his own screenplays. Sensing his options were exhausted in New York, Notarile moved to L.A., where he got a writers’ assistant gig on the ABC soap All My Children under co-head writer David Kreizman. He moved on to writers’ assistant on the CW drama The Lying Game, where he got the chance to pen his first script. After the series ended, Kreizman remembered Notarile grew up a huge pro-wrestling fan and had even written a pilot about the sport’s behind-the-scenes drama. So he offered him a spot with the WWE where Kreizman had just been named head writer. Fulfilling a childhood dream, Notarile wrote there for almost three years then moved back to narrative storytelling as writers’ assistant on the Fox drama Rosewood under showrunner Todd Harthan. When Rosewood was canceled, the network hired Harthan to run its medical drama The Resident, and he took his charge with him as writers’ assistant. In season one, Notarile got a shot at penning his own episode, and that cemented him as staff writer for the next three seasons and counting.

While the show was still in its first season, Notarile sat down with his manager, Circle of Confusion’s Julian Rosenberg, to discuss future projects. At that time, because he’d spent the years leading up to this working in television, Rosenberg suggested he work on a film script, asking if there might be a real-life story that fascinated him. “I’d heard a story in college about Marm Mandelbaum,” Notarile recalls. “I would have never known or guessed that a woman was responsible for crafting organized crime in America, and the fact that it’s not well known that a woman is responsible is obviously so relevant for today.” In 1850, Mandelbaum and her husband, Wolfe, had immigrated to the United States from Germany, where together they were behind some nefarious dealings. Desperate after his passing, the Mandelbaum parlayed those questionable skills into constructing a syndicate and overseeing a network of con men, blackmailers, fencers and pickpockets. Notarile was fascinated with Mandelbaum’s story but also saw a personal connection to it. “My father passed away when I was 11, so my guide into masculinity was through a strong woman. “The idea of a mom doing all those things for her children resonated with me because of my mom making all the sacrifices she made to raise her children. I knew that was the story I wanted to write.”

The writer didn’t know a ton about Mandelbaum’s life besides the brief headlines he’d seen, so while extensive digging was needed, his free time was sparse because of his Resident duties. And then a friend put him in touch with an experienced researcher. “She found me amazing things,” he says. “She got me the exact code for the lock on the safe at the bank. Or she found the information about the janitor’s closet they used for the bank heist.” That led to uncovering connections Mandelbaum had to such people as prominent underworld dame Sophie Lyons—whom she found on the street and took in as one of her own—and infamous bank robber George Leslie, who both figure largely in Notarile’s script. The official research period lasted about six months before scriptwriting actually began, and still after each draft he would need to go back for more.

Notarile’s writing process is meticulous, starting with something he calls concept pages, where he plots out the tentpoles of the script. From there, he moves into a traditional treatment, expanding 15 or so tentpole ideas into more detailed paragraphs. Then he begins an outline to plot out the film scene by scene. “I really prefer to have all of the machinations of the plot worked out before I start typing the script,” he says. “Of course things will change during the writing, but for me if I at least have a detailed road map, then by the time I get to the script I can have fun with the scenes.” The process is especially helpful for weeding out things that might seem interesting while concepting but don’t actually fit into the script. For example, Notarile really wanted to include the fact that Mandelbaum snuck back into the U.S. for her oldest daughter’s funeral, only to evade authorities and escape back to her sanctuary in Canada before being caught. It’s the kind of anecdote that feels like it needs to be in the final film, and yet it made the story feel too long and labored. “I had too much movie. It told me I needed to pare it down and sharpen it more. With each step, as you expand the story and go deeper, you see where the problems are. I think it’s important to be open to those changes.”

The Mother opens with a scintillating scene that sees Marm bested by Dorcy, a PI trying to become a legitimate cop. Dorcy brings in a man who accuses Marm of selling his wife’s stolen ring and convinces the man to buy his own ring back for $10, which he does but not before spitting in Marm’s face as he leaves. The tone sets the table for the entire script. It’s ironic, then, that the scene originally appeared in the middle and was moved to the beginning at Rosenberg’s request. Notarile agreed with his manager that it wouldn’t track logically. “I digested it, and my concern was it would indicate that her and her husband were already involved in some low-level criminal stuff,” he explains, noting his fear that the script would then lose the major motivation of Marm’s husband dying and she being pushed into more serious illegal activity. “So moving that scene up doesn’t change the movie much. It actually accentuates the movie, because we see America is forcing immigrants to be involved in things like that to survive. So when her husband dies, she realizes she needs to create a business and a system, not just do this petty stuff.” Notarile tips his hat to Rosenberg’s instinct. “I believe what makes what we do so beautifully is writing as a collaboration.”

The script’s second half deals with Marm’s gang attempting to execute the plan of George Leslie to pull off the largest bank heist in U.S. history. “That whole sequence was a thorn in my side,” Notarile says. “The movie is not a heist movie, so my challenge was how to make a bank-robbery scene interesting and make a meal out of it but it doesn’t completely take over the movie. Those scenes have to pop, so how do I make it interesting?” He was hampered by the fact that his heist, because of the time period in which it takes place, wouldn’t be as visually capturing as ones we’ve seen before onscreen or that would take place in present-day films. His solution was to focus solely on character. “I made it a character journey instead of a plot journey. “I can’t really shock the audience with cool visuals here, so I focused on her obsessiveness, and it becomes the culmination of her character arc. That’s what’s going to make it pop. But I struggled draft after draft with that because I originally was trying to make it look cool and slick like a George Clooney bank heist, and I eventually realized that’s not what this specific sequence calls for.”

In the script, though Leslie—and Marm’s son, Julius—were originally going to pull off the heist, Marm has him killed for snitching to Dorcy and steps in instead. The screenplay has her pulling off the heist with Julius, but that is its biggest dramatic license. “She wasn’t herself standing in that bank while it happened,” Notarile says. “If you connect the dots in the research, it’s very clear that she was involved and funded the bank heist. Because of how good she was at what she did and because of the way the culture was, where they credit stuff to men instead of women, it’s really hard to point things to her. But for the movie, it’s just better drama if she’s there.” One element of the robbery that is completely true to life is the life-size replica of the bank that Marm’s crew used to plan the heist. It was the first of its kind ever built, a fact that will never end up onscreen but is called out in bold type by Notarile. “It’s just to let the reader know that the reason I’m doing this scene is because it’s the first time this was used. To me, it’s just a fun fact that shows how fascinating the real woman was. Everyone has so many scripts to read, so if I can put in a few little things throughout, it makes it a little more enjoyable for the reader.”

The Mother was sent out to producers in fall 2019 and garnered Notarile a series of meetings about prospective projects even as he continues to write on The Resident, which is set to start its fourth season. “Period dramas are difficult to sell right now, but I got a lot of meetings and those meetings led to opportunities that I’m now developing for some of those companies,” he says. “I think it’s one of those movies that hopefully, if I continue to grow in my career, when I have a stronger leg to stand on, people are more willing to take a risk on it. But in the meantime, if its purpose was to lead me to these meetings and opportunities with producers I really respect, to me that’s awesome because I’ve written 20 scripts in the past that didn’t even see the light of day.” And yet Notarile somehow missed the actual Black List announcement. He didn’t know it had happened until he got a congratulatory text from a manager he’d met with a couple years earlier, and the writer thought he was being congratulated on his engagement to his longtime girlfriend over Thanksgiving. Then Rosenberg called with the official good news. “I was at work, and my heart was pounding. Because I worked on that project for probably two years total, it felt like this is the script I’ve worked the longest on in my life. It felt good that there was some sort of acknowledgement.”

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