Sitting backstage at a recent screening of his film, City Island, waiting to go on for a Q&A session with the audience, writer-director Raymond De Felitta's head snapped up at the sound of a gale of laughter from within the theater.
"Are you sure," he asked hesitantly, "that they're watching my film?"
But audiences respond to de Felitta's work. He won the audience award for City Island at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival. Yet de Felitta claims he doesn't aim for laughs when he writes.
"I've never made a film to provoke an audience," the 45-year-old filmmaker says. "I didn't expect this movie to do that. I'm struck by the visceral response. One of the odd things is that people talk back to the screen. I love it when the fourth wall breaks down like that."
City Island, which stars Andy Garcia, Julianna Margulies and Emily Mortimer, centers on a Bronx family living on City Island, a former fishing village on Long Island Sound. Garcia plays a prison guard with two secrets: He is surreptitiously pursuing his dream of becoming an actor by taking classes in the city without telling his family - and he has found the now-grown son he never met because he abandoned the mother before the child was born.
The movie blends character comedy with what could be tragic situations. But De Felitta keeps his focus squarely on the shifting family dynamic, in a story that has farce trappings involving multiple secrets, all of which eventually come to light.
"Everyone has secrets, always," he says. "That's the sad truth of the perplexing journey of life. But if one of us starts to tell the truth, everyone is relieved. To me, it's a very strange fact of our humanity. Why do you believe polls? People say what they assume everyone wants to hear. But go tell a secret and all of a sudden everyone wants to confess."
The story had several germination points. One had to do with City Island itself, which De Felitta, a Bronx native, read about in a piece in the now-defunct Escapes section of the New York Times: "I was so fascinated with the idea of this fishing village in the Bronx," he says. "I thought it was this brilliant thing that had never been shot. In fact, it had been - it's been used for Connecticut in other movies, including 'Long Day's Journey into Night.' But never as City Island. So it was this great opportunity to use this location. And I love writing about families in the outer boroughs."
De Felitta also was drawing on some of his own family history.