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Sunday, October 26, 2014

Interview with 'Mona Lisa is Missing' Documentary Director/Writer Joe Medeiros

Joe Medeiros

One of the countless nice things regarding a telephone conversation with Joe Medeiros, who directed and hosted the recently reviewed uber-awesome documentary "Mona Lisa is Missing," is that he is just as nice and charming off-screen as he is in the film. Viewers truly get the real deal.

The Leno Years

Medeiros initially discussed the lucky (but well-deserved) break in 1988 that eventually facilitated quitting his day job in advertising to write for "The Tonight Show" and ultimately becoming the head writer.

The lore is that Medeiros got jokes that he had written for Jay Leno in Leno's hands on the evening of a Leno performance near Medeiros' Pennsylvania home. This led to an initially panic-causing telephone call a few hours later at 12:30 a.m. 

Rather than being a report of a catastrophic event, the call was Leno personally calling to say that he liked the jokes and wanted Medeiros to write for him. This led to gigs providing comedy legends such as Johnny Carson and Bob Hope material.

The joke that started all this related to the low television ratings that the 1988 Democratic National Convention received. The quip regarding that embarrassment was that Dukakis and Bentsen had no chance of beating Bush and Quayle if they could not even beat "Jake and the Fatman."


In talking classic sitcom characters, Medeiros shared that working in advertising did not make him feel like Darrin Stephens of "Bewitched" but that his "Tonight Show" work made him feel like Rob Petrie of "The Dick Van Dyke Show."

This rare opportunity to converse with the head writer of a late-night talk required asking about the accuracy of the Garry Shandling HBO comedy series "The Larry Sanders Show." An apparently amused Medeiros responded that seeing his industry portrayed was nice and that that series about the behind-the-scenes action at a Carson-era late night talk show captured the spirit of making such a program happen. He added that "Sanders" having  only two writers was inaccurate.

Medeiros additionally commented that the level of intrigue that involved Sanders and his staff was much higher than drama regarding Leno and his employees. The "lather, rinse, repeat" style description of the "Tonight Show" routine was that people did their work, there was a rehearsal, and the show was presented.

Making "Mona Lisa"

The connection between writing for Leno and working on the "Tonight Show" and making "Missing" extended beyond the earlier work helping hone skills that the current project required. As Medeiros mentioned in the film, his interest in the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa around which the documentary was centered dated back to his 20s in the late '70s.

Medeiros' first attempt at a script regarding the story was a fictionalized account of Italian laborer Vincenzo Peruggia who simply walked into the Louvre one day, took the painting off the wall, and walked out into the street with it concealed under his arm. Challenges related to finishing that project led to realizing that writing jokes was much easier than producing a 120-page script.

Actors who Medeiros has envisioned playing mild-mannered Vincenzo included Johnny Depp and Giovanni Ribisi. The stated edge that Ribisi possessed was having the same build and general appearance as Vincenzo.

Shared insider information included that the original name of "Missing" was "The Missing Piece: The Mona Lisa, Her Thief, The True Story" and that a desire for greater marquee value prompted the title change. Medeiros also shared that he hoped to finish the film by the 2011 centennial of the theft but did not quite make that self-imposed deadline.

Another stated concern regarding the fiscal viability related to telling this story was that the subject matter was "almost too simple and undramatic to make it a salable feature." To the great benefit of cinephiles everywhere, Medeiros did not let this angst stop him. On a related, note it is difficult to imagine that anyone could bring the same passion to the project as Medeiros or do as well with the humor and other great elements of the film.

Medeiros cited discovering that the (now elderly) daughter of  Vincenzo was still alive as one motive for taking another shot at the story. As viewers of the documentary know, the involvement of Celestina Peruggia nicely ties together by allowing the story to center around a quest to discover the true reason for the theft.

Medeiros also demonstrated that the well-deserved luck that led to beginning the process of making "Missing" was holding in that part of his approach to the project was "trial and error" and that he "really lucked out." One on-screen example of that was the current occupant of Vincenzo's apartment coming along while Medeiros was filming and inviting our hero inside to film that historic location.


Documentaries in General

Because the special attributes of "Missing" went beyond being very informative and highly entertaining to avoiding the reality show feel of many modern documentaries that abandoned their original theme halfway into the film, Medeiros was asked to comment on that trend in nonfiction films.

The initially simple (and accurate) response was "because that's what people want these days." He added that documentary filmmakers had difficulty getting their films seen.

Closing Thoughts 

Medeiros awesomely wrapped up our chat by stating that he could relate to the desire of Vincenzo to leave his mark on society. Medeiros noted as well that Vincenzo was like many of us in "just always looking for a shortcut" regarding fulfilling our ambitions.

Anyone with questions or comments regarding either Medieros or "Missing" is strongly encouraged to email me. You can also connect on Twitter via @tvdvdguy.