Screenwriter Nick Pileggi visits Film and Lit. students

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Kelly To

Nicholas Pileggi discusses screenwriting in the library with Film and Literature students and teachers Mr. Block (left) and Mr. Corbo (right). Mr. Pileggi tells students how he observed the mob and got to know Henry Hill, the main character of his movie Goodfellas, which stars Robert De Niro and won an Oscar in 1991. He also told the students about his writing process and how he began his journey as a screenwriter.

Kelly To, Features Editor Emeritus

Nicholas Pileggi, screenwriter for movies such as Goodfellas and Casino,  explained to Film and Literature students that many of the extras in Goodfellas consisted of “wise guys” without legal identification.   Director Martin Scorsese wanted new faces in his mafia movie and recruited mobsters for a scene in a restaurant.

English teacher Ms. Jennifer Sacha arranged for Mr. Pileggi to come to Schreiber on May 22 to share such anecdotes. He spoke to students about his experience as a journalist, and as a leading expert on organized crime.

“My husband has known Nick for 15 years and he came as a favor to him and me,” said Ms. Sacha.  “Mr. Corbo, Mr. Block, and I brainstormed the questions. Obviously, I think it is always beneficial for students to hear from someone in the industry.  It was an extremely rare opportunity for us.  Nick has never spoken to high school students before.  Goodfellas is one the most popular movies of all time, and we had the rare chance to listen to the man responsible for the story.”

Mr. Pileggi has also written for Esquire, LIFE, The New York Times Magazine, and  many other publications.

Like any successful writer, Mr. Pileggi started small.  However, his rise to fame was different. At the lecture, Mr. Pileggi recounted that he learned how to write by retyping the novel Moby Dick over and over again.

Born and raised in New York, in the same neighborhood as the “wise guys,” Mr. Pileggi was accustomed to seeing mob violence.  After years of observing the mobs, he became intrigued by their lifestyle.  Because of this, Mr. Pileggi decided to enter the field of mafia research and investigate “what made them them.”

Mr. Pileggi wrote the book, Wise Guys, which was later picked up by Martin Scorsese.  Together they created the classic Goodfellas.

Goodfellas is based on the life of, and told from the point of view of, Henry Hill.  According to Mr. Pileggi, Hill was smart, funny, and had a natural sense of story.

“Henry Hill was of two worlds,” said Mr. Pileggi.  “Henry was half Irish and half Sicilian.  He could tell a little about my world and his world.”

Mr. Pileggi shared stories about getting to know Hill.  During one such story, Mr. Pileggi spoke about a time he had to go all the way to Vancouver to meet Hill for dinner.  The meal ended early when the two had to run away from the restaurant, because Hill smashed a bottle on a maître d’ who would not offer him the table he wanted.  After this incident, Mr. Pileggi referred to the mafia members as members of a different species.

“They’re cold.  They genetically cannot feel your pain,” said Mr. Pileggi.  “They’re culturally deprived.  They never leave the neighborhood.  There’s no such thing as a book store in these neighborhoods, but they’re geniuses at what they do.  They’re almost idiot savants.”

Students that attended the author’s talk reacted positively to Mr. Pileggi’s advice and anecdotes.

“I thought it was awesome and I’m glad we had the opportunity to listen to him speak, especially since we had watched Goodfellas in class, and previous author lectures that I’ve attended for English honors projects were for books that I haven’t read,” said senior and Film and Literature student Lylia Li. “We learned a lot about how he did research for the story, and how he became a writer in the first place. I liked seeing the teachers fangirl over him.”

As a word of advice to aspiring journalists, Mr. Pileggi stressed the importance of finding a good storyteller.

“I think Pileggi’s story and process of writing was so interesting, and even amusing at a point because it seemed too real to be true,” said senior Bomin Choi.  “Him telling us about interacting with these real life thugs and interviewing them just exposed so much about that whole era, and how irresponsible and careless these criminals can be.”