Pulp Nonfiction isn't your standard Hollywood fare. Sure, it's loaded with violence and betrayal. And my film project's "love your children" theme might sound studio-friendly. But here we're dealing with two clans that make us yearn for the great examples of familial bliss -- like, say, the Osbournes and the Mansons.
There's Tony Tarantino, who abandoned son Quentin before the boy was born. After Quentin becomes rich and famous, Tony seeks him out, only to be rebuffed by his kid, who remains a stranger. That doesn't stop Tony, though. With dreams of producing a $90 million movie called New Horizons, he tries to use his famous name to make a Hollywood "comeback."
If Tony is the dean of dysfunction, then Big Angie Rubbo is its diva. Her children may try to deny it, but she's the closest thing to Ma Barker in South Florida. The Rubbos remain intensely loyal and close to one another, but that may change a bit if Big Angie and her three sons are convicted of federal charges related to an allegedly Mafia-entangled, $11.7 million telemarketing fraud.
Bring Papa Tarantino and Mama Rubbo together and the screen will sizzle. Not with sex, thankfully, but with something that really brings out their passion: greed.
After the feds raided their boiler rooms in the summer of 2000, the Rubbos ultimately decided to venture into film production. Their previous forays into showbiz had met with only modest success, to say the least. Joe Rubbo, Big Angie's eldest son, had a significant role in the low-budget, 1982 teenage sex flick The Last American Virgin when he was 18 years old. He has been trying to crack into the acting business ever since, managing to land only bit parts. His younger sister, Little Angie, is an aspiring singer who sometimes performs Barbra Streisand numbers on Monday nights at Christopher's nightclub in Fort Lauderdale.
The Rubbos opened Make It Reel Productions in March 2001 and began looking for projects to finance -- and star vehicles for Joe and Little Angie. They took on a couple of small-budget local productions, including a flick called Pimps and Preachers, but never finished them. The big break came in July 2001, when a woman named Annie Gabriel, who was helping Tony Tarantino drum up cash for New Horizons, discovered the Make It Reel Website and contacted the Rubbos.
"She said, 'How'd you like to meet Quentin Tarantino's father?'" Joe Rubbo recalls. "And my eyes lit up."
Soon, Joe and his relatives were talking with the one and only Tony, who sent the Rubbos a packet that included the New Horizons script and a target cast that included names like Tom Cruise, Al Pacino, Paul Newman, Catherine Zeta-Jones, James Caan, and Beverly D'Angelo. Joe says Tony promised him a part alongside these stars if he ponied up the dough. "He said I could play the lead villain, and I was real excited," Joe says. "I'd never played a villain before.... I wanted to play alongside Tom Cruise."
In October 2001, Tarantino flew to Fort Lauderdale from Los Angeles to meet the Rubbos, who paid for his trip and put him up in the Boca Raton Marriott. Big Angie says something about the director's father struck her as odd. She recalls that he seemed well-dressed but that his sports jacket somehow harked back to the 1980s (she can't put her finger on exactly why). And the 61-year-old Tarantino's hair was jet black and obviously dyed. But it wasn't his jacket or hair that annoyed her; it was his mouth. He complained that the Rubbos didn't fly him first class.
"He said he had to travel first class," Big Angie recalls. "He said, 'This is not right.' And I said, 'But this is expensive to me. I'm just getting started. We fly coach.' And he insisted that his room needed to be on the water, [that] a man of his caliber had to be treated that way. I even had people driving him around."
But she allowed for some hubris. This was the man, after all, who spawned a great genius. During the next few days, Tony visited the Rubbos' offices and dined with them. Big Angie and Joe both remember Tony's boasts and promises. He dropped names like bread crumbs, claiming that famous people (including country singer and restaurateur Kenny Rogers) were going to give him millions of dollars.
"You figure you're with Tarantino, you're up there with the big boys," Joe Rubbo says ruefully. "He said he was personal friends with Al Pacino and he would be in the movie, no problem. Personal friends with James Caan, no problem. He was the best salesman I ever saw. He said Paul Newman was a friend and would make a cameo in the movie."
But there was just one star that the Rubbos were really interested in: Quentin Tarantino. "Of course, that's the first thing everyone asks Tony who sees him, 'How's Quentin?'" says Big Angie. "He'll say, 'Oh, he's fine' or 'He's good.' You only respect Tony because you think all of [Quentin's] talent must have come from him." Big Angie's current assessment: "It must have come from his mother."
She says Tony told her initially that he had "differences" with his son but that they spent the holidays together. Joe claims Tony Tarantino promised to introduce him to Quentin, a remote possibility, considering that Tony and Quentin are famously estranged.
Tony also went to Christopher's on a Monday night, where he sat in the VIP section and watched 30-year-old Little Angie, who resembles Edie Falco's character in The Sopranos, perform. Afterward, Tony promised that she would sing on the New Horizons soundtrack. "He said: 'I'm a man of my word, and I know talent. My son Quentin is talented, and your daughter Angela is talented. She'll be on the soundtrack,'" recalls Big Angie. "Later, he sent [Little Angie] this e-mail with his picture, and it said, 'See you in the movie.' He told everybody there that he was making his movie with the Rubbos. I have witnesses."
Before Tony returned to California, both sides agreed to let their attorneys hammer out a deal whereby Make It Reel would raise millions for the movie in exchange for a portion of the film's profits. The lawyers, however, never came to an agreement. That little technicality didn't stop the Rubbos. They issued a $90 million stock offering on their Website stating that they had a deal with Tony that would net the company half of New Horizons' profits. The family also put Tarantino's target cast on the Web.
Soon, the Rubbos were trying to drum up cash for New Horizons on the phones. It was their newest boiler-room operation -- or "telephone room," to use the Rubbos' preferred, more delicate term.
This past February 6, a potential investor from Cleveland named Sal D'Amico called the company. Big Angie picked up the phone. D'Amico said he was a movie buff and commented that New Horizons had a "hell of a nice cast."
"Right, a hell of a good cast," Big Angie replied. "So, did you want to invest in the movie?" She went on to say things like "It's a pleasure for me to work with Tarantino" and "If you look at [Tony's] Website, he and his son are very close, but they cannot have the same investors" and "Once [Tony] has all the money, he's going to sign Tom Cruise up first."
Big Angie transferred D'Amico to Peter Ragofsky, a Rubbo employee whom the National Association of Securities Dealers had banned from trading in 2000 for making unauthorized sales. Ragofsky told D'Amico that if he invested $50,000, he would be flown to the set during filming. Ragofsky laid it on thick, telling D'Amico that the company had already raised $15 million and that it often received seven $50,000 wires a day. "At a minimum, minimum, minimum, even if the earth was to crash, OK, I'm expecting because of you putting the 50 in, and it immediately becomes a hundred, for every dollar you send us, we're sending you back five," Ragofsky oozed.
D'Amico agreed to invest the money but never intended to pay it. His real name was Steve Massa; he was an undercover agent with the Ohio Attorney General's Office. Just as in the federal bust, the Rubbos had been suckered.
The recorded phone call is now part of a Securities and Exchange Commission case filed against Ragofsky and the Rubbo family (including Big Angie, Joe, Nicky, Patsy, and Little Angie). The SEC found that Cruise, Zeta-Jones, Newman, and Pacino were all oblivious to the New Horizons project. Tarantino cooperated with the SEC and filed a federal affidavit on February 20, asserting he never had a deal with Make It Reel.
The next day, the SEC shut down the business and froze all its assets, charging the Rubbos and Ragofsky with civil fraud and selling unregistered securities. The Rubbos could ultimately face stiff fines and other sanctions, all of which pale in comparison to the possible consequences of their criminal case.
Tarantino, in his affidavit, wrote that he told the Rubbos about the "actors he wanted to star in the film" but added, "I made it clear to everybody present... that none of these actors were attached to the film, especially Tom Cruise and Catherine Zeta-Jones."
But when it comes to Tarantino -- and to Pulp Nonfiction -- most things aren't so clear. On his own Website, www.tonytarantino.com, he writes of New Horizons: "From its inception, Tony wrote the lead character for Tom Cruise. Tony is now personally casting the rest of his main characters."
The language is deceptive. Did Cruise have Tony write it for him? Since he is casting the "rest" of the characters, does that mean Cruise signed on? It's classic Hollywood sleaze-speak, meant to encourage people to believe something not explicitly stated.
On a bulletin board on his site, Tony goes beyond sleaze-speak -- he flat-out states that Al Pacino is "attached" to his project: "Pacino is an actor. He lives to work, why wouldn't he work on 'New Horizons'? This is an 'A' list film with 'A' list actors attached, including Pacino. No contracts have been signed because we haven't gone into pre-production yet, but I do have letters of attachment from most of my talent."
Representatives from Creative Artists Agency, which represents Pacino, emphatically denied to me -- and to the SEC -- that ol' Scarface knew anything about New Horizons.
Tony's Website, then, offers proof that he was perfectly willing to blur -- and cross -- the line on all things regarding his relationship to Hollywood and to his own son. But Tony wouldn't talk to me, so I'm still trying to get a handle on his character. I think a clue comes from his own words in a 1998 Antelope Valley Press article, when he talks about a low-budget (and still unreleased) movie called Holy Hollywood, in which he played a casting agent named Dick who orders a hit on a showbiz competitor. "Dick is a nice guy in a lot of ways, but he's also a lecher," Tony said of his character. "...In truth, he's just a lonely guy. He's not married, he's in his late 50s, he has no family. He's always trying to impress the people around him because basically that's all he has."
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That sounds all too familiar: Tony has three children besides Quentin but isn't married. And it's part of the undercurrent of tragedy running through Pulp Nonfiction. There's drama in this thing, people, and there may even be some courtroom theatrics to come, as the family claims to be planning legal revenge on Tony. They say that he basically made a verbal agreement with them, that he desperately wanted whatever money they could raise for him, and that he stabbed them in the back in the end by cooperating with the SEC.
"We're going to file suit against him because this film was a dream of ours," Little Angie says. "I'm so sick of my family getting hurt and people walking away and smelling like roses."
But even the Rubbos agree that the story makes for great cinema. Joe Rubbo says if he doesn't go to the federal pen, he's bound for Tinsel Town (alone, likely, since the father of three says his marriage has been destroyed by his federal problems). "I am an actor, OK, and I don't like the way my acting career has been defaced here," he complains. "I can't even get an audition because of all of this. Maybe I'll just move to Hollywood. Hey, if all goes well, that's what I'm going to do. I should do my own story. Do you know any producers?"
Hold tight, Joe. We'll do lunch. I have some ideas -- and I don't mind prison food.