Charles Brandt spent five years interviewing Frank Sheeran, the longtime Teamsters union official, confidant of Mafia chieftain Russell Bufalino — and the man who confessed to killing notorious union leader Jimmy Hoffa.
In March, Brandt will discuss his book, “I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran and the Inside Story of the Mafia, the Teamsters & the Last Ride of Jimmy Hoffa,” and the upcoming star-studded film based on his work at the Northeast Pennsylvania Film Festival, coming to downtown Scranton and Waverly Twp. from Friday, March 22, through Sunday, March 24. The festival announced its lineup Monday at the Ritz.
“After the book came out, I spent a fair amount of time in Northeast Pennsylvania,” Brandt recalled recently by phone from his home in Idaho. “I had not been there while I was researching with Frank Sheeran or while I was writing the book, but afterward I got invited over the course of the years to many functions there, and (I) have developed a rapport with an awful lot of people. … I became kind of adopted by the locals, and that’s how they got me for the film festival.”
Film festival screenings will take place at Waverly Community House, 1115 North Abington Road, Waverly Twp.; the Ritz Theater, 222 Wyoming Ave., Scranton; and PNC Auditorium in Loyola Science Center at University of Scranton.
“We’re so excited and grateful for the support of the local filmmaking community,” said Maria Wilson, executive director of the Comm, whose F. Lammot Belin Arts Foundation supports the festival.
More than 50 films will screen during the festival, which will hold a kickoff gala that Friday at the Comm. Dallas film producer, writer and director Robert May will receive the F. Lammot Belin Award for Excellence in Cinema that night, and the festival will show his 2003 film, “The Station Agent,” followed by a question-and-answer session.
Also that night, Waverly Twp. native and Abington Heights High School alumna Lisa Marie Stetler, who produced the 2017 animated feature “Ferdinand,” will receive the festival’s Vision Award. She also will lead a panel brunch discussion, “Pitch, Fund, Cast,” alongside Mountain Top filmmaker Chris Fetchko and casting agent and Old Forge native Mia Cusamano that Saturday at 10:30 a.m. at POSH at the Scranton Club, 404 N. Washington Ave.
Brandt’s talk, “When Scorsese Calls,” will take place Saturday, March 23, at 3:30 p.m. in the private event space at the Bittenbender Building, 126 Franklin Ave., Scranton. Books will be available for purchase for Brandt to sign.
Also on Saturday, the festival will screen the documentary “The Pretender,” about Scranton native Mike Kunda as he pursues his dream of becoming a Rocky Balboa impersonator. That will begin at 7 p.m. at the Ritz Theater.
Kunda noted that the “Rocky” part of his life — as not only an impersonator but also manager of “Rocky”-based tours in Philadelphia — didn’t move forward until about 10 years ago, when he was 40.
“For me, if anyone ever had a dream, it’s never too late to go back,” Kunda said of his goal for the film’s message.
And at 9 that night, festivalgoers can catch Fetchko’s film “All in Time,” which was shot almost entirely in NEPA.
On Sunday, the action shifts to PNC Auditorium, where guests can watch student films, catch a panel discussion and see the results of the Mystery Box Challenge.
For Brandt, the path from page to screen began when the attorney took on Sheeran as a client, trying to gain Sheeran’s release from prison because of a medical condition. Sheeran mentioned that he had read one of Brandt’s books behind bars and told him he was “tired of being written about in all the books on Hoffa as one of those who participated in Hoffa’s murder,” Brandt said, “and he wanted to tell his side of it, and he wanted me to write it.”
Brandt said he knew Sheeran actually wanted to confess.
“And so I met with him,” Brandt said. “And boy did it pour out of him.”
But when Brandt showed Sheeran what he had typed up, the gangster was appalled. With Bufalino still alive at the time, Sheeran balked at making his thoughts public. Brandt told Sheeran to come back if he ever changed his mind.
It took eight and a half years, but Sheeran eventually returned. Bufalino had died by then, Brandt noted, and Sheeran wasn’t afraid. “I Heard You Paint Houses” came out in 2004, just a few month’s after Sheeran’s death. It details Sheeran’s interactions with Hoffa as well as Bufalino, who lived in Kingston and may have ordered Hoffa’s assassination. A former Teamsters president, Hoffa disappeared July 30, 1975, and his body has never been found.
Brandt said he hopes readers take away from his book “the humanity of people.”
“This is a cold-blooded killer, Frank Sheeran, who was formed by his 411 combat days (in World War II), but he never stopped feeling remorse,” Brandt said. “He was ordered to do things that if he hadn’t done them, they’d have gotten done anyway, and he’d have been dead.
“Ultimately, this man that determined the life expectancy of many others determined his own life expectancy and committed suicide by stopping eating. And he returned to his religion, his Catholicism, and sought forgiveness for what he had done. And that’s what drove him to confess to me over the five years we spent together.”
This year, Netflix will release “The Irishman,” the Martin Scorsese-directed adaptation of the book that stars Robert De Niro as Sheeran, Al Pacino as Hoffa and Joe Pesci as Bufalino. Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin, Jack Huston, Harvey Keitel, Sebastian Maniscalco and Ray Romano round out the cast. It all comes after De Niro’s office called Brandt’s publisher way back in 2007 to see if the film rights to the book were available.
“There’s an old saying: ‘Dear Lord, give me patience, but give it to me right now,’ and that was the philosophy my wife and I had about it,” Brandt said of the 12 years between that call and the film’s release. “We just knew it (that) there was a lesson of patience in there somewhere, and what we were waiting for was the most special thing any writer could hope for. To say it was worth the wait is an understatement. And to be waiting for Martin Scorsese to direct a book that you wrote — holy cow.”
A long journey
After the initial contact in 2007 and then providing material for the film in 2009, Brandt heard nothing about the movie until 2016, when De Niro got in touch about meeting. Brandt met several times with the film’s creators, read the script (penned by Steven Zaillian, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Schindler’s List”) and provided notes.
“The last script they gave me, I emailed them back that I had no notes, that this was Frank Sheeran’s journey and this captures the Frank Sheeran that I knew,” Brandt said.
The movie began filming in 2017, and Brandt visited the set, which included New York City’s Roosevelt Hotel, where one of Brandt’s uncles was once head of room service, and outdoors in Queens’ Ridgewood neighborhood, where Brandt grew up.
“It was wonderful to be there,” Brandt said.
Brandt said he never doubted the truth of what Sheeran told him. And when it comes to the film, Brandt wants audiences “to be entertained more than anything, I guess, because it’s a very entertaining story to begin with.”
“And the mystery’s been solved, what happened to Hoffa,” he added. “There’s no doubt about it.”