Interview: Matteo Merenda

Matteo MerendaWe all need to be challenged. For some that could mean moving across the country or for others it’s the next town over where you hear of writers trying new things and creating a community. The best thing any writer can do is surround yourself with better writers.” — Matteo Merenda 3/25/21


Who is Matteo Merenda?

Matteo Merenda is a veteran screenwriter, budding graphic novelist, and all around good guy who lives in Southeast Portland. I first met Matteo following a Kay Snow Writing Contest awards ceremony where we both received awards for screenplays we had submitted… his placed first and mine placed third. Matteo’s writing group had lost a couple people, and he asked me if I’d like to join them and give the group a tryout. That was nearly ten years ago, and we’ve been meeting regularly ever since.

When he’s not coming up with the supremely capable yet deeply flawed suspense and action characters in his screenplays, Matteo fills his time marketing iconic Pacific Northwest brands. He’s also ready at any time to provide a heartfelt, but clearly biased, New York-style review of any pizza place you’d care to mention.


The Interview…

J: Where are you from originally, and what was it like growing up there?

M: I was born and raised in White Plains, New York. It’s 25 miles north of NYC. Technically, it’s 16 miles north of the Bronx, but most think of NYC as midtown Manhattan. My mother worked in a bank in Brooklyn. Her co-workers always spoke of White Plains as  “up in the country.” Later when I went to college in a small town in Plattsburgh, N.Y. (near the Canadian border), the locals would say I was a “down-stater” as White Plains might as well be NYC.

Our home was in the Fisher Hill area of town. My father worked construction and I’m the youngest of three. I didn’t realize how fortunate I was that my neighborhood and school were so diverse. I grew up with guys nicknamed Boopy, Stinky, Rickashay and Squeaky — so many characters. Even though we were from different backgrounds, there wasn’t a race issue. You were from the neighborhood and no better than anyone else. It’s one of the reasons as a child I loved Sesame Street. The diversity of the actors reflected what I saw everyday – sans Big Bird of course. I look back fondly on that time. It was a special place to grow up.

J: That’s a great story, Matteo, and we’re just getting started. Sounds like a cool neighborhood and clearly brings back fond memories. You mentioned the diversity of the place… and the amazing nicknames. It has a storybook quality to it. Did it actually feel that way when you were a kid, or is that a perspective that came to you over time?

M: That’s an interesting question. I would have to say a little bit of both. I probably couldn’t tell you what made it so special at the time, but I remember feeling it was. Later on, when I came home from college. I was leaving my house with a friend when I ran into an old neighborhood buddy who was walking by. He and I caught up, had some laughs and asked about each other’s family. All of a sudden, he looks at my friend and says “That’s how we do around here.” He was giving the outsider – my friend – in six words how it worked.

J: Now I’m convinced that you’ve got to write a story set in your old neighborhood. So when you went to college, was that the first time you left? What was that like? And where’d you go to college by the way?

M: Yes, the first time I left home was college. I attended school in Plattsburgh, NY. It’s a small community in the North Country. It’s a little over an hour away from Montreal. I wasn’t much of a student before I went to college. In fact, I didn’t enjoy learning much at all. It’s there I discovered my love of foreign films, writing and working in the printmaking studio. I had to find my passion. Luckily, I had professors that took an interest and inspired me to become a life-long learner. Montreal is still one of my favorite cities. I discovered an appreciation for outdoor cafes at Le Saint-Sulpice.

J: Okay… there are a couple things you said that make me curious and I’ll get back to those. What I’m honing in on is Le Saint-Sulpice… maybe my covid isolation is making me crave a coffeeshop so much that I can’t think of anything else. So tell me about that place. I’ve never been to Montreal, but I’m guessing Le Saint-Sulpice was a significant change from the neighborhood where you grew up or it wouldn’t have made such an impression.

M: Even thinking of Montreal puts a smile on my face. My film professor was a huge Denys Arcand fan. We would watch his films in class. Many were shot on location in Montreal. The films seemed so foreign as they spoke French-Canadian, but accessible at the same time. That’s exactly what I love about the city too. Le Saint-Sulpice was the quintessential cafe. In the late spring/summer it was crowded. Locals smoked. We drank beer, sangria or both, at a small table near the fountain in the back. You could talk or just listen to the conversations buzzing in French or English. It was romantic as youth can be. I could sit there for hours.

J: College memories can be pretty great, and that sounds like a good one for sure. And since you keep bringing up foreign films, what are a few of your all time favorite foreign films… like name three. Here’s three of my favs… ‘I’ve Loved You So Long,’ which I think is French-Canadian, ‘To Love,’ which is Chinese, and ‘The Lives Of Others,’ a German one. Plus, I’ll give honorable mention to ‘The Hidden Blade,’ which is Japanese.

M: I’ve never seen any of the films you mention. Do you know if they are on Netflix or at the library? I’d love to see them. My favs… ‘8 1/2’ by Federico Fellini. All the performances are stellar, but Anouk Aimée… just brilliant. ‘Wild Strawberries’ and the ‘Seventh Seal’ by Ingmar Bergman. Plus, can I give two honorable mentions to ‘Rome Open City’ and ‘Jesus of Montreal?’ Is that allowed?

J: I don’t know where you can see my list other than on DVD, which I think I have for all three films. I’d be happy to loan them to you. Okay, so now tell me about life-long learning. Does that mean you’re an inquisitive person or that you’ve been continually attending school your entire life?

M: Regarding learning, my style is a bit of both. I’ve always taken a class here or there. Even if it’s just to try something out of my comfort zone — those classes include boxing, cyclo-cross and welding. That would be the answer to the jeopardy question… “Name three things Matteo didn’t excel in.” Although, never one to brag, I did get a solid B on my welding project. I’ve never wanted something to hold together in front of a group of people so bad in my life.

It’s definitely old school, but I recently started to read a physical newspaper again. I found that I was scanning and rushing through stories in my apps instead of taking the time to fully enjoy them. This has forced me to put aside time everyday to read. I forgot how much I love reading about different subjects and learning new words. For example, prestidigitation. I had to look that one up.

J: Prestidigitation… legerdemain… I was always too slight of hand for either. Okay… I promise that’s it for word play. At least for now. Instead, let’s talk more about old school sensations. I love that you’re reading a newspaper again. What paper is it, if you don’t mind my asking, and how did you go about choosing which paper to subscribe to? Also… do you feel like tangible, ritualized things like reading a newspaper puts you more in touch with what matters in life?

M: I read the Wall Street Journal. It’s a carry-over from my NY days. One of my first jobs out of college was in a Public Affairs office. I wrote a lot of press releases and read the paper everyday. I was surprised how much I enjoyed reading about far off places and world events. I also enjoy the local SE Examiner and look forward to reading that too.

Great question… I’m not sure if reading the paper puts me more in touch with what matters in life. One of the benefits though is not being online and inundated with bad news. Now I only read it once a day. Seriously though, for me that was becoming an issue. Also, after watching the Social Dilemma I’m a little suspect of what news I receive on social media. Is it a story that reflects my current beliefs, so I’m more likely to click on it? How do you grow and learn that way? I know I don’t have it all figured out. What it took me years to learn is, no one does. Best to keep reading!

J: I’ve never spent a lot of time with the Wall Street Journal, but as far as picking a New York carryover, that certainly makes sense because you clearly still love NYC. Now I have another film question if that’s okay with you. Because I know you’re a really good screenwriter and have a lot to share if you’re up for it. We’ve talked about when you fell in love with film and discovered foreign films, but you and I have been reading each other’s work for quite a while now, and I’ve read way more suspense and action writing than I have Fellini or Bergman type material. When did that switch take place?

M: When I moved to Portland I lived near Cinema 21. It was practically my second home. They would and still do show a lot of great film noir. It’s there I first saw Touch of Evil, Lady from Shanghai and The Third Man… the list goes on. The black and white cinematography, grittiness and flawed characters… I was in love. That’s the world I enjoy exploring in my own writing. On the TV side, I’ve always been drawn to sci-fi and fantasy. My all-time favorites: Danger Man – Colony 3; Supernatural – Pilot; Dr. Who – Blink; Twilight Zone – The Changing of the Guard; and Star Trek – City on the Edge of Forever. Those episodes set such a high bar. They inspire me to be a better version of myself as a writer.

J: That’s interesting… tell me a little more about what drew you to those films. You mention the grittiness and flawed characters. What is it about the darker side of human nature that brings life into focus for you? And what is it about those characters that speaks to you… what are you trying to say when you write about them?

M: The characters in these types of films are usually their own worst enemies. That element I find fascinating. Unfortunately, I’ve seen that play out in real life too. There’s nothing funny about that and it’s sad. In a noir story, you just want the character to go home. Instead they stay too long at Norma Desmond’s and end up dead in the pool. It’s easy to go down the wrong path. Sometimes, it’s pure luck we don’t.

J: They are their own worst enemies, I totally agree. Andyour two points are fascinating… it is very easy to go down the wrong path… a lot of times it’s pure luck when we don’t. So in both cases, why do you think that is? Maybe it’s because noir characters (and real people as well) either don’t have or don’t follow a basic set of rules or guidelines that are designed to keep you out of the pool. Or here’s another possibility… do you think it’s intrinsic to the personalities of these characters/people that they, at least subconsciously, intentionally go down the wrong path?

M: That’s a great question. The more I thought about it, I remembered the last scene in the Lady from Shanghai. When Michael says to Elsa…

“You said the world’s bad, and we can’t run away from the badness, and you’re right there, but you said we can’t fight it. We must deal with the badness and make terms, and didn’t the badness deal with you and make its own terms in the end, surely.”

In noir, that’s the answer. Of course it has to be said in a gritty setting, one or both people have been shot and the police are on the way.

J: So that’s noir film… how do you think any of this applies to real life? The noir idea has to come from somewhere, right?

M: I was on a plane with my daughter when she was younger. The man we were sitting next to asked if he could give my daughter a bit of advice. I said sure. He says “Stay on the right path. When you get off that path, it’s scary and hard to find your way back. It’s not impossible, but it makes life much more difficult.” I thought, that’s deep advice to give a seven-year-old, but there’s a lot of truth to that. In both noir and life.

J: So if a person is living a noir-style life, are they living in that world, which we agree is a potentially dangerous and self-destructive world, because they want to be (they chose to change paths) or because they couldn’t prevent it (their natural path put them there)?

M: What makes noir so interesting is you usually meet a character at the time they make the choices that put them in that potentially dangerous and self-destructive world. Like Fred McMurray in Double Indemnity. Or the case of a character who makes a bad choice years ago and it’s catching up to them now. That’s Burt Lancaster in The Killers. So choice is crucial in the noir world. I think it’s also crucial to the real world. Like the man said to my daughter,  it’s hard to get back on the right path. Unfortunately, all it takes is a few bad choices.

J: Do you think it helps the screenwriter to have experienced a noir-type world, at least to some extent or in some way, to better understand the world being created? If not, how does the writer avoid creating stereotypes or caricatures?

M: With any genre or types of film you are drawn to as a writer, you have to do the research. For me it was watching every noir film I could get my hands on. Reading books about the genre to learn about the origins and the rules, etc. As important as the genre, I always love the stories where the location is a character. That’s something you can’t fake and that’s where it’s easy to create stereotypes or caricatures. Being from New York, I see that all the time. I was watching a talk show and the actor was from a town close to where I was raised. The host asked him to do his best New York accent and he said something to the effect that this is how I talk. Which was brilliant, because most actors would do some dumb insulting caricature of an Italian or thick Brooklyn accent. Some people speak like that, sure, but it’s not like we all do or it’s even true to the town I grew up in.

When I set my noir in New Orleans, I made sure to travel there a few times. I’m not an expert on all things New Orleans – far from it. What I did get from walking the streets was the energy, the pace, and cadence of the accents I heard. Also, my allergies went insane and my nose ran the entire time. That bit of detail, I worked into the story. My character – like myself – was a stranger in a strange place. You don’t get that by using google maps.

J: New Orleans… what did that place feel like to you?

M: The city just has an incredible, unique energy. The music, food and history, it’s like no other place I’ve ever visited. It’s one of those places where anything feels possible. I remember walking at night and hearing the hiss of a gas lamp. I thought, you know if a vampire attacked me right now… if it could happen anywhere, it would be New Orleans.

I enjoyed the people. You feel the love they have for their city. At the same time, you gotta watch yourself. I was told that more than once by locals.

A family friend lives there. On my last night in town, she gave me a huge stack of newspapers. Which I thought… huh, that’s a bit strange to give someone who is getting on a plane tomorrow. Having said that, after reading the local paper I was able to get a better feel for the everyday. I created my mood board for my story from the paper clippings/images. It was beautiful and a bit jarring at the same time – perfect for noir.

J: Vampire is a perfect fit. I agree that if a vampire existed, it would probably be in New Orleans. It’s the place where good and evil frequent the same bars. Okay… let’s jump to a new project you’re working on, which is a graphic novel. Where are you in that process?

M: Staying home due to COVID, I used my time to research graphic novels. I’ve read a lot of books on the art of the medium, through the library I got my hands on a lot of classics in the genre and even took an online course. I remember reading The Dark Knight Returns when I was young. I was into Heavy Metal magazine too – yes, the nerd was strong in this one. I recently wrote a TV pilot called Seminary and thought it works as a graphic novel. So I’m working with a talented illustrator to bring it to life.

J: That’s cool, I’m anxious to see how that turns out. And I guess this is an example of your commitment to life-long learning. Do you feel like Portland is a good place for a writer of screenplays and graphic novels? And by the way, how did you end up in Portland?

M: Portland is a great town for writers. It’s inspiring to be in a place with so much talent. It sets the bar high for sure, but that’s a good thing. I try not to compete with anyone and just focus on running my race. I continue working at being the best writer I can be. This is a great place to do that.

I moved to Portland in the 90’s. It was supposed to be for a few years… I’m still here. I’ve seen a lot of changes in our city during that time. I do miss the ol’ Portland sometimes. That was Gus Van Sant’s Portland. The Pearl District was old warehouses. The pharmacy where they filmed Drugstore Cowboy was around the corner from where I lived. The energy was nothing like I had ever felt before.

J: The Portland you’re describing is the one I discovered when I first visited this place. That’s probably why I ended up here. But honestly, by the time I moved, that original once-in-forever creative energy was fading, but it remains a pretty cool place to be. And you’re right… it’s a great place for writers. Maybe that’s a good way to bring this conversation to a close… with a comment about writers and the importance of place. What would you say to a young person who wants to be a writer about how important it is to find a good place to get started… regardless of where they are now — country, town, city — what should they be looking for?

M: During this last year, most of us have experienced being distant from our community. Sure, video conferencing has been helpful to help stay connected and I’ve appreciated having that. But, you know there’s something to meeting with your writing group in person, having that physical connection to the space you’re in together. I look forward to that and will appreciate it even more in the future.

To answer what writers should look for… Where are you going to be inspired? Is it outside of your comfort zone? If yes, good. We all need to be challenged. For some that could mean moving across the country or for others it’s the next town over where you hear of writers trying new things and creating a community. The best thing any writer can do is surround yourself with better writers. That’s what I’ve done.