- 19 Sep 02
A once high-flying solicitor who was jailed for fraud, David Elio Malocco is now a budget film-maker with a strong anti-establishment view, a man who says he has swapped a "disgraceful" materialistic lifestyle for a social conscience. Here, he talks about crime, punishment, Sinn Fein, Shelbourne, God and the movies
“I have to be very careful what I say here,” David Elio Malocco confesses as he cautiously pulls up to my tape recorder in a quiet corner of the Clarence’s Octagon Bar. “I tend to get carried away. But I really don’t want to get involved in talking about things that happened eleven years ago.”
It’s understandable that the 46-year-old filmmaker doesn’t want to talk about his past, but also somewhat inevitable that he must. His first feature length movie Virgin Cowboys – the plot of which quite closely mirrors aspects of his own life – is currently doing the rounds of the international film festival circuit and garnering positive reviews – but it’s not as a film director that he first found fame, at least not on these shores. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Elio Malocco (as he was then more simply known) was one of Ireland’s highest-flying legal eagles. Young, wealthy, well connected and hugely controversial, he was the nearest thing the rather fusty-dusty profession had to a bona-fide celebrity (square).
It had taken him an impressively short amount of time to achieve that status. Born and bred in Dundalk, the son of an Italian immigrant and Irish mother, Malocco graduated from UCD with a law degree and set up his first legal practice in 1977, at the tender age of 21. At 25, he married Jane de Valera, a granddaughter of one of the founders of the State, bringing him to the attention of the gossip columns, and also to the board of the de Valera-controlled Irish Press, which made him a fully-fledged director in 1985.
Malocco took only three criminal cases in his entire career, but each was hugely controversial and well-publicised – the passports for sale case in ’87, the 1988 extradition of Fr. Patrick Ryan; and another high-profile extradition case. Still only in his early thirties, with a formidable reputation and the highest profile of any solicitor in the state, it seemed that Elio Malocco could do no wrong.
Unfortunately, he had been doing wrong – and he was about to get caught. In the autumn of 1991, the chairman of the board of the Irish Press discovered that Malocco had been using money from the paper’s libel fund to temporarily cover losses from his own investments. The Fraud Squad was immediately called in and, within weeks, Malocco was suspended from practice. Named and shamed – most prominently in the paper he had allegedly wronged – he left for New York almost immediately afterwards, enrolling in NYU and studying film for the next two years, while the case against him was being prepared back home.
At the request of the Irish authorities, he voluntarily returned to Ireland in 1993 to face the music. Although he pleaded innocent, the jury wasn’t convinced and Malocco was convicted on six counts of fraud and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. His trial lasted eleven days and, even if he had been cleared, by then his reputation was already in tatters. As was his marriage.
After serving two years and six months in Mountjoy, Malocco – by all accounts, a model prisoner – was granted day-release, and gradually set about reinventing himself. Having lain low for his first two years of freedom, he initially tried to make it in the media. He launched a men’s magazine called Patrick in 1998, but the title folded after just four issues. He subsequently turned his attentions to the movie world, where he has so far been a lot more successful. It’s too early to say, but it may yet be as a filmmaker that David Elio Malocco is remembered.
His first major feature Virgin Cowboys – which he wrote, directed and produced – received its world premiere at the Galway Film Fleadh last July. A tightly scripted and fast-moving comedy thriller, it is a highly entertaining debut. Although it occasionally shows the strains of its minimalist £125,000 budget, your Hotpress correspondent was hooked right up to the twist at the end.
The plot centres around a Dublin psychiatrist and his English nephew, who’ve been ripped off by a corrupt banker, and are now seeking their revenge, with the aid of a criminal gang. As a result of the rip off, the psychiatrist has been suspended from his practice, abandoned by his wife, charged with forgery, and imprisoned in Mountjoy jail.
Any of that sound familiar?
OLAF TYARANSEN: Should I call you David or Elio?
DAVID ELIO MALOCCO: Elio. Actually, it doesn’t matter – David or Elio. I’m used to both of them now. In America, they call me David.
OT: You claim that Virgin Cowboys isn’t autobiographical, but there are certainly parallels with your own life there. Most especially, the character of the respectable psychiatrist who’s sent to jail.
DEM: Yeah, there are parallels but it’s like people will say to you, “Oh that character that’s in the film is actually so and so, isn’t it?” But it’s not. If you write fiction and develop a character, that character’s never a single one person that you know, it’s always a composite of different people. Because you’re trying to make the characters a lot more interesting than people really are. So, in that respect, the psychiatrist wasn’t meant to be me. He was meant to be a big lush (laughs). I’m not a big lush.
OT: Is the film in any sense meant to be an apology for what happened to you?
DEM: No. This guy [in the film] had signed somebody else’s name having been given permission to do it and he didn’t realise that what he had done was illegal – or even immoral – because he had been given permission to do it. And the consequences of all of that were horrific for him. It’s very interesting to watch this film in front of an American audience who don’t know anything about my past, and watch how they react . They just thought the whole thing was hilarious. They just thought it could never really happen to anybody.
OT: What made you decide to study film when you left Ireland and went to live in New York?
DEM: It was by accident. I wanted to study psychology but all the classes were filled. And I had a big cheque with me and I had to use it because it was made out to NYU, so film courses were the only ones that were left open that I had any interest in.
OT: Your father had a movie camera when you were young though, didn’t he?
DEM: Yeah. He was mad about films. We used to stage plays above the restaurant in Dundalk and pretend that we had multiple cameras and stuff like this. That was when I was about six. But I never thought I’d actually end up doing it for real.
OT: Do you regret having originally become a lawyer, now that you’ve found your true vocation?
DEM: No, I don’t regret anything. I think it’s a stupid thing to say you regret certain things. Obviously things happen to you and you wish they hadn’t. But I really believe that you control your own destiny. You make your own mistakes and the most important thing is to learn from those mistakes, and I think you become a better person if you make plenty of mistakes and you learn from them.
OT: Are you religious?
DEM: Em… I don’t really know at this stage if I am religious. I used to be extremely religious and very much a Catholic, and then about three years ago a number of things happened – not to me – but a number of things happened that made me question the whole system of religion and God, and whether he exists. And I suddenly came to the conclusion that I didn’t believe anymore. And that was simply it. I just didn’t believe that there was a God. It’s a personal opinion, I wouldn’t try and ram it down anybody’s throat. But for me it certainly changed my life, because instead of going to bed and praying that something good was going to happen, I believed that I was actually praying to nobody. Because nobody’s gonna help me unless I was gonna help myself. And it certainly made a difference in my life because I simply went out and did what I wanted to do.
OT: Looking at your CV, you strike me as someone who’s very driven and academically bright.
DEM: Well, first of all, I’m not a very bright person. I’d like to knock that one on the head! I don’t find it easy to study, I find it very, very difficult. It’s always been a hard slog. I mean, there are people in my family that are a lot brighter than me.
OT: Still, your reputation as a lawyer was quite formidable.
DEM: Yeah, but that doesn’t mean that you’re intellectually smart or bright. You just need to know how the system works and use it.
OT: You were known as a fairly heavy-hitter.
DEM: I was pretty ruthless. I don’t make any apology for that because I was paid a lot of money to do certain things and I did them and that was it. I remember having an argument with somebody from the NUJ who didn’t want to let me into the NUJ because they said that I’d sued journalists. I said that that’s what I was paid to do. And if I was a lawyer now and I was paid to do that, then I’d continue to do it. I don’t make any apologies for doing the things that I was supposed to do at the time. Obviously now that wouldn’t arise because I’d never practice as a lawyer again.
OT: You’ve personally sued both the News Of The World and RTE for libel in the past, haven’t you?
DEM: I’ve sued lots of people, and I’ll continue to sue lots of people that write things about me that are completely untrue and damaging.
OT: Is that a threat?
DEM: No it’s not a threat (laughs). But there used to be a feeling in this country that you could say anything about anyone and get away with it. Luckily, that’s changed. It’s very wrong to make up things about people and then print them. Because people really don’t have an opportunity to defend themselves. I mean, I think it’s terrible the way some newspapers feel they can say anything they like about people who’ve been to prison. You’ll always see when somebody gets convicted of a crime in this country and they go to prison, all of a sudden there’s a whole litany of other crimes that they’ve never even been accused of. You know, the papers are saying that they did this or they were known to do that. It happened with Catherine Nevin and it happens with any big name that goes to prison. And it’s just disgusting.
OT: You married into a political family. Have you any interest in politics?
DEM: I have no interest in politics in this country because I think the whole political system is corrupt.
OT: You joined Sinn Fein in college though, didn’t you?
DEM: When I went to college I joined Sinn Fein – or Provisional Sinn Fein as it then was. I was a pretty active member. I resigned at the time of the Birmingham bombings [in 1974], because I didn’t feel that targeting civilians was going to bring a united Ireland forward. And I was right. I was still a republican right up until about ten years ago, and then I just went, ‘Well, what’s the point in the whole thing?’ I just can’t understand the Northern situation and the way people go on up there. I mean, do they want peace or do they not want peace? I just can’t get my head around it all. So I’ve no political interest, as such. I say, ‘as such’, because I’ve just started writing a script which will blow the lid off politics in this country. I’m gonna start shooting it hopefully before the end of the year, but it’s gonna take two years. And I think it’s gonna cover everything that’s happened over the last ten years.
OT: I read somewhere that you were making a movie called Magdalen…\\
DEM: Magdalen is finished. It’s about prostitution, the story of three different prostitutes in Dublin. We finished it immediately after Virgin Cowboys and we sent it off to a whole load of film festivals. I was talking to one guy from the Boston Underground Film Festival and I asked him what he thought of it and he said to me, “I’ve only watched the first half but it’s either a crock of shit or it’s absolutely brilliant!” (laughs).
OT: Was there any particular reason why you left the open prison at Shelton Abbey? I heard you had a falling-out with a prison warder…
DEM: Yes. There were a couple of people down there who were not fit to be human beings. They were OK if you did what they said, right or wrong, and I wasn’t prepared to do that. So basically I was transferred back to Mountjoy.
OT: Did you get many fellow prisoners looking for free legal advice?
DEM: Well there were a lot of prison lawyers in there already. Guys who were in for fifteen years – armed robbers or whatever – who’d studied the law and knew a lot more than I did. So I didn’t get that much. I used to help people write love letters and stuff, letters to their girlfriends, which was quite funny (chuckles). A lot of prisoners can’t write so it was good to help them like that. Good fun too!
OT: Has the experience of having been to prison changed you very much?
DEM: I really think it’s completely irrelevant. It hasn’t really changed me. In fact, it hasn’t changed me at all. It hasn’t changed my life. I don’t think about it. It doesn’t spur me on to write movies like The Shawshank Redemption and stuff like that. It was a pretty irrelevant period in my life where I just got my act together, did a bit of studying and sorted my head out. But I didn’t need to go to prison to do that (laughs). I just needed the space.
OT: What happened at the Irish Press affected a lot of people. Does that thought ever haunt you at all?
DEM:What happened… (pauses). Everybody that lost money was repaid by the insurance company, so nobody actually lost any money – that’s a complete myth. It’s also a complete myth to say that two million pounds went missing. Nothing like that went missing at all.
OT: Do you feel hard done-by over the whole thing?
DEM: It’s too long ago for me to even care about (shrugs indifferently).
OT: Did your hair turn grey around then?
DEM: My hair was always grey (laughs). It runs in my family. But it happened eleven years ago, it’s over and done with, and that’s it!
OT: But even if you do firmly establish yourself as a filmmaker, your past will always be something that interviewers will want to talk about?
DEM: I think in this country people will always want to talk about it a lot. I don’t think anyone else does though. I’ve been interviewed extensively in America and people were aware of my past, and they never really regarded it as being relevant.
OT: How has your 16-year-old son dealt with everything?
DEM: I can’t answer any questions about him.
OT: I know that your marriage broke-up. But you’re in a new long-term relationship?
DEM: Yeah. I am. Very happy. That’s it.
OT: Shortly after you got out of prison, you launched a men’s magazine…
DEM: That’s right – Patrick. It was something similar to Himself magazine, the one that Kevin Kelly had brought out.
OT: There was an injunction taken out against it.
DEM: Yeah, we were injuncted by John Reynolds on our first issue. We weren’t aware at that stage that there was a court case coming up six months later which would have made a big impact in our case. But anyway, the magazine wasn’t making any money, we weren’t increasing circulation, and I was spending a lot of time – about sixty hours a week – on it. It just seemed pointless. We got about four issues out. Kevin Kelly then closed his magazine down just before ours and I figured if he says there’s no market for it, there’s no market.
OT: You once spoke about starting your own newspaper. You obviously have a serious interest in media…
DEM: I had at that time. I don’t really any more. I was mad into publishing. I really thought you could change the world if you had something decent to say. I really don’t believe that any more. I’ve become quite cynical in my old age (smiles).
OT: Is it true that you once tried to buy Shelbourne Football Club?
DEM: I’ve always been a Shelbourne fan – still am – and I did make an approach to buy a substantial shareholding in their company, and they thought because I was such a nice guy and such a good fan that they’d bring me on board as a director. Actually, things went really well when I joined them. We won the League and the Cup, which we hadn’t done for decades. And we built up a huge support base, which has sort of evaporated over the last ten years. I was at the last game between Pats and Shelbourne, and our support has really dwindled again. But I’m still a Shelbourne supporter.
OT: You also attempted to buy into 98FM?
DEM: No, I had meetings with that guy… what was his name? That guy, looks like a pig… Denis O’Brien! I remember I had meetings with that guy, but they never really came to anything. Which is just as well. I’m glad I didn’t get involved.
OT: Is it true that you joined the Simon Community when you got out of prison?
DEM: Yeah, for two years. The Friday night soup run. It restored my belief in human nature. It was amazing to find so many good people – you know, not a bad one amongst them. It was a great experience.
OT: When you were a high-profile lawyer, would you have seen yourself as being above those people?
DEM: No. I never felt myself above anybody. I’m not the kind of person who’d look down on anybody.
OT: Do you see yourself as a good person?
DEM: Yeah, I do. I actually like the person I am. I’m very different to the type of person that I think people perceive me as being. Some people are actually quite frightened to meet me, they think I’m arrogant or whatever. I’m actually very quiet. But I think I know the difference between right and wrong. I would like to think I’m a caring person, one of the few people in this country that really cares about the people who aren’t being looked after properly. I’m glad I’m not one of the people who’re only interested in changing houses or changing cars and bettering themselves and fuck everybody else.
OT: You spent a long time as one of those people.
DEM: Yeah, I spent ten years of it, which was an absolute disgrace. But I’m delighted that I’m not that kind of person anymore, that I have a social conscience. I mean, a lot of people didn’t want me to do Simon – it can be quite dangerous. Quite unpleasant. But I’m glad I did it. There’s a lot of people who’re just totally out of it in this country, they’ve no idea what’s going on. It still amazes me the attitude that some people have when they see somebody on the street begging, and they say, “Go and get a job!” Jesus! You’d think in this day and age that people would be a lot more educated, a lot more sussed. But they’re not.
OT: How are you going to fund your next movie?
DEM: I’ve set up a company with Eric Courtney called Executive Video Services to make corporate videos and wedding videos – at the high end of the market – and we’re going to do that while we continue to make feature films, because that’s basically the only way you can work in this country. There’s no work here, unless you create it yourself.
OT: Is it true that you worked on the set of a Wesley Snipes movie when you were studying in New York?
DEM: Yeah, I can’t even remember the name of it now. I met Al Pacino (laughs). The amazing thing about Al Pacino is that every time I see him he’s younger looking than he was when I met him ten years ago. It’s absolutely incredible. I can’t believe it. When I met him first he looked like an old man, and now he looks younger than me.
OT: Do you see yourself more as a creative type or as a money type?
DEM: Both. Which is why I think this business suits me so well. I can write. I can direct because I’m good with people that I deal with on a one-to-one basis. And I can produce because I’ve got the business background. So it’s perfect for me.
OT: Has your legal background helped much?
DEM: You certainly wise-up a lot. You don’t take anything for granted and you check the fine print. So it has been useful, yeah.
OT: Have you any old friends from the legal profession?
DEM: Em… (pauses) I’m trying to think if I have even one. I’m not sure that there’s even one. I probably do now, and they’ll get terribly offended that I didn’t think of them. But if I do have one, it’s one.
OT: Did anybody come in and visit you when you were sent away?
DEM: No. Only to serve proceedings from other things (laughs).
OT: Do you drink much?
DEM: No. I don’t drink that much. I like a glass of wine, but I’m not a mad drinker.
OT: Ever taken any drugs?
DEM: No. You’re sounding like a social worker now!! (laughs). People don’t believe me when I say I’ve never taken drugs. I don’t take drugs. I’ve never taken them and I’ve really no interest in taking them. But I’m not saying there’s anything bad in taking them. I certainly think that there are a lot of drugs that are a lot less dangerous than the number of gin and tonics that people drink. And I’m very much in favour of the legalisation of drugs. I think that’s something that must come very soon because only when it’s legalised or decriminalised can it be regulated. It’s pathetic to hear 50-year-old alcoholic politicians going on the radio saying, “Oh, we’ll never legalise drugs because they lead onto other things.” That’s just pathetic! That’s the reason why young people in this country won’t vote. They’ve absolutely no respect for politicians.
OT: What are you trying to say in your films?
DEM: Nothing terribly highbrow. I’m just trying to make films and make people laugh. It’s basically entertainment – but with a social message. You’ve seen Virgin Cowboys so you know there’s a lot of stuff about Mountjoy in it, about locking people up. You know, if you have a pet dog who bites you and you lock him up for a year – or three years – and then you suddenly let him out, thinking that he’s gonna come over and start being good and letting you pet him, it doesn’t happen. And human beings aren’t any different. You cannot lock people up and throw away the key.
OT: Something that should be obvious from the recidivism rates!
DEM: It’s not because people are intrinsically bad, it’s because people come out and nobody’s gonna give them a job. You’ve got to really look at that. We don’t have a society that looks at that, we have a John O’Donoghue or Nora Owens-type society that adopts this fire engine approach to justice. You know, we’ll eradicate all the fires by having more fire engines, without even looking at the causes. And it’s an ignorant approach. And there isn’t anybody on the horizon who’s gonna change that. Certainly Michael MacDowell isn’t. He’s the only hope there is and he’s not gonna change it. So why don’t young people vote? Because nobody’s saying anything radical.
OT: What’s your all-time favourite movie?
DEM: Any film that can make me laugh. I’ve got loads of different movies that I love watching – like Ed Woods, with Johnny Depp.
OT: What directors do you admire?
DEM: I love Orson Welles, not because of the films he made but because he was brilliant and he… (pauses). Everybody was against him, you know. He was such a genius and he would not join the establishment. I always admire people that are rule-breakers because it’s the rule-breakers that really change things in society. And he was one of those. As a human being he was just astounding.
OT: As a filmmaker, are you looking to make money or to make art?
DEM: Obviously I haven’t had any money for eleven years… (stares off into space, smiling)… four months… thirty days… six hours (laughs). It’d be nice to have enough money to be able to pay for your car and your insurance and shit like that. But money isn’t important to me. I’d like to make enough money to live comfortably, and have breathing space to write good stuff and film good stuff, the way I want it. And that will most certainly come.
OT: Do you have a motto in life or any particular guiding philosophy?
DEM: I just get on with it. Stop moaning and get on with it. That’s basically it (laughs).
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