Joe Medeiros was the head writer of the Jay Leno show for 17 years, until 2009. For the past four years, a mystery he learned of while a young man has absorbed his energy and time, and now, the journey he started in 1976 has culminated in a documentary film called The Missing Piece: The Truth About the Man Who Stole The Mona Lisa. The film is a forensic analysis of over 1500 pieces of evidence of an event that started nearly 100 years ago when Vincenzo Peruggia, an unassuming housepainter from Italy, pulled off “the greatest art heist in modern times.”
Why did Peruggia do it? The answer Medeiros found does not jibe with the conclusions of the newspaper accounts of the day.
AMFM: Tell us about the impetus behind the movie.
Joe: It all began in 1976, I was a young guy a couple of years out of film school. And one night I opened up a book I had on Leonardo Da Vinci and I read a single sentence that literally changed the next 30 years of my life.
AMFM: Let me ask you the ethnic origin of your last name.
Joe: Yes, Medeiros is a Portuguese name. My father’s people came from the Azores, a little island in the atlantic ocean. They settled in Hawaii and my father was a merchant seaman during the second Word War. He sailed to Philadelphia where he met my mother, who was Italian, so I’m Italian on my mother’s side. Italian is really my adopted culture. My father being Portuguese but from Hawaii, It is sort of a weird mix. I know nothing Portuguese, I know some Hawaiian things like Poi, and they cook a pig in a pit and that sort of thing. Italian is my adopted culture, I grew up in Philadelphia, I am from south Philadelphia, I married a girl from south Philadelphia, that is the culture that I am most comfortable with.
AMFM: After the journey to Italy and the completion of the film, how did you feel at the end of the film? How many years was this in the making?
Joe: When you make a film you don’t shoot it in chronological order. It’s really been like a four year journey when we first started rolling cameras to when we said ‘Enough is enough, we are done editing!’
AMFM: So, what prompted it four years ago for it to finally be “go” time?
Joe: When I had discovered that the painting had been stolen in 1976 and I wanted to write a film script, a fictional version of it. But I didn’t want it to be completely fictional, I almost wanted it to be like a screen biography. I’m a big fan of movies like Lawrence of Arabia and Patton, or even Amadeus where the main character is rooted in history. Now, the man who stole the Mona Lisa certainly is not of that type of character but I wanted to tell his story and there just wasn’t enough information to write the script. When I discovered that his daughter was alive, four years ago, thats when I got the idea to not write a fictional film but to write a documentary and get the truth from her. So that was really impetus to get going with the thing, and since she was a 85 year old woman I knew quite frankly that I had to move fast.
I love when it’s unfolding right in front of you. Where its not scripted. It’s not set up. It’s real. The real moments to me were always the funniest moments. And in my film any of the funny moments were the real moments and certainly the most dramatic moments. When Celestina is reading the letters that her father wrote and she is seeing that he’s saying the reasons for stealing the Mona Lisa, the expressions on her face, I could not have imitated that. I was fortunate that the cameras were rolling at the time and we were there presenting it to her. You couldn’t recreate that. That’s what I love about the medium of documentary. It’s real.
AMFM: Was there a difference between writing this and your normal writing for the Jay Leno show? I noticed you turned something serious into a a comedy. Is it the same process for you?
Joe: It’s different. When you’re writing for a late night show, first of all it’s very topical, it’s not dealing with things a hundred years ago. Unless it’s the anniversary for something a hundred years ago and you’re breaking a joke about it. You’re dealing with today, and what’s in the news today and because it’s a daily show you need to be very quick and knock the things out in a timely manner. When you’re doing a project like this that stretches over years and you have an almost infinite amount of time to tweak it, (especially since I did most of the first editing by myself) you can just sit there forever. There is no clock running to tell you ‘You’ve got to wrap it up, we’re taping in half an hour.’ It’s a little different in that way. I didn’t set out to make this funny. I set out to make it entertaining and that meant doing a little twist of words here or a little visual joke or something to get the audience to laugh then that was good. At least it would keep your interest for another few minutes until I got the more serious part of the story out.
I was more interested in correcting all the mistakes that have been piling up over the hundred years since the theft, about this man, about the theft, why he did it, who he was, how he stole it. There were so many incorrect things that I found myself being “the expert” on the Mona Lisa. No offense to journalists, but they wanted to tell the most interesting story back then, and that means not the real story about some guy that kept it and stuck it in a room for two and a half years. With any kind of conspiracy theory no one wants to know the truth because the truth really isn’t that interesting. So I wanted to tell the truth in an interesting way. And I think that because I got to the humanity of the thief and I was able to relate at least to myself to understand why he stole it in a way that wasn’t crazy.
He wasn’t a criminal in a way that he did this sort of thing all the time. It was a very grounded, understandable reason why he stole it. Certainly I can’t condone it but at least I can understand it and if I were in his place, thinking the things he was thinking, would I do the same thing? Y’know, maybe.
Basically he stole the wrong painting though.
He thought that the paintings in the Louvre were stolen by the French. And there were some paintings still in the Louvre that the French did not return after Napoleon fell. One of them is a canvas 20 feet high which he couldn’t carry. He took the one, the Mona Lisa, that is the legal property of France, though he had no right to take it.
Originally he said he was going to take one by Mantegna called Parnassus. I looked at that and it was a big nine foot canvas, he could have rolled it up. I figured that the reason that he like that was because he was a young man and there were naked women in it. So i figure that that appealed to him. But I guess he had second thoughts about actually cutting a painting out of a frame. I think that he didn’t want to do that and I think that it would have been a little bit more noticeable. He was able to take the Mona Lisa to a stairwell, a service staircase where he was basically alone, and had time to remove it from the frame, which is what he needed to do.
AMFM: A funny part of the movie was the commercial opportunists from the next town over..
Joe: The side story to it is that everybody wonders if he had accomplices, and he did have a friend, Lancellotti, who he played music with who allowed him to store the Mona Lisa in his apartment. Lancellotti’s family says that he was the one that stole the painting. I guess everybody wants to take credit for the crime. But the interesting part of Lancellotti’s story is Lancellotti said that they brought the painting to Italy shortly after the theft. To his father’s osteria, or tavern. And basically they kept it on a table covered up for two years, that’s where the Mona Lisa was, not in his apartment but on a table in a bar in Italy.
AMFM: So what’s next for you?
Joe: Who knows? The answer I’ve been giving to that kind of question has been, you know it’s taken me 36 years to do this film and I’m 61. So going with my track record I’m going to 97 before I have the next movie out. And it’s probably going to be something about oatmeal at that age. I loved the investigative journalism, I never inspired to be a journalist but I wanted to be an archeologist as a kid. I love to unearth things and then piecing it together and making a story. If I can find another topic that I could be equally as passionate about, or even if I were half as passionate about it I would tackle it. This has been a lifelong interest of mine. So to find something to replace it, is going to be less. But I would still like to apply the skills that I learned in this project on whatever my next project is going to be.