Although The Leisure Seeker embraces the iconic Americana of campgrounds and diners, theme parks and scenic vistas, “I didn’t want to make an American movie—I wanted to make a movie of my own in America.”
Directed by Paolo Virzì, winner of the 2017 David di Donatello Best Director Award, the great American road movie is renewed and refreshed in The Leisure Seeker.
An American movie?
I never thought that one day I would make a film in another country, in a language that is not my own, and I am still wondering how that happened.
Did I feel like a change of scenery, taking my crew wandering?
Has the world shrunk so much that contemporary cinema can afford a freedom of movement that was unthinkable a few decades ago?
Meanwhile, let me try to recap the creative process and production steps of “The Leisure Seeker”, which actually began a few years ago when a film of mine (La Prima Cosa Bella) , and then another one (Human Capital), were selected as “Italian entries” to take part in that fun and slightly nonsensical merry-go-round of the Oscar campaign for the “Best Foreign Language Picture” award.
As both films had been released in the U.S. I found myself receiving offers to make some movies there, but I declined every time. In most cases, they were scripts of projects in which I had, frankly, little interest and which may never see the light.
My Indiana Production partners, who shared that campaign experience with me, could not set their minds at rest, they could not understand why I wanted to dodge these opportunities. So I made them a promise: let’s find an intriguing idea, perhaps starting from a book, and work the way I am used to, with my writing team, and then I would be happy to reconsider.
So boxes and boxes of American novels and short stories began pouring into my office, sent by the Indiana Production people.
Among them was this short novel by Michael Zadoorian, the story of an elderly couple running away from the Detroit suburbs to California in their old RV, along the iconic Route 66.
I immediately found something very appealing in it: a subversive spirit, a rebellion against the hospitalization imposed by doctors, their children, society and the health care system.
But at the same time I felt that their trip retraced an itinerary across a landscape seen so many times in many great movies; there was a danger of getting stuck on clichés, as sometimes happens to American directors when they make movies in Italy and end up shooting mostly touristy and picturesque places.
Moreover, Zadoorian’s book paints an affectionately ironic picture of a very tacky America, culminating in Disneyland; that kind of tone seemed usable in earnest, without superficial mockery, only by someone born and bred there. So I put it aside and worked on something else: another Italian film, set in Italy.
Sometime later, it was my friends Francesca Archibugi, Francesco Piccolo and Stephen Amidon lovely people with whom it is great to write, who tried to convince me to go back to it. They suggested taking inspiration from the book but changing the itinerary and, consequently, the socio-cultural background of the characters: an elderly retired professor of literature from New England, with a wife who is about ten years younger and comes from South Carolina, travelling to the Ernest Hemingway House in Key West.
What clinched it for us – I am admitting it for comedy value – was trying to imagine that elderly couple as a sort of Micaela, my wife, and myself in thirty years’ time. He, grumpy, forgetful, wordy and pedantic; she, lighthearted and seemingly frivolous, always good- humored: two very different personalities, both of them at the end of their days, united by a passion that produced two children and a lifetime together.
So with Francesca and Francesco we tried to sketch the scenes and dialogues in Italian first, and then we sought the precious contribution of Stephen, six hours of time zone away, to adapt them to American English in the first draft of the script.
I remember saying to our Indiana Production friends: “if Donald Sutherland accepts to play John and Helen Mirren accepts to play Ella, I swear I will make this movie”. But it was only big talk, I was playing it safe, hiding away from this craziness that my producer and co-scriptwriter friends heartily promoted. But fate caught me off guard: unpredictably – and I still cannot fathom how that was possible – both Mirren and Sutherland were in.
Donald accepted immediately, with an enthusiasm and an élan that left me astonished, Helen after only a week of hesitation (she eventually explained to me that she had made a pact with herself that she would take certain roles only later on in her career).
We were also urged by their agents to start shooting as soon as possible, because of their hectic schedule. A few weeks later we were already at work: I barely had time to focus on what was happening and found myself plunged into preparation and shooting.
Anyway the United States is a literary and cinematic country where somehow I feel at home: as a consumer of American films and books, I naturally feel familiar with those landscapes and those people, I admire certain expressions of American culture, and feel perturbed by others. As a film-maker I think I am artistically indebted to many directors I have loved so much: from Altman to Scorsese, from Martin Ritt to Hal Ashby – the list could be endless.
At the same time, I have always been interested in the many journeyman directors who have narrated America through an outsider’s gaze influenced by their roots, ranging from Billy Wilder to Miloš Forman, from Wim Wenders to Ang Lee, up to the more recent examples of Cuarón and Iñárritu.
No undue comparisons, though: it is not as if I went there to try and become “an American movie director”, I never will be one.
Although we are living in a world where the global sharing of stories and visions makes national borders weaker and a little obsolete as well, I am proud to be part of the community of Italian filmmakers and of the splendid history of our cinema.
Therefore, even along the Old Route 1 I tried not to give up my habit, as a filmmaker born in Italy (or, rather, in Livorno) of using those ingredients that have always been dear to me, namely truth, humanity and irony. And just as I did in my previous films, I tried to break down the boundaries between comedy and tragedy in a film mixing melancholy and harrowing pain with the comical misadventures and moments of pure joy of two inadequate travelers.
But maybe it has always been like this: great masters such as Bertolucci or Antonioni, whose inspiration was rooted in their own background, ended up getting interested in stories which took them elsewhere, occasionally to faraway places, but I think they ultimately remained themselves. For better or for worse – and that is the real trouble – you can escape your country, but you cannot escape yourself.
I think that in the end what we have here is a road movie about the freedom to choose together every moment of life right to the very end, after sharing a lifetime of mutual devotion which, like all love stories, also has its shades of mystery: petty jealousies, obsessions, small, shameful, unmentionable secrets which suddenly come up to the surface in zany and comical ways.
We were aiming for a movie as simple and compact as a poem or a song: I tried to imagine this film as a sweet and sad ballad, a hymn to individual freedom; something unreasonable and crazy, but at the same time full of life, energy and happiness.
Simplicity was the key word, both in the writing and in the mise-en-scène. Actually, perhaps this is the most substantial novelty in comparison with my other films, which tend to be fairly long, with an elaborated plot, with crowds of characters, with melody, countermelody, chorus and counterpoints. This time we decided otherwise, and we made professor John Spencer explain it to the clueless waitress of a diner when describing Hemingway’s style: “simplicity and economy of words”. So we tried to create an almost impalpable narrative thread, and tried to focus above all on the two main characters.
Ella is an ebullient and chatty lady, ready to buttonhole anybody she meets along the road and enthusiastically tell them her own private matters; seemingly vivacious and with a lust for life, it is eventually revealed that she is only still standing because of a miracle. John is a grumpy and muddle-headed former professor who sometimes forgets the names of his wife and children; who alternates between blankness and moments when he is obsessively immersed in the pages of the writers he has studied and taught to his students all his life.
Time and illness have cruelly weakened her body and his mind, and now the two of them together barely make up a full person. John is the body and Ella is the mind in an adventure that seems bigger than they are, but that they will miraculously manage to live to the very end. And Ella’s plan is full of courage, dignity, respect and love.
While we were scouting for film locations in June 2016, the presidential campaign was in full swing for the elections that would take place the following November. Everywhere we went we would come across rallies, meetings, large propaganda billboards for that extremely aggressive campaign that was setting the US on fire. I immediately decided I would include traces of that historical moment in the film: I felt it mirrored something significant in Ella and John’s personal story, as they cross an America which is changing around them and becoming something they no longer recognize, something they seem to wish to escape forever.
This search for a link between personal vicissitudes and the big picture of society seems to characterize classic Italian cinema: out of the many examples that come to mind, the story of the tempestuous relationship between Filumena Marturano and Don Mimì, in the Vittorio De Sica film Marriage Italian Style starring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, was also marked by quarrelsome political events in Italy.
Let us now turn to Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland: I have already owned up I would not have made this film without them.
Working with a sublime actress like Helen and an authentic legend like Donald was both electrifying and instructive. They are brilliant comedians who fully inhabited their characters.
It was mesmerizing to watch them acting: he, so intense and regal, but also funny and unpredictable; she, sharp, wise, very witty, then suddenly full of fieriness, rage and sorrow. Although we were crammed in that creaky stifling camper, it was hard for me to say “stop” or, rather, ““cut!”. They were so wonderful to watch: it seemed to me that even basic lines, when recited by them, became poetry, and just seeing them together, side by side on the set, was a wonder to behold: they would emanate a palpable grace, which my crew and I tried to capture as naturally and genuinely as we could.
To sum up, they are the real life and soul of this movie, and perhaps it was above all in order to be able to share this experience with these two artists who fascinate and move me that I decided to pack my bags and go shoot a film in America, at least once in my career as a film director.
P.V. sabato 29 luglio 2017
Paolo Virzì was born in Livorno, Italy, in 1964. His father was a Carabinieri police officer and his mother a former singer. After spending his early childhood in Turin in the north of Italy, Virzì and his family moved back to Livorno, where he grew up in Le Sorgenti, a working-class neighborhood.
Virzi’s versatility became apparent as a teenager, when he spent most of his time writing, directing and acting in plays for local drama companies.
He later left Livorno for Rome to study screenwriting at the time-honored Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia film school, and graduated in 1987. His teachers included well-known film director Gianni Amelio and Furio Scarpelli, who wrote some of the greatest Italian movies of all time. Scarpelli was to play a crucial role in Virzì’s life, becoming his mentor and his “maestro”. With him, Paolo co-wrote the screenplay for Giuliano Montaldo’s Time to Kill, based on the Ennio Flaiano novel and starring Nicolas Cage, as well as several other projects for cinema and TV.
Virzì made his directorial début in 1994, with La Bella Vita, the story of a love triangle set against the backdrop of the irreversible identity crisis of the Italian working class. The movie premiered at the 1994 Venice International Film Festival and went on to win the Ciak d’oro award, the Nastro d’Argento award, and the prestigious David di Donatello award in the “Best New Director” category.
In his first film, Virzì’s talent for directing actors already shone through, as well as his skilful handling of serious issues with an ironic touch, mixing drama and humor.
His following film, Ferie d’Agosto (1995), featuring an impressive cast of Italian stars, was an ironical reflection on political tension in Italy after Silvio Berlusconi’s triumphant appearance on the political stage. The film won the David di Donatello Award for “Best Film” of the year.
Ovosodo (”Hardboiled Egg”, 1997), named after a neighborhood in Livorno, is one of Virzì’s most personal films. Despite being strongly rooted in local lifestyle and accents, Ovosodo received widespread acclaim from critics and audiences alike: the Venice International Film Festival jury, presided over by Jane Campion, awarded Paolo Virzì the Jury Grand Prize.
In 1999, Virzì directed Baci e Abbracci (”Kisses and Hugs”), a mixure of fable, social comedy and a Dickensian Christmas tale, which, once again, portrayed life in a provincial community seduced by the irresistible appeal of modernity.
My Name Is Tanino (2002), was shot in Sicily, Canada and the United States. In this movie Virzì confirmed his talent scouting skills, with the Canadian actress Rachel McAdams appearing on the screen for the first time in a small role.
Virzì’s next feature, Caterina Va in Città (”Caterina in the Big City”, 2003), is dedicated to Rome, a much loved and hated city, with its enthralling discoveries and its bitter setbacks. Margherita Buy won the David di Donatello and the Nastro d’Argento awards for Best Actress in 2004 playing Caterina’s mother, while 13-year-old Alice Teghil, who played Caterina, won the Guglelmo Biraghi award.
N (Io e Napoleone) (”Napoleon and Me”, 2006), is Virzì’s attempt at combining Italian-style comedy with a historic period piece peppered with allusions to the present day. N features an international cast, including French icon Daniel Auteuil in the role of Napoleon, Monica Bellucci and a young Elio Germano in his first starring role (he then went on to win Best Actor at Cannes Film Festival in 2010).
Virzì’s next project, the ensemble piece Tutta la Vita Davanti, is one of his most scathing and bitter films. It is a grotesque comedy with an apocalyptic vision of the world of work. The film won a slew of awards, including the Nastro d’argento and the Globo d’oro (Italian Golden Globe) for Best Film, as well as the Ciak d’oro for Best Film and Best Director, not to mention the many other prizes awarded to the actors in the movie.
In October 2008, the Annecy Cinéma Italien granted Paolo Virzì the Sergio Leone Award in recognition of his overall career achievements.
In 2009 Virzì shot La Prima Cosa Bella (”The First Beautiful Thing”), released in Italy on 15 January 2010. The project took him back to his hometown, Livorno. The film stars Micaela Ramazzotti, Valerio Mastandrea, Claudia Pandolfi, and Italian film icon Stefania Sandrelli, who starred in films such as Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist and Pietro Germi’s Divorce, Italian Style.
La Prima Cosa Bella received 18 nominations for the David di Donatello Award in 2010, winning Best Screenplay (by Paolo Virzì with Francesco Bruni and Francesco Piccolo), Best Actress (Micaela Ramazzotti) and Best Actor (Valerio Mastandrea). In July 2010, the film won 4 Nastri d’argento awards: Director of the Best Film of the Year (Paolo Virzi), joint Best Actress Micaela Ramazzotti and Stefania Sandrelli, Best Screenplay and Best Costume Design to Oscar-winner Gabriella Pescucci.
The European Film Academy shortlisted Paolo Virzì for the Best European Director award 2010.
In September 2010, the Italian Film Industry Association (ANICA) selected La Prima Cosa Bella as Italy’s Official Academy Award Entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 83rd Academy Awards. On November 9, 2010, La prima cosa bella opened the Cinema Italian-style Film Festival in Los Angeles. In January 2011, the film was presented at the Palm Springs International Film Festival.
In October 2012, Tutti i Santi Giorni (“Every Blessed Day”) was released in Italy. It was Virzì’s tenth feature film. Loosely based on Simone Lenzi’s novel “La Generazione”, the film follows the lives of Guido and Antonia (played by Luca Marinelli and singer-songwriter Thony) and their attempts to start a family.
In 2013, Virzì was appointed as director of the 31st Torino Film Festival. His tenure was marked by a 30% increase in attendance.
In January 2014, Human Capital, Virzì’s eleventh feature film was released in Italy.
Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi won the Best Actress award at the Tribeca Film Festival, for her leading role as high-society housewife Carla Bernaschi. The film went on to receive 19 nominations for the 2014 David di Donatello awards, winning seven, including Best Film. The film also won a number of other major Italian awards, including six Nastri d’Argento, four Ciak d’Oro, and the Globo d’Oro for Best Film, a prize awarded by members of the international press. Human Capital was chosen as the official Italian entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2015 Academy Awards.
In 2016, La Pazza Gioia (Like Crazy) was released, with Micaela Ramazzotti and Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi as leading characters, playing two patients running away from a mental institution. The film premiered as part of the Directors’ Fortnight section of the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, and 400 copies were distributed in Italian theaters as of May 17th 2016.
La Pazza Gioia won 5 Nastri d’Argento and obtained an impressive 17 David di Donatello nominations.