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.
The great American road movie is renewed and refreshed in The Leisure Seeker, directed with Italian cinematic flair by Paolo Virzi and brought to life by extraordinary actors Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland playing ordinary people confronting the vicissitudes of old age.
Virzì, winner of the 2017 David di Donatello Best Director Award for his Best Picture winner Like Crazy (La Pazza Gioia), brings his distinctive blend of humor, social commentary, and rich character study to his tale of a long-married couple determined to hit the road one last time in their beloved RV. Read Paolo Virzi ‘s director statement for The Leisure Seeker
Back when John and Ella Spencer (Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren) were young, the ’75 Winnebago Indian they christened “The Leisure Seeker” was a beloved family getaway. Now, the Leisure Seeker has become their actual getaway vehicle, an escape from their well- intentioned but overbearing middle-aged children. Faced with more caregiving than they care to accept, John and Ella resolve to enjoy the freedom of one last RV road trip on their own.
Old age and its challenges be damned, John still pilots the 20-foot-plus RV with confidence, gusto, and (more or less) capability. Their road trip will take them from their suburban Massachusetts home, down along the East Coast’s iconic Route 1, all the way south to Key West and their intended destination, the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum. It’s a pilgrimage for John, who as a high-school English teacher conveyed a reverence for literature to generations of students, and who still quotes Hemingway and James Joyce from memory even as he loses track of his adult children’s names. Ever the academic, John sports a natty tweed jacket and tie as he wheels the Leisure Seeker through the humid South; Ella, years younger than John and plenty sharp of mind, is a transplanted southerner with a breezy-belle chatterbox manner that belies a core of strength and determination. Much to the consternation of their apoplectic son WILL (Christian McKay) and more accepting daughter Jane (Janel Moloney), Ella refuses to divulge their whereabouts, asking lovingly but firmly (from untraceable pay phones) that the kids just let them enjoy this last spontaneous foray.
Along the way, they sojourn at RV campgrounds and visit a historical theme park, regale diner waitresses and gas station attendants with chitchat and philosophy, stumble into a political rally and finesse their way out of a roadside robbery. For John, time is fragmentary; one moment he’s blessed with the ability to savor life (and an ice cream cone) purely in the present; at another time, he’s raging obsessively about a romantic rivalry of fifty years earlier. Ella must navigate the uncertain present and ominous future for both of them, while she tries to keep the past alive with anecdotes, photos, and nighttime slide shows which draw curious campers to their flickering light.
Through it all, John and Ella are sustained by their bond of shared love and history. They still laugh and bicker, comfort and resent, feel tenderness and jealousy, and still discover surprising revelations after a lifetime’s long journey traveled together
“I have this vice or this habit to take sad topics, painful topics, and try to transform them into entertaining adventures,” says Virzì. “The key is to combine comedy and tragedy, always.” Indeed, there’s no lack of painful topics nor of entertaining adventures in The Leisure Seeker.
“I was a little wary of a film focused on old age,” says Helen Mirren, “but I looked at the work of Paolo Virzì, in particular Human Capital, and I thought he had a wonderful, humane, witty, easy way of approaching these complicated but very, very realistic human situations. Paolo’s calling card is naturalism, human behaviour that can be silly or heroic but never melodramatic. I just loved his style.”
Donald Sutherland agrees. “Paolo is brilliant in the most subtle, complicated ways. The long and short of his sensibility, his understanding of the human condition, is that it is an epiphany.” Recalling what drew him to the role of a former English teacher still steeped in literature even while his mind begins to fail, Sutherland says: “I was probably twenty pages into the script when John sat up and started to talk to me. It was a wonderful conversation. He was very articulate. And very specific. And he liked the script.”
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,” explains Virzì. “It was always an Italian production, with my Italian way of looking at things. I’d say that means to have no fear of the ridiculous part of life. Life is something frightening and exhilarating at the same time and this is what I always try to put in a movie.”
The original novel of the same name by Michael Zadoorian traversed legendary Route 66 through the American West to Disneyland, but, as Virzì explains, “For us to go film in the grandiose landscapes of the Arizona desert or Monument Valley would be like an American director coming to Italy, going to the Coliseum and St. Peter’s Cathedral and the Leaning Tower of Pisa and trying to have new insights. We were looking for a more ordinary landscape. Sweet and sad like the story we were telling.” The East Coast’s Route 1 is less freighted with weighty symbolism but has plenty of natural beauty and cultural resonance, especially when the adaptation endowed John Spencer, Sutherland’s character, with a passion for Hemingway; John and Ella’s goal is to reach the Hemingway home in Key West.
The screenplay marshalled the combined writing efforts of some notable Virzì collaborators.
“I felt like I was joining a dream team of writers,” says Stephen Amidon, an American novelist whose 2005 novel Human Capital was adapted by Virzì into the film that had so enchanted Helen Mirren.
Stephen Amidon was born in Chicago. He is also the author of a book of short stories and seven novels, including The New City and Human Capital, which The Washington Post selected as one of the five best novels of 2004. Paolo Virzì’s Italian film version of the novel, Il Capitale Umano, won best film at the 2014 David di Donatello, Nastri d’argento, and Globi d’oro awards, and was selected to represent Italy as Best Foreign Language film at the 2015 Oscars. Amidon has also written two non-fiction books, reviewed films for the Sunday Times and the Financial Times, and contributed to various newspapers and magazines in the United States and Great Britain. His books have been published in sixteen countries. He lived in London for twelve years before returning to the United States in 1999. He currently divides his time between Massachusetts and Torino, Italy, where he is on the faculty of Holden School. His serial drama 6Bianca debuted at Teatro Stabile in Torino in February 2015. The Real Justine, Amidon’s seventh novel, has recently been released.
Amidon and Virzì became close friends, and when The Leisure Seeker came to Virzì’s production company Motorino Amaranto by way of Indiana Production, producers of “Human Capital” and “ The First Beautiful Thing”, Virzì turned to Amidon as his house expert on American language and mores. Virzì also enlisted the help of Italian screenwriters Francesca Archibugi, with whom he had written Like Crazy, and Francesco Piccolo, with whom he had written the screen adaptations of The First Beautiful Thing and Human Capital. (Francesco Piccolo, incidentally, is currently at work adapting Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend to the screen.) Thus, a writing team of three Romans traded pages in both languages with a bilingual Bostonian adept at colloquial American language and culture.
Francesca Archibugi is a film director and writer based in Rome. She began her film career writing and directing short films in the 1980s; her first three feature length films, Mignon è partita (1988), Verso sera (1990), and The Great Pumpkin (1993), were each awarded several David di Donatello awards including Best New Director for the first and Best Film for the second and third. Her more recent screenwriting credits include Questione de cuore (2009) and Il nome del figlio (An Italian Name) (2015). Prior to collaborating on the screenplay for The Leisure Seeker with Paolo Virzí, she also co-wrote La pazza gioia (Like Crazy) with him.
Francesco Piccolo is an Italian author of novels, short stories and screen plays. In 2014, he won Italy’s leading literary award the Premio Strega for Il desiderio di essere come tutti. He has published numerous novels and short story collections, and is the recipient of several literary prizes.
In the cinema, he has worked on screenplays for My Name Is Tanino, Paz! (based on cartoons by Andrea Pazienza), Ovunque sei, Il caimano (The Caiman) (which was awarded the
2006 David di Donatello for Best Script), Nemmeno in un sogno, Caos calmo (in which he also made an appearance) and Giorni e nuvole (Days and Clouds). Prior to collaborating on the screenplay for The Leisure Seeker with Paolo Virzí, he also co-wrote The First Beautiful Thing and Human Capital with him.
He has also written for newspapers and periodicals, including la Repubblica and Diario. Piccolo lives in Rome, where he runs the screenwriters’ laboratory for the DAMS course at Roma Tre.
As Amidon tells it, “We worked kind of like a 24-hour factory—I’d get up in the morning and they had written something, and then I’d work, and I’d send it to them—a real Socratic back and forth. It was very collegial.”
Amidon carried out his role of American advisor through production locations in Atlanta and down along Route 1 to Key West at the edge of the continent. Most of Virzì’s principal crew were Italian, including Director of Photography LUCA BIGAZZI, best known in the States for his work on The Great Beauty, 2013 Academy Award® winner for Best Foreign Film. An American crew worked by their side; American Production Designer Richard Wright helped Virzì achieve the balance that he sought of realistic American setting and his own cinematic sensibility.
“I like to fill the mise-en-scène with realistic elements, with true faces, a sense of truth,” Virzì explains. “This time there was a filter, because I’m not an American—though I feel at home in America because of all the movies, books, and stories that have fed my imagination. When we were scouting the locations, I tried to catch the atmosphere, the sense of what was happening behind our story. That’s another habit—or vice—of an Italian style of filmmaking, of storytelling: to frame the private personal stories of your little characters within the big picture of the society.”
In the summer of 2016, one unavoidable piece of that big picture was the Presidential campaign. As Virzì recalls, “During the location scout there were billboards and advertisements for both candidates everywhere, and I felt that Summer 2016 would be a historical summer. I am not a clairvoyant, I didn’t know what would happen, but I sensed that it was important to put the political moment in the background of our story—as if the characters were going through an America they didn’t recognize anymore. It seemed relevant. I don’t like to be the one who picks metaphors from a movie, but I feel there is something and that it means something.”
“The Trump rallies were in full flood while we were shooting,” says Helen Mirren. “It became part of the script, a funny way of indicating something about John—as Ella says, ‘You’ve been a Democrat your whole life, what are you doing?’ ‘But these people are so nice!’ It was just a very sweet way of charting how John’s mind was working at that point.”
“We called John’s mental state Spencer Syndrome,” says Virzì, “because every human has his own syndrome.” John’s confusion sometimes gives way to moments of sparkling lucidity and charm that are all the more poignant as we glimpse the companion and lover whom Ella is so stricken to lose. The character of John, in all his unpredictability, became almost a spiritual brother to Sutherland:
“I was just channeling John. It happens once it a while. Not often, certainly not all the time, but sometimes, and it happened in this film. John told me what to do, said what he wanted, remembered when he could and forgot when he couldn’t. He got frustrated. I didn’t. It seemed to me I was there for the ride and riding with Helen and Paolo, with everyone there, was a terrific trip.”
Sutherland reread Hemingway— “Every one. The oeuvre. I hadn’t been in there for fifty years”— and trusted the character of John to come through: “He took off, and I went with him.”
“Donald was really impassioned,” says Virzì. “He was already a great scholar of Hemingway and Joyce. He immersed himself in John Spencer. He became John Spencer. When we needed the RV to get back to the starting point to shoot another take, he didn’t want a driver to do it for him. He was jealous of his RV. I was astonished by his enthusiasm, his devotion to the film and to John. He was like an Actor’s Studio-style actor in the way we imagine, in the legend.”
“Helen Mirren,” Virzì continues, “has a different approach. She’s one of the most brilliant actors ever, and extremely clever and so funny. She arrives on set, she’s perfect in every take and then, ‘Bye, darling see you tomorrow.’”
“We called her The Queen,” says Stephen Amidon. “She’s the most professional human being I’ve ever been around. It was fascinating to watch the two of them together, because she’s so classically Shakespearean and Donald is so Method—but those contrasting approaches fit the characters so perfectly.”
“They didn’t really need a director on set, I guess” laughs Virzì. “I could just stand next to the camera and try to capture what they were able to create, to do together.”
As Mirren describes her character, “Ella is fiercely committed to life. She holds onto it tenaciously with full energy and commitment and joy. She hasn’t withdrawn from life at all. You can see her resolve and her backbone as she puts on her lipstick and her wig, the uniform she puts on to face the world.”
Mirren, who speaks fluent Italian, also found herself in a fascinating observer’s role as the American and Italian crews worked together. “It was very enjoyable, because I could stand on the outside, being a little bit American and a little European.”
Virzì learned the hard way the difference between an extra and a bit player: “We took a lot of care with casting the extras, the faces at the rally and in the background scenes. We never wanted to mock or satirize this American slice of life. One day an extra was walking around the scene in an awkward way, so I gave him a little direction and said ‘Just wave at that guy and say ‘Hi!’’ He ran off and yelled ‘I got a line!’ and had to be paid an extra for that ‘Hi!’ I ruined the production budget for that day.”
No matter how big the crew, however, when it came to filming key scenes inside the Winnebago, only so many warm human bodies could cram into the space. “We were in a very uncomfortable vehicle with no air conditioning, under the July and August sun in hot and humid Georgia and Florida,” relates Virzì. “I put these two little fans blowing in the faces of John and Ella because it was the only way to have some air inside that camper. We were all squeezed together, so sometimes we forgot to call the hairdresser and I was the one to fix the wig on Helen, or the DP would do her makeup. She liked that atmosphere—she had worked in some Italian movies in the 70’s and 80’s. And, of course, Donald was ready for anything.” Even mishaps ranging from a fire ant invasion to a full-blown hurricane evacuation failed to dampen spirits.
Filmmakers and actors alike shared an affection for John and Ella, their aging lovers on the lam. Giving Helen Mirren the closing word: “There’s nothing quite like that later phase of love, when you know each other so incredibly well, you know each other’s faults, you know each other’s strengths, you know the other person so well that you know there are sides of them that you don’t know—that’s the process of discovering how little you can know another person. We are certainly looking at a couple who have been through all those stages and they are still in a process of discovery. They’re an ordinary couple, these two. John and Ella are totally ordinary. You could look out your window and see a million of those every day—ordinary people— America is a huge country full of many families—nothing so special about them. They become special because we put a frame around them and we watch them. I think that’s the great strength of Paolo’s filmmaking—he makes films about people we can identify with. They are very, very human.”