Paolo Sorrentino is back in the director's chair this week with his new movie This Must Be The Place, which stars double Oscar winner Sean Penn.
- How did you meet Sean Penn and how was the idea for this film born?
I met Sean Penn in 2008 during the closing night of the Cannes Film Festival, the year he was President of the Jury and I won the Jury Prize for Il Divo. He expressed some really flattering opinions of my film.
I found this sufficiently remarkable to entertain the fantasy of making a film with him. Unexpectedly, like a true American dream, the fantasy became a reality.
- What are the origins of the two main themes of the film: the portrait of a depressed rock star and the hunt for an elderly Nazi?
As far as I’m concerned, every film has to be an unrelenting hunt for the unknown and for mystery, not so much to find the answer, but to keep the question alive. During the genesis of this movie, one of my recurring thoughts was of the secret, mysterious life that former Nazi criminals are forced to live in some part of the world - men who now have the tranquil features of harmless, good-natured old people, but whose past is marked by the unnameable crime par excellence: the extermination of a people. It’s a diametrically opposed image.
To track down one of these men we had to have a hunt, and to have a hunt we had to have a hunter. This is where another element in the film comes into play: my instinctive need to introduce irony into drama.
To achieve this, Umberto Contarello and I eliminated the possibility of an 'institutional' Nazi hunter and gradually arrived at the complete antithesis of the detective: a slow, lazy, rock star who was bored enough and closed in his self-referential world to the point of being, seemingly, the last person who would embark on a crazy search for a Nazi criminal, probably dead by now, across the United States.
The background of the tragedy of tragedies, the Holocaust, and its juxtaposition with the diametrically opposite world of pop music (fatuous and frivolous by definition) and one of its protagonists, seemed to me to be a 'dangerous' enough combination to make for an interesting story. Because I think that a story only truly comes alive when there’s a danger of failing. And I hope I haven’t failed.
- Tell us about the Cheyenne character. What’s he like?
Cheyenne is childish, but not capricious. Like many adults who remain anchored in their childhood he has a knack of maintaining only the limpid, touching and bearable qualities of kids.
His prematurely quitting the music scene, due to a trauma, has obliged him to live a life that he can’t bring into focus. It drags along, oscillating between boredom and slight depression. He floats. And for men who float, irony and lightness are often the only acceptable way of dealing with life.
This attitude is directly reflected in the way other people see him. Cheyenne is a genuine, unwitting source of joy. And when in the film he says in a naïve, flip way that 'life is full of beautiful things,' we almost believe him. Because it is a little boy talking and, deep down, it’s reassuring to think that kids are always right.
- Why did you feel the need to tell a story about the Holocaust?
It’s an exaggeration to say that I’ve made a film about the Holocaust. The movie is set in the present. It only gets to grips with that immense tragedy through penetrating flashes, tentative intuitions or deductions.
However, it is true that I wanted the background of the Holocaust to hang over the present in telling this story. I tried to do it from a different and, I hope, new angle.
But the film mainly focuses on another key element: the absence - by definition always accompanied by presence - of the relationship between father and son.
- Why did you choose the name Cheyenne?
It’s a typical rock star’s name. I was looking for one that sounded authentic. We thought of one of the most inspired names in rock star history, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and we changed it slightly to Cheyenne and the Fellows.
- What was Sean Penn’s reaction to the screenplay?
I sent the screenplay to Sean Penn, firmly convinced that I would have to wait months for a reply. There is a rumour, although I don’t know how much truth there is in it, that Sean receives something like forty scripts a month.
As soon as I had sent the script I was already looking for another idea, any idea, that might just work, because, quite frankly, it seemed impossible that this wild scheme of mine to shoot an independent film in America with a guy who had just won an Oscar, would come to anything.
Instead, 24 hours later I found a message from Sean Penn on my answering machine. Naturally I immediately thought it was a hoax, just like anyone else would. My producer friend Nicola Giuliano is very fond of playing jokes and also good at imitations. But I was wrong.
So, in the middle of the night, I talked on the phone with Sean Penn, who told me that he really liked the script, wryly commenting that his only worry was the scene in which he had to dance. For me this was a problem that could be solved very easily.
A month later I went with my screenwriter and producer to see Sean in San Francisco. We spent a wonderful evening together during which he would repeatedly go off at a tangent and give me an idea of how he would play the character. This only confirmed what I suspected: great actors always know much more about the character than the director or the screenwriter.
- What did Sean bring to the film?
Sean Penn is the director’s ideal actor. He completely respects the director’s ideas but also has a knack of improving them, combined with an immense talent that enables him to achieve a credibility and depth of character that, to be honest, I would never have reached even if I’d spent a lifetime thinking about it.
The cinematographer Luca Bigazzi and I were amazed and impressed not only by the extraordinary depth of his talent, but above all by his precision in everything. Before shooting a take Luca and I always had so many things to tell him, only to realize seconds later that there was nothing to say, because he’d already understood everything himself - gestures, looks, precise movements - and he immediately made it easier to overcome inevitable technical difficulties.
- Tell us about Cheyenne’s over-the-top look - lipstick, makeup, hairstyle, the all-black look.
The look is inspired by that of Robert Smith, lead singer of The Cure. I saw The Cure perform several times when I was a kid. Then, three years ago, I went to see them again and there was Robert Smith, now fifty, looking exactly like he did when he was twenty. It was 'shocking', in the positive sense of the word.
Seeing him close-up, backstage, I understood just how beautiful and touching contradictions in a human being can be. Here was a fifty-year-old who still completely identified with a look which, by definition, is that of an adolescent. But there was nothing pathetic about it.
There was just this one thing that, in the movies and in life, creates an incredible feeling of wonder: the extraordinary, a unique and thrilling exception. Months later I had the same extraordinary experience when, on a very hot July day in New York, we did the first makeup and costume tryouts with Sean Penn.
A minor miracle happened before my eyes as I silently watched the actor Sean Penn being steadily transformed, step by step, first with lipstick, then with mascara and the costumes, and finally as he moved around - in a natural way but at the same time different from the way he usually moves - and becoming a completely different person: Cheyenne.
- How would you describe the relationship between Jane and Cheyenne?
I have to admit that for this 'subtext', I stole little bits from my relationship with my wife. It’s a relationship in which the vague abstractedness of the man is compensated for by the unrelenting solidity of the woman who makes it possible for life to progress without traumas and useless dramas.
Umberto Contarello and I tried to bring out this contrast between the abstract and the concrete within an ironical context. The playful aspect of the relationship between Sean Penn and Frances McDormand was practically a given, they have a natural gift for making people laugh.
I consider myself very lucky that Frances McDormand agreed to play the part of Jane. In order to convince her, I wrote her a letter saying that if she turned it down I would simply change the script and make Cheyenne a bachelor or a widow.
It’s the truth. I couldn’t think of anyone but her for the part. When I met Frances she was exactly how I had envisioned her: an intelligent woman, very quick on the uptake, with an unpredictable and inexhaustible sense of humour.
- In the part of the film that takes place in Dublin, Mary also plays an important role in Cheyenne’s life...
Mary is a young friend and fan of Cheyenne’s, scarred by suffering that he alleviates as best he can. But in the end, she is the one who, despite her youth, relieves some of Cheyenne’s pain. I found this an interesting reversal of roles.
I chose a very promising and mature young Irish actress Eve Hewson for the part. From the word go I was really amazed by the fact that such a young girl could have such an adult way of thinking. This quality, which is indispensable to her character, will be a major resource in her acting career.
- What made you decide to film in Dublin?
Quite simply, Dublin is both beautiful and melancholy, two qualities that can be combined to great effect in a movie.
- And why did you film in the United States?
I wanted to take on, shamelessly and recklessly, all the iconographic movie locations that have made me love this work since I was a boy: New York, the American desert, the gas stations, the bars with the long counters, the remote horizons.
American places are a dream and, when you find yourself in them, they don’t become real but continue to be a dream. I have this very strange feeling of being in a constantly suspended reality in the United States.
- What kind of portrait of America have you created?
It’s always dangerous to adopt your vision of something that you don’t know well, and my knowledge of the United States, despite the many trips I’ve made into the hinterland, is still pretty much that of a tourist.
However I had the excuse of travelling with a protagonist, Cheyenne, who had not been back to the States for 30 years. We were both tourists, albeit with an open return ticket. And so we set about discovering a world that has been described endless times precisely because it is so elusive and changeable.
- Did you already know Harry Dean Stanton and Judd Hirsch?
Harry Dean Stanton is one of my movie idols. For this film I was able to consider American actors and Harry Dean Stanton was one of the first I asked to see. Our first meeting was both thrilling and astonishing.
We didn’t speak for what seemed like forever. I was dying of embarrassment and he was perfectly at ease in what felt like an aquarium. Then, without warning, he said: 'I’m happy because I don’t have any answers.'
Just to say something, I ventured: 'The important thing is not to ask yourself questions.' This was followed by another silence and then we said goodbye. A few hours later, one of his assistants called and told me that I had made a favourable impression on Harry Dean. For a moment, it felt like being in a good screenplay.
It was Sean Penn, on the other hand, who suggested I consider Judd Hirsch for the part of Mordecai Midler, which I was finding very difficult to cast. As soon as I saw Judd, my doubts disappeared, not only because he’s a formidable actor, but also because he was that character: human, sensitive and crabby at the same time, likeable and paternal without any effort.
- Is there something in the style and aesthetic of this film that the audience can trace to your earlier films?
I’m not the best judge in these cases. I hope I’ve remained faithful to the underlying principle of this film: to use wherever possible a simple and, at the same time 'beautiful' mise-en-scène, while primarily serving the character.
- Music also plays an important part in the film. How did you choose it?
I chose the film’s music from the heart, as certain chick-lit authors would say. Joking aside, it really was like that. I didn’t feel the need, as I did in the past, to 'rationalize' the music. Instead, I wanted to relive the incredible emotion and passion I experienced as a boy when my brother, who was nine years older than me, introduced me to that great music called rock.
I spent that period of my life obsessively dissecting rock, especially Talking Heads and their brilliant creator David Byrne. So, I dared to ask David Byrne three things: if I could use This Must Be The Place as the title and theme song, if he would compose the score, and if he would play himself in the film. And, guess what - David agreed to all three things!
- Did you draw inspiration from anyone for this film?
I think that, unconsciously, there are always many sources of inspiration. At the conscious level, however, I have to say that I often thought about David Lynch’s masterwork A Straight Story.
- How do you think the audience will react?
I reacted very positively. And I’m part of the audience.
This Must Be The Place is out now