Sunday, August 8, 2010

Q&A with Marco Amenta, writer/director of THE SICILIAN GIRL: on life before & after; growth, change and a slower pace; & how a dose of reality -- rather than glamour -- might change our view of the Mafia

We first met Marco Amenta in June of 2009 at a luncheon for the press and trade during the FSLC’s 2009 Open Roads festival of new Italian films. Amenta is the writer/director of The Sicilian Girl, which just opened its premier theatrical run at Film Forum in New York City, and will soon be seen all across the USA, thanks to Music Box Films. We cornered the filmmaker for a chat at that luncheon, and followed up on it 14 months later with another conversation -- which occurred at Film Forum this past Thursday -- now that his film has been released. (The filmmaker is shown above, right, with his leading lady,
Veronica D'Agostino.)

In the following transcript, TrustMovies’ questions appear in boldface, while Amenta's answers are in standard type. (You can find my earlier write-ups on the film, in order of posting, here, here and here.)

So, Marco: You're actually from Sicily?

Yes. I grew up in Palermo until I was 18 or 19, and then I moved to France. And I started to work as photo-journalist in Paris for Gamma press agency and several magazines (Paris Match, L'Express, Liberation, etc.). I covered the war in Yugoslavia, Cuba, and also the Mafia, taking pictures of the Mafiosi and the killings and the judges. And then I followed this with making documentaries about the Mafia. (Note: You can view the  younger Marco two photos below.) And I think that this is important because I saw directly what the Mafia is. I saw in front of me the eyes of Mafia guys who, in some ways, without using even words, they threaten you. I saw the real dead bodies on the streets of Palermo and I saw also the courage in the eyes of policemen and judges who fight against the Mafia. From all this direct experience I got inspiration for this movie. And that us why I think I am telling a story that is more real than many Mafia stories we have seen in international movies.

Or even in the movie we just saw in Open Roads, Brave Men. I don’t mean to put that movie down, as there are some good things about it, but your film is so immediate and dramatic: much more real somehow.

Sometimes directors… I'm not talking in this specific case, get inspiration from other movies, instead of getting it from life. Then you lose contact with real life and you portray something fake. Tarantino does it, but he does it on purpose -- for fun and for effect. He is a master at that.

Yes, and that can also be very entertaining. But your film goes way beyond this sort of thing.

If you want to tell a realistic story that comes from the place of neo-realism, then you have to get inspiration from real life. And I met these people so I know that it is useless to represent them as “heroes” or as some kind of romantic people.

Did you see the film A Hundred Steps?

Yes, of course

That one also seemed more real to me.

It is. For my film, I used professional actors, but I also used lots of actors who are not really professional. They come from difficult areas in Palermo. For instance, the boy who plays the boyfriend of Rita is a guy who grew up in a very difficult place. So he knows.

That particular role was such as tricky one. I mean, in real life and in your movie: to be so back-and-forth like he was, between the girl and the mob. And you really do feel that he does care for her....

Yes, definitely.

That last scene: at first I thought, oh, he is there to kill her. But then no, I don’t think he was.

He is trapped.

Yes, everybody is trapped in your film.

In real life, he has grown up in an area surrounded by people in crime, so he had to make a choice. Always, he is pulling back. And this young man, by being an actor, as well, is trying to do a different life. Because his friends from his youth, they ask him to come back to that same kind of thing. So I used these kind of guys because they know.

And he is now a professional actor?

Well, he has done two or three roles, but he never trained as an actor.

How did you find your “girl”? I believe she has only made Respiro and one TV movie previously.

She comes from Lampedusa, an island south of Sicily. And she feels very right. She never trained as an actress. And I like this. She is still naïve and like a little wild animal. I like to play with this wild feeling and this tenderness, as well. She is more calm in real life, but when I met her and chose the actors, I saw that she had this life inside her, and when you play with non-professional actors, the director has to be even more skilled in… not manipulating, but using different sides of an actor.

It’s OK: you can manipulate. Directors manipulate.

When you ask professional actors -- for sadness, for rage, for comedy, they can give it to you. But non-professional actors, you have to find a way for them to express this because they do not always realize how they can do this. But they have this true-ness and this real quality, and so I let them play in their own dialect, rather than in Italian. In the film, the first part of the movie is actually, even in Italy, subtitled – because most Italians will not understand this dialect.

Oh – we don’t see that, I guess, because it’s already subtitled for us.

Yes, in English. But for me it was important for them to talk in their own dialect. I also used non-professional actors that I found in the street, in the countryside, in a lot of small roles. Another example, the killer -- that tall guy -- he was actually in prison for ten years. These people are trying to escape from this life of crime. So this becomes therapy for them in a way.

Did you also see the movie The Sweet and the Bitter? That, for me, also seems to have a more real sense about it.

Yes, and it also used non-professional actors in some roles, people who come from that area. The lead actor Luigi LoCascio does not come from there. He is just a good actor.

He seems to like to stretch himself. One time he will do The Best of Youth, where he is this wonderful character, and then he will turn around and do Bellocchio’s Good Morning Night, where he plays a terrorist.

In life, LoCascio is more an intellectual than a wild character, I think. In my film, the boy who plays the boyfriend, he reminds me of the young Robert DeNiro. He has that wildness that you cannot control.

How did you come to cast Gérard Jugnot (shown below) in your film?

I lived for ten years in France, and after doing the photo-journalism, I worked as a documentary filmmaker in France, so I have a relationship with France. And The Sicilian Girl was a real co-production, where 30% of the budget came from France.

So you probably had to use a French actor in one of the main roles?

Yes, I had to use a French actor, but that is not the only reason.

Well, you made such a good choice. And one that I would not have expected, as I just saw Jugnot in Paris 36, in such a different role.

For me, I do not want some Italian actor who was very famous to play Judge Borsellino. I did not want to use an Italian actor who would “cover” the character. We would have seen this famous judge with a face that was famous because of someone else – the actor. So it would be strange to see this. But Gérard is someone not known in Italy. And so you can think he is a judge.

Yes, and he has real gravitas!

Yes – and humanity, as well! He is like a father. And I needed somebody who was like a father here. People in Italy ask me, “Who is this Sicilian actor who plays the judge?!” So people believe. And this works. In the past we have seen a cowboy like Burt Lancaster play an aristocratic Sicilian in The Leopard by Visconti and Robert de Niro play a rich countryman in 1900 by Bertolucci.

Jugnot was dubbed, of course?

Yes, he was dubbed. But very good actors will play with their eyes, and with emotions. They actually talk to each other -- the girl and the judge -- without understanding each other!


Yes, because she does not speak French, nor he Italian. In movies, like in life, language is not always the main thing. Instead it is the subtext. Like the eyes the body, also in life. They are the subtext – the body language. If you want to seduce a woman, or to tell her that you like her, you don’t have to use words. You talk about the weather or something else, but with your eyes, you say those things.

Did you stick fairly close to the real story in your film?

Yes. I did a documentary film on the same story a few years ago. So I did a lot of research. I got a lot of sense of these characters: the girl, the policemen, the judges. I even met the mother. Then I did elaborate on the story, and so I changed some names, and made other changes to tell a more universal story. But the main story, it is all there. And all of it is true.

That mother was really something. Whew! Do you think she was jealous of the daughter’s relationship with her father, the mother’s husband?

I think that her whole life was a failure, and she knows this. Because she did not stand up. And so she knows her daughter is right, but this means that her whole life is wrong. So you cannot accept that your whole life is wrong. There is envy, there is hatred, anger and love. Envy, because the daughter had to courage to do what the mother could not.

Also, the girl has to comes to terms with the reality of her father – as in that scene (above) in court with the gun -- where you actually get the “remembering” in very well. It was subtle enough, too, and it worked.

I worked with a screenwriter who worked with Sergio Leone. I co-wrote with him: Sergio Donati.

Wow—he must pretty old by now.

Not so old. Maybe 70.

I’m almost 70; I’d call that old.

With Sergio I wrote my next movie also: Banker to the Poor.

Around this point, we had to stop our 
original conversation with Signor Amenta

Now, here we are, some fourteen months later, 
and The Sicilian Girl has been picked up 
for distribution by Music Box Films.

Marco—I am so happy that your film has finally been picked up. After I first saw it during last years FSLC Italian festival Open Roads, I noticed that the Film Society brought it back again at the end of the year for its Encores program of the most popular films shown during the preceding year. And when I went to see it again, I noticed that the Music Box logo preceded the movie, and so I figured that this distributor has picked it up. But that was eight months ago, and only now is the movie being released. But I am just glad we’re finally getting to see it!

Actually, you know, Music Box could have released the film before also, but because Film Forum wanted the film, they held back the release because Music Box wanted it to premiere here at Film Forum. That was their choice.

A good choice!

Yes. In the rest of the country, the release will be through Landmark Theaters. On September 10, it is opening in L.A., Chicago and then in the SanFrancisco area. And then further to Washington, Seattle, San Diego (October 1). And all through Landmark, all over the country.  (Note: You can find the entire listing here: click the link and scroll down.)

This makes me feel very good. To see this film in so many theaters. It’s like… finding out I have good taste, after all!

(He laughs) Yes. You were one of the first here to review it in a good way.

And I’ve mentioned it once or twice since then, hoping that somebody would notice. Now, when we met earlier you were working on Banker to the Poor. And I think you had just started that when I first met you. So what has happened with that film and script since then? Have you started filming yet?

Oh, no.   No, no, no, no. We are still working the script. And still financing the film. We did a rewrite now, with one of the writers of GomorrahMassimo Gaudioso. He is great with dialog and a very good writer who has won an award for that film, the European Film Awards -- like the Oscars for Europe. And we won this screenwriting prize at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

For The Sicilan Girl?

No—for Banker to the Poor.

I didn’t even realize that Tribeca had a screenplay prize.

Yes, it is with The Sloan Foundation. It is for helping to support projects having to do with scientific things, innovation, people trying to do good things in the world.

Was this before after I met you? It must have been after we met.

(Marco thinks a moment) No, it was before, but maybe we talked mostly about The Sicilian Girl.

And this prize allowed you to start working with the Gomorrah writer?


So, tell me how your life has changed over the last year since I first met you.

(He thinks a moment) Wow…

Or has it? Maybe it hasn’t changed. I don’t know.

(Long pause, as Marco really takes time to think). Well, I now have a niece. My sister, a producer, has had a little girl.

Is this your first young addition to the family?


Are you married? I don’t think I even asked you about this before…

No. But this niece makes me think about it.

Yes, life is going on, Marco, and you need another person....

Actually, I am more concentrating on the creative side. I would like to concentrate more and more artistically on the film. I am trying to appreciate more the creative work now. And I want to work with a writer on another film about Africa, a thriller, an adventure film about the environment and Africa.

And Banker to the Poor? Is this maybe about that banker in Italy who was found hanging under the bridge?

Oh, no, no no! It is about Muhammad Yunus, the guy who won the Nobel Prize in 2006, and who invented the Microloan.

Oh, yes, my cousin in Holland is involved very heavily in that and got me to invest a little chunk of money in a Microloan project. I feel that this is wonderful thing.

Yes, it is because he invented this way of lending just a little heart of money to poor people, breaking the rule of banks -- that normally don’t lend money to poor people who don’t have guarantees. That is why he was such a genius: because he said, Why don’t we try? We can break this rule. And the banks, you know, they don’t follow him in the beginning. But he keeps on with this idea, and in the end, he proved that it works. And actually, his banks have a higher restitution rate -- the rates of the people who pay their loans back -- than do the other banks: the “normal” banks used by the rich people.

Yes, I have read that! That’s a wonderful record.

That is why the banks, in the world financial crisis last year, they went too far from their real jobs, the reason  why they were first created. So these microloans are now giving the idea of a new way to help the people in the under-developed world. And even in western society. The normal way of giving big money with big organization to the third world actually did not help a lot. It was spread around and went to corruption. So this is again a story of people who get off the beaten track and go to invent a different direction – sort of as did my Sicilian girl, Rita.

But with a happier outcome!

(He laughs) Finally I have a film with a happy ending. All my films are tragic. But now I will make a happy ending! Also, over the past year since I saw you, I have been going all around the world, presenting my film. In Holland, in France, in Italy, of course. And in New Zealand, and now in America.

I think your film had already opened in Italy when I met you.

Yes. I got a nomination for the Italian Oscar, the Donatello Award.

 That’s right. Who won that year?

Mid-August Lunch. A very funny movie.

Oh, yes! That’s a sweet little movie. It also played here at Film Forum.

Yes. It won Best First Feature.

And that is what you were nominated for, Best First Feature?

Yes. But I also won the Gold Ticket Award: for the film most seen in the schools of Italy.

They showed The Sicilian Girl in the schools?

Yes, they show a lot of films in the schools And mine was the most seen.

Boy—they would never show a film like that in the schools here. Which is too bad. They should!

I went to a lot of schools. And this shows that teenagers… well, we usually say that oh, this new generation of teenagers, they only want to see movies about vampires, or stupid comedies. It’s not true. Because when we show a movie like this, they like it, and you know something? When the schools bring their kids for a day of cinema, it is usually like, Oh, the kids just want to lose a day of school.

Yes, right. They get to miss school, so they love that.

Yes, they don’t care about the movie. They just want to flirt with their girlfriend, or their boyfriend, they fool around whatever. But I went a few times to see how they react, and at the screening, yes, in the beginning, they start out with the noise and the fooling around but then they start to watch and to listen and they are caught up. And then they shut up. They love the film. They get shocked. They cry. They ask questions. It shows that they are not just silly, like we think or want to pretend. The problem is that a film like this does not get a big distribution. So the kids don’t hear of it.

No, they hear about Eclipse or New Moon or …

Or films they can choose. On TV, they are bombed by the ads, and that is all they know. So they go to see those films. A small independent film like this, they like very much and they write comments on Facebook about it. This is proof that these kids are not some lost generation.

When do you think you will begin shooting Banker to the Poor?

Next year.

So it will be ready to show in maybe 2012?

Yes. Actually, this year I came a lot to the States to work on the new film. Because I had a lot of interest in this film. I got a manager in L.A. – Christopher Barrett, at Metropolitan Agency. Also I met Peter Fonda, who has now helped and introduced me to producers and other people. He liked very much The Sicilian Girl when it screener in L.A.. Maybe it made a reminder for him a little bit: his days of Easy Rider, and the rebellion time. But we like each other. He is a guy who is off-track and has Beat Generation ideas. And I am like that, too. So he introduced me to producer who might be interested in Banker to the Poor. Also, now I find that my pace is starting to change.

Are you going faster?

No, slower. Focusing on less things, but focusing on them more deeply.

Good: That’s healthy.

Yes, being aware of time passing. Thinking more to have a family…

Ah, so you have a girlfriend now?

Ummm… (He smiles) Yes! The usual story, but…

Next time. In another year, maybe we’ll talk about that!

Yes. Before, this sort of thing was not my world. I wanted just to create. But now…

How old are you now?


Ah. This is the time that your roots start grabbing hold of the ground and you want to settle in.

Definitely. At my age my father already had two children.  Now, maybe we have lost the idea of family? In Italy, principally -- I don’t know about here in the States -- but people are afraid.

That’s all over the western world, I think. Particularly now. Is the world even going to last -- what with global warming and all its effects? And the Banks and Wall Street doing their stupid things. And the economy. It’s bad all over. I can understand young people feeling “iffy,” as we say.

Well, here in the U.S. I am creating a basis to work in the states.

To work in movies? Or TV?

In Movies! Meeting producers, making bases here. I have met some interested producers. There are some people interested in a remake of The Sicilian Girl.

A remake? Setting it here in America?


Hmmm… America’s idea of the Mafia and Italy’s idea of the mafia are like this and that. (I move my arms as far away from each other as possible.) I can’t imagine an American remake, but still, it’s good for you as a career thing. Anyway, the movie has opened here, and you’ve received some very good reviews – Stanley Kaufman’s in The New Republic is wonderful! So next time, I’ll look forward to seeing and talking with you again -- about your new film!

(All photos above are either from the film The Sicilian Girl, or cribbed from Google's Images for Marco Amenta site. Only one is identified (thank you, Abaca!), but if any photographer would like proper credit, just let me know your name and the image, and I will be happy to do that.)

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