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THE LEISURE SEEKER

Director's Statement
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, and then another one, 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 cliches, 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 Ă©lan 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 filmmaker 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 Milos Forman, from Wim Wenders to Ang Lee, up to the more recent examples of Cuaron and Inarritu.

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-scene. 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 Mimi, 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

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