THE LEISURE SEEKER
The great American road movie is renewed and refreshed in The Leisure Seeker,
Italian cinematic flair by PAOLO VIRZI and brought to life by extraordinary
MIRREN and DONALD SUTHERLAND playing ordinary people confronting the
of old age. Virzi, winner of the 2017 David di Donatello Best Director Award for
Picture winner Like Crazy (La Pazza Gioia), brings his distinctive blend of
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.
"I have this vice or this habit to take sad topics, painful topics, and try
to transform them into
entertaining adventures," says Virzi. "The key is to combine comedy and tragedy,
Indeed, there's no lack of painful topics nor of entertaining adventures in The
"I was a little wary of a film focused on old age," says Helen Mirren, "but I
looked at the work
of Paolo Virzi, in particular Human Capital, and I thought he had a wonderful,
easy way of approaching these complicated but very, very realistic human
calling card is naturalism, human behaviour that can be silly or heroic but
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
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
And very specific. And he liked the script."
Although The Leisure Seeker embraces the iconic Americana of campgrounds and
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 Virzi. "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
The original novel of the same name by Michael Zadoorian traversed legendary
through the American West to Disneyland, but, as Virzi explains, "For us to go
film in the
grandiose landscapes of the Arizona desert or Monument Valley would be like an
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
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
adaptation endowed John Spencer, Sutherland's character, with a passion for
and Ella's goal is to reach the Hemingway home in Key West.
The screenplay marshalled the combined writing efforts of some notable Virzi
felt like I was joining a dream team of writers," reports STEPHEN AMIDON, an
novelist whose 2005 novel Human Capital was adapted by Virzi into the film that
enchanted Helen Mirren. Amidon and Virzi became close friends, and when The
came to Virzi's production company Motorino Amaranto by way of Indiana
producers of "Human Capital" and " The First Beautiful Thing", Virzi turned to
Amidon as his
house expert on American language and mores. Virzi also enlisted the help of
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
language and culture.
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 Virzi's
were Italian, including Director of Photography LUCA BIGAZZI, best known in the
his work on The Great Beauty, 2013 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film.
American crew worked by their side; American Production Designer RICHARD WRIGHT
helped Virzi achieve the balance that he sought of realistic American setting
and his own
"I like to fill the mise-en-scene with realistic elements, with true faces, a
sense of truth," Virzi
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
behind our story. That's another habit-or vice-of an Italian style of
storytelling: to frame the private personal stories of your little characters
within the big picture of
In the summer of 2016, one unavoidable piece of that big picture was the
As Virzi 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
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
"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 Virzi, "because every
human has his
own syndrome." John's confusion sometimes gives way to moments of sparkling
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
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
Sutherland reread Hemingway- "Every one. The oeuvre. I hadn't been in there
years"- and trusted the character of John to come through: "He took off, and I
went with him."
"Donald was really impassioned," says Virzi. "He was already a great scholar
and Joyce. He immersed himself in John Spencer. He became John Spencer. When we
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
"Helen Mirren," Virzi 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
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 Virzi. "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."
Virzi 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
vehicle with no air conditioning, under the July and August sun in hot and humid
Florida," relates Virzi. "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
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
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
You could look out your window and see a million of those every day-ordinary
America is a huge country full of many families-nothing so special about them.
special because we put a frame around them and we watch them. I think that's the
of Paolo's filmmaking-he makes films about people we can identify with. They are
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