Paolo Virzi, the Italian filmmaker behind the latest Helen Mirren/Donald Sutherland romantic drama The Leisure Seeker is definitely a character! Before starting our interview he cracked jokes about the chilly New York weather and about how California, where I’m located, was the land of the “cowboys.” This effervescent spirit is found in his feature, coming out Friday and Virzi took the time to share his thoughts on the film with The Young Folks.
What inspired you to take this project on?
Many, many things. Maybe the first thing was love and where you mix two tones – comedy and tragedy, painful and sad topics with a desire of euphoria even if it’s the last dream. One other reason was when I was asked who were the actors I would love to work with I told [the studio] Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland. When I was told the agents were interested it [compelled] me to make the movie because they were available in that moment. I couldn’t escape. I was stuck in the project and I did it.
You’re working with these two titans of acting. What was it like to work with them?
It’s amazing! It’s very easy to work with people so talented because you don’t have to make any [suggestions]. Sometimes I just step behind the monitor and enjoy the show they were able to create. They both were immersed in their characters and I trusted them totally, so I could focus on the atmosphere and the visuals which I made very simple, but with simplicity comes poetry with feelings. In terms of acting, they were so touching and enchanting. What I needed to do was capture what they were trying to create in a simple way with two invisible cameras, natural light, avoiding intrusive devices like dollies or Steadi-Cams. It was simple cinematography. Simplicity is something that I always tend to and this was the chance to try to focus on the real soul of the story which was these two characters and their life.
Would you say you let them do their thing or was it a collaborative process?
The first day I saw them working with the dialogue I encouraged them to feel free to improvise, not to be that faithful to the text because it wasn’t William Shakespeare. Secondly, because I felt they were aware of the characters more than me or more than anyone else. I trusted them. It happened quite a lot that during the end of a take I wasn’t able to say the word “cut” and they kept on going. It was a miracle that they’d create moments unattended, unexpected, that ended in the movie.
Can you share one of those unexpected moments?
There are many, many, many little moments! For instance, after Ella (Mirren) is mad at John (Sutherland) because he doesn’t remember that the kids have grown old. The scene was supposed to end on the line, “I brought you a surprise.” I didn’t say the word “cut,” so Helen and Donald kept on acting, sitting next to each other and then that little whispered dialogue sitting on the door of the camper. Or the sex scene, the love scene in the script was without words and a little more brutal. In the moment they acted a little more sweeter than it was. Many little gestures. Ella, for instance taking care of John, taking the glasses from him before they go to sleep. Or all the lectures about Hemingway to the clueless waitress were mostly improvised.
I loved the emphasis on Hemingway in this movie. I was an English major so it was so familiar.
I’m happy about that because Donald, during the shooting, became one of the best scholars of Hemingway and Joyce because he was studying books and books about the literature his character was supposed to be an expert on. He became the character slightly. What they say about him is all true; [Donald] becomes the character he’s playing. He became John Spencer.
You actually filmed a key sequence in the Hemingway house alongside these moments of cramped quarters in the camper. What was it like filming in those two highly different environments?
To shoot in a camper isn’t easy because it’s a very narrow place and it felt uncomfortable. Only the essential parts of the crew were on-board the camper, but the essential crew is at least 15 people on-board an old vehicle. Donald wanted to be the one to drive the camper for real. He didn’t want any safety device. We preferred to let him drive the camper, to give us the sense of reality we wanted. It was pretty challenging because it was a humid summer in 2016, both in terms of politics and weather. It was very hot, humid. We couldn’t use the air conditioning system in the camper. We risked our lives many times during the traveling scenes in that camper. Shooting in the Hemingway house was one day of shooting. We couldn’t close the place because it’s open to the public. It’s a real place where people can go and get married. I don’t know why. You can find it on their website and book your ceremony if you like.
I didn’t know that until just now. I’ll have to hold that for future reference.
It’s a good idea. I don’t know why but people like it.
People get married in weirder places here in America.
Are you going to invite us to your wedding at the Hemingway house?
If I ever get married you will definitely be on the guest list!
I will bring my crew and we will be silent and respectful, and we’ll make for you your wedding movie.
I’m honored! A portion of the movie deals with the election. What went into that decision?
I did it because it was happening. It was impossible for us to avoid because everywhere we were going there were billboards, signs, rallies, TV shows. That was the summer of 2016 in America. I didn’t want to make any statement. We didn’t know how it would end. We were feeling that something was happening, something meaningful. I didn’t want to warn American people but the story of an elderly couple getting away and they retrace their love story, their entire life, in a moment in which America is so dramatically changing seems to mean something.
You’ve been making films since 1994. Are there still elements about filmmaking that challenge or surprise you?
You know what, Kristen? I have to confess, I’m 54 and I feel like I don’t have much time left to make all the movies I dreamed I’d make. I have my drawers full of projects and sketches and subjects. I feel it’s urgent now to make movies one after the other because I’m afraid of dying before having done all the movies I would like to have done.
The Leisure Seeker is in theaters March 9th