IFFR 2009: Interview with "Il Pranzo di Ferragosto" director / writer / actor GIANNI DI GREGORIO
I already shortly met Gianni di Gregorio, director of Il Pranzo di Ferragosto and screenplay writer and assistant director of Gomorra, at the last edition of the prestigious Venice Film Festival where he won the "Future Golden Lion". Recently, he was also one of the invited guests at the International Film Festival Rotterdam and so it was time sit down with him for an interesting interview.
Gianni is a middle-aged man and lives in an old house in the center of Rome. There he lives together with... his mother, a woman of faded nobility who tyrannizes him and leaves him only enough free time to go to the tavern. On the eve of Ferragosto (an Italian holiday), the apartment block manager - aware of Gianni's enforced "captivity" - suggests him to look after his mother for a couple of days as well, in return for the waiver of all the unpaid utility bills. When he turns up at his house also accompanied by his old aunt, Gianni feels rather ill. He therefore lets his doctor friend pay him a visit for a check-up, but even the latter leaves his old mother in Gianni's care for the feast of Ferragosto.
It's the lines above that tell the beginning of a humoristic and heart-warming portrait of Italian etiquette. Even more so, it's the beginning of a little masterpiece and one of the films that personally brought me a more than decent enjoyment at last year's Venice Film Festival. So why do I have the feeling a reader like you might not have heard of this film? Perhaps because too few have been writing about it and actually I should have done so directly when I saw it last summer, but hopefully the following will all make that up.
Peter van der Lugt: I immensely enjoyed your film when I saw at Venice last summer. Strangely though it wasn't in competition to contend for a Golden Lion, especially since quite a bit of the films that did screen in competition were simply lacking in quality. Whyyy for god's sake wasn't Il Pranzo di Ferragosto screened in competition?
Gianni di Gregorio: Well, we didn't even know that the movie was chosen to be part of the festival's schedule. We had just sent the movie for the Settimana Internazionale della Critica (Venice Film Festival's Critic's Week) and then they told us it was selected so it was a big surprise. But actually, the biggest surprise was the amount of audience. We didn't expect that. And then... it won the "Future Golden Lion" for the best directing debut! It was quite funny to win such a price at such an age, because usually it is won by very young people. Everybody was laughing when I picked up the award at the ceremony.
Peter van der Lugt: So why was that? In the past you've been writing scripts and scenarios. What made you decide to direct a film at this point of your artistic career?
Gianni de Gregorio: I believe that every screenplay writer at a certain point of their life wants to become a director. I have to say that I am slow in a way that I take my time to do things. The movie was a very long process. First of all I decided to write its screenplay, but only at the very end did I decide to become its director. Actually, in this work all of my experiences came together. As an assistant director, as a screenplay writer, as a man working in the movies.
Peter van der Lugt: Well, it really shows.
Gianni di Gregorio: Thank you (laughing).
Peter van der Lugt: In Il Pranzo di Ferragosto you are also the main actor. Can you give us some impressions about this other side of your "debut"?
Gianni di Gregorio: Actually, yes it is my debut as an actor, but I have to tell you that I am an actor in the sense that I started in a very important school for acting in Italy, though I ended up never doing something with that. Until now. I finally had the courage to act because of several reasons. Because of budget problems, but also because the movie was so close to me. It's somewhat autobiographical and I was really in love with this movie.
Peter van der Lugt: Il Pranzo di Ferragosto is a touching yet amusing film also thanks to the strong personalities of the old ladies that took part in the story. Can you tell us more about these "actresses"? If I am right they weren't real actors. It must have been quite the audition or did the ladies "just" come over?
Gianni di Gregorio: They are 93, 90, 88 and 86 and one (Grazia) I knew, because she is my auntie. Then there's the woman who plays the mother who is a family friend. For the other two roles we went to an elderly house and told we were looking for people around ninety, but the problem was I liked all of them (laughing).
Peter van der Lugt: Which makes me wonder, how did you direct them?
Gianni di Gregorio: I immediately knew I could NOT direct them (both laughing)! Their personalities were very, very strong and they completely refused to take what I'd loved them to say, so I realized I should take all of them. Basically what we did, we prepared a scene and gave the general lines on where the scene was going, but then they would use their own words and their own movements and with a handheld camera followed them around.
Peter van der Lugt: How many takes did the scenes need?
Gianni di Gregorio: We'd of course take several, but in the end the best scene was quite often the first one. Most of the times we were trying to organize a continuous shot. For example we would start in the corridor and after that go to the room on the left and obviously they would go to the RIGHT (both laughing).
Peter van der Lugt: On a side track, of course journalists always tend to ask the same questions over and over again...
Gianni di Gregorio: No, no! Not always!! Some times they pop up some interesting things. Sometimes even things I had never thought of before and end up realizing "ah, that's true".
Peter van der Lugt: ...so what kind of subjects do they often avoid on which you'd gladly like to talk about?
Gianni di Gregorio: I like the technical questions a lot. How I shoot, how I direct, but in general they ask anything, everything and sometimes they even ask something that lets me reflect on things I might have done unconsciously...
Peter van der Lugt: What about a question on music? The musical score of Il Pranzo di Ferragosto is an interesting one. It was done by very young musicians, and sometimes it almost "steals the scene". Can you tell us more about your work on the music?
Gianni di Gregorio: Beautiful... The composers are very, very young. One is 22, and the other is a friend of 30. The 22 one started in conservatory and he's a son of a big musician (a Bulgarian flute player). Anyway, everybody was telling me "Why don't you take someone more famous?", but I immediately understood that this young guy was a genius. I put aside all the advice of taking someone with a famous name and remained with my decision and even gave him the screenplay BEFORE shooting. I was a little bit afraid because I had the music and the movie itself was not yet ready and maybe it wouldn't fit. But as soon as I started to do the first cut I realized the music was perfectly coming together with the movie. And also for the person who did the final cut giving him the music meant giving him a big help as usually you make the final cut with music that's not definitive.
Peter van der Lugt: Il Pranzo di Ferragosto is a fictional story. However, because of its style (hand camera, sound recorded on location and so on), its theme and its characters, it has a feeling of "real life". Is there any reference to real events in it? Maybe to something autobiographical, as you are the main actor of the film and the protagonist is called Gianni as well?
Gianni di Gregorio: Well, it's mostly autobiographical. In my own life I had this mother who was rather possessive and obsessive. A typical Italian mother. I was also living with her and in summer, when everybody typically leaves the city for holiday and old people stay, I had a visit of my landlord. He started some crazy talking and in the end asked to take care of his mother who lived in the apartment downstairs. I said "No!", of course not, I COULDN'T! (both laughing) But... at that moment I started to think what would happen if I'd said yes to him and had taken care of her and at that moment I started to write about this fantasy.
Peter van der Lugt: The end result is a film that makes some interesting statements on elderly people.
Gianni di Gregorio: I wanted to talk about the loneliness of elderly people, a real social problem. But the point is I believe that the only way to give my message to people was to make a comedy instead of a drama. The message would arrive better if I'd do it a comic way.
Peter van der Lugt: A Gianni di Gregorio kind of thing?
Gianni di Gregorio: I worked on making dramas a lot, but sooner or later there's always a point where something funny popping up. It's one of the peculiar parts of my personality. Even when I work on a screenplay with a lot of people.
Peter van der Lugt: Il Pranzo di Ferragosto is a film which looks Italian at its core and in the best way, thanks to its tone, its style and its feeling. Some even found touches of "neorealism" nostalgia in it. However, the film was screened in a series of international cinema festivals. Dutch, English and even Japanese people have been able to see it and even over there it has been a hit.
Gianni di Gregorio: We didn't expect this success. As you say it's a very Italian movie, but maybe it is because the film talks about mothers. Everybody has a mother or aunt to take care of. I think we really did touch something about intimate life, but it's still very impressing that we have this big success around the world. It's something that has really made me happy.
Peter van der Lugt: Talking about success, Il Pranzo di Ferragosto is produced by Matteo Garrone, who's currently having a big success with Gomorra, the critically acclaimed mafia film for which you were screenplay writer and assistant director. During the past years you have often worked with Garrone. What, in this first film of yours, can be considered an "inheritance" from your experience with Garrone?
Gianni di Gregorio: That's a nice question... I started to work with Matteo Garrone a long time ago. Even though he's a lot younger than me, he became my mentor. I really liked his way of making movies. His way of working, but also the man himself in an anthropological kind of way. The reality of often using non-professional actors was something I was always thinking about. This way of making movies by Garrone is really like a deep view on reality and daily life and something I learned from him.
Peter van der Lugt: A similarity with for example Gomorra.
Gianni di Gregorio: I consider Il Pranzo di Ferragosto to be my little child. It is smaller than Gomorra, which was something very big. But I have to say, with every work I put all my passion in it. My passion for movies in general... my passion for reality... I consider this kind of way of work to be very honest and one of the similarities between Il Pranzo di Ferragosto and Gomorra.
FINAL NOTES: Gianni di Gregorio's directing debut Il Pranzo di Ferragosto is a film that needs to be seen! If you have the chance to see it at a cinema, do so. If not, then at least purchase the Italian DVD release which is already out for sale and includes English subtitles as well. In the mean time, its trailer can be found here.