There are a number of exceptional films nominated for this year's Foreign Language Oscar, but none swept us up quite like "The Great Beauty." The film, directed by Paolo Sorrentino, follows an aging journalist (played by Sorrentino regular Toni Servillo), as he makes his way through modern day Rome and deals with his own mortality. It's a giant, sumptuous, glittery delight, with party sequences that make the overblown excess of "The Great Gatsby" seem paltry by comparison, and has an unexpectedly melancholic and spiritual core. We were lucky enough to sit down with Sorrentino, on the eve of the Oscars, to talk about the film, how "La Dolce Vita" inspired the production, the music in his movies, why he wants to do an L.A.-set noir at some point and much more.
First, though, a note about the location of the interview: it was held in the offices of the Criterion Collection, in New York City. Any film nerd worth his or her salt knows what the Criterion Collection is and is probably just as obsessed as we are. Following the release of the film theatrically by their sister company Janus Films last year, Criterion will be bringing a deluxe version of "The Great Beauty" to DVD and Blu-ray in March, in a typically stacked package.
It seemed fitting that Sorrentino was speaking to us in their offices, since "The Great Beauty" is a movie to treasure and show your friends and become deeply involved with. It's a movie that deserves championing and one whose life will extend far beyond the awards on March 2nd. It was an usual treat to be able to chat with the filmmaker behind "Il Divo," surrounded by artwork and movies that have been canonized as classics. "The Great Beauty" will take its place amongst them soon enough.
Did the experience of making "This Must Be The Place," your first English-language film, necessitate a return to Italy? How did that project influence this?
Back then I had a story that very suitable for English. And then two years later I had another story that was suitable for a film in Italian. It's very simple.
Would you go back and do another English language movie?
Oh yeah. The next one will be in English, but I don't like to talk about movies that I haven't done yet.
Obviously a lot of people have been drawing comparisons between "The Great Beauty" and "La Dolce Vita." Was that a direct influence and what other movies inspired this?
My film does tackle the same issues that "La Dolce Vita" deals with, however I tried to not allow myself to be influenced by that, because "La Dolce Vita" is a masterpiece and one doesn't touch masterpieces. You don't even go there. You just let them be wherever they are.
Can you talk about the writing process? How did the story come about and evolve?
Over the course of several years I'd been taking notes on several stories and things and people. And that's how this character got fleshed out. All I had to do when I sat down to write was connect the dots between all of these notes and bring them all together. So the way I work, I put down a first draft by myself and then I send it to my co-writer Umberto Contarello and he reads it and then writes a second draft. And then he sends me a second draft and I work on a third draft and send it back. This ping-pong game continues until I shoot.
What did you find was the element that linked all of those initial ideas?
The thing that linked it all was the lead character of the journalist, who is able to navigate through all of these worlds and had the opportunity to connect the dots and tie all of these stories together.
You always use music incredibly well in your movies. What is your approach to selecting music for the movie?
It is music itself that informs the film, back at the writing stage. I actually listen to a lot of music. So I hear music and if I find that a particular piece of music is suitable to the story I want to tell or mirrors the spirit or an atmosphere that I want to describe, then I use it. I don't have specific criteria. I just listen to music. And that turns into the film. I don't have a method. I'm just a big listener.
Have you ever come into a rights issue where you really wanted to use a piece of music and just couldn't get it?
Yes I've had many of those but in the end we always pulled it off and we were always able to convince the author to allow us to use it. Of course the secret is to not choose music that is too expensive or is out of anything that could be outside of my budget. I love listening to the Rolling Stones but I don't fall in love with any of their music for my film because I know I wouldn't be able to afford it. So there's a kind of censorship at the source.
The camera always seems to be in motion. I was wondering if you had any kind of philosophy in terms of when it's appropriate to move the camera.
There are many reasons: first of all, film is an illusion. And the illusion is being able to solve a mystery. So by moving the camera it's as if I'm following a thread that leads to the unveiling of a mystery. And I like to tell this tale – of the revelation. Also, the filmmakers that I consider points of reference, who I grew up watching and admiring, like Martin Scorsese or Fellini or Bertolucci, move the camera a lot, and I grew up liking that. Also, when you're shooting a movie, it's very tiring but also very gratifying, and I want it to be like that. So moving the camera a lot demands a lot from myself and from my crew and I think that it should be like that. Moving the camera makes people work hard but also feel gratified for what they did.
What have the last few weeks been like, getting nominated for the Oscar and winning the Golden Globe?
I am very happy but I also feel like I'm under a lot of pressure, because it is very tiring. But mostly I am very happy.
As you said, all of your movies have this element of mystery and "Il Divo" has this crime element. Are there any genres that you'd like to tackle?
I'd really love to do a straight-up comedy. I don't think I'm capable of doing that. But that is what I'd really love to do. We're in New York so it makes me think of Woody Allen comedies that I'd love to do myself.
Besides a comedy is there anything you'd love to do?
A film noir. I would love to do a film noir. Not necessarily period, but set in present time. I'd love to do it in L.A. I love movies like "L.A. Confidential" and "Chinatown," and I'd love to do a movie like that.
Is there anything keeping you from doing a Hollywood movie?
No, no. I'd be very happy to do that. It just hasn't happened yet. It's something I'd love to do.