Talking Paolo Sorrentino, John Huston, and BFI London Film Festival highlights with film culture tsar Adrian Wootton.
Adrian Wootton is always a smart, fun interviewee. In town for the London Film Festival, I continued the annual tradition with the Film London CEO at Soho’s Groucho Club.
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ALEXANDER BISLEY: I really enjoyed your conversation with Youth’s Paolo Sorrentino, even though he said he doesn’t enjoy doing interviews!
ADRIAN WOOTTON: I was pleased because I think he’s a very relaxed and incredibly likeable man, but he can be quite reticent in interviews, and very self-deprecating. I felt that he was opening up, he was talking about his relationship with his cinematographer, he was talking about his relationship with his producer, etc.
I think for me the key was the fact that he has a very particular vision of himself as a filmmaker. I think that he clearly doesn’t like the Fellini badge which people are trying to pin on his lapel and say “You are the 21st Century Fellini.” I tend to think of him almost an essayist, a kind of Montaigne of the cinema. He’s a humourist, he’s a satirist, he genuinely is interested in the human condition from a satiric and comic point of view.
He absolutely believes in ripping that veneer away and not being too po-faced about it. He’s always trying to find—in a really good way—the joke, the way to puncture the balloon, the way to undercut something. He kind of admitted that because even though at the same time he is also quite pessimistic, because of the veneer of humour in his work and the satire in his work, he ends up being more optimistic than he started out to be.
I think he always wants to find something in the human condition that he can ultimately be positive about, even if it’s in very difficult circumstances. He is a unique filmmaker. He’s so smart with what he does with all the pop-culture references, the cinema references in his work. He’s a genuine original.
It was really great to welcome him back to the festival, but it was all on a bit of a knife edge because he’s filming this huge television series with Jude Law for HBO, and they’re shooting right through till next February, so the festival literally negotiated with Studio Canal and HBO so that they could shut the production down for three days.
AB: I agree with that. I think both films are terrific and I love the humour in both of them. But I think as well there is a real tenderness. Particularly in The Great Beauty—it’s almost like Visconti’s The Leopard—and I found it extraordinarily moving. That mortality, you had all the satire and everything, and you come to the end, I found it very emotional.
AW: That’s a good analogy, because there’s no two ways about it: Jep is a 21st Century version of Lancaster in The Leopard. He is this great figure who is now, as a writer and as a moralist, out of his time. I think sometimes people have just picked on Fellini, because he’s got these grotesque characters and this sort of circus element.
Of course, there’s an element there—he’s definitely picking up on those things. But I don’t think he’s “Fellini lite,” and I don’t think he’s trying to reimagine Fellini for the 21st Century. I don’t think that’s the point. Fellini’s an influence because he’s influenced by the great masters of Italian cinema. Including Visconti.
‘The Great Beauty’
AB: From your talk with Sorrentino he seems like a great character, very much his own man.
AW: He’s got a singular vision of what he wants to achieve and he’s created a support structure around him. His producer is also a very dear friend of mine, Nicola Giuliano. As he said, the two of them are mates who laugh at odd things together.
And Nicola created Indigo Film as a kind of support structure in a way for Paolo to be able to realise his vision of things. So if he says “I want to make a film in America about a rock star,” they go and find a way.
And that’s one of the reasons we get on so well, because we’ve always loved talking about movies together. And he knows how much I like his work. I’m not flattering him, it’s a fact.
AB: By a country mile, the finest Italian filmmaker today.
AW: I’m dying to see this 12 hours of Sorrentino on HBO come autumn 2016. It’s a very exciting prospect.
AB: It’s possibly a bit boring discussing Berlusconi, but Il Divo was overtly political?
AW: Berlusconi in a positive-negative sense, provided a kind of rallying cry for most Italian filmmakers against that sort of dead weight political system he represented. Sorrentino approached it from an oblique angle because he didn’t make a film about Berlusconi. Unlike Nanni Moretti’s The Caiman, he made a film about Andreotti.
But it was a film about the system, which couldn’t help but be about Berlusconi even though it was actually about Andreotti. And that film is so smart, a cinematic lesson in Machiavellian tactics. So brilliantly structured.
I still think it’s his purest film in terms of cinema. Some of the sequences are so exquisitely constructed, that it is like opera, a concerto, or a symphony. Every piece of the film fits together in such an incredibly elegant way, and it’s so dense and so textured. And it’s a political satire as well.
I saw The Consequences of Love, loved it, and thought, “Wow, how to turn a genre inside out.” The Family Friend I really liked, although that was probably the most explicitly, in a sense, relating to Fellini. But it also had Jodorowsky in there, and it was very dark and grotesque.
And then he makes Il Divo and I was just completely blown away. Beyond anybody thinking about Berlusconi, I think what’s going to last about Il Divo is the scene where we have that moment with Andreotti walking into the Presidential palace, and the encounter with the cat—it’s just sublime! I’m constantly blown away by his imagination as a filmmaker.
There’s a scene in Youth where Michael Caine walks into the bloody woods and starts conducting the cows and the cowbells, and you think “Where did that come from? What bit of his head did that come from, and how did he put that on paper and then realise it?”
AB: As in that wonderful shot of politicians walking together mafia style, there is a real formal dynamism to his work. And that close relationship he has with [cinematographer] Luca Bigazzi.
AW: Bigazzi’s a genius. This sounds incredibly pretentious but—Bigazzi is the bulb to Sorrentino’s light.
AB: Again, as came out in your chat, a close friendship with Toni Servillo, with humour vital.
AW: Servillo really doesn’t speak any English at all. He’s such a lovely man.
I once asked him to talk about his relationship with Paolo, and he said “every script Paolo’s ever written for me, with me in mind… it’s like a blessing, like a little gift from God.” He said “every time I can’t quite believe how great the script is… it’s almost like telepathy, our relationship. I read the script and then I know that I have to do this, and I know exactly what he wants me to do.”
And they do have this extraordinary friendship, which is why I absolutely believe that they will make another film together.
In between the Q&As of Youth we had a very quick dinner with the cast of the film. Paolo and I were sitting next to Michael Caine. I said to him, “Oh Michael, I must say to you, I did this talk in Melbourne about John Huston. And I re-watched The Man Who Would be King, which I loved.”
He said, “I loved John Huston so much. Because he’d never tell you what to do, but he absolutely expected you to know what to do.”
Later somebody asked, “What was it like working with Paolo, compared to other famous directors you’ve worked with?” And he looked at me and said, “Well Adrian was asking me about John Huston earlier on.” He said, “Actually, quite a lot like John Huston, working with Paolo.” And Paolo thought this was fantastic.
“He gives you complete control, until you screw up. And then you realise absolutely who is in control. When we were on The Man Who Would be King, I said to him ‘You’re not giving me any direction John’.” He then did an imitation of Huston’s accent which I’m not going to try. He said, “Well Michael, the last I looked, you get paid very, very handsomely to turn up and read these lines and act in this movie. Therefore I kind of expect you know what you’re doing. And when you don’t, I’ll tell you.”
AB: Further London Film Festival highlights for me—Dheepan and The End of the Tour.
AW: Dheepan, that’s a film that’s getting an awful lot of attention all over the place. At Cannes, British critics thought that the denouement, coming to Britain, was a bit too simplistic. England being the land of milk and honey for the refugee. Considering recent events and our government’s attitude—you might want to revise that slightly, Jacques. But it’s interesting the way in which the film is in two halves. In the first half, we have a picture of a whole culture, and of living on the estate and trying to be a decent guy, and then in the second half we have action movie writ large. It’s extraordinary the way he mixes those two things together.
AB: The ending is the least strong part. But I did find the film very energetic and engaging and textured.
AW: All the stuff in the council estate, with them trying desperately to live an ordinary life, is incredibly well done. It has generated an enormous amount of interest. As you say, Audiard’s one of the great French filmmakers, isn’t he? I can’t think of another French film this year I’ve liked more.
AB: How about The End of the Tour, on David Foster Wallace?
AW: I thought the two actors [Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg] were brilliant. After watching the film I went out and bought Lipsky’s book. I had David Foster Wallace’s novels but I hadn’t got this book about this experience, the book that was only published years later.
AB: The time and access Lipsky got—not to mention his expense account—it’s not a model often extended today, even by Rolling Stone.
AW: [laughs] I don’t think journalism quite operates in the same way today, does it Alex? I thought, “God, I know David Foster Wallace, I know his books, I didn’t know about this incident.” And then discovering that Rolling Stone never published the piece. He kept it all on ice for years and then finally wrote a book about it, which is great. It’s so smart, all those conversations are so funny and incisive.
But the relationship between the two, the two actors, the performances. I’m an admirer, but was I still surprised about how good Jesse Eisenberg was in it. And how good Jason Segel playing David Foster Wallace was. It is a very impressive film.
‘The End of the Tour’
AB: The tension interviewing and writing about a subject you really admire resonated with me.
AW: The way in which it explores that relationship is clever and insightful. You’re absolutely right. And done with great good humour and sensitivity as well. That was the film at Sundance I enjoyed the most.
AB: Have you read the Lipsky book?
AW: Yes, I skim read it. It’s not the script of the film, it’s a really fascinating meditation on artistic ability and talent. It’s obviously a bit of a reverie because it’s looking backwards as well; it’s not exactly in the now, you know. It is a sort of reconstruction of that, using everything that he wrote at the time. Lipsky’s a very fine writer.
AB: Another film we discussed last year, which I got around to seeing afterwards—A Most Wanted Man—I thought it was terrific. Particularly Philip Seymour Hoffman. Formally it was strong, too.
AW: I agree with you. I think Philip Seymour Hoffman was astonishing in it, as we talked about. And I think it was very underrated. There’s two more [John] le Carrés in the pipe—there’s a television series of The Night Manager which they’ve made, which is going to be out at some point on television this year. And there’s also Our Kind of Traitor which is a Susanna White film with Ewan McGregor which was shot in London.
A London Film Festival 2015 Top Five
- The End of the Tour (James Ponsoldt, USA)
- Dheepan (Jacques Audiard, France)
- The Measure of a Man (Stéphane Brizé, France)
- Youth (Paolo Sorrentino, Italy)
- Carol (Todd Haynes, UK/USA)