“Cinema alleviates the pain that comes from solitude.”
Paolo Sorrentino is an Academy Award winning film director and screenwriter. For the first time he has made a television serial, ‘The Young Pope’ produced by Sky Atlantic, HBO and Canal+. It has had great success, in Italy and all over the world.
How different did you find doing this from shooting the films you have made like ‘The Consequences of Love’, ‘This Must Be the Place’, ‘Il Divo’ and ‘The Great Beauty’? Does a TV series correspond to a movie that lasts 10 hours? Is making a TV series a new way for you to explore cinema?
The difference is in the physical fatigue! It means working for seven months instead of for two. It means being concentrated every day for seven months and keeping the very long continuity of ten episodes with many characters. As well as the physical fatigue you also have to maintain the psychological intensity. In this work one cannot self-indulge. You have to keep concentrated. Otherwise it’s the same thing, using the same instruments as for a film. I never ask myself what the difference is between TV and cinema. I work with the same people in the same way. The only real difference is in the writing. The process of making a TV series is like writing a long novel, whereas film is more like a short story. In filmmaking you need to have the ability to proceed by synthesis, whereas a TV serial is like writing a long 19th century novel.
Do you think today’s TV series have replaced the cinema?
No, the paradox is that nowadays a TV series makes it possible to create a work of art, which the cinema doesn’t anymore. What used to be authorial cinema in the old days, nowadays you can do that on TV. Anyhow I consider any cinematographic fruition to be cinema. When you watch a film on your computer there is such an exclusive relationship between you and the film that it more or less has same principles as the cinema itself. The only difference is that by going to the cinema you have the collective ritual of being in a theatre.
Do you think that cinema theatre is finished?
What is finished is the uncomfortable, hostile, cold place you used to go to watch films. Nowadays the cinema theatre is a comfortable place where people get together, and the movie house survives as a modern stadium. In other words, you are comfortable and there are all sorts of different amenities. In London for instance, and in other cities, there are theatres that are very comfortable. The natural destiny of theatres is that they have to be competitive with home viewing, and therefore a cinema has to be as comfortable as a home with the difference that you have a pleasant exchange with others. But we don’t see queues of people waiting to enter a theatre and chatting about films any more.
Is it true that you are at the moment preparing a second series of ‘The Young Pope’?
I wrote a second series, yes, and at the same time I am thinking about making a new film.
When is the new series of ‘The Young Pope’ coming out?
I think it will be ready in 2018, but I can’t talk about it. The only thing I can say is that I will not be the only director. I will share the making of the next series with another director.
And what about the film?
I am tentatively approaching ideas for a new film, but I don’t yet know which one I will choose.
You shot many prestigious award winning films using the same actor, Toni Servillo, as your protagonist, and then this changed and you worked with foreign actors. Is that very different?
The main difference is in the language. In general I have worked with actors who have great intelligence and they put themselves at my disposal to work with me. Great actors have many great qualities. As I said, the real difference is in the language.
How do you feel when you work in the English language?
Of course I am better in Italian, and it is more tiring and takes greater concentration, but English is a more musical language and the musicality of the dialogues is better in English.
From now on will you therefore work only in English?
No, I never thought about whether to work in Italian or in English. It depends on the film. It happens by chance, since it is the idea that I have to realise that brings me to a specific country, language or actor.
Is there a leitmotiv that runs through your work?
There is a leitmotiv of the dominant sentiments to which I am affectionate. For instance, melancholy, nostalgia, and the relationship with solitude. These are the dominant themes that traverse all my films.
How did the idea of making ‘The Young Pope’ come to you?
I thought a lot about the Vatican and the life of a Pope. I have always found this fascinating, and I found it fascinating to tell this story. Obviously the story of the Vatican and the Pope had been told many times, but not in an intimate way, and I made a particular and extended research into a scandal in the Vatican and this is what the American public especially were looking for. I wanted to tell the story of a Vatican where a person works and tries to guide Catholics spiritually. There is a strange contradiction between the miniscule Vatican State and being the spiritual guide of more than a billion souls. This must be an incredibly arduous job, and I wanted to recount the story of a Pope in his daily life, of the man that lives inside the cassock. The Pope is a man like any other man.
What was the reaction of the Church to ‘The Young Pope’?
They didn’t react. A silence descended. I don’t know if this means that they are intelligent and they don’t want to get involved with controversial arguments and therefore they let it go.
Are you a friend of Nanni Moretti? Because Nanni did a film on more or less the same subject called ‘We Have a Pope’?
Yes, we know each other well. His was a very beautiful film, but he dealt with the opposite argument. In other words he talked about a Pope who takes a step back and renounces the job. My Pope on the other hand is a very active Pope who wants to absolutely take on board the responsibility of his position.
Do you think Jude Law makes a good Pope?
It went very well. It has been said that it is the best role that he ever made in his life.
In your life there is a parallel career since you are also a writer. You published your third book last Christmas, and the title is “Gli Aspetti Irrelevanti” ?
It is a novel composed of 23 portraits that tell the life stories of 23 characters, and the book is illustrated with photographs by Jacopo Benassi. It is a choral novel that reminds me of the characters of ‘The Great Beauty’. To be honest I believe I am more a writer than a director. I am much more at ease with writing, because from the age of 20 to the age of 30 I only wrote screenplays. I like to make cinema, it’s a great activity, but whenever I have some time I also write books.
What is the difference between writing a film and writing a book?
A book allows you absolute total freedom. All that has to happen is there on the page. But for the cinema you know that what you write will then have to deal with other realities. Writing for the cinema has obstacles and barriers, but when a novel is finished the publisher publishes it. The screenplay is only the first step in cinema, even if it is obviously fundamental and the fortunes of a film start with a good screenplay.
Do you write your own screenplays?
The first four films I wrote by myself, and then I did two with Umberto Cantarello, including ‘The Young Pope’ where some episodes are written by me and some by Cantarello.
Why did you choose Sean Penn as the protagonist of ‘This Must be the Place’ and Jude Law as the protagonist of ‘The Young Pope’?
I met Sean Penn in Cannes when I showed ‘Il Divo’. He told me that he liked the film very much and he told me that he was keen to make a film with me. As he is one of my favourite American actors I immediately started to write the script. Jude Law on the other hand is the actor who emerged from the character itself.
Do you think about the character or the actor first?
First I think about the character.
Do you enjoy working with actors?
I am not the kind of director who particularly empathises with actors, and this is the reason why I always try to find intelligent actors. My fascination is primarily for the image. My priority is to establish the images into which I let some actors fall. The first part of the image comes when you write the script, and then there are many other elements which come by making the film.
Is making a film like conducting a symphony?
The metier of director is similar and proximate to the role of a conductor of an orchestra. You have to make all the instruments speak together, and in the case of a film this means the actors, the lighting, the musical score and the dialogue.
Is it a difficult metier?
Yes, very difficult, but very pleasing. It is tiring and long, and then you have to wait a long time before you see the results. You need a lot of patience, but if you have the chance to make cinema and are able to do the work it is the most delightful job.
Are you happy?
Yes, I am very happy, because the work itself is great fun. Working on a film is a real buzz and gratifying. To be able to put together such a complex machine from nothing is a great joy.
What is the indispensable quality of a cinema director?
To be gifted with a good intuition. Cinema has to be made quickly and you have to take quick decisions and therefore you have to take your decisions trusting your intuition.
Is total dedication another necessary quality?
Yes, you can also make a film with partial dedication, but it’s not the same thing.
How does this affect your personal life?
I am immersed in my work from 7 in the morning to 7 at night, but then I have dinner with my wife, my children, or my friends.
Is Rome a good city for you to live in?
It’s very good because of its royal indolence. It gives me a necessary calm, because being a dying city it is wanting in temptation. If I was in London or New York I would stay out and about much more than I needed to be.
Have you been changed by having so much success?
Success didn’t change me, and I have never made big changes in my life. I am married to the same wife and I live in the same house. I am a self-contained person and I read very little of whatever it is they write about me. I have the same life that I had 20 years ago, and that’s a very good way to put boundaries on temptations. I didn’t change my life, and I still have the same dream that I had as an adolescent: “To Make a Film.” When I was a young man I was afraid that my dream could not be realised. Now I know that I can realise it, and this gives me the necessary serenity to write a novel or make a film.
Do you also want to become a great novelist?
I still have to become a great director! I feel like someone who has just learned the metier. Other people are great directors, people like Fellini, Scorsese, Bergman, people who have made much more important movies. I am only 46 years old and therefore I am moderately young, and I still think I am yet to realise my great film; and this is a kind of pressure that stimulates me for the future.
When a film of yours is released do you suffer from stress?
I am not afraid. I forgot to tell you that what is also very important in the work of a director is not to be too anxious. You need to be unprejudiced and take risks. I never forget that I have the privilege of dealing in a great game.
What do audiences need?
People have a great need to be consoled in their own solitude, and the cinema helps. Cinema, through strange and mysterious convergences, alleviates the pain that comes from solitude and that lives inside each one of us.
Do you think about that when you shoot a film?
When I make a film I only think about how to make concrete what is moving abstractly in my head.
Do you go to the cinema much?
I used to go a lot when I was a young man. Now I don’t see so many films because I live in films all day and at night I prefer to do something else.
Do you read?
Yes, I read a lot, novels, essays, and often things for my work. The novel that struck me like a lightning bolt is ‘Voyage au Bout de la Nuit’ (‘Journey to the End of the Night’) by Louis-Ferdinand Céline. I read that when I was twenty-two years old and I am still lit up by it.
What else lights you up?
New York when I was a young man, and football, which is one of my great passions. Football in general, even though I am a supporter of Napoli. Obviously my children are another great passion.
Are you a good father?
I think so, and I care a great deal about my children. When they are not in school, if they can they come and stay with me, wherever I am working.
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