I wrote the script for my new film, Dogman, 12 years ago, and during those years I changed it many times, arriving at six or seven drafts throughout the process.

The story explores the inner conflict of Marcello (played by Marcello Fonte), a man who is non-violent and yet remains trapped within a cycle of violence from which he does not know how to escape. He resorts to violence to defend himself, and that part of the plot is based on true events that are known in Italy as a “revenge story”… but I can’t say that it’s a revenge movie. Nobody knows how true this “true story”—the case of a drug-addicted dog groomer who murdered a criminal acquaintance in his salon in Rome in 1988—actually is, so Dogman is really based on how the story exists in popular imagination. Ultimately, it’s about a man who’s lost his dignity and is trying to regain it.

When you work with an actor, you’re trying to create a sort of marriage between the actor and your project, and that requires going on a journey together. That’s why I shot Dogman in sequence from scene one to scene 100, so audiences seeing the finished film would truly be able to follow our main character’s journey together with us.

Made To Order

Shooting in sequence allows you to discuss with your actor how he’s feeling as you both process each step in your script. When I started to work with Marcello, my perpetually revised script changed again—especially the second half, which features a significant death scene. Once we got to that point, we realized that Marcello’s character couldn’t do something as it was originally written—it would have been completely out of tune with the rest of the film. Had we started shooting the end of Dogman a week into our schedule, there would’ve been no way for us to truly know whether that change was required.

If you’re like me and you believe it’s important to develop scenes in ways that deviate from your script, you should try to follow your actor’s choices chronologically. Of course, sometimes you can’t afford to make a film with this approach; in the case of my 2015 feature Tale of Tales, we had stars in our cast, so it was too expensive to shoot in sequence. But Marcello is like a kid: spontaneous, unpredictable, and very generous. So with him, we didn’t have that problem.

Long Leash: Director Matteo Garrone gave Dogman star Marcello Fonte (L) free rein to change whatever rang false about his character. Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

You’re Not Always Right

When I wrote Dogman, I had the soul of the story clear in my mind, so when I was on set with Marcello, I tried to keep that soul. But I could also sense when what I wrote wasn’t believable—if a line I wrote was dead once it was vocalized. That’s when Marcello would make adjustments, either during rehearsal or during the shoot itself. Even as the director, you’re not always right. Maybe this is a European approach, but instead of being extremely precise, I find it’s best to be free to reassess whether the script is going in the wrong or the right direction.

You’ll continue to discover what works and what doesn’t in post. With this in mind, I’ll usually set aside part of my budget for multiple scenes that I decide need reshoots during the editing process. However, Dogman is the first of my nine features that I finished in just six weeks with only one reshoot. Maybe because this film was 12 years in the making, my vision was already clear enough to make this the exception to the rule. Nonetheless, it’s generally not a good idea to burn through your entire budget before you’re able to see your footage in post from a distanced point of view as it’s cut together.

Faces, Places

Marcello is a natural at being both comic and tragic at the same time, and that’s the tonal balance we needed to capture in many of our scenes. Buster Keaton was one of our key references, so we worked together on styling Marcello’s hair and modeling his facial expressions after Keaton. But as a director, you have to make sure that your actor will preserve his own individual qualities and not become a copy of that reference. Our guiding purpose was to convey the sensitivity of Marcello’s character, to tell the story of his loss of innocence.

I’m a humanist, which means I like to tell stories of human beings and their struggles, desires, and fears. One of my favorite films with a character similar to Marcello is Taxi Driver: Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle makes it his mission to go out with a girl, and when he does, he takes her to see a porno. Sometimes people do things that are in complete contradiction to who they are, and that idea is very connected to Dogman. The human being is a labyrinth, so as a storyteller, it’s important to lose yourself in the labyrinth and explore in your work the ways we fight to survive.

An equally important character of the film is location. Your location defines both the conflict of your film and the character at the heart of that conflict. We shot much of Dogman in  Villaggio Coppola, the same location where I shot The Embalmer and Gomorrah—an ideal choice because it gives the impression of a metaphysical space, much like the frontier villages of Westerns.

Before I was a director I was a painter. That experience taught me the importance of working carefully, patiently, and instinctively to find the right atmosphere, color, and natural lighting of a space. Before the shoot, cinematographer Nicolaj Brüel and I did speak about where to set up the lights in each space, and what to put inside of each shot… but you shouldn’t talk too much. Watch the scene, then tell your cinematographer if you’re happy or unhappy with it. And never impose your vision. Always try to have a dialogue, and in the end, find a solution that makes you and your collaborators happy. MM

— As told to Max Weinstein

Dogman opened in theaters April 12, 2019, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Featured image photograph by Stefano Baroni. This article appears in MovieMaker’s Spring 2019 issue.