Before it made its world premiere in the Masters programme of the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2018, Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino’s Loro took a risk and reaped its rewards.
Distributed as two 100-minute halves, Loro 1 and Loro 2 hit Italian theaters within two weeks of each other and took in a combined $7.6 million before IFC Films’ Sundance Selects label nabbed the North American domestic rights. (Stateside audiences will see a 145-minute “U.S. cut” of the 204-minute double feature.)
Of course, no release strategy will find traction if the film doesn’t take risks. Spanning three years in the exploits of media mogul-turned-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (played by Sorrentino collaborator
Toni Servillo), Loro finds as much absurdity as it does intimacy in some lesser-examined scenes of its subject’s larger-than-life life.
We asked Servillo and Sorrentino to discuss the rapport they’ve developed on the films they’ve made thus far—among them, 2013’s The Great Beauty, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film—and what they believe an actor should look for in a director, and vice versa. —Max Weinstein
Toni Servillo (TS): We’ve made five films together, and my first lead role in a film was in your debut feature, One Man Up. The character of Antonio “Tony” Pisapia in that film is fascinating and seductive, with great dialogue, which you’re amazing at writing. I still get stopped on the street by people quoting lines that you wrote for me in One Man Up.
Paolo Sorrentino (PS): The only technique I’m aware of as a writer-director is writing dialogue that’s believable and that can be acted out. Once an actor has believable lines, my job as a director is pretty much done for me. I confess that I have my limitations; I don’t have much of a method. As an outside observer to a performance, it’s my job to put the brakes on when something goes a little too high, or take the brakes off when something goes a little too low. But I think that’s what every director does.
TS: What I want is to capture the complexity and stature of the character I’m playing, and I always get what I want in a director from you.
PS: What I’m looking for in an actor—especially a lead actor—is realism. Realism in a performance can be exceptional, but it must not be conventional or gray. You’re able to create something realistic and unique at the same time—to bring to the surface qualities that are essential to cinema, while also making events familiar and relatable to audiences. The reasons for this are unknown to me, and I’m happy to not know them because they allow us to make on-screen miracles whose recipe we’re not aware of.
TS: There’s no recipe you can follow to build trust. Certain relationships in cinema are mysterious.
PS: I used to be a more rigid director when I was younger, out of fear, but I’m much less that way now. I’m more open with actors—as long as we remain within the parameters, the railroad tracks, that are imposed by the characters of a film.
TS: An actor essentially has to testify for the director, with his or her own body, inside the parameters of the film. That’s absolutely necessary to preserve trust between director and actor. A director chooses his actor not simply because of his or her technical skills, but also because that actor has something the director seeks on a human level.
PS: That’s why I strive to be precise when I’m writing the script and creating characters:
I want to prevent an actor from going adrift with his or her own vanity. This doesn’t happen with you, but it’s happened with other actors. Some actors will accentuate skills that they think they have, but instead only end up relegating the nature and identity of the character himself to the background.
TS: We’re rather faithful to the script during our shoots.
PS: Yes, because I think a screenplay is like a theatrical play. It’s a wire upon which you bal- ance yourself so you don’t fall. This isn’t my only ideology for approaching a screenplay. But in the case of the character of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in Loro, the difficulty for you came from portraying a man who is himself an actor—always on stage, always a showman. So the script focuses on a period of his life when he was outside of politics, trying to get back in. We never see him in the palaces of power; he only deals with power and governs from the standpoint of his lazy life in his Sardinian mansion.
TS: I think the terrible irony of Berlusconi’s story is that when people watch this film in 20 to 30 years, they’ll see his political approach as normal. One thing that unites the two of us is that we both rely very much on irony. A definition of irony that I love is, “Irony is fashion that creates a distance,” and I’ve found a great deal of that to be true with you and your work.
PS: The irony is that Berlusconi is at the height of his power at the same time he’s at the height of his decadence. There’s a contradiction there. When making a film about someone who’s such an important part of the Italian political spectrum, I felt that although I shouldn’t necessarily be in love with our subject, I had to have at least some perverse form of attraction toward him. We needed an objective, clear-minded exploration of the man, but if we attacked him too much, we’d end up with a very sterile film. We also needed to explore the intimate, emotional sides of Berlusconi that he normally kept hidden. The script was something we had to hold on to in order to occupy the empty spaces of the character’s life, actions, and behavior.
TS: That was an adventure that brought us together. I would’ve never thought when you asked me to make a third film with you that there would be a fourth or a fifth film. I don’t know if we’re going to make another film together; I’ll leave that to chance. But in you I was lucky to find a director who asks of me what a theater audience asks of me: to live on stage, in my place. A good director sits in the director’s chair and excitedly asks you to do that. I can sense with each take and each shot that you are excited to see me and want more from me as you sit in your place.
PS: If the director requests that an actor live in his or her place, then regardless of the imagination of the director or the actor, the character will live on its own. MM
—As told to Amir Ganjavie
Loro opens in theaters on September 20, 2019, courtesy of IFC Films. Featured image: Lit Up: Thrilled by his playful give-and-take with Loro star Toni Servillo, Director Paolo Sorrentino (L) may have dragged his cigarette, but never his feet. All images courtesy of IFC Films.