For some scenes of Martin Eden, their Italian adaptation of a Jack London novel about a hardworking sailor with literary aspirations, director Pietro Marcello sent the crew away so he could work more closely with star Luca Marinelli. In this conversation, moderated by Sally Fischer and translated from Italian to English by Virginia Cademartori, the pair explained that moviemaking can be like a dance you just do, without thinking —MM
What were the initial conversations like for this role?
Pietro Marcello: When I started working on Martin Eden with Maurizio Braucci, we had a script and I remember it was around Christmas time 2017. I had thought of Luca Marinelli from the beginning because I needed an actor who could go through this parabola. Thanks to a friend, I managed to set up a meeting with Luca and I was really struck by him. This was my first experience working with an actor because until then I had only worked on documentaries and I always worked with real people, but never with actors. Martin Eden has been my very first experience with actors.
When you reached out to Luca, did you already have a screenplay?
Marcello: It was a simple script. Let’s just say that I never asked Luca to actually “audition.” I didn’t really audition him because he is already a really great actor — although his screen test was not the best. I knew from the beginning that I would not choose him based on his audition. He is not an actor you really need to direct too hard, by saying “go right, go left.” What mattered the most to me was for him to understand the film, to understand Martin Eden the book. That is why I gifted him a copy of the book, which was our very first point of contact.
Luca Marinelli: I remember he gave me this huge script of about 300 pages that I put in the case of my moped and drove back home. I think I started reading it right away that evening, but I wanted to read it in one sitting. I was looking for the right moment to read it and while looking for this moment, Pietro kept calling me asking, “Have you read it? Have you read it?” [Laughs.]
How did you each work together to convey Martin’s transformation from working class deckhand to renowned author?
Marcello: I wasn’t interested in telling the story of a sailor from Auckland. What do I know about Auckland? I grew up in Naples! It could have become something ridiculous like wanting to make an American film, set in America, without knowing the first thing about America! And then also because we do not have a seafaring culture in Italian literature, as the British and Americans do. We don’t have Conrad, Stevenson or Melville. We have Carlo Levi, Pasolini, Silone, Moravia. Even though we do have the sea, we are a country that has always had problems with the sea and problems coming from the sea. And so, our Martin Eden was a sailor, but also a farmer. Then, for me Martin Eden was an archetype, just like Faust or Hamlet. We could have put him anywhere and set it in any city: Paris, Marseille, London… anywhere! And so, the work that needed to be done to begin with was to understand the character. It was to work on the character, and on his efforts. Martin Eden is the book for self-taught people, for those who are self-trained. The book is more known in Europe than in the U.S., because Jack London’s Sea Wolf is the one that is most known there, and not The Hiron Hell or Martin Eden.
Marnelli: This whole movie has been a dance. And when you dance, you don’t really spend time thinking and communicating. You just dance. It is a matter of body and soul. It sounds like something really transcendental, but at the end of the day, it was just like this.
Marcello: It was a relationship between me — behind the camera — and Luca who was the main character of the film. … There were some scenes where it was just the two of us and we sent everyone else away. The rest of the crew would get confused, but it was mainly because there were times where we needed it to be just the two of us.
Can you talk about the physical transformation along with all the other cues: How Martin Eden speaks, dresses, treats people around him.
Marinelli: Let’s say that Pietro and I exchanged some ideas and we realized that it was really important from the start for us to create our own idea. In the book, it is mentioned several times that Martin Eden has this physique sturdiness at the beginning. He is a sailor that is never tired, works all the time, wanders around, parties, gets drunk, and the next day is on a boat and leaves. He is young and strong. So, the thought of creating this body, this type of physique, came about easily. For two months before we started shooting, I started specific workouts, and this is how the building of the body for the first part of the movie began. I went to Naples a month-and-a-half before starting to shoot. … Getting absorbed into Naples was extremely useful.
Then, Pietro decided to divide the film into two parts. This first part was shot during the warmer weather over the summer, while the second was shot in autumn. This was fundamental for me because this pause allowed me to completely forget the body — not the soul — just the body and the sensations I had with the first Martin, permitting me to get into the next one. As Pietro used to tell me, he saw Martin as a rockstar that had just landed on the ground. And so, I left the first body behind and I didn’t work out anymore, didn’t do anything anymore, and we started changing the script. It looked like a different movie, but of course it was always the same one.
Marcello: Luca was fattened up. [Laughs.] I am joking! He and I got extremely close. We were writing the script together and re- writing the dialogue together. Luca had his speech coach on set, so he already had been working on the Neapolitan accent. But then we had to make the film. And this is where it gets interesting because to me a screenplay is an incomplete work that is finished during editing. Just like Rossellini used to do, I do not put all my faith into a script. I firmly believe in improvising in films and the script would change from time to time.
When Luca had some trouble with some specific words, since he was speaking in ancient and Neapolitan language , we sometimes changed the script, according to what Luca and I were comfortable with. I also produced the film, so let’s say that the most difficult parts were to produce the film as director/producer and wearing two hats, more so than the work that Luca and I did together. We could do 100 more films together now. It has been a very, I repeat, vital experience. Also, regarding Luca’s body, we have always pictured a bold physique, just like London’s character— a hard worker, with the shoulders of a hard worker, of someone that is used to everyday struggles.
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