Sicilian director Piero Messina makes his feature film debut with L’Attesa (The Wait in English), which premiered at the Venice film festival in 2015.
A French-Italian co-production, L’Attesa captures the developing relationship between two women of different generations, both French but in Italy. Jeanne (Lou de Laâge) has come to Sicily to meet her boyfriend’s mother Anna (Juliette Binoche) for the upcoming Easter holiday. Instead of welcoming Mediterranean sunshine, Jeanne arrives to find a dark, somber Sicilian villa presided over by Anna, and no sign of Giuseppe. As Jeanne awaits the arrival of her boyfriend, she befriends Anna, who is grieving the absence of her son while concealing the truth from Jeanne.
Messina, Giacomo Bendotti, Ilaria Macchia and Andrea Paolo Massara wrote the screenplay for The Wait while attending film school at Rome’s Centro Sperimentale. Having previously made the short films “Terra” and “La prima legge di Newton,” and worked as assistant director on Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar-winning The Great Beauty and This Must Be the Place, Messina’s filmmaking shows an assured touch, showcasing the story’s beautiful, forbidding central location in careful, elegant compositions. The film also features a nicely selected soundtrack that mingles Leonard Cohen to the XX with the sounds of traditional Sicilian ceremony. We asked the young director about the shoot, and capitalizing on the luck of working with Binoche on his first feature.
Stephanie Centeno, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): There are four credited screenwriters working on the film. Can you walk us through the process of collaborating with the other writers?
Piero Messina (PM): Both for myself and the other writers, this was our first feature film. And so it was an opportunity to develop our special working method. Basically, we meet and discuss the script, and then give ourselves time when each of us works in complete autonomy. Then we compare the various versions and it’s up to me to do a final rewrite that uses the best of the individual versions.
MM: What was the casting process like? How did you get to work with the great Juliette Binoche, and how did you discover Lou de Laâge?
PM: It was a real honor to be able to work with Juliette Binoche, an actress who has blown me away since Three Colors: Blue. But I was making my debut, so I sent the script to her agent without very much hope. Instead, to my great surprise, shortly after, while I was on Etna scouting locations for the film, I got a call and she invited me to Paris. We spent a day together talking about the script and the character of Anna. And then she agreed to do the film.
The search for Jeanne instead took a long time, I met lots of actresses and Lou de Laâge was the last. She’s an actress who seemed to be very far from the idea I had formed of this character, but I realized right away she was perfect to play Jeanne, a girl who preserves in herself a freshness and a childlike candor, but as the story develops also manages to deal with Anna on the same footing, as a mature woman.
MM: Talk about the choices behind the visuals in the film.
PM: The visual aspect, in reality, is not something I concentrate on while on set. I prefer to focus on working with the actors. The visual choices, the shots, come instinctively.
In this film, instead, I paid particular attention to the spatial relationships between the characters and settings. It was fundamental for me that there be a sort of emphasis on the actors and the spaces in which they were moving. The effect had to be that of a sort of excess of space which could convey the sense of isolation and loneliness surrounding Anna and Jeanne, but also the futility of everything in the face of death. For that reason, we used a lot of wide angles and large depth of field.
MM: L’Attesa is set in Sicily. How did you find the locations? Was everything shot on location?
PM: I was born in Sicily, I know my land, and in this film I wanted to represent it in a way that is different from the stereotypes. But the search for locations led to me discovering places I didn’t even know existed. In reality, my choices were determined by a basic idea of wanting the landscapes to be a kind of sound box, a projection of the feelings of the protagonists. The most significant thing we did in terms of location was recreating some of the sets inside the former stables of the villa where we were shooting. This was to try to restore the idea of a disproportion between the human figures and the dimensions of the spaces they inhabit. Absence and solitude, I was convinced, could also be communicated through this overabundance of space.
MM: How long was the shoot? What was a memorable or unexpected thing that occurred on set?
PM: We shot for six weeks. The really extraordinary thing that happened on set was Juliette Binoche’s capacity to immerse herself in the pain of her character. It was a really intense experience from a creative point of view, almost a new phase of examining and writing the character, because Juliette managed to reveal emotions and shades of Anna that I myself had been unaware of.
MM: What did you learn as an assistant director that helps you in directing? Should other aspiring directors gain experience as ADs, too?
PM: I don’t think it’s possible to teach directing. Being on set as AD allows you to observe the work of the director from a point of view that is undoubtedly a privileged one, and you learn to handle the pressure that reigns on set. It’s a training in keeping focused and dealing with stress. But I think the most useful experience for an aspiring filmmaker is to shoot short films. It’s important to test yourself, experiment, no matter with how many or what means. Hands-on experience is the most useful thing for a young director. MM
L’Attesa opens in theaters April 29, 2016, courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories. Photographs by Alberto Novelli, courtesy of Indigo Film.