In Saverio Costanzo’s Hungry Hearts, in a tiny basement bathroom of a Manhattan Chinese restaurant, Mina (Alba Rohrwacher) is trapped with Jude (Adam Driver), a young man suffering from gastrointestinal distress.
For eight long real-time minutes the strangers struggle to escape the cramped and odoriferous space, but the door won’t budge and their phone calls for help get mistaken as orders for take out. It’s hardly the kind of meet-cute romantic scenario one imagines recounting to friends and family. Nevertheless, this charming couple does, indeed, fall into a relationship – quickly moving in together, getting married, and pregnant.
But then director Saverio Costanzo does something unexpected with his first English-language feature – he jumps tracks and turns an offbeat relationship movie into a paranoid drama that mashes up the spousal dysfunction of Blue Valentine with the urban claustrophobia of Rosemary’s Baby. Post-natal depression and psychological erosion become the focus as Mina adopts some rather irrational ideas about parenting while Jude becomes convinced that his son’s life is at risk.
The low budget film, set in New York, depicts city living as alienating and unglamorous – a place where it’s easy to hide away in your apartment and view reality from an “us against the world” perspective. Costanzo and his director of photography, Fabio Cianchetti, create an intense level of intimacy with highly controlled close-ups and when the couple’s relationship fractures, the warped imagery of a fish-eyed lens. Working with a non-union crew of 20 people on a 25-day shoot, Costanzo delivers a striking film that gets under your skin.
We met with Saverio during the Tribeca Film Festival and discussed his approach to filmmaking, how Hungry Hearts wasn’t the artistic departure he was hoping for, and what advice he’d give to indie filmmakers.
Jeff Meyers, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): You have this very intimate drama. I assume that the focus is on allowing your actors the space they need to explore their scenes?
SC: I’m not a freak. If the scene works, I won’t do so many takes. If I have to look for something, I’ll do as many as it takes. For example, the first scene took us 19 takes. It was like two and a half days, just for that scene.
MM: How do you keep your actors from being exhausted by that?
SC: Exhausted was the feeling we were looking for. The moment they were exhausted, the scene came out.
MM: Let me put it another way: how do you keep them from feeling demoralized? That’s such a long period of time, actors may start to wonder if they’re ever going to get it right?
SC: No, not them [Adam Driver and Alba Rohrwacher]. Since the scene was twenty-four pages, we were also able to cut some things during the shoot.
MM: Right, because it’s only about an eight-minute scene.
SC: We worked together. I mean, the whole time we were thinking what we were going to do, why we were shooting. Sometimes it was like, okay, let’s cut it. Then it was, let’s put in this, let’s put in that.
MM: It’s an ongoing discussion.
SC: Yeah, and they were involved in that. They were not just Muppets, you know? So this way, they never grew tired, because they were part of the creative process.
MM: Did you go through a rehearsal process beforehand?
SC: We just read the script once together and that’s it. I was operating [the camera] in the film, so I wasn’t even directing them vocally. I was just shooting. But we were just dancing to the same music and I was in the scene with them all the time. This is what I call working together in the deepest way.
MM: Do you ever run into situations where the actors aren’t going to the place you need?
SC: Of course, it happens.
MM: How do you tackle that? Is it about giving them the time to get there? Is it about finding the right button to push in their emotions?
SC: Finding the right button to push as in helping them along by saying something once in a while? Sometimes it’s a matter of preventing them from over-acting. Less is more. Nothing, and this is a very important sentence for me, ‘nothing is better than something.’ This is very crucial. It happens all the time with the actors I work with. I tell them, don’t do anything.
MM: So, acting by subtraction.
SC: Yes. You take everything out. But you also put yourself in the discussion. I’m always in the discussion with the cast. I’m the pilot. I’m driving the car. I put myself in the discussion all the time. If I don’t find a scene, I’m not ashamed to tell them, “I can’t find it, help me out.”
MM: With the opening scene, you have two and a half days of shooting, 19 takes, and it’s a continuous shot. When do you stop?
SC: When you’ve got the right one.
MM: Then the other 18 takes just go away? Are you shooting with coverage? Is it one camera? What are you giving yourself when you get into the edit room?
SC: It’s one camera. 16mm. I edit as I shoot. The only thing we really did in the editing room is—I was looking for the feeling of — how do you say when you go like this? [Costanzo makes a chopping gesture with his hand]
MM: The transitions?
SC: Exactly. In a very violent way [snaps]. That’s it! Go to something else. Maybe fade to black? Maybe cut suddenly? Just go to something else. Apart from the first scene, we get into the other scenes as something that is already happening. We are in the heart of the scene so there’s nothing you can cut off. And this comes from the script. The script was very precise.
MM: What would you say is something you bring from film to film? Is there some aspect of the way you approach film that connects you each time?
SC: This is something I’m fighting with: the tiny spaces.
MM: You don’t like that your films are claustrophobic?
SC: It’s not that I like it or dislike it. It’s easy for me to write something that is inside and not outside. So my fear is that even the desert can be a very tiny space if I shoot it. It depends how you see things. My fear is that a very open space, through my eyes, becomes a very tiny space.
MM: So while it’s kind of a signature, you’re worried that you’re losing the ability—
SC: Exactly. You’ve got to do what you do best. I’m fighting with that. But I believe my signature is the claustrophobic state of mind in my films, which is not such a good signature.
MM: How do you compensate? How do you force yourself to get around that?
SC: With this film, I was looking for that. It’s absurd.
MM: I would say you didn’t find it in this one.
SC: Exactly. I was looking for something more open, but this is not that movie. My first film was a story about Israel and Palestine and it was shot in one house. My second film was about faith and a monastery of monks and it was shot inside the monastery. My third film came from a bestselling book and it spanned 1984, ’91, 2001, and today. It seems like it was all shot in one room.
So, I tried to do something different with Hungry Hearts, where I used a lot of locations…
MM: But you still fell back to your roots?
SC: Yes, because maybe my signature is something unconscious? My way of telling stories is not horizontal; it’s vertical. I go from the outside to the inside.
MM: If you were to give advice to an independent filmmaker what would it be?
SC: Listen to everything. I mean, don’t just focus on yourself. For instance, I don’t believe in film schools. They teach you a lot about technique, but to look for truth, you don’t need anything. You just need your point of view. You can even create your point of view using a phone nowadays.
Now, I’m not saying that you don’t have to use the best techniques possible. You do. But if you want to create a path for yourself, it has to be meaningful. It’s not just camera movement. For somebody who’s at the beginning of their career, learn how to see things. And the only way to learn how to see things is to listen — to yourself and whatever is happening in front of you. MM
Hungry Hearts opened in theaters in New York on June 5 and opens in L.A. on June 12, 2015, courtesy of Sundance Selects. Photos courtesy of Christie Mullen and Sundance Selects.