Italian filmmaker Matteo Garrone is best known for directing 2008’s blistering crime drama Gomorrah, which he follows now, four years later, with the slightly more lighthearted, but nevertheless compelling, comedy-drama Reality. We caught up with the director to chat about reality TV and casting a lead who’s serving a life sentence in prison – seriously, lead actor Aniello Arena is a former mafia hitman who's behind bars as we speak!
GFW: People will know you for Gomorrah, which had a very distinctive style – were you keen to do something different for your next film?
Matteo Garrone: Yes, I tried to do something more fun, something closer to a comedy. But I think this movie is not so different from that one, actually.
In what way?
Well, it’s sort of a fairytale, a black fairytale; also Gomorrah, for me, was a black fairytale. And so my approach is always the same: in this movie I try to make a sort of homage to the Comédie-Italienne, like, for instance, Vittoria De Sica's Matrimonio all'italiana [Marriage Italian-Style, 1964], with Sophia Loren in Naples, from Eduardo De Filippo, the writer.
So it’s more lighthearted, yeah?
It’s warmer than Gomorrah, also Naples is much warmer compared to in Gomorrah; it’s much more decadent, some parts of Naples are much more from the past and other parts of the movie are from the present, like a set of a reality – I’m talking about a commercial centre, outlets, the place where they go to swim.
How did you come across this story?
A friend in Italy, he found it himself. It was a story that surprised me. I developed a relationship with the character of Luciano and I tried to make a movie like a sort of modern Pinocchio. For me, Luciano is a character I can understand, who is very close to me. We tried to make the movie very direct, simple and full of humanity.
Reality has made headlines for its unique casting. Was it your decision to cast a former mafia hitman in the lead role?
Of course [laughs]. Who else? He’s an actor who I saw many times at the theatre, in the company. I liked his work very much and so I decided to give him the chance to make his first movie.
And were the authorities on the set, keeping a close eye on him?
The authorities always knew where we were shooting. They came several times to see if he really was there, but we never had a problem with the police. He’s been in jail for twenty years so he’s a completely different person from when he was a criminal. So it’s completely new.
And is he still in jail now?
Yeah, he’s in jail for life.
So I guess he loved the opportunity to do this film.
Of course! When he met the director of the theatre company, two and a half years ago... from that moment his life really changed because he discovered his passion for acting and discovered new meaning in his life. So now he’s an actor and I gave him the opportunity to do his work.
Did you set out to make a film that was a critique of reality TV? Or were you just intrigued by the subject?
No, not at all, because I was focussed on the human conflict of the character. I don’t think it’s a movie about television; it’s probably, I think, more a movie about audience than television. Television is something that is a sort of artificial paradise and it’s not so important what kind of programme it is – the important thing is that, for the character, to arrive in television is to exist; it’s not just a narcissistic problem, it became existence. If you are inside the television, you are real. It’s like for the news: if the news doesn’t have anyone to film it, the news doesn’t exist, it’s invisible. For him, when he’s inside he really exists.
Do you watch reality TV?
Oh sometimes, but it’s not very important to show. It can be very vulgar, the shows, but it’s not the point. The point is that they [the contestants] try to escape from their reality, and this is also a movie about the perception of reality – what is real, what is not real.
And what about films? You mentioned the De Sica – are there any others?
Oh… Fellini. Lo sceicco bianco is one of the first movies of Fellini’s that is very close to the theme of Reality. And also Visconti’s Bellissima with Anna Magnani. So there were lots of great directors I took as references.
What about filmmakers today? Are there any you’re particularly fond of?
I like David Lynch, I like Paul Thomas Anderson, I like [Aki] Kaurismäki, Tarantino, the Coen brothers.
What was the last film you saw?
I was at Venice, on the Jury, so I saw a lot of movies there. I liked The Master from Paul Thomas Anderson very much; and also Pieta from Kim Ki-duk I liked.
Is the plan to do something completely different now?
I don’t know. I’m travelling a lot to help the movie, and then I will go back and try to focus on a new project.
'Reality' is released in the UK on March 22, and Canada on March 15.