salvo-sara-serraiocco-e-saleh-bakri-fuggono-in-una-scena-del-film-277614HeyUGuys recently had the opportunity to catch up with first time writer-directors Antonio Piazza and Fabio Grassadonia, to get under the skin of their silent and haunting debut feature Salvo.

Antonio and Fabio spoke with us about confronting the expectations of Sicilian narratives, the current challenges facing Italian filmmakers, contending with one blind and one silent protagonist, slowly constructing empathy, before taking a moment to look ahead to following up a Sicilian mafia character drama with a Sicilian ghost story.

Why a career in filmmaking? Was there that one inspirational moment?

Antonio Piazza: Fabio and I worked together for a number of years as writers and script consultants for other people, as well as a couple of Italian production companies. A few years ago we decided we wanted to write and direct own story, and so the first thing we did was to go back to Sicily where we come from.

It was with the intention of writing a Sicilian story that would challenge all of the stereotypes, clichés and narratives that typically surround Sicily. But it was also from an explosion of our love for cinema, as we are passionate about film and we are especially passionate about the genre.

In the golden age of Italian cinema we were using genre a lot, but that is not the case now. We were masters of horror, thriller, and gangster films as well as the Spaghetti Western. There are many reasons why we don’t make these films anymore, and hence we are missing something. So we decided to allow ourselves to be inspired by a few films we love, especially the French noir films of the past such as Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï amongst others.

What were the challenges you encountered as first time feature filmmakers in financing your debut feature?

Antonio Piazza: Of course all of these things are intentional, but first of all it was the story of Salvo and Rita that brought us to explore this different kind of genre. The situation for Italian films now, especially for independent productions is very difficult, and Salvo was made thanks to the support of European funds. It’s a French co-production, and whilst we have a French television company on board, there is no involvement from Italian television. If you are a first time feature filmmaker, and your film is not a commercial comedy, then to produce it in Italy is almost mission impossible. We didn’t want to make a commercial comedy and the only other possibility for us was to take a risk; to be daring. So we took many risks and it somehow worked out, but it was indeed an adventure.

Your 2009 short film Rita narratively feels like a stepping stone from which Salvo was born out of.

Fabio Grassadonia: Rita actually came from Salvo. We were already working on the script for Salvo, and the idea of how we would stage it was also very clear. We had the idea to tell the story through the point of view of the two main characters by defining each of their points of view. Whilst our producer liked the script, because of the idea of how we would stage it, they asked for a screen test to prove that we would in fact be able to shoot it that way. So when they asked for a short we saw an opportunity to test our idea of staging it from the point of view of a blind character. It worked well and we ended up using the long sequence inside Rita’s house in Salvo. So actually the idea of the feature in terms of staging and the story came from the script of Salvo.

From a blind character to one who speaks less than twenty-five words; how challenging was it to direct a feature debut film with these two lead protagonists?

Fabio Grassadonia: As Antonio was saying before, when we decided on the story of the meeting between a mafia killer and a blind girl, it was very important to deal with some of the Sicilian narrative expectations, but it was also important to betray those expectations. We did this first of all through the introduction of our main character Salvo.

We didn’t want a real mafia killer that you would meet in real life. Coming from our love of a certain kind of cinema, we had the idea of a mafia killer connected more to the silent Samurai. For this reason it was very important to find the right physical presence. We knew that we needed an actor with a strong and charismatic presence inside of the frame, and we also knew that because we wanted to focus on his eyes at the beginning, a strong set of eyes were therefore needed.

The silent Samurai is also connected with the fact that we come from Sicily. We come from a certain kind of society and usually people talk a lot – perhaps too much. Words are connected more with life and not with truth. So our main character is not a liar; he’s a killer. He has his own moral code and whilst he’s honest with himself, he has also built a wall around himself. He doesn’t need words. Through his actions he testifies to what is going on inside. When we watched Saleh Bakri in The Time That Remains, a film in which he plays another silent character, through his face and gestures you could read his tormented soul. So we decided to ask our producer whether we could meet Saleh. We fell in love with him immediately and we liked the idea of not having an Italian actor.

Regarding Rita we also took a risk from the beginning by deciding not to work with an established Italian actress. The reason for this was when the audience first meets Rita we want them to believe that she is really blind. If you see a famous actress onscreen then you know everything is connected to her performance. So we decided to cast a non-professional actress (Sara Serraicco). When we first met her she was working as a teacher, but she wanted to become an actress. She had a lot of energy and we liked her attitude towards her work. She worked hard to achieve credibility as a blind girl, but not only as a blind girl because during the film she changes, and her relationship with Salvo is more of a subtle one.

An interesting discussion within film is that of the importance of sympathy versus interest. Some argue that you must have a character that you can empathise with, whilst others argue that empathy is secondary to an interesting character. Salvo is not a character you empathise with from the outset, but he draws you in through interest and then his act of redemption allows us to begin to empathise with him.

Antonio Piazza: It was a deliberate choice we made, and we knew that it would be difficult to feel any empathy towards Salvo because of the things he was doing. He was killing and almost ruthlessly killing. At the beginning Salvo is almost a killing machine, a robot, and we don’t even see his face. All we see are his eyes that are looking for a target. They are very attentive to the world around him, a world where danger can arise, and so his eyes are scrutinising, but they are not giving you a reason to feel empathy. It is only when he meets Rita, and when she somehow sees into him for the very first time that we see his face. This was a choice that worried the producer because it means that for more than twenty minutes of our film we do not have a nice character, and we only see his back, shoulder and eyes.

Our point of view is exactly how you described it. It was more interesting to slowly construct the audience’s feeling of empathy towards Salvo. Generally speaking this approach interests us – staying with the characters but not immediately providing all of the reasons why you must like or dislike them. Instead you just watch their actions as little by little you understand. This approach is somehow more challenging for the audience, and it is one that requires more attention and even more patience. But it is worth it, and we feel that if you enter the film like this, then at the end you might feel even more rewarded than with a traditional character construction.

By respecting the audience you have created an interactive experience. The relationship between the filmmaker and the audience is an important and vital collaboration which gives opportunity for a little gamesmanship between the two sides.

Antonio Piazza: It’s a way of playing with expectation. It was also important that we thought of an audience who was more intelligent than us. It was somehow a reaction to the things we were somehow forced to do previously when collaborating on Italian fiction for television, where you were forced to imagine an audience that is less educated, experienced, and is less intelligent than you are. For us it was important to think of an intelligent audience which was more interesting for us, and is more rewarding for the audience.

Fabio Grassadonia: From the moment that we decided to tell the story from the point of view of these two blind characters, Salvo had a lot to engage the audience. We have two different kinds of blindness in the film. We have the moral blindness of the killer, and the physical blindness of the girl. Of course when we decided to also tell the story from her point of view it meant that we had to force the audience to experience a sort of blindness. So when we define our point of view and we stay on her face then of course you can read all of her emotions. But if as an audience you want to understand what is going on around her you have to listen. You cannot only count on what you can see on screen because you have to listen. This was very important to us and we wanted to play by forcing the audience to experience blindness. We wanted to try to give them more of a sensorial experience, and actually the construction of the sound in the shooting and the post production was focused on this desire.

We want to tell our story showing as little as possible, and for example Sicily or Palermo, it is there but it is not there. You cannot see it; you can only hear it by listening. This was one of the main challenges for the film and we are very happy with the final result.

Having spoken about your interests as filmmakers, how has Salvo influenced you, and how are you hoping to explore these interests and evolve them through your future projects?

Antonio Piazza: On a personal level this film has been a journey for us. Both Fabio and I studied literature and writing, but we never studied cinema from a pictorial point of view. So it was a genuine first experience, and one that did change our point of view. We have learned a lot, and we have been lucky to collaborate with an extraordinary amount of talented people. At the beginning we could say some of the things that we have talked about now were intentional and we were aware of them, but we were very unsure. Now we know that we can make it if we put it as simple as that. We want to continue exploring genre, and again somehow challenge Sicily and Sicilian stories. At the moment we are thinking about a Sicilian ghost story, which will be another adventure. Again it will be unexpected in the Italian context arriving with the ghost story, because it is not what you expect from an Italian filmmaker [laughs]. The point for us is to do the things that we love, and to make the films only if they are worth it, otherwise we would have continued to work in the industry as writers and consultants.

Fabio Grassadonia: We like challenges, and so I would expect that the Sicilian story Antonio mentioned that we are contemplating is one in which we would like to play around with a different genre. Our intention is to go deep into the possibilities of the exploration of the genre, to play with expectations, and betray expectations both in terms of the writing and the staging. We will push a little bit further than what we did with Salvo… At least that’s our intention.

Salvo is out now in select cinemas nationwide and will be screening in other cities shortly. Read our review here.