Known primarily for his wok on-screen, Stanley Tucci returns to the director’s chair with his latest project, the Giacometti biopic Final Portrait.
We had the pleasure of sitting down with the talented filmmaker earlier this year at the Berlin film festival, where he discusses his established interest in the aforementioned artist, portrayed here by Geoffrey Rush. He also explains how he took a film that deliberately thrives in the notion of tedium, feel so engaging – and why not taking a role in the project allowed him to focus so heavily on getting the tone right.
He also speaks about where he discovered his passion for film, and what he believes the future holds for independent cinema. Finally he speaks about fishing, and just how bad at it he is.
Oh my God, yeah. I knew his work after looking at it in my early 20s at college. Then I started reading about him, the film took a couple of years to write and it took a decade or so to get the money.
So what it that fascinates you about him?
He’s the consummate artist, he’s sort of the perfect artist.
The act of the portrait itself was a tedious process, starting over and over again. As a viewer we had to get a sense for that tedium – was that difficult to navigate, because naturally viewers go to the cinema and need to feel engaged by a movie?
Yes, yes, you had to really focus on the tedium, the redundancies, the repetitiveness, without basically boring the shit out of the audience. You still have to feel it, I have to get you to the point where you’re just about to give in, then there’s a shift, and something happens that keeps us engaged – like him getting really angry, or suddenly there’s a big fight with his wife, and then it comes back and we start all over again.
This feeling of permanent dissatisfaction that the film is about, is that something you’re familiar with? Something that every artist has to cope with?
Oh yeah. Even watching this I thought about the changes I wanted to make, every filmmaker feels this way. There are certain things you want to change.
As a director and as an actor?
Everything, as a person.
Have you ever sat for a portrait?
Yeah, and it’s tedious, but it’s really interesting and important to do I think. You’re looking at somebody look, and I find that fascinating, because everything starts to change; time starts to change, space starts to change, the person in front of you starts to change. My dad was an artist and sometimes we’d pose for him, just sketches, and it was interesting to look at this person who was your father who you know very well, and he’s looking at you kind of like he’s never seen you before. That’s very unusual for an extended period of time, and then you look at him like you’ve never seen him before, you start to see things in each other you’ve never seen.
You had to imitate the portraits – but also deconstruct them at various stages. How did you go about doing that?
It was really hard, it was really hard. We had a great painter called Rohan Harris, who does a lot of work for films and we were very lucky to get him to do this. We basically had to go step by step through the painting, and some of the canvases we had to have double of. If Geoffrey went to obliterate something we had to be very careful as we maybe only had one of those, so we had to be very sure. It was complicated.
Because I wondered what you went to go on – because all we see is the finished product, you had to go through each stage.
Yeah you kind of have to make it up. There’s this great German documentary about called Ein Portrait which was about Giacometti painting a portrait, so we had colour footage, from 1964, of Giacometti in his studio painting a portrait. You see the very beginning, the blank canvas, the brush go on, and you see him looking, so everything was there for us so we knew exactly how he started each portrait, and that’s the key. Once you do that you can go wherever.
In the film Giacometti describes the act of painting a portrait as meaningless and impossible after photography. As a filmmaker can you see similarities about the big screen now people are turning to streaming?
Yeah it’s starting to feel a bit antiquated, there’s no question about it. But there is something exciting about seeing something on the big screen, it’s a communal experience and they are really important. It was always exist, but in a different form. I think movies like this will eventually be made for television, for streaming. It doesn’t make any sense, as a business model, if you think about it, I mean, how much money are you going to make off this movie? Movies like this are getting harder and harder to make because the distribution costs are so substantial, advertising is so substantial. It only makes sense they would go in a different direction, and it’s already happening. Movies will eventually become big communal events in very large theatres. You’ll still have the odd small film, but I think that’s what will happen.
Did you ever think about playing Giacometti when thinking about making a movie about him?
I wanted to make the film, and toyed with the idea of it, but I just wanted to make the film.
How about playing a smaller role?
I thought about playing Diego too. But I didn’t want to, I just wanted to concentrate on the film. It’s too complicated and too delicate to jump in and out, you split your focus so much, I’ve done it so many times and it didn’t make sense to do it to me.
So you won’t direct yourself again?
I don’t know about that, but I couldn’t do it with this one.
So how do they affect one another?
Yeah they do, because when you act in a movie you always learn something, how to do something or how not to do something, and then just directing a movie is incredibly exciting because first of all you don’t have to wait around, because you’re the one controlling the time. I like that, because a lot of movie making is about waiting, and it’s really boring, and I’m someone who can’t bear it. There’s a lot of faffing about. But being able to create a world in its entirety, and the colours and the shapes and the tone of that world, that’s exciting to me.
As someone who is impatient, as a director do you think your shoots run quicker than other directors you’ve worked with?
Much quicker, yeah.
So what was the shooting time for this?
Four weeks. And we would shoot seven to eight pages a day, which is like a television schedule. We’d start at nine in the morning but done by three in the afternoon. But also we were very lucky because we were in a contained space for the most part, when we got out on the streets the days got a bit longer.
At what point did Geoffrey Rush come on board?
Two years before it was made, he was kind enough to commit for that period of time.
He looks like Giacometti too – and the studio you built looks identical to his studio. That must’ve been great to build that?
It was so exciting to recreate that studio. And we made very few changes. We had to make it bigger but on film you wouldn’t know. We made it bigger simply for practical reasons, so I never had to move a wall and you could fit two cameras in because it was all shot handheld, so we can have them in their simultaneously moving around.
You still live in the UK of course, and so much has happened in the States these past 12 months. Has it been quite odd having this detachment and watching it all unravel from afar?
Yeah it is weird. I’m kinda glad though, but yeah it’s weird. Even though there’s the Brexit thing in England, which is not a good thing, it is interesting to watch. Because so many of the issues America are dealing with, England dealt with years and years ago, so you feel like we’re a few steps behind.
When did you discover your passion for acting?
When I was a kid. I remember doing this play in 5th grade, so when I was like ten, and the teacher I had was an actor, and I remember going on stage and I thought, this feels so comfortable. I felt much more comfortable on stage than I did off stage. Then it disappeared through adolescence, but I always loved movies, and then in high school I started doing it again and I loved it, it felt so right. Like I just knew how to do it, I knew innately how to do it, and I don’t know why.
Do you miss the stage? Because I guess in some ways it’s a purer form of acting?
It is and it isn’t. Because, I suppose anything initially you begin to do is pure, but you have to repeat it over and over again, so in a way it becomes less pure. If you’re doing a really long run, which is one of the reasons I haven’t done a play in a long time because the runs can be too long and you never see your family, you miss cocktail hour, it’s terrible. People think you only work a couple hours a night but it’s completely untrue. Your brain starts to go there in the afternoon, and by the time you finish it’s 11 and then you have your dinner, all your kids and your wife are in bed, and you don’t go to sleep until one in the morning, and you have to sleep until ten in order to get up and do it again. Then when you have matinees… Whoever came up with the eight show a week thing wasn’t an actor. I know what you mean about the purity of it, people think that, but I don’t necessarily believe that’s true. In some ways I think film is more pure, because every take can be completely different if you want it to be. That said, there is a very specific kind of technique that you have to have, which is very obvious when you have a film actor and an actor who has done theatre, there is a distinct difference between them. The theatre actor has a lot more, they’re sort of like a long-distance runner.
When you ever get on a big set like a Transformers one – do you ever think, I could do this?
No. Never. I don’t even understand them, I would have no idea how to do them. The technical aspect… Michael [Bay] has to explain it to me. I don’t know how he does it – I couldn’t do it, no way. It’s so complicated, you have to have that mind, I mean, the number of shots that you have to have alone.
Do you like to sketch and paint yourself?
I do. I do it to clear my head. I like figures and abstractions and faces. It’s a nice way to just get away from everything, time passes very quickly. It’s like fishing.
Do you like fishing too?
I do, but I’m a terrible fisherman, I never catch anything, like literally never catch anything. I used to go where I grew up and I’d go out there and I never caught anything.
Were you sure there were fish there?
I think so, I saw other people catch them.
Final Portrait is released on August 18th. You can read our review of the film here.