Opening in New York this Friday and in Los Angeles on March 22nd, Reality is acclaimed writer-director Matteo Garrone’s follow-up to his award-winning crime drama Gomorrah. In this darkly comic fairy tale where magical realism meets neo-realism, Garrone honors Italy’s cinematic past while focusing on the highly contemporary subject of reality television and today’s fascination with instant celebrity. He introduces an indelible cinematic everyman, Luciano (Aniello Arena), whose unforgettable journey from small-town fishmonger to big-city superstar becomes a universal fable about dreaming big that is at once delightful, delirious and deceptive.
In an exclusive interview, Garrone talked to me about the true story that inspired his fascinating character study, how he navigated the subtle line between reality and fantasy, why he cast a former Mafia hitman in the main role, the similarities he sees between Arena and Robert De Niro, how the death of D.P. Marco Onorato left a deep personal and professional void in his life, his collaboration with composer Alexandre Desplat, and what the film’s unusual ending shares in common with Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. He also revealed how writer René Girard and filmmakers Federico Fellini, Vittorio De Sica and Pietro Germi influenced his work and why he thinks Quentin Tarantino should add Germi to the group of cult mavericks he’s rediscovered.
Matteo Garrone: The story starts from a true story that happened in my family. My wife’s brother is the real Luciano. After Gomorrah, I wanted to move from Naples and to do something new. And then, I heard about this story that happened in my family. I was really shocked and surprised by that story, and so, I thought that could be surprising also for the audience. I decided to remain faithful to the place where it happened which was Naples again. I went back to Naples and I tried to tell this story and give it dimension as though it could all be a dream, surreal and unreal, like a fairy tale in a way. That’s what I did.
What led you to cast Aniello Arena who was a former Mafia hitman now serving a life term in prison?
Garrone: Aniello Arena is an actor that worked in theater in a company of prisoners in Volterra. I saw him perform many times and I was really impressed by his talent. I thought he would be perfect for the role of Luciano — a guy who is selfish, ingenious and a little naïve – since it’s a movie about illusion. And so, we asked the judge for permission, and finally we got permission, and he came and worked with us on the movie.
How did you go about assembling such a unique looking group of actors and was there any rehearsal process?
Garrone: It was like a Pixar movie for me, like a cartoon, an animated film. I wanted to have actors with very strong and expressive faces. Also, the colors in the film have to be very bright and powerful. All the actors come from the theater. Almost all of them come from comedy theater. We did rehearse, but also, during the work, when we were shooting, we found the way. We made this movie shooting with many long shots. It was very important to find the right composition and movement. It was very interesting.
Garrone: For me, it’s very painful to talk about my relationship with Marco. He was more than just a director of photography for me because we worked on the movie together. He was also my mother’s husband for 40 years. He was the father of my brother, so he was my stepfather. He passed away in May. His death represents a great void in my life and in my work. We wanted to tell this story like a fairytale, so we decided to use colors. Also, the cinematography had to be very bright and the colors very intense. We didn’t talk a lot about theory, but we knew that it had to be a fairytale, so we started to work together trying to create these elements that can be believable, surrealistic, but at the same time can also be real and surreal, like in dreams. The most difficult thing was to find the balance of these elements and that’s the work that we did with Marco, with the costume design, the set design, and the music. All together, we went in this direction. It’s a very subtle line. It has to be a sort of magical realism, I would say.
How did you go about navigating the fine line between the reality of the real world Luciano lives in and the fantasy and excess of the world that he’s drawn to and fascinated by?
Garrone: That’s something that’s very introspective. It’s part of the illusion of him. He’s a character that follows the dreams of the other members of his family. There is a writer that I like very much that lives here in the States. His name is René Girard. He wrote several wonderful books about the mimetic desire. You desire something because others desire it, not because you really desire it. That’s why it’s mimetic desire. It’s in fashion. He said that our century is the century of fashion. And so, Luciano starts to desire, to reach for something, because everybody pushes him to desire that. It’s a story of mimetic desire in a way and also a story of a society that dreams about escaping from everyday life and following a desire that’s often an illusion and artificial. It’s like they’re not satisfied with what they have so they want to escape. That is an aspect of the society in which we live where capitalism is continually built. It continually reinforces consumption. It has to sell you things so it has to create the desires. It’s a consumer society.
Garrone: Yes, that’s true. It’s the opposite of The Truman Show. The real story was very tragic. He thought that the camera was in the cricket (referring to a scene in the film) in the true story. He thought that everybody knew and that he was always followed by someone who was watching him to judge if he was good enough.
The film is reminiscent of Italian Neorealism in terms of the satire and the irony. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Garrone: For me, the irony is very important in my movie. Sometimes I think the movie will be much more ironic than what it is, but with that, it’s always a matter of finding the balance, because if you put in too much irony, you lose the drama in a way. It’s always a matter of finding the balance. Often, the dramatic part of the movie takes over and crowds out the ironic parts and the lighthearted aspects. But, I think there is no tragedy without irony. The irony is very important because it’s part of the tragedy. In all my movies, I try to put both.
The film leaves it up to the audience to decide what becomes of Luciano in the end. Was it your intention to leave it open-ended?
Garrone: For me, the ending is like some fiction and he arrives in this artificial paradise. And then, I like the fact that it’s completely open and metaphysical and abstract so you can give your interpretation. It reminds me a little bit of the ending of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America where De Niro is laughing. At the end, De Niro, the main character, starts to laugh and laugh. I didn’t plan that but I knew afterwards. There’s also some similarity between the face of Aniello and De Niro. Aniello reminds me a little bit of De Niro.
Garrone: He’s a great composer, so for me, it was a great opportunity to work with him. He liked the movie. He liked the atmosphere. He said that it reminded him of the earlier movies of Fellini and that his favorite composer was Nino Rota. He tried to create music that was connected to the past and to Rota, but he found his own personal way. We started by listening to the music of some of Fellini’s most famous movies. I remember we started with the score of Fellini’s Casanova and we also had some electronic elements in the beginning. And then, the electronic elements slowly went out and we had the idea.
What filmmakers would you say have influenced you the most?
Garrone: There are so many. For this movie, I would probably say Vittorio De Sica in terms of the atmosphere and color of the movies that De Sica made in Naples from the play of Eduardo de Filippo, like Marriage Italian Style and The Gold of Naples, De Sica’s comedies about Naples. And, of course, Fellini and Pietro Germi, another great filmmaker who’s unfortunately less known in respect to De Sica and Fellini, but in the 60’s and 70’s he made so many masterpieces. Billy Wilder used to say that the Italian director that was closest to him in Italy was Pietro Germi. Of course, Pietro Germi was very personal, but Germi was the closest to his way of directing. Fellini also started writing screenplays for Germi. I think Pieto Germi needs a director like Tarantino that discovers him again like he did (Sergio) Corbucci and (Sergio) Leone. We need another one.
Garrone: It’s always a journey that you make. It’s a long journey when you start to work on a project. It’s two years of your life. On the other hand, I’m very happy to have done this. I met many interesting people during this journey. I had the chance to be close to the character, to Luciano, and to reflect on his journey and on his conflict and to understand his conflict. Also, I enjoyed trying to make a movie that in the beginning was much more a comedy, and of course it became dark, but it was something new at the beginning for me compared to the other movies that I’ve done before. It was a very nice experience.
What are you working on next?
Garrone: I don’t know yet. After this trip, I will go back [to Italy] and I will start to think about my next movie and we’ll see.