Sometimes you don’t know what the show you are making is really about until it’s done, until all that raw footage has been whittled down in a dark room—shaped, pulled apart, reshaped.
The writing, which I do during the editing process, steers, corrects, and reacts to every cut. What we might have intended when we set out with our cameras, heads filled with possible themes and the best intentions, recedes as other forces, new realities, reveal themselves. What lies beneath bubbles to the surface.
The idea of Puglia and Basilicata as a subject for a show came from filmmaker, actor, and writer Asia Argento. We had just met—though we had been communicating via email for some time—and were in the middle of making our Rome show. She’d inspired and encouraged the idea of focusing on modern Rome: the Rome of middle-class and working-class Romans, the Rome of fairly nondescript suburbs, like the one she lived in. The Rome of Pasolini, of brutalist and post-fascist architecture rather than the monuments and ruins of the Roman Empire. Asia is, in general, a font of references to and knowledge of films, books, music, and art who puts my own inventory of nerdly obsessions to shame. Typically, while making one show, she had suggestions for many more.
“You should go to Puglia. It’s like nowhere else.”
She described a wild, little understood region of Italy with stark and beautiful landscapes, rich history, and a barely concealed tradition of paganism and tarantism. She also suggested I talk to Francis Ford Coppola.
“His people are from Basilicata,” she insisted.
Which is how I found myself a year later—with our biggest crew, the heaviest, most expensive camera equipment we’d ever used, and an inflated ambition to make one of the most beautiful shows we’d ever done—in a quiet garden in the hilltop town of Bernalda, talking to one of the greatest filmmakers in history.
He treated me to a spectacular lunch at the home he’d converted into a boutique hotel, and we talked at first about the region and his family’s history there. I had long ago been told that Francis didn’t like talking about The Godfather, his biggest success and a film with which he will always be associated. So I didn’t. But at one point, as you’ll see, I talked to him about the fact that the big manor house he’d bought and turned into a hotel had once belonged to the heads of the local fascist party—the onetime oppressors and overlords of his people—back when his ancestors still toiled in the fields. Did he feel, I asked, any satisfaction, any sense of vengeance or historical correction in coming back and buying this property?
He thought I was making a Godfather reference, of course, and said so.
“No, no, no, “ I insisted. “I’m not here to talk about the film, at all—”
At which point, shocked, I think, he talked extensively about The Godfather!
He talked about the sense of shame and embarrassment he felt at his enormous, near-overnight success. How he’d gone from one kind of outsider—a young director making a film nobody wanted with a cast nobody wanted and a cinematographer nobody understood—to another kind of outsider: the star. The man everybody wanted to come up to, often while quoting painfully from the film, or whistling the now-ubiquitous theme song.
I was shocked.
And in the last scene of our show, I tried to get Asia to imagine how terrifying—even soul -destroying—it would be to hear that same song over and over and over again, every time you walk in a room, for years.
She was having none of it.
“What do you mean?! It’s one of the most beautiful songs—ever! It’s written by Nino Rota! He worked with Zeffirelli, Fellini … He worked with Toscanini! He’s written operas. It’s one of the greatest songs ever!”
And by way of demonstration, just in case I didn’t yet agree … Well … you will see.
So what’s the show about? Other than another love letter—to film, to a place, to the people I made the show with?
It’s about … shame. And embarrassment. At least, partly.
The awkwardness and shame of creating a piece of great art like Coppola did—only to be embarrassed by its success.
The shame and awkwardness that in earlier, more repressive times, likely drove women to claim the insidious effects of the tarantula as the only means to express themselves sexually.
It’s about the history of Matera, the onetime “shame of Italy,” where outcasts and briganti were exiled and pushed to live in caves like animals well into the latter part of the 20th century, until they were finally relocated and the onetime hovels became expensive bed-and-breakfasts and boutique hotels.
The heel of the boot is a complicated place, as we found out. Shooting there, while well worth it, was often a difficult process.
Who is nominally “in charge” and who is actually “in charge” is an ever shifting, often murky matter.
What one doesn’t see, for instance, is the tens of thousands of desperate refugees coming ashore. They are sometimes housed—and confined—on the grounds of local masserie, where they are frequently put to work at low wages. To the greatest extent possible, Italy keeps the refugees out of sight. But their reality intruded just as we were about to shoot an elaborate scene. At the last moment, my crew was detained, production was shut down, the prospect of quarantine was even raised—all because, unknown to us, the property had been housing refugees.
We like to do Nonna scenes whenever possible—and particularly in Italy. And we found a good one in Lecce. Nonna Maria was a very good cook and a lovely host. But as you will see, any attempts to steer the conversation toward the subject of Puglia, Pugliese culture, or history was futile. Nonna Maria was gonna talk about what she wanted to talk about. Watching myself utterly steamrolled by a frail, much older woman is a true joy.
As I may have hinted at previously, this was a very difficult shoot. (Well, not for me—I had the time of my life.)
Director Tom Vitale and field producer Jeff Allen endured the tortures of the damned trying to herd on-camera and off-camera personnel who spoke multiple dialects into coming together on this mammoth enterprise. The two of them struggled mightily to create something that would live up to my impossibly high expectations, doing their best to shield me and the fearsome Ms. Argento from the extravagantly surreal complications and disasters in their path. Asia pointed us straight at what we should be looking at and the people we should be looking at them with. Matera, tarantism, fishing, the food—the whole look and sound of the eventual show emanated from her.
Directors of photography Zach Zamboni and Jerry Risius hauled gigantic (by our standards) Panavision cameras across the country and made beautiful, beautiful images with them. Musical mastermind Mike Ruffino wrote and performed and made a perfect original score happen.
Editor Hunter Goss put the pieces together masterfully—as always. But really even better this time.
If the show is indeed, to some extent, about embarrassment, then I will have to admit I am only slightly embarrassed at being seen and depicted as so clearly happy in this episode. It’s “off brand” for me. I’ve grown accustomed to being the misanthrope, the curmudgeon, the malcontent, the cynic … even the asshole.
But I will say it: Asia Argento is the most extraordinary, accomplished, intelligent, and endlessly interesting woman—make that person—I’ve ever known. Every minute working with her on this show was a great joy and a privilege.