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Luca Guardabascio: How I Made the Film on Andrea Doria

An interview with the director of “Are the Passengers Saved?” a documentary-film recently presented at Los Angeles

andrea doria

In the Picture, an official observes the Andrea Doria sinking (a still frame from the documentary).

After many awards for the documentary on Andrea Doria’s sinking, Luca Guardabascio flies to Los Angeles for the showing of “Are the Passengers Saved?” In this extended interview, the director tells about himself and analyzes the relationship between Italian movies and America.

Luca Guardabascio is a director that with humility and passion managed to dust off a kind of filmmaking that has always been forgotten and often almost unknown to the rest of the world. After a lot of experience and awards, Guardabascio will show his latest documentary-film “Are the Passengers Saved?” at the Los Angeles Chinese Theater next Feb. 21st. Let’s find out, through his words, about how his journey started in Salerno and has , thanks to something that goes beyond his indisputable talent, brought him to the States: his love for films and culture.

How and when did your passion for movies start?

Luca Guardabascio

Luca Guardabascio.

“Every summer we would go to the seaside to my aunt and uncle’s in Pedaso, Marche. There was a parochial movie theater that at 9PM showed movies that were a few years old, with a full blown film club which had two evening shows. The tickets costed 500 lire each, but we knew the ticket collector who told us: “if you come in between the first and the second half of the show, I’ll let you in for free, and you can stay in for the next movie.” That night in July, the “Serafino” by Pietro Germi  with Adriano Celentano was showing, and I saw the entire second half of it. Before the next movie, they showed a Disney documentary on bears, a gig by Harold Lloyd and then, again, the light-hearted story of Serafino. I was struck. I became a fan of Celentano, but, above all, of movies. That summer, while my little cousins went to the playground, I made an adult come with me to the movies. I remember “They Call Me Trinity,” but especially “Son of the Desert” and “Pardon Us” in which Stanlio e Ollio starred, “Where Are You Going on Holiday?” and then “Two Women,” “Superman” and the unusual plot of “The Shout” by Skolimowsky. Only my grandma Leondina, asleep, and I stayed until the end of that show. I didn’t only discover the world of movies, but also what the masses saw, its magic, the narration, the actors. It was 1979, I was only 4 years old. Once back home, I told everyone I wanted to become a movie actor. Yes, an actor, I did not know what or who the director was yet. I learned about that role some time later, when the movie theater in my town showed “Raging Bull” by Martin Scorsese.”

What studies did you have to undergo to start your career as a director?

“I had to study the world, know life and people, learn how to listen and live freely but with a critical eye. Anthropology is very important in this job and it is something you must study, know, find new cultures, travel. Writing is fundamental. No one is born a Master, but one can reach high levels only with sacrifice and study. Studying, growing up, improving, learning your limits and the limits of your creativity. I have so many “pieces of paper,” a degree and a couple of masters in theater, movie making, World Communication. I consider all of them necessary to understand we can take a place in Society only with sacrifice. Luck is something different, so are recommendations, and both have short lives. Where there’s a will there’s a way and one has to work in order to be the Best. I have to thank many Masters I met in my student career: Giuseppe De Santis, Nino Manfredi, Florestano Vancini, Carlo Lizzani, Bernardo Bertolucci, Mario Monicelli, Ugo Pirro and the Americans Gene Wilder, Stanley Donnen, Peter Bogdanovich, Allen Baron, Mie Stroller.”

What were your sources of inspiration among both Italian and American directors and movies?

“Coming from the countryside it wasn’t easy to have all I needed at my disposal, but I grew up in a time of video recorders and movie rentals. When I was 9, my best friend Salvatore Calderone found the “Planet of the Apes” with Charlton Heston on tape, what a masterpiece! We discovered science fiction and plot twists, and slowly I passed on to more serious films. When I was 12, my friends and I wrote the first script making a parody of “Scarface” by Brian De Palma, the story was based on a trafficking of ballpoint pens that could do homework on their own. A boss, Tony Abbamonte, owned the monopoly of it. The inspiration was a mix of Italian comedy, noir, the great American films and the French nouvelle vogue. Rod Serling and Alfred Hitchcock’s works were really helpful, they were the biggest geniuses of the moviemaking world both from a media point of view and the narration and development of their stories. I was influenced by different fields of knowledge like the French naturalism movies, Verga’s verismo (in literature) and some American (Steinbeck), Italian-American (Tusiani and Telese) and African-American literature (Richard Writght, Toni Morrison, Alex Haley), the beat generation as well. The concepts of authority and freedom, the extremes of childhood and old age are the foundation of any of my cinematographic concepts and I believe that the authors I named above are the people who employed freedom to the arts I try to travel.”

You mentioned great movies and characters without giving predictable answers.

“Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles, Chaplin, Fellini or the Italian neorealism are too big of a container, but we are for sure all in debt to their controbutions. By quoting those names we are talking about tout court movies, I speak about myself and how I passed entire nights watching the Universal cycle of monsters, I wouldn’t go to school on Saturday to see Mr. Moto played by Peter Lorre and I passed the afternoons studying the perfect photography of Jerry Lewis’s movies, the light in Siodmack’s films, the color used in Roger Corman’s productions or the performances of the actors that interpreted David Lynch and Jim Jarmush’s movies.

What were the most important stages of your career?

Shot of the ship for the movie on the Andrea Doria.

“When I was 6, it was the encounter with writing. As soon as I started to write, as soon as I was able to do it, I understood that writing was supposed to create an image image, to stimulate a tridimensional thought. My first fairytale book was published when I was 7 years old and 4 months, if you read it today, you will find many Disney references. From when I was 14 to 19, I directed and acted in 123 amateur movies with my first video camera and distributed them as a VHS within 40 kilometers. It was mostly parodies the Gianni and Pinotto’s way or Franco and Ciccio’s style. The main characters were  “La Madrina” – “The Godmother,” –  “Baccal Club,” “Amleto e il fido Yogurt” – “Hamlet and the loyal Yogurt” – was this unusual couple made up by my sister and I and we had many friends and family as guest stars. Here I cut my teeth in the movie world and I even had a discrete success, so much that there was an illegal VHS market especially between Eboli and Campagna! When I was 19 years old, I went to Rome to study Literature and Moviemaking and Theater. Rome, all the movies I’ve seen at the theater, the marathons organized by the newspaper L’Unità at the Movie Theater in Rome now helped me understand art films better than the tapes. The deep study of directors and literature brought me to the creation of high-quality short films, and in 1997 I was honored with a silver ribbon for the production of best short films. Since 1999, I started to occasionally film programs and short TV shows for Rai 2 thanks to the TV producer Marco Foresi, and there I had the chance to get great experience at regular intervals that lasted almost 12 years and 8,000 hours of broadcasts and the realization of a TV series on climate change “Task Force” shot in 32 different countries. My 2002 feature film “Inseguito” – Chased – is a movie about the perfect crime and it won awards from Marseille to Sarajevo, and even Havana and Lima. In that moment, everything seemed better and I couldn’t leave the set before producing, writing and directing at least other 20 works.”

How did your career in America start?

“I came to America in 2011 thanks to the Robert Morriss University in Moontownship, just outside Pittsburgh, as a visiting scholar with a very simple project: tell Italian History through Italian movies. Not the films Americans already knew, but amateur movies, great actors, with Clara Calamai, Vittorio De Sica, Gino Cervi, Amedeo Nazzari, Gasmann, Carlo verdone, Totò and Troisi. I am happy I created an example in some parts of America where I went to, I am happy some American students discovered new names that were familiar to us already, but also that to those students in Pittsburg, Cleveland, Detroit, Cincinnati or Philadelphia those names didn’t say much. We think that America means New York or Los Angeles, but the America I know is much bigger, more beautiful and curious, with many difficulties and a deep crisis. Often, I didn’t meet the land ofdreams, but a country that was curious to learn about another culture through films, for this reason I hope America will invest in culture, languages and humanities. It would be a big error to cut budgets even more in those fields and the Culture that many generations of Immigrants struggled to introduce will be lost.

Micheal Di Lauro, the media art department director at the RMU, brought me to America. In 2011, I took part in his project on Italian emigration entitled “La mia strada” – “My road”, – and in the meantime I filmed a documentary on the museum-houses of the great Edgar Allan Poe. A small project filmed in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Richmond that helped me understand how the filmmaking industry works in the USA and allowed me to meet a lot of people. I met actors like Greg Palillo and Don Most, I exchanged ideas with the producer of the Sopranos Daviv Chase, I wrote a book on emigration “Pietre sull’Oceano. La storia di Giovanni Esposito e Joe Petrosino” – “Stones on the Ocean. The story of Giovanni Esposito and Joe Petrosino” – that was an editorial success. This book, set between 1861 and 1980, opened for me the doors to  the Italian communities with which I cooperated with, like the Dante Alighieri community in Michigan, the Wayne State, la Società della Gioventù Quagliettana, the federezione Camapana – the federation of Campania – and the consul Maria Luisa Lapresa and all the diplomats and extraordinary professors that carry on our excellences with passions and should be our pride.”

How is the work in Italy and abroad different for a director?

“It’s a personal choice and it depends on how we relate to the system. The system between the two countries is, of course, are complete polar opposites, we produce better stories, they produce better movies, I am trying to place myself in the middle . In Italy, everything is harder because the system is definitely harder to dismantle because there are too many filters. Maybe a good movie would be seen only by a few in Italy, while in America there are more opportunities because filmmaking here is an industry, not politics. I have always been convinced that if there has to be a politics, it must be politics of the authors. However, today, exclusive amateur films don’t work, for this reason, each director has to be a manager, representative and producer for themselves as well. Before doing all this, one has to understand their own limits. I would be ashamed to show at the movie theater at least 10% of the Italian movies I’ve seen in the past five years. In Italy, we are convinced that the audience doesn’t appreciate good movies, but the drop in the number of tickets sold has to be a warning.”

Italians for sure have a significant culture and movie history baggage: what do you think was the greatest contribution that we can give to American films and, more broadly, to Americans? And, vice versa, what should we take from them?

“We can teach them how to develop ideas in a bittersweet context. Life is made up of those concepts and Italian films can capture the human soul in a precise social context. The crisis is an occasion to let people know who we are and to unite. We invented the tragicomedy it the theaters, the Italian comedy is a treasure we are losing. We need to start back from our best movies and remember that we had modern directors like Antonio Pietrangeli, Franco Brusati, authors like Ruggero Maccari, Ettore Scola, producers like Franco Cristaldi, Sergio Amideri, Peppino Amato and Angelo Rizzoli, writers that could be modernized and that described us in depth like Luciano Mastronardi, Cesare Pavese, Ignazio Silone, Giuseppe Marotta, Grazia Deledda, not to mention Edmondo De Amicis. We dictated the cinematographic and genre aesthetic canons thanks to Visconti, Pasolini, Fellini, Antonioni, Bertolucci. The latest great invention of the Italian movies was Sergio Leone and this happened 50 years ago.”

Andrea Doria, a name to which you owe a lot due to the great success of the documentary “Are the Passengers Saved?” that you directed. How did you become part of this project?

“I was doing some researches for my book “Stones on the Ocean. The story of Giovanni Esposito and Joe Petrosino” and during an event organized to meet an Italian community I met Pierette Domenica Simpson, a professional and an example of a modern woman, full of enthusiasm and passion, a survival to the tragedy that dedicated her last years to tell the truth about the greatest sea rescue in history. Thanks to Pierette and to the photographer Richard Haskin, along with many other Italian and American collaborators, we worked a lot and today thousands of people saw the movie, there were almost 20 public showings and we gathered prestigious international awards and recognitions like the Best film at the 70th Cinema Festival in Salerno and the audience award at the Royal Oak.

Personally, I already collected four awards as a director and Pierette received many recognitions as a producer and author. The response was positive because the truth about Doria was told for the first time as an honest and independent product. The movie was seen in 13 American states, in almost 40 schools and at the Italian Parliament. Soon we’ll be in Los Angeles at the Los Angeles Italia Festival organized by Pascal Vicedomini, the movie will be projected on Feb. 21th at the Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, along with a few other documentaries all realized in Italy and we all wish good luck to Gianfranco Rosi’s masterpiece “Fuocoammare” for the Oscars. To win an Academy award will show that Italian documentaries are alive and well, and it will allow us to gain more room in the theaters back home.”

What does it mean for to be in a dream city like Hollywood and in a way to be part of this project?

“I grew up with Hollywood movies, I always worked for the greatest satisfaction and one day I’ll be holding the ol’ Oscar as well. We need to think big. However, to get to Hollywood with a movie is really a dream, I hope to share my ideas, the Italian-style stories, with as many people as possible and I hope to move the American assets to Italy with my next project.

At the festival I will attend in February, I will give homage to one of the Italian American legends Dean Martin, I am so happy to be there for this reason as well.

Have you always had the American dream or it was simply the dream of making movies?

“I have always had the dream to make American movies in Italy, I’ve always had the dream of making Italian movies in America. I’ve always believed that the two cultures could both get away from stereotypes. The important thing is not to make movies, but to make our voices heard, leave a method, give a direction and to reach as many people as possible. We need to take small stories and make them great. Show dark and unlikely places, get corrupted, but we can do this only by paying our dues, culture and humility.”

Presentation at the Chamber of Deputies.

Projects for the future?

“I will make a movie with the producer and lawyer Michael Gagleard, a movie on politically corrupt lawyers. I am writing a movie for Michael Di Lauro on World War II and emigration. Moreover, I would like to make a movie on Salerno and I am working with the writer Feruccio Tuozzo to stage his book “Senza far Rumore” – Without Making Noises. Andrea Doria’s project is still going on, after the documentary-movie with Pierette, we are writing a play called, for right now, “Il Capitono e la bambina” – “The Captain and the Girl” – moreover, MIBACT recognized our script for “Andrea Doria: La verità Nascosta” – “Andrea Doria, the hidden truth” –  a cultural and interesting movie on a national level, the state will support us during the pre-production phase of a movie we are already working on and will star an international cast. The movie is based on Mrs. Simpson and other survivors’ research and studies, like Mike Stoller’s, who will be responsible of all the music of the movie along with the master Gerargo Buonocore. The movie will be produced by Dtefano Misiani’s Staff and will eventually be the basis of a mini TV series where the survivors’ personal stories will be enhanced more than the case itself. To realize all this, we will need the help of an American or Canadian co-production. I hope to find it in the next few months.”

Would you like to say something to the Italian community that lives and works in NY or to whoever hopes to reach your professional level, both in Italy and abroad?

“The more I get to know them the more I am surprised, so much I would like to meet them all.

The Italian communities are an example of roots and traditions, I am really happy when I come back to America and I hear dialects being spoken again, the celebrations, Sunday feasts, my grandparents’ traditions. The ties that Italian Americans have with Italy is really strong, meanwhile Italians don’t realize the struggle and efforts of all the people that took charge of their lives for a better future. We should take many stories of those Italian American people as examples of life, struggle, justice, legality, freedom and respect. Randomly naming some people, I borrow a quote from my book “Stones on the Ocean.” A passage in which the main character Giovanni Esposito, detective Petrosino’s brotherly friend, names some of the great Italian Americans:

“The wise Fiorello La Guardia and all the Italian American mayors that followed him, the celebrity Rodolfo Valentino, the warrior Primo Carnera, the genius Guglielmo Marconi or Giovanni Martini, the patriot from Sala Consilina, trumpet player and little Bighorn survivor, the apostle Giuseppe Cataldo, a priest conquering the West, and again the great voices and the huge temperament of Enrico Caruso and Pasquale Amato, the immortal pictures of Frank La Cava or the small Francesco Rosario “Frank” Capra, who arrived in America when he was only 5 leaving Bisacquino, the same Sicilian city know at the time for hosting the murderer Don Vito Cascio Ferro; and again, the dance teacher Malvina Cavallazzi that made ballet a work of art at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, the poet Lorenzo Da Ponte, who died in Manhattan, the missionary Francesca Saverio Cabrini, the first Italian American woman to be proclaimed a saint in 1946, the antifascism politician and excellent business man Generoso Pope, who wanted us to be Americans, electors, special men, the dear chef Cesare Cardini, from Lago Maggiore, who invented the Caesar Salad in America, dish that many of us order at restaurants and fast food today; then Italo Marchioni’s ice cream and the cones, Pietro Frosini’s pleasing accordion, Joseph Mattone, son of Emigrants who build squared feet of sturdy buildings with his company and never lost the desire of feeling Italian, Giovanni Turini who sculpted our Italy, from Mazzini to Garibaldi, at Central Park and Washington Square, my dear Italian friends in Pittsburgh Joe and Lucio D’Andrea who shone in the diplomatic and military field, and then many other popular and less popular that keep company to the millions that will come among everybody’s sons and daughters and, at last, how to forget the greatest of all, my sweet brotherly friend Joe Petrosino, actor of recent history and unique defender of justice.”

The road is still long for me, I am only at the beginning, but my suggestion is to be humble, be open to dialog, know how to listen, don’t improvise and learn Men and understand the Culture, it is not an empty and meaningless word.”

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