I first interviewed Matteo Garrone at the 1998 Venice Film Festival. His second feature, Ospiti, was showing there, and he was given one night at the Excelsior hotel as a guest but spent the rest of the week on the Lido, watching films while living in his car — which is where I found him. A decade later, things have changed for Garrone, who has been on the promo trail practically nonstop since May of last year, when Gomorrah, his adaptation of Roberto Saviano’s nonfiction bestseller about the Naples-based Camorra crime syndicate, won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes.
Recently, Garrone and I spoke again, as his global publicity tour had brought him to Los Angeles on no less than three separate occasions. He now has a Hollywood agent, and New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music is hosting a weeklong retrospective of his films (February 12-17), which is a good thing, since Garrone’s six previous features and documentaries are barely known in this country. Each is a human story that shares an intimate scale and wry humor, but none would make you expect to find the director tackling such a big, urban canvas as Gomorrah, especially with the total mastery he displays over this complicated material. In his earlier films, Garrone always made you discover little-known actors or amateurs, who brought much to the table, and he had a knack for showing people at work in trades sometimes exotic (The Embalmer), sometimes mundane (the jewelry maker of his marvelous First Love) — a talent that serves him well again here.
L.A. WEEKLY: When Gomorrah screened in Cannes, it was already an unprecedented hit in Italy. Unprecedented for a film with subtitles.
MATTEO GARRONE: It is subtitled not only for Northern Italians but for Neapolitans as well. Some scenes in dialect would be hard to follow even for people who live in Naples proper.
Things have changed as well for the people in Scampia, the housing project where you filmed most of the movie. The Army has moved in, the bosses are in jail.
The six Africans found executed this summer brought the Army to Naples. But it’s not just the killings that brought the heat: Saviano’s book and the film provoked a kind of explosion, the government couldn’t ignore the situation anymore. It’s all a show, though, because you can’t change the Camorra situation from the outside. You have to change the people who live there, and this would take generations. These Camorra guys are very close to the people. I met a remarkable man, the father of two [Camorra] bosses, who was a teacher and completely honest, completely against the Camorra. He was very modest and very respected — including, of course, by his two sons.
But people in Rome or Milan don’t understand. Berlusconi had the housing project you see in the movie razed, saying it’s the architecture that breeds crime. But on the French Riviera I passed similar buildings, designed by the same architect, and rich retirees lived in them.
You have one real Camorra boss who plays in the movie — the one with the beard, who reprimands, then kills the loose cannons.
Yes, Bimbo … so called because he is like a child [bimbo in Italian], his moods go from joy to rage in an instant. They let me make the movie on their turf because all these guys are movie crazy, as I show with one of them who knows the dialogue from Scarface by heart. Bimbo’s in jail, and lucky to be there, because he would have been a prime suspect for the killings of the Africans. But I don’t think he ordered it, even from jail, because [the Camorra] would never have killed six at the same time, drawing all this attention. It is a very dangerous situation over there, more than when we filmed, because now that all the bosses are in jail, the jokers are loose — young guys trying to impress, a bit like the two kids in Gomorrah.
The movie is nothing like the book. How did you persuade Saviano to let you have your way?
As you know, there are hundreds of stories and movies in the book. Also, I did not want a journalist [character] in the film. Dramatically, having a guy present every time something happens, it’s suspect. It’s the Hollywood way. Everybody in Italy thought the book was impossible to adapt, but I saw this as an advantage, because I knew I would have to free myself from the structure, invent things from six stories and maybe two-dozen characters. It was a tremendous freedom, and in the process I found the style of the movie. Saviano brought in Mauricio Braucci, a screenwriter from Naples, who also was very involved in theater there. I found most of my actors through them. And that was a big plus, because they all had the experience of these places, of this kind of life.
Who is this old guy with the mike in his throat?
Ah, the Pirate. He’s from a different clan. The clan the two kids steal the weapons from is the clan of the paisans, you know, very cruel. They are from Casal di Principe, in the countryside, where Saviano was born. They are the ones who want to kill Saviano, for talking out of church. It is different from the clans of Scampia. The loose cannons who steal the weapons, they are like kids playing in nature, they think they can rule; they couldn’t function this way in Scampia. Location is very important, it tells you much about character.
Going back to Saviano, I try to keep the movie and his plight as separate as possible, but it is complicated. The bosses were okay with the movie; otherwise, I couldn’t have made it in Scampia. They even were okay with Saviano’s book, as all the stories in it were old and the cops knew about them. But later, on talk shows, to sell the book even more, he divulged stories the cops didn’t know about. It’s terrible what’s happened to him, but he made a pact with the Devil, to have a best-seller.
In your previous films, you like to show professions, trades. Here, we learn what it’s like to be a tailor, what it’s like to be a bagman, etc.
It is very important for me to start with reality, for details, but just as important not to fall for the limitations of reality. Yet, it is a hard balance to achieve — reality sometimes kept intruding. For instance, the tanning salon where the guys get killed in the opening. I liked the idea of a modern version of the old gangster movies, a tanning salon instead of the barber shop. So I invented this. But when I met the [real] bosses, I discovered they all liked to go to this tanning salon! Which, if you live in a sunny place like Naples, is a bit weird.
You once told me something that would make any producer’s blood run cold: that on all your pictures you always reshoot the first week of work.
Yes, I do, but it’s all figured out in the budget; it’s planned that way. It comes from the way I started making movies. I was 26 when I made my first film. I was a painter, never went to film school, and didn’t start watching movies with interest until I was 19 or 20, when I spent one marvelous week in Venice, watching films at the festival as a spectator. Anyway, my painting was always narrative, trying to tell a story on canvas.
I just got curious about [movies], so I did it. I found some money [for a short film], which cost 10 million lira. If it was a disaster, I’d lock it up in my house and be finished with cinema. But this short won the prize at Nanni Moretti’s festival. So I made two more shorts with the prize money, put them together and won the Grand Prix in Turin. I decided then I’d found my means of expression.
Gomorrah opens in Los Angeles theaters on Friday, February 14. For Ella Taylor’s review, see New Reviews.