Greta Scacchi Talk LIFF

Published on September 30th, 2017

One of the highlights of the current Lavazza Italian Film Festival is the Gianni Amelio directed, Le Tenerezza (Tenderness). One of the stars of the film is the festival’s ambassador, Greta Scacchi. Ms Scacchi has been traveling the country talking up the film and the festival itself. The actress first came to fame for her roles in the likes of Heat and Dust (1983), White Mischief (1987) and The Player (1992). Sean Sennett caught up with Ms Scacchi in the lounge  of a boutique hotel in New Farm. A large pot of tea was ordered …

Tenderness is very powerful, I was wondering how did they get the script to you and convince you to be in the film?

That wasn’t difficult. Gianni Amelio was the Italian director I wanted to work with and that was ever since I saw Lamerica (1994) and then The Stolen Children (1992), The Keys of the House (2004), Open Doors (1989). I was invited to a small festival in the southeast of Sicily, between Christmas and New Year. It was an odd time. I thought I don’t really want to go. Then I saw that Gianni Amelia was one of the guests. I thought I’ve got to go and see if I can say hello to him.

On that first night at the dinner, he sat himself down next to me and said, “The only reason I came to the festival is to meet you, to talk to you about this role.” Those kind of directors, real auteur directors who have a vision, they don’t make films with producers who won’t allow them to do what they want to do. They don’t compromise. They have a vision and if money is raised for that film to be made, that director is going to do what he wants to do with it.

That doesn’t mean he’ll be extravagant. He’ll just be very clear-sighted about what he wants. It’s a dictatorial type of direction, but to have somebody say you are the person for the role is completely galvanising. I didn’t have to consider what it was. In fact, I read the script and couldn’t really make head or tail of it. I thought this is going to be interesting to see what he makes of it.

There’s an intense shift in the film just prior to your character’s arrival. Did you keep away from the set until the day of filming?

I hadn’t been on that set. That was, the real chapel in the real hospital. I was only on the film for two days. There was another scene we shot that didn’t make it in the film.

Naples is such an amazing place to be in. It’s got such atmosphere. The decaying grandeur and mental, wild sort of buzzing life. It’s a bit like the market in India or something. The streets are so vibrant and alive. That was all a thrill.

The film is vividly set in Naples with the complete contrast of the old and dilapidated and the new and very linear. The hospital is very clinical, very clean lines. This rich visual presence of Naples frames every shot, and you feel the significance of whether our character is a small figure walking through a large, wide canvas, or whether he’s very much the centrepiece, and the background is like a moving, abstract painting. You just keep seeing, it’s very expressive, the way that the shots have been framed.

Your scene is emotional and you’re giving so much. I read somewhere that Montgomery Clift said your body doesn’t know you’re acting. How did you feel doing that scene? Did it take a lot out of you to give that much of yourself?

I don’t know how to answer that. I really don’t. The director is  that type of auteur director who is very dictatorial. And he talked to me about what he wanted, what he was wanting out of this scene, what the character meant. So you listen, absorb all of that, and think ‘oh, crikey, how am I going to do this’. He gave me layers and layers of his thoughts whenever he could.

He used lots of flattery… flattery always works with me (laughs). It boosts your confidence and gives you some courage. What I do remember is that it’s a long speech that I have, it’s a relatively long monologue without interruption. It’s harder to learn monologue than to learn a quick interchanging dialogue. You’ve got no memory prompts.

It’s a bizarre story. I think that was helpful, the fact that the choice of words are so particular, it gave me some hooks for the memory. But we did it in one take. When we did it, he said he wanted very concentrated silence and care in the room. Sometimes when you’ve got 20 people in a film set, it can feel a bit un-concentrated, but he was very insistent that people moved quietly, that we took our time, and that I started when I was ready.

I was able to mostly pick my way through the memory of having learnt these lines, and getting my Italian correct. It was there. He said we don’t need to do it again, so we did it in one take.

You’re the Festival’s ambassador. That must be nice to be asked to be an ambassador for something as good as this?

When they invited me, of course, I was thrilled. I was also relieved that I was able to make it. It’s hard for people to understand how probably one of the things I can complain about in my business, and I’ve been very lucky, very fortunate, and happy, and I get plenty of work. But we never really know what our dates are going to be. To be asked eight months ago would I be the ambassador of the festival, of course, I wanted to. But I was nervous that I might let them down if a job came along. You have to go where the work is.

I also feel it’s coming full circle, because my first film Heat and Dust was bought by Palace back in 1983. They distributed it. They were a young company then, and it happened that just around the time that they bought it, I had turned up in Melbourne to film Waterfront, a television series that was a period story about early Italian immigration, the dock workers’ strike in Melbourne and all that. It was a wonderful series that did something quite ground-breaking, a third of it was spoken in Italian. The Italian characters spoke Italian with subtitles for about a third of this Australian TV series.

Bob Weis produced it. He was really good. Jack Thompson starred in it. Noni Hazlehurst, Warren Mitchell  it was a fabulous cast. And it was one of my first experiences. I’d been working for just over a year. I met Tony and Karen Zeccola from Palace – that was in ’84 – they’ve been great friends of mine ever since.

What are you shooting next?

A French film. I’ve got a another cameo role that … which is very strong. European films don’t spoon feed.

The spoon feeding that we get used to in the Hollywood films … it’s a sweeping generalisation to say ‘American’. I don’t like all the films that come out of America, but one can generalise about the Hollywood mentality.

It is basically driven by economic elements. So that’s a kind of filmmaking that is about box office figures and getting as many people out there in the market to see it. It means the way they budget it is to spend millions in promotion, because as long as they get big actors in who are going to be written about in the newspapers, then it will get promoted. They will spend more than half the budget on securing one of those actors, and another huge chunk of the budget on enormous promotion costs.

Most normal films can’t compete with that sort of system. So apart from anything, the smaller films rely on festivals because festivals really are a platform to bring attention to smaller films that have been carved out against all odds with care and hard work. They’re about a story that must be told, or an idea. They’re called art films, and art, anything that is an artistic endeavour, whether music, writing, painting, filming, theatre, dance, it requires an audience. Art can’t exist without a viewer, without a listener.

And that means that part of the art is the exchange between the viewer and the artistic work. It’s an interpretational thing. It has to have a to and fro. And Hollywood doesn’t do that. Hollywood spoon feeds the audience. It even brings in surges in the music to dictate to the audience what they are to feel now.

Whereas, a film like La Tenerezza doesn’t have any background music. It has the most beautiful music. There’s a traditional song by Arleta, the wonderful 1960s, ’70s Greek singer. It’s a haunting melody the film begins with, then a phrase of it comes back in, and then it ends with the Arleta piece.

There’s no surging soundtrack to tell you what you’re supposed to be thinking. In fact, the whole story is inconclusive. It’s ambiguous. It’s nonjudgmental, and it leaves you. If you were only trained in watching films that are spoon feeding you, like giving you sensations and decisions and not giving you any choices, then it can feel a bit odd suddenly to watch a film where decisions are not made, where answers aren’t given.

You kind of think what is this about. But that is the point. The point is you are to feel… what does it mean to you? So each individual in the audience will have their own response. And I think that makes for more thoughtful and more thought-provoking material.

Speaking of Hollywood. Out of all the films you’ve made, is The Player the one that people talk to you about the most?

The Player is the most important film that I’ve done, I can say in retrospect. It is a strong piece of work in that it’s an art film. (Robert) Altman was an auteur. In fact, when we came to make The Player, Hollywood had pretty well shrugged him off completely. He couldn’t get a film made.

What was extraordinary and very reassuring for him is that while we were making The Player, which is set in Hollywood, and it’s a critique of the Hollywood filmmaking industry, the very industry that had shunned Altman, and that he despised. So it’s a very cutting and very resonant satire of the Hollywood industry. As we were working in places, shooting in restaurants on Sunset Boulevard, where the film people go, where the agents and actors go, a lot of famous actors happened to be there. Either they lived locally and they’d worked with Bob, they were friends of Bob and they were turning up on the set to say hello. People like Elliot Gould and Jack Lemmon just turned up to say hello. Or there was Burt Reynolds, or Malcolm McDowell who happened to be walking through that foyer or eating at another table in the restaurant.

Bob started to ask these people if they wouldn’t mind, just for five minutes, being in the film. What he found was that actors, everyone in the acting community were delighted to be in a film of his. Everything the Hollywood industry, the studios, the producers, the powers that be would measure as somebody’s value is not necessarily the value of what the practitioners, the actors felt.

He started to explore this and invite more and more illustrious people to be in The Player. And they all said yes. It came to the point halfway through the filming where he said we’re actually thinking of asking the two A-list, highest-paid, highest box office actors to be our famous actors in the story for the spoof film that’s being made. They asked Julia Roberts and Bruce Willis, who were the biggest stars at the time. And they both agreed for scale, for nothing, to play themselves in film for a day.

The Lavazza Italian Film Festival runs in Brisbane at Palace Cinemas until October 8, 2017. For national dates look here