On the road

Paolo Virzì on Donald Sutherland, Helen Mirren and The Leisure Seeker

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Paolo Virzì with Anne-Katrin Titze at the St. Regis:
Paolo Virzì with Anne-Katrin Titze at the St. Regis: "For me, Donald Sutherland is many things. He is Casanova and the wonderful English professor in Animal House ..." Photo: Lilia Blouin

In 2014, Paolo Virzì's Human Capital (Il Capitale Umano), starring Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Fabrizio Bentivoglio, Valeria Golino, and Fabrizio Gifuni was Italy's Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film. Paolo's latest, The Leisure Seeker, his first film in English, stars Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland as a couple on the road, unlike Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider. The screenplay by Stephen Amidon, Francesca Archibugi, Francesco Piccolo, and Virzì is based on the novel by Michael Zadoorian.

Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren are John and Ella Spencer
Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren are John and Ella Spencer

At the St. Regis hotel in New York, our conversation takes us to how Donald Sutherland is many things (from Federico Fellini's Casanova to Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now shot in Venice), Helen Mirren "giving a sense of reality and truth in everything she does" (from Stephen Frears' The Queen to Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover, and Hedda Hopper in Jay Roach's Trumbo), and looking for the right feeling and landscape for The Leisure Seeker.

Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren play John and Ella Spencer, a couple embarking on one final road trip in their beloved Winnebago, a relic from the Seventies. From their home in Boston they drive to Key West, Florida to visit the Hemingway house. This is anything but a random destination.

John, a retired high school English teacher is haunted by the literature he used to tell his students about, while his memory of other aspects of life is fading. As he dips in and out of dementia, Ella has her own painful present to face. Along the way, the two escapees - their children don't know where they are - relish timeless and timely encounters they stumble upon.

Paolo Virzì shows off his notebook with watercolors of his daughter and Gary Greengrass
Paolo Virzì shows off his notebook with watercolors of his daughter and Gary Greengrass Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

A historical theme park, a highway holdup, slideshows at the camping grounds, conversations with the new owners of an old favorite gas station inform us about the couple's past and a country's future. The film was shot in the summer of 2016 and Virzi has the confused John totter by chance into a Trump rally. The senile man, who loves to explain Hemingway's style to waitresses at diners, happily accepts a Make America Great Again baseball cap and puts it on. The look on Sutherland's face is an unforgettable image.

When I take out my notebook, Virzì takes out his sketchbook.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Let me take a picture of you with these images. What is this?

Paolo Virzì: This is Gary Greengrass, the owner of Barney Greengrass. We were there to eat brunch. And this is my daughter, my little one.

AKT: These are your paintings?

PV: Of course, I'm a painter more than anything.

AKT: More than a filmmaker?

Paolo Virzì sketch for Helen Mirren's look as Ella
Paolo Virzì sketch for Helen Mirren's look as Ella Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

PV: It means it is my dream. I would like to make a living off this but I'm forced to make movies.

AKT: Poor you! I feel really sorry for you. The feel of the places is very important for you on this road trip in The Leisure Seeker.

PV: Exactly, the feeling and what I was looking for was a kind of domestic, languid, melancholic landscape. I was getting away from my idea of making a road trip on Route 66 for instance. Monument Valley or the desert of Arizona and New Mexico. The cliché of the road movie. That I love anyway. Like Easy Rider.

I was looking for something more dreary. Like the couple we are focusing on, ordinary people. It becomes special the moment we put a frame around them. And we follow patiently every single moment of this last adventure. We didn't want the landscape around them to overstate them.

AKT: The stops are for example a gas station with new owners from Syria and a Trump rally.

PV: Okay, we put in some atmosphere of summer 2016. That was to suggest a nuance of the moment without making any statement, official in terms of politics or geopolitics. But the story of Ella and John is happening that summer.

AKT: It's their encounters on the road 2016 with their specific scarecrows.

PV: I didn't come here to America to say: Be careful, Trump is coming. We didn't know then he will win the election. Then everybody would have said Hillary Clinton would win.

The Winnebago runaways, Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren in The Leisure Seeker
The Winnebago runaways, Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren in The Leisure Seeker

AKT: You say ordinary but of course you have two actors who are anything but ordinary.

PV: I think they are extraordinary but ordinary at the same time. The truth is if you look at anyone with compassion, with vision, trying to understand what's behind the surface - everybody is extraordinary. This is my aim in every movie I make.

AKT: The point is, that if you have two such iconic actors, the audience carries the previous roles with them. Donald Sutherland will for me forever be Don't Look Now. He cannot shed Venice at all.

PV [big laugh]: Ha! For me, Donald Sutherland is many things. He is Casanova and the wonderful English professor in Animal House with the beautiful velvet suit teaching his students to smoke weed.

AKT: So you took some of that for your film?

PV: John Spencer [in the Leisure Seeker] is what that professor became 40, 50 years later.

The Leisure Seeker poster - opens in the US on March 9
The Leisure Seeker poster - opens in the US on March 9

AKT: I knew there was some kind of a link. And Helen Mirren is The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover?

PV: Helen Mirren - I'm in love with her. I find her stunning, so clever, so witty. [In a whisper] Maybe, I guess, she's the best actress living right now.

AKT: Big words.

PV: In terms of humanity, intelligence. She's capable to give a sense of truth, of reality to every character she plays. Why her Queen was so special was because it's grounded in her mother, her aunt. Not the Queen, she wasn't regal. She was a worker who does her duty.

AKT: The beautiful moment when she meets the stag!

PV: Exactly. That's why I admire her because she has that talent of giving a sense of reality and truth in everything she does.

AKT: I liked her very much in Trumbo as well, where she plays Hedda Hopper. You put Helen Mirren in the ugliest wig. She looks much better when she doesn't wear the wig and just has the short gray hair.

PV: But she is stunning also in that! I don't know why but we thought at that moment she had to be so weak and so fragile, displaying her fragility. But she remained anyway good-looking. I made some sketches of her character. When I made a sketch of Helen, I imagined something like this [he shows me sketch photo #1]. There are many sketches of the look of Ella.

Coming up - Paolo Virzì on filming with the Hemingway cats, the soundtrack for The Leisure Seeker, the work of production designer Richard A Wright, jealousy, adapting the book by Michael Zadoorian, and "something that I really like to do always in my movies" the casting of non-professional actors.

The Leisure Seeker opens in the US on March 9 and April 13 in the UK.

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