Green-eyed monsters

Paolo Virzì on jealousy, Hemingway's cats and adapting The Leisure Seeker

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Paolo Virzì on Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland as Ella and John Spencer: "It is a love story because we were telling the story of two persons who shared an entire lifetime."
Paolo Virzì on Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland as Ella and John Spencer: "It is a love story because we were telling the story of two persons who shared an entire lifetime." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

In the final installment of my conversation at the St Regis in New York with Paolo Virzi on The Leisure Seeker, the director and co-screenwriter (with Stephen Amidon, Francesca Archibugi and Francesco Piccolo), spoke about adapting the book by Michael Zadoorian. He praised the work of production designer Richard A Wright, and we discussed Carole King's It's Too Late (Baby), Chet Baker's silver lining, jealousy and the monologue by Gretta Conroy of The Dead in James Joyce's The Dubliners, filming the Hemingway cats, and the casting of non-professional actors including his on-set translator Lilia Blouin.

The film stars Helen Mirren who will be honored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center at their 45th Chaplin Award Gala with presenters Mikhail Baryshnikov, Vin Diesel and Taylor Hackford on April 30 and Donald Sutherland who recently received an honorary Oscar as 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.

Ella (Helen Mirren) and John Spencer (Donald Sutherland): "He is living right now in the pages of the book he loved and taught his entire life."
Ella (Helen Mirren) and John Spencer (Donald Sutherland): "He is living right now in the pages of the book he loved and taught his entire life."

Anne-Katrin Titze: The subject of jealousy…

Paolo Virzì: You're asking me because I'm Italian, right?

AKT: No. I would have asked anybody who put it in their film.

PV: Because in the book [by Michael Zadoorian] there was no plot in terms of obsession, jealousy. We put it in the adaptation.

AKT: For John, that's what didn't go away. The haunting jealousy.

PV: Yes, because he's obsessed. He is living right now in the pages of the book he loved and taught his entire life. Maybe in that moment he is living in one page, in the monologue of Gretta Conroy of The Dead in The Dubliners where a wife confesses to her husband that she has been in love for her entire life with the first guy she met when she was very young.

It's his obsession with the secret petty jealousy that probably he had during their life. That explodes in this zany way in the moment of the senility and becomes an obsession. And it's funny that it is eventually discovered who that guy was. And he was black. His wife was more brave than he had imagined.

AKT: She is presented as the Southern Belle.

Paolo Virzì on Helen Mirren as Ella Spencer: "Yes, she has been jealous her entire life."
Paolo Virzì on Helen Mirren as Ella Spencer: "Yes, she has been jealous her entire life."

PV: Because when she was 19 in the Southern States it was also a crime to have a story, an interaction between a white girl and a black man.

AKT: At the same time we learn about his Joycean jealousy, Sutherland's character's past unfolds nicely with possible infidelities. One, not to give anything away, is set up from the start but there are also hints at his relationships with students. So there is her jealousy on the other hand.

PV: Yes, she has been jealous her entire life. It is a love story because we were telling the story of two persons who shared an entire lifetime. Probably love for the professor by the young students was something for Ella that happened frequently.

AKT: That all comes back when he is losing his memory but remembers names of students. It's tricky to make films about people dying or almost dying. There's Ozu, Tokyo Story where it works brilliantly. Then there's the other side, The Marigold franchise.

PV: There are many. And I made some of them. I already made a film about this topic in La prima Cosa Bella [The First Beautiful Thing] which I made in 2010. It's about the ending part of the life of a woman and her last days become a kind of party in the hospice. Trying to transform a sad, painful topic into something entertaining and also sometime exhilarating is something that really captured me.

Paolo Virzì's Helen Mirren sketch for The Leisure Seeker
Paolo Virzì's Helen Mirren sketch for The Leisure Seeker Photo: Paolo Virzì

AKT: You do that partly with the songs. It's hilarious, in the beginning of that road trip you use It's Too Late Baby. I was laughing out loud at the press screening.

PV: We tried, but it's too late, Baby!

AKT: It's already over. And also Chet Baker singing Look For The Silver Lining when, I think, they are crossing a bridge in the Winnebago.

PV: I'm happy you listened to it attentively.

AKT: I liked how you were placing songs as juxtaposition.

PV [starts singing]: "Mistaken - we're only a shade …" It's a song by Nash [it is David Crosby's Laughing] when they watch slides.

AKT: The slides scene - that's the most magical. Magical in the ordinary. Who does that? Showing slides while camping?

PV: It was pretty tricky to work on the few images - neutral - of the two of them. Because they are actors, there are many pictures of their past in costume or playing some popular characters. They were very generous, both of them, Donald and Helen, because they opened their bookshelves of personal pictures.

And our production designer worked on them, adding backgrounds. It was not easy to create a sense of reality of these moments. I'm pretty happy. Richard [A Wright] did a great job.

Lilia Blouin, Paolo's translator who is also present at our conversation has a line in the movie as well. I quote it back to her.

AKT: "Are you looking for the bathroom?" Why did you give her that line?

On John Spencer (Donald Sutherland) and Ella (Helen Mirren): "Probably love for the professor by the young students was something for Ella that happened frequently."
On John Spencer (Donald Sutherland) and Ella (Helen Mirren): "Probably love for the professor by the young students was something for Ella that happened frequently."

PV: Because I thought she was perfect for that role.

AKT: So Lilia, you were translating throughout?

PV: Yes she was with me for all the movie helping me to communicate with the actors.

Lilia Blouin: But he is perfect. His English is great. He would just speak fluently.

PV: Broken English!

LB: Every now and then there would be a glitch. In the end I would say, Paolo, you said that, it would have been better to say that and two hours later he would actively use the right word.

PV: She's my tutor, my coach.

AKT: And then you give her a line about the bathroom at the Hemingway House!

PV: At the end I thought the crew should be involved in doing something. The hair department were playing the nurses in the hospital. The nosy neighbour at the campsite who said "Are you going to the Hemingway House?" was our first AD. The prop girl was a bus driver. Many of the crew were involved. It's something that I really like to do always in my movies - to use non-professional actors.

AKT: Let's maybe roll it up backwards from the Hemingway House. You include the famous Hemingway cats.

Paolo Virzì with Lilia Blouin: "Yes she was with me for all the movie helping me to communicate with the actors."
Paolo Virzì with Lilia Blouin: "Yes she was with me for all the movie helping me to communicate with the actors."

PV: They were all there. They were the real ones. We added some.

AKT: You added some?

PV: We added cats because the real ones escaped. They tended to go away the moment we were shooting.

AKT: You shot in the summer of 2016?

PV: The end of August 2016.

AKT: I'm thinking of the hurricane season.

PV: Yes, the hurricane was behind us, following us.

AKT: I remember reading, I think in The New York Times, about the worries about the Hemingway cats and who is going to take care of them during the hurricane.

PV: The year after there was a terrible hurricane. While we were shooting there was another hurricane. I remember we had to escape from Jekyll Island while we were shooting there. During the night there was an announcement that a huge hurricane was coming and we escaped.

AKT: Is this exciting for you or is it a nightmare? When something like that happens?

The Leisure Seeker poster at Cinemas 1, 2 & 3 in New York
The Leisure Seeker poster at Cinemas 1, 2 & 3 in New York Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

PV: Such threatening weather we don't know in Europe.

AKT: If you're filming in Como you don't worry about hurricanes. In your films the whereabouts are so important. Como taking the place of Connecticut in Human Capital.

PV: Yeah, that's my Connecticut.

Read what Paolo Virzì had to say on his stars Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren and looking for the right feeling and landscape in The Leisure Seeker.

The Leisure Seeker opens in the UK on April 20.

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