Palio/Cosima Spender (director) and Valerio Bonelli (editor)

The Palio is more than a horse race:  it is an 800-year-old competition between the 17 districts that comprise the Tuscan city of Siena.  Every July and August, with great medieval pageantry, the districts vie to make sure their chosen jockey wins the 90-second race, held in the heart of town.  The districts, as well as the jockeys, will stop at nothing to win:  bribery, buying and selling favors, sabotage.  With unprecedented access to the jockeys and heart-stopping footage of the race, director Cosima Spender reveals the inner workings of the Palio. Click here for the film website and directory of jockeys. Winner of the Best Documentary Editing Award at the Tribeca Film Festival 2015 (Jury comments: “This film viscerally transported us into an event and turned life into art. For subtly placing us behind the scenes; and for general technical excellence, this year’s award for Best Editing in a Documentary goes to editor Valerio Bonelli for Palio.”) Thanks to Emily Jim and Jeff McBride, Frank Publicity, for arranging this interview.


DT:  Cosima, you and your producer wanted to make a documentary about the Palio for a long time, but it wasn’t until Siena’s bank collapsed that your producer was able to negotiate the terms for you to film such a closed institution. Is that correct?


CS:  It  was good timing that the bank collapsed, because Siena wanted to find a way to get some good press.  They were very depressed; the institution that had given them a sense of pride and identity—the first bank in the world—was brought down by a few men literally in a few years, and it was a huge loss of pride for the city.  We were also lucky.  Because I was born and grew up outside Siena, I could really connect with the people. During my research, I went to the city council and told them we wanted to make this film on the jockeys and about how the Palio was an all-year-round thing, not just four days in the summer, and they really loved the fact that someone was going to give it some time.

They’re always guarding this tradition. They said no to Mel Gibson when he wanted to make a film about the Palio, because they’re very proud and they know it can easily be misunderstood and decontextualized to a point of being detrimental to their livelihood and the tradition.  I went there many times, but when John [Hunt, producer and cowriter] came in, he brought the possibility of working the contract with them, which was quite a complicated thing. They wanted a lot of control—we even had to fight for final cut. We had to show it to them first and take their comments on board.

They’re like a propaganda machine.  There are moments you think, Can I make a film when there are so many things we can’t show?  But luckily for us, they don’t care very much for the jockeys,  so I could show a lot of them.


DT:  Was there much difference between the edit you showed them and the final cut?


CS: We were petrified. We flew them over to London, put them up in the Bulgari Hotel—that was thanks to John—and took them out to dinner.  We showed them the film,  and they only asked for three changes.


VB:   They were impressed because the film encapsulates the spirit of the Palio in a very respectful way.  We were worried they were going to ask us to remove the shot of the jockey being beaten up, but they said, No, that’s fine, the mayor talks about it and it’s something from the past, and we as Sienese are trying to change that.  It doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen now; it still happens.  There was a jockey last year that was beaten up after the race.


CS:  We couldn’t show that. There is this unspoken code of behavior that goes back centuries. If you’re a jockey, you have to expect to be beaten up, you have to expect to be spat on, and you have to expect to be treated badly. But if you win, you make money. You make a lot of money.  In the eighteenth century, a winning jockey was able to buy a house and feed his family for a year. That’s a lot of money, even in the eighteenth century.  The jockeys can make a lot of money, and that’s why they’re also hated by the citizens, because they view the jockeys as mercenaries. They’re guns for hire, while the district can lose a lot of money. It can cost them a couple of million Euros to win a Palio in terms of paying bribes and buying favors.


VB:  And nobody knows that.


DT:  Did you know what you were getting yourselves into?  Valerio, you’re from Florence.


VB:  I saw the Palio as a kid, on TV, and I always hated it.  Then I was brought in one day by a friend who was a horse breeder.  I was nineteen, and I thought it was the most incredible, visceral experience I ever had.


CS: But when I proposed making a film about the Palio, you were not enthusiastic.


VB:  It’s a difficult subject to tackle because it’s so massive. But Cosima had a good angle—the jockey angle.


CS:  That was a good angle, because if you try to do everything, including the districts, it’s just too difficult.  The challenge for me was the fact that many incredible things happen the moment the jockeys go off to the district, but I was denied access to  my main characters for those four days leading up to the main race.  We had to steal shots of them walking down the streets and steal shots where we could to give a sense that they now belong to the district.


DT:  You grew up outside Siena.  Did you have a sense that it was far more than a horse race—that it was all about the bribes, and money, and machinations?


CS:  Everyone knows.  It’s public knowledge.


VB:  In Siena.


DT:  While the subject of the Palio might be huge, the story in the film boils down to a very operatic structure—an apprentice challenging his master. You didn’t know this at the time of shooting, however.  John was able to triple your budget, but was it big enough for you to cover all the jockeys during the shoot?


CS:  Not all of them, because if you follow him, you can’t follow him, etc.  I didn’t realize that we would have such a clear narrative with a master-and-apprentice structure, so the original idea for the film had a lot of themes I wanted to explore. I thought I was going to shoot for much longer—the whole concept at the beginning was an all-year-round view, following the Palio over a long period of time.  But I found the financing for the film in the middle of May and we had to start shooting on the first of June, because there are certain events that happen on certain days. Then we were filming the Palio itself in July and August.  It happened incredibly quickly.  It so happened that we picked the right characters. If you think of the jockey who narrates the film (Bastiano), you could make a doc just on him.  He’s a very captivating character, and he’s a very good storyteller, so I had covered myself, but it was originally going to be a very different kind of film.


DT:  So it was really the outcome of the races in July and August that determined the structure of the film.


CS:  Yes.  It’s not until the editing that you really write a documentary. The whole idea was getting the jockeys up the ladder.  The young one, the one who wants to really make it, then the established one, and then the retired one. It would have been that kind of film, not as operatic in terms of structure, but more about a journey…a bit more arty, maybe. My other films haven’t been so commercial.  This is definitely the most commercial film I’ve made.


DT:  I actually went to the Palio in 1978.


CS:  Bastiano must have been there!


DT:  I didn’t know that at the time.  What struck me most was this vibrant celebration of an 800-year-old tradition.


CS: It’s alive.  Thank God they’re keeping it alive.


DT:  Is it alive like that 365 days a year?


CS:  It’s dead the other 360 days a year. After I shot the film, I bumped into Michael Winterbottom, who’d been shooting The Face of an Angel in Siena. I said, I just filmed in Siena.  It was so incredible! Everyone in the crew said it was the best shoot they had ever had because they were fed so well, and they had siestas, and they only filmed in the morning and the evening, and it looked so beautiful.  And Michael said, We hated Siena.


VB:  Winters are grim there.


CS:  It was grim, there was nowhere to go. We were there the moment it comes alive.


DT:  Let’s talk about the music. You combine the music of Ennio Morricone with original compositions.


CS: From the start, Valerio and I had this idea of the spaghetti Western, because it was just irresistible.  We chose Ennio Morricone for Bastiano, who’s a retired jockey, and we got Alex Heffes, who’s a great composer, to do the other music. He did Mandela, Touching the Void, Last King of Scotland, and he’s worked with Valerio on previous films. He really connected with Ennio Morricone. We needed something that would respond to Morricone in a contemporary way, but we didn’t want electronic music.


VB:  The film definitely needed somebody who could sound like Morricone. Alex is a very, very talented and classically trained composer. At the same time, he uses ethnic instruments, which he’s very good at combining with orchestral scores.

John [Hunt, producer] went with the whole plan of going to Abbey Road and having an orchestra. Alex had a blast, because the Palio’s a subject that allows you to be operatic and at the same time use poor instruments like Morricone used to.  Maybe not the whistling, but the percussions and the horns.


CS: Morricone used simple instruments, like a melodica [clavieta in Italian]. Alex did that too.  He used a Japanese drum, then for the district captains, who are all about money, he used an mbira [Zimbabwean finger piano made of metal].  It’s just like the sound of coins in your pocket.

We worked very closely with Alex. Once he got a cut of the film, he had literally 30 days to write and record the music.  He worked very hard and very quickly.


DT:  I loved the end of the film, where Bastiano talks about the young jockey [Giovanni] riding for glory, as opposed to the older jockeys, who were riding for money. As an Italian and as a proto-Italian, can you talk about the Italian concept of glory?


CS:  There’s a concept in Italy that I don’t think exists in many other cultures. It’s la bella figura—a beautiful appearance, or the importance of coming out well. For Giovanni, being a jockey in the Palio means he’s already realized his dream, but to be able to win two Palios is beyond.  This guy comes from a really humble background in Sardinia, so for him he’s reached the stars.  Also in material terms, he’s got a really nice house outside Siena, and he’s doing really well for himself. Giovanni brings a romance back to the Palio that had been lost to a certain extent, and in that way it’s a microcosm for Italy. Now we really want the young generation to take over and take away the corruption. Berlusconi really did something to Italy that we need to shake off.


VB: The end of the film represents a microcosm of what’s happening in my country.  The old guard sits there and doesn’t want to move. Young people like me have the choice to leave, which is the only thing you can do, because if you stay, the old people just push you down.  It’s not like here in America or England, where you believe in the youth and give chances to young people because you know they are the future of society.  Somebody like Giovanni stood out and looked for glory because he’s got that immigrant mentality as well.  His father is Sardinian and went to Germany to look for fortune, where he married a German woman and came back.  Giovanni’s got that thirst, he’s hungry.  He’s hungry in a good way, and he represents the good side of Italy.


CS:  In the film Giovanni represents all the young jockeys. They call it “the ladder.”  The ones at the top push down the ones at the bottom.  Bastiano, our narrator, says, It’s time the youth stopped just being content with a few crumbs from the old. Enough of being on this ladder.

Copyright © Director Talk 2015

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