Ermanno Olmi, grand master of Italian cinema who brought us Tree of Wooden Clogs and The Postman, quietly protests the ravages of war in this unforgettable portrait of a platoon of Italian soldiers stationed high in the mountains during World War I, where they face the impossible task of merely surviving. Claudio Santamaria plays the unhappy major tasked with bringing them orders to embark on what amounts to a suicide mission. •Availability: 2015 OPEN ROADS: NEW ITALIAN CINEMA Film Festival, June 4-11, Film Society of Lincoln Center. •Thanks to Virginia Cademartori, Sally Fischer PR, for arranging this interview.•
DT: Claudio, you’ve acted in many types of films, from James Bond, to comedy, to Greenery Will Bloom Again. What makes you decide to say yes to a part?
CS: The script first of all. If it’s a good script, 70 percent of the work is done. Another very important thing is the relationship with the director. For many actors in Italy, when they get well known they don’t want to audition for the role. If a director asks me for an audition, even if he’s not famous or it’s his first movie, I want to do the audition because it’s a way to test myself on the role and to test my relationship with the director to see if we can work together. That’s very important for me, because I’ve worked with some directors who were terrible, terrible people on the set. There was no exchange between us, and it was suffering to work like this.
DT: Speaking of which, you’ve acted with many directors. Was working with Ermanno Olmi different from working with other directors, and if so, in what way?
CS: Working with Ermanno Olmi is like working with the Dalai Lama. He’s one of the best human beings I’ve ever met in my life. He’s a poet, and he has this way of communicating what he wants from you in a very poetical way. But he’s a practical man. His father drove a train, so Ermanno is a practical man with great poetry in him. He destroys actors. He destroys actors in a good way, because he wants to see a human being in the scene. He doesn’t want to see actors. He gets you to a point where you touch something intimate inside; each actor I worked with in this movie touched something inside himself, and when we saw the movie all together for the first time, we just burst out crying and hugged each other. It was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had in my life in terms of my work. I think I’ll never have an experience like that again.
DT: Did you rehearse together a lot?
CS: Ermanno Olmi is 84 years old, and he never gave the script to any actors in his life. This was the first time he gave the script to actors.
DT: Like Ken Loach.
CS: Exactly. He used to give the scenes to actors during makeup, in the morning. Every day he gave us new scenes, and we just talked with him. Talked, and talked, and talked about the characters, the situation, the period, the time. We [the actors] rehearsed between us. One time I just said, “Do we want to read the script all together, because we’re not going to make rehearsal with him?” So we read the script together just to relate to each other and give each other feedback.
DT: So he gave you the script in advance but didn’t work with you together?
CS: No. He worked with us on the costumes, the fitting, and we had two or three meetings individually to talk about the characters.We didn’t read the script with him because he knew the script was going to change, so he worked on the scenes on the set. We would shoot just one scene per day, a lot of times.
DT: So there was a lot of improvising?
CS: Yes and no. He improvised with what happened around the set and on the set. For example, there’s a scene in the movie that wasn’t written. One day while we were shooting there was a snowstorm. He found the set all covered with snow, so he invented a scene with soldiers in the snow—that kind of improvisation. With actors he’s very precise with the lines you have to say. Very precise.
DT: The film was more meditative than action-packed or realistic. Did you have to adjust your performance to fit the feel of the film?
CS: Absolutely. In the first scene I was in, three other actors and I were riding horses to the trench. Ermanno said, “You are like the four knights of the apocalypse. You are bringing death to them.” In the second scene we shot, I entered the captain’s bunker. We had to talk about the new orders [i.e., a suicide mission to set up a new communications line], and I showed the captain the map. I started to explain what we were going to do, when Ermanno stopped the scene and said, “If you talk about this as pure strategy, we’re making a movie about war. But we’re not making a movie about war. We’re making a movie about the pain of the war, so behind your words I want to hear all the dead men, the dead soldiers, all the people who died for this crazy war and all the people who are going to die for this crazy order.” Now that I’m telling you, I’m shivering. I have goose bumps. Every day was like that.
We shot the scene eleven times. At the tenth attempt, he gave us a fifteen-minute break to study the scene. I went to talk with Ermanno, then the other actor went to talk to him. When he came back to the set, he was in a very sensitive, emotional state. We shot the scene for the eleventh time, and that was the take. Ermanno screamed, “Beautiful!” and the other actor and I burst out crying. The assistant director on set said, “Put your hats back on” and continued to roll the camera, so he got a shot of me and the captain just there crying. It’s very uncommon to see a film about war with a captain and a major crying, for soldiers, for wasted lives. Ermanno has this talent to bring you to the point just before the water boils…he bring you there, then stops, and then we boil. He’s amazing. It’s not work—it’s a human experience. He’s very precise, but he has an incredibly sensitive look at what’s going on. I didn’t have any idea of that beforehand.
DT: Did you watch his movies to prepare?
CS: Of course. I’ve always loved his cinema. I love everything he ever did. To me he’s one of the best directors we have in Italy.
DT: The cinematographer was Fabio Olmi, Ermanno’s son. What was the relationship like between them?
CS: Very quiet. It was a good relationship. Fabio Olmi is a great cinematographer. They never quarreled. But Ermanno is a strong person. He’ll say, “Oh, come on, just do it!” Then when he realizes that the thing you have to do is difficult, he’ll say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know it was so difficult.” He has the authority and the strength of a lion, but he knows when he exaggerates, when he goes over the line. There was a very respectful atmosphere on the set, with everyone. There was a unique energy that connected everyone on the set. We were all together. The actors never felt separated from the rest, because Ermanno has this ability to involve everyone in what he’s doing.
DT: What’s the primary difference between American filmmaking and Italian filmmaking?
CS: Money first. A lot of money. But not just that. I think that Ermanno Olmi’s set is not the right example for Italian movies, because for most Italian movies, actors don’t have this kind of silence on the set just to talk about daily problems that come up. When you go on set, you want a quiet environment to concentrate yourself, but in Italy, it’s usually a mess. A mess. There’s no respect; they don’t know that when you’re working with emotions, you have to sleep well, be prepared for the scene, you need silence, you need peace to enter the scene.
That’s a very big difference between American sets and Italian sets. When I shot Casino Royale, there was this assistant director who was like a dog. She always had to know where I was. She even followed me into the bathroom to know where I was. One day we were chatting and joking while they were preparing a scene. She was listening to the walkie-talkie and said, “OK, your scene is ready in five minutes,” then she turned her back on me to leave me alone to concentrate. She was not allowed to talk to me during that time. In Italy, you’re about to shoot a scene, they do the clapboard—chock!—and someone comes up to you and says, “Hey, let’s go out for pizza later.” There’s no respect. Here there’s a different way of thinking, which for actors is a very important matter. I was talking about it just yesterday with some of my friends. Also sometimes I see Italian movies that look like they’re shot just for Italian audiences. Nobody is interested in these movies outside Italy. Nobody can understand these movies, so that’s another problem. And another problem: in Italy we have a heritage of great directors.
DT: The best.
CS: The best, so a lot of young directors just want to be auteurs. I’m an auteur, they say, but they don’t have an idea of where to put the camera or which lens to use. They don’t have any ideas in mind. They didn’t visualize the scene beforehand; they just wrote a good script, then go on set and improvise. That’s the Italian way of everything, you know? But a set costs money, so you have to be prepared. If I shot a movie, I’d need a storyboard, I’d need to visualize a scene. Then, if you’re on the set and something has to change, you can change—the storyboard’s not a Bible—but some friends who shot recently said these young directors just put their hands on their heads and say, How am I going to shoot this scene? They’re just not prepared. That’s a big difference between Italian cinema and American cinema. Here they’re very precise in how to direct actors, for example.
DT: Is there one role you’d really like to play, and is there one director you’d really like to work with?
CS: Yes. Ermanno Olmi and of course Bernardo Bertolucci. I shot Besieged with him when I was 23 years old, with Thandie Newton and David Thewlis. Working with Bernardo was big school because he’s…
DT: He’s Bertolucci.
CS: Another incredible person, another fantastic human being and amazing director. That was a great experience. A role I really enjoyed playing was for television, not cinema; it was Rino Gaetano, a genius of Italian song who died in 1981. He’s not famous abroad, but he was a very talented and crazy poet, and he arrived with this music that nobody could [Claudio makes the sign of a box]. Which school do you come from? they would ask. He would say, I come from Pintoricchio school. He was crazy.
That’s another difference between American cinema and Italian cinema. Time. You have actors in America who prepare six months for a role. In Italy they give you the script a week or two beforehand. They say, You want to do this movie? Come on. And you have to say yes right away. For that movie I had three and a half months to prepare, so I studied a lot and learned to sing Rino’s songs for the movie.
DT: Is there anything you haven’t done yet that you want to do?
CS: Directing. I’m working on a project that ‘s from a short story inspired by a graphic novel. No dialogue. Very black, very noir, about money. It will be a short movie, because I want to test myself beforehand.
DT: Why do you want to direct?
CS: I’v always had a passion for images. I’ve been taking pictures for twenty years. When I read a script, I always see the movie in images.
DT: Do you see your face?
CS: Sometimes. If I feel that role, yes. But if I have to direct something, I don’t want to be in it. Directing to me is one of the most difficult jobs in the world, so I could never be in the movie. In Italy I see movies and say, I could direct better. Everybody says the same thing, I know, but sometimes it’s true.
DT: What was the most difficult thing about making Greenery Will Bloom Again?
CS: The weather. We were shooting in Asiago, a small town in the mountains. We usually shot at night, minus four degrees Fahrenheit. One night we had three meters of snow, and all the people of Asiago were there shoveling and digging to get the trench ready for shooting again. Madonna, with the winds sometimes, the snow was like glass in your face, and our feet were freezing. We were in the same condition as the soldiers. We experienced the life of the trench. That was the difficult part, but the rest was amazing.
DT: Your feet were cold but your souls were happy.
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