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Matteo Garrone Talks 'Reality' and His Imprisoned Leading Actor

(Oscilloscope | Getty Images)

For Matteo Garrone, a career in film means carrying on an important and storied tradition of influential Italian writer/directors. He broke out in 2008 with Gomorrah, a stark depiction of organized crime in Italy that was revered by critics. He's back this year with a follow-up that couldn't be more different: Reality. The film is a "dark fairytale" that investigates our current fascination with celebrity, specifically reality TV, and the machine that makes stars out of normal people. It's a personal project for Garrone and we talked to him about the origins of the movie, his thoughts on the culture of celebrity, and casting his leading man, Aniello Arena, an actor currently serving a life sentence for a murder conviction in Italy.

Were you trying to give Reality a fairytale feel with the opening shot floating down from the sky?
Yeah, absolutely. I wanted to declare from the beginning that it was all a dream or a nightmare (laughs). So yeah the movie, from the beginning, is a black fairytale and we worked on this subtle line between real and fantastic and surreal dimensions.

That definitely comes across. Do you believe theater is real life or real life is theater?
I like to start from (an) observation of real life and then make a transfiguration of this reality in another dimension that is the dimension of the art. I don't like to make just an imitation of reality, I like to try to make an interpretation, and that's my job.

Why did you choose Big Brother as the show in the film? Is that the worst example of reality TV?
No I think Big Brother is like the MacGuffin in Hitchcock. It's not important at all in the movie. It's a movie about dreams, about illusions, about loss of identity, so it's more about the way Luciano is trying to follow his dreams, his artificial dreams. But it's also a movie where you can see Luciano is pushed by the family and by the neighbors so it's a sort of contagion of our society. But it's not so important that it's Big Brother. To be in television, it means that you exist. It's a sort of validation of your existence. So for him, the problem to reach his dreams is like to prove to everybody that he exists. The saddest thing, the most dramatic thing of the movie is we're talking about people who want to escape from everyday life, but they're not so in trouble. They're not so poor, but they want to escape. I think the movie is about capitalism and fate (laughs).

A similar theme I found in Gomorrah and Reality is the short lifespan of a gangster and a celebrity. What's your interest there?
Well, yes, I think both have something in common. These two movies that seem so different both show a system. Gomorrah shows the crime system and we decided to talk about crime systems from the bottom, showing characters that are a victim of this system. And in Reality, we decide to talk about show business from people who are a victim of this system. So, again, from below. So I think they have something in common. But it's something I realized after when I was already working on the story. The story starts from a true story that happened to the brother of my wife so it's a story that I know very well from inside.

I wanted to ask you about your star, Aniello Arena. He could only shoot the film during the day because of his sentence, is that correct?
Well, he was in jail for 20 years and he's still in jail so he got permission to shoot during the day and at night he went back to jail. So I saw him because he was the leading actor of a theater company in prison. This company called Fortezza is very well known in Italy. And me and my father, who is a critic of theater, love this company very much so I saw him playing and I cast him because I was hit by his talent. I thought he was a really talented actor so I chose him because he was an actor, not because he was in prison.

Does Aniello remind you of any other actors?
(Robert) De Niro (laughs).

I've heard other people say that also, what is it that reminds you of De Niro?
I don't know, it's a mix between Pulcinella, (John) Turturro, and De Niro, and maybe a little (Sylvester) Stallone sometimes (laughs). So it's a mix. But the thing I like is that he's completely unconscious. He doesn't know. He's not trying to play like De Niro, fortunately. So that's what I like. I think you can feel in the movie and in his interpretation there is something unique in his eyes because you can see during the journey of the shooting of the movie he really was discovering something new. Coming out from 20 years in jail, every day he was discovering something. So combine this aspect of his past to a certain marriage of this aspect of the persona and the aspect of the character of Luciano. He combined these elements of his private life with these aspects of the story of Luciano in the screenplay. I think he made an incredible performance.

Do you have time to watch a lot of movies?
Yes, but I like to go to the theater. I like to go to exhibitions of painters. I was a painter before I became a director so, yes, I have many interests, not just movies. I don't go so often to the cinema, but I go to see the directors I like most.

Who are some of your favorite American directors?
Many, I will say Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, and Tim Burton probably... and David Lynch of course (laughs). Also Scorsese, Coppola, but those are the directors working now, my age. They are all amazing directors, geniuses. I loved The Master and Django.

I wondered what you thought of Tarantino's spaghetti western.
Whatever he decides to do is something surprising so I love all the movies he does. It doesn't matter where they come from, spaghetti western or other. The result is always something unique.

Were you a fan of Leone and Corbucci growing up.
Yes I like them very much and I understand why he's trying to give more attention to these directors who're, how do you say, forgotten? But there are so many great directors, like Pietro Germi. We have, of course, Fellini and Rosselini, De Sica, and Antonioni, but we have Germi and Pietrangeli and many others so there are so many great directors in Italy in the 60s and 70s. I like very much the personality and talent of Tarantino and understand what you say about Corbucci and Leone but I'm different. I have other references.

See more photos of Matteo Garrone here:
  • Matteo Garrone in Marrakech International Film Festival - Award Winners Photocall
  • Matteo Garrone in Marrakech International Film Festival - Matteo Garrone Photocall
  • Matteo Garrone in Bloody Halloween Party
  • Matteo Garrone in Award Ceremony  Inside - The 69th Venice Film Festival
  • Matteo Garrone in Award Ceremony And "L&squot;Homme Qui Rit" Arrivals - The 69th Venice Film Festival
  • Matteo Garrone in Celebrity Sightings Day 9 - The 69th Venice Film Festival
  • Matteo Garrone in "The Master" Premiere - The 69th Venice Film Festival
  • Matteo Garrone in The 'Reluctant Fundamentalist' Photocall in Venice
View Matteo Garrone Pictures »
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