Interview: Seven Pounds Director Gabriele Muccino
by Alex Billington
December 18, 2008
With the upcoming release of Will Smith's Seven Pounds this weekend, I present my interview with Italian filmmaker Gabriele Muccino, who made his American directorial debut with The Pursuit of Happyness. It's impressive to see that Muccino, who speaks in broken English with a thick Italian accent, was able to make two fantastic films in Hollywood. He's obviously a talented filmmaker and I was quite excited to hear about how this collaboration all came together. Read on for my rather captivating interview with Muccino, who talks about everything from Seven Pounds to why Hollywood is usually "very plain."
While I won't say Seven Pounds is as spectacular as The Pursuit of Happyness, I will admit that I'm very fond of Muccino's filmmaking style. His ability to work with Will Smith and create very emotional scenes is unmatched and with Seven Pounds it shows yet again. If you were at all captivated by the trailer, then definitely catch this, as there is a lot more to discover. And pardon Muccino's rather rough English.
What has interested you in coming to America and to Hollywood to make movies here?
Gabriele Muccino: The biggest difference with the movies here and when you do movies in your own country, is the amount of the crowd you're going to talk to. So if you want to be a movie director, as I wanted to be when I was a child, because you want to be a storyteller, and you want to give to others your point of view about life, then you want the biggest crowd you can get. And there's no bigger crowd than the one you can get making movies with big movie stars here in Hollywood. So the idea came pretty natural. What was not natural or predictable or even thinkable was that this would have happened in my life. Because when you grow up in your own country and you do movies, even successfully in your own country, but don't speak English -- at the very most, as a tourist, you have to be realistic and know that to come here and offer your talent as a movie director, that definitely cannot be enough, because there are many others which are more skilled and culturally more "right" for telling American stories than you.
But my case has been pretty curious, I would say, pretty unique. And the fact that Will Smith, by different circumstances, discovered my movies and thought I was different from any other director, at least in the way I portrayed human emotions, made this journey start and continue. So I met with him. He sent me a very not Hollywood story. I mean, it wasn't the typical Hollywood story. Although there was a happy ending, that journey into the hell of the American economy, and the American society, wasn't the typical studio picture. It was coming more from an indie mentality. But more than that it was coming from a tradition we had in Italy in the post-war time with movies that we call the neo-realist. And one, of course, was called Bicycle Thieves, which was a giant masterpiece and had a lot of similarities with Pursuit of Happiness. And that made me feel that the vision that Will had wasn't -- yes, it was definitely insane and not completely or even partially understandable from my side, but at least there was a sense, maybe, a logic.
So I came, I started working on Pursuit of Happyness, trying to overcome the huge barriers -- cultural barriers, and language barriers, which I had to understand and to overcome in order to be in control of that story on that set with that movie star with that studio, and all the fears that you can imagine in that environment. But I managed to do everything I wanted to do exactly in the way I felt was right. And the strength and the bravery, or the insanity, to do things the way I did was coming from the strong confidence in the fact that if things wouldn't have gone right, I would've gone back to Italy, where I would have kept doing my Italian movies, which would have made me happy and wealthy. So I felt I am here and I'm doing all my best to do what I think is right, and know what I think is right. I really did Pursuit of Happyness under the protection of Will, who trusted me, and allowed me to do what I felt was right to do. Sometimes I did just that, and didn't really understand what idea I was trying to pursue, but end up with a movie, which ended up being a big hit and got Will nominated for an Oscar, and now it opened my career in America and earned me a higher level of trust from producers and studios.
Doing this second movie has been even easier and even smoother. The first movie was already smooth, but the second one was even smoother. I felt that there was even more of a sense of, "Let him alone. He knows what he's doing." Which, in this system, in this industry, I consider myself enormously lucky to have, because directors in this day, they get controlled, they get fired, they get judged. And when they're not understood, they just get imprisoned into telling stories that aren't theirs anymore, but are the executives'. And this is a very frustrating way to make movies and it doesn't help bring out original ideas, original styles, original vision, points of view, or visually something new. This is why Hollywood tends to be very plain.
Do you want to challenge yourself more here in America, or do you want to challenge yourself more doing films in Italy?
Muccino: I think the best way to work would be doing something here, and then something there, bouncing back and forth. If I keep doing something -- when I did my fourth movie (called Ricordati di me) in Italy, I felt it was to secure myself. I felt I knew what I was doing, and everything was under control. And that's, to me, the beginning of the end, when you start to know too well what you're doing, you start to be almost bored by what you're doing. And that's death of creativity. So when I came here and I had to start from scratch with a brand new adventure, doing something where I barely knew what people were talking about in conversations, it was so challenging, so frightening, that I was scared like hell, and I had to reinvent my talents and to push as much as I could all of my energy.
Now that I've done another movie, I'm ready to do even a third or a fourth American movie, but I am kind of thinking that I want to make a movie in Italy right away before next spring just to refresh, again, and to shake up things. And then be ready again to come back here and do another movie. I think this will give me the strength and bravery to do in both countries something which is not poisoned by the expectations that you are raising with previous work.
That makes a lot of sense. To move into Seven Pounds, I was curious whether there were a lot of changes that were made while you were in production? Whether their were changes with the script or the story, in terms of how much time he spends with Woody Harrelson, or how much time he spends with different characters before he ends up spending the rest of his time with Rosario Dawson. Were there changes like that?
Muccino: No, actually, the script has been changed enough, but the major changes happened in the rehearsals, I would say. We rehearsed for five weeks with the actors. We spent a lot of time just talking and just reading and changing lines, adding lines, deleting scenes, adding scenes. And sometimes finding some hole in the script, and adding some gem to the story. So it has been a real workshop on the script, which has been enormously precious. This allowed us to be on a set with a very, very solid structure and script.
Since then, the changes we did make were definitely not during the production, but a little bit during the editing. Because the biggest question mark from the beginning was: "How much can we give away? How much we can give to let the people who come and follow this story, which is so mysterious and cryptic at the beginning?" So we played a little bit with the audience. Through three or four or five test screenings, and through those tests, we understood better what kind of balance the movie should have. But there was a moment where we already left out two scenes with Barry Pepper and then he gained again all the footage that he shot. He also had an extra scene that we cut, because it wasn't pushing the movie forward. There was an extra character. A woman who was willing to have an abortion -- she's an unbelievable actress, unbelievable scenes, very powerful, but it wasn't really pushing the movie forward. So we end up with a big sacrifice and cut the scene. So there has been a lot going on during the editing. But the structure has been pretty much the same.
So was it a lot longer at one point?
Muccino: It was two hours, fifteen minutes.
Then you cut it down a lot?
Muccino: Yeah. Now we're at one hour, fifty-five minutes. So we definitely cut a lot of stuff.
Do you have any films in your life that have really inspired you or are your all-time favorites?
Muccino: I've been incredibly inspired by Kubrick -- 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining. And 8 1/2 by Fellini. Bicycle Thieves. Salvador by Oliver Stone. And also, I would say even Natural Born Killers and Heaven & Earth.
Heaven & Earth?
Muccino: Yes, I think, Oliver Stone. The last of the Vietnam trilogy. I mean, visually, it was very inspiring. I love Woody Allen, for example. I love Robert Altman. And I love Bob Fosse -- Lenny, All that Jazz -- visually stunning.
Since you mentioned 2001, does that mean we'll see you do a sci-fi film one day?
Muccino: It depends. If it's a psychological sci-fi like Kubrick did, yeah. I would pursue the challenge, yes. But there must be something psychologically engaging.
Thank you to Gabriele Muccino and Sony Pictures for arranging this interview. Seven Pounds arrives in theaters this weekend and is another fine achievement for Muccino and Will Smith.