“Imagination and Reality Go Together”: Alice Rohrwacher Talks Happy as Lazarro with Josephine Decker and David Barker
Alice Rohrwacher’s work is an ecstatic affirmation of life and its imaginative possibilities. Her new film left me breathless. An unconventional story told in an unconventional way, Happy as Lazzaro is also deeply grounded. When we spoke with Alice, she spoke of creating a home inside of a film; that when you invite people to the theater, you’re also inviting them into your home. Wise beyond her years, Alice and her words have stuck with me, and we are excited to share her unique wisdom and this inspiring conversation with you. — Josephine Decker
Although she grew up without access to cinema or television, when the Italian director Alice Rohrwacher premiered her first film Corpo Celeste (2011) at Cannes while still in her 20s, she was already a mature artist creating deeply textured and philosophically complex films. Happy as Lazzaro, which won the Best Screenplay prize at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, takes her work in a new direction, while continuing to explore some of the same themes. Whereas her first two films are coming-of-age narratives about young women that seem to draw — in part — from her own life, Lazzaro instead follows a community of tobacco sharecroppers working the land of a Marchesa. Through a series of surprising and magical twists, we move from what seems to be a film about the past to one deeply engaged with our present. — David Barker
[Editor’s note: Alice Rohrwacher’s third film Happy as Lazzaro is in theaters and available to stream on Netflix starting today. During the New York Film Festival, filmmaker Josephine Decker and her editor David Barker took a break from post on Decker’s latest film Shirley to talk to Alice about creating magic on set and looking at the world through the eyes of a child.]
Barker: We were talking about the relationship between reality and the imagination in your films. The world is a little tough, and the characters create beautiful worlds in their imagination as a means of survival, or to carve out a personal space. Do you see that in life?
Rohrwacher: There is a very nice enigma of languages that we use when we are in front of something that is very beautiful. We say — for example, [of] something from nature — “It seems fake.” And when we are in front of something fake that is very well done, we say, “It seems true.” So how can [you] work to make this “fake” and “true” [act] together? I wanted to depict the world as truly as possible but make fairytales. As I am born in the [20th] century, my dream was to build a world that came from another century and collapsed and then went to the new century where are living now. Not to see what happened, but to see that humans stay the same. Big dramas are only for a few people. The normal people like Lazzaro and his community don’t have a place for big dramas in their life. They are far away from dramas.
For me, it was very important to be very realistic, to find that contact with a very big imaginary world, and to make a fairytale about these last 50 years of our European story.
I don’t know if I answered your question because maybe I didn’t understand exactly.
Barker: [That was] great, but I also think about how the characters use their imagination to create a space for themselves in the world — like Lazzaro, who created a special world for himself up in the hills, and the girls in The Wonders, where the father is tough but they live in their imagination a lot.
Rohrwacher: I think it’s always both. Imagination and reality go together. They are both limited. So if they help each other, it could be bigger. It was very important, too, for me to create a world before psychology, before the psychology of the action, so that the works are archetypical.
Barker: And do you think that’s different in this movie than in the previous movies, which were a little more psychological?
Rohrwacher: I think what I am trying to do is to work in a direction. The other movie was also moving between a fairytale and reality, but maybe it was one step more in psychology. I think psychology is what the audience will [consider] after seeing the movie, so I’m not against it. It’s wonderful. I really believe that cinema is the synthesis of something. It’s like an image inside, and then you can take time and analyze it and see where it works.
Decker: It’s so fun hearing you talk about this because it’s so wise, so refreshing. And it’s really exciting to hear you talk about this kind of nascent pre-psychology, about being a child. When you are on set with your team, are you working to build that kind of space for them, too? How do you work with your actors and your camera to kind of create that space?
Rohrwacher: You were right when you said [it’s] like looking as a child. It’s something I’m asking of the audience. It’s not simple, because you can’t identify with Lazzaro. You look at him as a child looks at the adults’ world — without the possibility of identification, [in the same way] children don’t identify. When you come of age, you identify yourself with others. So the idea was to have the audience be like children. And then, we just work a lot, so it’s not so special [laughs]. We are crazy. We really like to work. For example, in the farm set, we painted the house and created this mythology of the woman with the white house. But it was just a white house, without anything, so then we planted the tobacco and we watered it for months, and then we brought the animals. All to make this story real.
This world is very difficult to believe in, because it’s ridiculous sometimes. I like to go to something that is close to the ridiculous. So you have to do a [lot of] work that is grounded in the past, not only the things that are in the image. It’s a long process: set design, costumes and rehearsal with actors. With time, we become really connected by working together.
In the city, too, it was very important, even if it was just a small part of the movie, to build the place where they live. To have a place together that is a home in the middle of the city. I think when you make a set like a home, people feel freer to move in the structure. And then, you can make a movie that is like a home and it’s what I love to do. Like a home where people are invited to come and they can move with the rooms and they can look from the windows. This is the dream.
Decker: And you’re building these sets not just with you and the production designer, but also with the actors?
Rohrwacher: Yes, they are a part of it. For example, in the countryside, they were the same people that were actors. So they are contributing. I think the script is very tight, and when I shoot, there’s no improvisation, but the place and all the atmosphere we build together. Of course, there is Emita Frigato, the set designer, she’s [a] genius, and Hélène Louvart, the director of photography. I have to say — it has a different meaning in English, and also it’s a ‘cool word’ — but I have to say that it’s organic in the sense of an organism. It’s natural as a result of the way we work.
But it takes a long time, and we are always poor, because it takes so long.
Decker: It’s so unusual, such a wonderful way to create.
Rohrwacher: I always work with the producer Carlo Cresto-Dina, with [the production company] Tempesta. We have this law: we want to leave the world — if we can — better. [Or] at least the same, because normally cinema destroys it. So our law is, if you can’t leave the world better, you have at least to leave it the same. It’s not so simple sometimes, because it takes so much effort for the production just to happen and not just kill everyone in order make the movie. It’s very violent, sometimes.
Barker: When you’re with actors, is the script complete or do you use rehearsals to develop it? There’s so much detail.
Rohrwacher: The script has a lot of detail, but we do a lot of rehearsals. It depends on the actors and the situation. And I work with an acting coach, who’s worked with me from the beginning, Tatiana Lepore.
Decker: And she’s there for the gestation?
Rohrwacher: Yes, because there are a lot of people, [and] she’s on the set with me.
Decker: Oh that’s so nice. And so, she works with the background?
Rohrwacher: Yes, because for me it’s very important that it’s not “background,” like playing cards. Because that’s all it is normally.
Barker: Here, the director is not allowed to speak to the background actors. It’s why there’s no “world” in movies made in the US.
Rohrwacher: Oh my god. It’s incredible. I talk with everyone, even with the animals!
Decker: This cast that you said was planting the fields, obviously those are very important people, the world of your movie. How did you cast these people?
Rohrwacher: In the first part, they are families that live there that still are farmers. The casting was a little bit by chance. We had some characters like Maria Grazia and Giuseppe that we knew we wanted. And the others, we would say, “We would love to have at least three people from your family. Who can come?”
Sometimes, we really wanted someone in particular, but they said, “No, I can’t now. I have to keep working, but my brother can come.” And also, they decided how much they wanted to work. One says, “I can give you a week,” another said, “I can give you two weeks.” And we had no choice. If we want real people, we have to use them in the ways that they can come.
Barker: And Lazzaro, where did he come from?
Rohrwacher: We met him in a school for land surveyors, a vocational school. When we met, we knew it was him but he was looking at us like little monkeys, completely ridiculous: “Ah, you want to make a movie? No. No.” He didn’t want to. Not because he was shy, just because he didn’t need to. When we asked if he wanted to be the protagonist of the movie, he said, “Oh no, thank you, but I have a friend who would.”
Barker: That’s great.
Rohrwacher: Finally, we convinced him. We asked him to do a rehearsal, to understand what kind of work it is and that it’s not a work about showing something to others. It’s to show something to himself about humans. He had this idea of an actor like, “Hi!” [Big gesture]. And when he understood this, he said: “Okay, I will try.”
Decker: I have this impression that you walked out of history, out of the past into this room somehow, partly because you have such an awareness of history you’re bringing into all of this work. I think I heard that you have farming experience?
Rohrwacher: Yes, but not so successfully. I would love to. My father’s a beekeeper and my mother is a teacher, and I still live in the countryside. So I have this life, but since I have to travel, I water the garden and leave. It’s very difficult to put together these two things, but I am trying. I think it’s important to put yourself in reality. Reality is also real life, no?
Decker: I’d like to ask about the camera. I have a sense of it being in a conversation with what’s happening that feels very curated by you but doesn’t obey any of the rules, or none of the ways that we shoot in the US. How do you spark this conversation between the camera and the image?
Rohrwacher: First, we shoot in Super 16. That is very important, because we don’t control everything. There is an element of surprise. And the work of the camera is exactly what you said. It’s a conversation. It’s not passive, it’s not a slave of the story, and it’s not a king or a queen of the story. It’s a conversation between story and camera. Hélène [Louvart] and I always try to decide before shooting what direction we want to go, and try always to go a step farther, and not re-do what we already did, because we are curious people. We want to discover something else.
So, this time we wanted to be more free, and funny, at least for us. For example, when the old Antonia sees Lazzaro for the first time and she says “Kneel down,” Hélène and I knelt. Just very silly things, because we were trying to be open-minded like Lazzaro. We tried to be open and free, and most importantly: we don’t want to feel bored by ourselves.
Decker: How many days did you shoot?
Rohrwacher: It was two periods, so we had four weeks and a bit in the Summer, and four weeks and a bit in the Winter. We waited in the middle. It [was] possible because the production understands that this work is important. This is the most difficult thing, isn’t it? The movie is not just about the director. It’s about the production. It’s about the crew. It’s about a lot of things. It’s an alchemy, a process. It’s important to work with people that understand. Not just understand, but believe.
Decker: There’s something very special about the writing of this film, I felt something very mythological and very personal at the same time in it. Do you have a ritual when you’re creating work? Something that you try to do when you’re writing or when you’re channeling something like this — that allows you to see.
Rohrwacher: Drinking water every morning. [Laughs.] No, I don’t know. I don’t. But Babak Karimi, who acted in A Separation, told me that his life changed when he began drinking a glass of water at sunset.
I don’t have a special ritual, but I’m always looking for one. “Starting this week, I want to do this every morning”…and then I forget. So my rituals are just from Monday to Wednesday, and then they disappear. And next Monday there is another one.