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“We Were a Bit Like a Circus That Came to Town”: Sara Summa on Arthur&Diana

Sara Summa, Lupo Summa and Robin Summa in Arthur&Diana

Filmed during a genuine road trip between Germany, France and Italy, Arthur&Diana, the sophomore film from writer-director Sara Summa is fueled by experimentation. Summa and her real-life brother Robin play the titular sibling duo as they embark on a trip from Berlin to Paris in order to renew documentation for the car which carries them, itself a cherished familial relic. In tow is Diana’s two-year-old son, Lupo, also embodied by Summa’s own child. As they drive through Europe and encounter faces old and new—a magnetic young hitchhiker, the pair’s zany Parisian mother, Diana’s partner and co-parent—it becomes clear that their beat-up yellow station wagon (or, more aptly, the era of their lives that it recalls) might be abetting the duo’s arrested development.

Riffing on their own lives while also playing distinctly inflated versions of themselves, the Summa family comes across as naturally charismatic with a quick-witted comedic sensibility. Through mishaps and triumphs, the central trio is always engaging to watch; the hazy warmth captured on Betacam and Mini-DV cameras evoke intimate family vacation footage, while the subsequent process of printing the film on 16mm elevates the cinematic eye employed by DP Faraz Fesharaki.

Arthur&Diana screens today at the Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look Festival in New York. Our conversation covers the film’s fixation on freedom, the nature of collaborating with a two-year-old and Summa’s forthcoming musical project.

Filmmaker: This is your second feature following 2019’s The Last to See Them. How did you begin developing this project?

Summa: I’m quite a visual filmmaker, and I always somehow start a project with an image that nags at me for a while and basically tells me, “Hey, look at me! Take me seriously, I want to become a movie.” This time it was this image of me and my brother in movement. It was a very dynamic image, and it was almost a bit blurry. It was very colorful—there was something very vibrant, and I could tell that it looked like us, but it wasn’t really. So these images just sort of pop up and then I have to dig into them and take time to actually think, “Okay, what is this?” Then the movie somehow, slowly but surely, comes together. I feel like films are already there, on some platonic level, and you just have to dig them out. Of course, it’s not really like that, because there is a ton of creative work involved and a lot of people who take part in that creative process. But somehow it feels like by the end of it, the film was always there and it was just waiting for us all to discover it together.

Filmmaker: You, your brother and your son all play semi-fictional versions of yourselves. With crafting a piece of auto-fiction, how did you know what you wanted to exaggerate and what you wanted to more aptly reflect the truth?

Summa: It’s a mix of things, really, but there was definitely a lot of preparation work that went into the whole thing. There’s a full script that was written, and we did rehearse with my brother and I to work together on the aspects of these characters that we wanted to create for the purpose of fiction—the idiosyncratic elements that we could come up with to give them some characteristics that are not necessarily ours, but are, of course, drawn from who we could be. Caricatures of ourselves.

It was a process, but the script was written in a really short amount of time, which kept it vital. I intended on not writing a script, I had a treatment that was 25 pages long. Every scene that you see in the movie was already in that treatment, but not with dialogue, just sort of summarizing the action with the dramaturgy of every scene outlined. I thought, “Okay, we’re going into rehearsals and then we’ll just shoot without necessarily writing it.” Then I was required to write it, but I did it in just a couple of weeks.

Like every movie, it was somehow re-written while shooting, because things happen. That was also the purpose of this adventure, to remain free. I mean, freedom is a big theme in the film—freedom of movement, of all things in life that might hinder you in any way. I wanted to try and remain as free as possible in the act of shooting and let ourselves go and just live in front of the camera, which mainly happened through my son, actually. We can fool ourselves into thinking, “Oh, we’ll be free,” but at the end of the day, when you have a script, shooting times and a whole technical team around you, you end up being very stressed for time. You latch onto a structure and you’re not as free as you would want to be. Then there’s this two-year-old in front of the camera, who was very aware of the process he was taking part in. He knew that he was working and wearing a costume, but once you switch on the camera and you start seeing that he’s also living in the moment. He’s with his mom and his uncle, he’s just playing like a two-year-old would play. He’s not playing for the camera; it’s not acting. Of course, I knew how to prompt him to get him to the places I wanted him to go, and I had written the script knowing him very well, because I made him. Somehow, I knew what this little boy would do, but he’s also very full of life and quite unpredictable in other ways. He did offer a lot of impulses that we had to just respond to. So some novelty happened in front of the camera, but what was then surprising is that he sometimes repeated actions. We always had to do many takes, and he would then do the same action. Children do that, they’ll just repeat something 3,000 times and keep on finding it hilarious.

Filmmaker: On a similar note, your character predominantly interacts with her brother and son, but I’m interested in knowing how that very intimate dynamic may have shifted when you brought other characters on board, such as Zora? What was the process of casting and creating other characters for the film?

Summa: I have to admit that aside from the three of us, everyone else is acting. They’re all fictional characters, but most of them are close friends who happen to be actors, or even non-actors whom I decided to cast for the part. I actually didn’t know Patrick, Lupo’s dad in the film, but he’s my next door neighbor and a good friend of the first AD. He has a child and it felt right, but he was like, “Absolutely not, I’m not an actor.” But then we got to know each other and he started to feel more and more drawn to the project.

Everyone on the team weren’t family members, but they are close friends, collaborators or people we’ve grown with in some way—or at least I have. They’re people I’ve made films with before, and we’re all in a little bubble of filmmakers, friends and actors. Livia, who plays Zora, is actually a childhood friend of mine and Robin’s. We come from the same village in Italy between Rome and Naples. Our grandmas came from that village and knew each other as children, and we used to actually do theater together in that village when we were little. She’s an actress, and when I was writing the part, I was thinking of Livia. It was funny, because she’s supposed to be a complete stranger [in the film], but she’s actually a childhood friend. My partner and the father of my son was supposed to play my partner, but [the person who ended up casting] was actually a complete stranger before he took part in this project. He became a good friend, but it’s kind of funny how these things were completely mixed up.

Contrast is a motif that I really like to work with. In this case, it was almost like a piece of performance art, the idea of these real people—even though we’re playing fictional characters—putting ourselves in front of a camera within a completely fictional setup. I wanted to put these elements together and see what could be born of that.That’s always what tickles my fancy, contrast on all levels, both aesthetically and in terms of the material ingredients that make a story.

Filmmaker: Speaking of that aesthetic contrast, I’m also very interested in your multifaceted camera set-up, which involved MiniDV, 16mm and Betacam. How did you blend these elements together to create the film’s aesthetic world? It really does feel like you’re watching an extended home movie; it’s very warm and analog.

Summa: That was very much a decision that was made with my DP, Faraz Fesharaki. He originally came up with that idea. I mean, from the start we were looking for not just a special look, but also a special approach to filming. It was clear for both of us that we couldn’t approach this movie with a 4K camera or whatever. First of all, because of the look, but also because of the way you film with these cameras. It involves a lot of technical equipment and very heavy lighting, which we wanted to spare ourselves for the sake of finding that freedom on set. And he might be my son, but we also still had to tend with a two-year-old. Anyway, all of that was part of the decision-making process, but we had to experiment a lot. We both love analog and the grain, quality of the colors and light when you simply shoot on film, whether 16 or 35mm, but we didn’t have the budget for an entire movie on 16mm. We had to get creative, which was really interesting. We watched a lot of films and tried to look at how they’d been made. Eventually, Faraz came up with this idea that we should actually go back to video quality. Then we decided we were going to use video [cameras], but we’ll print it on film. Then we had to test cameras, and a lot of these cameras are actually hard to find nowadays, especially functioning ones that will accompany you through an entire shoot. Finally, we came up with the choice of shooting everything that we could with Betacam, which is the closest thing to analog besides MiniDV, because it has these big tape cassettes. A very interesting image came out of that camera before printing; it was already quite beautiful, but it’s definitely also different from when you print it on 16mm afterward. But it’s a big camera and we couldn’t shoot with it inside of the car, so for that purpose, we decided to also use Mini-DV. Then we thought, “We really love 16mm and there are a lot of scenes that would make sense to shoot in 16, let’s just shoot a few reels and then mix it in and see what happens.” Once it’s all printed on 16mm, we figured it should come together. We wanted this eclecticness, but we also wanted to find a common ground by the end of the process, and I think we did. I’m very happy with the special look that the film has.

It was a very extensive post-production process, which was a headache, I have to say. We had to correct a lot to get this video image and make it acceptable. But we also used the limitations of those cameras. We knew what they were, and we created images on set that would work with those cameras. We were not trying to do things that these cameras can’t do, obviously. We tried to enhance the things we love about video and leave out things we don’t love about it.

Filmmaker: I feel like that eclecticness also adds to the fact that you’re going to different places that have very distinct vistas and aesthetics in their own right. The film follows these characters through Germany, France and Italy. How much were you able to shoot on location, and what was the process of finding the perfect locales to capture?

Summa: It was a real road trip between these three countries in that car. We didn’t trailer it; it had to be on the road and carry us. Actually, I was with Lupo and Ben—my husband and the music composer of the film—and we were traveling in that car. We were slower than the rest of the team, who had more modern cars. Since we had to be slow with the kid, because he couldn’t take long stretches of road at a time, we took that car. It was an interesting journey because it was threatening to break down on us every step of the way. It did need to go to the mechanic a few times throughout the shoot, but it stayed with us until the end and it made it back to Berlin because it’s a car from Germany. I mean, it’s a French car, but we found it in Berlin. It was an extensive casting process for the car, actually.

Filmmaker: Yeah, what was that like?

Summa: Well, the car is a bit like the fourth character. It has a story to tell. It’s a family car, and it had to have that sort of strangely futuristic look from the past. It also had to be big enough so that we could actually shoot in it, and it had to still be running so that we could be on the road with it. It took a while, but we found it. We have a friend, who’s also a mechanic, who was just casting the car. Of course, then we had to pimp it up a bit. It has this dragon tattoo that was designed by our set designer. The interior of the car is authentic, and it was really a very special car. The seats actually turn 360 degrees around; that was normal, you could lounge in your car. So this car did take us on this road trip. We traveled from Berlin to France and eventually to Northern Italy. But in France, we didn’t necessarily shoot in Paris, because we tried to concentrate everything around one location. Actually, the location that I had in mind before writing the script was this castle where the party [scene] happens. I knew this castle already because it belongs to my husband’s uncle and aunt. It’s a beautiful and very interesting place, which is a bit of a ruin, but you can live in it. We concentrated everything around the area where this castle is, because the team was living in it for the whole part of the shoot that happened in France. We would then go out and shoot all around that area, and then eventually we moved to Italy. So we had three big shooting hubs: one around Berlin, one around this castle, and one around Bolzano in Italy. We had like a team that was made up of around 15 people that were on the road with us all the time, plus the cast.  We were a bit like a circus that came to town.

Filmmaker: Would you like to continue to star or cast your loved ones in future projects? Or are you focusing on directing stories that require less personal intimacy?

Summa: I think this was a one-off. Maybe not quite, but the set-up of the film was, conceptually, just us in front of a camera. I mean, my first film was something completely different. The next one is going to be something completely different. This doesn’t mean that my brother or my son couldn’t appear in some of my future works, but I certainly won’t be starring in my own films anymore. I did realize that I enjoy acting quite a lot. I used to act in the past and I’m not opposed to acting in general.

We learned a lot throughout this process about ourselves and about each other. It’s not a film about our family, but it was all about the idea of doing something so intimate with people I love so much. Spending this very free, creative time together. I just love working with the people I love, obviously. I mean, my husband is also my composer, and my producers are very dear friends, as is Faraz. Everyone I’ve worked with so far are dear friends and people who inspire me and with whom I love to create. That will keep on being the case, hopefully, but I myself will not necessarily start in my future films.

Filmmaker: Is there anything you can share about what your next project might be?

Summa: Yes, why not? It’s actually kind of a musical. It’s sort of a tragic love story set against the backdrop of a social crisis in a small rural town with a frozen lake as a main location. It’s about love between two very young people who have never lost love before. I mean, it’s not a musical in the sense that one might usually associate with musicals or Hollywood direction, but it does certainly use music as an aesthetic tool that is very much part of the language of the film, and there is singing. This is currently in development, and we’ll see what happens.

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