"Real characters in a ridiculous context"
by Vittoria Scarpa
- After astounding audiences at the Rome Film Fest last October, the Roman director talked to us about his debut feature film, They Call Me Jeeg
It was the revelation of last year’s Rome Film Fest: the story of a small-time criminal from a working-class suburb, surly and a loner, who discovers he has superpowers and a heart. Something of a mix between neorealism and Japanese anime, They Call Me Jeeg [+see also:
interview: Gabriele Mainetti
film profile] is an entertaining and original film that mixes genres in a surprising way, and one that no one wanted to make. "The storyline was written in 2010. The producers laughed in my face when I told it to them", revealed director Gabriele Mainetti, class of 1976.
Cineuropa: What was it that didn’t convince the producers?
Gabriele Mainetti: The production side of the film was very daunting, as there were lots of action scenes. Then there was the idea of using genre: in 2010, Romanzo Criminale [+see also:
interview: Michele Placido
film profile] was just getting going and they said to me "look, nobody wants genre in Italy". There was only room for comedies or arthouse films made on a shoestring. So I said to myself: I have to do something otherwise I’ll go mad. And that’s how the short film Tiger Boy was born.
Tiger Boy, a story about a boy with a mask, won lots of awards and was shortlisted for the Oscar for Best Short Film in 2014. Did they not show any faith in your film even after that?
The producers still didn’t believe me. It was tiring trying to wear down their scepticism of something new and different, which nonetheless had all-Italian roots: in the 60s and 70s we did it all; nothing stopped us, least of all the budget, and genre films could be made with very little. I ended up producing the film myself (it cost €1,700,000 to make) and I’m happy that that’s the way it worked out.
Both in Tiger Boy and in They Call Me Jeeg, the superhero’s mask is hand-stitched; heroism is rooted in neorealism. Where did this world come from?
It was born from my work with Nicola Guaglianone, the writer of the film’s storyline and screenplay (which was written with Menotti) and from Tiger Boy and Basette, my first short film. We all define ourselves as Bim Bum Bam children (an Italian children’s television programme from the 80s, ndr), which we watched all the time when we were little. So after finishing our film studies, we dug out what we really connected with, cartoons like Lupin III, Tiger Man, etc. As for the mask, we wanted to make it simpler, take a step back from the sophisticated masks used in American films. So we took it home and stitched it by hand.
And the superhero in your film doesn’t wear tights either…
The superhero is only born at the end of the film, after an important cathartic journey. We don’t have any legendary superheroes in Italy, it’s a world we don’t belong to; we had to lead the viewer into it by the hand in the most credible way. So we created real characters and put them in a ridiculous context; usually you do the opposite in film. And they’re not all good or bad. Here Enzo, the protagonist, is an anti-hero at the beginning, and turns into a hero by the end; Zingaro is the villain, but he has a vulnerability about him that we can all relate to, that need to show off in social situations to feel like you exist.
The film also features the very real paranoia of being attacked. Is it something you thought of from the start?
It was important for us to create a real world. People go to see a film when it’s relevant to them, when it addresses a modern-day issue, otherwise you risk just attracting genre fans. That’s where the theme of terrorism came from. Yes we chose the microcosm of Tor Bella Monaca because we needed an area full of conflict where people use weapons, which doesn’t happen in the centre of Rome. But this film has wider appeal, everyone can relate to it.
You’ve also studied film in New York, at the Tisch School of the Arts. What did you take away from that experience?
Humility and pragmatism. Above all I overcame a certain reverential fear I had of the camera: there they give you a Panavision camera and you have to mount the lenses, shoot short films like a director of photography, and all the rest of it. They encourage you to look for that spark of brilliance in you and let it shine, to make your film and not let anything stop you. The production of this film did, however, have something daunting about it: you have a superhero, someone who has cut themselves off from society and believes in Jeeg Robot, special effects, the Olympic Stadium and so on and so forth. My dual role as director and producer was tough, but I had so much fun doing it. We faced even the most complex of issues like true superheroes.
Naturally we’re all waiting for your next film with bated breath. Have you already thought about it?
We’ve thrown down a few storylines, and we’re currently deciding which direction to go in. I don’t know if it will be about the same type of superheroes. We have a story with similar elements in mind, but it’s very original in its own right. When it comes down to it, I like to entertain and have fun. What is certain is that my next piece will be a genre film.
(Translated from Italian)