Italian director Saverio Costanzo broke out internationally in 2004 with “Private,” which was set in a Palestinian home in an occupied zone. “Hungry Hearts,” his fourth feature, in competition at Venice and also screening in Toronto, is instead set in New York where Jude (Adam Driver) and Mina (Alba Rohrwacher) fall in love and have a child whom Mina wants to protect from the outside world and its contamination through a nutritional regiment that puts his life in danger. Costanzo spoke about “Hungry Hearts,” a rare case of an Italian pic with a New York indie feel, with Variety’s Nick Vivarelli.
Q:The book is set in Italy, why did you transpose it to the Upper West Side?
A: It seemed impossible for me to set it in Italy. Italian cities are not as violent, but also not as powerful as New York. And the whole food disorder issue: ‘where can I find some good food?’ is easier in Italy. Having lived in New York, where I also felt alone and isolated, like Mina’s character, it was not difficult for me to tap into my, and by extension her, feelings there. In New York you have to perform at a very high level, the pressure is very high. Mina hides in a house and hides her child to the world, and I thought this world had to be an invasive presence. This was the atmosphere I was looking for.
Q: New-age nutritional ways,” natural birthing techniques, different takes on whether children should take anti-biotics, these are all key issues in the film. It’s very current and rather unexplored territory in the movies. Are these the elements that drew you to the story?
A: Mina goes through all these diferent permutations of a certain type of new age phenomenon. First it’s thinking she has an “Indigo” child; then its aquatic birth and a nutritional philosophy. I see characters like these everywhere, they might not make choices that are this radical; but the things in this story take place everywhere.
Q: Well, it’s also about being in a couple.
A: My jumping off point was family. Becoming a mother and a father is not a natural process, despite what they say. It’s creates a rip; it’s violent. The journey from being a couple to becoming parents, is something I certainly know something about, since I have two kids. In fact writing and shooting this film was a cathartic experience for me.
Q: In your previous film “The Solitude Of Prime Numbers,” which was set in Italy, you referenced horror maestros Dario Argento and Mario Bava. “Hungry Hearts,” which is set in New York, seems to pay homage to John Cassavetes.
A: Yes. We followed Cassavetes’ philosophy of making movies. A type of filmmaking with a freedom and an immediacy and a lack of superstructures. I put the camera on my shoulder in order to have a symbiotic relationship with the film. To think less. We wanted the same autenticity. But while in “Prime Numbers” I was referencing other movies in a cerebral way, I didn’t do that here. I drew on Cassavetes’ philosophy; not on his shots. I also thought about “Rosemary’s Baby,” but I didn’t reference it. This time I wanted to work more instinctively.
Q: It’s an atemporal movie, but also very actual. It straddles genres. It’s fresh. Was there lots of conscious deliberating about the narrative and visual language of this film?
A: No, I didn’t think that much about it. I did what I could within a limited space, since it’s largely shot in an apartment.
Q: This is a small-budget movie, but shot in the U.S. with two A-list actors. What prompted your return to more contained production paramenters in this context?
A: Making a movie in English for me is just like making one in Italian, so language-wise it’s all the same to me. The choice of working with a smaller budget came from my desire to do something where I felt more freedom and immediacy. This may be the best way for me to find the authenticity I strive for. It’s energizing, it reawakens your instincts, your passion. For a director, between his intention and the final shot there are often so many superstructures, so many other people intervene, even rightly so. But it’s useful to go back to basics. It helped me a lot.
Q: Can you tell me about the choice of Adam Driver? It’s his first lead role in a feature film.
A: When our casting director Douglas Aibel first suggested Adam, I said ‘yes’ right away, but then it turned out he was booked up. We spent the next four months looking for someone else, and some of these were pretty big names and none were right. At that point I was about to go back to Italy. I tought: ‘I’m not going to make the movie, even though I have the money.’ Then Adam’s agent called and asked if the project was still on, because Adam had four free weeks. Adam read the screenplay the same day and came on board. He’s one of the top actors of the new Hollywood and he’s going to go far.
Q: Alba Rohrwacher’s character, Mina, is kind of like the antithesis of the Italian mom. Was that deliberate?
A: In person she’s actually very deeply Italian, even though Alba has a German side. Her (Italian) mother is very sweet and ‘Italian’ in the best sense of the term. Her soul is very Italian, so Alba had to play against her own character.