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For Italian helmer Muccino, working on San Francisco-set Will Smith starrer “Pursuit of Happyness” couldn’t have been further from his culture. Still, he says, many things in the script resonated: “It has so many layers. It’s a love story about a father and child. And it’s a movie about survival and how to protect your child from the wounds of life.”

“Pursuit” is the Rome-based director’s first U.S. pic. He came to the project thanks to thesp Eva Mendes, a friend of Smith’s, who had seen Muccino’s 2001 Italian hit “The Last Kiss” (recently remade in English by Paramount) and recommended a viewing. Eventually, a meeting was set between Smith and Muccino, who are both repped at CAA, and “Pursuit” happened.

Unlike most newbies to studio feature directing, Muccino says he was given a lot of autonomy. “Will was my shield,” he says, referring to the close collaboration with his lead actor-producer, who helped keep the wolves at bay. “I felt this trust around me. That’s when you get more courageous and you achieve higher goals.”

But Muccino also has paid his dues. He’d directed shorts and television before making four features in Italy. “I shot a lot of hours to make mistakes, so I was ready when I did my first movie,” he says.