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Toronto: Italian Director Piero Messina On His Sicily-Set ‘The Wait’ And Working With Juliette Binoche

Italian director Piero Messina’s Sicily-set bereavement drama “The Wait” makes it’s North American debut in Toronto today, after world-preeming positively in Venice. Praised by Variety Chief International Film Critic Peter Debruge as a “cinematically dazzling debut,” “The Wait” stars Juliette Binoche as a single mother mourning the sudden death of her son in a remote Sicilian villa. A young woman played by Lou de Laage bursts in unexpectedly, claiming to be the son’s lover. “The Great Beauty” producer Nicola Giuliano shepherded the pic, which marks the feature film debut of Messina, who served as Sorrentino’s assistant on “Beauty.”

“The Wait” is a very ambitious first feature. How long did you have to wait to make it?

It took a long time, and a lot of work. It took us nearly four years of writing before I gave the first draft of the script to Nicola Giuliano. And I had written like twenty previous unfinished drafts. So that was the first strength of the project: it was quite well thought out. Previously I had done plenty of shorts, and I’d had several earlier opportunities to debut with different producers, but I’d always refused saying: ‘when I do it I want it to be my ideal debut.’ I waited a long time for the ideal conditions to come about. One evening I read the draft and I said: that’s the movie I want to make.’ It was very clear.’

The screenplay is a four-hander; not so usual, especially in Italy.

We wrote it when I was at film school at Rome’s Centro Sperimentale, when we were all non-pros. So we learned as we went along; several of the drafts we wrote were for completely different films, including a costumer. I still have all these screenplays. A couple of years ago I read them all and decided to draw from them for that definitive draft.

From a production standpoint do you think Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar for “The Great Beauty” helped Nicola Giuliano mount “The Wait” with top talent like Juliette Binoche and top notch production values?

Nicola’s cachet certainly helped rapidly mount this film, which is not low-budget. He did it in six months. But what was key in getting Juliette was co-producer Fabio Conversi, who knew her. That said, the production wasn’t mounted thanks to her. She came on board relatively late in the game.

You are being identified in the press as Sorrentino’s assistant, and the reviews have also pointed out common aesthetic aspects. Does this bother you? After all, every director usually wants to have a distinctive identity.

Initially I didn’t mind. But now that the film is out, even though I’m not reading the press, it’s starting to bug me a bit. Not that I mind being compared to Paolo, and there are certainly things in common because I admire his work; but not just his work, I love Sokurov as well, just to cite another director who was in Venice. What bugs me are critics and journalists perceiving the film through this Sorrentino prism. It’s bad for the film and for all the work I put into it.

One of the things I liked about “The Wait” was Juliette Binoche’s understated performance. How did you direct her?

I’m glad you asked, because people are underlining the visual aspect of “The Wait,” but what I’m really obsessed with is working with actors. It was strange and beautiful working with Juliette. We met for lunch after she read the screenplay and we hit it off. But since neither my English nor my French are very good, it was also a quite no bullshit essential conversation. When she came on set, the first two days did not go so well, and I was very direct about it with her and this created tension. On day two I kicked the troupe off the set and told her she was not controlling her character’s pain. She replied: ‘I don’t act; I am.’ But that much outward emotion was not right for the film. So I said: ‘we have to find a way not to lose your power but gain the control I need for the film.’ I also said: ‘Let’s shoot a scene four times before doing the real take; that way during those four preliminary takes you will let your emotions out.’ This repetition helped her internalise the pain. After a while, she told me she was very happy. She said: ’Piero, you have no idea how long it’s been since a director asked me to do more than three takes of the same shot!”

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