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Jonas Carpignano on His ‘A Ciambra’ and Getting Notes From Martin Scorsese

After making a splash in Cannes with ‘Mediterranea,’ which won the Critics Week Grand Prize in 2015, Jonas Carpignano is back, in Directors’ Fortnight this year, with ‘A Ciambra,’ which IFC’s Sundance Selects snapped up for U.S. distribution shortly after the premiere, reportedly following a bidding war. The young director (pictured, left) born in New York from an Italian father and an African-American mother, but raised in Rome, spoke to Variety about why he stayed in the Calabrian coastal town of Gioia Tauro for his ‘Mediterranea’ followup, and what it was like getting notes on his rough cuts from Martin Scorsese, who executive-produced the pic. Excerpts.

A Ciambra’ follows from ‘Mediterranea’ in various ways. I read it was actually prompted by the production’s car being stolen while shooting the short that became ‘Mediterranea.’ Can you tell me more?

Yes, I had never known about a Gypsy community in Gioia Tauro. One day our car goes missing, and I was told to ‘go to the Gypsies.’ I remember setting foot in this place and seeing these kids running around and smoking, music blasting out of all different sides, more kids riding motor bikes. It blew my mind to see this world!…They told me they would help me find the car, but they had to stop everything for three days because they were having a funeral, which was the actual death of Pio’s grandfather. The funeral scene in the film is based on the very first thing I saw of the Gypsy community when I had gone there to get my car back.

You’ve mentioned how your personal connection with ‘Mediterranea,’ which is centred around African migrants, had to do with having an African American mother and growing up in Rome. This film, to put it simply, is about growing up. Was that the strongest aspect of your personal connection with this film?

In the beginning for sure. When I wrote the first treatment for the short, it was about growing up and also in the tradition of neorealist films I grew up on: kids in De Sica films, or kids in Rossellini films. Looking at how kids grow up is a perfect way of understanding a context. But once I met Pio, that ‘growing up’ aspect changed. There are a lot of personal things in the film, but they are a lot less about the way I grew up as opposed to my relationship with him. I was constantly inserting biographical elements of Pio’s life in the narrative.

Pio Amato and Koudos Seihon are in both films. In ‘A Ciambra’ they are very close.  What is their relationship like in real life?

It’s very similar to what you see in the film. They kind of have this unbelievable chemistry, which is why I thought it would be a great thing to put them at the center of the film. But at the same time there is always this kind of barrier between them due to their cultural contexts which neither can really overcome.

You mention in the press notes that shooting in the Ciambra at times was like Les Blank’s ‘Burden of Dreams,’ the doc about the making of ‘Fitzcarraldo.’ Can you talk to me about how tough it was?

There were numerous things that were difficult. The one thing I wasn’t quite prepared for was how much conflict and jealousy would derive from the fact that I was spending so much time with one family [the Amato’s] versus the others in the Ciambra. That created an internal dynamic I had never seen before, and all kids of problems. Fights would break out, people would intentionally do things to sabotage our shoot, like twice put water in our generators to kill our lights. Also, for the same reason that it’s really beautiful to shoot a film about a family in their house, it’s also really difficult. You can never really impose the rhythm and structure of a film shoot on them. Over the course of a 90-day shoot there were some days where I would spend 4 to five 5 hours just literally wrangling everybody: getting everyone to get dressed the way they were supposed to get dressed, going through their lines, and then shooting for only a few hours. In the Ciambra we were constantly having to adjust to unpredictable circumstances.

I’d like to talk about why the visual style of both ‘Mediterranea’ and ‘A Ciambra’ is quite similar and seems strongly connected to ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild,’ on which you worked as an a.d. 

The d.p. on ‘Ciambra,’ Tim Curtain, [a key grip on ‘Beasts’] was the camera operator on ‘Mediterranea,’ so large part of the visual language comes from that. Large part of the fluidity comes from that. He and I can easily communicate about how we want things to look and feel. Wyatt Garfield [a gaffer on ‘Beasts’]  as the d.p. on ‘Mediterranea’ sort of set a look for this universe, then Tim did his own thing with it. But there was already a rule book in place for how certain things should be lit naturally, for example how we should deal with dark nights. There is a real osmosis between their work. Then there is the affinity that Benh Zeitlin and I have. I consider him one of my great friends on the planet, a peer. But if there is a big brother in the relationship, that is definitely Benh. I have spent a lot of time speaking to him about cinema. You can certainly feel it, in that we both have similar concepts of cinema and what it means to tell a story about a kid.

‘A Ciambra’ has several producers, including Brazil’s Rodrigo Teixeira. It is executive produced by Martin Scorsese and Emma Tillinger Koskoff, among others. I read that Scorsese gave you notes at several stages. Can you talk to me about that?

Martin watched several cuts of the film. He and I spoke very much about what the film was trying to do and how to accomplish it best. The thing about him is he’s the world’s most intelligent and most dedicated cinephile. What I really appreciated is that every note that he gave me, he accepted the film on its own terms; what it was trying to do. He and I had discussed very early on that the unconventional thing about this film was its structure. The idea that you spend an hour living with this family, immerse yourself with them, and then when the ‘story’ kicks in, you start to have a deeper sense of the stakes because of that. That obviously was a balancing act. There he was incredibly helpful. He helped us to fine-tune the film. Part of the contract with this film was to make it feel chaotic and messy and wild, like the Ciambra actually is, but paradoxically there is a very precise way to render that. His cinematic expertise during that process was invaluable.

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