Following his first feature in 2014, the Rinko Kikuchi-led “Last Summer”, Italian writer-director Leonardo Guerra Seràgnoli returns with “Likemeback,” a young women-led drama exploring smartphone addiction. This time around, he follows three Italian teenagers – played by Angela Fontana, Denise Tantucci and Blu Yoshimi – on a boat-based vacation in Croatia, celebrating the end of high school. They share everything on social media, but their addiction to those platforms, along with conflicts concerning their insecurities, take multiple dark turns that look to be life-ruining.
As “Likemeback” received its world premiere at this year’s Locarno Festival, Seràgnoli spoke to Variety about the film’s themes concerning social media, collaborating with his stars on the story, and the appeal of setting a social media cautionary tale out at sea.
When did you start cultivating an interest in the relationship we have with technology and our phones?
I didn’t have Facebook until two years ago. I noticed how much a great friend of mine became very addicted to it, and how he was strategically doing things, like posting certain songs on the page of someone he loved or liked, without telling her that he liked her. Then he was regretting it and didn’t know how to take them off. For me it was fascinating to see how relationships have become dehumanized somehow, becoming much more virtual in a way, so that you don’t talk to someone or meet them in person, but you start scheming a little bit.
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What are your views on social media oversharing?
I always wondered why someone would put so much information about oneself online: Pictures of yourself, of your family, of where you live. I’ve always been a little bit fatalistic, so I think that giving out all this information is a bit dangerous in a way, as we are seeing with Cambridge Analytica. People have access to all your information and you never know what they can do. I only made a Facebook page because I was working on a project, that I’ll still come back to, about A.I.
Does your distrust extend to all forms of phone addiction?
Apps that help us live better are a type of technology that creates addiction, but it has a different impact. I think there’s a distinction between technology that we use in our day-to-day life and social media, which is addicting in a different way, it’s more of an emotional addiction. It’s more dangerous because it has to do with the perception of the self; with vanity, fears, friendship, things that pertain to being human.
Why did you decide on three female protagonists? Was it a conscious choice to explore the relationship between social media and certain aspects of femininity, rather than with masculinity?
The risk of doing a male story was that it might have been a monologue, rather than a dialogue between actors. Females are also more exposed on the Internet: the percentage of women being cyberbullied is higher than that of men. The draft of the script was fifteen pages long, with an arc for the plot but without dialogue, because I wanted to find the right actresses and involve them in the creative process. As I’m 18 years older than them, I wanted to try to be as authentic as possible and have them become the ambassadors of their own characters. Also, I think this exploration of femininity gave them space to bring things to the film. I call the film experimental because it was a collaborative work.
If so much of the script wasn’t written until they were cast, what were you looking for when casting?
I had sketched a few outlines for each of the characters, with different desires and ways of living, different social classes. I was not sure what I was looking for. Obviously, I knew there needed to be three characters, and the challenge was to be able to have three female characters who are strong or weak in their own way. They had to have their own voices, that was an aspect that I knew for sure. But then, when I met the actresses, it was more about their human reaction to what I had told them about the story and characters; what I saw in their eyes.
How sparse was the story when you brought in the actresses and how was it for them to work that way? Was there a set percentage of input from them?
It’s difficult to say, because it was a constant process from the very beginning. What I did was to meet each of them on their own and after that, I set up a meeting with all three of them together. I thought, “Let’s see what happens, because maybe they’ll hate each other.” But the meeting went well, and I felt that the energy was right between them and that they liked each other.
Your previous film, “Last Summer”, was set on a yacht, and the boat setting in “Likemeback” is interesting as it has so many physical limitations and isolating qualities to contrast with the hyper-connected world of social media. Were any other locations or scenarios given serious consideration for the film’s setting?
I think the boat is an interesting space, because it’s a place that forces a certain physicality, one that you can completely avoid if you’re using social media. You’re sitting close to each other, but you’re somewhere else. And, also, it’s a place which you cannot easily escape from. You are physically close all the time, and space is limited. If you’re in a villa or an apartment, you can get out of the house, walk into town, talk to someone else, meet some friends at a club. But when you’re on a boat you are confined within a given space. From my personal experience, boats are places where you either become best friends forever with someone, or you basically ruin the relationship forever, because there’s no space for yourself in such a small place. You have to integrate in a very harmonious way.