Illustrator Lorenzo Mattotti is no stranger to film festivals. The artist – a long-time New Yorker cover artist and onetime Lou Reed and Michelangelo Antonioni collaborator – has designed posters for past editions of Venice and Cannes, and has contributed to films that played in Toronto and Rome.
This year, however, he experienced the festival rush from a whole new angle, as he brought his directorial debut, “The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily,” to Cannes and Annecy. The film screened at this week’s MIA market in Rome.
Adapted from a cult 1945 children’s book by Italian poet Dino Buzzati, the film uses hand-drawn 2D to spin a fable-like tale about a group of benevolent bears that descend the mountains of Sicily to bring some sense to the human world.
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You’ve worn many hats in your career. For how long have you wanted to direct?
Oh, the desire was always there. I tried a few times over the years, and it always fell apart. I did a few shorts and some TV work, but often with a bit of remove. I figured if it worked out, that would be great, and if not, I’d just continue my other work. I never fought to get something made. I knew how hard it could be, and didn’t want the headache [until this project came along.]
One of the appeals was in adapting Dino Buzzati’s book. Did the text mean a lot to you growing up?
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I don’t remember when I first read that specific book, but I grew up reading Buzzati. He was a painter, an illustrator, an author of comic books and novels, and I took influence from all that he did. He wrote fables full of symbolism, very strange and mysterious. His paintings dealt with legends and mythology as well, and all of his work very metaphysical. It affected me from a very young age, and in fact I think that my previous short [which played in the “Fear(s) of the Dark” anthology film] was also a very Buzzati-influenced work.
Illustrators tend to work alone, keeping their own pace. What was it like jumping into the more collaborative and slow-moving world of production?
It was very strange! I really enjoyed the teamwork aspect, because I took this project specifically to work with a team. I wanted to put my own choices into question – maybe I knew myself too well, gotten too comfortable in my methods — so I thought it would be good to have outside collaborators. However I really did not know how much work it would take. Features, especially those with larger budgets, are very complicated to make, and the work goes on for a long, long time. The process taught me a lot, both about my own self and how to work with others. I wanted to have this kind of experience for a long time, and I think that more four decades as an illustrator helped me better work with the many animators and designers on our team.
Why did you choose an adaptation for your first feature film?
The fact that the story already existed in another form, and that Buzzati had already done drawings, it really helped. Honestly, I think it would have been more difficult to start from a blank slate. I didn’t have to invent everything from scratch, I could take certain designs and graphic approaches that were already there, and was very happy to do so. I could also bring a lot of my own ideas to the project, like the color schemes and compositions, without any anguish about changing the source material. Adapting somebody else’s work gave a kind of freedom, that I don’t think I would have had with material that was originally my own.
The film has an exuberant visual approach. Could you speak about the choices you in made in color and style?
I didn’t want to make a film aping Buzzati’s style; the film had to find its own, unique voice. From a graphic standpoint, I wanted to avoid crayons and pastels that would evoke the texture of the page, because I wanted the film to feel airy and tied to nature. Materials used on the page could make the film feel claustrophobic, whereas I wanted the images to breath.
I also knew the film had to be a symphony of colors. I told our team to not fear color, because color is energy and life! The story is divided into several distinct situations, so we took the opportunity to shade each one with different motif. For a story that was more intimate or contained, we’d have had to settle for a calmer style, but this is an inventive, fantastical world, so we could have a lot of fun onscreen.
We played with the warm colors of classic animation, while avoiding anything with a metallic or futuristic sheen, in order to give a very classical and even timeless look. If somebody watches it in twenty years time, I hope they won’t be able to tell in what era it was made.
In terms of design, the film draws a lot from la Commedia dell’arte and Italian visual culture.
That’s there, absolutely. The character of Gedeone [who frames the film as a storyteller] is modeled on Commedia dell’arte figures like the Harlequin or Pulcinella. He’s like a Baroque-era mountebank, telling fantastical stories. I modeled certain situations and designed certain characters to evoke theatre masks and marionettes, and in terms of iconography, I made sure to avoid any touches of English gothic style. The main city couldn’t feel dark and Tim Burton-esque; it had to be Mediterranean, bathed in strong light and filled with Roman arches.
Buzzati came from the north of Italy, from the Dolomite Mountains that were practically Austrian, so he played with a lot of Mitteleuropean inspirations. In terms of its vertical layout and the various perspectives they offer, I think the main city in the film shares a lot with Prague and Trieste as well.
Those two storytellers are newly invented characters. How did they help you in the adaptation process?
I wanted to keep that narration aspect of the book, where you felt the narrator was talking directly to you. It felt like the narrator was in dialogue with the reader. At the same time, we realized we needed a strong female figure, so we created the characters of Almerina and Gedeone, two wandering storytellers very much out of Sicilian tradition, who could present the film as a story. They could also help us resolve certain structural and story issues. The first half of the film is tied to source text, but the second half is more invented. The film is really about the pleasure of storytelling, the art of storytelling. Which is the same pleasure we took as screenwriters, and the same pleasure that animated Buzzati as well.
Do you change your style based on your intended audience? Obviously the public for this film will be very different from those who read The New Yorker…
My goal was to make a film for children and families, but I don’t try to anticipate what other children might want; I just make the work for myself. However, I often think back to what I liked as a child and what I would have liked to see. Working on this project, I would remind myself that this was film for families, and to keep that in mind. [At the same time, you have to be true to yourself.] I wasn’t going to make something with a lot of irony or comedic bite; my style is not very gag-driven. I’m not a fan of those big musical numbers from classic Disney films, so here the bears don’t sing, but they do dance the Tarantella. Indeed, I thought the colors, the fantastical imagery and the lively characters could be very appealing for children. I think the film has a lot of wonder in it, and wonder can go a long way.
[What’s more,] I wasn’t interested in making something too highbrow, because I do that work all the time. I still publish my own books, and follow my personal artistic pursuits every single day, so I have no frustration in that regard. The big risk here was to make something mainstream. To see whether it would be possible to make something personal, original and stylistically different, and still have it appeal to the widest possible audience. I’m sixty years old, and I figured, it’s now or never. Time to give it a shot!