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Berlin: ‘Piranhas’ Director Claudio Giovannesi on Training Street Teens to Play Gangsters

Claudio Giovannesi’s third feature “Piranhas,” which screens in Berlin’s competition, depicts Neapolitan teen gangsters drawing from a novel by star author Roberto Saviano whose mob exposé “Gomorrah” spawned a pluriprized movie and a game-changing TV series. Giovannesi spoke to Variety about the challenge of adapting Saviano given what came before and how he trained his non-professional cast.

How did you go about striking a different tone in adapting Saviano? 

Garrone’s “Gomorrah” movie is genial and groundbreaking. And I shot two episodes of the “Gomorrah” TV series. I did not want to replicate either of those works. My approach was to distance myself from the TV series and say: ‘I don’t want to make a genre film.’ The starting point with the producer and the screenwriter [Maurizio Braucci] was: we are not doing “Gomorrah” with kids. We are going to work on the emotional aspect; on the characters’ feelings and their fragility. The film asks the question: what happens to the emotional life of adolescents when they embark on a criminal journey?

The visuals are powerful. Can you talk to me about working with cinematographer Daniele Ciprì?

The kids’ faces had to be at the center of the frame. We placed the camera at their same height. The movie is their point of view, without casting judgement. The other thing is we decided to work with color; to depict innocence through their adolescent facial expressions against the backdrop of Naples’ ancient quarters with their colorful vitality. These were the choices that guided the mise en scène.

How did you find the amazing kids?

We did a six-month casting search and literally saw 4,000 kids. We were seeking 3 things. 1) Innocence, rather than criminal iconography. 2) They had to have experience of the world we were representing. 3) An innate acting talent. They had to be able to express their emotional side. We searched for them in the areas where the film is set. They did not come to us. 

And how did you train them?

We did three-month workshops focussed on getting them in touch with their emotional memory and not on striking bad boy poses. We also shot the film in sequence…which helped them get into character. None of the kids read the book, or even the script in its entirety. We told them the story and gave them their lines day-by-day.

How much did you draw from Saviano’s book?

We drew from it but kept the film’s focus on the dynamics of how kids enter the criminal system in Naples.

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