Matteo Garrone broke out internationally with “Gomorrah” (2008), considered one of the most realistic mob movies ever made. His English-language debut was dark fantasy/horror film “Tale of Tales” (2015), followed more recently by violent revenge drama “Dogman,” which won the best actor prize at Cannes last year.

Garrone’s new live-action adaptation of “Pinocchio” – which just opened in Italy in the No. 2 spot after “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” – sees the Italian auteur take a different tack by deliberately seeking to make a mainstream family film, albeit with his personal stamp. “Given my previous films, there might be a tendency for people to think that this ‘Pinocchio’ could be dark or violent. Instead it’s a light and luminous movie. It’s a film for all audiences,” Garrone told Variety in an exclusive interview, edited excerpts of which follow.

Berlin artistic director Carlo Chatrian, in announcing the film’s gala screening at the 2020 Berlinale, noted how, while staying faithful to Collodi’s vision, you’ve created a very personal “Pinocchio.” Talk to me about your personal connection to the book.

It’s a story that resonates with kids all over the world. It contains the desire for freedom, of escape from rules. And also of weakness to temptations. In my case, I started identifying with Pinocchio as a kid. And then as a grownup, life has led me to become Geppetto, because I became father of a kid who is a quite a little Pinocchio himself. He’s been perfect for me that way. So in recent years I’ve been able to study Pinocchio by seeing how my child lied to me, how he would try get himself out of sticky situations. The core of my film is a great father-and-son love story and how this kid redeems himself. So I think I’m close to both the main characters. There is something of Pinocchio inside me, and at the same time I feel very much Geppetto. 

This is clearly your most mainstream movie. Did you find this constraining?

I worked with Roberto [Benigni] who is a piece of Italian film history. He’s an actor, a director and much more. And besides all thatm he hails from the world of “Pinocchio,” from the Tuscan peasant culture it reflects. So how could I possibly find a better Geppetto? Besides that, he has a natural comedic disposition. So Roberto helped me find solutions that had a lightness to them, an irony. And being by far Italy’s most famous actor, he has a natural inclination towards mainstream. At the same time, while I was on set, I was constantly thinking about how kids would experience each scene. My mantra was to keep it simple, with no intellectual superstructures; try to create a direct line to the audience’s emotions. It was a huge growth for me as a director.

How were you able to get Benigni back on the big screen after a seven-year absence?

I’ve always had great admiration for him. By chance we met in Cannes when I was there with “Dogman,” and we started toying with the idea of him playing Geppetto. Then when the conversation got a bit more serious, I went to see him in his office in Rome and I brought a picture that I had prepared with my concept artist, Pietro Scola. It was my idea of Geppetto, but also a totally new look for him. I thought: “Either he accepts to run this risk, or it’s better not to embark on this adventure. We have to trust each other.” When Roberto saw the picture, he was very touched. He said: “That’s my grandfather!” That’s when he really fell in love with the idea.

Producer Jeremy Thomas has pointed out how, though “Pinocchio” involved lots of effects, it’s essentially an “Italian artisan film.” How did you and [Oscar-winning British prosthetic makeup expert] Mark Coulier work on creating the look of the central character?

Pinocchio is played by an 8-year-old child [Federico Ielapi], who had to undergo three hours of makeup a day to become made of wood. I think this is the first live-action movie in which Pinocchio is made of wood. When you decide to do “Pinocchio,” you know you are taking on probably the most dangerous task that any director or producer can face. The whole part of creating the characters, of designing them, was quite long and complex. We did lots of tests and slowly the mosaic started taking shape. Given that Collodi wrote a masterpiece, I was happy to remain faithful to the original, and we worked very hard on the representation of Pinocchio. One of the most delicate things, aside from the nose, was his smile. Pinocchio is a character who laughs. He’s very exuberant, full of life. But since he’s made of wood, it’s not easy to make him smile. That was one of the main challenges.

I remember we did a first test in London that didn’t work, that was too dark. He didn’t have the sweetness of the Pinocchio in the film. So we had to start all over, which took almost two months and took us right to the start of shooting. So I took a gamble. I decided to start shooting on the very day that the new Pinocchio would arrive on set. I said to myself: “It will be like the birth of my son.” Luckily, it was a son that I immediately loved.