Uberto Pasolini goes back many years, and several films, with the Venice Film Festival, starting with 1995’s black comedy “Palookaville,” which he produced. A quarter of a century later, he’s back with Horizons entry “Nowhere Special,” his third film as director, which follows in the footsteps of previous Lido visitors “Machan” (2008) and “Still Life” (2013). Although perhaps best known for his 1997 British box-office hit “The Full Monty,” which he developed and produced as an ensemble crowdpleaser, Pasolini’s own films tend to be intimate modest character studies, and “Nowhere Special” is no exception.
A spare and intimate drama set in contemporary Belfast, it stars British rising star James Norton as John, a 35-year-old window cleaner, who is bringing up his four-year-old son Michael alone, after the child’s Russian mother abandoned them. When we meet him, John has been diagnosed with cancer, and, with only a few months left to live, must find a new family for Michael.
Variety spoke with Pasolini before the film’s Venice premiere on Thursday.
“Nowhere Special” is a surprisingly easy watch for a film about such a difficult, dark subject. Was that always your intention?
That’s a great compliment, thank you. My intention was very much that – to stay away from melodrama, stay away from heaviness, and to reflect, in a way, the intentions that the father has towards his child, in terms of how to handle the situation. And so, just as the father tries to keep the worst or the more obviously emotional aspects of the situation away from his child, we approached the film in the same way. Yes, it’s supposed to be a sad story, but it’s not supposed to be a depressing story, so lightness of touch is what we aimed for – absolutely.
What was the inspiration for the story?
[He picks up a copy of the Daily Mail and points to a news story.] I have no idea how I got this paper – I just picked it up and then I read the story. I contacted the social workers that were involved in the case. They said they couldn’t tell me anything more than what the newspaper article said, for privacy reasons, and so I basically took the bare bones of what the article said: A single father with a few months to live, a 4-year-old son, no family, and a mother who had left when the child was very, very young. And after reading about that situation, which is an extraordinarily rare – fortunately – situation, I did a lot of research with adoption agencies, foster agencies, and people who do adoption and fostering themselves. And then I wrote the screenplay.
Did you use many non-professionals for the shoot?
No, they all are professional actors, and – thanks to the great work that Carla Stronge, the casting director in Belfast, did – we were able to find people who were very unaffected in their performances, so much so that they felt real.
Why did you want that level of realism?
The intention was not so much to tell a story in the normal way but to do a snapshot of a situation. It’s like taking two months out of the lives of these people, which is why the film doesn’t start with John meeting with a doctor who says, “You have five months to live,” and doesn’t end with his death, or with him returning to hospital. It’s like meeting somebody on the bus – you just meet these people and you gradually find out a bit more about them. You enter their lives, and then you follow them for a while, and then you leave them. Of course, there is an arc – there is a character arc, there is an emotional arc – but there isn’t a plot so much. We follow emotions more than events.
What made you think of James Norton for the lead?
I’d been following him quite closely. I loved the way he could go from being a Russian prince in “War and Peace” to a northern thug in “Happy Valleys.” I love his ability to disappear into characters – he has wonderful emotional intensity. There’s an enormous amount of stuff happening behind his eyes. And also [the character] is somebody who, on the surface, is a strong and in a way quite macho man, but whose life isn’t at all that of a macho man – he’s completely focused on his child. So I wanted an actor who was very masculine and very strong on the surface and, at the same time, able to make us feel enormous emotional pain.
Where did you find the little boy?
Carla Stronge and her team went through over a hundred young boys. I saw, I think, about a hundred videos, after which we selected the final few. Daniel was the sixth video I saw, and from that moment on, every child had to be better than Daniel. And nobody was better than Daniel. Daniel was very easy to look at, very friendly to the camera, completely unaffected by it, and very playful. Very charming, very sweet. His parents were extremely supportive. They read the script, and they liked it. I met him five times before making the final decision. We explained to the parents what filming entailed, what the rules were, and they came on board. We were – honestly – unbelievably lucky.