Film history is filled with examples of screenwriters whose subsequent dazzling directorial careers have often eclipsed their brilliant roots as writers. Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder and Sam Peckinpah are only three of the American wordsmiths-turned-helmers that come to mind. This year’s Variety Creative Impact in Screenwriting honoree, Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino, has more than two decades of great screenwriting on his resume and he’s never lost his love for the scribe’s journey.
Sorrentino will appear in conversation with Variety features editor Malina Saval at an event on Oct. 17 at the Mill Valley Film Festival.
“I love writing much more than I love directing and this is probably due to my personality and my temperament,” says Sorrentino on a Zoom chat from his home in Rome where he’s prepping his next film, the Jennifer Lawrence-starrer “Mob Girl.”
No matter what accolades he gains as a helmer, which includes the international feature Oscar for his 2013 stunner, “The Great Beauty,” Sorrentino explains the temperamental affinity for writing that informs his choice: “I love spending time by myself. It gives me more pleasure to be all by myself rather than in the midst of other people. And the emotional involvement in the process of writing is much more than in directing, because on the set you are always busy solving technical problems and your mind is occupied with all sorts of things. When you focus on your white page and you have to write, that’s when you are with yourself. And it’s when you can reach down deep inside.”
Not all directors retain their love for the craft of screenwriting. Peckinpah famously admitted he “hated” writing and described the screenwriting process as “the torture of the damned.” But even the overwhelming personal challenges presented by Sorrentino’s powerful new film memoir, “The Hand of God,” based upon his own true story of becoming orphaned at age 16, had their rewards for the Italian maestro.
“With ‘Hand of God,’ it was extremely difficult for me to recall that terribly painful moment of my life. But,” he adds ironically, “it was also very funny when I had to write the funny parts of my youth.”
Sorrentino’s commitment to writing has led him to pen solo scripts or collaborate on the screenplays of every film he’s directed to date, as well as the Emmy- and Golden Globe-nommed TV series “The Young Pope.” For Sorrentino, television work is the opposite of a diversion or distraction and he finds himself engaged in creative enterprises that again match his natural artistic instincts.
In Sorrentino’s view, “Writing for television allows you to have a completely different perspective, both when you write and when you direct. It is a tiring process because you work on length and duration. When I started doing it, writing and designing my television series, it was like writing a gigantic, endless novel of the past. And it was, actually again, very much in line with my nature. Writing for cinema and writing for television is almost the same thing for me because I always tend to write long.”
As one of the most sought-after filmmakers from the international cinema community in Hollywood, Sorrentino has a refreshingly unrancorous view of the differences between film cultures and industries.
He doesn’t see any difference between European and American producers, but says: “The difference is between producers who love filmmaking and love cinema and put you in a position to be able to freely express yourself and other producers who use cinema for less-noble goals. They have their own different agendas.
“So basically it’s not the difference between U.S. vs. E.U., but between good and bad producers. And of course,” Sorrentino adds sharply, with a knowing smile, “those producers who love cinema last younger and those who don’t have shorter careers, thankfully.”