Production has just started at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios on “Finalmente L’alba” the new film by “My Brilliant Friend” director Saverio Costanzo. It is set during the 1950s when the famed filmmaking facilities were known as Hollywood on the Tiber. 

This high-end costume drama – the title of which translates as “Finally, Dawn Has Come” – features a stellar cast comprising Lily James (“Pam & Tommy”), Joe Keery (“Stranger Things”), Rachel Sennott (“Shiva Baby”), Willem Dafoe, and Italian newcomer Rebecca Antonaci.

Saverio Costanzo Fremantle

“Finally, Dawn” is the journey over the course of a long and intense night of an aspiring young Italian actress, played by Antonaci. In the Cinecittà studios of the 1950s, she experiences some memorable hours that will mark her transition to full blown womanhood.

Written and directed by Costanzo, whose previous films include “Private” and Adam Driver-starring “Hungry Hearts,” the picture is produced by Mario Gianani and Lorenzo Gangarossa for Wildside, which is a Fremantle-owned company. RAI Cinema will release it in Italy via its 01 Distribution unit. Fremantle has a long-term rental deal with Cinecittà.

Variety spoke exclusively to Costanzo about the film in which Lily James plays an American star shooting a swords and sandals film at Cinecittà.

What are the main elements of the story?

It’s about a young Roman woman during the 1950s. She is simple, unsophisticated and on the verge of becoming engaged to a man that her family likes more than she does because he is well-to-do.

The young protagonist played by Antonaci goes to Cinecittà to do an audition as an extra and is thrust into this almost infinite night during which she discovers herself. She finds the most gutsy part of her inner self and taps into her self-awareness thanks to the encounter with a group of [American] actors who are shooting an Egyptian swords and sandals movie at Cinecittà.

It’s a film about the world of show business. So it’s clearly a film on ambitions, on vanity. Since these characters spring from the movie world, and they are making a movie, there are plenty of films inside this film. It’s like a Chinese box. 

She reminds me of the young woman that Marcello Mastroianni meets at the bar with the juke box in “La Dolce Vita.”

That’s a pertinent reference. This whole story, this long night that is being recounted, takes place right before the killing of Wilma Montesi [a young woman who was an aspiring actor whose half-naked dead body was found in 1953 on a beach outside Rome]. This was the first case of murder of a young woman, that prompted a media frenzy in Italy. Fellini has said that the girl whom Marcello meets at that bar – and whom we also see again at the end of ‘La Dolce Vita’ – was Wilma Montesi. She represented a purity that Italy subsequently lost. She was the starting point when I began writing this film. So that is the context. Wilma Montesi is part of the first building block of this film.

What about Lily James’ character?

She plays Josephine Esperanto (see first-look image, above) a Hollywood actor who has been on the scene for many years, since she started very young. During this night, she contends with the pain of not being a good actress; of being too affected. She feels like the past, compared with new acting styles [of a new wave of American cinema] that are more realistic. She is a tragic and very feminine; very seductive character. Even though Anita Ekberg in ‘La Dolce Vita’ immediately comes to mind, Josephine is a more complex character, with more gravitas.

And Joe Keery’s role?

He plays a young actor named Sean Lockwood who, compared with Josephine, is a newcomer. In this film, Keery plays three characters: an American soldier whom he portrays in a film in which the soldier is among those who free Rome from the Germans [at the end of World War II]; then he plays a Mesopotamian prince in the Egyptian swords and sandals film; and the he plays himself, Sean Lockwood. In this Roman night he will also come to terms with his insecurity, both as an actor and as a man.

And Rachel Sennott?

She’s really something. Such a strong character. Rachel plays an Egyptian princess [in the swords and sandals film]. Joe Keery and Rachel Sennott are the new actors, they represent a new way of acting. It’s as though the 1960s are coming and 1950s Hollywood was ending. It’s also the meeting between these two realities.

How about Willem Dafoe? 

Dafoe plays an American art gallerist named Rufus Priori who lives in Rome and became friends with Josephine. They met a few years earlier when she was shooting a musical called ‘Passeggiata Romana’ (Roman Promenade). 

During this night he is our Charon [the boatman of Hades]. The person who leads the group. He is the character who is most grounded.

So in terms of locations are there both Rome and Cinecittà?

Yes. Last night we were shooting at the Villa of Quintili [an archeological site by the Appian Way], near the villas where all the Hollywood stars stayed in those years. The young girl gets lost in this sort of labyrinth there, and the characters played by Joe Keery and Lily James try to find her. We were in this ancient Roman thermal bath with a gorgeous floor, very tall columns, and no roof, under the moonlight. Joe and Lily were calling out to each other in the labyrinth. It was very moving. It was a mix of avant-garde theatre and our story. That’s the Rome of our film. It’s not postcard Rome. It’s a Rome that tries to help shape the characters. That said, Piazza di Spagna and the Spanish steps which of course are a key aspect of Rome’s iconography, are also central characters in the film. The film opens and closes there.