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“Nothing’s harder than writing.” Evan Oppenheimer on Lost in Florence

“Nothing’s harder than writing.” Evan Oppenheimer on Lost in Florence
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Evan Oppenheimer discusses achieving authenticity, getting to the heart of the story, and finding your point of entry.

Evan Oppenheimer’s sixth film, Lost in Florence, is a romantic drama starring Brett Dalton, Stana Katic, and Alessandra Mastronardi. The film follows a heartbroken, former college football star as he learns the ins and outs of calcio storico, while also learning about life and love.

Calcio storico is an archaic form of soccer in Italy. The game has been played in Florence since the sixteenth century, and looks like rugby with gladiators. Oppenheimer describes it as “mixed martial arts if you throw a ball in there.” (To see the sport in action, don’t miss our video at the end of this interview.)

Creative Screenwriting spoke with Oppenheimer about achieving authenticity, getting to the heart of the story, and writing in multiple languages.

Brett Dalton as Eric and Stana Katic as Anna in Lost in Florence. Image by John O'Malley

Brett Dalton as Eric and Stana Katic as Anna in Lost in Florence. Image by John O’Malley

Where did the idea for Lost In Florence come from?

Evan Oppenheimer

Evan Oppenheimer

Before I went to grad school, I went to live in Italy. I had a challenging romantic relationship and I felt like getting a little distance could help us figure out what we were going to do. I had always liked Italy, and I had Italian friends who lived abroad, so I thought that might be a worthwhile thing to do.

There I discovered calcio storico, and I had never really seen anything like it. I think if I saw it today, I might compare it to mixed martial arts if you throw a ball in there, but at the time, mixed martial arts didn’t really exist, so it was more of a brawl with people trying to advance the ball down the field. It struck me at te time, and I remember sending home post cards about it, but otherwise I didn’t think too much about it.

After film school, however, I was trying to come up with an idea for my first feature, and I thought back to calcio storico. So I went back to stay in Italy for a couple of weeks to figure out how I could turn it into a movie. I had to find my point of entry into this world.

At that point, I came up with the idea of an American who gets involved with the sport. I’m not an Italian, so I didn’t want to make a movie from that perspective, but I could make a movie about an American in Italy. If I had made a movie and tried to claim it to be Italian, that would have been inauthentic that it would be laughable, but I could make a movie about an American in Florence.

It was very complex though, so it wasn’t really a movie I was prepared to make at that point in my career, which hadn’t even started yet. But while I was working on other movies, I thought that someday, I would make this movie. I just needed to get the script right and meet the right people.

When I made my fourth movie, The Speed of Thought, in South America, that gave me the confidence to make another abroad. It was challenging though. I was used to making movies where I lived, so I needed to bolster myself. But I was excited rather than nervous. It was just time for me to make the movie.

Nick Stahl as Joshua Lazarus in The Speed of Thought

Nick Stahl as Joshua Lazarus in The Speed of Thought

How did you go about filming a sport that hasn’t really been filmed before? Did you watch rugby or similar sports for inspiration?

I’ve been an athlete my whole life, which is perhaps why I quickly gravitated towards this. I hadn’t really thought about making a sports movie, but this one just appealed to me.

I’m sure that when I first saw the sport, I probably thought I could get out there in the field. I’m sure, now, that might not be the case!

But in addition to that, it was just so Florentine. It was so unique, but also very athletic, especially in those days. I think it used to be more about the athleticism, but I think now it’s more about the brawling aspects. I don’t think the city of Florence is too excited about that. I think they want to get back towards the athleticism, which is what really appealed to me.

Besides the time spent traveling, what other research was involved for this film?

There was a lot of discussion with calcio storico players, and people with the calcio storico federation. We really wanted to be true to the sport. We really wanted to understand the history of the sport.

History can be a fluid thing. History is not always clear. So there’s myth and history, and what lies between. With calcio storico, it’s hard to say what’s myth and what’s history. They say Leonardo da Vinci designed the ball, but I don’t think they’re proof of that. They say the Pope had played.

But when something becomes lore, in a way it becomes history. If everyone believes it, does it matter if it’s true or not? It’s a common point of reference, even if it’s not actual history. We wanted to really understand where the Florentines were coming from and how that sport defined their culture.

We also have a number of scenes that are in Italian, and I didn’t want those scenes to be stilted. I wanted them to feel real. They’re between Italians and an American and that was also a great deal of work.

Then there were many years of refining the screenplay and getting feedback. When writing a screenplay, you almost get to a point where you make it more and more complicated, until you finally start to make it simple. You accrue things until you realize that everything is in there and it’s time to take out the things that don’t need to be there. You get to the heart of the story and then start to remove things that are superfluous.

I don’t think that I’ve ever made a movie that didn’t have twenty drafts of the screenplay.

Calcio storico match from Lost in Florence. Image by John O'Malley

Calcio storico match from Lost in Florence. Image by John O’Malley

What advice might you have for those writing screenplays with multiple languages?

I think it’s important not to overestimate yourself. With the Italian scenes, while I did write them, I also spoke with the actors before shooting.

That’s another one of the benefits of being both the writer and director. When I write, I write for a theoretical character, but once the actual character takes over, there are things the theoretical character might not say.

I encourage actors, within reason, to make the role their own. A director must be open minded and flexible. We’re making 10,000 decisions a day, and people are looking to us for advice. If we’re not willing to open ourselves up, then we’re in the wrong business.

Film is the most collaborative media. If you think you need to be an auteur and tell everyone what to do, then you should be writing a book or doing something else. Otherwise, you’re wasting everyone’s abilities.

What advice do you have for people who want to be writer-directors?

In graduate school, most of the people were writers and directors, but I had one friend who only wanted to be a director. He simply wasn’t interested in writing. It became clear that it was harder for him because of that. There’s a lot of people out there who aren’t writing, but I think it’s easier to write your own thing.

I say easier, but that’s a fallacy. Nothing’s harder than writing. Writing is definitely the most difficult part of the job. But I do think that if you’re trying to express something and you can be the originator of that concept, it’s easier than trying to find content and making it your own.

Stana Katic as Anna in Lost in Florence. Image by John O'Malley

Stana Katic as Anna in Lost in Florence. Image by John O’Malley

What do you find to be the most difficult step in the process?

Generally, it’s hard for me to film sex scenes. This may be because I haven’t done that many of them. I’ve done plenty of romantic scenes –  I think every movie I’ve done has several romantic scenes. But scenes with nudity or simulated contact feel really tough at first. Or maybe that just makes me more prudish than other directors!

During my fourth film, The Speed of Thought, there was a scene where someone was totally nude for the entire scene. As we were shooting, for the first couple of takes I remember talking to her but looking 180 degrees away. I was talking to someone who was naked but not my wife!

But as we went on I got more comfortable, and realized we were just professionals doing a job. I grew to understand what it meant. It can still be a challenge though, because it’s always a different actor, so you don’t have that developed familiarity.

Would you be missing anything by not having those scenes? If the nudity represented vulnerability, for example, would the story be missing something by not filming those scenes?

That’s an interesting point. As a filmmaker, you certainly can’t let your own discomfort get in the way of the work. You have to be professional. You have to express what needs to be expressed, rather than what’s you’re comfortable expressing.

In the screenplay for Florence, there were more sexual or explicit scenes because I thought that was part of the story. These are young passionate people and their emotions run away with them.

So I thought it was essential, but then in the editing, we decided to dial back on that. We left some sexual scenes on the cutting room floor. We came to see that it was more about the emotional bonds than the physical passions.

Eric, the main character, is thinking about his life and his future. He’s not just thinking about whom he is going to be sleeping with. That’s not the focus of what’s going on, and dialing back made it more interesting. Just because it had been a component of my original story, that didn’t mean that it needed to be in the final cut.

Brett Dalton as Eric (right) in Lost in Florence. Image by John O'Malley

Brett Dalton as Eric (right) in Lost in Florence. Image by John O’Malley

Is there one thing you’ve learned making your films that you wish you had known in the very beginning?

I think the main thing I’ve learned is to not be so stressed out about it. With my first movie, I was so stressed out that I would even think that no one was going to show up on set the next day. Or I thought we’d never get finished.

As I’ve made more movies, I’ve become more confident that it’s all going to be OK. I can’t say how the movie will turn out, but it will get done and we’ll do the best we can. We all want the same thing. So I try to be calmer and not get so stressed out about the whole process.

This also helps relationships on set with collaborators. People look to you for advice or guidance, and you need to keep a level head. I think I’ve learned that might be the most important thing a director can bring to a film.

You’ve been chipping away at Lost In Florence for quite some time now. Is there a sense of relief or satisfaction now the film is complete?

It is satisfying to complete something you’ve been thinking about for so long, and it will be nice to see it done, or on the shelf, or to see it out in the world. Hopefully we take people to a place that is new to them.

Of course, it’s bittersweet. There’s something to be said for having that future project that is out there, because you don’t know what day that day will be. Now that the destination has been reached, you have to come up with a new one.

But whatever that destination is, it won’t be one as longstanding as this one. I’ll never again have a movie I’ve been waiting to make as long as I’ve been waiting to make this one. That’s probably a good thing, but there will be a period of adjustment to not having that target any more.

Calcio storico opening ceremony from Lost in Florence. Image by John O'Malley

Calcio storico opening ceremony from Lost in Florence. Image by John O’Malley

So do you have another project you’re preparing to work on next?

I’m hoping to shoot another film in New York this summer. It’ll be very small and an experimental streets-of-New-York film. Usually, if I make a comedy, I want to follow it up with something serious. If I’ve done something really heavy, I want to follow it up with something light. With this movie, it was one of the most complicated films I’ve ever made, so now I would like to do something with very little pressure and with very little at stake.

I’d like to just have fun and express myself artistically.

 

Want to know more about calico storica? Then check out this video from David Battistella.

Modern Gladiators – Calcio Storico from David Battistella on Vimeo.

 

 

 

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