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THE LEISURE SEEKER

Production Notes
The great American road movie is renewed and refreshed in The Leisure Seeker, directed with Italian cinematic flair by PAOLO VIRZI and brought to life by extraordinary actors HELEN MIRREN and DONALD SUTHERLAND playing ordinary people confronting the vicissitudes of old age. Virzi, winner of the 2017 David di Donatello Best Director Award for his Best Picture winner Like Crazy (La Pazza Gioia), brings his distinctive blend of humor, social commentary, and rich character study to his tale of a long-married couple determined to hit the road one last time in their beloved RV.

"I have this vice or this habit to take sad topics, painful topics, and try to transform them into entertaining adventures," says Virzi. "The key is to combine comedy and tragedy, always." Indeed, there's no lack of painful topics nor of entertaining adventures in The Leisure Seeker. "I was a little wary of a film focused on old age," says Helen Mirren, "but I looked at the work of Paolo Virzi, in particular Human Capital, and I thought he had a wonderful, humane, witty, easy way of approaching these complicated but very, very realistic human situations. Paolo's calling card is naturalism, human behaviour that can be silly or heroic but never melodramatic. I just loved his style."

Donald Sutherland agrees. "Paolo is brilliant in the most subtle, complicated ways. The long and short of his sensibility, his understanding of the human condition, is that it is an epiphany." Recalling what drew him to the role of a former English teacher still steeped in literature even while his mind begins to fail, Sutherland says: "I was probably twenty pages into the script when John sat up and started to talk to me. It was a wonderful conversation. He was very articulate. And very specific. And he liked the script."

Although The Leisure Seeker embraces the iconic Americana of campgrounds and diners, theme parks and scenic vistas, "I didn't want to make an American movie-I wanted to make a movie of my own in America," explains Virzi. "It was always an Italian production, with my Italian way of looking at things. I'd say that means to have no fear of the ridiculous part of life. Life is something frightening and exhilarating at the same time and this is what I always try to put in a movie."

The original novel of the same name by Michael Zadoorian traversed legendary Route 66 through the American West to Disneyland, but, as Virzi explains, "For us to go film in the grandiose landscapes of the Arizona desert or Monument Valley would be like an American director coming to Italy, going to the Coliseum and St. Peter's Cathedral and the Leaning Tower of Pisa and trying to have new insights. We were looking for a more ordinary landscape. Sweet and sad like the story we were telling." The East Coast's Route 1 is less freighted with weighty symbolism but has plenty of natural beauty and cultural resonance, especially when the adaptation endowed John Spencer, Sutherland's character, with a passion for Hemingway; John and Ella's goal is to reach the Hemingway home in Key West.

The screenplay marshalled the combined writing efforts of some notable Virzi collaborators. "I felt like I was joining a dream team of writers," reports STEPHEN AMIDON, an American novelist whose 2005 novel Human Capital was adapted by Virzi into the film that had so enchanted Helen Mirren. Amidon and Virzi became close friends, and when The Leisure Seeker came to Virzi's production company Motorino Amaranto by way of Indiana Production, producers of "Human Capital" and " The First Beautiful Thing", Virzi turned to Amidon as his house expert on American language and mores. Virzi also enlisted the help of Italian screenwriters FRANCESCA ARCHIBUGI, with whom he had written Like Crazy, and FRANCESCO PICCOLO, with whom he had written the screen adaptations of The First Beautiful Thing and Human Capital. (Francesco Piccolo, incidentally, is currently at work adapting Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend to the screen.) Thus, a writing team of three Romans traded pages in both languages with a bilingual Bostonian adept at colloquial American language and culture.

As Amidon tells it, "We worked kind of like a 24-hour factory-I'd get up in the morning and they had written something, and then I'd work, and I'd send it to them-a real Socratic back and forth. It was very collegial."

Amidon carried out his role of American advisor through production locations in Atlanta and down along Route 1 to Key West at the edge of the continent. Most of Virzi's principal crew were Italian, including Director of Photography LUCA BIGAZZI, best known in the States for his work on The Great Beauty, 2013 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film. An American crew worked by their side; American Production Designer RICHARD WRIGHT helped Virzi achieve the balance that he sought of realistic American setting and his own cinematic sensibility.

"I like to fill the mise-en-scene with realistic elements, with true faces, a sense of truth," Virzi explains. "This time there was a filter, because I'm not an American-though I feel at home in America because of all the movies, books, and stories that have fed my imagination. When we were scouting the locations, I tried to catch the atmosphere, the sense of what was happening behind our story. That's another habit-or vice-of an Italian style of filmmaking, of storytelling: to frame the private personal stories of your little characters within the big picture of the society."

In the summer of 2016, one unavoidable piece of that big picture was the Presidential campaign. As Virzi recalls, "During the location scout there were billboards and advertisements for both candidates everywhere, and I felt that Summer 2016 would be a historical summer. I am not a clairvoyant, I didn't know what would happen, but I sensed that it was important to put the political moment in the background of our story-as if the characters were going through an America they didn't recognize anymore. It seemed relevant. I don't like to be the one who picks metaphors from a movie, but I feel there is something and that it means something."

"The Trump rallies were in full flood while we were shooting," says Helen Mirren. "It became part of the script, a funny way of indicating something about John-as Ella says, 'You've been a Democrat your whole life, what are you doing?' 'But these people are so nice!' It was just a very sweet way of charting how John's mind was working at that point."

"We called John's mental state Spencer Syndrome," says Virzi, "because every human has his own syndrome." John's confusion sometimes gives way to moments of sparkling lucidity and charm that are all the more poignant as we glimpse the companion and lover whom Ella is so stricken to lose. The character of John, in all his unpredictability, became almost a spiritual brother to Sutherland:

"I was just channeling John. It happens once it a while. Not often, certainly not all the time, but sometimes, and it happened in this film. John told me what to do, said what he wanted, remembered when he could and forgot when he couldn't. He got frustrated. I didn't. It seemed to me I was there for the ride and riding with Helen and Paolo, with everyone there, was a terrific trip."

Sutherland reread Hemingway- "Every one. The oeuvre. I hadn't been in there for fifty years"- and trusted the character of John to come through: "He took off, and I went with him."

"Donald was really impassioned," says Virzi. "He was already a great scholar of Hemingway and Joyce. He immersed himself in John Spencer. He became John Spencer. When we needed the RV to get back to the starting point to shoot another take, he didn't want a driver to do it for him. He was jealous of his RV. I was astonished by his enthusiasm, his devotion to the film and to John. He was like an Actor's Studio-style actor in the way we imagine, in the legend."

"Helen Mirren," Virzi continues, "has a different approach. She's one of the most brilliant actors ever, and extremely clever and so funny. She arrives on set, she's perfect in every take and then, 'Bye, darling see you tomorrow.'"

"We called her The Queen," says Stephen Amidon. "She's the most professional human being I've ever been around. It was fascinating to watch the two of them together, because she's so classically Shakespearean and Donald is so Method-but those contrasting approaches fit the characters so perfectly."

"They didn't really need a director on set, I guess" laughs Virzi. "I could just stand next to the camera and try to capture what they were able to create, to do together."

As Mirren describes her character, "Ella is fiercely committed to life. She holds onto it tenaciously with full energy and commitment and joy. She hasn't withdrawn from life at all. You can see her resolve and her backbone as she puts on her lipstick and her wig, the uniform she puts on to face the world."

Mirren, who speaks fluent Italian, also found herself in a fascinating observer's role as the American and Italian crews worked together. "It was very enjoyable, because I could stand on the outside, being a little bit American and a little European."

Virzi learned the hard way the difference between an extra and a bit player: "We took a lot of care with casting the extras, the faces at the rally and in the background scenes. We never wanted to mock or satirize this American slice of life. One day an extra was walking around the scene in an awkward way, so I gave him a little direction and said 'Just wave at that guy and say 'Hi!'' He ran off and yelled 'I got a line!' and had to be paid an extra for that 'Hi!' I ruined the production budget for that day."

No matter how big the crew, however, when it came to filming key scenes inside the Winnebago, only so many warm human bodies could cram into the space. "We were in a very uncomfortable vehicle with no air conditioning, under the July and August sun in hot and humid Georgia and Florida," relates Virzi. "I put these two little fans blowing in the faces of John and Ella because it was the only way to have some air inside that camper. We were all squeezed together, so sometimes we forgot to call the hairdresser and I was the one to fix the wig on Helen, or the DP would do her makeup. She liked that atmosphere-she had worked in some Italian movies in the 70's and 80's. And, of course, Donald was ready for anything." Even mishaps ranging from a fire ant invasion to a full-blown hurricane evacuation failed to dampen spirits.

Filmmakers and actors alike shared an affection for John and Ella, their aging lovers on the lam. Giving Helen Mirren the closing word: "There's nothing quite like that later phase of love, when you know each other so incredibly well, you know each other's faults, you know each other's strengths, you know the other person so well that you know there are sides of them that you don't know-that's the process of discovering how little you can know another person. We are certainly looking at a couple who have been through all those stages and they are still in a process of discovery. They're an ordinary couple, these two. John and Ella are totally ordinary. You could look out your window and see a million of those every day-ordinary people- America is a huge country full of many families-nothing so special about them. They become special because we put a frame around them and we watch them. I think that's the great strength of Paolo's filmmaking-he makes films about people we can identify with. They are very, very human."

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