Art and Experience: When filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino walked up the steps at the 86th Academy Awards to receive the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for “The Great Beauty,” he noted great directors like Federico Fellini and Martin Scorsese as his influencers. For his latest film, “Youth,” which first premiered at Cannes, Sorrentino may still have looked to those directorial greats, but his specific inspiration came from somewhere new this time: A quirky piece of news.
The new film stars a talent-rich cast, including Michael Caine Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano and Jane Fonda. The story revolves around a pair of old friends, a classical conductor played by Caine and Keitel, a film director planning his next big hit, who are recuperating in a lavish Swiss hotel spa. Weisz plays Caine’s heartbroken daughter, Dano a troubled young actor and Fonda a world famous actress whom Keitel’s director is trying to woo for his next film. Though it might seem a little odd that a film focused on a set of aging artists would be called “Youth,” the examination of aging, beauty, legacy and yes, youth, are so eloquently explored in the film that the single word become all-encompassing of a person’s existence.
Indiewire recently got on the phone with Sorrentino to explore “Youth,” as well as talk Hollywood, and his upcoming HBO drama “The Young Pope.”
Tell me the story of the inspiration behind “Youth” and what moved you to write it?
The first inspiration for the movie was a piece of news that I read in a newspaper about a famous Italian conductor, Riccardo Muti, decided to refuse to play for Queen Elizabeth, because they disagreed about the repertoire. This little piece of news was interesting to me; it was an interesting place to start a movie.
How did the film’s exploration of age and youth come from that?
The most important theme in my mind was about aging, about how two older people can answer the question, “What’s my future?” This was the obsessive question that I had in my mind. Through this movie I tried to find out an answer.
Do you find one?
No! [laughs]. A little bit of a tricky answer is that I found not the right answer: That the future can make sense if you have the chance to be free. If you have the perception of freedom, there is a future in your life. And at the same time, freedom is the most important characteristic for me in the perception of youth. So in a certain sense we can say also that if you are 80 years old, if you believe that tomorrow you have freedom, there’s is also a sort of youth inside yourself.
Tell me about your relationship to music as a director. How did you choose the pieces?
The music is the most important provider of emotion. In the movies that I do, I try to provide the emotions for the audience. Then how I decide to use it depends on the scenes or the moment in the movie.
I read somewhere that you said that you are mystified by conductors because you can’t really tell who is doing a good job. It looks very nice but the only people who know if the conductor is any good might be the musicians. Do you think people are equally as amazed by film directors?
[laughs] Ah, yeah that’s true! I agree, it’s not easy for those who don’t do it to understand what we do. Probably we do the same things as the conductors. We keep things tight, it’s composing a movie.
So you relate very much to Michael Caine’s character?
Yes, very much so.
With the other characters, there’s a lot of commentary about the film industry; a lot of apathy and frustration, particularly from Paul Dano’s character. Does their frustration come from a real place for you?
I don’t think that Paul Dano is playing an apathetic character. I don’t really see a criticism towards the film industry. I think what Dano does is what we directors do and what actors do, we observe. This is his tool.
Is there anything specific about the film industry that he was interested in presenting through these characters?
Brenda’s (Fonda) commentary that actresses can’t get work past a certain age is something that resonates throughout the industry especially in Hollywood. What’s your take on how women are treated in film industry?
I actually don’t have an opinion on the matter but I hear women complaining that there isn’t enough room for them in the industry and so I believe that this is true.
Can you tell me about the apples? I feel like there were apples everywhere in this film.
Yes! Because the spas are usually filled with symbols of wellness and apples are such a symbol.
You experienced much of American and British awards season with “The Great Beauty,” and we’re heading into another awards season now. What has your experience of this crazy time of year been like?
It was a great experience. It was a very tiring one! But in the end, all the hard work paid off by winning an award. It’s a beautiful experience because you have the chance of establishing relationships with people and you have a feel of where your work has been.
Turning to your next project, the HBO series “The Young Pope,” what made you turn to TV after so many years in film?
Because TV has given me the chance to write a lot, and I love to write. Good television, I feel is literature and cinema’s beautiful child. This is a chance that I wanted to take right away.
In “Youth,” Jane Fonda’s character says something about television being the future. How much do you believe that?
It’s not really my opinion. I believe the future is open to hold television and cinema.
How has the television experience been for you?
It was actually an easy transition and it’s been an easy one and I’m having a lot of fun doing it. There are a lot of the same criteria as when I do film.
Being Italian, the subject matter of the Vatican and Catholicism is very close to home for you and many Italians. Do you think American audiences will relate?
I think that Americans can relate because what we’re really talking about is a person’s journey. A person’s joys and sorrows, so anyone can relate to that.
“Youth” opens in limited release on December 4.