Thursday 16 July 2020

A Human Wound: An Interview with Itay Tal About God of the Piano

Premiered at Rotterdam, Itay Tal's God of the Piano is a supremely confident feature debut by the writer-director and another fine addition to the thriving new Israeli cinema. A drama with a thriller's grip, Tal's Tel Aviv-set film focuses on a concert pianist, Anat (the compelling Naama Preis), undertaking some dubious decisions as, having failed to fully live up to her father's exacting musical standards, she strives to make her son a piano prodigy. Lean and stylish, God of the Piano is notable for its intelligent, subversive perspective on the place of talent in family dynamics and a woman's role within a male-dominated household - not to mention a patriarchal classical music world. Following the success of Sara Colangelo's superb US take on The Kindergarten Teacher, it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to imagine an American remake of God of the Piano in the future. I talked to Tal last year in Łódź.

Alex Ramon: How did God of the Piano come about? 

Itay Tal: It actually started as my graduation film and was meant to be a short. There were about 26 pages of script so I imagined it would be 30 minutes or so. But after 8 or 9 days, with only 60% of the film shot, I edited it and found that it was already about 36 minutes long. I wasn't going to give up anything in the script - all the scenes were necessary - so I thought I'm not going to shrink it but expand it to a feature instead.

AR: I understand you had some gaps in the shooting.

IT: Yes, the main reason for that was budget. We didn't get any funding from my initial application. It wasn't easy but to be honest this long process also had a few advantages in that I had more time to think things over due to the delays, and the script improved. I was also editing as we went along. For example, the big scene of the dinner at the father's house changed a lot, and I think it was for the better. So the lengthy process had its good sides, too. 

AR: Music is central to the film and the film feels like music in terms of the rhythmic way in which scenes are structured and edited. The opening, for example, is very brisk as we follow the boy, Idam, growing up. 

IT: That was always the intention. From the script stage, I understood that we'd move quickly through those opening scenes. The first ten or fifteen minutes of the film are very extreme - in some ways the most extreme section of the film - and for me the main story starts afterwards. So I wanted to get there fast.

AR: And how was the process of finding and working with the composers on the score?

IT: I got really lucky there. There are two great composers who worked on the film, Roie Shpigler and Hillel Teplitzky, along with a very talented composer/pianist, Eran Zvirin, who did all the playing for the film. Eran had already worked with me on my previous short, so we trusted each other. He recommended Hillel who we initially brought in to help the actors "fake" the piano playing; as, apart from Andy Levi as Idam, none of the actors were players. While that was going on he let me hear some of his compositions and I was really impressed. Later when Roie sent me the first draft of the score I listened to it about 50 times in a row! They really nailed it, and their work gave me more inspiration for some scenes.

AR: The film deals in part with the position of a woman in a family that doesn't value her. Could you say more about that theme? 

IT: Yes, it was an idea that came to me intuitively during the writing of the script. I've frequently been asked if Anat's position represents the woman's role in Israel generally. I don't feel that at all. Rather, this is the woman's role in this specific family. I tried to use every trick in the book to convey Anat's sense of separation and isolation in a very difficult situation, right from the opening scene where she's performing, and then, later, when she's giving birth alone. It was a way of pushing her to the extreme and making her confront the most difficult circumstances in solitude. 

That's why the scenes with the woman from the institute were important - a contrast to the very male older classical music world. Suddenly Anat makes this connection with another woman character. 

AR: Yes, I loved those scenes and that role is important in another way that's difficult to discuss without "spoilers"... But the important thing is that your view of Anat is sympathetic and feminist. Given some of her actions, how have audiences responded to her as a character?

IT: It's hard for some people to like her and I understand why. It's OK, of course, I mean, I also disagree with pretty much every decision that the character makes! But I understand and sympathise with her. The important thing is that even people who don't "like" her tend to stay and want to follow her journey. That investment is significant for me since I always worried that people wouldn't "survive" the first 10 minutes of the film. But they do. I think what hooks audiences is the horrible act she does at the beginning and the questions it throws up. Who is she? What led her to this?

AR: That's part of why the film is so suspenseful and feels like a thriller to me. In that way it also reminded me of Nadav Lapid's The Kindergarten Teacher. Here again you have a female protagonist and her dynamic with a talented child whom she's pushing in a certain direction. Was that film an inspiration in any way? 

IT: It was, and in fact all of Nadav Lapid's work is an inspiration for me. I really love it. I saw The Kindergarten Teacher a few months before starting to shoot God of the Piano. And another connection is that Nadav Lapid and Naama Preis are a couple in real life. 

AR: And how was the casting process? How did you find Naama Preis and Andy Levi?

IT: The casting took some time. But when Naama came to the audition it was kind of obvious that she was the one. She was so good. I asked her afterwards how she got into the character so fast and she told me that she felt a strong connection to Anat. And I think she does an amazing job, really carrying the film on her shoulders. 

When it came to the casting the role of Idam, I knew I couldn't get away with someone who doesn't know piano. So we looked for a player. We went to the conservatory in Tel Aviv, where we eventually shot as well. They helped me a lot. The teachers told me about a concert that was coming up and that I should attend it. I saw a lot of children perform and invited some for auditions. Eventually it wasn't hard picking Andy Levi; other than the fact of his obvious talent as a player, he's very intelligent. He was 13 or 14 when we started shooting and he really nailed the role. 

AR: Family dynamics, and the place of talent within that, are such a key theme of the film, aren't they?

IT: Yes, and I feel that this film is about something more than the musical context. For me, it's talking about a human wound: that of a child trying to win love from their parents by talent or with a tool - it could be through music, but also sports, or maths or something else, whatever the standards are in a particular household. Of course what human beings need is unconditional love. And the film shows the most conditional love there is. I think it's a wound that happens in a lot of families, something universal.

Perhaps the "cure," or the therapeutic process, for this is awareness most of all: knowing that it's happening. As I see it, the characters in this film know not what they do. They have no idea what's really going on. The only point where there is a realisation or awareness is in the last scene: when Anat "sees" something. It doesn't mean that it's going to be easy for her, far from it. But it's like a new era opening in her mind. 

AR: You premiered the film at Rotterdam. Do you enjoy the festival experience? 

IT: I really enjoy presenting the film. It's different every time and the audiences often surprise me. I'm thrilled that audiences received the film well. It exceeded my expectations that people seem to really connect with the film. They want to talk after, and they tell me it makes them think or that it stays with them. That's the biggest present I could get. 

AR: Can you say anything about your next project? 

IT: All I can say at this point is that it's another female-centred story. It's even going to be a bit more "extreme" than this one, in some ways, though perhaps less dark overall. It's still in early stages of development, but we're getting there.  

God of the Piano has just been released in cinemas in New Zealand. 

Wednesday 15 July 2020

Found Together: An Interview with Sean Cisterna About From the Vine

Based on Kenneth Canio Cancellara's novel Finding Marco, Sean Cisterna's From the Vine casts the venerable Joe Pantoliano as Marco Gentile, a Toronto business exec who departs the corporate world in order to revive his grandfather's vineyard in Acerenza, Southern Italy, much to the consternation of his wife Marina (Wendy Crewson). Leaning heavily on Pantoliano's charisma and DP Scott McClellan's lensing of some luscious Italian landscapes, Cisterna's likeable film harks back to such feel-good fare as Under the Tuscan Sun, and is now available for viewing on digital platforms. I spoke to Cisterna at the Cinergia festival in Łódź last year. 

Alex Ramon: When did your interest in filmmaking start?

Sean Cisterna: Very young. I remember going to see E.T. as a kid, and being overwhelmed, coming out crying, and just being really aware of the power of movies to transform us. I started making films with a video camera and then went on to study film in Toronto. 

You've taken From the Vine to various festivals. What has the reaction to the film been like?

We've shown the film around the world and the response has pretty much been the same. People say it's like a warm hug from an Italian grandmother! And wine always helps to bring us together! 

How does the film differ from the novel?

The book is more introspective. We made the film more plot-centred, while keeping the focus on Marco's journey and his reconnection with his roots in Italy.

Your films up to this point have focused on younger characters. What were the challenges of working with more experienced performers this time around?

Yes, I made a film for Netflix called Full Out and another called Kiss and Cry. So in a way working with older, more established actors meant coming out of my comfort zone. It was daunting to an extent, and Joe [Pantoliano] and I would both admit that we had some struggles along the way. Of course Joe's a very established actor who's acted more than I've directed so there was a bit of "head butting" at times. But gradually the charm of Italy won us all over and we developed a good working relationship. 

The dynamic between Joe's character and Wendy Crewson as his wife is one of the most delightful aspects of the film. And Marco Leonardi also puts in a good performance. 

Wendy was like the guardian angel on set. She was this warm being we could all go to and have a friendly discussion with. She also added to the script to make her character stronger which was a big benefit to the film. It was also great to have Marco Leonardi in the cast. Actually, he was one of the first actors to come on board after we contacted him when he was a special guest at the Italian-Canadian Film Festival in Toronto.  We were so happy that he loved the script and wanted to be part of it, bringing with him his history from films like Cinema Paradiso. 

It seems like the the village where you shot really opened up to you all. 

Yes, they were great with us. It was the first time that a film had been made there and the locals really wanted to participate. At one point there was a WhatsApp group with 700 people in it! Of course as a co-production we had to have a certain amount of Canadian and Italian crew and collaborators. It came together well, a great reminder of how cool it can be when people from different countries come together to create somethimg. We had some fun with that in various ways in the film, including with the score where we feature an Italian version of Blue Rodeo's "Lost Together," an iconic Canadian song, alongside Italian pop music.

From the Vine is available to watch on digital platforms now.