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Paolo Sorrentino talks about working with Hollywood legend Sean Penn

This Must Be the Place
02 April 2012

As This Must be the Place prepares for it’s impending April 6 release, The Fan Carpet caught up with the Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino to discuss his upcoming project.

The dark comedy follows troubled former rock star Cheyenne (Sean Penn) on a journey across America, to track down the Nazi war criminal who tormented his father during World War Two, in what is a unique and provocative piece of cinema by the Il Divo director.

Speaking via a translator at the Soho Hotel, London, Sorrentino discusses Penn’s integral role to the film, as well his reasoning behind his approach of the holocaust with somewhat of an original point of view. The well-versed and reputable Italian also tells us of his use of music in the film, with an original score from Talking Heads front-man David Byrne.



Where did the idea for the film come from?

The first kernel of the idea was my endless curiosity regarding criminal Nazis who ought to live the normal lives of granddaddies now but they’re still living in hiding and they’re still covering up their pasts. This was the first kernel of the idea.


And how did you bring in Sean Penn’s character to that?

Slowly. Before, there was the Nazi war criminal, there was a Jew that was in the camp during the Second World War and then I arrived at the idea of a son of this person that was in the camp and this person was Sean Penn. And then, after all that, I had the idea to give Sean some different make-up and I chose the icon of Robert Smith. Yeah.


Sean is fantastic as Cheyenne. Did you ever consider anyone else for the part and what would you say Sean brought to the role that you created?

There is a very strong possibility that if Sean Penn had not attached himself to the project, I would not have gone ahead, because it became such an integral part to the story. And his contribution was all the nuances, which are so crucial in his portrait and advanced the story. The character was scripted but all the nuances of the character were brought in by Sean Penn.


What about the title of the film? Obviously it’s named after the Talking Heads song, but when did you attach that title to this film and what does that song mean to you in terms of some of the ideas in the film?

I never asked myself the question, because it seemed to be such a natural choice. The movie is a movie about places, the places you choose to be your home, the places that you have to travel to. So I thought it was a perfect fit.


Is it, to an extent, also a film about home?

Yes, in a certain way, but I’m not able elaborate any further, because it’s something that’s so close to me – I can’t explain it in any other way than the way I describe it in the movie. But yes, there is an element of that.


Going back to Talking Heads, what was it like for you when you first heard David Byrne as a kid?

My older brother, who’s nine years older than me, made me listen to Talking Heads. What I remember of the experience is that I felt in tune with my brother and his taste in music. The film is really in the spirit of the American road movie.


Were there any particular influences in that respect? Specifically maybe the films of Jim Jarmusch?

I’m particularly influenced by American directors who have links with Europe, who in turn are influenced by European directors. I think the best American directors – such as Jim Jarmusch, Atom Egoyan or David Lynch – are the ones that have a creative debt towards European cinematography.


You talked about the Holocaust being the original idea, but why did you particularly choose the Holocaust revenge plot as the background for Cheyenne’s American odyssey?

Every time things get too complicated in history, men resort to vengeance and as the Holocaust is such an indecipherable episode in the history of mankind, sometimes the only way to find a way to resolve an issue is vengeance, in that case.


In the respect that it’s about the Holocaust or the tail-end of some long-term effect of it, could the film be characterised as a tragedy, in some way?

No. No, no, no. Because if you think of it, it’s both a journey, a physical journey but it’s also an internal one – the character travels and he grows, through his journey and he actually manages to give birth to himself in a new incarnation, through what he does throughout the movie. So there is a reinvention and a rebirth of the character at the end of the movie.



This is your debut feature in the English language. I was just wondering what made you decide that now was the time for that and whether you faced any new challenges as a film-maker, as a result of that?

There were no technical issues or challenges in producing a movie in English. There are some technical issues that are very, very easily taken care of. The challenge for me was to produce a much simpler movie than my previous ones. In my view, this is a much simpler movie. The ones that preceded it were much more complicated.


There’s a few live music scenes within the film, songs that are played in their entirety. What made you include those songs in the feature?

There’s a music component to the movie anyway – we’ve got the rock star, we’ve got the new musician wanting to break onto the scene. So I thought those songs would fit naturally, seamlessly into the economy of the movie.


In terms of the music, in your previous movies you make great use of a lot of pre-existing tracks and here you work with David Byrne and Will Oldham for a lot of original songs. Was that just because this movie is about a rock star or is that something you’d like to do again in future, work with popular musicians to create original songs and score?

It was necessary in the economy of this particular movie, because the demo tape was supposed to be new music, not something that you’d heard before, so I asked David Byrne to produce something that could pass for a demo from a new band. I don’t know about the future – I’m open to possibilities.


What’s the artwork that David Byrne is working on within the film, when Cheyenne and David meet?

It was the one that he brought to the Round House, in London, it’s that installation, where the audience is asked to actually use that keyboard that produces almost random noises. It was at the Round House last year. It was something that David Byrne was actually touring round the world.


Is there anything of yourself in the character of Cheyenne, seeing as he’s involved in the entirety of the film?

Yes. Yes, yes. Many things. The type of relationship between Cheyenne and his wife, for instance, is very similar to the one that I have with my wife.


Were you one of those people who went around dressed like Robert Smith in the 1980s, with the hair and the make-up?

Yes, without the make-up!


Why did you choose Dublin to juxtapose with the dreamlike qualities of the settings in America?

Beyond having to justify the message, choices of locations, choices of music, I was guided by what I liked. So I liked the music and I liked Dublin. It was more that as a guiding light, in many areas.


Can you talk about the casting? Sean Penn, but also Frances McDormand, Judd Hirsch and Eve Hewson?

There were people like Frances McDormand and Sean Penn without whom the movie would not have existed, so they were the lynch-pins…


How did you come to get them involved?

I sent Sean the script. It’s always the best solution. If there’s something I’ve learned during the course of my career, it’s not to chat idly too much, to contact people by phone, just send out
the script saying “I’m thinking of you for this character” and just wait for their feedback.



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