Paolo Sorrentino's reglar production designer talks exclusively about the making of This Must Be the Place.
Rome-based Stefania Cella is Paolo Sorrentino’s production designer. A New York resident for the last 15 years, Cella was tasked with creating the set for Sorrentino’s flamboyantly visual American read-movie This Must Be the Place, which sees Sean Penn’s broken rock star Cheyenne attempt to rediscover a sense of belonging by finding the man that humiliated his late father during the Holocaust.
With almost 100 different locations sprawled across American metropolises, prairies, open roads and small towns, Cella takes time out from shooting Sorrentino’s new film in Rome to tell LWLies about her exacting creative process, as we screen Sorrentino’s film at an exclusive 71a event.
LWLies: When did you first hear about This Must Be the Place?
Cella: I’ve followed Paolo’s career from the States where I’ve lived for 15 years because I’m still interested in Italian cinema. It feels like we found each other professionally, and now I’m working on his next film in Rome. By now it comes naturally to me; I can envision a script while I’m reading. I first read This Must Be the Place in February 2010, and I met Paolo in the US to talk about it.
How would you describe the creative process between reading a script like This Must Be the Place and designing a set to be shot on film?
What I do is turn what I’m imagining when I’m reading into a photograph, or a collection of photographs. I try and find an image that can communicate with a director; that’s where we start. It’s a start, rather than an arrival. I have a large library of photography books and I understand the quality of one photograph against the other. I make a book of photography, which sometimes I can do in two or three days, but Paolo’s movies are very expansive – his new movie has over a hundred locations, but you look for a challenge when you’ve been working in this business for 20 years.
This Must Be the Place is a human, spiritual journey, but through a country that I’ve become familiar with. I’ve shot movies in Texas, South Carolina and Mississippi. I’ve lived in New York, but I’ve got to know even the centre of the USA. So I started to put together very American photography so I could show Paolo how an American views his own country.
How do you ensure that form always matches content and the set always stays true to the story and character?
It’s absolutely fundamental to know the people in the story. As soon as Sean Penn went into costume, he completely changes himself. You cannot believe it is the same person, but as soon as I saw that costume fitting, that lends a support. It helps to you to understand how to bring out the story in the look of the film. I believe Paolo’s stories are a great balance between emotion and visual. I’ve worked on movies that are all style and visual and movies that are all stories. I think you need emotion, and I’m saying that against my own profession.
What do you consider to be good production design? Are there rules one must always follow?
I certainly judge films. We’re all subjective, and I can’t escape from that unfortunate fact. If I see a film with a well developed story but a poorly developed design, I do notice it. But what I’ve learnt is not to give up on the vision that came when you first read something. Even if there are a lot of restrictions – and there are a lot of restrictions in finances and resources in my job - you must learn by learning how to compromise in the right way. You cannot refuse the situation, so you must embrace it, and you must find out what that place offers you.
I come from theatre, and what I learned from that – which I think is fundamental – is to look at any object in any place and ask what the function of that object is. In theatre, a toothbrush can become a boat. If you take that as your guide in everything, and you take that as your discipline, then everything you have in your hands can be something else, because objects can be the geometrical opposite of what they were built for.
This Must Be the Place is released on DVD and Blu-ray August 13.