Originally written for DIY Mag in January 2016. Read the original article here.
Many a filmmaker has attempted to tackle lofty notions of age and creative malaise in their work over the year, but few have repeatedly done so quite as successfully as director Paolo Sorrentino. For a man whose unique and frequently melancholic outlook has been well chronicled in the likes of the stellar The Great Beauty, Youth, his second English language feature, is no exception, offering a quiet, contemplative meditation on life, love and the unstoppable passing of time.
Underpinned by a moving central performance from Michael Caine as Fred Ballinger, a retired conductor who rebuffs an invitation from the Queen to perform his popular compositions for Prince Philip’s birthday, few roles have seemed a more perfect fit for the actor. That Caine is still turning in performances of this calibre over six decades into a peerless career is something to be celebrated. That it comes in the form of such an elegant and often heartbreakingly moving character study is another thing altogether.
“In my mind, Michael Caine is the perfect embodiment of levity and profound intelligence,” Sorrentino enthuses. “There are two actors in the world like that – Michael Caine and Jack Nicholson.”
Though it’s perhaps possible to imagine frequent Sorrentino collaborator Toni Servillo filling the role, not least because of the moody parallels between Ballinger and Servillo’s aging socialite Jep Gambardella in The Great Beauty, Sorrentino sought Caine’s involvement from the outset. The case was also similar for the likes of Harvey Keitel, Paul Dano, Rachel Weisz and Jane Fonda, all of whom Sorrentino had been eager to work with for some time.
“They were all in my mind as I was writing the script,” he recalls. “Or they came to mind soon after the script was completed. They were all actors that I really wanted to work with for different reasons.”
For a director so fond of exploring notions of success, self-worth and unfulfillment, Sorrentino’s creative impetus for Youth drew not on a particular theme or tone, but rather on a real life incident in which an Italian conductor really did reject an invitation to perform for the Queen.
“There were different inception points,” he muses. “But one of those was the story of Riccardo Muti being invited by the Queen to conduct a concert. Because they could not agree on the repertoire, Muti turned the Queen down, which is something I wrote in my diary. I thought that was really something – I didn’t know you could turn down the Queen. But I like the idea of locating films in hotels, and I also liked the idea of how old people tackle the idea of the future.”
Much like his previous work, Youth is rife with striking imagery and unusual set pieces, the like of which very few directors can slot in to their work as effortlessly as Sorrentino frequently does. I cite one of the most memorable images in his English language debut, This Must Be The Place, as an example – Hitler stood on the back of a lorry in a car park – and he laughs. How does he decide how best to employ these otherwise seemingly incongruous images in his work?
“There isn’t a strict rule,” he confesses. “I used to have a strict rule that everything had to be in the script, but I have acquired skills in later films that have allowed me to be a bit more loose… Sometimes I have some set images. Sometimes when I go location scouting the location will suggest scenes. Sometimes I’ll be on set and maybe an extra will walk by – an extra I had chosen from a photograph who in person looks different and that might suggest the idea of Hitler on the back of a lorry, for example.”
Music too continues to play an integral part in his work, a trait perhaps most apparent in This Must Be The Place – named after the Talking Heads song and featuring lead singer David Byrne in a small though important role. Youth once again sees Sorrentino on playful form, employing real life musicians to great effect, with cameo appearances from American singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek and British musician Paloma Faith.
“Music is very, very important to me,” he concurs. “I listen to a lot of music and the songs of Mark Kozelek, in a way, gave the film its tone as I was writing it. This was slightly lost in the editing suite – but the character that Paul Dano plays is also someone who likes to surround himself with musicians. In the case of Mark Kozelek, the music cues he plays were already existing songs. In the case of David Lang, the composer, he was commissioned to provide an original score.”
Lang’s score and Kozelek’s work – an understated cover of ‘Onward’ by British rock band Yes and ‘Ceiling Gazing’, an intensely personal reflection on Kozelek’s own creative process – both underpin Youth’s wistful tone perfectly. Faith’s appearance meanwhile lends the film one of its most unexpected comic moments – a sequence in which Harvey Keitel’s character dismisses her as “the most insignificant woman on the planet” which is something of a far cry from the almost godlike reverence afforded to Byrne in This Must Be The Place.“
It was the other way round… In the film, Rachel Weisz’s husband leaves her for Paloma Faith and we had to tone her down to make her look insignificant. But in fact you realise she ignites the erotic in her husband, so that was how the character was formed. It was inferred that she was a compendium of eroticism, so even if the line stated that she was insignificant, she was far from it.”
Ennui is a theme Sorrentino finds himself returning to time and time again, but he is unable or perhaps unwilling to address why it remains such an appealing storytelling device.
“It’s not easy to answer that question,” he retorts. “It may be because it’s something that belongs to me. There’s something quite deep, profound and moving – the thought that time is passing.”
Regardless of age, there is, however, something ineffably relatable about Sorrentino’s work. He concedes that the demographic of his audience has rarely been a conscious consideration for him, partly because of what he perceives to be a shared outlook that his audiences, both young and old, feel in equal measure.
“I just think, ‘thank God up to this point I’ve been able to make the films that I really wanted to make,’” he exclaims. “I’ve never really thought of a demographic, but I have realised that my films are liked a lot by young people. That may be because – contrary to common perception – there isn’t that much of a gap between the young and the old. The young feel some sort of malaise about living and the same goes for older people, so maybe it’s something to do with the human condition that’s relatable.”
As our brief time together draws to a close, the subject of the future comes up and, in particular, the prospect of working with David Byrne again, a topic he greets with amusement.
“I’m sorry, I can’t tell you, but only because I don’t have anything in mind for the future.” He pauses for a moment. “That’s not a bad idea though actually – to work with David Byrne again.” If it does happen, we’re at least partially taking some of the credit.