“I always try to be focused on what my vision needs, not on the frills of my ego”: An Interview with Lorenzo Sportiello

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Lorenzo Sportiello established his reputation by directing idiosyncratic ads for the likes of BMW, Louis Vuitton, Agent Provocateur and People’s Poker, distinguishing himself through his inventive use of low depth of field, hazy handheld camerawork, choppy editing, negative space and hyper-real colour grading. We caught up with him before the release of his debut feature Index Zero to talk about dystopian sci-fi, making the most of a small budget, Rossellini, and convincing producers to invest in a risky project.

How did the idea first come about?

It comes from an urgency to find a producer for my first feature. I tried to throw some glitters in his eyes like ‘low budget’, ‘genre’, ‘English speaking’. Then I wrote something to put these characteristics in it, keeping in mind my attitude as a filmmaker. Making a movie is ALWAYS a compromise, especially your first one.

The film uses a high-concept genre premise as a means to explore contemporary issues like immigration, totalitarianism and the commoditization of individuals. What drew you to these thematic areas?

I always loved how sci-fi explores the declination of what it means to be human in different contexts, and how it warns the people using the metaphor of the future. That’s why I tried to talk about what is happening right now in our Europe. I’m from Italy, and I would be a liar to not admit that I was really inspired by what is happening with the migrants coming from Lampedusa.

Do you feel that dystopian sci-fi is a genre particularly effective at reflecting such concerns?

As I said before, it is what sci-fi is about for me. It is about humans, not spacecrafts, aliens nor explosions. That’s why I think mine is a humanistic approach to the genre. This is not even a dystopian future to me. Index Zero just shows the consequences of our dystopian present. I didn’t choose to invent anything; I just pushed the present a little forward. We shot in Bulgaria in a real prison built with European funds, actually made to stop illegal immigrants coming from the East. Even Hungary, as we see on today’s news, is considering to built a wall on the Serbian border. That’s why I don’t consider my movie as a proper dystopian one, I feel more connected to the Italian Neorealism set in a future context.

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Index Zero follows a couple’s struggle for survival, in a controlled and conglomerated Europe of the future.

How did you approach tackling such a high-concept scenario on a relatively low budget?

With a GREAT crew of really talented friends. Index Zero is literally handcrafted by us, and we gave everything to the cause. There are a lot of great professionals in Italy, but unfortunately our industry doesn’t know how to use them. They are not used with their whole potential. This is a gross negligence that is having – and will have – a strong impact on our industry. Talking about Index Zero, I think the director’s most important skill should be the attitude to optimize his vision, the ability to make your movie look like it was shot with a bigger budget, no matter how small it was. I always try to be focused on what my vision needs, not on the frills of my ego.

What’s your method of blocking scenes? Do you storyboard them rigorously beforehand?

I always try to visualize what is in my mind with a rigorous storyboard. Is important to me to have this solid construction of my visual world, but it is just a base to work on. I always feel free to improvise after the rehearsals with the actor or the situation I found on the set. This is what gives ‘the soul’ to the scenes.

How has your background in advertising shaped your creative process?

It hasn’t really. I’ve started my career studying at Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, the National Film School in Cinecittà. I have been a movie lover since day one. I always had this attitude for the visual storytelling even before doing commercials but, even when I was doing commercials, I always had movies on my mind.

Working with an overtly allegorical premise, was it hard to create characters that seemed like individuals and not simply stand-ins for ideas?

This was my main challenge. My goal was to tell a simple story in subjective with no background explanations, no captions, no unnecessary dialogues. This is what Cinema is about for me. It was a test to understand if I am able to tell a story visually and if it is possible to empathize with characters who don’t speak at all. These were my boundaries and my competition field. I saw this movie as a challenge.

Were there any films or books that particularly influenced your approach? Did you keep them in mind consciously during production?

Loads. As I mentioned before, I was particularly influenced by Italian Neorealism and especially by Germany, Year Zero, Roberto Rossellini’s masterpiece – there is even a little mention in the title. Rossellini shows a destroyed world through a child’s eyes, a kid who just want to survive. If you think about Index Zero with this approach you can understand why I don’t explain the rules of the outside world too much. I am not interested in the plot; I’m just concerned about the characters.

 Do you have any future projects planned?

I’m actually finishing a TV serial for RAI, the Italian national broadcast. It’s about crimes and investigations.  Then I’ll finish to write my new script. It is be very bold, unusual, and startling. With Index Zero I proved to myself that I can to this job, no matter all the difficulties. I promised myself that with my next project I will leave my comfort zone.

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English student, filmmaker and writer for Alternate Takes, MUBI Notebook, Film International, Mcsweeney's, Senses of Cinema, Little White Lies, The Vulgar Cinema and Sound on Sight. Too crazy for boys' town, too much of a boy for crazy town.

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