I know this is a month late. So sue me.
Let’s go back in time to CPH:DOX. It’s a bitter cold night, and it’s an hour and a half for me to get home (if I’m lucky). I’m tired after 2 screenings and 2 interviews, I’ve got a 9am interview the next day (so another hour and a half to get back), and I’m looking at the ticket in my hand for Beautiful Things and thinking dude, you’ve seen 6 films in the last 2 days. You don’t even have time to write about them all. It’s 9pm. Be smart and go home.
But I’m also kind of in Opposite George mode these days. So when I pass the cinema on the way to the train station, I say c’mon man. You were into it when you read the synopsis. Duck in (at least out of the cold) and check it out.
And opposite Phil was right. It’s a beautiful film, but I also got to see some sonic wizardry, in one of the few docs that really run with the natural musicality of their settings, characters, and even filmic timing as a whole. A bit like Lucky People Centre International 20 years ago, I’m sucked into the story world at least as much by its form as by its content, and that’s all I’m really after.
Beautiful Things is about stuff. Specifically, it’s about the stuff that gets made and where it ends up. Did you ever look around and marvel at all the stuff humankind has created? Wonder how much material goes into making the simplest building? Think about what car is made of? I have, and it blows my mind. Turin-based filmmaker and designer Giorgio Ferrero does too, and he’s made a feature length anti-ad to explain it to us.
Broken into 4 sections, we meet Van from Texas ( PETROLEUM ), Danilo ( CARGO ) Andrea ( MEASURE ), and Vito ( ASH ). Together they make up the life span of the things in our consumer-based lives. From the oil that gets drawn up to manufacture and indeed go into most goods, to the huge scale transportation that gets those goods from one place to another, to the testing areas that decide if the goods are up to snuff, to the mass-incinerators that break the goods back down again when we’re done with them, the life cycle of stuff is broken down into a series of icons, hosted by iconic men who guide us through the meaning of what they do.
MYBOSSWAS, Ferrero’s advertising firm, is no stranger to visual iconography, and the film’s gorgeous cinematography shines through in every frame. But Ferrero is also a music composer, and Like Lucky People Centre International, Beautiful Things is constructed largely around sound and music.
P: I was watching your film and I was amazed at the amount of pre-visualization you must have done. I mean I get that a shot of somebody hammering the side of an oil rig can be versatile, to punctuate, or as a musical instrument to repeat the tone of the hammer striking metal, but the ending musical bit, with one woman singing in one location, while a child turns metal pieces he finds in the oil field into musical instruments, and another woman plays the cello in the echo chamber… And it all forms one piece. There’s so much that you pre-visualize. What’s the process behind that?
GIORGIO FERRERO: Yeah, for me it’s a big image with a lot of elements that lead together. Every time I thought about the movie as a contemporary opera, as a score with a very big climax. During the writing I thought about the sound as a first line of narrative, with the same timing and the same weight (as) the photographic and visual, describing the images and camera movement. I composed 70% of the music before production. So for me there was something to follow. And I started editing from the end of the film. Because I was very, very sure of the final 20 minutes of musical; it was the synthesis of the story. And afterwards I started to edit the other scenes from the beginning. I decided to never use the words of the characters and the music to say the same things. Van’s child playing with those things, it was the only way for him to play near the pump. But you have to understand it only with the sounds. I thought it was the real challenge of the movie: using sounds to say something. And we decided to show this musical part at the end to create something like a moment of freedom. It’s a moment of energy for the audience, when they can finally see what they hear for all the movie.
P: Yeah. It’s a freedom, and there’s also a lot of irony in that moment.
G: Yeah. Definitely. I think the soundtrack storytelling was a good idea to create a twist and put in front of the audience the experience of that sound.
P: I’m curious: in the CPH:DOX catalogue there’s a line on your page that describes the project as “documentary sci-fi”. Is that your description?
GF: (laughing). No no! It’s not mine. I never talked about the movie as a science movie, I thought of it more as a philosophic movie. But you know, there is the part in the echo chamber, maybe they decided to interpret it in this way. I think that also because this year the main theme in CPH:DOX is science, they decided to push this part of the interpretation of the movie. No, my log line is “A symphonic journey behind our everyday consumption.” I don’t like the word “symphonic” because it’s so big, but it’s a simple way to describe the approach.
P: It’s also an iconic word. I might use the word sonic instead, but I guess because you’re also dealing with icons it also kind of makes sense to use symphonic.
Each of the 4 sections of the film starts with a segment that sort of repeats. A Sonic Youth t-shirt shows up in each spot, as does a picture of a young boy with what seems to be his dad (is that you Girogio?), and an annoyingly loud toy robot that’s hopped up on energizers and won’t stop moving. All Ferrero’s stuff as it turns out. Reaching a certain age, he tells me, being in the advertising world, and looking around himself at the wall to wall stuff gave him pause. A brief pause anyway. Then he made a doc about it.
P: You see the film as more of a philosophical exploration than a political one. Could you tell me where the idea came from?
GF: I read this book many years ago called Dissipatio H.G. from Moriselli, an Italian writer from the 70s. He imagined in this story the world without man. And in this book Morisseli wrote a question: What is the world without us? It’s only a big garbage with our objects. We are covering the world with our objects. I started from this idea, to imagine my characters alone, in the middle of the borderline of the objects’ lifespan. I understood that the best way to represent the objects is to represent the landscape where there are no objects, but where they go through. It’s not a political movie. Because I don’t want to say to the audience you have to live your life this way, and not buy the objects blah blah blah… No. It’s a self-portrait. A self-philosophic-portrait. I understood at 35 that contemporary life is crazy. I understood that I had to change first.
P: We don’t really understand where oil goes. What it’s used for. There are times when I look around at all the things that humans have created, and it seems unbelievable. We’ve transformed the landscape of the planet.
GF: Yeah. It’s unbelievable. I think that the problem is that nobody thinks about the objects. They exist, but nobody looks behind them and says where does it come from? Who made this object? In 90% of the world, people work to create objects, and 50% of the time the objects go directly into the trash. It’s crazy. The first time I went inside the incinerator was one of the biggest experiences of my life. We shot in a very small incinerator in Switzerland, and you can understand how much garbage man creates in a very small land. Just one part of the German part of Switzerland. I think in the whole country there are something like 5 or 6 in service. And it’s powerful because you can see what the people throw out. And you understand what companies put in there as waste.
P: The more industrial side of waste you mean.
GF: Yes. Because a lot of what industry produces ends up in rubbish, before the market. Because sometimes they produce more than they can sell.
P: And they just destroy it?
GF: Because they have this line of production. And they have a minimum they have to produce. But if they don’t sell what they produce in that time, they have to put it in the rubbish.
P: That’s insane.
GF: In the food industry it’s the same. A minimum production number, and they have to start from that.
If it sounds like the film is this didactic lecture, relax. If that were the case I wouldn’t be bugging Ferrero at home during Easter holiday a couple of weeks after his film screened. In picking icons like the big ole Texan, or the eccentric Italian scientist, he cuts through a ton of narrative grease; because we can identify with the icon, their stories about asshole fathers or loved ones living too far away sit heavy. Whatever Van has to say about the colour of oil, watching him swing an imaginary baseball bat in a broken down baseball diamond in the middle of a wasteland in Odessa Texas tells us everything we need to know about the absurdity of what we’re doing to the planet, or the weight of unfulfilled dreams.
The form of Beautiful Things wears Ferrero’s design skills on its sleeve. Every scene is treated with its own style, accompanying the almost mathematical score. Or s it the other way around? Either way, the audience at the screening are mesmerized, and occasionally assaulted by the loud mix. And the audience aren’t the only people impressed.
P: You won the Next Wave award at CPH:DOX.
GF: I’m so happy yeah. It was so cool. I got a call at midnight on Thursday from the organizer saying “Giorgio come back! You’re the winner.”
GF: Yeah I’m so happy also for the movie because this award can push it in a more simple way. Now we’re trying to find a good way to work with a sales agent. In Italy we have some interest for the distribution but at the moment we decided to wait until (after) an international tour. And we’ll have the UK premiere at the Edinburgh film festival. We’re working on the US premiere. The Lincoln Center is very interested, and they’d like to organize something in their program. So we’re trying to close our schedule. It’s not my job but we have to do it now. We maybe want to say yes to one festival but the Venice Biennale says it’s better to say yes to another, and politically it’s not so simple. But we’re really happy because the audience and the festivals really love the movie.
P: And your project is quite unique.
GF: That’s one of the best points of the movie, but also one of the worst, because for the market it’s a very strange movie. Everyone says “wow it’s beautiful! But I can’t sell this movie. Who can buy it?” But at the same time there’s a very big interest because it’s strange and a lot of people love it. When we arrived at the Venice Biennale they said “you’re crazy. It’s something impossible.” But after the first workshop they understood that it was something that could be realized.
P: The Venice Biennale is where you pitched the project, right?
GF: Yeah. This project is the winner of the Venice Biennale College, that is, in Europe but also maybe in the world is the most interesting program of first feature films. Because the Venice Biennale produces and funds every year three feature films; 1 Italian director and 2 international. And every year there’s something like 500 submissions, with only 3 projects selected. So it’s a challenge. I’d written the project just 1 month before the submission. They organized the first workshop with 12 teams from everywhere, and after (that) we had to write the screenplay in 1 month. And after the screenplay they decide the winner. They decided on us, a feature film from Lebanon, and another from a Russian woman living in Australia. All the movies are unconventional and strong. Martyr was premiered at SXSW, and Strange Colours In Gothenburg. It’s a very good experience. You have a producer that doesn’t want to create money with your movie, that wants only to create a piece of art. And… Here’s my (infant) daughter. Mia.
P: Ciao Mia.
There’s a battle for Ferrero’s mic. He wins.
GF: I think it would be impossible to realize it without the Venice Biennale because shooting on an oil field or inside an incinerator is difficult. But when we arrived there with the Venice Biennale letter, they understood that it was something artistic, and not a political or commercial film, and they said yes. If we didn’t have that letter it could have been very difficult. When we arrived for the first time in Texas, and we tried to find a location there, they wanted only to shoot us. “Go go go! We don’t want a camera.” But we found a woman who is the owner of a big oil field. She’s very interested in art, and when she saw “Venice Biennale” she said “I want to do it.” That was the code for entry inside the oil field. It was cool.
P: How did you find Van in the middle of that field?
GF: We did a casting in Dallas. We found a producer that scouted some oil men. And the first time I saw Van Quattro I realized he was perfect. Because he was an oil man, and also an actor. Van spent 10 years in LA, doing some acting. And then he decided to come back to Dallas. Because the life of an actor in LA was crazy. He started to use drugs, and alcohol and everything. And he preferred oil field life to life in the big city.
P: He seems very natural there.
GF: (chuckles) It’s incredible. I think that only a Texas man could do it. The life in Odessa Texas is crazy. I think that it’s impossible to live there. There’s only the smell of oil and thousands of pumps everywhere. But today Van lives in Dallas. I was so happy because when I spoke with some of the Texas men I realized that it would be difficult to use one of them…
MIA is back. She completely takes over the microphone. Like a boss.
GF: I’m sorry. So yeah, when I met the first Texan men I realized it could be impossible to use one of them, because they are very cold and fixed on their work, and they’re something like a part of a machine. And if you speak with them they are empty. But when I met Van I understood that he was my character. He has inside him all the things, and also the experience in the oil fields.
P: Yeah, he’s a gift to your film.
GF: Yeah. I was very lucky to find him. And with Danilo and the other guys it was the same.
P: What I love about Van’s introduction is that visually you treat him like a Texas oil man. He’s very mysterious, he looks like he’s not going to say anything, and then he tells you everything. And it’s beautiful.
GF: We needed very iconic men, very iconic pictures of men who can represent their worlds without words. So it was not so simple. But I think that they work very well. Also because of the different type of faces and language… For example if you go in a big cargo ship I think that all Philippinos are the same, kind of crazy.
P: My brother works for MAERSK. Maybe I’ll arrange a tour to visit all the Philippino workers on the ships.
GF: yeah. MAERSK was my first choice of companies but they decided to not participate in the movie. In Italy there’s a national division of the company in Genova. But they said that they don’t make movies because politically it’s not so interesting for them.
P: They have to protect their image.
GF: Yeah. And Grimaldi lines said go on this ship and do whatever you want, so for us it was great. They told us that ship because it was one of the most recent ships they created. The first day when I arrived inside the cargo ship, the master came to me and said you have the keys, now you can do whatever you want. Because you signed a contract and for us it’s ok, so go. Every morning I had only to tell the master my plan, and every day he said yes, ok. That’s fine.
P: Did they understand what you were trying to do?
GF: Yeah yeah. Also in this situation the Venice Biennale logo was a very strong help for us; that logo is the biggest one in Italy you can have on a letter. Grimaldi understood the importance of the movie.
P: It’s a passport.
G: Yeah. It’s a passport. It’s at the top of the cultural scale.
P: Did the VB tell you what their motivation was for choosing your project?
GF: They said that this movie is very unusual for the Italian panorama, between doc and fiction. I arrived there as a composer. In Europe (I’ve done) something like 20 feature films as a composer, and it was my passport to arrive there and say I can do my first feature with you. And obviously they were very interested in the music side of the movie. In Italy there are not directors that are also designers and composers. They understood that it could be the first time to try this type of approach. There is no David Lynch in Italy (laughs).
P: Yeah. I don’t know how many there are in the world, not just in Italy.
GF: You know (Alejandro González) Iñárritu composed music for his first films.
P: I didn’t know that.
GF:Iñárritu was an art director in a big advertising company, in Mexico city. So he also started as a something like a composer, like David Lynch.
P: So there’s a good history of connecting design companies with music and film. Are you going to make your soundtrack available for this film?
GF: I think we’ll publish the soundtrack next autumn after the international tour and maybe I hope the distribution in Italy. We’re trying to organize a show, with a screening with live music. We have 3 possibilities to do that : 2 in France and 1 in Italy. We’re working these days to organize that production.
P: On your website I see that there’s also a VR component for the film, and I wonder what the experience is like.
GF: Yeah. The piece is called Denoise. the VR idea was born in the VB workshop. They said the VR language could be very strong with our landscapes. We found a partner in Italy who provided the equipment, and we realized only one scene per act. In each scene there are the men (from the film) speaking directly to the audience, and they’re reflecting on and fighting with the silence. Over 20 minutes you can stay in the oil field with Van, or the engine room with Danilo, the Echo chamber with Andre, or the waste pit with Vito. And they are speaking to you, saying how they live silence every day. And I think it’s a very good way to try to bring the audience with us to their experience, because for 20 minutes you are alone with the waste pit and the incinerator and you can look around. I think that VR movies can do that. I’m quite interested in trying VR experiments because you can live experience that you can’t live any other way. It’s impossible for 90% of people to go to an oil field. (In VR) you can stand in front of a pump jack, and you can understand what does it mean?
I’m interested in VR. We’re making some experiments in my studio. You’re using new cameras with a lot of bugs, so it’s not simple, and you can’t use lights because it’s tricky, but interesting. It’s the first act of a new cinema. I saw at CPH:DOX some interesting projects. I really like the idea of working in parallel, flat cinema and VR. When I saw Carne y Arena by Iñárritu I understood that it can become the new cinema. It’s a movie, but it’s also an experience. The narrative is complete and is very strong, and the visuals are amazing.
P: I haven’t seen that one.
G: It’s incredible. I think it’s the first example of VR cinema that’s really cinema.
VR headsets; new today, obsolete tomorrow, talked about over computers made using fossil fuels, and made to last so long and no longer. Does that make the things bad?
The loving attention Ferrero has put into this thoughtful film tells a complicated story, reminding me that humans are complicated, capable of deep ugliness, and deep beauty.