Mirko Pincelli, director of The Habit of Beauty, kindly gave some time to speak with Maddie Andrews & James Baxter-Derrington about the film’s screening at Raindance, his history in documentary, and the joy of cinema.
Well done for your nomination, that’s so exciting, have you seen any of the others in your category?
I’ve seen the trailers.
What did you think?
I think it’s good to participate anyway, so I don’t usually try to think in a way of ‘that’s better, that’s worse’, you know whether we’re going to be up there or not. I just like to be part of the festival and see how it goes at the end of it. Otherwise you just can’t keep track of these things. We were in Montreal last month, I was saying to James, it was actually the biggest cash prize – for the three nominated films – in the world. It was happening at the same time as Venice, so they wanted to stand up to compare to Venice,x to Toronto. But we were there, and that is good enough I think.
But at least you were there!
Exactly, that’s it.
So, you’ve done quite a few documentaries before this, and now this is your first fiction one?
“cinema is culture, cinema is life, cinema is entertaining, it is joy, it is everything”
So, what led you to go to the fiction side of film?
Well, I think it’s because I come from a background of photography. I went for the first time to Bosnia making a photographic reportage for a German newspaper back in 2009/10 and was trying to look at the contemporary situation of a country that was completely destroyed by war that was back in the 90s. I think that was the first time I felt my photography was not able to say enough of what I was feeling and going through, so I decided to make my first documentary. Against the odds – while everyone was telling me it’s an old story, no one is going to care, just don’t do it, don’t do it, focus on something else – so we struggled to make it on a financial level. But again, it was nominated for an award at Raindance, then it was sold worldwide at 12-13 different countries, we found a sales agent and that was my first doc. And since then I really felt that documentary was my main interest and focus – and still is, in a sense. So, the step from documentary making into fiction, I think I tried as much as possible to follow the same approach of making film about real stories about real people, stories that I experienced in my own life in my own skin, same thing for the writer Enrico Tessarin (with whom I have a production company) who produced the script. So yeah, it is very much a film that yes is fiction, but is as well focused on real life and real characters. So pretty much everything that you will see in the film are real facts and real stories. And that’s very much my approach, I don’t really care about horror or fantasies and that kind of film, not because I value them less but because that’s not my kind of thing, if that makes sense?
Yeah! You have an incredibly diverse cast in all aspects of it, in your production team and everything. Was it hard getting everyone together at the same time?
Yeah, it was very hard. It was again, when you try to make a film with £1 million, you are 30 years old and don’t have any track record in terms of fiction, it is hard. But I always wanted to surround myself with people who are much more experienced than me, because I always believed that if it is a give-and-take trust between them and you then your film will eventually benefit from this. So, starting from the director of photography there is Bertolucci’s DOP, the editor did Nanni Moretti film ‘The Son’s Room’, up to all the cast itself, I intentionally wanted to work with people I not just appreciated but also in a sense admired as well. It went really well, we established a relationship where we all look forward to the next [project]. So, I think yes it was a big struggle in the beginning but it pays off eventually. In terms of the cast it is very much the idea that you have your A choices and your B choices (and C, D, E and F) but I think we were quite lucky to get a couple of names on from the beginning of our development. That’s kind of a pedigree that helps you get everyone else on, because if you have a name of an actor that trusts you and decides to be on board, everyone else clicks in after that and feel it makes sense to be part of the film.
So, am I wrong in saying you filmed in England and in Italy?
Yeah, yeah that’s it!
So, do you think you will continue to do these cross-country films?
I mean, I am originally from Italy, I lived here for 13 years and I’m greatly thankful for the opportunity I had in this country. I would say there are definitely opportunities here you wouldn’t get anywhere else. I was in an interview and they asked ‘so is it much easier to make films in the UK?’ well, it’s not easier to make films in the UK. But, if you are switched on and you kind of take those opportunities that are coming towards you, you are in a very good place to start and a good position to make something. Definitely, on the financial side as well you have much more people willing, privately, to invest in films as well – and that helps hugely. So we have a structure that works completely differently in Italy, we attracted official funds – like from the ministry of culture, national television, the regional funds, so much more on a state level kind of funds. Whereas in the UK they were all private. Yes, so we’ll keep going working on co-production because I am myself a co-production if that makes sense, I am not Italian anymore, I’m not British I just like to make films that are a melting pot of ideas, of actors, of talents, of crew and cast where they merge together and all follow one vision. I think this is very valuable, this kind of mix, it brings different flavour, different colour to the whole experience of making a film. My next film, as well is going to be a co-production between US, Bosnia and Italy (and obviously UK because our production company is based in the UK), so I think I naturally look to stories that are automatically co-productions, for now it seems like the rule in a sense. But I am very happy with that kind of collaboration in a sense.
So, what is next for you? You mentioned your project you are working on now?
It is a story called ‘The Tears List’, it is a story I discovered when I was making a documentary series for Al Jazeera in the Balkan, that looks very much to a struggle of a family that starts in Bosnia, a very small, remote place in the mountains forgotten from god and everyone else. It’ll be a big journey between two completely different and opposite countries.
“I am myself a co-production … I am not Italian anymore, I’m not British I just like to make films that are a melting pot of ideas”
Ah, that sounds really interesting. So, you do a lot about Bosnia, any particular reason for that?
Not really, as I said I made my first doc and fell in love with the country and the people. I think that when you heavily suffer – so your son is killed, your wife is raped, your husband is deported or kept in a concentration camp – you experience so much on a human level that you kind of become much more sensible and much more intimate with anyone and anything around you, and that was mainly the reason I fell in love with this place. I realised there were stories hidden and forgotten in every corner. It just came naturally in a sense to make one film after another. We have done a series as well that won first prize from the United Nations, handed to our Bosnian producer PCRC. And it all started, again, from a co-producer that we work a lot with, in the Balkan, shared this amazing idea. I directed it, we produced it, but it led to a successful step. So yeah, that’s what’s happening by itself.
That’s very exciting. What’s happening next with Habit of Beauty?
Well, I can’t lie we are struggling to find distribution, because it is a bold film. It is a film that doesn’t compromise, and the situation in the market of today is very much centred and focused towards commercial stories and commercial film. So it is not easy. But, again, we are on our sixth film festival and on a film festival level it is going very well. We won a prize for best directing, best actor, Jury awards, and so on so that’s been successful. We are securing a distribution in Italy for the beginning of next year and I hope that is going to happen in the UK as well, I hope there will be out there one brave small distributor that will just consider the work on its own and in itself rather than think of the market there is in the UK at the moment. So yeah, we are trying to push as hard as we can to be there because eventually you make a film for people, you don’t want to end up with a work that does well in the film festivals but is not going out to the cinema. I feel like crying if I think of it just going out on DVDs because it is the last thing I wish for a film where so many people put their love into. But, you know, I think we have some possibilities out there so hopefully in a few months we will be able to breathe happily and see this film working and getting by on its own.
You’ve been involved in a few web-series and things, do you think that’s the future now then because distribution is quite hard, so web-series may be an easier way to go with certain things?
I mean web-series are probably easier to make somehow, because they are able to involve brands and you are able to inject an advertising side of filmmaking into it. So they are an interesting kind of platform, it isn’t happening now – it’s been out there a few years and they’re doing fairly well. I wouldn’t say it’s my main focus of interest simply because if you make a film, again it’s a bit like DVDs, seeing it going out on the web only is like you’ve somehow lost my game, if that makes sense. The aim of being a director is to share this with as many people as possible, and to share it considering the quality of the film as well. On the web you lose a huge amount of the work you put into a film, it is much more strong and impactful to see it of course in the theatre, in the cinema. So the priority for me will stay, and I think I will try and reach it with this film and the next and any work in future. To go out to the cinema and see people sitting there in a big screened room and watch a film.
There’s nothing quite like that.
Exactly, and I think a web series yes is an opportunity, and is definitely something to think about. I mean there are a lot of platforms, even Netflix now is doing really well and is acquiring film. But I think you are somehow undervaluing your project, I still feel like that, not because it’s Netflix – I mean I’m sure they have a great reputation out there – but I wish to work with cinema rooms, I wish to keep it there, still existing. Not suddenly living in a world where we watch film on our mobile phone, and our laptops, and our screens at home and we become so lazy that we don’t even go out for the cinema. I think cinema is culture, cinema is life, cinema is entertaining, it is joy, it is everything. And I yeah, I want to see it like that.
Definitely, there is nothing quite like seeing it in a cinema, it’s just a better experience.
Yeah, I think so.
You worked with Noel Clarke in this production as well, his own work prior seems quite similar to yours in terms of the real stories – whilst they’re fictional there is a true part to them – was that something that drew you to him as almost a co-conspirator on the project?
I mean to be completely honest, the role of Noel Clarke in this film, I feel and I think he feels, is very different from the films he’s done before. I mean, he’s in a completely different position, he’s a successful businessman next to a successful gallery owner, an Italian woman, so he’s not the guy coming from the street as we’ve seen him in Adulthood, Kidulthood, Brotherhood, and all those things, at the cinema it was in Toronto and so that’s the films where he performs at his best and we all know him for that. But I’ve always seen in Noel a different kind of actor that has always been not really picked up from anyone. Because I like him so much as an actor, I thought from the beginning let’s try and work on a different character – on a character you haven’t done before – because at the end of the day that’s the nature of being an actor as well. The more you are able to step outside of your comfortable zone and to imagine yourself in a different role in a different film the richer you become acting wise. It was a definitely a very good choice, I think, but when you see the film you can judge it for yourself.
Certainly. Was it easier to convince him of it because it was a new sort of role for him? Was it something that intrigued him?
Noel Clarke is one of the few people who have been very supportive of all the work I have done, so I’ve known him for a while. He helped me as well to push and make my documentary. he’s always been very willing to share and develop ideas together and share the whole process of making a film. Even on a script level, he has read one of the first scripts. We ended up with draft 13, the one we shot with, so he’s always been there and has definitely been very supportive.
“documentaries are something I feel is running through my blood, my veins, and I would never stop making them”
Yeah, that’s fantastic. Your next project is going to be another fiction one, are you looking to keep working at documentaries in the future? Or is it more of a shift now?
I think directors of fictional films should only make films when they have something to say. I’m not the kind of director that likes to work either for hire or either for a story because you know, you have a script, let’s make the script, let’s make a bit of money and go to the cinema, done, onto the next. I usually spend a huge amount of time on developing the idea, casting, pre-production and so on. So, I don’t have a fixed structure on when I want to doc or want to make fiction. Because to me, honestly, even my fictional films are based on real stories so I live and experience the journey in a very similar way. I’m in development with two more documentaries as well so documentaries are something I feel is running through my blood, my veins, and I would never stop making them. It’s more about where you are as an individual, as a director, in a specific moment in your own life and whichever story is more suitable to be done in a documentary way or in a fictional way. But yeah, I don’t keep them separated at all.
No, well that is fantastic. Is there anything else you wanted to say about either the film or a new project?
I think I said pretty everything I could think about, I hope it made sense.
Yes, 100% thank you so much for taking your time to come to talk to us. We really do appreciate it.