The Comfort of Strangers
by Anthony Kaufman
The cast of “Once We Were Strangers.”
Photo Credit: John Bernstein
Now a legal alien without a work permit, Emanuele Crialese came to America in 1991 to study at New York University’s filmmaking program. After making several shorts, his first feature, “Once We Were Strangers” is now having its U.S. premiere in Sundance’s Dramatic Competition and the amiable Italian-born director is ready to leave his under-the-table restaurant jobs to become a full time filmmaker. Infused with a combination of Italian neorealist sincerity and New York guerrilla filmmaking, “Strangers” tells the tale of two star-crossed couples, Antonio (non-actor Vincenzo Amato) an Italian immigrant, and the object of his affection, Ellen (Jessica Whitney Gould) and Indian immigrants, Apu (Ajay Naidu) and his new wife Devi (the stunning Anjalee Deshpande).
“We wanted to break stones,” says newcomer Amato, perhaps an awkward translation of an Italian expression. But the meaning is still clear; Crialese and Amato left an Italy whose creative energy, they felt, was fading, and came to New York to join in the artistic fervor that is the fast-paced metropolis. Now in a position where every new filmmaker in the world wants to be, Crialese is a little daunted by what to do now, saying “The most difficult part of the whole process is promoting your film.” Spinning in the whirlwind of Sundance’s hospitality suite, Crialese and Amato found their to answer a few questions.
indieWIRE: How did you get the money to produce your film?
Emanuele Crialese: The first money comes from the selling of a pair of earrings that I inherited from my great, grandmother. They were supposed to be for my future wife — a brilliant, early 19th century pair of earrings. I auctioned them and that is the first amount of money I raised. And then, another friend of mine, a biologist, gave me some more and then we came up with the first, let’s say, decent budget for a 16mm shoot. Then little by little, we got this Italian production company involved — they gave us some money to shoot 35 mm and they gave us the post-production. So in 6 months, we got all the financing together.
iW: Did you do a lot of rehearsals?
Crialese: Like three months of rehearsals. With Vincenzo, I was a little scared, because he never acted, so I wanted to be absolutely sure that he understood the nature of the work, the nature of being in front of the camera with ten people around him and just trying to be as natural as possible.
iW: Can you talk about how you shot it?
Crialese: We were a very small crew of 14 people. We tried to be very discreet on location. So the camera was coming out at the very last moment, and we were shooting without making any noise or blocking the street.
iW: So have you been talking to distributors?
Crialese: We’ve been talking to distributors. The funny thing is in Montreal, we were there with no publicist, with no producer’s rep, and we got two amazing reviews from Hollywood Reporter and Variety. But here, I don’t know what it is. I’ve noticed that journalists are only interested in you if you’re picked up.
iW: The ending of your film is very risky, don’t you think?
Crialese: I didn’t want to have a typical, happy ending, first of all. . . Though many people told me, “have them meet, have them meet,” I said, “No,” I’m going to take my chances. It’s my first film. Fuck it. I’m free. I just want to play with it.
iW: So what if a distributor said, “We’ll take your film if you change the ending.”
Crialese: I would say, “Keep it open ended.” I wouldn’t change anything. If they like, if they love it, they’ll take it for what it is.