The horrors of young parenthood are at the forefront of Saverio Costanzo‘s thriller “Hungry Hearts,” expanding its public debut in theatres this week (review here). The story recounts the relationship between Italian Mina (Alba Rohrwacher) and American Jude (Adam Driver) in the urban hustle and bustle of New York City. After a serendipitous (and hilarious) encounter in the washroom of a Chinese restaurant, the two instantly fall in love and begin their life together. Things start to take a sour turn after their baby is born, and Mina becomes dangerously paranoid over the child’s health.
It’s the kind of visceral film where, as it progresses, the audience is made to literally feel the walls closing in on the couple. Besides the two riveting performances from Driver and Rohrwacher (both deservedly shared acting awards in Venice last year), the film’s gut-wrenchingly intense atmosphere is mostly thanks to Costanzo’s expert direction and his utilization of cinematic elements like score and shot composition. The Italian filmmaker uses Marco Franzoso‘s novel “Indigo Child” as a springboard for his English-language debut, and creates something wholly original. We got the director on the phone recently to discuss, among other things; his process, choosing New York City for the setting, the extent of Roman Polanski‘s influence, and his inspired choice of using 16mm to tell his story.
I’m not sure how many people are familiar with Marco Franzoso’s novel outside of Italy. How did you come across it, and how faithful is your adaptation?
I got to the novel when I read a review of it in a newspaper in Italy. Then I read the novel, and wrote the script, but a year and a half later. That story really stayed with me for that year and a half, because it was such a strong read. And, after a year and a half, I started writing the script without even going back to the book, didn’t even read the book again, just [went] by the memory I had of the story.
It’s faithful, I mean, the heart of the story is the same. But the book is different, the way [the story is structured] is different, like the opening scene for example there’s no restaurant scene but instead it’s [a flashback]. It follows the book, but I just chose a more linear narrative. The main [difference] is that the book had very little dialogue, people weren’t talking so much, so the characters were developed in our way in “Hungry Hearts.” The characters are quite different, Mina is quite different because in the book the character of Mina is more mysterious. We see her just from his point of view, we never spend time with her, so it’s somehow less understandable. But, the heart of the story is the same.
You mentioned the opening scene, I wanted to ask you about that because it’s one of the highlights for me. It’s funny, charming, kind of nasty, and a great thematic foreshadowing as well. How did you come up with this idea?
I was looking for an original idea to show, in a movie, two people meeting by chance, and falling in love. This was already seen a million times, so I was looking for something original. And it needed to be intricate, the beginning of a movie has to be somehow a [symbol] of the movie itself. It has to tell whatever you’re going to see. And, then, as a metaphor: two people trapped in a very tight space, forced to see each other’s interiors and smells, whatever a couple is going to face in this story. Also, just the absurdity of the situation itself was good for the actors to work with.
Was there any improvisation at all?
No, there wasn’t much improvisation. The beginning was very specific, everything was very specific. We shot about 20 times, it was long shots, about 10 minutes each, and we cut some things out in the middle while we were shooting, but that’s it.
It just goes to show how the chemistry between Adam and Alba really works in the movie. How did the casting process go?
I wrote the film thinking about Alba. One of the reasons the film is set in New York is that in the book the character came from abroad, and it was very important for me that this character was very lonely in the world, with no family, no friends. She was a German coming to Italy in the book. I wanted to make another film with Alba, and I was thinking that Alba was perfect for Mina. It’s one of the reasons why I moved the film to New York, so I can work with her. From the beginning I was writing the script thinking about Alba, and I already worked with her in my previous film [“The Solitude of Prime Numbers“] so I know her very well.
And, what about Adam?
I was working with Doug Aibel, our casting director in New York, we started the casting in July and the first picture he showed me was Adam’s. I didn’t know him, because “Girls” wasn’t shown in Italy, but I just looked at the picture and said, “This is the guy, I mean, he’s perfect.” So I inquired, but they told me he was working on Noah Baumbach‘s “While We’re Young.” We were supposed to start in September, and he was busy on that film. So for the next four months we started looking for someone like Adam and we had a few interested people but I didn’t find the character I was looking for. It came to a point where I was about to go back to Italy without doing the film, but then Adam’s agent called us the day before I was supposed to leave, saying that Adam read the script, that he was very interested and he wanted to meet the next day. I went to meet him, and I found this guy who is American, of course, but who’s got a very European flavor in terms of choices, a way of understanding acting, the way he wants to make his career also. And, he jumped into the project the next day. It was total luck to get Adam, it was amazing.
I find it interesting that the book is set in Italy, but you set it in New York. What do you think New York brings to the story that other cities like Rome or London couldn’t?
I couldn’t visualize that story in Rome, for example. In Italy, anyway, we have a lot of problems but we don’t have big problems. It’s a much easier life one can afford in Rome compared to New York for example. And then I lived in New York for a while when I was young, I stayed in New York for about two, two and a half years, and I used this experience. I suffered in New York as a student, because of the craziness of the city, how it’s pushing, competitive, violent. But it’s also fascinating, of course. So, I felt comfortable to shoot the film in New York because I had my point of view of the city. Once you shoot a film in New York it’s like playing soccer in Rio, you’re in the city of movies.
I also needed a place where the inside and the outside [are separated] by a very [thin layer]. When you’re inside an apartment, you hear the city outside. In the story they basically imprison themselves in a tight little apartment, I needed a city outside to call for them all the time, that shouts to them. And New York is special for that, because there’re very small spaces inside compared to how big it all is outside. And I needed to keep the feeling of that difference.
It really reminded me a lot of Roman Polanski’s movies, especially his ‘Apartment’ series. That claustrophobic tension is very similar. Was he a big influence on you?
The [major] influence from Polanski for me was the look of Mina, Alba’s character. The way she dresses, her choice of colors, and she even looks like Mia Farrow a little bit. And the second [inspiration] was the [location] of Upper West side in New York. “Rosemary’s Baby” was shot on 72nd and Park, the heart of the Upper West, which made me think of the main location of my film to be the Upper West. But, if you want to talk about “Repulsion,” I’m embarrassed to say that I never saw that film, so it couldn’t have been an influence for me. But, I believe that once you shoot inside a one-bedroom apartment in New York, you’ll start to think like Polanski in “Repulsion”; it’s the only way to shoot inside this apartment. I faced the same kind of problems [he must’ve] faced shooting in an apartment.
“Hungry Hearts” has a wonderfully raw and gritty aesthetic. Can you talk a bit about why you chose 16mm?
I was thinking about the 16mm because, people think of New York as a very modern city, but in fact, for me it’s very antique and an old city. I chose this particular [aesthetic] in order to give something modern a very antique flavor. And then we used the lenses, a lot of them were zoom, we had like 24 lenses that gave us a kind of grainy effect, and we used lenses from the ’70s. We used a 1.66 Aspect Ratio which is quite an unconventional choice nowadays because everyone’s using panoramic, but this is almost a square. We did it because we knew that we’re going to use a lot of wide angles because the apartment is very tight, [and we needed] to keep a feeling that the house is also changing. All these elements were needed for that depiction.
This idea to use these very twisted closeups and disorienting wide angles was there from the beginning?
Yeah, it was like this from the start.
It adds a lot to the claustrophobia.
Exactly, and the apartment itself becomes a kind of protagonist to the story as well, a character somehow. So it had to change, and the way to [create] that with something like an apartment is through the way you film it.
Something else that adds to the atmosphere is the score by Nicola Piovani. It’s hard to believe it’s the same guy who did “Life Is Beautiful.”
[laughs] To make tense music is somehow easier, what’s difficult is to something light and romantic. Nicola is the composer of “Life is Beautiful” and he’s got a lightness inside himself. All the music that stays with Mina for example, when she’s going around the city or when she goes to the beach, I needed that to be very light, warm, to be very emotional. And Nicola is perfect for that kind of music. And the other theme, the tense stuff, when Jude suspects Mina, and so on, this was inspired by thrillers from the ’50s, where the music was very explicit, and it’s in some ways are a very explicit reference to Alfred Hitchcock, for example.
What can you tell me about your next project? Will you be working more with international casts in the future?
Yeah, I’m working on a script now but it’s not very clear, so I’m not ready to talk about it just yet. But, yes, it’s going to involve an international cast, and, I believe, will be in English again.
“Hungry Hearts” is now streaming on Amazon and iTunes, playing in New York, and is expanding to L.A. on June 12th.