The Unknown Woman is the first new film in eight years from vaunted Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore. It will make its much-anticipated North American debut after winning five Donatellos, Italy’s equivalent of the Oscars. Known best for directing Cinema Paradiso, winner of the best foreign film Oscar in 1988, Tornatore in Unknown Woman (La Sconosciuta) has fashioned an enigmatic mystery involving a Russian woman with a dual identity, one as a sexual slave, who insinuates herself into the life of an Italian family as a caretaker of a young child.
The film, about to open in Montreal with a Los Angeles launch set for June, won Donatellos last year for best picture, best director, best actor for Russian theater star Xenia Rappoport, best cinematography the film’s director of photography, Fabio Zamarion, and best score by prolific composer Ennio Morricone. Other members of the film’s team of key collaborators include editor Massimo Quaglia and art director Tonino Zera.
Tornatore, on a recent visit to Los Angeles, talked to Below the Line about The Unknown Woman.
Below the Line: Where was The Unknown Woman shot? It looks like Italy but it’s hard to identify a specific city.
Giuseppe Tornatore: Almost all of it was done in Trieste, except for three or four days in a little town near Rome. I wanted it to look like it was set somewhere in northern Italy without making the town identifiable. When I arrived in Trieste, which is at the top of the Adriatic Sea, I felt it was exactly right. It is an incredible city, full of contrasts, a really cinematographic location. It has a light I’ve never seen anywhere else. But I avoided showing its most famous landmarks.
The idea was that the city can’t be identified, adding to the film’s sense of mystery. So on exterior shots we transformed the face of Trieste by shooting at an angle in one place, and doing a reverse in another place. Even people in Trieste when they saw the film were unable to identify it as their own town.
BTL: How long was the shoot?
Tornatore: It was long, about 16 weeks, and difficult because it involved so many individual set ups. Almost everything was shot on location, with only a couple of sequences on sets.
BTL: Tell me about your director of photography, Fabio Zamarion, who created the dramatic look of the film?
Tornatore: Fabio apprenticed with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who filmed many movies for Bernardo Bertolucci. And Fabio shows many of the same fascinations with light and shadows as Storaro. For Unknown Woman, I asked him to give me strong contrasts, almost as if the movie were in black and white, with some colors.
BTL: How closely do you work with your DP?
Tornatore: I’m very involved. During prep, I go over the script scene by scene, working with Fabio to find the best visual solutions to give the same emotions as are contained in the script.
BTL: What’s your normal camera set-up?
Tornatore: I work with only one traditional camera, and try to give every frame and shot a compositional balance, with only a few very simple movements. I’m not enamored with the Steadicam and I used it only a few times.
BTL: Talk about how you collaborate with your editor, Massimo Quaglia, who has worked with you on a number of films.
Tornatore: I’m very hands-on because I used to be my own editor. Massimo was originally my assistant, on Una Pura Formalita , and because of his excellent work I moved him up. The editing is tied closely to screenplay. What you see on the screen is almost exactly what was on the page. At the same time, I like to give more time for editing rather than less. When you make a movie you write the movie three times—when you write the script, when you are shooting and when you are editing. And maybe the most creative phase is the last one. I like to finish the editing, stop for two or three weeks, and go back and find ways to make some improvements.
BTL: This is your eighth film with a score by legendary composer Ennio Morricone. What was unique in your collaboration on The Unknown Woman?
Tornatore: Working with Ennio on this film was one of the most complex in our 20 years of collaboration. My intent was to avoid the traditional use of the musical theme that repeats over and over with different orchestrations. I wanted to renounce repetitiveness. So I asked Ennio to compose many, many themes. And the most I used any theme was once or twice, not more.
BTL: At what point does Morricone enter the filmmaking process?
Tornatore: Ennio is involved from the moment the idea is born or during the scriptwriting. We have a profound professional understanding. The music was written in tandem with the screenplay and it was played during shooting on a few scenes.
Every film we do together is a surprise. He’s almost 80 and he still manages to surprise me all the time. On this film we pretty much behaved like young musicians, experimenting with the music. I had suggested some sort of innovative and slightly dangerous ways of approaching the score and Ennio followed with his masterful talent.
BTL: What are you working on now?
Tornatore: I’m currently shooting a film, Baaria – la Porta del Vento, which roughly translated, is The Wind’s Door. I also have Leningrad, a big long-term project that I’m trying to get budgeted.