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[Exclusive] “Freaks Out,” Freaks In! – Tony Timpone Interviews Director Gabriele Mainetti

Italian writer/director Gabriele Mainetti reinvents the superhero movie with supernatural audacity and…freaks!

Though the homegrown genre scene in Italy has been on life support for decades, one Italian filmmaker is slowly making a difference.

Gabriele Mainetti made his feature film debut with his 2015 superhero farce They Call Me Jeeg. The movie took the festival circuit by storm and won tons of awards in his native country. His latest effort, the revisionist superhero flick Freaks Out, has garnered even more accolades and will debut this Thursday night at the 21st edition of Open Roads: New Italian Cinema at NYC’s Film at Lincoln Center. (playing the Walter Reade Theater, 165 West 65th Street). The fest runs June 9 to 15 and will screen 15 acclaimed Italian films.

Freaks Out is a dark, over-the-top historical fantasy set during World War II. A group of circus “freaks” with unusual abilities are on the lam from a demented, 12-fingered Nazi pianist. The madman has prophesized Hitler’s suicide and seeks to harness the freaks’ offbeat powers to prevent the war’s end.

In this exclusive interview, Mainetti (who will be attending the Lincoln Center premiere) gives us the scoop on the making of his ambitious sophomore film. Watch for an exclusive clip from Freaks Out right here tomorrow. For more info on the screening and Open Roads series, go here filmlinc.org.

It’s been seven years since They Call Me Jeeg. Why so long to get your second film off the ground?

After They Call Me Jeeg, it took two years to finance this movie. Then we shot for 128 days. So, it was very long. And then when we started, it took us a lot to end it. And it was a long postproduction and then the pandemic and everything. We were supposed to hit the theaters December 16, 2020. Then when the movie was ready, we had to postpone it because the theaters closed again when COVID went high again. The movie was selected at all the great festivals that you know, including Venice. But what was important for me was [getting the film] into theaters. So, we fought a lot for theaters. We were approached by [streaming] platforms, and we had one of the highest offers from Amazon, but we said, “No, we want to go to theaters.” It took us four months to do mixing of the audio, so even then the postproduction was endless. We never did a movie like this in Italy. In the US, you do it all the time, but we didn’t have the know-how on how to do a movie like this. Italians have a way of being very smart when they face problems, and we didn’t lose a lot of time. For example, in a movie this difficult, we did only one day and a half of reshoots. And I never even had a second unit for action. I want to shape the action in the same way as love scenes; you have a beginning, middle, and end. I try to do everything myself.

You’re practically the only director doing genre films in Italy. Has the international acclaim and awards for your films opened any doors for you and others in your home country?

In my home country, everybody wants to work with me. Everybody. After I did my first movie, They Call Me Jeeg, everybody asked me to work for them. But since I produced my first movie and I produced this one too, I said, “I don’t wanna work with you guys. I’m not interested.” But after Freaks Out, I was on my knees because of the over-budgeting, and I accepted to work with another company for a thing that is very complicated. And to my surprise, it’s two years’ work. Then a week ago, this company, one of the biggest here, said, “I don’t know if you can make it.” So, it proves what I said all the time to myself: “People gotta understand that you gotta do it by yourself.” It’s the only way. Others don’t have the guts. They don’t have the patience to fight for something. They don’t understand. I’m not the only one who does genre, but I’m the one who did genre that really crossed the borders and went around. Freaks Out has been sold all over the world for theaters, sold with strong MGs [minimum guarantees]. We didn’t sell it to the US yet. We got an offer after Cannes; it was kind of high, but we didn’t like the distribution company. So, we are still waiting. Outside studios approached me several times to do movies over there, but I never found something that I really liked, and so they’re not approaching me anymore. Maybe I’m not important enough, but they never sent me the great screenplays. I don’t wanna jump in an adventure where big decisions aren’t made by me. And in America, it’s not like this; you jump on a studio project, the actors are there, the editors are there, you try to talk to others, but everything is decided. And that’s tricky for me. In Italy, I am my own thing; I produce my stuff. I decide everything. I audition the best actors that are here in Italy. Everybody knows that. There’s a lot of respect for me because They Call Me Jeeg won all the Italian Oscars. Seven of them. And now Freaks Out won six of them, and it was nominated for 16. People want to work with me.

How did Freaks Out come about?

It was a crazy thing. After They Call Me Jeeg, I met with my screenwriter and we talked about all the movies that we wanted to make. I wanted to make a war movie. I was obsessed with the first World War, the War of the Trenches. We talked about seven, eight movies, and then we melded it together. I wanted to make an adventure war movie, and I wanted to talk about diversity. But I didn’t want to talk about it in a programmatic way; that really pisses me off. My life has been close to these things. I have direct experience on so many levels of diversity and stuff. I even hate the word diversity because to me, it’s a matter of identity. But I didn’t want to push it in a programmatic way. I want it to flow in a very harmonious way. So, then we crushed it all together, and it made a lot of sense to me. We’re talking about the Second World War; we’re talking about Nazism. And against Nazis, we put freaks who are unique and pitiable in their physical form. And you create a very interesting conflict because you have the antagonist [Nazi villain Franz], who is a freak himself too, and he wants to be normal, and he refuses his identity. And by doing so, he condemns himself to death. And it’s a very Roma story. In Italy on October 16 and 17, 1943, all the Jews were put on trains and deported to Auschwitz. They deported 1,600 Jews and only 16 came back. It’s a very strong memory. In Italy last year, some of the right wing tried to revise history, just something absurd. So, I said to myself, “You gotta remember all the times.” But I wanted to find a way to make it easy even for kids to have fun, but to remember what happened. To have many strata of participation. It can be fun. It can be strong. I don’t want to separate the two things. I want to entertain the people, but tell them something interesting. To me, Spielberg is one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived. In War of the Worlds, he had all those falling clothes from the sky [referencing] 9/11. Even when Tom Cruise is running, you see all the dust on his face. You manage to create something iconic and [hit the audience] in the stomach while entertaining people, which cinema needs to do. I don’t believe reality is the truth. The truth is the truth of the filmmaker, what he thinks and what he wants to say.

You’ve said that Tod Browning’s Freaks was an inspiration. Anything specific from that iconic film?

Well, they are completely different movies. Browning’s film is a classic and a masterpiece, but if you think about Freaks Out, apart from the freaks, what is important is the family. In Browning’s film, it is the family too, a very strong family, but they kill when that family is threatened. It dives into horror and is thrilling. Freaks Out also deals with the concept of family. My freaks live all together like the freaks of Tod Browning. When the father leaves, the family loses its equilibrium and goes out of control. So, they divide themselves up, but eventually manage to come together strong and fight as a family.

Freaks Out is sort of an anti-superhero superhero film. What conventions of the superhero film did you want to dismantle?

I graduated from university in cinema studies and film criticism. I love the adventure of Indiana Jones, but also love the characters of Sergio Leone. My characters are cowards. My characters are idiosyncratic. My characters don’t even want to bear the weight on their shoulders of a responsibility of being just. They don’t give a shit about that. They’re very like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. They only think about themselves. I can’t have a hero who goes with his fist against the evilness. I love to understand what resides in the character of the bad guy, make him three-dimensional. I can’t forgive a Nazi when he kills somebody, but I want to understand the limits of this person and I want to make it tragic. There are two streets that you have to choose if you are a freak: one where you accept your identity, and you will be safe. Or go the other way and deny your identity, and then you die.

Talk a little about the villain Franz and trying to make him something more than your typical Nazi bad guy.

I don’t want the good ones to be so good. I want to see all the flaws of these people. I make the flaws strong in the other way when I try to talk about a villain. When you portray the character of a bad guy, you have to list all the good about that character. Just not to make them only bad. That’s what I try to do all the time. What is beautiful about this character? What is his problem? Why does he do this? Why does he do that? And I’m trying to break the idea that the Nazi is the bad guy, but it’s hard. Of course, he’s a bad guy, and I don’t forgive him. I’m not saying there’s no empathy for the guy, but there’s no absolution at all for the guy either, because when you do some bad things, you can’t be absolved. You gotta die. That’s always fascinating, finding that balance. In American movies, with the hero, it is so boring knowing always the right or wrong. I can’t stand those guys. I am just more interested in the villain, but when the villain is only black, that’s really a bad movie.

Nice to see you working with Jeeg himself again, Claudio Santamaria. Discuss your collaboration with the actor.

I’ve been friends with Claudio since I was 20 years old. We were studying theater together. We did many theater pieces together as actors. I studied as an actor too; I’ve been acting for 15 years in cinema, TV, and theater. And we were very, very, very good friends. He’s one of my best friends. He’s an incredible actor. I just have a way of being on set with him that we forget our friendship, but we start being only people that respect each other. He really loves me as a director, and I love him as an actor. So, I wanted him in my movie. The first time that I called him for They Call Me Jeeg, I told him, “Claudio, I want you to be different.” When Tom Cruise plays a character in a movie, you see Tom Cruise, not the character. It’s gonna always be Tom Cruise. It’s not gonna change. In Italy, people just see Claudio in that way too. So, I asked him to gain 20 kilograms [44 pounds]. I said, “I just wanna change you. You need it for the heaviness of the character.” And then he said, “You just did it because you wanna change me physically.” Maybe I went too far when I put all the hair on him! He looked like a beast. He was so strong, but he is a very intelligent character. The character speaks 10 languages. I always want my characters to have contrast. I had this beast who is like a prince. I have the albino guy who talks to insects. He’s always dirty and muddy.

Several recent fantasy films have been using World War II and the Nazi era as a setting. Did you pick up anything from them?

Jojo Rabbit was already out when I was editing Freaks Out. Captain America means nothing to me. It’s not interesting. With Inglourious Basterds, as I said before, the truth about cinema is always the truth about the vision of the director. And Quentin Tarantino does whatever he wants. He changes history, and he does it inside a cinema. And in Freaks Out, we learn that lesson and we try to do it our own way. I wasn’t a fan of Kill Bill 1 and 2, but when I saw Inglourious Basterds, I went nuts. I loved it so much. I loved the sense you can change history and make it today, because when you are watching that movie, you are watching it today. And if you know what happened, what would you do today? It’s interesting to play this, and we did something like Tarantino, but less brutal than what he is able to do. We look a lot for sentiment and strong emotions, but Inglourious Basterds was definitely the greatest inspiration for this point.

Freaks Out is now at Lincoln Center after playing festivals all over the world. What does it offer an American audience?

I’m kind of scared. I went to New York University Tisch School of the Arts for six months. I have had family living on the East Coast for many years and went to see them all the time. I’m watching American movies like most Europeans, so we are strongly influenced by American cinema, which is the strongest one. It is everywhere. I don’t think now it is as strong, because of all the superhero stuff. We’re missing the audacity of creating ideas from scratch, which the studios don’t want to do. I put in my culture, Sergio Leone and Italian comedy, and I’m not sure an American audience will get all the nuances of that. I hope Freaks Out is a way to look at a piece that they know really well from a different perspective and can add something. It premiered in Austin, Texas, at Fantastic Fest, and it went really well. Two screenings were full, and the audience had to fight for seats because they remembered Jeeg. The movie’s outrageous sometimes and not politically correct. I was free to tell this story. It’s not glossy. It is a dirty movie. So, it’s an opportunity to watch a film from a different perspective. It’s an Italian story. It’s a Roma story. And it really went that way. Some critics might not agree with the tone, but it’s our culture. That’s how we are. The Jewish community, the Roma community, they loved the movie. So, let’s see what happens.

What’s next for you? More genre films?

I was supposed to shoot [a movie] in September, but it’s postponed. We’re trying to understand how to do it, as it’s a strongly genre film, even more than the two that I’ve done. If it keeps getting pushed, I will do something different just to do something very fast. A critic in Italy told me, “If you ever did a normal story, would you do it normally?” “No,” I answered. It doesn’t interest me at all. There aren’t screenplays like Kramer vs. Kramer or Chinatown anymore. There aren’t guys who write like that. The hugest problem for me in cinema is screenwriting. People don’t know how to write. They always write the same stuff. It takes years to write a great screenplay. You can’t get that from a manual.

Tony Timpone