Saverio Costanzo on 'Finally Dawn' Starring Lily James as a 1950s Diva
By Nick Vivarelli
Saverio Costanzo, who was last in the Venice competition in 2014 with Adam Driver-starrer “Hungry Hearts,” is back on the Lido with “Finally Dawn.”
The 1950s-set film stars Lily James plays a slightly fading American diva named Josephine Esperanto, who’s shooting a swords and sandals epic at Cinecittà when the famed filmmaking facilities were known as Hollywood on the Tiber. At the studios, Esperanto intersects with a young Roman woman named Mimosa, who is auditioning as an extra and takes a shine to her innocence. A “Dolce Vita” night follows in which Esperanto, Mimosa and the Hollywood epic’s other U.S. actors — played by Joe Keery and Rachel Sennott, plus an art dealer played by Willem Dafoe — spend some memorable hours.
Written and directed by Costanzo — who saw global success with RAI and HBO’s multi-season “My Brilliant Friend” — the picture is produced by Mario Gianani and Lorenzo Gangarossa for Wildside, which is a Fremantle-owned company, in association with RAI Cinema and Cinecittà. FilmNation is handling international sales.
Costanzo spoke to Variety about why “Finally Dawn” actually represents his own coming-of-age of sorts.
As I understand it this film takes its cue from the 1953 murder case of Wilma Montesi, the young aspiring Roman actress whose semi-naked body was found on a beach near Rome.
Wilma Montesi was the first post-war Italian homicide that became tabloid fodder. People became obsessed with this investigation. Today we are more de-sensitized, but just like similar cases today, the case involved the world of politics and showbiz, people forgot her name, but got very involved in the spectacular trial of this murder. That was the moment in which Italy in a way lost the innocence that had fueled the burst of its postwar innocence.
But you’ve said the specific moment in time is also really just a pretext.
Yes, you are looking at it from today’s perspective. I actually started out with wanting to represent a feeling of inadequacy with respect to our identities. For me, first and foremost, there was the idea of taking a very simple innocent character and depicting the complexities of other characters around her. It’s as though Mimosa is a blank sheet of white paper on which each of the film’s other protagonists write their own story.
A bit simplistically, the film seems to be about the falsehoods of today’s showbiz and stardom.
Honestly, no. Today’s star system is made up of “normal” people. We no longer have a star system. All you have to do is take a look at TikTok to see that there is a whole parallel star system that is much more influential than classic showbiz.
So it’s more personal.
Absolutely. We all come from what we’ve done before. Up until now I’d [almost] always ended up basically doing book adaptations, albeit very freely. But I wanted to give myself the possibility of this “dawn.” I wanted to put on Mimosa’s little shoes and enter this realm of possibilities and within this realm understand who I am. You know when they say “coming of age,” I am almost 50 and this is my coming of age. It actually never ends.
How did you chose young newcomer Rebecca Antonaci to play Mimosa?
I’ve only shot one commercial in my life [a spot for pasta maker Barilla]. Rebecca had a small part, but she really made a big impression on me.
And the rest of the cast?
We created a great group. Everyone was so generous. Willem Dafoe [who plays a Rome-based art dealer who speaks Italian] gave me a great gift. He’s like a Holy Spirit. He’s reached a level of self-awareness so that he’s really like a maestro whom you want to observe. He emanated this propulsive energy on set that filled your heart with ideas and boldness. Joe Keery has this lightness and irony, he completely threw himself into the role [of a young actor named Sean Lockwood]. Rachel Sennott [who plays an American actress named Nan Roth] always brings herself in everything character she plays. I wanted her to represent the 1960s that are coming, compared with Lily James’ character, Josephine Esperanto. She is more grounded; less affected; more natural. And she nails it.
Talk to me about working Lily James.
I had seen her in several films and was really struck by “Pam & Tommy.” When I see Lily act, I see her entire body move with the vibrations of the character. There isn’t any psychology in it. It’s just pure focus with a total awareness, but very simple. Top be able to work with and coordinate this group of actors has really been an incredible privilege.
How did it feel to work at Cinecittà on a film set at Cinecittà during its glory days?
While we were shooting the scene of the Egyptian epic I would get there early in the morning, I would see all these extras arrive, look at their faces and it was easy to imagine that they had arrived on a Lambretta scooter from nearby Pasolini-esque homes. And I would think: look how little things have changed! I’ve been to Pinewood, which is a marvelous place, but it doesn’t have that atmosphere that I think seeps into the films you make at Cinecittà. The sun, the world that surrounds it; it’s a really special place. And certainly the perfect place to shoot this film.
Talk to me about working with ace cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, who is best known in Italy for his work with Luca Guadagnino.
He’s a genius. I work in 35mm film, and nobody works with celluloid like Sayombhu. But I also needed an artist who could manage to avert any threat that this film could have a cutesy photography. The locations are already, how can I put it, baroque. So I needed a simple gaze with its own inherent, instinctive aesthetic. He has a way of thinking [about shots] that is both simple and complex. Just like the film.As I understand it this film takes its cue from the 1953 murder case of Wilma Montesi, the young aspiring Roman actress whose semi-naked body was found on a beach near Rome.But you’ve said the specific moment in time is also really just a pretextA bit simplistically, the film seems to be about the falsehoods of today’s showbiz and stardomSo it’s more personalHow did you chose young newcomer Rebecca Antonaci to play Mimosa?And the rest of the cast?Talk to me about working Lily JamesHow did it feel to work at Cinecittà on a film set at Cinecittà during its glory days?Talk to me about working with ace cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, who is best known in Italy for his work with Luca Guadagnino.