First published in Magnetic Magazine
Italian film director Alex Grazioli is something of a renaissance man. He began his career as a graphic designer, though the last decade has seen his portfolio shift through photography to the moving image. His first film, Odyssey in Rome, was a documentary that followed legendary director Abel Ferrara—famous for The Driller Killer, King of New York and Bad Lieutenant—as he struggled to make Mary in 2005. A mind-mangling example of meta-cinema, Matthew Modine plays a director who fights fundamentalism and his own meltdown in order to screen an account of the life of Mary Magdalene, This is My Blood.
Grazioli’s own movie is a riddle wrapped in an enigma, concerned with the making of a film that is itself about the making of a film. An ambitious debut, Modine, Juliette Binoche and Forest Whitaker, as well as Ferrara and the film’s producers, all appear on screen to comment on the movie’s inception, production and execution with disarming clarity, successfully drawing back the curtain on the creative practice of one of the world’s most incendiary and controversial directors.
“I bumped into Tarantino at the Cannes Film Festival a few years later and tried to communicate to him how that lunchtime conversation had been such a major influence on my life, but of course the guy remembered nothing about it.”
The catalyst for the film was seeded in unlikely circumstances. “It was a very random situation,” explains Alex, down the line from his apartment in London. Born in Milan, though resident in New York and London, Alex speaks quickly with a strong accent though his enthusiasm is entirely infectious. “Since I came out of the first Star Wars film in the cinema, I wanted to be a film director. I’d trained as a graphic designer and become an art director, but I slowly moved towards the moving image. I had just moved out of New York and had returned to Europe in order to enroll in film school.”
“On the first day,” he says, “I did a creative writing seminar, where one of the speakers happened to be Quentin Tarantino. When they went for lunch, I sneaked myself in with the lecturers, and I ended up sitting next to him. He asked me who I was and what I was doing at the event and I responded by telling him that my name was Alex, I was 30 years old and that it is my ambition to be a film director. He immediately told me that either I was a director or not and that, rather than wasting my time, money and energy doing a degree, I should just get up and do it.”
“This was on Saturday morning,” he recalls,”and on the Monday I resigned from the course. The same day an old friend called me and invited me to her birthday in Italy that Thursday. She knew I had moved to London, and explained that they were planning a big dinner in Bologna with her boyfriend, who happened to be one of Bernardo Bertolucci’s producers. She told me that he had been in talks to a produce a religious film that Abel Ferarra was about to make and, knowing my ambitions to be involved in film, asked me if I wanted to join them. I thought that the idea of Ferrara doing something on Mary Magdalene was amazing, and I was convinced that something interesting would come out if I was given a chance to be around the film. The documentary that inspired me was Hearts of Darkness, which covered the making of Apocalypse Now, and was one of the few times that I feel I’ve truly seen behind the scenes of a film—the struggle of set, and the labor that goes into a movie. When I arrived at that dinner on Thursday, I made my pitch to the producers and within two weeks I had become a director, and moved to Rome in order to start shooting—without a clue of what I was doing.”
“I bumped into Tarantino at the Cannes Film Festival a few years later,” he adds, laughing, “and tried to communicate to him how that lunchtime conversation had been such a major influence on my life, but of course the guy remembered nothing about it.”
Since making Odyssey in Rome, Grazioli has directed pop promos for Robert Miles and Sander Kleinenberg, continues to shoot portraits for Italian Vogue and—somewhat bizarrely—designed a book for the Pope. More recently, he has formed a production company with Catherine Carter, with whom he had worked at a label and distribution company in New York. Red Lipstick Mafia has a full slate of projects, including two full-length music documentaries—on Massive Attack and Sonny Boy Williamson—and a third film, Bottom of the World, which charts three men’s adventure to the most inaccessible place on earth.
“It was my birthday a few years ago,” he explains, “and my girlfriend at the time treated me to a lecture at the Royal Geographic Society, here in London. These three guys spoke for an hour and half to a full house, who were totally enraptured by their story of an expedition where they walked and kite-skiied to the geographical centre of the South Pole. This place is referred to by explorers as the Pole of Inaccessibility, and has only ever been reached twice before—by Russian teams, the last time forty years earlier. They were hilarious.
I loved the way these guys cracked up the audience, their talk was funny and interesting—more Jackass goes to Antarctica than the usual serious drama—and I told them afterwards that it would make an amazing documentary. They said that a few people had already approached them, but were kind enough to lend me their footage, and I spent a few weeks going through it to put together a promo which showed these three super cool, funny nutters going on a mission. I don’t want to jinx, but hopefully the film will be out next year.”
Alex explains what unifies these very different projects. “When I was a kid, seven or eight years old, my favorite program on Italian TV was called Action Now! where the presenter traveled around the world to meet up with inspiring people doing extraordinary stuff. One of the episodes was on Philippe Petit, who walked between the World Trade Center towers on a tightrope wire, one was Evel Knievel, when he jumped the Snake River canyon, but the episode that stuck with me the most was about this guy called Carl Boenish, who was the founder of BASE jumping. His motto was ‘Happy are those who dream dreams, and are willing to pay the price to see them come true,’ and I immediately made this statement my own. I’m fascinated by it, and it is the common thread in everything I do—whether that’s music video or documentary—a commonality is to tell the stories of people who are really willing to go that step further and work hard to realize their dreams.”
“With Massive Attack also, this is also the way it is in that they have a vision, and they go for it. I don’t remember exactly how we met, but I’d hooked up with a costumer designer and producer who is a good friend of the band, and had shown Odyssey in Rome to Robert Del Naja, who loved it. There’d been some talk of a possible documentary, so I met with Robert a couple of times and, as with the other projects, something emerged with us initially shooting some live performances; the Meltdown show at the South Bank, which they curated, and some dates on the world tour.”
“I’ve always been a huge fan, but part of the appeal of a documentary is that the dark sounds that have been associated with them give an impression that doesn’t really correspond with the people that I had met. They are the funniest, incredibly easy-going people and are involved with such a big family of collaborators. It’s a long-term project; there are so many aspects of the band that to cover it all is quite complex. I’ve been working on it for almost three years, trying to work out how to include their origins in Bristol, the sound system and the collective of artists involved, together with the differences within the band and their politics.
“As a documentarian, I enjoy being around the subject a lot, and becoming part of their life, so mutual trust and respect is one of the first things to establish, and I want to make sure we set up certain boundaries and topics that we might go through and others which we might not, according to subject fears and needs, while pushing what is useful to tell the story and helping them to open up. No matter how good you are at blending in the environment and people become less conscious of the camera, its presence can still make people uncomfortable. The band are simultaneously excited and reluctant, in that they are enthusiastic, but not so eager to expose themselves totally as they are quite reserved and discreet. From Massive Attack to Abel to Forest Whittaker, these people who have really made it, the difference between them and everybody else is that they are big dreamers. It is this story that connects all of my work, as a graphic designer, as a visual artist and a photographer.”