Up Close & Personal
With "Youth" Director Paolo Sorrentino
aolo Sorrentino, whose "The Great Beauty," garnered him
the 2014 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, has written and
directed another Oscar contender "Youth." This is a
tender film starring Academy Award winner Michael Caine as Fred Ballinger,
a retired British conductor, and Harvey Keitel as Mick Boyle, a Hollywood
director and Ballinger's best friend since childhood. They play men
nearing their 80s who vacation every year in a spa in the Swiss Alps,
where they reminisce about their lives past, present, and future.
Ballinger receives a request from the Queen of England to conduct one
of his pieces of music called "Simple Song #3, for Prince Philip's
birthday celebration. He declines the request for very specific, personal
reasons, which he doesn't wish to reveal. His friend Mick is there with
a few young writers as he's intent on developing what could be his last
L-R: Jimmy Tree, (Paul Dano,) Mick Boyle ( Harvey
Keitel,) and Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) in a scene from Paolo Sorrentino's
"Youth." Photo: Courtesy of Fox Searchlight
The supporting cast is outstanding and consists of
Rachel Weisz as Balliner's daughter Lena, Paul Dano as Jimmy Tree, a
guest at the hotel, and Jane Fonda, in a cameo role as an aging actress
named Brenda Morel, who has served as Mick's muse in his prior films.
The original soundtrack by David Lang is haunting, as is soprano Sumi
Jo, whose majestic voice is yet another fabulous element in this beautiful
Sorrentino sat down with your reporter for an exclusive
interview and the following has been edited for content and continuity
for print purposes. It should be noted that some of the questions were
translated through an interpreter, but Sorrentino answered most of them
in his limited English.
First, I would like to say congratulations. The
film is brilliant and is on most critics' short list for an Academy
Award. My question is this. You read a small article about a famous
Italian conductor who was asked to play for the Queen of England, but
refused to do so. What was it about that little story that motivated
you to write a screenplay?
Sorrentino: At first, I thought it would be a good idea
to do a movie about the queen and the musician. Then, over the course
of time, I changed my mind and decided to make the story about these
When you decided on your final idea, how long
did it take you to write the script?
Sorrentino: Not too much. I'm very fast. It took one
As the writer, what was the biggest challenge
for you to make all the characters real?
Sorrentino: Because there are several characters, the
biggest challenge was to make the characters work with each other
developing the relationships between all of them.
During your writing process, after a while, does
the character inform your writing?
Sorrentino: Yes. I start thinking like the character.
Did you find one character more difficult to create
than the others?
Sorrentino: Maybe the character of Lena played by Rachel
Weisz. It is not so easy for me to write about a woman of my age. I
am more comfortable writing men, especially older men.
In developing Michael Caine's character of Fred
Ballinger, did you know anyone like him?
Sorrentino: The character is based on facts that happened
to a real conductor, but no, he's not a real person.
Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano) takes a stroll through the
beautiful hotel grounds with retired symphony conductor Fred Ballinger
(Michael Caine.) Photo: Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures
How did you decide on that spectacular location?
Sorrentino: I was looking for a certain kind of a hotel.
I couldn't find one in Italy and finally found what I was looking for
Switzerland. I actually shot in two hotels one was an
antique hotel with old-style rooms and restaurant, and the other a modern
hotel with a state-of-the art spa.
The look of the film is breathtaking. Each shot
looks like a painting. Did you study art?
Sorrentino: No. I studied economics. (Laughs)
So how did you go from studying economics to being
a brilliant writer/director?
Sorrentino: I wrote a lot and sent my first scripts
to some producers and directors.
Were you working as an economist while you were
Sorrentino: No. I studied but never finished because
I started to work in cinema.
Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel have two very
different styles of acting. How did that work for you in terms of your
Sorrentino: I let them act, as they want. When you work
with great actors, they know they must live as the character.
L-R: Michael Caine, as Fred Ballinger takes direction
from award-winning writer/director Paolo Sorrentino in a scene from
his latest film "Youth."
Photo: Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures
How did you set up the scenes with the actors?
Sorrentino: The only direction I gave the actors was
about the placement and movement of the cameras.
How many weeks did you shoot and how long in post-production?
Sorrentino: Eight weeks for the shoot and about nine
months in post.
During the shoot, did you have one scene in particular
that posed a bigger challenge?
Sorrentino: The last scene of the concert tour was very
difficult because there were many elements the music,
the actors, and many people to deal with. It was not as simple as the
other scenes. The end of a movie is always complicated.
You've worked with iconic American and British
actors. Who else would you like to work with on your next film?
Sorrentino: I don't have a next film at present, but
there are many actors I would love to work with including Robert De
Niro and Matthew McConaughey.
L-R: Best friends since childhood, Fred Ballinger
(Michael Caine,) and Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) in a scene from Paolo
Sorrentino's "Youth." Photo: Courtesy of Fox
I'm sure they would love to work with you as well.
When you were growing up, did you like going to see movies and were
they mostly American films?
Sorrentino: I started to love movies when I was around
eighteen years old. I watched mostly American or Italian films.
What were some of your favorite films?
Sorrentino: All the Scorsese movies, and the independent
Were you married when you started your film career?
Sorrentino: No, I was not married.
How did you meet your wife?
Sorrentino: How did I meet my wife? We both worked in
the same building and that's how I met her.
Do you have any ideas about your next project,
or are just concentrating on "Youth?"
Sorrentino: I am just concentrating on this film at
Woody Allen said that whenever he has an idea,
he writes it on a piece of paper and sticks it in a drawer and when
he was ready for his next project, he would look at all the little pieces
of paper. How do you keep track of your ideas?
Sorrentino: I do the same thing. I write down my ideas
and when I'm ready to do a movie, I go through all my notes.
Did the Queen Elizabeth II see the film?
Sorrentino: I don't think so. It's not been released
in England yet.
I've seen a lot of films this year both
American and foreign. Many of them are violent which I suppose reflects
the turmoil the world. What is particularly wonderful about "Youth,"
is that it's so uplifting. You've illuminated the most beautiful part
of humanity and for that you deserve a big "thank you."
Sorrentino: That's very kind. Thank you.