We were thrilled to welcome director Pietro Marcello and actor Luca Marinelli for a discussion about their highly acclaimed Jack London adaption, Martin Eden, which is now playing in the Film at Lincoln Center Virtual Cinema along with a director retrospective. FLC Assistant Programmer Dan Sullivan spoke with the duo about the temporal and geographic transpositions of their film, the creative use of archival footage, the experience of shooting in Naples, and being inspired by Marlon Brando. Special thanks to interpreter Lilia Pino Blouin.
Dan Sullivan: Could you talk a bit about your relationship with this book and Jack London?
Pietro Marcello: Yes, this book was given to me as a gift 20 years ago by my co-screenwriter, Maurizio Braucci, and I was very impressed by it from the get-go because the protagonist is an autodidact, a self-made man. He doesn’t go to school, there’s no academic background. It’s a very important book to me. Twenty years later we were able to produce it and get it made. Jack London is a writer I love very much, I love his books, in particular, The Iron Heel and Martin Eden, and also the adventure ones like The Sea Wolf. Martin Eden and The Iron Heel are the most well-known ones in Europe because they are the most particular ones.
DS: I also wanted to ask about the actual process of adapting the novel and your collaboration with Maurizio Braucci. How did the two of you conceptualize some of the transformations that you’ve made to the text? There are a number of transpositions—period, location, some of the political details, and so on. How did the two of you go about relocating the text?
PM: I made Martin Eden like a documentary, just like the way I made all my other films. In this case, I had a bigger budget, but the method was the same. It was a very free transposition because I couldn’t set it in America, I couldn’t talk about Oakland, California. To me, he was an archetype, just like Faust or Hamlet, and the easiest, most straightforward way for me to transpose it was Naples. Naples was the most suitable setting for the story. Also, we don’t have in our culture the seafaring literary tradition you have in America or in the Anglo-Saxon world, we don’t have [Robert Louis] Stevenson, we don’t have [Joseph] Conrad, the great nautical writers. Italy is a very particular country in which we do have the sea, but we’re also very connected to our peasant traditions and our literature tends to be like that.
DS: Luca, did you know the novel? With all the changes to the text, like the period and setting, there are also a lot of changes to the character, including his trajectory. How did you and Pietro work to find this new characterization?
Luca Marinelli: I was familiar with Jack London’s books like White Fang or Call of the Wild, and that was the Jack London I knew. I got to know Martin Eden through Pietro and he got me to read the book. I’d heard about it and I was intrigued by it because I knew that he had written it during his time at sea on one of his wonderful trips. I was very attracted to it, but I never actually “met” it. Thanks to Pietro, I was able to get to know it deeply. I want to thank Pietro personally, once again, for this gift that he gave me.
I met Martin Eden both through the book and through the script that Pietro gave me pretty much at the same time. At this point, I have a hard time recalling what was in the book and what was in the script, these two worlds overlap in my mind. Regarding how we worked with it and the transposition, it was a very beautiful kind of work because I believe in cinema as a collaboration, as a way of working together, and with Pietro that was the way to work. The way we worked was based on mutual trust. I totally trusted him and I felt he trusted me, and we had a lot of fun working together, the two of us, and the other departments, in creating this character.
Pietro had the brilliant intuition of dividing the film into two parts and this really helped me, at a deep level, to create this marked separation. We had time off in between, and that allowed me to create a marked cut after the first Martin Eden and then re-enter into the second Martin Eden.
DS: Pietro, you evoked your background in documentary, and when people who aren’t familiar with your other films watch them in the retrospective they’ll notice a lot of them are unmistakably works of nonfiction. How has your experience with documentary informed your approach to rendering a period setting? You’re also the cinematographer of all of your films and you shot this on Super 16mm, so I’m curious on how all these things are related.
PM: I started with documentaries because it was the only way for me to make movies, it was the most accessible way. It’s not that I wanted to make a documentary, it’s just that I had a camera and I wanted to make films, so I created my own method to do that. I don’t believe in models, I believe in methods. I started running the camera myself, loading magazines, and editing it. What documentary teaches you is how to deal with the unexpected, so for me, it was out of necessity that I learned how to make documentaries. To me documentary is a tool, it’s the tool that one uses to make films, it’s what trains you, it’s what allows you to hone your skills. Martin Eden was the film with the highest budget that I’ve ever made and it was very important that we produced it ourselves because that allowed us to make it the way we wanted. Because it was a very ambitious idea. The documentary experience was at the foundation of it because it taught me how to tackle the unexpected that inevitably shows up.
DS: Luca, I’m curious to hear about your conception of Martin Eden’s psychology and how his character develops across the film. I don’t think there are that many films that chronicle someone’s development in response to the political trends of the time, which will be new to a lot of people watching the film.
LM: I think that I tackle everything in a very emotional and a romantic way. I felt a need to study in-depth all the issues that he was involved in, all the issues that Martin Eden devoted attention to, what he followed in terms of politics and what he was reading. I believe behind each choice there’s always an emotional motivation, there’s always a way of feeling, and I wanted to deeply understand what led him to choose each approach. What made me fall in love with him was that he always had this truly intellectual way of looking at life, a way of almost applying his intellect to life. That’s what comes across right away from the first page until the very end, this way of looking at the world with a deep desire to discover things, to learn things, to get to know things at every level, on every topic, in terms of politics and society. And he always positioned himself at the same level as the people he was observing, the way a true intellectual does.
DS: Let’s start with the audience’s questions. This is about the relocation from Oakland to Naples, and the experience of shooting there. Can we also talk about the Neapolitan dialect?
LM: I had the wonderful opportunity to actually drive down from Rome to Naples together with Pietro and I spent one and a half months there before we started shooting. I had started my work on the language before that. We felt that the use of dialect was very important in this film. It was a beautiful experience to get closer to this language, which has a beautiful rhythm and color. It was great for me to have a person like Pietro who guided me through this and also Naples itself, which was a very welcoming city.
PM: Naples was the most suitable place for me to make Martin Eden. I grew up there, in part, and I had friends there, so I knew there were people who would be able to help me put the film together. I was able to put together a really beautiful group there. Naples is a port city and just like any city on the sea, it’s extremely welcoming. I loved going back to the market to shoot. Those were the places where my youth took place and it was beautiful for me to shoot in Naples, it was the most suitable place to do that.
DS: The film is set in an unspecified time which is a composite of a number of different historical periods. How do you see the story of Martin Eden play out if it was set today? Pietro, when the film premiered and when you were last in New York, the political context in the United States and Europe was so different. I’m trying to think of a comparable situation where there’s been such a transformation of the political landscape between a film’s premiere and release. The world is a very different place now.
PM: To start off, I have to say it’s very difficult to pass judgment on my work and what I do. I’m someone who always does things over and repairs what I’ve done and rebuilds. Let’s say that the goal I had together with Maurizio Braucci, who was the first writer of the film, was to span the 20th century, even though the book is extremely current in what it talks about, and in a way, what it focuses on will never be dated. In terms of what he says about individualism, it was heavily criticized when it came out, and indeed it is a very sharp accusation of individualism or indictment of individualism, and the film, just like the book, was created in a crooked way. Our desire was always not to be specific to the time it was set in because we wanted the film to be very free and imperfect to some extent. The relationship that we developed with Luca and Maurizio was a true state of grace, and in a way, we were drunk on our awareness.
DS: Luca, as a performer, what was the most moving moment for you in Martin Eden’s journey? And is it different as a viewer?
LM: There were so many beautiful moments, which may seem trite to say, but to me, this film was deeply emotional on so many levels. Something that I do recall in a particular way is that country-town that was rebuilt. I had seen it when we were scouting with Pietro and the crew, when it was deserted and abandoned, and seeing it again later, coming to life with us and newly populated with everything we were doing… it was so deeply emotional, so beautiful to be there and to be part of that.
Another scene that we’ve always talked about involves me and Pietro—and it’s truly something that belongs to both of us—was when we were shooting and a storm was approaching. It was really a massive storm, and so for safety reasons, we had to leave and stop shooting. The two of us looked at each other, then with our sound guy we stayed there and decided to give it these extra ten minutes, and then we were shooting in the mud. We said, let’s bring this home, and we did. It was a deeply moving moment in which the two of us felt very connected.
To finish off, as a viewer, the part that really touched me at a deep level was seeing the editing, the wonderful, marvelous editing that was done on the film, with the addition of the archival footage that was so poignant and well put-together. It really struck the right emotional chords and I was able to reconnect that to specific feelings I had had at certain times and scenes. To me, it brought the movie to a whole other emotional level, as high as it can be.
DS: Pietro, your work often features archival material and this one perhaps to a different degree. Can you talk about your approach to archival footage in Martin Eden?
PM: In the beginning, the film was going to be short stories connected to Martin Eden’s story and the script was going to be 300 pages long. Then, little by little, mostly for financial reasons, we had to cut it down. I think in the end it was about 150 pages, and so a large part of what we wanted to do we weren’t able to do. I have always worked with archival footage in the past. I think it was very important for me to have the 20th century in the film and show what truly happened at the time in Europe, but especially in Italy. To me, archival footage is history and cinema needs to be history. Cinema can never elevate itself at a higher level than history and archival footage allows me to do that. Also in terms of editing, I worked with the counterpoint method, which is what I’d done before, and I’m happy I did. I want to continue doing that in the future.
DS: You’re working here, as you have done before, in Super 16mm. Why did you choose Super 16mm over 35mm?
PM: First and foremost, I used Super 16mm mostly because it was cheaper and that’s what my budget allowed. I wanted to have 35mm, but I couldn’t afford it. In the past, I’ve always worked with expired film, which is already a step ahead. I really liked having Super 16mm because it was light and we often shot two sequences a day and Super 16mm allowed us to do that. We shot the film in a very animal-like way, very quickly. I was always at the camera and that allowed me to be faster, and Luca allowed me to do that. I think it was right to do it this way because if we had 35mm it would have required more time.
DS: Luca, how did you arrive at the physical dimension of your performance as Martin Eden? Are there any figures, in say visual art or music, that inspired you?
LM: The initial work we did, as I mentioned, was divided into two parts, luckily for me. In the first part, both for the book and the script, Martin Eden needed to be strong. I needed people to perceive the strength he had in his actions and his body. I decided it was a good idea to undergo serious athletic training, and I suggested that to Pietro, who agreed. This serious training and working out allowed me to perceive this strength, which was very useful. For the second part, we had a long break in between, and it needed to be a lot more evocative. I was thinking of the faded rock star in the descending arc of a story, so we thought of the hair pulled back that way and having decaying teeth. The body was no longer what it used to be, he had let himself go, by all means.
For the first part, I was inspired by Jack London himself, which helped me to a great extent. I did a lot of research on him, I looked at photographic material, I read a lot of his writings, and what comes off is his great energy, vision, and his way of being. That deeply touched me. I was impressed and looked up to him. For the second part, I was thinking more of figures of intellectuals that always fascinated me and people who tend to use their cynicism as a barrier, as a jam, and they tend to attack others in order to hide something more fragile, deeper, and greater. There are several personalities I can think of—in particular, Carmelo Bene. The image of him speaking in front of an audience really impressed me. There are some recordings of Marlon Brando that appear in a marvelous documentary about him, and in the beginning of the film, Martin Eden works on a recording for himself and others, so the Brando recordings really inspired me.
DS: Have you two watched any good films since you have been stuck, like all of us, in quarantine?
LM: Last week I watched some films by Andrea Arnold and was very moved. And all of Pietro Marcello’s movies, of course!
PM: There are so many. It’s complicated for me to choose one. I should start recommending all of my friends’ films. Watch Notturno by Gianfranco Rosi!
Watch the full Q&A below and check out Martin Eden here.