by Harry Smithson
"I hate propaganda. One way to subvert that is to put yourself in situations where you can’t control everything, because you’re forced to put yourself under a microscope."
Following the debut of his award-winning film Gelateria at the Kinolikbez Film Festival in St. Petersburg, we sat down with actor and director Christian Serritiello to discuss vignettes, Dostoyevsky, absurdism and collective energy. A 'collectively produced' film, Gelateria explores what happens when a host of diverse characters make sudden and dramatic changes to their dull quotidian lives - culminating in an old woman’s hunt for a lost piece of art. The film is comprised of small episodes or vignettes, with all the hallmarks of absurdism and irreconcilability that typically come with this structure.
The following interview transcript has been edited for brevity and accuracy.
Q : Hi Christian. How did the film come into being?
CS : A departure from the linear was our starting point. Arthur and I have made a couple of short films together, and we felt it was time to have a longer conversation. That’s how we see cinema - as a conversation-starter. We'd been writing a screenplay, and while we found we’d get together and successfully write, it was never that fruitful. Certain ideas would come, but they’d be very strained and forced. We got bits and pieces of a screenplay [together], and I suppose these things became episodes. But at some point, we just grabbed a camera and went to Poland to shoot the first part of the film.
This film begins with someone on a train. They're in a loveless relationship, so they literally jump off the train - leading to their life taking a completely different direction. In terms of producing the film, we would use some of the things we’d conceptualised in the screenplay, but it remained kind of an experiment. We’d let the film tell its own story. We’d shoot a scene, and we’d then watch the footage we had and put it together. Whatever we found compelling or interesting, or where we could see certain things coming through, we'd explore it further.
Q : The characters in the film do have these bursts of energy and freedom, but then are forced to confront the same question: their backgrounds or the quotidian or some sort of limit on their freedom.
CS : I’m glad that comes across. Freedom was important to us. I was interested in working with the actors and everybody together in a very collaborative way to convey a sense of freedom on camera. We wanted to allow every department the most freedom possible while still making a film. In most commercial films, it’s very hard to find that kind of freedom.
Q : How would you compare those experiences? You’ve been in a few commercial films as an actor. How does it compare to be an actor in a big screen film to working alongside actors as a collective?
CS : Well, we used improvisation, which I’ve rarely had the chance to do – I’ve always had scripts. In more commercial, well-oiled productions, there’s so much money, so everything’s well-organised. There, everyone’s perfectly nice: you walk into the trailer, meet the director, hit the marks.
I’ve learned a lot, and I appreciate the experience, particularly because I can support myself and use the money for my own projects. But I never felt the freedom that I imagined I’d feel when I was younger and wanted to explore cinema. In this film, I wanted an environment that would include chaotic elements. You need a framework, obviously, but within that, you need air in the room, things beyond your control. That’s freedom.
Q : That works well with the absurdist style, that element of the unknown; a complete improvisation. How much do you think your desire to make a film in that way impacted the style of the film?
CS : I hate propaganda. One way to subvert that is to put yourself in situations where you can’t control everything, because you’re forced to put yourself under a microscope. There’s a filmmaker, John Cassavetes, and I've always found the performances in his films very organic. (Check out Cassavetes on Cassavetes by Ray Carney if you’re interested)
Unlike on most sets, Cassavetes insisted that technicians should work around actors. Some of his cameramen were literally amateurs who’d never worked on films, but they would work around the actors and follow them. Actors were allowed to be free. You can feel that organic element.
Now, maybe it’s impossible to achieve true verité in cinema – I don’t think true verité is possible. Even Warhol filming a corner of a building is still somebody’s perspective, right? It’s Warhol’s. But I think that, by allowing people to move freely, you can stumble upon something organic. Gene Wilder said that when an actor is on stage, there’s a part of him that knows he’s acting, and part of him that doesn’t. There’s that space between knowing and not knowing where interesting things can happen in cinema.
Q : In Gelateria, you can see how some of the vignettes were improvised, but others feel a little more pre-written. For example, the first scene on the train has a narrator. Why did certain scenes warrant improvisation and others did not?
CS : Scenes lifted from realities were generally scripted, such as stories we knew we wanted to include. But even with those, there was a certain level of chaos. Even the intermittent narrator, Darren, improvised for certain sequences. I never wanted complete autonomy.
Some ideas for more scripted scenes were based on discussion, arguments, dreams. One time on a street in Berlin, ducking in from the rain, I saw an accordion player, and I asked if he wanted to be in a film. I wanted to allow spontaneous elements into the film.
I have to say, working in this collective way, I was amazed at how generous people were with their time, and how dedicated they were. I was enamoured of everyone by the end of the film. It’s very humbling how much people invested, not just their energy but their ideas – and the energy on the sets was always interesting, and I’ve never had that kind of energy on other sets. I would tell the performers, ‘if you have an impulse, go for it.’ I found myself often just documenting what was going on, and I knew in editing I could put things together. Structure came later. Me and Arthur quite enjoy that – assembling things in editing, trying to make sense of them.
I found myself really caring about all these characters around me, none of whom I’d actually created. There’s this thing Dostoevsky said – he said when you love somebody you see them how God intended them. Well, something very weird can happen during editing - you can almost fall in love with these characters.
Harry Smithson is a London-based playwright and speech therapist