While films have the power to envelop us in worlds beyond our own, acting as a cathartic escape from our lives, the best of them often serve as a mirror to the reality we find ourselves in. Feeling worryingly prescient with its pervading air of a war which will come to an inevitably bleak conclusion comes Guido Acampa’s debut feature Inner Front. Shot over two years, Inner Front immerses us in a suspended narrative where the palpable threat to the lives and relationships of its characters vibrates through its imagined city of Santa Mira. A self-taught director whose first venture into filmmaking not only sparks a delicious disconcertion in its audience but also echoes his background in fine arts, leaving a genuine impression after the credits roll. Ahead of Inner Front’s Italian cinema release next month, DN speaks to Acampa about finding a location that he describes as “not a recognizable social reality but a state of mind” and the intentions behind his desire to leave his audience grappling for answers.
Why did you want to centre your film around the idea of an omnipresent war?
I wanted to create a remote and imaginary place with a large military base representing an entire country at war against terrorism, however the conflict is never shown and we are left with a community lost within their inner struggles. The dynamic between my characters is supposed to be a metaphor for any war, when relationships aren’t looked after and cared for they all end in an inevitable demise. I found interesting the parallels between a war over our heads, far away that we hear but don’t see, and the fragility of human relationships slowly crumbling into indifference under our feet. To highlight the isolation of the main character I represented him as an Alpha specimen of a group of dogs trained for the “working test”, a discipline that works on empathy between the dog and his handler. But in the end, every character has an intimate relationship with war.
Why narrate such negative conditions? I believe it is a consequence of the aberrations of our society (wars, economic logic, social rules) that increase the fragility of the human being, pushing him towards dark paths in the name of alleged benefits.
The dogs are such a huge part of the film. How did you find the group and the handlers, and can you go into more detail with regards to scripting around such an uncontrollable element?
I wanted the character of Gaudi to be introverted and isolated, so I was inspired by an old friend of mine, a real dog handler who later worked on set as a trainer. I’ve known him for a long time and I know he wouldn’t like the term “trainer” because the relationship with the dog is an equal one built over time. I know his skill and the empathy he creates with his group which allowed me to write what I wanted in the script because I was sure he would do it. At that time he only had two dogs so he contacted another trainer and we combined the two groups who worked together. Each trainer controlled his own dogs and it was magical to see them working on set, there was great harmony between them.
We were two separate units, the cinematographic troupe followed its work plans and the trainers with the dogs moved around freely. When it was time they joined the troupe so that this did not seem strange for the dogs and did not create too many boring moments. These dogs are accustomed to working in noisy situations like a cinematographic troupe because they practice a discipline that enables them to ignore the distractions around them to concentrate on recovering the “dummy” and bringing him back to the handler. These are obstacles that serve to elevate the serenity, the balance of the dog and the empathy with his handler. We spent many days with them and we never heard them barking or complaining, they were in perfect harmony with the environment we were in whilst we, on the other hand, were running anxiously against time. We spent a week in November 2017 working in the mountains and on the beach with two sets of dogs and then later on in June 2019, finished scenes with just two of the dogs.
It’s not a story about dogs, I was only interested in describing Gaudi’s ecosystem and his isolation from the rest of the world.
The Cinematographer Gennaro Visciano has experience on other sets and has worked on large productions that have used dogs. He told us that they often lost entire days to the whims of the animals. They often used two or three dogs to shoot the same scene. However on our set with our dogs, the first scene was almost always perfect and Gennaro could not believe it! In the screenplay I didn’t want to push the dogs to do things that humans would do but only what they normally do. It’s not a story about dogs, I was only interested in describing Gaudi’s ecosystem and his isolation from the rest of the world.
The characters depicted are so powerful each in their own way, how did your casting process work for the film?
From the beginning, I looked for actors in the world of theater because in these parts there is a great tradition of actors from this particular world. When the casting director joined me, we continued to search with these specifics in mind and she has more experience in the world theater than I do, so she looked for actors among many of her friends who had aspects in common with the characters. I have to say it wasn’t very difficult to find the right actors.
The location for the fictional Santa Mira feels particularly fitting. What were your requirements and how did you find the right locales for the shoot?
I needed something that was not a recognizable social reality but a state of mind, something that was deeply here, now! But also everywhere. A space where I could immerse the characters and make them float in a perpetual suspension. So I chose the southernmost coast of Calabria, an Italian region where nature is still wild and primordial. Over just a few kilometers you can find the open sea, high mountains that exceed a thousand meters and more arid hilly areas or those rich in vegetation. With small movements we could find all the aspects we needed for the scenes to be shot.
Unavoidably, some of our major economic resources were used to allow the troupe to stay far from home so all the interiors of the film were shot in the city center of Naples in the same building where the headquarters of the production company is located. We used two of our friends’ apartments and found that they were perfect for our needs. Our base camp was the headquarters of the production company which easily enabled us to finish the film.
The dynamic between my characters is supposed to be a metaphor for any war, when relationships aren’t looked after and cared for they all end in an inevitable demise.
The stark, pervasive power of nature is a palpable theme here. What did you want the environment to bring to Inner Front?
You’ve highlighted an important element. Those places had to represent another character in the story, those lands had to live. It’s no coincidence that with Francesco Sabatini, our music composer, we looked for a light motif that would exactly represent the breadth of the land. The imminence of danger had to move to the rhythm of the land, each element synchronized with the others to push everything towards the inexorable. Those boundless places slowly seem to represent a cage for the characters.
The grade definitely adds to those feelings of desperation, could you go into more detail about the edit and the coloring process?
With the colorist we said that the idea was very clear, the film represents the final part of a parable when everything is already marked and nothing can change, so the color had to play its part too. We shot at different times, a year and a half apart, and had to use different cameras, different lighting conditions and even different seasons, so it was important to standardize the material first and then give it a precise connotation by subtraction. The only glimmer of vivid color comes from the scenes that represent Gaudi’s near past and his affair with Alice because it is his happy oasis, like the visual fragments of the past collected by Damiano that represent the only traces of a happy world that no longer exists.
What do you want audiences to draw from Inner Front?
When telling a story it should not always be clear to the audience, as life often is not. In our relationships we believe we have everything clear and shared but often something happens that makes our certainties collapse. We always have a partial view, even to what concerns us closely. What I want to say is that we are surprised by what happens in front of our eyes when it is too late to avoid it.
It was my first film, my first experience on a set, my first experience as a producer, the first time I managed a professional troupe and so much more. Some brave choices were made based on inexperience but they were decisive in finishing the film. Maybe I wouldn’t do it again under these conditions, I would have liked more time to devote to the actors and the scene.
Finally, what can we expect from you next?
I wanted to stop after Inner Front but instead, I’m already finishing a screenplay that was born by itself.