Under the subtle veneer of comedy, made all the more preposterous by an all too typical awkward and fumbling Englishman, Edoardo Ulivelli’s Lo Sguardo (The Look) reverberates with pangs of loneliness and regret. Ulivelli’s graduate short, all filmed around the lush verdant Tuscan countryside, is not carried by dialogue but instead longing glances, wordless coquettish smiles and heady flirtations. Lo Sguardo follows a shy young man on his Italian holiday as he navigates a potential lustful encounter. Ulivelli pulls from personal experience as he was drawn to explore those big ‘What if?’ moments through our unversed protagonist’s refusal or perhaps inability to grab the proverbial bull by the horns. As Lo Sguardo premieres on DN’s pages today, we speak to Ulivelli about writing this film as a way to process his own worries and preoccupations, his meticulous planning before a shoot, and why he wanted to blur the lines between fantasy and reality and leave the audience to decipher their own conclusions.
Lo Sguardo is such a well-balanced yet off-kilter piece of work, can you tell us about how it all came together as your London Film School graduation piece?
I was privileged to attend the London Film School which in my opinion is one of the best institutes in the world of its kind. There, under the mentorship of writers and directors such as Rafael Kapelinski and Richard Kwietniowski, I was able to find my own artistic voice. However, while I was attending the school, Covid hit and my initial plans to stay in the UK after my studies abruptly changed. I decided to move back to my hometown, Florence in Italy, and write and shoot my graduation film. Staying away from the flourish but also strict artistic environment of the School made me more autonomous and responsible for my own choices. I decided to welcome onto the project only a couple of students while for the vast majority of the team, I was keen to work with young professionals from the Italian film industry where I knew I would be stepping into right after.
Writing, directing and producing this film with a decent budget gave me the opportunity to have almost total creative freedom which allowed me to take all the risks that a young filmmaker should always take to find themselves.
I always write about subjects that I fear, challenging myself to grow through my own work and to share my emotions and point of view with an audience in a sort of collective psychoanalysis. For this reason I chose to focus on something which was overwhelming me at the time. Back at the beginning of 2021, I was having trouble with my dating life which Covid had contributed to exacerbate. I started wondering about all my dates that might have gone differently before the pandemic hit. Were they all real or just a product of my imagination? Had I actually lost a chance, or was it the alienation I was experiencing that made it feel that way? This sense of loneliness, desire and regret made me create Lo Sguardo. Writing, directing and producing this film with a decent budget gave me the opportunity to have almost total creative freedom which allowed me to take all the risks that a young filmmaker should always take to find themselves.
Eyes Wide Shut by Stanley Kubrick, Force Majeure by Ruben Ostlund and Blow-Up by Michelangelo Antonioni were my main references. I wanted to transport the audience into a world where reality and fantasy have come together, generating the question, ‘What if?’. In this short, the unspoken word is more important than words and a character’s gaze takes on different meanings depending on who it is directed at. At the center of my idea of cinema lies a pit of irony and I was determined to make the audience empathise with the protagonist through a climax of ambiguous and funny situations enriched with sexual tension. Will Clive, a shy English young man on a solo trip in Tuscany, step outside his comfort zone when presented with the most unexpected invitation of his life?
In this short, the unspoken word is more important than words and a character’s gaze takes on different meanings depending on who it is directed at.
The location is stunning, how did you come to be filming in such lush surroundings?
In order to make this story come to life we managed to raise funds through a successful Kickstarter campaign that, along with the help of my film school, gave us the opportunity to have a team of professionals, a great cast and top-notch equipment for nine days of shooting along with fantastic post-production facilities. Almost all the shooting took place at Tenuta di Poggio Casciano, a splendid resort just a few kilometers from my hometown, Florence. The main part of the estate is the XIV century Renaissance villa overlooking some of the most enchanting vineyards of Chianti in Tuscany. The whole crew were lucky enough to sleep in the location which also allowed us to cut costs.
Clive is such a wonderful stereotypical awkward British man, you have hit his humour, sensibilities and awkwardness right on the head. How did you make him such a rounded character and why was it so tough to cast him?
Clive is an insecure but tremendously curious Englishman who tries and fails to escape his own deep sense of loneliness. To create him I took inspiration from a series of real life people that had reminded me of my own insecurities but taken to the extreme. Hundreds of young actors had applied for the role in the UK, probably attracted by the idea of shooting a film in a beautiful resort in the Tuscan countryside. However when I came across Magnus Gordon’s profile, a true natural talent fresh out of The Oxford School of Drama. His eyes were the thing that struck me the most, lively and sad at the same time. When I watched the self-tape I immediately knew it was him! Awkwardly funny and moody at the right point.
My strategy as a director was to try to give him the space and freedom he needed to give authenticity to the character.
After the selection, I gave him a rough backstory which he expanded writing two full pages of Clive’s life before the events of Lo Sguardo. My strategy as a director was to try to give him the space and freedom he needed to give authenticity to the character. If we both felt that a line had to be changed in order to make it feel more genuine I had no problems with editing the script. We had a wonderful relationship before, during and after the shoot and I’m happy to have somehow contributed to the launch of his career as this was his first leading role.
There is a certain blurring of lines between reality and fantasy where we aren’t quite sure, can you talk about broaching that line?
What is the weight of reality in the human experience? It’s the stories we tell ourselves that end up shaping who we are, not what actually happens to us. Reality is in the eyes of the observer and in a world that over-emphasizes sex, Clive can’t be sure if he’s really missed out on the right opportunity to escape his loneliness. The true meaning of the film resides not in the solving of the mystery of the letter that Clive doesn’t take at the end but in the incommunicability between the protagonist and the couple. It’s ‘the eyes’ of the characters and their interpretation that define this story, and it’s up to the audience to make their own guess about what actually happened and its meaning.
Are you a director who subscribes to detailed storyboarding and planning and can you take us through the shoot?
Eighty per cent of what you see on screen had been carefully storyboarded in pre-production, including all the cutting points. One of my strengths is to come to set with a clear idea of the rhythm of the film and shoot accordingly. I don’t like doing things just for coverage, I think it’s a waste of money and everybody’s time. Obviously, there is a margin of improvisation but the latter can only exist if the foundations of your main idea are solid. However, cuts like the one from “Clive vomiting” to “the pouring of coffee into the mug” have been imagined during the storyboarding process.
Planning for me is key, thus the nine days of shooting, divided into two blocks of four with a resting day in the middle, were just enough to execute the film the way it I conceived it. I tirelessly worked with my AD and the entire team to make sure we had the exact amount of time we needed and we never went overtime. I was also very concerned about the crew’s welfare and I made sure everybody had the best working experience possible. Being able to host the whole crew at the same resort we shot in definitely helped not only to reduce transportation costs and save time but also to keep everybody in a good mood.
The combination of Arri Alexa Mini, Cooke S4 lenses and the careful use of Pro-Mist filters give the image an ethereal and nostalgic look, contributing to the idea of reality overlapping with fantasy.
I love your use of the surroundings, can you elaborate on your compositions?
When it came to the cinematography, I wanted to elevate the sexual tension between the characters to something elegant and hypnotic to watch. The great beauty of the surroundings had to be Clive’s ideal escape from his own problems, even if there are moments it only feels palliative. To frame this story and highlight locations, Camilla Cattabriga, my talented cinematographer, and I chose longer takes and symmetrical compositions that involved the setting as if it were a character itself. The combination of Arri Alexa Mini, Cooke S4 lenses and the careful use of Pro-Mist filters give the image an ethereal and nostalgic look, contributing to the idea of reality overlapping with fantasy. We set up several dolly shots that gift all of our scenes with a special breathing space and classical elegance. When shooting outdoors, we relied exclusively on natural lighting, whereas our indoor shots relied on a variety of diegetic lighting which we ensured always respected the shades and colours typical of the Tuscan countryside.
I wanted to use music in the same way, creating a repeating theme that could exteriorise Clive’s inner battle with his own insecurities and, at the same time, to give even more elegance to the story.
Your orchestral score is ambitious and elegantly expresses the tones of the film.
This was my fifth collaboration with young composer Filippo Landi, a true master of his craft. This being our most important project so far, we both wanted to raise the bar in terms of quality. It’s rare to have a live recorded orchestral soundtrack in a short film, but that’s what we both wanted. In Ruben Ostlund’s Force Majeure, one of Lo Sguardo’s main inspirations in terms of visuals and music, a reinterpreted version of Vivaldi’s Summer is used as a sort of tension relief between the scenes. I wanted to use music in the same way, creating a repeating theme that could exteriorise Clive’s inner battle with his own insecurities and, at the same time, give even more elegance to the story. Listening to the difference between the digitalised version and the live recorded score made me appreciate even more the human factor. There’s no AI that can really replicate those sounds. Like with the jazz music piece in the party scene, I think you can really feel the soul of the composer, the players and therefore, Clive’s as well.
How has Lo Sguardo affected you as a filmmaker and what are you working on next?
Lo Sguardo has helped me find my own artistic voice after years of experimenting with different genres and styles. The attention to cinematography, editing and music will be the same, as well as the subtle irony that defines every script of mine. I don’t think that in order to build my brand you have to constantly explore only one theme. The directors I love the most, Kubrick, Ostlund, Spielberg adapted their style to very different kinds of films and I hope my filmography can be as varied. Now I feel the need to dive into more existentialist themes. I’m working on a new short film about the incommunicability of the concept of death. Once again I’m dealing with a fear that obsesses me, and this time it’ll be a pure drama. I think in the future, I’ll keep moving on the axis of drama, comedy and thriller, following the steps of the filmmakers that inspired me the most. I’m also planning my first feature, but we’ll have to wait a bit more for that.