SxSW 2017 Interview: SPETTACOLO's Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen
By Jason Whyte
Posted 03/08/17 15:44:12
"The film is about a tiny hill town in Tuscany that has turned their lives into a play for the past 50 years. Everyone in town takes part, playing themselves on stage." "They all lead normal lives but every summer they discuss those lives together on stage. It's a tradition that has kept this little community united." Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen, directors respectively, on SPETTACOLO which screens at the 2017 South By Southwest Conference.
I hear you are back at SxSW this year! Tell me about what you have had here in the past, and your favorite aspects of the city.
Jeff Malmberg: Chris and I premiered our film MARWENCOL here in 2010. I think what I love about Austin and the festival is how hungry the audience is to go somewhere they haven't been before. They're adventurous and I think Janet Pierson programs with an adventurous sense of what documentary can be.
Chris Shellen: I remember audiences really taking Mark into their hearts last time so of course we're hoping that will be the case with this film, too. We love these people in the film and are fascinated by them so we hope the audiences are as well.
So how did you get into this business? Talk to me a bit about how you got your start.
Jeff: Chris and I went to film school together a long time ago. So when we re-connected, documentary seemed like something we could do together. It reminded us of our old film school projects where a few people could do do everything on a project and really do it for the love and the joy of it.
How did SPETTACOLO come together for you both?
Chris: We bumped into this story by accident on a vacation to Italy. We were early for a dinner and to waste a little time we wandered into Andrea's art studio that you see in the film.
Jeff: He was sitting at his desk furiously scribbling on a piece of paper. And I remember thinking "What's his deal? I wish I had my camera with me. If I only had five minutes to shoot him!" And of course we found out later about their theater and that he's the director of it. He was just one of those people where your alarm goes off and tells you to find out more. Your fate is kind of sealed at that point whether you know it or not!
What keeps you both going while making a movie? What’s the drive?
Chris: I think for us it's a sense of discovery and pushing yourself to do something that you're a little afraid of. We had to learn another language to make this film. I heard this great analogy from David Bowie once that you should wade out in the water and find the spot where your toes barely touch the bottom and that that should be the spot you explore.
Jeff: It is really the only things you know you get; the experience you have, the things you learn, and the friends you make in making the film. That's really the only things that are guaranteed so you need to really make those count. The film should be a journey that you go on and then when you're done you shape it back into a journey for the audience to get to go on too. And as for your question about how much coffee does it take, it's actually about the balance between caffeine and red wine. Finding the perfect balance. Very few people realize that. Luckily we were in Tuscany so we were in pretty good shape.
This sounds like a really passionate project for both of you. What was your biggest challenge with this project, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you both?
Jeff: The language for sure was tough. Our translator quit pretty early through the shoot and we were forced to really dive into learning it. So when we showed them the rough cut of the film I remember Andrea said, "You showed us things about ourselves that we didn't know". That to me was huge because it meant we had managed to leap over the language issue so to speak and get at something was true to them.
Jeff, please tell me about the the visual design of the movie and how the look was achieved!
Jeff: Well we moved to this little Italian town to shoot the film and stayed there for six months. So budget-wise we couldn't afford a crew at all. It was just Chris and I; her mostly doing sound and me mostly shooting. I used a very simple Sony EX1 setup. I always subscribe to the KISS theory for cameras when it comes to a one or two-person crew: "Keep it simple, stupid". But within that simplicity, I knew I was dealing with this beautiful 14th Century hill town in Tuscany and all the amazing nature around the town. So I really wanted to honor the natural beauty of the place with the images what I was shooting. I really challenged myself to look at every frame I shot at the end of each day and that helped me learn a lot about how to get the most out of the camera and the environment. It's a very small town too so I found myself shooting the same locations over and over and learning each time. I showed a cut of the film at USC film school and the cinematography teacher couldn't believe it was all on an EX1. He wanted a copy to show his students who I guess had been complaining about being assigned that camera.
What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie here in Austin?
Chris: I'm really looking forward to the Q&As. The film is designed to bring up a bunch of different ideas and topics to talk about and think about afterwards so we finally get to do that with other people besides the two of us!
Jeff: Right after five years! Finally!
After the film screens at SxSW, where is the film going to show next? Theatrical, online, more festivals?
Jeff: After the premiere in Austin, then the long, wonderful film festival march begins. And of course you hope it ends up in theaters and television and streaming and all those kinds of things.
If you could show your movie in any theater outside of Austin, where would you screen it and why?
Chris The town we shot in in Italy has a little tiny theater for about 30 people called the Teatrino. Folding chairs and a little screen. We screened the rough cut of SPETTACOLO there for them to get their comments and their input. I always imagined giving them a copy of the film when we were done and letting them show it there to whoever wanted to learn about them.
Jeff: They have seen the film now, the rough cut anyway, but I would love to have them watch with an audience of strangers. I think they take their story for granted sometimes and it would be so great for them to witness the reaction they get. With the people I have shown it to so far, there's a real respect for how they have chosen to spend their lives.
What would you say to someone who was being disruptive at one of your screenings?
Chris: It's probably not printable. Sorry about that.
We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or get into the industry somehow. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business?
Jeff: Learn to edit. Or shoot. Especially in documentary. You can practice for your stuff and make a living at the same time. Look at any realistic doc budget; it's all travel, editing and the cinematographer. Being a documentary director is amazing but I still haven't been paid for it.
And finally, what is the greatest movie experience you have ever had?
Jeff: Sitting at the Cinerama Dome in LA when I was 21 watching LAWRENCE OF ARABIA in 70mm. And Francis Coppola was sitting in front of me with a big tub of popcorn. How do you beat that?
SPETTACOLO is showing on Saturday, March 11th, 6:45 at the Alamo Ritz, Monday March 13th, 2:45 at Alamo South Lamar and Friday, March 17th at Stateside.
Be sure to follow SPETTACOLO online at the official site, Facebook and Twitter!
We hope you enjoyed this SxSW filmmaker interview as part of our coverage of SxSW 2017. To see the entire series click on the Live Report sidebar on your right. We will have interviews posted all throughout the festival so be sure to visit us often for more coverage!
This is one of the many films screening at the 2017 SXSW in Austin, Texas taking place March 10-18. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to www.sxsw.com/film or use the SxSW GO App for Android and iOS.
Jason Whyte, efilmcritic.com
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte