In his first time directing a big-name movie since 1992’s The Flight of the Innocent, Italian director Carlo Carlei took on one of Shakespeare’s most well-known plays: Romeo and Juliet. With a cast filled to brim with stars (Damian Lewis, Ed Westwick, Hailee Steinfeld, and Paul Giamatti), Carlei hopes to bring back the story of forbidden young love to the masses. We spoke to Carlei about filming the movie in Italy, what it was like to work with such a young cast, and why he thinks it’s time for a new adaptation of the play.
What made you want to direct this film – a film that’s been adapted many times before?
I wanted to reapproach the material, give it a fresher look, shoot it in the real locations, and make it almost like an action movie with a sense of pacing and a visual style, with a score and with a general approach that would be much more appealing to young generations. And attached to the beautiful script by Julian Fellowes, I was able to focus on all of the additional aspects of movie and direct the actors. My job was facilitated by the fact that the dialogue was so beautiful.
Did Julian Fellowes change the original dialogue?
He did to a certain extent … I feel that he was very loyal to the rhythm and the pacing of the original dialogue, but he made it easier to understand, because you can’t really understand some of it. I wasn’t here to make an experimental movie. I wanted to make a movie with universal appeal.
How important was it to you that it was shot in Italy?
You know, it was incredibly important because it’s like making a movie about the French Revolution and shooting it in Bulgaria instead of France. It was paramount for me … I think it was very important for me to set the scenes in rooms where people lived, loved, slept, and died, and you could feel their presence. You could feel that those are real places instead of cardboard replicas on a stage. Places like that have a memory, a history, and you can smell it, you can feel it. And that’s why, in my opinion, the movie looked so luscious because there are 100 of years of memories that are somehow superimposed layer by layer.
I was speaking with Kodi Smit-McPhee and he was talking about how important the costumes and hair were to you. What was that like on a day to day level?
I wanted them to be comfortable … I wanted the costumes to have an everyday easiness and level of comfort that would be how kids move today as opposed being cardboard figures … I want all of the actors not to feel like they were wearing this very strange, big costumes on a stage play, but something that they could move around, be pretty comfortable in.
Did you know you wanted to cast Hailee Steinfeld right away?
Yeah, that was kind of a no brainer. I mean I love her so much, her performance … she was absolutely stunning. And she was about the right age. I wanted to cast somebody for Juliet who was really close to the age of the original. And there was nobody around like Hailee.
What was it like working with someone so young in a Shakespearian film?
She is very strong-willed, a little bit like the girl in True Grit. Once she worked with a dialogue coach, I knew that she could do a perfect British accent. After a few lessons, she read for me and she was perfect. So I knew that everything was going to end up being very easy from then on. It was absolutely fantastic … She’s so mature, so mature for her age, so it made my job so much easier.
Was there anyone else in the cast that you really enjoyed working with?
To be honest with you, I would do a disservice to somebody to say that I didn’t love working with all of them. Kodi Smit-McPhee, incredibly talented. Douglass Booth, incredibly talented. Ed Westwick, incredibly talented and such a great villain. And of course Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis, you know, two incredible actors. It was a pleasure and privilege to be able to work with people of this level.
If you had your dream movie to direct, do you know what genre you’d like to go into, or any movie that you’d like to direct?
I’m pretty eclectic and my dream now, I don’t think in terms of genre anymore, I think in terms of great stories that are worth to be told. I try to make movies now, choosing them on a moral basis, in a certain sense. I make a moral choice. I don’t want to make movies just for the sake of making them. I just want to make movies with a meaning. I think that Romeo and Juliet is so resonant today. It’s not … some story that you just want to retell for the sake of retelling it.