Tizza Covi & Rainer Frimmel on LA PIVELLINA


«The documentary approach is what interests us the most in terms of filmmaking. What reality gives you just can’t be reenacted.» An interview with Tizza Covi & Rainer Frimmel.

You just finished your third full-length film, La Pivellina, which is also your first fictional work. A few of the elements and characters in Babooska appear again. To be precise, you crossed a thin line in the direction of fiction. What moved you to move toward fiction and still stay close to reality?

TIZZA COVI: The documentary approach is what interests us the most in terms of filmmaking. What reality gives you just can’t be reenacted. Still, with documentary film we came to a place where not being able to directly affect what’s happening bothered us. The second factor was the fact that in both films, Babooska and La Pivellina, we worked with people who were wonderfully natural and had no problem at all with a camera being nearby.

Is the fictitious story in La Pivellina based on fact?

TIZZA COVI: I wrote the screenplay. We started with telling a story that shows how our protagonists live, though not in purely documentary form.
I should also say that in Italy, a great many children of this age are abandoned, not just newborns. Unfortunately, that’s a current problem.

How did Patty become the protagonist of La Pivellina?

TIZZA COVI: We’ve known Patty for a long time, and we think her voice and behavior resemble those of Anna Magnani, who we adore. She has an explosive personality, though she did a lot to hold herself back during shooting.

RAINER FRIMMEL: I’d like to add that the two main protagonists are extremely strong together: I don’t think that any couple could be more different than Walter and Patrizia. Of course, that aspect fascinated us too.

TIZZA COVI: Patty was happy to appear in the film. On top of that we shot in winter, a time when nothing’s happening in the circus business. This was a welcome change of pace during a time which is normally dead for them. We lived with them in their trailer, played cards or dice at night or went to the pizzeria. Carnies who work outdoors don’t have much to do in winter: getting their trailers ready for the summer, rehearsing and improving their acts, otherwise the shoot filled up a period of nothing but waiting.

It doesn’t seem that there was a screenplay with set dialogues. What was the basis for shooting, what did you do to prepare?

TIZZA COVI: We wrote the story with an extremely concrete beginning and an extremely concrete ending. The dialogues weren’t written down. An hour before shooting started I talked to Patty, Tairo or Walter, told them which scenes we had planned and what would have to be in the conversation. How they formulated their lines and the order was left up to them. One difficulty that we didn’t expect was in the middle of the film, when we would have liked to include some real, documentary-style elements from their everyday routine.  We shot some beautiful moments that strayed too far from the story of the little girl. You have to imagine the screenplay as a 30-page outline of the plot, which then underwent radical change in the course of shooting. We were extremely grateful to the Ministry of Education, Art and Culture for giving us this freedom and trust and accepting the screenplay without concrete dialogue. Having this kind of freedom to change things during shooting because you have a spontaneous impression that it works better that way, in my opinion that’s the most fun you can have when making a film.

It’s common knowledge that shooting with children isn’t so easy. How difficult was working with such a young girl?

TIZZA COVI: Asia was almost two years old during shooting. I have to start by saying that our style of shooting has nothing to do with a classic film crew. Rainer operates the camera, I take care of the sound and the clapboard. We aren’t in any way scary for children. And kids need time, of course. In the first weeks of shooting she would never have gone to sleep with me or Patty in the trailer. I took a great deal of time with her, until she fell asleep in my arms, and then with Patty in the trailer, and then she went to sleep there every time. When we picked up the camera or the sound equipment we didn’t change so much that she would have noticed. Our working style is probably the best for shooting with children.

RAINER FRIMMEL: What was decisive for working with Asia so well was the fact that her parents trusted us completely. They left their child in our hands and were glad to see that we took good care of her. It makes shooting much easier when the parents aren’t there. Of course, a great deal happened spontaneously. Telling her exactly what to do doesn’t work at that age. Instead, you have to adapt the situation in light of how she feels at the moment. The main problem with the little girl was that she never went to sleep before two in the morning, and then she slept until early afternoon, of course. Since we were shooting in winter and it got dark early, that became a bit of a problem, and we tried to change her rhythm a little. A number of times we would have liked to shoot earlier, but waking a child up doesn’t work, because then they’re in a bad mood.

When you take a closer look at the themes, the film has something to tell about having to grow up fast – that Asia has to deal with being abandoned, and Tairo was alone at a very young age – and it’s also about different generations coexisting.

TIZZA COVI: Another part of the film that’s very important to us involves sticking together. The fact that they’re quick to help each other in the world they live in, that helping each other is a matter of course. Showing this other type of society was important to us.

RAINER FRIMMEL: And childhood is another important aspect. In Tairo’s case his childhood and being abandoned. He was “officially” given up after his parents’ divorce, but he was only three at the time and had to stand on his own two feet at an early age. This is also a kind of abandonment that you have to deal with, but he still managed to find a substitute family in this microcosm. How you put your own little world together, where you feel at home, that was a theme.

In your Italy the weather’s never nice, the surroundings seem pretty dreary, and at the same time you sense a calm simplicity in life and a humorous narrative style.

TIZZA COVI: The image of nice weather in Italy’s a cliché; winters in Rome are terrible, and it rains all the time. We’re just trying to show Italy in a more realistic way.

RAINER FRIMMEL: But making a depressing film was not our intention at all.

TIZZA COVI:  And one of the best things that can be done with the way we work is situation comedy. There are some tragic events that suddenly turn funny because of a certain line or joke. That’s possible when the dialogues aren’t written down precisely beforehand.

But the magic circus elements appear frequently in the gray everyday routine, such as the magician with the red balls.

RAINER FRIMMEL:  We didn’t want to leave these elements out this time. I’m thinking of our visit to the circus owned by Tairo’s father, or the magician with the red balls, or the trick with the paper bag. They all involve disappearing. All at once the ball’s gone, but you can still hear it fall into the bag. In the case of the foreign guest worker they meet on the playground, the balls disappear and then reappear someplace else. That can be seen as a reference to the little girl, who suddenly appears in Patty’s life, and then disappears again. At the same time, we consciously left the story’s end completely open.

In a purely technical sense, you have lots of experience with filming inside a trailer.

RAINER FRIMMEL: Of course, there are a lot of difficulties involved with shooting under these conditions that you have to be ready for at any time. Once again, we shot on Super-16 mm, though with a handheld camera this time.

TIZZA COVI: Rainer built a great abdominal support so that the camera isn’t so heavy to hold and he can move easily while shooting. In La Pivellina the camerawork turned out great because the camera hardly ever jiggles and everything seems so smooth.

RAINER FRIMMEL: The major advantage with a handheld camera is that you’re a lot faster and don’t lose any time setting up a tripod or with framing. But at the same time, as I said before, there are some difficulties involved: We only use the available light, which means that sometimes our only light source is a single bulb, and when the power supply’s spotty, the intensity of the light can vary suddenly.

TIZZA COVI: Although we’re quality fanatics, in the final analysis the quality of the content is more important than the technical aspects.

Rainer Frimmel: We’d never use artificial light because we always want to be as close to the reality as possible. Whether a face is perfectly lit isn’t as important to us, on the contrary, in a trailer that would mean that something’s not right, which is why we don’t do anything in that direction. The camera in La Pivellina is a lot more mobile than in Babooska, where we had lots of static and long takes. Ever since we made Babooska, we’ve decided that we wanted a camera that moves more and a faster rhythm in our next film.

TIZZA COVI: But we still use our style with long takes during which something can develop. We still have few cuts and lots of scenes that last only a minute or thirty seconds for a fiction film.

RAINER FRIMMEL:Shooting style also involves personal development. For That’s All we filmed everything from a tripod. You move a step forward with every film, though you still maintain your own style, and you try out new things.

Has working in this micro-constellation proven to be the best way in terms of the crew, technically and the budget?

TIZZA COVI: We had a production budget of about €100,000, and with three prints and postproduction it amounted to about €150,000. Larger budgets always take away a certain amount of freedom, which we need. Working according to a detailed plan isn’t natural for us, and that would also destroy our enjoyment of filmmaking. Our work style is also based on the interplay of a number of factors?a certain enthusiasm and spirit of cooperation is created among the crew, and that carries us along.  For our next project we’ll be working with a young and extremely talented actor at the Burgtheater?Philipp Hochmair?who has made a number of concessions because he’s aware of the kind of budget we have to make do with. That also generates a special kind of energy that might not have been possible if our work together were purely business.

RAINER FRIMMEL: One time that we really suffer because of the small budget is during postproduction, when we have to do without certain things with this great material, we can’t afford as much time as we’d like to have in the sound studio, or producing the best possible version of a print isn’t possible. A film shouldn’t fail because of its budget, and it shouldn’t be judged on that basis either. We would like to be able to continue working in this way, and we don’t consider large budgets to be essential for us. Not having to make do with less during postproduction would be a nice change.

The fact that not all the details were specified in the screenplay probably made editing even more important.

TIZZA COVI: We had more footage than with our previous films, about 20 hours in all, which is still a relatively small amount for a fiction film. I do the editing.

RAINER FRIMMEL: You have to think consistently when editing. Tizza’s great at that, and she can throw some things out that I can’t. I’m a collector.

TIZZA COVI: During editing we had to drop a lot of beautiful and really successful things because they moved too far away from the story. I hope we don’t repeat this mistake with the next film, we’ve learned that you have to stick close to the story at all times. But we did allow ourselves little detours?like the history lesson and the collection of wax figures.

RAINER FRIMMEL: That also involves the history of Italy, where not all associations with Mussolini are negative. The collection of wax figures shows Mussolini’s last meeting.

Will Cannes help the film’s exploitation significantly?

TIZZA COVI: We have no idea what that will be like. We’re extremely pleased about it, because as filmmakers we’re always hoping to find an audience or at least get noticed.

RAINER FRIMMEL: A major festival is, of course, a nice goal to have worked toward.

TIZZA COVI:  I’m already thinking about our next project. But thank God, Rainer does more promotion work with the films after they’re finished. We’re different enough that we complement each other excellently. In my opinion, the most interesting things are the ones that are happening and not the ones that have already happened. For a long time now, Rainer has wanted to make a film about Vienna, but that’s extremely difficult because there are already so many different perspectives of the city and finding a new approach isn’t easy.
We originally wanted to make the film about Vienna before La Pivellina. But then the screenplay was finished in a month, we submitted it in September, and after that it took less than a year and a half until the film premiered. The other film has matured in the meantime.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
April 2009