Director Giuseppe Capotondi takes on the Florida set novel The Burnt Orange Heresy and sets the tale in Lake Como. During our conversation, Capotondi talks about working with co-star Elizabeth Debicki and being inspired by the thriller genre (without parroting the master of suspense himself Alfred Hitchcock).
Based on a novel by Charles Willeford, The Burnt Orange Heresy centers on James Figueras (Claes Bang), an art critic who brings his new lover Berenice Hollis (Elizabeth Debicki) for a weekend getaway on Lake Como. Art dealer Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger) tasks James with stealing a painting from reclusive artist Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland), and this criminal undertaking leads to its share of deceit and violence.
How does your film differ from the Charles Willeford novel?
The original script was set in Florida like the book. It’s very expensive to shoot in Florida (laughs) and also Palm Beach is kind of off limits. So I thought that, also given the sophistication of the dialogue, that maybe a change of setting would have matched it. We said why not try Lake Como?
The fact that Lake Como is not so sunny. Being so steep and so dark, you rarely get direct sunlight so it added to this modern, moody atmosphere of this brooding threat that I wanted for the film. Other than that, and obviously the character of Berenice has been pumped up a lot from the original novel. The themes are exactly the same. We were faithful with that.
What was it like working with Elizabeth Debicki, an actress who’s definitely on the rise?
Obviously I had seen what she had done before, and it was already very, very promising but the moment – and look I’m a bit biased maybe because we became friends but I am her biggest fan. The minute we started working, I could tell straight away that she was perfect and she has all that I’ve ever wanted from an actor. It was a real pleasure, also because she is very intelligent and clever and she knows exactly when to push and when to stop. You don’t really need to direct her much.
I’m assuming it only helped your production to have such skilled actors as Mick Jagger and Donald Sutherland in your ensemble.
When you have these kind of actors it’s so much easier and it’s just (relaxing). You don’t have to worry about their performance basically and you can worry about everything else which is quite a lot. Especially having to shoot in 25 days with a super tiny budget.
When you go to edit, it’s such a pleasure just to look at takes and say ‘Oh my God, which take is better?’ With great actors, they always do something different for each take. Obviously they know when you ask for another take it’s not because of the focus that was not perfect. You can’t trick them anymore that way. When you ask them to do it another time, they will do it slightly differently. Their performances was a no-brainer.
The obvious question is if you were inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s work, even on a surface level, when directing The Burnt Orange Heresy.
Obviously whatever you do has been informed by films you’ve done before. It’s 2020 – we live in a post modern era. Everything has been done. We didn’t watch any Alfred Hitchcock movie at all. We watched Contempt the Jean-Luc Godard (film) because it was shot in Italy, had Brigitte Bardot and was shot mostly in interiors. We watched Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. We didn’t watch any black and white film noirs because we didn’t want to copy anything but we wanted to be inspired by everything else.
I’ve been watching film noir since I was a kid so everything I do is informed by what I’ve seen. But it’s not like we said, ‘oh look at the way this film was done, let’s do it again.’ It was a very conscious decision of not copying anything (filmwise) but being inspired by the genre.
The Burnt Orange Heresy is a thriller that, without giving anything away, is a bit of a subversion of the genre.
That’s exactly the reason why I loved this script from the beginning because it talks about how easy it is to fabricate an alternative narrative and sell it as the real thing. How easy it is to sell a lie and most of it – do we really care? That’s the main question. Is it easy for us to believe a lie than fight or look for the truth because we are lazy and don’t want to fight. We buy lies all the time. But then again, this is a message if you want to take it home with you for five minutes and think about it while you brush your teeth, that’s fine. The main part of this film is it’s a thriller and it should be fun to watch. If you want to take a message home, then take it. Don’t think it’s sort of grandstanding – it shouldn’t be taken too seriously.
Thank you so much for your time.
The Burnt Orange Heresy is now playing in New York and Los Angeles with a wider rollout scheduled for March 13.