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Stefano Sollima on Bringing Italian Crime Stories to Life on TV

The director talks making ‘Gomorrah’ and his plans for the sequel to ‘Sicario’

Stefano Sollima (Emanuela Scarpa)
Stefano Sollima (Emanuela Scarpa)

By Eric Ducker

In 2006, Roberto Saviano released Gomorrah, a book detailing the history and dealings of the warring crime syndicates around Naples known as the Camorra. It became a massive commercial success in Italy — and pushed Saviano to live under constant police protection.

Over the past decade, Gomorrah has sold millions of copies around the world, and in 2008 a portion of it was adapted into a film by director Matteo Garrone that Italy officially submitted for the Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Language Film (it was not nominated). Sky Italia created a hugely popular TV series based on Gomorrah in 2014, which has subsequently been broadcast around Europe and will premiere in the United States on Wednesday night on SundanceTV. (A second season has already aired in Italy and a third is on its way.)

While Saviano has been involved in all the forms that Gomorrah has taken, a key creative collaborator on the TV show is veteran director Stefano Sollima. He not only directed seven of the first season’s 12 episodes, but set the tone and approach of the show. He presents the characters unromantically in a world of dilapidated concrete housing complexes and tacky discos. Told strictly from the perspective of the criminals (there are no Jimmy McNultys here), the crime boss lights the apartment of a rival’s mother on fire to send a message and expresses his fear of dwindling control by repeatedly rejecting the luxury couches his wife buys for his office.

Sollima is now working with Saviano on the adaption of Zero Zero Zero, his book about cocaine trafficking, and will make his Hollywood debut as the director of Soldado, the sequel to Sicario that will reportedly focus on the characters played by Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin. I spoke to Sollima about how Gomorrah fits into Italian depictions of criminal culture and his plans for Soldado.

How did you get involved with Gomorrah?

I already did a show called Romanzo Criminale for the same production company, it ran for two seasons. At the end we were trying to find another project to do together. I knew that they were developing a TV show based on the book of Roberto Saviano. I jumped on it because I believed it was a challenging but great idea for a show.

The book was a huge success. It was released 10 years ago, and then they made a great movie based on it. … I was sure that it was possible for us to make something completely new and to be respectful of the book. It was a tricky start, it wasn’t really easy. Of course now [the TV series is] a huge success, so it seems really simple, but it wasn’t in the beginning.

My idea was to make a gritty show, shot in the exact place where the real story took place and using the Neapolitan dialect. All the people, even the producers, they were a little bit scared by this kind of project. In my mind [the idea] was to make exactly what Roberto Saviano did for literature — to tell a story that is absolutely the truth by making it with an absolutely realistic approach.

Pardon my ignorance, but how does Gomorrah compare to other depictions of the crime world in Italian popular culture?

Let’s separate the answer in two. First, normally when we have a gangster story, you tell the story from the point of view of the law. This is exactly the opposite of what I did for Gomorrah — you just have the criminal point of view. This is not easy to do, because this means you must be in this kind of life without any moral judgment on this story you are telling. This is pretty rare, not just in Italy. It could be something that’s too tough to watch, or you never fall in love with the characters.

Stefano Sollima, left, on the set of ‘Gomorrah.’ (Emanuela Scarpa)
Stefano Sollima, left, on the set of ‘Gomorrah.’ (Emanuela Scarpa)

The second reason is that if you were to make a real show on a criminal organization, like the one we portrayed in Gomorrah, you must go there and shoot there. The reason for the huge success we had — first in Italy, and then in Europe, and hopefully here, too — was because we portrayed just the truth. When we shot the first season, there was a war [going on] against different cartels and clans. It’s not easy for a production company to go there and to shoot in this area. When we go out and shoot, we have an incredible amount of trucks and an incredible amount of people, so we are not exactly invisible as a documentary unit. But what we did is more or less something between art and a documentary about a criminal organization, plus all the action stuff you have in a good show.

Why were you interested in telling the story strictly from the perspective of the criminals?

Having a police officer is an external point of view. It’s like you have a story with the moral judgment already in it. As an audience you don’t need a filter between you and the world. And the world that we wanted to portray was [that of the] Camorra. It was natural to have [the criminals] as the main actors, and for them the police are just something that exists. What was important to me was to get at this idea of people who really believe that you can do this in life without having any consequences.

You said you wanted to make something without the filter of moral judgment, and we’re starting to see more of that in films and TV shows. Do you think audiences have always been ready for those types of stories or have people been acclimatized to them over time?

It’s a problem that we storytellers have. We think that our audiences are different from us. This is a major mistake in our industry. I am an audience and you are an audience, and I’m a pretty tough audience. I really believe that people can put their own moral judgment on something, it’s absolutely unnecessary for a director or for a writer to put in his own [judgment]. [The audience] absolutely understands the difference between good and the evil. It’s not necessary for them to have me to point out, “Look at this guy, he’s really evil.” I think it’s much more interesting to portray the gangster as a normal person like he is in life.

Can you tell me how Soldado is going?

It’s going good. We’re in soft prep now, but we are ready to go. Of course it’s a thrilling experience, because the soul of the project is really similar to the work I already did. I feel really comfortable with the matter. It’s a world I know how to investigate.

For a director [a project is] like promising a trip to your audience, and in order to do this you must have the trip first. In the approach, it’s absolutely the same. What’s changed is the place where you are. When I first did Gomorrah, it was a totally unknown world, so I jumped in, which is exactly what I’m doing here. The fact that it’s far from your culture doesn’t mean that it’s not close to your vision of moviemaking.

Have you been spending a lot of time around the border areas?

Yeah, I’m doing research on the world I’m portraying, so I’ve been at the border in Texas and Mexico, and in New Mexico where we’re supposed to shoot.

How’s that been?

Great. I’d never been there, I’ve always been in New York and L.A., so it was a super thrilling experience. I love the space you have there. I was filled up with your cinema. It’s exciting to be in the same place where Kevin Costner was on his horse in Silverado.

It’s interesting to hear you discuss removing the filter of moral judgment in Gomorrah and now you seem to have done that with Soldado since Emily Blunt’s character is no longer in the film and that was the role she served in Sicario.

It’s the reason why I told you it was something that was real close to me. It’s not just because we are talking about a cartel and criminal organizations, it’s how you approach the subject. By watching Sicario I was in love with these people, but I feel like it’s something I did. It’s really close to I how portray a world without judging it too much. In reality, nothing is black or white, we have just an incredible amount of shades of gray.