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From Milan to NY and LA to rediscover the international reach of Italian cinema

We have met LA-based, Italian born, film producer Stefano Gallini-Durante, who is working on a number of high profile film projects, some of which will be shot in Italy. This year Gallini-Durante made his debut at the Sundance Film Festival as Executive Producer of White Shadow, an African film made in collaboration with Ryan Gosling and Asmara Films.

Let’s talk about your passion for cinema. How was it born?

As a kid, I was incredibly fascinated by films. I used to memorize all the credits when watching a movie. For some reason, I remembered the names of actors, directors and even producers. Never understood why I did it. I collected movie posters and my room was entirely plastered with them. Also, a close relative of my family was the legendary Walter Chiari, "Uncle Walter". I would visit him on the set or on a theater stage and I would be transfixed by all the lights and people working around. Then, the turning point came when I was about 11 years old and saw "2001 Space Odissey" by Stanley Kubrick: I had no idea what I was watching, I was scared by the monolith and the primitive hominids, the haunting soundtrack...The film was so visually epic, metaphorical and abstracts that I was struggling to understand what it truly meant, its profound truths about human nature: to this day, "2001" is my favorite film of all times. I have seen it at least 20 times.

Stefano Gallini-Durante (Photo by Antony Hoffman)

Can you tell us something about your beginnings?

Well, it’s quite a complex story but, in a nutshell, after my Degree in Economics in Italy, I left for London and NY where I was an investment banker for years. In NY I felt free to be who I wanted to be so, one day I was randomly offered a job in LA at a Studio called New Line Cinema, now part of Warner Bros., and I took it. I quit banking and in a matter of 2 months I was in LA. It was an underpaid, junior job as an assistant to a producer at that studio: at night I was going to UCLA to lean about film making and my days, in the first few months at New Line, were spent making photocopies. Mostly photocopies of screenplays that, of course, I was reading in secret: I read hundreds of them and learned very quickly the script development process. At that point, I was overqualified for an assistant job and the executives there thought that I was a bit crazy, since I was already in my mid 30s and my co-workers were in their early 20s. However, my boss saw my passion and took me under her wing and years later I can say it was the best learning experience. Moving from banking to films was quite an odd professional move, but I am glad I made that decision. At first it seemed strange to my friends and family, but looking back it was the right decision. I love what I do: it's a lucky position to be in.

We have heard about a movie set in Siena, Italy, and about a project relating to a book by the Italian writer Erri De Luca. Can you anticipate something on those projects?

The film in Tuscany is called "Voice from The Stone" and is based on the novel by Italian writer Silvio Raffo (La Voce Della Pietra) that was a Strega Award finalist in the late '90s. Amazing, eerie book. The leading role has gone to Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen in HBO’s Game Of Thrones) and we are casting the male lead right now. Eric Howell will be the director and I am producing the movie with producing partner Dean Zanuck (producer of Road to Perdition, Get Low, The Zero Theorem). It is a highly sophisticated psychological thriller set in Tuscany after II World War. We are planning to shoot near Siena this coming winter. 

The novel by Erri De Luca is called "The Weight of the Butterfly" (Il Peso della Farfalla) and is set in the Italian Alps, a sort of new "Moby Dick". It's a "Man vs Nature" type of story where Nature forces a man to face his internal demons. Beautiful.  I acquired the film rights 2 years ago and we have a script adaptation by Charlie Mitchell (who penned "Blood Diamond"). This is a true gem. Right after the script was delivered to us, the project was immediately snatched by a major film financing company and it is now out to directors. It will take some time since it is a very unusual story, but we are confident that we will be able to cast a star as the lead.

 Other ongoing projects you can talk about?

I have 15 films at different stages of development here in LA and one TV Series. Among the ones quickly moving towards production, one is called "Joe Petrosino" with Lions Gate Entertainment (the Studio behind "Twilight", "The Hunger Games" and many other films). It is based on the famous 1970s Italian bestseller by Arrigo Petacco. Some big names directors are reading the script at the moment, fingers crossed, I prefer not to talk about it too much. Another fast mover is a Science-Fiction trilogy I have at 20th Century Fox called "Fallen Angel", conceived last year with Danish director Nicolai Fuglsig. Nicolai is a top commercial director and is very technologically savvy, very special effects oriented. We will make this huge production flanked by one of the top Hollywood producers, Michael De Luca (Social Network, Moneyball, Captain Phillips). Funny story about Michael: I was making photocopies for him when I started at New Line Cinema, which I mentioned before. Amazing story in itself of how life sometimes works in full circle, if you are persistent.

Last year I also produced my first documentary, entirely shot in Cuba and now in post-production. It is called "En La Caliente" and talks about the music scene in Cuba. A sort of new Cuban revolution through music, in particular Reggaeton music: a fusion between Salsa, Hip-Hop and Reggae. Very political, very sensual, very revolutionary for Cuba and of course Reggaeton was recently banned by Castro, plunging that music genre into the Cuban underground, jeopardizing the artistic life of many people. The documentary will be ready in January and it's already requested by all the major Film Festivals. We hope it will help the youth in Cuba: amazing island, culture and people.

How is a project born and how does it develop?

Every project has a different genesis. It can be born out of an original idea or a book or a newspaper article, a comic book or a remake of a film, or yet other sources. At some point, that idea has to be turned into a screenplay, which is the starting point of every film. The development can be long and complex. As a producer, you constantly work with the screenwriters and directors of your projects, to adjust the script and bring it to the best possible shape, to be able to send it out to production companies and financiers for financing and to agencies for casting. The more elements, mainly director and actors, attached to the project you can present to the studios or independent financiers, the more chances the project has to be acquired, financed and subsequently made into the film you want to make. I love this process: it's long and requires a lot of patience, but it's a dream to be able to work with creative people and see a screenplay taking shape, developing from the page into a film.

You have a company of your own called Code 39 Films. Where does the name come from and which are the objectives you aim to achieve through it?

The name Code 39 derives from the international code you have to dial to call Italy. It's a secret lucky charm in honor of my country. I hope in the future to make more films that involve Italy and mix my contacts here with the great creative talents we have there.

A major influence in your career and professional growth?

Moving to Los Angeles. I am grateful to this city on both a personal and a professional level. It's a place that lives in the future, very advanced technologically and professionally. I met amazing people here at the highest level in my profession, and was encouraged to follow my ideas and dreams. LA is a bizarre market for ideas: ideas here have a value, when they are good. Professionally, what attracts people to LA is the determination and focus that you put into your work. This is the only city on earth where you walk into a room to present an idea or a screenplay and can get out of it with a multimillion dollar contract, without a business plan. If you read its history, how it was born, this city's spirit has always been based on a crazy balance between willingness to risk and a healthy collective insanity.

A director and an actor you would like to work with?

My dream team would be David Fincher and Daniel Day-Lewis. I don't need to explain why, the choice is self-explanatory.

How do you see the future of Italian cinema?

Not very well, if you consider what is going on politically and economically in Italy today. However, we do have amazing talents in every field of cinema: directors, writers, costume designers, directors of photography and so on. In my opinion, apart from very few exceptions, what we really miss is producers with a true international vision and a real passion for the movie making process. The era of producers such as Carlo Ponti, Dino De Laurentiis and Franco Cristaldi is over.  To make films in Italy that can appeal to a broad international audience is possible, but it requires film-makers with an international reach, and it takes years to develop relevant contacts in Hollywood. You have to live and work in the trenches of LA, and then share those contacts with Italian partners.

That is what I do. Many films that I am developing in the US are based on Italian novels and will be shot entirely or in part in Italy. In fact, I am inclined to select stories that appeal to an international audience, possibly set in Italy. In my film "Voice from the Stone" that we'll shoot in Siena for example, there are only 5 Americans out of about 100 people that will work directly or indirectly on the film. It was my idea to hire only Italians for the key departments, the supporting cast and crew and I hope to be able to do more in the future for bigger productions.

I do have faith in Italy, but we need to have a more positive mentality. No one is attracted by a negative attitude, but everyone is drawn to a positive one. I would like my country to give more room to young people and embrace its creative talents; we were doing it in the 60s and 70s, I think we can do it again.  We live in a global era, we cannot stay in our corner and watch others do things that we could and should do.  We need to open our minds, expand our horizons, focus on our targets, risk, and re-learn to be proud of who we are.  But, in order to do all that, we have to be willing to start dreaming again.

Thank you for this chat Stefano. We’ll come and visit you in Siena – we’d love to share with our readers some backstage pictures and reflections.

Absolutely - that would be great! Thank you.