Interview with film director and producer Ruben Zaccaroni

Ruben Zaccaroni is a writer and director. He was born and raised in Milan, Italy. He moved to New York City for college where he got a degree in Computer Science and Film. Toward the end of his college career he decided to pursue film. He has worked on set in countless roles and productions, from student shorts to Netflix features and shows. His work as writer and director of the short “Definitely Soy” has garnered international wins and recognition at festivals. His work was showcased in a 2021 commercial for the design company “Kartell”. His debut feature “To Love and To Lose” will be released in 2021. Read the interview to find out more. 

What inspired you to become a film director?

I’ve always watched a lot of movies growing up. But I never really thought about the actual process of making movies or what’s behind them. I was always only concerned with the movies themselves. At the time I was closely studying video games and designing my own. I would pay very close attention to creating the right rhythm and atmosphere, which to me were the foundation of a good video game. I stopped designing them, but the two fundamentals of rhythm and atmosphere were true for me in filmmaking as well. I’m always paying attention to how things flow and feel. I never want the viewer to feel detached from what they’re watching and that comes to many things, but finding the right rhythm for the story is key. As for atmosphere it tends to be the thing about movies that I remember most; much more than plot. A great example is “Easy Rider”. I can’t really remember what happened. But I remember the feeling of the two of them on their bikes in the desert.

You were part of Kartell’s 2021 ad campaign with your movie “Night Drifter”. How did that collaboration start? What inspired that commercial?

I was contacted after they saw my short film “Definitely Soy” (2018, prod. Andrew Karpan and George Zouvelos). It got a number of international awards and they felt that the surreal and suspenseful style fit with their ad campaign. They gave me the portfolio of design items I could work with and I was drawn to their “Kabuki” lamp. It gave off a very warm kind of light. It made me think of Magritte’s lampposts in his series of “Empire of light” paintings. So that became the main idea. To write and direct a scene in that kind of space, with that kind of atmosphere. I wanted to have a very stark contrast between the darkness and the pocket of light where the main character is. I had worked with both James Zeiss and Janice Silver before on a previous project so I brought them on board for this. I’m very happy with the result and it was awarded a number of international prizes for experimental short films.

 What other film projects are you working on?

The next project I’m working on is my debut feature film “To Love and To Lose” which is gonna come out later this year. I wrote it together with my brother who stars in the lead role and is composing the soundtrack too. It’s a surreal comedy about someone who moves to New York for work after college and has progressively stranger and stranger interactions with the people in the city. Almost all scenes, no matter how absurd, are based on something that happened to me or him or a story we heard. So there’s always a kind of kernel of truth to almost every scene. We just took that kernel and went way overboard with it. It’s the sketch comedy of a fairly simple premise taken to an extreme that is almost unrecognizable. For example there’s a scene where the main character goes in for a job interview but the job interview is a silent chess match in a dark room with his future employer. Things like that.

It’s shot in 4:3 ratio. Why did you go for that format?

For some reason there’s something comical to me in that ratio. I’m not really sure why, but that fact fit with the tone of the whole movie. And it made the framing more conscious for me. I was more aware of the image I was making because it was a different format from what I was used to working in. And the choices in framing informed the blocking of the scene, which in turn affects the acting and the framing choices also changed the rhythm and editing of the film.

Do you have a favorite scene in it?

Well there are few scenes in the movie which are longer montages that serve as interludes to the main narration. There’s maybe like 3 or 4, and in each the main character is the city of New York. But perhaps not in the way people are used to seeing it. It really goes from high to low. Skyscrapers and wealth to the homeless and the guts of the city; the subway at night, which in and of itself is a surreal space.

Are there any movies you’ve seen recently that inspired you?

I recently watched a few of Antonioni’s movies and was really blown away. I watched “L’avventura”, “Eclissi” and “Red desert”, basically his Monica Vitti trilogy. I thought it was fascinating how there were so many elements of his work in David Lynch’s later. In the three movies there’s a progression of the main character’s alienation from her surroundings. It’s interesting how in the first one Monica is alienated because she keeps thinking her friend who disappeared might be looking at her. There’s a reason for her haunted looks. But in the second there’s no clear narrative reason for it. There’s that scene where her and Alain Delon are in his parents old house in Rome. It should be a romantic scene about two young lovers but she keeps staring out the window looking at the small scenes of daily life happening outside and can’t look away. She’s both drawn and taken aback. Anyway I could go on and on but I thought these elements were fascinating.

 What advice would you give someone that wants to become a film

I would probably tell them to experiment a lot. Watch a lot and experiment. There’s a great quote from George Lucas that comes to mind “Your focus determines your reality”. What he’s saying is that if you truly believe in a premise, if it feels real to you, no matter how absurd your viewer will also believe it. It’s almost a metaphysical statement but it’s true. And it has nothing to do with the actual “realism” of whatever it is you’re making. It’s almost like an imprint that you’re giving to something you believe to be real. So many student films, short and even features, feel boring. A lot of it has to do with lack of craft abilities (how to construct a scene, create a character or a narrative arch, not understanding rhythm – there’s a million things), but on a fundamental level beyond the knowledge of craft and what the level of production is – if you don’t believe in it then the viewer won’t either. But that belief isn’t something you choose. It’s a natural consequence of what you’re doing. It’s never a conscious effort.

On a more practical level I would advise an aspiring director to learn film editing since that is the basis and foundation of film. When you understand editing, then you understand how to build a scene which means you understood how to shoot a scene and how to direct.

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