This week, Sony’s The Burnt Orange Heresy hits home entertainment.
Based on the novel by Charles Willeford and directed by Italian filmmaker Giuseppe Capotondi, it stars Claes Bang (BBC’s Dracula) as James Figureas, a disgraced art dealer who is desperate to regain his good reputation and achieve greatness. A chance encounter with the mysterious Berenice (Elizabeth Debicki) turns into them tumbling into bed turns into him asking her if she’d want to come with him for a weekend getaway to an Italian villa. James has been invited by the wealthy and ruthless art collector, Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger in his first role in 30 years), ostensibly for James to appraise his art. Cassidy’s real motives come to life when he reveals he wants James to steal a painting from the reclusive and brilliant artist, Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland). But Debney’s aversion to fame and letting his paintings out into the world throws a wrench in James’ plans. As James gets in over his head, his desperation lays bare a naked ambition and cold-blooded disposition that threatens to upend the lives of everyone involved.
I spoke with Guiseppe Capotondi about the film ahead of its home entertainment release. We discussed what it was like working with Mick Jagger in his first movie role in 30 years, the astonishing emotional capacity of Elizabeth Debicki, updating the ’70s novel for a modern time, and the role of critics in modern society.
Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Atom Tickets: I thought it was fascinating you got Mick Jagger in his first movie in decades–
Giuseppe Capotondi: Thirty years!
Yes! How did he get involved with the project?
GC: Well, you should ask him. But I think he liked the script. He was looking for a film role and so we sent the script, which he liked, and then I convinced him to do this role. He was very nice, very humble, very down-to-earth, you know, not a rock star. And on set, he behaved like a normal actor. He wasn’t behaving like that superstar persona that we think we know. He’s a very, very nice, simple guy.
I think Elizabeth Debicki is one of the most astonishing younger actresses out there. She’s just so captivating. What is it about her that set hers apart from other actresses?
GC: There are some actors where you can actually know what they’re thinking by just seeing a cloud going through their eyes, a look. I think Elizabeth is one of those. She has this astonishing capacity for conveying feelings and ideas through their eyes and without even doing much. Obviously, there’s a lot of work behind that, but it seems very effortless for her to express herself. There’s a scene that I really love, which is the breakfast scene, where [James] tells her about the dream he had and it’s that moment toward the end of the movie where she goes, “You said it was a dream. Was it?” And she makes that face, I don’t even know how to explain it. But it’s my favorite expression ever. You know she’s playing but she’s not playing, and there’s bewilderment, and at the same time, she’s thinking, “What am I doing here? Who is this man?” So I think Elizabeth is one of those very rare actors who can express a lot with very little and besides being very beautiful and astonishingly elegant.
She was actually the first one to be cast for the film. After her, we had to go with very tall actors, because she’s super tall. I was looking for that kind of old-school film stars look, like from the 40s or 50s, Hollywood film stars. Because I wanted this film to have that sort of Hitchcockian film where everyone was very handsome and very elegant and very well-coiffed. I think she was perfect for the role. And she is.
Did you always have her in mind for the role? Or did she come on board through a traditional audition process?
GC: No. Funny enough, she had read the script years ago and she had fallen in love with it, but the film wasn’t made at that time. And when it came back around, I knew that she was interested, and obviously, I had seen her work already, so we just got together and talked a little bit about her role. And she was in!
It reminded me a bit of the role she played in Widows. As you said, she’s such an elegant, classic actor, but then she has this incredible ability to play these slightly down-on-their-luck but also down-to-earth American girls. You really see those moments with her scenes with Donald Sutherland, that warmth and groundedness.
GC: Exactly. I really wanted her to be more low-key in those scenes, even the way she’s dressed. It’s less provocative and elegant, she just wears very simple things when she’s around him. I wanted her to feel more exposed, more open, that she could open up to him in a way, so I wanted her to be less aloof and more “normal” than the rest of the film.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is your second feature film, yes?
GC: Yes, correct.
Is there anything that you learned from shooting your first feature that you took into shooting this one?
GC: You know, I usually do TV commercials and some TV series, and it’s always the same. You just go on set and it’s a constant exercise of frustration because of the time and the money – it’s always going to be hectic. It’s a war. Someone once said film is war, and it is. But you have such fun working with actors and creating a world from scratch. It’s like being God. What did I learn? You know, I don’t know. But also, you have to unlearn many things, because each time, it is different, a different animal. I just love being on set and being with actors. Sometimes it can be frustrating because budget and time, that’s never enough, but it’s a fun fight.
The original novel was published almost 50 years ago. Did you have to update or change anything from the original novel to make it work for a modern movie adaptation?
GC: Yeah, well, we wanted it to be a bit timeless in a way. James drives a Range Rover that be from the ’80s, there’s only one phone toward the end, one iPhone, and for the rest you don’t see any kind of modernity. There’s even an answering machine, who even uses an answering machine? So, again, we wanted it to be timeless in a way that these old-school films feel, have that feel to it.
But then again, the original novel was set in Palm Beach. For budget reasons, and also because the script that I read before reading the novel, it was very sophisticated in the way that they talk – it’s very fluid, it’s poetry. So I thought maybe a more elegant environment would work with that script so we moved it to Lake Como. But other than that, the spirit is the same. It is true that the early ’70s was a time in which art became sort of a commodity for hedge funds, you know, it wasn’t just anymore for art lovers. It was now for very rich people to make an investment with. And it is still now like that, so I think the novel was already modern, in that sense. The dialogue is very different, though, because we had a great writer, Scott Smith, who changed almost every single word, but the story is more or less the same.
There’s the scene that opens the movie. James has a whole lecture about criticism and the role of critics. But with the internet today and everyone having an opinion, some might argue that the role of a critic is diminished.
GC: I am not sure about films, but definitely for art, as James says in that lecture, you need to have some background [on the thing you’re discussing], you need to know what you’re looking at. Otherwise, you just have to only rely on your emotions, and sometimes, they are deceiving. So there is a role for art critics, definitely – but good ones, obviously. This film is not just about art critics, though, it’s also about how one can just make up a narrative and pass it [off] as the real thing. So whoever has the tools to change people’s minds, then you have to be very careful with that because it’s a very powerful tool and also, we are very gullible as a public. We can buy lies because they’re easier to accept than the reality. We see it every day, with everything. It’s not just in the arts, it’s also in the real world, unfortunately. But we didn’t want to do any grandstanding about that. It’s a film noir, so it should be fun to look at and then if you want to get a little message out of it, then yeah, there is a little message, which is, be careful, because not everybody is a good critic – or person.
The Burnt Orange Heresy is available on digital, Blu-ray, and DVD on August 25th from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.