After Tilda Swinton won the 2007 Best Supporting Actress award for Michael Clayton, she said that she was giving the Oscar to her American agent Brian Swardstrom in order to calm him down when she is “on the speakerphone telling him I am going to do another art film in Europe.” That’s exactly what she did, realizing an 11-year dream to bring the Italian film I Am Love (Io Sono L’Amore) to the big screen. It opened in June and became a true specialty success for its American distributor Magnolia. (But, oddly, didn’t do well in Italy.) Swinton, who’s Scottish, has received nothing but universal praise for her performance as a Russian wife and mother living in Milan with her Italian husband and embroiled in a steamy affair with a younger man. Once again there is Oscar buzz for Swinton, but the odds are longer. It’s a small film that opened earlier in the year, but even so Magnolia plans an aggressive campaign to remind voters of the challenges Swinton had making a film in Italian with a Russian accent. Only a small handful of actors have ever won an Oscar working in a foreign language, and, other than Robert DeNiro playing the Sicilian young Don Corleone in The Godfather Part II (1974), no one has grabbed the gold working in a language not their own. Tilda called me this week from London to discuss the film and Oscar:
DEADLINE HOLLYWOOD’S PETE HAMMOND: I was just cruising the Internet and saw a post that says “Will Oscar love Tilda Swinton?” Is it important for you to get that kind of attention in order for people to see a movie like I Am Love?
TILDA SWINTON: Yes, I was involved in a film once in my life that went on a certain treadmill and ended up at a certain [Governor's] Ball. But even then I wasn’t really aware of what was going on because it was all Greek to me. All I can say is, having worked on this film for 11 years and made it in Italy with my best friend, I’ve been astonished that it got any distribution at all let alone widely in the States and very well reviewed in the States. It’s wonderful to us that people are even still talking about the film, let alone still seeing it. (As apparently it’s still playing in some places.) On the one hand, it’s this whole melting pot thing where people start jettisoning their memory of all sort of fantastic films. On the other hand, I suppose people start remembering things that they liked.
PH: You produced the film. Is that becoming increasingly necessary to get these movies made that offer such a great role like this?
SWINTON: Maybe so. It’s slightly depressing because it means that maybe other people wouldn’t necessarily get these films made. I’ve always been closely attached to filmmakers in getting films made. I mean Orlando which was re-released this year was something Sally Potter and I pushed up a hill for 5 years before we were able to shoot it. It’s really good news for women to see that, if they really want to get films made, then they’re going to have to get together with their friends and make them — and not sit around waiting to be asked. Doing it yourself maybe is a model that comes from the independent sector and the European sector. Not sitting around and waiting for Daddy.
PH: You have said the film took you 11 years to get made. You stuck with this why?
SWINTON: It wasn’t a question of sticking with something that existed before it came to us. We grew it from scratch. It’s like, why do you stick with your children? And actually, when I think about it, yes, this film took 11 years but I’ve been attached to a number of films and produced them and they’ve taken that long. It’s pretty regular for a personal project. That’s an ambitious film that’s made in the first case by people who have absolutely no right to think of making a film that ambitious. Most films in my experience take a decade at least. A film like this takes a long time to even get the nerve to dream about it, let alone to develop a script and to get a group together to make it. And then, of course, there’s the question of raising the finance. It gets easier and easier if that decade you’re working together also involves some members of the team going out and making reputations for themselves. Which means people are prepared to put money into the project. That helps.
PH: Did you think your film would be the success it became here, as it is one of the more successful indie movies?
SWINTON: It’s strange because on the one hand “expect” is not really the word. I mean, we dreamed. We were always clear we were making an international film, even though it’s an Italian film made in Italian and Russian. One of the things that I’ve been really gratified to notice is that American and all Anglophile critics have not really been going on about the fact that it’s not in English. And I think that was the real hurdle for us to get it out of the small field that meant it was only going to be a foreign language film. But “expect”? No, we dreamed. But getting the film out of Italy was hard enough. Getting the film into Italy was hard enough. It’s a film that’s probably appreciated less in Italy than anywhere. It was barely shown in Italy. And if your film is not made with a production company title above it, then it can be tricky to get into cinemas.
PH: The Italians did not choose this for their entry into the Foreign Language race.
SWINTON: In a funny way we the producers were not surprised. We were disappointed, but we were not surprised. I had no idea what the criteria were that the selection committee were going by. We thought the Oscars is an American affair, and it’s an American prize, and we thought that maybe it would be a good idea to choose a film that had gone well and at least been distributed in America, let alone been well received. Again, another portion of Greek for me.
PH: Was it a challenge for you speaking Italian with the Russian accent?
SWINTON: It was the challenge that one set out years ago to address. But the great thing about it taking so long is you have to spread a challenge over a decade in bite-size pieces. I knew she was going to be an alien. That she wasn’t going to speak my language was a relief in many ways. I quite like being outside my own language, particularly someone so silent. But beyond that, no. As I say, this is the great thing about developing something from scratch. I’m not even sure I know where she came from, but she just came from so many books we discussed, and she came from films we discussed, and she came from people that we knew, and she came from someone I hadn’t seen for a couple of years. She just felt very easy and that’s the way I like it: to feel you’re going towards something that feels actually very familiar and very comfortable.
PH: Did winning the Oscar for Michael Clayton open up new doors for you?
SWINTON: I really don’t know the answer to that question. But I am prepared to be very enthusiastic about the fact that it is possible that I Am Love would not have had the distribution it had, and would not have had the welcome that it had, without the imprimatur of that. If it helped, I’m really grateful. It then feels to me like a fantastic use of a prize. There’s no science of working out whether it is or it isn’t, but if it is, then I think it’s all good. And there couldn’t be a better way of validating a prize than seeing it making a film easier.