EXCLUSIVE: In the early 20th century, an impoverished teenage Italian cobbler sailed from Naples to America to seek a better life. He settled in Southern California, and became Hollywood’s go-to shoemaker during the silent era. In 1927, he returned to Italy and founded his namesake luxury brand, which has become one of the world’s most famous.
Salvatore Ferragamo is now the subject of a new documentary from Call Me By Your director Luca Guadagnino. Ahead of its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, we caught up with the Oscar-nominated Italian filmmaker about the film, which charts Ferragamo’s remarkable rags to riches story.
Guadagnino spent two years piecing the story together from a script by fashion and culture journalist Dana Thomas. Talking heads include Martin Scorsese, Ferragamo’s family members, costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis, and famous designers Manolo Blahnik and Christian Louboutin. Call Me By Your Name star Michael Stuhlbarg narrates.
Sony Classics snapped the movie up this week. Producers are Francesco Melzi d’Eril and Gabriele Moratti of MeMo Films, with executive producer Stella Savino. Sierra handles sales.
Below is our wide-ranging chat with Guadagnino about the film, how it fits into his ‘cinema of desire’ oeuvre and why he felt strongly about attending this year’s Venice Film Festival.
DEADLINE: Why did you want to tell this story?
LUCA GUADAGNINO: Well, I knew Salvatore’s story already because of my interest in the incredible formal quality of his shoes. It’s not a secret that I am interested in fashion. I read his biography, and did more research, and I learned that Salvatore Ferragamo was a perfect example of a genius, someone who was ahead of everybody and everything, and he could see a path into the future. These, for me, are qualities that are always very interesting in people, and combining that with the historical period in which he grew up, it felt like a super compelling subject to tackle.
DEADLINE: Ferragamo’s rags to riches story is a remarkable one. The amount of hard work, ambition and vision he displayed was incredible…
GUADAGNINO: It’s almost as though he were an adult when he was very young. The combination of naïveté, risk taking, adventure, knowledge, independence and determination was fascinating.
Exploring the identity of someone so gifted was a way to illustrate the unpredictability of talent and its origin. His heritage is not in any way linked to his creations. What he creates are all the fruits of his own personal talent and vision.
So, for example, he goes to California and participates in the creation of Hollywood. He was there for the creation of the star system and he helped create it: the boots of Valentino, the shoes of Mary Pickford, and so on and so on.
And then he left America and went back to Italy, not because he was missing Italy, I suspect, but because he knew that he had to create a fantastic idea of ‘self’ in order to expand his own name and business.
He went to Florence not because he was from Florence or because Florence was specific to shoemaking. He went to Florence because it was, in his imagination, about selling the dream of Italy to his clients. So, everything is about artificiality, about a system of ideas, and everything is about a great strategy. These combine to make him a very powerful figure in Italy’s 20th Century history.
DEADLINE: With that in mind, did you ever think of making this as a narrative feature?
GUADAGNINO: I didn’t. I feel like fashion is almost unfilmable. Like cinema itself, or like Hollywood, fashion sells dreams and sells an artificial idea of self, and it’s better to explore and understand the mechanism behind it, rather than create a fiction of it. That’s my humble opinion. That said, I have liked movies about fashion such as Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent or even Robert Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter, which I know was destroyed by the critics when it came out.
DEADLINE: Hollywood is perhaps the ultimate land of mythmaking and of manufacturing desire. Have you ever thought of following in Ferragamo’s footsteps and spending a substantial period of time there?
GUADAGNINO: You don’t need to live in the physical place to be inhabited by it. In terms of my upbringing and my imagery, I believe that Hollywood has a very significant part and significant space within myself. Whether it’s watching Hollywood films or reading stories about filmmaking, filmmakers and studio history, those are all things I’m fascinated by and have spent a lot of time investigating.
After I Am Love there started to be a lot of interest from Hollywood. I met people and I already felt I knew a lot of the references, the people, the places, and the mechanism, and people were surprised. They thought ‘How could a young Italian Algerian man we haven’t heard of know so much about Tinseltown?’. The answer is that Hollywood is a shared, universal experience.
Would I live in Hollywood? I don’t know. I don’t drive, for one. I like to preserve that rush of emotion you get similar to the first visit. Every time I go back it’s refreshing. I don’t want to become cynical about Hollywood. I want to be a dreamer about Hollywood. Hopefully, I’ll shoot films in Hollywood, like Scarface, but I don’t know if I will ever spend as much time there as Salvatore did. I say that with the utmost respect for the Hollywood life of my Hollywood friends.
I should also add that I believe I belong more to Hollywood than to Italian cinema. I don’t live in Rome, I live in Milan, for example. My personal position in the world is much closer to the Anglo-Saxon industry than to the Italian industry.
DEADLINE: This project took two years, is that right?
GUADAGNINO: Yes, because we had to shoot in many places. We shot in America, France, UK, all around Italy. We had an incredible amount of materials from the Ferragamo Foundation and unseen Super 8 footage shot by Salvatore himself, which was incredibly rare in the early 20th Century.
We went to the factories, and one of the things I’m most proud of in the film is when we show how a Ferragamo shoe is practically put together. The craftsmanship that goes into it makes it almost like a metaphor of the cinema. We are a collective group on a movie, it’s a combination of talents, each of us at the service of the project. I found that riveting.
DEADLINE: The movie is also about heritage, succession and tradition. Is it true that only three members of the Ferragamo family can work at the company at any one time?
GUADAGNINO: Yes, it’s true. And before they join the company they must have done training at other brands.
DEADLINE: You speak to a number of famous designers: Christian Laboutin, Manolo Blahnik, etc What do you think the perception is of Ferragamo among the top contemporary designers?
GUADAGNINO: Ferragamo is unavoidable for anyone who makes shoes or accessories. Ferragamo’s creations have been the food that has nurtured generations of shoemakers. If you take the red sequin shoe he made, known as his Marilyn Monroe shoe, today we think of it as commonplace, but at the time the heel, shape and finesse was unheard of.
I think that Ferragamo is alive in the veins of the fashion system, like the other greats such as Dior and Saint Laurent.
DEADLINE: Fashion and the visual aesthetic is prominent in your movies like I Am Love and Suspiria. You also made the short Staggering Girl with Valentino and you’ve done tie-ins with other designers such as Fendi. What is it about haute couture and the high-end fashion world that intrigues you most?
GUADAGNINO: Let me clear the air. The number of commercials or commercial projects I have done with the fashion world is small compared to many of my peers. I am unapologetic about the ones I have made. I don’t have a problem with it. So, I’m not like a rare bird who flirts with fashion out of loneliness, it’s more that I find the form fascinating.
Fashion deals with form and the way in which we project our lives, or we wish to project our lives, and even the way in which the mechanism of capitalism is imposed on us through fashion.
That said, I’m proud that Call Me by Your Name didn’t have any ties with fashion, yet created a fashion of its own…
DEADLINE: You’re heading to Venice later this week. This has been a challenging time for the world and for Italy in particular. Venice will of course be the first major festival to take place in the Covid era. Are you in favor of the festival going ahead given the challenging circumstances?
GUADAGNINO: Alberto Barbera invited me to present Don’t Look Now, the first title in their Venice Classics section, back in February. Then it was supposed to be in March and then we had to cancel it. Then in July they screened it in the gardens of the Biennale in the open air, and I went and presented the great movie in front of an audience. They had filled half the theater and everything was so perfectly organized that I felt happy because I saw an audience with a craving for the communal experience of watching a movie on a big screen in safety. There were masks, distancing, and the queues were very well organized.
So, I trust the Biennale to organize the protocols. I think it’s very important this festival happens because we shouldn’t forget the scale of the impact of the pandemic on the theatrical and live entertainment sectors. Anything that can help re-start the engine and help make people realize that theatrical isn’t passed forever is important. Because it isn’t true. That may be an agenda of the streamers, but that’s not what reality is telling us. Reality is telling us we have to deal with security measures and distancing and protection, but the theatrical experience is something that cannot be considered finished. Actually, it’s the opposite. I’m in favor of movies opening, of Tenet opening…
DEADLINE: One hopes that cinema doesn’t suffer long term as a result of the pandemic. The demand for content via the streamers continues to surge…
GUADAGNINO: The demand is huge. And I recently made We Are Who We Are for HBO, which was a great experience, but the theatrical experience is something that is part of how we gather and we live our lives. We are bound by the communal experience and by an emotion that comes from the big screen. I don’t think that should be considered over because of this traumatic situation.
DEADLINE: You have a number of movies in development, including Scotty, Scarface, Burial Rites and the sequel to Call Me By Your Name. Which one will you make next?
LUCA GUADAGNINO: I’m excited by all my projects. I have the privilege of working with great material, with incredibly good screenwriters and with fabulous producing partners. I will make at one of them next year for sure.