IN CONVERSATION WITH LIVIA DE PAOLIS
Livia De Paolis is a director, actress, filmmaker and writer, who wrote, directed and stars as Wendy in ‘The Lost Girls’. The film premieres theatrically and starts streaming around the globe today June 17. Livia, who was born and raised in Rome, Italy, has quite the extensive background in theatre and filmmaking, and always knew she was meant to tell stories. She literally took her first steps on a movie set.
Livia, you literally took your first steps on a movie set. Tell us more about your background in the film industry.
My grandfather founded this studio structure in Rome right after the Second World War and then my dad ended up running it with my aunt. I was brought to the studios all the time as a child. This was a structure that had a number of theaters and then there was a lot of space to run around. I remember going bicycling, I remember going roller skating and just playing on the sets. So that is how I first came to be part of the industry. There were screenings, there were actors around me, there were cameras, there were costumes, there were props, there was everything that you would have on a movie set.
I think it influenced me because I originally had, and still do, a very strong passion for theater. If you think about it, studio sets are actually theaters. So that was my first desire, to be in that environment more than in the film industry. And then I gradually shifted over. And when I decided to make my first feature film, it was kind of very natural to me in the sense that I knew that in order to make a film you needed a director, you needed a set, you needed cast and all the heads of departments. I was very familiar with all of that.
You were born and raised in Rome, Italy, where your family ran studios I.N.C.I.R., founded by your grandfather. The Studios were the only privately owned studios structure in the country. How did this family business impact not only your career, but you as a person as well?
When you ask children what they wanna do when they grow up, I was always set that I was gonna be an actress. Since I was a five year old, I always said that I’m gonna be an actress. I think that I had that desire because I saw how actresses were, there was always this aura of mystery and this special attention and that kind of stardom. But then actually in the early nineties, my family ran out of business and I was highly disappointed because I thought that it was gonna be a very easy entry into the industry for me. And it turned out not to be that way at all. But in retrospect, I’m very happy how things turned out because at that point I decided to move to New York and have a way more adventurous type of life.
From Rome you moved to New York, where you turned your focus to contemporary theatre. Over the years you have collaborated with some of the most innovative figures in the New York theater community. What are your fondest memories from your time in theatre?
I have two that are really my favorite. One was really sort of a situation, because eventually I discovered that there was this director called Richard Foreman who was doing avant-garde plays, but he was very accomplished. So it was avant-garde, but it was renowned. I decided to intern for him and that was like four or five months of 40 hours a week, full time. And I didn’t get to be on stage at all, because this philosophy was actually that anybody who wanted to work in a theater needed to know everything about it, from building the set to props. It was very old school. In that time, I met some of the people that then became my collaborators and that I then started really making theater with. So, I still to this day think that Richard Foreman was one of the strongest artistic influences on me.
The second one is sort of a dream come true, when I worked with playwright John Patrick Shanley, who wrote and directed the movie ‘Doubt’ and also won an Academy Award for writing the screenplay for ‘Moonstruck’. He was doing a reading of some short stories with a number of actors and I just went to him and introduced myself because I really loved his work. At that time I was doing another show and I gave him a postcard of this show that I was doing downtown. And he actually came to see me, he showed up and I ended up working with him a couple years later, which was really one of the highlights of my career in the theater.
You wrote, directed, produced and starred in many films now, including ‘Emoticon’ and ‘Awestruck’. Which role in the filmmmaking process excites you the most?
Right now, what excites me the most is directing. I kind of grew into it. I had no interest in directing before making ‘Emoticon’. And when I first made ‘Emoticon’, I co-wrote it with a friend of mine that I actually met working for Richard Foreman. I was seeking out a director and this was back in 2010. And back then, I already thought that that script needed to be directed by a woman because I thought it’s a different sensibility. So I really wanted to work with a woman and all women directors that I had access to were just out of film school or had done like one short film. So in the end, I had a friend of mine, a guy that was an actor say to me “Look, if I can do it, you can do it too” and he encouraged me. Yhat’s how I did my first feature film. And when I finished it, I just kind of caught the bug. I think this is the most creative role, I would say out of all the roles, because you can put it all together.
After spending the majority of your adult life in New York, in 2019 you moved to London, where you developed your second feature film ‘The Lost Girls’. The film is set to be released theatrically in the UK by Altitude Films and in the US by Vertical Entertainment today. What made you decide to do this film?
It’s an adaptation from a book that I read in 2003 actually. I read the book when I wasn’t thinking of being a director and I was still working in a theater. When I first read the book, I always thought that it was very cinematographic and I just really loved it so much. ‘The Lost Girls’ is clearly a feminist book. I was young and it was very eye opening for me.
After I did ‘Emoticon’, when I was looking for my second project, I was thinking “Okay, what am I gonna do next? ” That’s when I said that I’m gonna do that book. And I was lucky enough to be able to contact Laurie Fox, the writer. When I first met her, she was living in Portland, Oregon. I was living in Los Angeles, so I went to see her in Portland and we had a cocktail. I decided to do the book because it really resonated with me on a personal level. So the original reason to do this film was very personal, I resonated with the character and the story that was told.
This incredible art house drama primarily comprised of a female cast, and defiantly independent, is a feminist take on the Peter Pan story. You adapted the screenplay from the novel by Laurie Fox, which chronicles four generations of Darling women as they struggle in the aftermath of their adventures with Peter Pan. What can you share with us about the story of this film?
So the movie is based on the premise that in the last chapter of Peter Pan, the 1911 version, there was an extra chapter that was called ‘When Wendy Grew Up’. In that chapter basically Peter Pan comes back to Wendy, but a lot of years have gone by and she has grown up and she’s now an adult woman and she has a daughter. Her daughter knows everything about Peter Pan, because the mother tells her the story every night as a goodnight story. So Peter comes back and he wants Wendy to go back to Neverland with him and Wendy is devastated because she’s grown up and she’s forgotten how to fly. Eventually Peter says he’ll take her daughter and then her daughter and then her daughter. And so it will go on forever.
The book and the movie start from that and look at this women and what happens. It’s almost like a spell. Peter Pan comes back and it’s inevitable that he will come and get the daughter each time. And then she comes back to reality and she has to grow up. When Peter Pan will come again to get Wendy’s daughter, there is a big conflict there because Wendy doesn’t really want her daughter to go with Peter, she wants herself to go to with Peter. And she also knows from personal experience that going with Peter might not be the best thing that’s ever happened to you because then you have to come back and grow up. Ultimately it is a mother daughter story, but it’s repeated through four generations.
Why is the story of ‘The Lost Girls’ so important for you to tell? You were also set on the cast, which you hand-picked yourself.
I did work with a casting director, I have to give credit to uh Gemma Sykes. Originally, when I was drawn to the book, I was drawn to that aspect of real discomfort. I was struggling myself because as a young adult, I didn’t really know how to place myself in the world. And that was my entry point and that’s how it resonated. So personally, and then over the years, it really got me into writing the screenplay. I shifted my focus. I started to pay attention to this women and this kind of lineage and examining my own relationship with my mother and her relationship with her mother and started to understand certain things about my mother that probably came from her mother.
You sort of learn motherhood from your mother. And so that then became the focus ultimately for the film and it became even more important for me to actually get it done. Even though I was trying to make this movie for a while, it then became absolutely necessary because through the process of trying to make this film, my mom passed away. So I’m very happy I got it done.
Why do you think it is so important to create more opportunities for women in film?
I believe that it’s very important and I’ve been believing this for a long time. I know this is now very timely, but I think it’s been timely for quite a while. And my personal vision on this is that if we are not telling the stories that we tell from a female perspective, we actually cut out 50 % of the population. The stories that we see on television or in the movie theaters are not reflective of our actual society because they have a very singular point of view that has nothing to do with the world in which we live. And so if we do want to make culture, which is what a storyteller, a filmmaker, a showrunner does, I personally believe it should be the main objective. You’re making culture, no matter what you’re doing, because it’s out there and it’s gonna generate some kind of dialogue with the rest of the world. Everybody that turns on the TV is watching something and that’s affecting that person. So we need to have, ideally, 50/50 because the population is made 50/50. It has to be truthful and it’s a lie to think that men have a perspective that is actually inclusive of the female perspective, because most of the time that’s not true.
What future projects do you have your mind set on already? Is there any particular story that you would really love to work on?
Right now I’m working on a couple of projects that I didn’t write, because I would really love to approach them as a director. I would like to approach a project with a bit more, I don’t wanna say distance, but to properly focus on the directing and just explore that aspect. However, I’m one of these people that I think I’m always gonna also have my own projects that I’m gonna write and direct. I optioned for another book, by an American author Mylène Dressler, called ‘The Last to See Me’ and it’s a ghost story. I don’t wanna say too much because I’m in the process of making it, but there is a young female protagonist and one of the aspects is really who gets to tell the story.
Being from Italy, what do you miss the most about living there?
I was born and raised in Rome, which is a beautiful city and I miss a lot of things. I miss the food, I miss the weather. I’ve been gone away for a very long time, forever basically. I have a few friends in Italy that are actually friends from high school, people that have known me since I was a teenager. What I think I miss the most is that kind of spontaneity and there is that sense of familiarity and pretentiousness of the relationship. That authenticity, that is very precious to me.
Interview by JANA LETONJA
Photography by JEMIMA MARRIOTT