By Iain Blair
British director and writer Michael Radford is probably best known for Il Postino, a huge international hit that earned five Oscar noms, two BAFTA awards (for Best Director and Best Foreign Film) and a raft of other honors.
Radford, who began as a director of documentaries, has returned to Italy with his newest film, The Music of Silence. Loosely based on Andrea Bocelli’s 1999 memoir of the same title, it tells the story of a blind boy who against all odds becomes one of the most successful entertainers and opera singers in the world. It stars Game of Thrones actor Toby Sebastian as the singer’s alter ego, Amos Bardi.
We spoke with Radford, whose credits include 1984, White Mischief, Dancing at the Blue Iguana and The Merchant of Venice, about making the film, his love of post, and his upcoming projects.
What do you look for in a project, and what was the appeal of making this film?
I always look for a good story and something different. When I was offered this, I came in and rewrote it with Anna Pavignano, who worked with me on the screenplay for Il Postino. I didn’t want to just make the usual biopic, and I actually turned it down several times before they finally persuaded me to do it.
Just as well. It was a huge hit in Italy.
I know, and I’m thrilled.
What sort of film did you set out to make?
I wanted to make a fully Italian film that didn’t betray the culture. I certainly didn’t want to do a hagiography of Andrea Bocelli, so I set out to make a very simple Italian movie, all in Italian. That was my goal, but the producers wanted me to shoot it in English, but using Italian actors. I kind of liked the idea, although it was a bit of a compromise. I loved working with the actors, and at least they appeared to be real Italians, not actors pretending to be Italians.
You got a fantastic cast, including Antonio Banderas and Game of Thrones star Toby Sebastian, who actually looks like a young Andrea Bocelli.
You’re right, he does, and that helps a lot — especially when the real person’s still very much alive. Luckily, everyone in Italy loved him in the role. He was really great. Such a good young actor, and he was my rock.
You shot it all in Italy. How was the shoot?
It was tough, as we had a tight budget and schedule, just over five weeks — much smaller than a similar film in the US or the UK, and everyone works far shorter hours than in England or the States. So I had a lot of battles over the budget, and we ended up having to cut quite a few scenes from the script. On top of that, we shot it mainly in the wintertime, which was hard for everyone despite how it looks on screen. But you can do so much in post now with digital effects that you’d never guess.
I hear you’re fluent in Italian. That must be a huge help when you have to yell at the crew?
Yes, although that can be counter-productive. Everyone in Italy yells at each other all the time. The crews are great there, really hard-working and professional, and I can discuss stuff in fairly colloquial terms, which helps. It’s always a great pleasure working there, as I’m well-known there and people give me great seats in restaurants (laughs).
Do you like the post process?
I do, very much. When I was starting out, I’d turn up for every single minute of it — I’d never leave the editing room or sound mix. That comes from being in film school, where you want to do it all. But now I tend to stand back far more. I’ll talk to the editor for a week or so, then leave him alone, then come back and see what he’s done. It’s a much more relaxed process — and also a much more useful one, as that way you can take a step back and have a clear vision of what you’ve done and what you want to achieve.
Where did you post?
All in Rome.
Talk about working with editor Roberto Missiroli.
He came to visit the set now and then, but he wasn’t cutting on the set. He began cutting while we were shooting and did a very rough first cut and assembly, so when I walked into the editing room we could start right away. He was fantastic to work with. A real discovery, and he had great ideas, which is what you want in an editor.
What were the main editing challenges?
We had to recuperate the scenes that we’d lost because we didn’t have time to shoot them in the end. So we almost had to try and reconstruct the film as we were going along, and then we had to keep that sense of drama and momentum.
How involved was Andrea Bocelli, given that he’s blind?
Because of his condition, it was a limited contribution. He had to try and understand what we were doing, even though he couldn’t see it — and amazingly he could. But he kept out of the picture for the most part, as did the family, until the time came to show them a rough cut. Then the family was always in the background — not in the editing room, but around — and you’d go, “Did this happen like it’s portrayed in the scene?” They’d say, “No, it wasn’t like that at all!” And you’d have to say, “Well, this is a movie, not a documentary,” and have to explain it to them. So there was a bit of a tussle, but then they understood what we were trying to do, and they were very supportive.
Obviously, sound was crucial for this. Can you talk about the importance of sound and music to you as a filmmaker?
They’re incredibly important to me, especially on a film where the sound was always going to be a challenge because of all the different voices. We did all the sounds effects at New Digital Film Sound in Rome. Music is always so important to me, because of what you can convey emotionally with it in a scene, and of course there’s a lot of music already recorded that I wanted to use, and not just of Andrea.
It also helped that the editor was really fantastic with music. We spent a lot of time trying to find the right composer, and I talked to a lot of well-known musicians in Italy who didn’t quite fit the bill. We started off using a lot of temp pieces, and then I found this amazing composer, Gabriele Roberto, who lives in Japan and scores Japanese films, and he was perfect.
You must have used some VFX?
We did, especially for the big concert scene that has over 100,000 people in the audience and a huge orchestra. That was actually shot in a small blue box on a stage at Cinecitta in Rome, and I loved the way that turned out. Then when we shot all the scenes at the seaside, it was a dead calm day, so in post they created this really rough water that no one could go into, and that was quite hard to do. Then we used a lot of VFX to enhance scenes and for cleanup and so on.
How important is the DI to you?
Very important, and I’m always very involved. I love working with light, and if I can get the look naturally, I’ll do it. I also love the way you can do so much in the DI and really fine-tune the look.
Did the film turn out the way you first envisioned it?
No, not at all. I had a much grander vision for it, but then it got smaller and smaller (laughs). I think I’d have gone for something less sentimental, but there’s a lot about it I really like.
I’m developing a couple of really interesting projects. One is an American movie about the treasure hunter Mel Fisher, who found a galleon full of gold from the 1600s. It’s a great story. The Italians have asked me to do a film about the famous car manufacturer Ferruccio Lamborghini, with Antonio Banderas playing him and Alec Baldwin as Ferrari.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.