February 2, 2023

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‘It became completely irrelevant whether she was male or female’: Jessica Woodworth on working with Geraldine Chaplin in ‘Luca’

4 min read

“I knew from day one that Geraldine Chaplin was the one to play the general,” says director Jessica Woodworth of casting Charlie Chaplin’s daughter as one of the central characters in her latest play, “Luca,” which has its world premiere at the Rotterdam International Film Festival. Big screen competition.

“Not because of her, but because she is a woman,” insists the director. “It had nothing to do with it. Actually, my intention was to cast her as a male character, but our working relationship is so strong, I told her that I can’t do the film without her. In the end, whether he is male or female becomes completely irrelevant.”

The film is inspired by Dino Buzzati’s classic novel “The Tartar Step” and stars Chaplin in the title role and previous European Shooting star Jonas Smulders. “I studied Italian literature at university, and lived in Italy for a while,” Woodworth says of how he first encountered Buzzati’s story. “It’s a book that calls to your soul and stays there, reverberating through you over time. And it has always stayed close to me somehow. It became like an ongoing source of fascination and I had this great desire to transfer it to the screen.”

“From the moment I decided to adapt it to the screen, I had already made several decisions: One was that I was going to move it into the future,” continues the director, who sets “Luca” as a futuristic, water-perched. Another decision early on in the reality project was to shoot it in monochrome. “From day one, it was black and white. There was no discussion. The sensations you get from black and white are completely different from color, it transforms things into a kind of abstraction.”

The beautiful Sicilian locations are captured on vivid 16mm film, another early decision by Woodworth, who had shot his two previous films (“The Eater” and “Altiplano”) on 35mm. Shooting the film, he said, was a “slow, painstaking process” that brought the cast and crew together in a way that was crucial for his latest film. “‘Luca’ required a degree of dynamism that I call oxygen – like you’re being asked to breathe – the camera team has to breathe with the actors, it has to be agile, there’s an interaction between these bodies, the lens and the camera. So, the 16mm was naturally more flexible and allowed for that dance between hero and camera.”

“I work really closely with the actors,” says Woodworth of his process, which also includes a focus on performance over dialogue. “I only confirm the dialogue on the day of the shoot, which is very daring. Maybe reckless. I find that actually yields the most truthful performance. And I always encourage them to open their minds and look at things from different angles.”

“Luca” marks the first solo directing credit for Woodworth since his 2002 feature debut “The Virgin Diaries.” Her other films since then have been co-directed with Peter Brosens, who serves as an executive producer on her latest film. The decision to become sole director came out of practicality: both Woodworth and Brosen could not be away from home for long periods of time. “I developed it through the years on my own [Brosens] was very closely involved every step of the way. I also speak Italian and this project came from years of involvement in Italian literature, it was a very natural evolution.

“Luca” in Rotterdam seemed as natural as Anna Woodworth. “I’m sure it’s the perfect platform. We’ve been there with all our other films and it’s a Dutch co-production, so it’s almost like home territory. And we’re interested because it took a long time to finish because we were searching for the right tone and structure. It is a great festival and we know it well. Also, I think the audience is very honest and very expressive, and that’s great too. It’s a great radar where you can feel the pulse and how the film feels, which isn’t the case everywhere. In Rotterdam, this is the case.

As for what’s next, Woodworth said he and Brosen have already begun developing their next project, “The Grass Sings,” a film about “a girl who hears grass.” Will the project reunite him and Brosens as co-directors? He doesn’t know yet. “Maybe. We’re making it together for sure. I was also invited to direct a different project, so we’ll see. You know, co-production takes a long time, but we’re here to stay.”

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