Stanley Tucci on his new passion project Final Portraitby Russell Baillie
Making a film about sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti was a personal project for actor-director Stanley Tucci.
“I have three of his prints because everything else is completely unaffordable,” he tells the Listener from his home in London.
Indeed, the Swiss modernist does top the charts for the priciest sculpture ever sold; his 1947 bronze figure L’Homme au doigt fetched US$141.3 million at auction in 2015.
Not even Tucci’s regular Transformers and Hunger Games cheques will cover a Giacometti masterpiece. Still, his prolific career in front of the camera has allowed him to occasionally get behind it, too.
Final Portrait is the New York-born Italian-American actor’s fifth turn as director and the first time he hasn’t acted in one of his own films.
It may be a movie about Giacometti and he may not be in it, but for Tucci it’s personal. His father was an artist and art teacher. Tucci senior took his young family to Florence for a year when he was on sabbatical at the city’s Accademia Gallery.
“I grew up in a household that was filled with art, and watching him work and watching him teach, I became very interested not just in the results of someone’s working but also the process to it.”'
Tucci wrote the film’s script more than a decade ago. It’s an adaptation of A Giacometti Portrait by James Lord, which the American memoirist and biographer wrote after sitting for a portrait by the artist in 1964.
Lord had inveigled his way into the Paris art scene after World War II. Having cultivated a relationship with Picasso before falling out with him, he struck up a friendship with Giacometti, a man best known as a sculptor but whose portrait subjects also included Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Genet, Henri Matisse, and Igor Stravinsky.
Tucci first became intrigued by Lord’s account 30 years ago. “This was probably one of the best books ever written about the creative process. Giacometti was incredibly articulate about his process and Lord wrote really beautifully – his insight into Giacometti was as beautiful.”
It wasn’t until the noughties that Tucci finally plucked up the courage to start corresponding with Lord, who gave him the screen rights a few years before his death in 2009. Giacometti had died in 1966. Finally getting the film into production, Tucci cast Geoffrey Rush, who has a close likeness to the shaggy, irascible Giacometti, and Armie Hammer as the dapper Lord.
The film is a hall of mirrors: Tucci creates a film portrait of Giacometti in the act of painting one of Lord, while the writer takes notes for his own interpretation, which later becomes a book and, eventually, a script.
Final Portrait takes place over 18 days, which was how long it took for the artist to complete the painting, as Lord grew increasingly desperate for it to be over.
Unhappy with his work-in-progress, Rush’s seemingly neurotic Giacometti keeps obliterating his efforts, starting again muttering “it’s hopeless” and, “I can’t make portraits; no one can.’’
Lord is driven to distraction by the artist’s supposed dithering and inability to decide when the painting is finished. Around the edges, there is domestic strife in Giacometti’s complicated love life, involving his wife Annette and his young prostitute mistress Caroline.
Tucci didn’t want his film to be an art-history lesson but an accessible movie about Giacometti and how he went about his work.
“I wanted to get across what it’s like to just look at somebody over and over again – to show the creative act without boring the shit out of the audience or being pretentious or rarefied. No matter who are, I want you to be able to sit down and be drawn into this thing and watch it because these are people doing what they really love to do.”
Tucci directed Rush before, sort of, when he played Stanley Kubrick to Rush’s Peter Sellers in 2004’s The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. That was the sort of soup-to-nuts biopic that Tucci wanted to avoid.
“I think the traditional biopic is really hard to do, no matter who its subject is, because it becomes sort of event-oriented. Taking a snippet of somebody’s life is much more interesting. By focusing on a number of details, we can really see the whole so much better within the confines of that short period of time.”
The film is set in Paris but was made mostly in London, where Tucci has lived since 2014 with his children and English wife Felicity Blunt – the literary agent older sister of his Devil Wears Prada co-star Emily Blunt – whom he married in 2012. Tucci’s first wife, Kate, died of breast cancer in 2009.
London, he says, has opened up career opportunities. He played a British cop in the Arctic Circle sci-fi thriller series Fortitude. Yes, it perplexed him too: “Well, if someone explains it to me, I’ll explain it to you.”
He’s starring opposite Emma Thompson in the forthcoming BBC adaptation of Ian McEwan’s The Children Act.
The shift across the Atlantic also helped Final Portrait finally get made, with British producers.
And just as the Italian restaurant setting of his 1996 directorial debut Big Night allowed Tucci to indulge his love of food (he has two cookbooks to his name), making Final Portrait let him get back in touch with his love of art – and his own artistic sensibilities.
“I’ve only directed movies that I really love and have a connection to. It’s something that I’ve written or that I’ve created myself from the ground up or I’ve adapted.
“So, I want to tell a story the way I want to tell it. If I make money, that’s fine. But I never make money when I direct a movie. I have to go act to make money.
“So to me it’s worth it, because you can create something the way you want to, otherwise it would be like making a painting and having somebody sitting over your shoulder saying, ‘I think it would be better if you use the blue now’. I’m not interested in that.”
Final Portrait is in cinemas from October 5.
This article was first published in the October 7, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.
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