As filmmaking gets further relegated to smaller screens, it’s a breath of fresh air to have a director like Pietro Marcello crafting cinema that is best experienced on a vast canvas. While the release of his stunning 2019 drama Martin Eden was unfortunately dampened by the pandemic, he’s now returned with the gorgeous fable Scarlet (aka L’Envol). Premiering just about a year ago at Cannes, the tale of a woman’s family and romantic journey in post-WWI France will now arrive in U.S. theaters starting this Friday. Starring Juliette Jouan, Raphaël Thierry, Louis Garrel, Noémie Lvovsky, Ernst Umhauer, François Négret, and Yolande Moreau.

While he stopped by NYC for last fall’s New York Film Festival premiere, I had the opportunity to speak with Marcello about his experience working in France, the silent film connections to Scarlet, how his latest work marked a transitional point for his career, and more. A special thanks to Michael Moore for interpreting.

The Film Stage: This is a film where you cast French actors and you’re working in France. What was the appeal of that, and what were the challenges of that kind of production?

Pietro Marcello: I found myself in France for family matters. I was there for two years. Because I was in France, I had the opportunity to make a film in France. Up until that point, all of the films that I had made were shot in Italy. After making Martin Eden, I have to confess that I was feeling very tired. I had sort of self-produced all of my films.

Reading [Scarlet Sails] by Alexander Green, it sort of gave me the possibility… you could really say that this film sort of rose from COVID––because I was in France, because of COVID. So it was sort of by chance that I happened to make it, and I had this privilege to be able to shoot a film in France. This is the first time that I had done something like that. So I seized this opportunity and it was very unlike any other film that I had made because of this historic moment in which we are living… this moment of COVID, which struck us.

There’s almost a silent-film quality to Scarlet with this more subtle emotion that you’re seeing on screen, and the dialogue is a little more trimmed down than in Martin Eden. There’s a lot about the natural world, the environment, and these characters who are somewhat archetypical yet present a real soulful nature. Can you talk about if were you inspired by the language of silent films? 

But unlike Martin Eden?

Well, I feel like Martin Eden is a more dense experience, which I loved. And Scarlet is told on a more emotional landscape.

This film and Martin Eden are completely different. Martin Eden is a film that I worked on for several years and it operates on multiple levels, whereas Scarlet is much more of a linear story and it’s sort of closer to the soul. Scarlet is born from the need to tell a smaller story. In Martin Eden I was working with a novel, and with Scarlet I’m working in the form of a short story… I wanted to treat it like a short story using the instruments of classical cinema––almost improvising, in a sense. 

By “improvising” I mean that this was shot in a very particular moment during the pandemic. I was forced into a much more limited production. I was forced to use much more simple means to tell this simple story of a love between a father and a daughter, which also makes it a modern film and a film that really brings out the role of the father within a family context, and within the context of an enlarged family.

I really love the textures of Scarlet, just like your last film. Because you are more focused on a simpler story, you draw focus to smaller details, like when he’s carving the wood or trying to tune the piano. You get to see and feel the labor of the time, what these characters needed to focus on every day.  Can you talk about focusing on the elements of texture and everyday life?

You know, the cinematic aspect of a film is, for me, the easiest thing. I know how to shoot a film; I know how to place the camera. That’s the least of my worries. The questions that I’m concerned about regard storytelling itself. In this case, the father I sort of conceived as a kind of a Geppetto figure, like the Geppetto of Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio. With a close focus on his gestures, on his actions, on his work, on his everyday life. The way that this character is built upon through the act of creation and the way that he performs his activities is a kind of Geppetto.

I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about casting. Raphaël Thierry reminded me of Michel Simon and some of his great films. And then Louis Garrel is so perfectly cast, along with Juliette Jouan and Noémie Lvovsk. Can you talk about the process of getting all of them onboard? Was there a lot of preparation, or do you just kind of discover things on set?

Yeah, I was very lucky with the extraordinary actors that I had. I say “lucky” because this was the first time I was making a film in France, so I was invited to do so by the producer, Charles Gillibert, to look at the actors that I worked with. Raphaël Thierry, as you said, is certainly reminiscent of Michel Simon, and many others have observed the same thing. Also Noémie Lvovsky and Louis Garrel.

For the character of Juliette, we did a real kind of crazy open casting call for which more than a thousand actresses applied. We just put out an open call on the Internet and we found Juliette Jouan, and this is her first time making a film, but I’m sure she’s going to be making many others, as this is clearly a vocation for her. So, we were very lucky to find her through open casting, this sort of wild casting, rather than working through the casting agencies.

I wanted to ask a little bit about the sound design as well. Not just the score, but also the diegetic sounds you have throughout Scarlet, such as in the scene where they first kiss. You’re not just hearing them kiss––you’re hearing water flowing in the background, almost as if nature is as powerful as kind of the love they’re conjuring. There’s also a storybook, fairytale nature of the score as it swells in certain scenes.

The French, I have to say, are much better at sound-editing than the Italians. We Italians get by on dubbing, whereas the French have always had the privilege of being able to do a direct recording. So I had a great sound engineer, Erwan Kerzanet, who followed me all the way through. He’s a great sound engineer. Also, for the very first time, I had composer: Gabriel Yared, who again followed the production of the film from the very beginning. So it’s a great privilege to be working with these people. Everybody knows Gabriel Yared is a great composer, but it was the first time for me.

There’s a sense that you were discovering things on the set of Scarlet in a more freeing process, compared to when you were making Martin Eden. As you look towards your next project, is that a quality that you want to keep exploring?

You know, I’m a believer in human evolution. Scarlet was an important transitional film for me after having made Martin Eden. It’s a film that is very much marked by the pandemic and the conditions that it created, in the sense that it’s a film filled with sentiment and filled with love. It’s focused on the love of a daughter and the relationship between a father and a daughter. And as I said, I believe in the future there will be an evolution. And I will continue to make archival films, I’ll make documentaries, I will collaborate in collective films, and I’ll be engaged in new projects.

Scarlet opens in theaters on June 9.

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