Writer, director and actress Vittoria Rizzardi Peñalosa joins us on Close-up Culture for an in-depth chat about her upcoming short film, Clarity And Chaos, and her vision as a filmmaker.
Q: You’ve said that ‘Clarity And Chaos’ was inspired by a nightmare you had. Can you expand on that?
A: That’s right, most of my work – short films, screenplays, or video art – is, in fact, inspired by elements, topics, and themes I visualise while I’m sleeping or daydreaming. Sometimes, I would get inspiration from an image I see while walking down the street, or a feeling, that takes its own shape and agency once I relax and don’t necessarily think about it too hard.
Clarity And Chaos was a feeling before anything else, something that I felt in relation to society but that I couldn’t explain just yet. The more I would try to put it into words, the more I would feel the concept slip through my fingers. It was only when I decided to stop putting deadlines on myself and let it live in me for a little longer, that I finally saw it.
The actual story came to me in my sleep as a nightmare. I saw my lead character. After then, it still took a while to try to give justice to the story while being careful that what I said wasn’t going to be misinterpreted. But, usually, once I have my lead character and I know him/her, I can trust they’ll tell me what’s going to happen. Because a film is a combination of the world and the lead character’s decisions and actions. That is what makes a story.
Penelope, Clarity And Chaos protagonist, is trapped by the stereotype and preconception her label encompasses — however, as the plot unravels, she’ll show us she is not shy or scared, she just wants to be let alone, to be allowed to live how she wishes without having to report back to society… she can be pretty strong and tough if she needs to, which is what we will see her do, stand up to the antagonist and claim her freedom.
Q: In what ways do you feel the film’s dystopian future maps onto our current societal approach to sexuality and labels?
A: The reason why I wanted to make this film and the message I tried to convey lays upon the way in which labels, which should be a positive thing, are most of the time used to categorise individuals in order to determine social, political, and economical dynamics of the world.
Labels can be seen as a wonderful liberating tool. But, if not used correctly, they can also contribute to deep societal issues in relation to the unmotivated need to compartmentalise everything and everyone. This takes on the function of describing your identity rather than just your gender and sexuality, in this case.
As a group of young individuals trying to find our own authentic and most unique identity, we all feel that we’re required to live up to a certain label in order to be accepted by society. This is undeniably exhausting, as there is no right way to live a specific label.
Therefore, labels should not dictate our identity but our identities should dictate our label. Imposing labels can perpetually cultivate and promote preconceptions and stereotypes. If one isn’t sure about his/her label, he/she is dismissed and categorised as “confused.” This has the power to dictate that person’s overall identity as a human being, creating deep insecurities and the desperate need to figure out who we are – which is completely unnecessary.
To me, we spend our whole lives figuring out little by little who we are, and that is ok.
Q: Can you tell us about working with Blake Challenger, Yanthe Louis and the rest of this young cast?
A: It was an absolute pleasure. As a member of the National Youth Theatre, I had access to the private Facebook group. I took advantage of it and posted about the film casting. I was immensely happy to see how many talented actors were extremely enthusiastic about the project for its relatable and important message.
I was very keen to have professional actors for the “extras” as well, as they were all patients of the hospital and on-screen most of the film. If the background actors would have not transmitted the same level of emotion as my lead actors, the whole film wouldn’t have turned out very well. I was over the moon to have had Drama Center or Guildhall graduates involved. If the movie works then it is definitely thanks to them and their outstanding talent.
I was lucky enough to meet Yanthe almost by accident, as she wasn’t my lead actor at the beginning. When my lead actor at the time dropped out, I asked a few of the female actors that were currently playing the hospital patients to audition for Penelope’s role. Yanthe’s audition was impeccable and her facial features were exactly how I pictured Penelope to be. Working with her was an absolute blast. She’s one of those actors who truly gives all they have for the project – she’s genuine, excited, and immensely talented.
I knew Blake from before, we had met at Femi Oguns’ Identity Drama School. I thought he was an amazing and elegant actor since the day I met him. Working together again, myself as a director now, was very interesting. It was a different dynamic from how we worked before as scene partners, but there was still a lot of trust and hard-work there. It made his performance truly special.
I met a few of the other actors at Kingdom Drama School, where we trained with Turlough Convery. I remember being amused by their specificity both as actors and as people. I thought about them immediately when I was casting this project.
Q: As an actor yourself, how do you approach your collaborations with actors when you are directing?
A: What I love about being on set is the teamwork. The teamwork with the crew and with the cast. I’m not the kind of director who orders everyone around and forces her sole vision upon the whole team. I want to hear what the DP feels about the shot that I’m going for. I want to know if there is something in the way a scene is phrased that feels uncharacteristic for the actor.
In my experience, communication on set makes the overall project better and more successful. Specifically, when I direct actors, being an actor myself, I make sure they are completely clear on what their character went through, both in the story and outside the story – his/her background, his/her picture of happiness, goals, capacities.
All of this information helps the actor to understand and feel the emotions in their skin rather than trying to reproduce it without having fully understood the emotions itself. If they are forcing a performance, the camera will see it. I never ask to perform a specific emotion, I always use their characters’ features and background in order to go through what they are probably thinking in this specific situation — without labelling the exact emotion.
From my experience, this always makes the actor feel free to explore and think outside the box, making the scene authentic rather than tiresome.
Q: You previously won an award for ‘Fairweather’ at the London Independent Film Festival. What do you hope audiences reflect upon when ‘Clarity And Chaos’ screens at this year’s festival?
A: Yes, I had a great time at the London Independent Film Festival. Fairweather was one of my first short films, thus, relatively short at around five minutes. Whereas, Clarity And Chaos is a longer picture, which inevitably comes with more responsibility in a way. You’re asking your audience to pay attention for a longer amount of time, and you want to make their time worth it.
This is definitely something I’m very aware of as a filmmaker, making the audience’s time worthwhile, enjoyable, and mentally/emotionally stimulating. My biggest satisfaction is for the audience to think about my film for days after the screening trying to understand their take on it and how they felt about it.
This is also why I rarely spoon feed or bookend the ending of my films, I don’t want to make bluntly clear the filmmaker’s point of view and message – as that would be forcing the audience to agree with me. I prefer when the movie starts a conversation and the audience develops their own interpretation of what they’ve just seen.
Clarity And Chaos is also a relatively dark psychological thriller, so it will be interesting to see the reaction of the audience during the screening. I look forward to it!
Q: As we have seen with ‘Una Notte Troppo Breve’, you are capable of working across cultures on a range of projects. How exciting is that for you to have the flexibility to work in Italy, the UK and the States?
A: It is very exciting. I have been lucky enough to receive worldwide recognition at film festivals over the last three years.
My work was screened at the London Independent Film Festival, Euro Short International Film Festival (which is Oscar-qualifying), Los Angeles CineFest, and the New York City International Film Festival. Una Notte Troppo Breve was accepted into the Short Film Market at Clermont-Ferrand Film Festival and Clarity And Chaos entered the Short Film Corner at Cannes Film Festival.
This is definitely also possible because of the variety of my work, in terms of genre, cinematography, and, as you mentioned, characters of different races and cultures. To me, the way you structure a story is directly correlated to where the story is set and its protagonists. I believe that culture, race, and where you grow up has a lot to do with how you react and interact with the world around you.
Una Notte Troppo Breve follows a teenage girl in desperate need of attention, satisfaction, and resolution… and she looks for these things in all the wrong ways. She’s reckless, impulsive, insecure, irrational, and incoherent… really all she needs is a hug from her mother.
As the film escalates her behaviors becomes bigger and louder — if she was British or American, her character could have been seen as slightly inconsistent and possibly “too crazy” but because she’s Italian. One may accept that the passionate Italian culture makes her behaviour more ordinary.
Q: Which project has been the biggest learning experience for you so far?
A: I’d have to say Clarity And Chaos has been my biggest production yet. Both in terms of the number of people in the crew and the 30 actors that were involved. Comevada Pictures, the production company that took on this project, was extremely helping in making the whole experience smooth and efficient.
My previous shorts have had a substantially smaller cast and, in a way, less complexed stories. With Clarity And Chaos I tried to be fully honest with myself and my audience, however, being aware of the relatively delicate subject I was challenging with this film, every single shot, frame, and performance decision was incredibly thought through – nothing was left to chance.
Writing and directing this project proved to myself that I can take up such project and handle every aspect of it — being practical and firm with the crew and make the actors feel safe and valued so to bring the best out of them.
Q: What inspires and motivates you as a filmmaker and a performer?
A: What inspires me as a filmmaker and performer is knowing, as an audience member, the multi-dimensional feeling that one feels when watching a picture or a play that truly touches your heart, brain, and soul. It doesn’t happen often, but when it happens, it is one of the most special moments for me — I’m left deeply affected, in all possible ways.
When I watch a good piece of theatre or film, it is like falling in love. I cannot stop thinking about the sensations I felt when I was sitting in the theatre, so I close my eyes and try to relive everything again. I cannot stop thinking about it, just like that feeling of being in love. It haunts me, but I want to be haunted.
Once I went to the cinema seven times to see the same movie… just to give you an idea. So, the thought that I could give this same feeling that I myself get, is extremely exciting and immensely satisfying if I achieve this goal. This is what inspires me and motivates me to keep making movies.
Q: Do you have any other upcoming projects or plans we should keep an eye out for?
A: Yes! First of all, I recently opened a page on Instagram where I share all my video art work, music video, and promotional videos for brands: @vitt.yproductions
Moreover, I will soon start sending out my upcoming short film, Dreamers. The logline is: “When Eva becomes the only Latina to be shortlisted as a potential Supreme Court Judge, she fires her legal clerk, Adriana, after discovering her greatest secret: she is an undocumented dreamer. Just when Eva thought she cleaned her profiled successfully, Adriana throws the ball back at her, letting her know she can play this game too.”
This project was shot in the most intimate areas of the Latino community here in LA, places that we don’t usually associate with Los Angeles. This project has a touch of comedic tone to it, which is definitely new for me. I’m very excited about it and to see the festivals and audience response.
I have other projects in development that I cannot share yet, but I usually share all the info as soon as I’m allowed to on my personal Instagram account: @its_vitty