It’s shocking but true: In central Naples, recent crime activities—extortion, drug-dealing, blood vendettas—have been ruled not by veteran mafiosi but by an ambitious band of teenage boys. That brazen young gang’s rise inspired Piranhas, the first novel by Roberto Saviano, author of Gomorrah, the acclaimed nonfiction exposé of Naples’s criminal underworld that became an equally celebrated 2008 film by Matteo Garrone.
Now, Piranhas has become a feature film directed by Claudio Giovannesi, scheduled for U.S. release by Music Box Films on August 2. The movie made its world premiere at the 2019 Berlin Film Festival, where Giovannesi, Saviano, and Maurizio Braucci shared the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay. The cast is made up of nonprofessionals, headed by charismatic discovery Francesco di Napoli as the calculating yet naïve leader of the scruffy crew. In subtle increments, these boys evolve from wide-eyed strivers looking to make enough money to impress girls and afford bottle service at the local nightclub to amoral hotheads embracing a life of corruption and violence.
We met with Giovannesi the day after Piranhas screened as the opening-night attraction of Film at Lincoln Center’s annual Open Roads series of new Italian films. Our thanks to his adept translator, Lilia Pina Blouin.
How did you find your actors?
The casting was the most important part of the film, because we actually saw 4,000 kids in order to select eight. What we were after were three things in particular. On the one hand, we wanted kids that were very familiar with the neighborhood, who had firsthand knowledge of the issues that the film was about. And then we wanted kids with acting talent, because it wasn’t about just memorizing lines and spitting them out—they needed to be kids that didn’t perceive the presence of the camera. And then we needed innocent faces, because the film is about the loss of innocence. We wanted that to be at the forefront.
I understand they never saw the complete screenplay. Would you give them just the day’s scenes?
Yes. Because they didn’t need to act the scenes, that needed to live them. Day by day they would discover what would happen. The structure is a very simple one, a rise-and-fall story, so they experienced the rise part with the euphoria, the ambition, the joy of success and the birth of friendships, and then the fall part. Meanwhile, they were becoming friends in real life. So when they discovered what was happening, they would say, “Oh no, really?” The friendship was real, the love was real, and they only found out how the movie was ending when it ended.
The performances in the film are so natural. Can you talk about working with these young nonprofessionals and how you’ve coaxed these performances out of them?
The objective of each scene is for it to come off as authentic. And there are techniques for that. The first thing I taught them is not to feel the presence of the camera, to forget the camera. It is important for us to stick to the authenticity of the feelings, not the words as such. The words, if we don’t use them, it’s even better. It’s better for the feelings to be at the forefront and to come across. And in order to do that, we do many, many takes. Also, it was very helpful for them to shoot in chronological order.
So Roberto Saviano was OK with that process of not sticking strictly to the script?
Well, we did stick to the script. It’s just there was more freedom in terms of the dialogue. But, having said that, we wrote the dialogue with them [to capture] the way they speak, their language. And actually, in Italy it was released in a subtitled version because they speak in the Neapolitan dialect. Roberto, when we moved on with the project, became a co-screenwriter, and he had a lot of respect for my choices.
So at least in terms of the dialogue, it was a fluid thing that changed day to day …
Yes, they were by all means fluid, they could change [the words]. What couldn’t change were the objectives of the scene, the conflicts that the characters were going through. As far as the dialogues were concerned, more than changing them I tried to cut them, because what mattered to me was not the words as such but the looks, the gazes, the relationships of the characters.
Do you have a personal connection to this material?
No, not at all, because I live in Rome. I had to get to know that area of Naples, so I got a place there and I lived there for two years. I had to get to know those kids, because that is a place where, for a lot of kids of that age, that life is the only option. When I was 14 years old, my issue was that I needed to choose what high school to go to, whereas they have to go to work in a place where there are no real jobs, and therefore their option is to make a lot more money with a criminal career. And this is not just in Naples; it happens in a lot of places in the Western world.
Did you know Roberto Saviano beforehand?
Yes, because I had directed two episodes of the “Gomorrah” TV series. That’s when I met him. However, that’s a very different kind of product. It’s a genre TV series, a noir crime story. But back then, he offered me his book and we decided that I would work in a different way, focusing on the fragility and the feelings part of these kids’ experience. He welcomed that approach and that’s how we moved forward.
So is that highlighted more in the film than it is in the novel?
Yes, that is the main shift between the book and the movie. The film is about fragility, it’s about the characters’ feelings, whereas the book was more about the rise to power, the power struggle. We wanted to work on feelings and emotions and place that at the center.
What do you hope audiences will take away from this film?
This film puts human beings at the center. Empathy with the characters for me is the main goal. I didn’t want to make a movie about criminals, but about kids, about teenagers. And so it places empathy with the kids’ feelings at the forefront—these characters can be anyone’s kids or brothers. When the viewer walks out with that kind of empathy in them, it means that I’ve conveyed what I wanted to convey.
There are only three films in the Open Roads series that have U.S. distributors. What does it mean to you that American audiences are going to see this film in theaters?
It’s a great satisfaction for me. I’m really into American independent films. I admire filmmakers such as Scorsese and Cassavetes—they were fundamental to my upbringing. And therefore, being part of that is a great honor. This can be considered a European product because it’s a co-production with France, and you don’t get enough European cinema in this country, so it’s great.
Can you talk a little bit about the climate in Italy for filmmakers? How difficult is it?
The problem in Italy is that we have issues with culture as such. We’ve had 20 years of a government, the Berlusconi government, that saw culture as an enemy. When people are not educated and culture isn’t held in high regard, people become easier to control. Our big problem is that the value of culture is not recognized and it is not supported by institutions. Therefore, cinema has been deeply affected in a negative way by this attitude—only comedies were seen as something that could be shown, because only entertainment mattered. We need to get out of this frame of mind, and it is vital for us to create cinema that can be relevant, not just for Italy, but for Europe and in this case for the rest of the world as well.