In his first English-language film, The Best Offer, Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso, Malèna) was determined to cast Geoffrey Rush as Virgil Oldman, an eccentric auctioneer who becomes obsessed with a reclusive heiress, Claire (Dutch actress Sylvia Hoeks). It's fitting then that the 57-year-old Sicilian is travelling to Australia for the Melbourne Film Festival in Rush's hometown and no one sings his praises more than the Australian Oscar-winning actor.
“Giuseppe could have written a film about a man who collects paintings and sits there but he didn't,” says Rush. “This is a metaphor for that obsession. Virgil's isolation and insularity is being pushed to such a degree that I think it pushes the thriller aspect of the film onto a different level.”
The Best Offer was the toast of Italy's 67th Nastri d'Argento awards after landing six awards in early July. Although set in an unspecified locale, the film was actually shot in and around Vienna, Trieste, Milan and finally Prague.
Why did you cast Geoffrey Rush?
As always, casting Geoffrey was an idea I had during the writing of the script. Step by step, day by day, I thought always of him and when the script was ready I sent it to his agent and five days later Geoffrey called me saying, “I read the script, I want to make the movie”. It was wonderful.
What was he like to work with?
Because Geoffrey loved the Virgil character so much he followed him in all his aspects and asked me the meaning of every single word in the script for days and days. It was good because when we were ready to shoot, there was no mystery, everything was clear. I could ask him anything. As the writer it was a very, very good experience. I love his obsession with the work, his aptitude and he's so easy and so nice. He's the synthesis of Marlon Brando and Marcello Mastroianni – the obsession of Marlon Brando and the sympathy [likability] and pleasantness of Marcello Mastroianni.
Was it difficult casting the heiress?
Yes. Many actresses refused the role because the character is not on the frame for half the movie; we have only her voice. But when I met Sylvia she said she loved that, because when she finally appears it is so strong and she becomes the most important character. When she said that it was music to my ears and she looked just how I'd imagined the character.
What were the origins of this story?
My method is always to work on many stories at the same time. I have many, many little ideas in my pockets and my boxes and on my computer. I develop them slowly and after a time many of them disappear, some eventually become a complete story and sometimes even a movie.
More than 20 years ago I had a little story about an agoraphobic. It was an idea I loved very much but the story was not good. I didn't love the story; I loved the idea. Many years later I had another story, another idea about an auctioneer. I love this kind of profession: the man who decides the value of the things; there's a strong allegory there. I loved this character, but not the different stories I invented. Then one day I put these two characters together and I added a relationship. The story became about a man who is unable to love and step by step he learns to love.
Why has Virgil experienced such difficulty with love?
He is a man who in his profession is able to distinguish the authentic and the fake, but not in his life. He is not able to look women in the eyes. He can only do this through paintings.
How complicated was it to find all the paintings in the film? Are they all originals? The credits are enormous.
Some are real; others are reproductions. In any case, we had to have authorisation from the museums and the owners of the private collections. My producers worked with the museums to find collectors who would give us the authorisation for little or no money, only with the obligation to name them in the end credits. This took ten months to organise but it was not difficult. I wrote a special letter explaining my idea to the owners and I believe maybe that letter was better than my script because they accepted immediately.
Can you say some things about your collaboration with your composer Ennio Morricone, who of course worked with Sergio Leone and was Oscar-nominated for Malèna starring Monica Bellucci.
We've made nine feature films together but also some documentaries and some commercials. In the past 25 years I have always worked with him for everything because our method is very particular. I like to speak with him about the music immediately after I finish the script, before shooting. Usually at the beginning of the shoot I have the most important musical themes of the movie composed and recorded. If you have a clear idea and you can explain it to him, he can give you exactly what you want, even if you are not a musician. He is so modern for a man of 84 years old. He's really a miracle for me.
How do you look back over your career?
My filmography is not a logical line. When I finish a movie I love to think about another movie that's very different. So after a Sicilian movie, I like to make a movie in another part of the world. In every movie I need things I don't know, so I can have the feeling that I am working on something new so I can have the original fear of my first movie, because I believe that fear is more creative than safety. Too much safety about your work is not good.
The Best Offer screens at the 2013 Melbourne International Film Festival and is released nationally on August 29.