• Juliette Binoche stars as Anna, a grieving mother in 'The Wait'. (Palace Films)Source: Palace Films
The Italian director's experience of impasse on-set offers practical advice for directing your way out of a tense situation.
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1 Jul 2016 - 3:21 PM  UPDATED 1 Jul 2016 - 3:21 PM

It’s your first feature film. You’ve got Juliette Binoche playing the lead role. It’s the first day of the shoot – and things are going downhill fast. That is the situation in which Pierro Messina found himself, on the first day of production for The Wait, his debut feature about grief, resurrection, and things we can’t articulate.

The way Messina tells it, he clashed with Binoche over her performance and it required a fair bit of frank and forthright articulation between the pair of them, to resurrect their relationship from its impasse. But more about that later.

Binoche plays the devastated Anna, a woman so paralysed by the shock death of her son, Guiseppe, that she can’t actually bring herself to break the sad news to his girlfriend, Jeanne (Lou de Laage), when the latter shows up unannounced with plans to celebrate the Easter weekend with her boyfriend and his mum.

Anna sizes up the carefree stranger who shows up in the midst of the wake, oblivious to the real reason why her absent boyfriend won’t return her calls. As the weekend progresses, the weird dynamic between the two women builds as a whole host of important things remain unsaid.

The film is set within Anna’s sprawling Sicilian villa, and Messina was interested in demonstrating the conversational trait of talking around important subjects with which he, as a Sicilian, readily identifies.

“For me in this movie, the very important things are not in the facts or in the words, but in the space between,” says Messina, when we meet in a Sydney hotel on the eve of The Wait’s Australian release through Palace Films. “For me, this way of speaking is very natural; it is my own way. I love the subtext of something that stays behind.”

“[With Sicilians] the truth is implied in our communication,” he says. “When I start to write, I work a lot to hide the sense of the scene – I never put the true meaning of the scene into words. When I work with an actor, we work a lot to discover what I have hidden. It’s like when you’re looking for your keys and during this research, you find under the bed something very interesting that you forgot about.”

On the subject of actors, I observe that, “Juliette wears that burden of grief so convincingly – she looks exhausted.”

“That’s because she was!” he says. “We had a big problem in the first days, we fought a lot – a lot – and I remember that on the first day I asked my 1st AD to take the crew and go out because I had to speak to her alone. We now joke about those days but at the time it was really, really hard, with strong – and a little bit rude – dialogue. But it was very good for us [in the long run] because we started to be real, and we found a method that could be good for me, and for her.”

What did they clash over?

“Juliette has the ability to live the emotion of the character. She really lives it. She can simulate as if… [thinks] she’s not in a trance but… she is the character, which in this case, was a mother that loses her son. She started to live this pain so deeply that she couldn’t control it. Totally. She was out of control and she started to cry and started to [motions wildly]. In this movie, in this very fragile movie, the line is very tiny and for me that was impossible. It was too much. I spoke with her and said, ‘Juliette this is not possible, this is not possible’. On the first day, I said in maybe a very rude way because I don’t speak English so good, I said: ‘This is no good’. She told me, ‘Pierro, I am. I don’t play, I am’. For me this was really, really, difficult. In my mind I go, ‘Fuck! I’m making my first movie, it’s my first day and here I am, fighting with my actress!’ Really!

I observe, “And that actress is ‘only’ Juliette Binoche…”

Messina shrugs and says, “When I am shooting I am in trance too, so for me it doesn’t matter if it’s Juliette Binoche or if it’s my mother, it’s the same: This is my movie. No one can touch my movie.”

Apparently overcome with a moment of self-awareness that he might come across as trash talking La Binoche, Messina says, “Juliette thought the same, actually, after we spoke about this.”

The obvious question is how did they – indeed, how does any director – overcome such a profound stumbling block?

“I said, ‘Okay Juliette. Now we are not in a good situation. I think that we don’t have love here but I have to finish this movie, so we have to find a method to do this’. She told me, ‘Okay, you have two choices now: 1) You can have ‘Juliette Binoche’, she’s a very technical actress and she can do what you want. But if this is the way you want, you won’t understand when I am true and when I am not true. Or 2) You can have a mother that loses her son. What do you want?’ I said, ‘Okay, I want a mother to lose her son, but I want a mother to lose her son who can also control her emotion’, so she says, ‘I think it is not possible’. I say, ‘Okay. Let’s try this: You have five takes. You are free. You can do what you want in those five takes. If you want to roll around on the ground in those five takes you can do that. But in the sixth take I start to work with you and little by little, I ask to you to do something different every take. If you want these five takes, you have to do every take that I need. If I want 50 takes, then we have to do 50 takes’. And she says, ‘Okay we can try’. In the first moment it was difficult but in the next few days, little by little, this became our method and it was beautiful – for her and for me.

“In the five takes she started to release everything. She cried a lot. I couldn’t use any of it, but afterwards it was beautiful. It was like for example, if I take a woman for dinner and during talking she goes away fast to the bathroom and she cries a lot and then she comes back tries to hide the fact that she has cried. I have not seen her cry but I understand that she cried – I see it in her face. This, for me, was the perfect situation for us to start to working. After these five takes she had the sadness in her face because she was tired. Little by little, we worked with this tiredness and after 40 takes for example, she was exhausted. Her emotion was gone and this was beautiful. When I felt that she was totally empty, I said ‘Action’, and I think for us it was beautiful.”

“[Binoche] spoke a lot about this method,” he says. “Now we are going to work together again, and three weeks ago I called her and I said, ‘Juliette in this case we must be faster so we have to start with the sixth take immediately!’ [Laughs]”

So they have an understanding now?

“Yeah, now we know each other! It is good.”

‘The Wait’ is now screening around Australia.

Watch the trailer:

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