Photographed by Federico Imperiale
There are rare moments where you will find writer and director Alessandro Turco sitting down and taking a moment just for himself, not thinking about the past, the present, or the future. To minimize the experience and say it was easy to get a one hour window in the artist's busy schedule would be a lie. While packing his bags, in preparation to go to the airport and catch a flight from Milan, Italy, he decided to use the opportunity to squeeze in a conversation about the very fact that he is scared to death of death, always.
It doesn't take long until he has switched the positions in the interview and taken over. "Listen to me, just listen. To make it easier - and sound better - send me the questions you want me to answer and I'll email them back to you."
I need to interrupt Alessandro and remind him about the slowly death of authentic cinema, and the importance of listening to filmmakers speak from their hearts - no filters. He immediately takes the bait and is all ears.
In 2017, Alessandro Turco wrote and directed a short film titled Killing Bonsai Tree (2018) where we follow a young boxer who works for a Jewish mobster. The title can be misleading if one doesn't view life similar to Alessandro, so he shares his thought process for the creation of the title. "Bonsai tree, because there is a constant metaphor between a tree as an object, the bonsai tree as an object, and the fragility of life [in the film]."
He continues detailing about his view of the circle of life, and how he plays with it in his film. He explains that the metaphor between the bonsai tree as an object, and the fragility of life, is repurposed throughout the entire story in different forms.
Mise-en-scène is something he plays with a lot throughout the film, so the bonsai tree is constantly recurring throughout the story as a reminder of the journey of life; in particularly in the first part of the film. "In the beginning of the film, the focus of the camera is on the tree because the tree in that moment symbolizes the fragility of life," he says. "That's when I decided that the title should be 'Killing Bonsai Tree', because in the end everyone's going to die."
For him, "killing bonsai tree", means more than the title suggests; it's the process of killing ourselves. "We are fragile individuals and [if] we make one bad decision, we're dead. That's basically the way I imagine life. It's a very fragile thing, like a bonsai tree, and if we don't treat it properly it's going to die; in the same way that we can die."
We continue speaking about death and he confesses to me that death is a close friend to him when he writes. Writing about death has been a therapeutic way for him to cope with the phenomena of death. He tells me he is scared to death by death, as well as scared of people close to him dying. "I'm like Woody Allen," he tells me, "I think of death all the time, but not in a comedic way. I just think it's what drives me. Knowing that I can get cancer and be dead in a year drives me to be better, and to explore stuff and places I [otherwise] wouldn't. I don't want to take life for granted, so I kind of have death as a friend in a way. It pushes me to be better and also do things better. But, at the same time, it scares the shit out of me, especially the possible death of people close to me; that's something that scares me just thinking about it, you know?"
There's a long moment of silence before anyone of us speaks, but suddenly the big elephant in the room is addressed. I ask him if he's scared now, in this very moment. "Yes," he replies without any hesitation in his voice, as if he had just been asked a simple question about the weather.
"Yes, all the time. It's like a twenty-four-seven thing. I'm scared of people that I care [about] could die; I'm scared of me dying too early before I'd had my say in this life. Contrary to most people that are in their twenties, you know, they think they're basically immortal."
He interrupts himself mid-sentence to take a bite on something that, from the sound of it, sounds crunchy and delicious. "Sorry," he says in between bites, "I'm eating something because I need to fly." He laughs embarrassed before returning to his statement about fear and immortality. "People in their twenties think they are immortal, but I have never thought about it that way because I know it's easy for us to die."
Photographed by Federico Imperiale
Death is recurring in his writing, but he explains that the story of Killing Bonsai Tree did not origin from a moment of death in his life; he actually got the idea from his best friend, Katlegho Makhudu. "In some areas in the world there's this saying "killing the bonsai tree." Katlego, the South African guy, my friend, do you remember him? He once said that phrase. That phrase was stuck in my head for a while, and I have always been fascinated by bonsai trees. It was just a picture in my head. I knew that I had to do something with that. I also wanted to talk about families, f- up families, where things got wrong for a long time, and then the members of this family try to make it up."
Death, drugs, family, and mobsters, are four aspects we are introduced to in this short film. These are topics that could be described as heavy, as well as hard to portray in a film with less than fifteen minutes of playtime. We decide to go into depth about the thought process when he was writing the story. The topics he explores in his film are common in movies, especially short films, so he explains to me why he still felt the urgency to explore the topics in his film, despite the possibility of a negative reception. He takes a moment before he gives the most simple answer, "Because it was fun."
Film director Quentin Tarantino was once asked in an interview why he always had to put so much violence in his movies. Alessandro quickly uses Tarantino's response in that interview as a reference to his reasoning.
"So he [Tarantino] just says 'because it's fun dude'. So first, I know it's not a very profound reason, but it's because it's fun. Secondly, because I was very afraid to do something that was more comedy-oriented. If you don't make people laugh then it's just... Oh my God, it's just a nightmare. So I tend to go to more dark atmospheres."
He goes on and tells me that he grew up watching dark, mobster pictures, and since he believes we are the product of the movies we watch, then it was no surprise Killing Bonsai Tree became so dark and mobster oriented. "I would like to say it was a more interesting and complicated process that brought me to that point, but it wasn't. It was a very natural outcome from the fact that I watched those movies all my life."
Alessandro has a strong Italian-American accent, and when he speaks it sounds as if he has given much thought to every word he utters. Being an outsider looking in, it can seem as if he is a confident and outspoken young man. However, when taking the time to actually have a conversation with him without anyone else listening, interrupting, or even affecting his mindset; just talking to him and hearing his thought process; one quickly get a sense of fear. It's not a strong sense of fear, nor insecurity, however there's a certain unbalance displayed every here and there between his words. To be vulnerable, afraid, and insecure is not something screenwriters tattoo on their sleeves. As a matter of fact, we don't usually hear a lot from screenwriters in media, but everyone have a sense of writers; that there's a certain confidence behind every one of them. So, upon hearing a writer speak in such a way, well, it makes the profession sound more vulnerable than it's portrayed as. I mention this to him, and ask him if it is something that has helped him with his writing. I can hear his smile all the way from Italy. "That's interesting," he says.
"I have always considered myself to be very vulnerable and insecure. Writing strong characters that are the opposite of who I am naturally, it's kind of a way to project on the screen who I want to be as a person. Since I'm insecure and vulnerable, I always want to put on screen something that's very different from me. Now, I don't really know what the reason behind it is, because I also think that writing is way more unconscious than conscious. I need to dig very deep to understand why I write certain stuff and certain characters, but I can't right now because I need days of self-analysis... But it is probably like you said; I am for sure vulnerable, and I need to write something that's so far off from me, so I did."
While writing the characters for Killing Bonsai Tree, writer Alessandro Turco decided to create a character that he felt was intriguing. The importance was not necessarily for the character to be better than the average human being, at least not morally. The creation of the characters for this film was for Alessandro a pursuit of trying to find the right combination of skill set that his character should have in order to become interesting. He decided to settle with three characters; Aron, Madeleine, and The Rabbi.
Aron (Luke Porter) is the leading character of the story; he's a very fast paced boxer. He's impulsive, he's brave, he's courageous. He has a dark past with a strong bond to his deceased father, and troubled sister Madeleine (Kirsten Nygaard). Madeleine is as impulsive and brave as her brother, but she is dealing with her own demons; she is a drug addict and a drug dealer. Then there's The Rabbi (Paul Chepikian) who is the machiavellian type of villain. He is the type who always have a plan B in case his plan A fails. What makes The Rabbi stand out from other mobsters according to Alessandro is that this mobster is educated. "He is a very smart person, but in an evil way. He's very educated person, which is not very common amongst mobsters."
Besides moving from film project to film project, Alessandro is currently writing on his first novel, heavily based on his childhood. The novel covers the events from the deaths of one of his grandfathers and eventually finishes with the death of his other grandfather, and everything in between. So, death is indeed a key component in all of his writing, even books. "Death is always there," he tells me, "but my novel, Inquieto Vivere, is a more slow paced story - it's a family story."
The title of his novel origins from a saying in Italian; quieto vivere. It means "calm life" if you were to translate it directly to English. Since the title is from an Italian saying, it makes it hard to translate it into another language according to Alessandro. "Inquieto in Italian means the opposite of being calm. I don't know what it would be named in another language, but it basically means not so calm life."
Though nothing really has changed, his voice all of the sudden sounds more fragile than before. It's as if talking about the novel brings out emotions he is still overcoming. He suddenly says he is having a hard time completing the story.
The story to him is very personal and he wants it to be perfect. He doesn't want to settle for average writing with his novel, he strives for perfection. "I'm not expecting someone to read this book and understand what I'm writing about, you know?"
Confusion slowly arises in the air; to such an extent that I have to admit to him that I don't understand him. "Honestly," he says, "I just expect them to buy it and give me some money."
There's a sense of fear in the air again, and I can't help to address it to him. He pretends to not fully have understood the question, so I repeat it as clear as possible. I ask him if it is fear talking, or his true opinion; with a strong emphasize on the fact that it sounds like it's fear talking. That it sounds like he's afraid of actually publishing the book because it's so personal to him.
I point out that it sounds as if he is afraid of the reception of his novel. It's quiet only a short second before he pours his heart out, without giving any room for interruption.
"For sure; I'm afraid. I'm afraid to publish it because it's about some personal stuff that went on in my family that is not very easy to display to the public. But f- that, I came to terms with that. I'm okay to speak about these stuff to a possible audience. It's [the novel] just not ready yet, that's it. This is my first step into the universe and I don't want to fail in that step; I want to make it right. It's so important to make the right step in the beginning. I have an editor, and she told me it's not ready, so... it's not ready. So I'll keep polishing it, and maybe in six months it'll be ready."
It sounds as if it's the first time he has been given an opportunity to reflect aloud about his struggles and concerns with the writing process for his novel, as well as how strongly it is affecting him.
"I keep thinking about all this shit all the time by the way," he suddenly says in the midst of absolutely nothing. It's a heavy and fragile moment. Whatever is said next will open the door to something big; it was written in the stars in the way he said it. So, I ask if he means his book. He takes a breath and speaks; he sounds tired when he responds. "Yes," he says.
Photographed by Federico Imperiale
"Will I ever be able to publish it? Will I ever find the time to polish it? To make it into a good product? I don't know, because so far I'm not making money out of it, I'm actually not even enjoying the process because writing is painful and rewriting is even more painful. I really do believe that writing is sometimes a necessity, but it's painful. It's dead boring, staring at a blank piece of paper or screen, and stay there for hours and be like 'I need to write two pages, three pages', but you need to do it anyways, because in those two pages of crap there might be a nugget that is good. But the problem is that the day after you will need to go back and remove all the crap [you wrote] and leave just the nugget there. That's even more painful because it's like you're basically killing your babies every day. So, this whole process is boring and painful. It's also painful because I go through stuff from my life that aren't exactly happy times, so I think it's quite clear why it's painful for me. I'm now talking about my book, but I think writing in general is also like that. I just finished reading a book by William Zinsser who is a great non-fiction writer, and he wrote this manual for aspiring writers who - I think the title in English would be 'writing properly, or writing well' - says the same thing. He says that writing is supposed to be hard, and if it's not hard it's because you're writing crap. I think the first draft on anything should always be crap, and if you don't think it's crap it's because you're either a fool or you're not objective towards what you created."
He exhales and the smile from earlier returns.
I ask him for any final words. "Drink a lot of wine and try to enjoy the day until it's sunny outside. That's it."
While drinking your wine and enjoying the weather outside, watch Killing Bonsai Tree below; written and directed by filmmaker Alessandro Turco.