Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch’s The Eight Mountains was one of the prize winners in competition at the 75th Cannes Film Festival, nabbing a Jury Prize in a tie with Jerzy Skolimowski’s Eo (both films incidentally feature donkeys, maybe that was the key to success). The film centres on the friendship between two men, from their pre-teen years to middle age. Our own Cédric Succivalli took part in a roundtable interview with both lead actors, Alessandro Borghi and Luca Marinelli, where they talked about on- and off-screen friendship, about the practical challenges the film gave them, and about the lure and strength of the mountains.
Q: The film is about a life-long friendship between two men, but you are friends in real life too, right?
AB: Yes, we are. That is one of the secrets of why the film works so well. You don’t have to feel doubt as an actor, because there already is a connection. The connection we have in our private life was already 50% of the way of creating this strong bond between the two men on screen. What I loved though is that every day I discovered something new on set, not just about our characters, but also about the friendship Luca and I have.
Q: There were a lot of practical things you had to do in the film. Some things you can research, but a lot of it you have to actually train. How did you prepare for all of that, and how much time was there?
LM: Everything we do in the film was actually trained, from hiking the mountains to building a roof. For me that was really important, because it gave me a chance to stay three or four months up there, and I had the chance to meet Paolo Cognetti (ed: the writer of the novel the film is based on). It was a really practical movie, we had to do real stuff. There is not that much dialogue in the film. What is there is deep, but there was just a lot of physical work our characters had to do, and you get a chance to observe the characters through that.
AB: I felt the need for myself to feel believable in doing all that. You can fake it, but I really need to feel the sensation of being able to do it for real. I came back home after shooting with clothes covered in cow dung, with the smell everywhere, but that was part of the journey and it was great. Every day I discovered something new that enriched my private life. Did I miss my life’s calling and will I live in the mountains? No. But when I see our two characters do all that stuff on screen, I believe it because I know we were trained for it.
Q: And what about the mountains themselves? You went to live in an extreme location and you looked like you embraced the lifestyle. How was that?
AB: When we started four years ago, I started a process of falling in love with the mountains. And now I can’t be without them. In three weeks I’m going back up again for two weeks. I need to stay there. You can live in the mountains as a tourist, you know. You go to a sauna, you go for a walk. But actually being in the mountains is different and challenging every single day. Take the hiking for instance: you walk for six or seven hours, to a high altitude, your body needs to acclimatize, so you need to challenge your body. Paolo is a great mountaineer, it’s impossible to try and keep up with him. The first time we hiked together, after about six hours I could not walk anymore. Every time it was pushing the bar a little higher. Right now my view of the mountains has completely changed, I feel that you need to respect them, in terms of territory, in terms of people, in terms of relations.
LM: The mountains are like the sea, you have to be an actual sailor to really go to sea. And the mountains are the same. You can reach a certain level, but then you need to respect your environment. And sometimes this is the smallest things, like being unprepared for changing weather. That’ll teach you respect.
Q: You guys first met seven years ago on one of the cornerstones of Italian independent cinema, Claudio Caligari’s Non essere cattivo. The bond between you felt strong then; did you build on that bond for this film, knowing each other artistically as well through that film?
LM: That film was a gift to us, both as a human being and as actors. We met Caligari, who was a fantastic director, and for me personally meeting him and working with him changed the way I live my professional life. The film also gave us the gift of our friendship. So on The Eight Mountains we had an advantage. But both are films about a great, deeply felt friendship. Maybe in the future we will only do movies about friendship, and that would be okay actually (laughs).
Q: Your trajectory as actors since then is fascinating, both of you have shown to be able to move in completely different directions. You mix commercial projects with arthouse fare. I feel like you are becoming the faces of both current and future Italian cinema.
AB: Thank you so much, I can leave now! (laughs). But seriously, you have to feel happy to do this job, to feel like this job is not really a job at all. One of the most important things I learned from Claudio Caligari is that I need to tell stories. He said you should only do cinema if you have something to tell, otherwise you might as well stay home. You have to feel the characters, feel the story, and feel the necessity to tell that story.
Q: Your English is great, are you looking forward to do more English-language film projects?
AB: I would love to. Devils (ed: a UK/Italy co-produced TV series that just aired its second season) was a great experience for me, giving me the opportunity to work with a great cast. As a young guy from Italy you are afraid of meeting these Hollywood stars, and you fear they might look down on you. But that did not happen at all, they supported me a lot and I’m part of the family. From doing Devils I understood that the job is the same for everyone. Somebody yells “Action“, the camera starts to roll, and you do your job. The language may be different but the process is the same. At this point I feel more free acting in English than in Italian, because strangely enough I feel less judgement. Every day I prove to myself that I can do anything, and acting in English was so good for that.
Q: And how about you, Luca?
LM: Sure, why not? If they want to and if the story is interesting. What Alessandro said before, when you are acting in a different language you are acting the character, but you are also putting on another, additional mask. And that gives more freedom. I am naturally very shy, so I need another mask.
Q: As an actor, what is the biggest challenge this film brought you that you didn’t have to face before on other films?
AB: The practical work. I’m good with cows now, but at the start of the project… Milking cows, you know, you look at others doing it and you think it looks pretty easy. Then you try it yourself and nothing happens. That was interesting, I had never experienced that before. In terms of emotions the hardest part was separating the love I have for Luca in real life from the love the characters have for each other. It’s never a good idea to mix your private life with work, emotionally. You have to be connected to the characters. In this film I was never talking to Luca, always to his character. The mountains made everything easier in that sense. We had to climb to altitude and put the clothes on and everything, so the characters came naturally.
LM: For me to be challenged is always something positive. There was a challenge in meeting the directors, as I had never met them before. Meeting their love, their passion, their art. Meeting Paolo. Meeting the mountains. Every location you see in the film, we were really there. Even the glacier at four thousand meters. In Nepal we were there, after a journey of 10 days. One day was 10 hours of walking to this wonderful village. I vividly remember the moment of turning a corner and seeing that place, up so high, with yaks and people working the field. It was truly a journey, and a fantastic challenge.
Q: When you read the script for the first time, did you immediately connect to your role?
AB: I really loved the novel when I read it three years ago. I discovered my love for Bruno at the audition. When I was reading the novel I got emotional, and I felt the necessity to tell this story. At the audition we did both characters, and after that I felt something for Bruno. Maybe because he is so different from myself in terms of the way we communicate and deal with emotions. We had to work with Felix and Charlotte a lot to try and find a right way to put all this energy in line. The most curious aspect of the film is the transition of the two characters during the film from where they start and where they end. In the beginning they speak always with a distance between them, but by the end they find ways to hug each other, touch each other, and talk about love and friendship in full openness.
LM: I fell in love with the story so much, I wanted to do every character, but unfortunately that was not possible (laughs). In the beginning they told me to focus on Pietro, and Alessandro on Bruno. I was bit scared because I always think I can’t do a character. I felt something for Bruno, but with Pietro I thought I could not really catch him very well. But by going deeper and further into the story I started to understand him.
Q: Does the film contain improvisation?
AB: Yes, quite a lot actually. There is this scene where we are grilling fish, and we didn’t even know we were shooting. They were lucky we weren’t speaking in dialect! We had the opportunity and freedom to do a lot of takes, and in this kind of film that is risky, because if you’re really comfortable in the character you tend to speak a lot. Yet in this film our characters actually don’t speak a lot. We found a good balance, with the help of our directors. Especially with Charlotte we talked a lot on set about the acting, about the best way to approach scenes, about finding the balance.
Q: You shot Devils before this. Your character on that show is very different, elegant and impeccably dressed. How did it feel for you to switch then to this other world?
AB: It’s not me, it’s a character. The only risk is sometimes you judge the character. If you move from a very rich person to somebody living in the mountains without electricity and water, you may ask yourself which is the better way to live life. But I try not to do that because I think that every journey should be respected as a journey related to the character. I’m so happy to have the opportunity to change ‘lives’, so to speak, and every time it is a huge discovery. I’m not about judging my characters and saying who is a better or worse person.