Pompeii (2019): an Interview with Marco Alessi

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Charming as his movies, young filmmaker Marco Alessi brings us behind the scenes of Pompeii and his filmmaking career. Despite its short length of around 9 minutes, Pompeii (2019) successfully manages to raise questions of representation, discrimination, and toxic masculinity.

©Marco Alessi

Q: The name “Pompeii” fits very well with the explosive nature of the night the main character Tam has had. How did you come up with it?

The name is a funny one, it was definitely useful that it had tragic implications linked to Mount Vesuvius. But that wasn’t particularly what we had in mind. It comes actually from another film we’ve made, Four Quartets (2018), also set in a night club. In that movie we called the night club Pompeii. So, even if they were two very different worlds, we had the right entry stamp as a prop and decided to run with it.

We shot in a few different clubs. The second club Tam goes to is based on a club that’s currently closed, a gay club in London, called XXL. They had a problematic door policy best reflected in their motto “for men who want men.” Not only was it a men-only space, they also didn’t let in men that they deemed too feminine. It rightly received a lot of criticism about discrimination of women, femme men and trans and non-binary people within the LGBT community. In that regard, the Roman implications of the name Pompeii, that remind you of a macho male-centric world were also a useful implication of the name.

Q: How do you come up with your characters? Are they inspired by people in your personal life?

Pompeii was a really unconventional film to make, we didn’t follow usual rules for creating a short film. We kind of made up the story as we went along. We filmed it over five nights. The character of Tam is loosely based on an actor, who experienced something similar to Pompeii’s Tam. Mid-night out, the friends he was with decided to go to XXL. His choice was to go with them or go home. He went and was treated horribly because of top he was wearing – “either take it off, or you’re not coming in”. You can’t discriminate against femme people especially if you are a queer club, those places are meant to be inclusive. In terms of Tam’s character, we kind of improvised around that theme.

The starting point was a conversation I had at London Film Festival a couple of years ago with Harry Lighton and Matthew Jacobs Morgan (the other two directors) and Sorcha Bacon (the producer). We were all lucky enough to have a short in the festival that year and were sad that we weren’t on track to have another film ready on time to submit again. Harry suggested we fix that by making something unusual together with no budget. We organized a night out with our friends and told them to film their night out Insta-story style and see what we’re left with. We knew a bit of what Tam’s story might involve, but we wanted to see what else would emerge organically. So, everything you see in the first half is from that first night we organised, and all the characters are drawn from snatched moments with the people that came out night, the way they behaved, things they said. And then we devised it from there. There was so much footage and so many other interesting people that ended up not appearing in the film.

Q: Tell us more about the IG story format, what was the idea behind it?

People are so instinctively turned off by the Instagram story style. To get people over that bias we felt like we had to include the 16mm footage (e.g. Tam in the subway). I guess that’s the practical reason behind the merging of the two distinctive styles. There’s also something beautifully intimate and transfixing about 16mm that worked really well for the tube sequences, though it was mostly about off-setting production values. But filming on a phone really gave both us and the actors some freedom. It really let us in the narrative, the environment. The juxtaposition offered something else as well – a sense of claustrophobia. You know how when you film on your phone it’s mainly vertical? That was very interesting because it offered a different scenic experience, not much apart from the person holding the phone gets in the shot.

©Marco Alessi

Q: Could you tell us more about your path as a writer/director? When did it all begin, what inspired you to pursue a career in filmmaking?

I started by making some very silly music videos back in university. The producer who helped me make them was Ksenia Harwood, and we’re still working together eight years later. I started shadowing her on her productions, she was kind of my mentor figure. She is brilliant. Then later, when I approached her with the script for my first short as a director, Four Quartets, she came on board as producer. Finding a team and the money to get your first short made is tough. People understandably want to see previous work to gauge who you are. Without it, how do you get the ball rolling? The relationship I already had with Ksenia, and the contacts I had made working in other roles, was the key to getting Four Quartets made.

Q: At what age did you start writing?

Well, this is a really wanky answer, but I really loved writing when I was a kid. I enjoyed film, theatre all of that. No one in my family is creative, and I never really thought of it as a career option. Writing however, we did at school, and I really liked that. It was kind of my only access to the creative world. I tried really hard but didn’t think I was great at it. I was even worse at painting and drawing though, so I held on to writing as my way of scratching my creative itch. It was only years and years later at university that I had an idea for a short story, and then realized it was entirely visual and maybe better suited to a script. And then ended up being the basis for my first short film, Four Quartets. Writing continues to feel like a strain. It’s something I force myself to do, but now it’s just a stepping stone to the final product (the film), and that takes a lot of the pressure off for me.

Q: What are your three golden tips for writing a screenplay?

I think I’m very much in the process of figuring that out myself. Personally, I’ve had to learn not to force myself with my stories, I try to let them emerge naturally, let the fictional world come to me.

A great piece of advice that I came across recently is from the writer/director of Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), Céline Sciamma. In a BAFTA lecture series, she explains her idea about writing what you desire. She comes up with moments she desires (she defines that in a particular way – watch the lecture). Then she figures out all the sequences she need to make the desired moments into a coherent narrative. Then she works on the needed moments to try and make them sequences she desires. If she can’t transform them in that way, she just bins them, and most of the time the script still works.

Q: How was it like to write in a team opposed to working independently?

I love collaborating. There needs to be a balance, you need to bring something of yourself too, you can’t just rely on everyone else. But when you bring your ideas, the opportunity to make what you are bringing better are amazing. I’ve held on to the people I’ve worked with really hard, and I want to continue working with them. My current producer Ksenia, my co-directors Matt and Harry, for example. Writing can be an extremely lonely job, directing often feels isolating as well. Having people who you trust and rely on and be vulnerable with is key.

Another regular collaborator of mine is my partner, Tom Foskett-Barnes. He has been the composer on all my films. He’s very good at what he does. He also gives brilliant notes at the writing and edit stages. He’s so used to work from the other end of things in post, anatomizing films as he writes music for them. His perspective has been so enlightening and has always helped. I strongly recommend finding regular note-givers that aren’t just writers, producers and directors.

Q: Would you consider working on longer pieces?

I’m in the process of developing a feature and a couple of TV projects.

I am working on a piece, based on a true story, about an Irish hangwoman in the 18th century. It’s based on this insane story about a woman who took the place of the hangman by chance. She was supposed to be hanged, but the hangman never showed. She took her chance and she pretended to be him. Another thing I’m working on is inspired by British film director and artist Derek Jarman and his canonization by the protest group, The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, in 1991. The film explores the legacy of HIV by interweaving timelines in 1991 and 2021 to explore how much has changed while paying respect to the past through the spectacular event around Jarman. It’s shaping up to be something really special with some key figures from Jarman’s work supporting us to make it happen including the legendary Sandy Powell. I was able to find some amazing new collaborators, which I am extremely excited about.

Q: What was the casting process like?

Most of the people in Pompeii aren’t actually actors, for example Otamere Guobadia. It was a very unconventional process of casting. But we achieved something more organic with this unconventional approach I believe. We kind of let people be themselves, and it ended up being great.

A lot of Pompeii is improvised, for example the scene where Tam doesn’t get allowed into the club. We discussed with Tam what the overall direction of a scene was, we talked about the reasoning behind it, and as he understood the issue very well, the performance was really instinctive.

My favorite characters were the two women outside the club, they were hilarious. Them being not let in was similar to Tam not being let in, it’s kind of a slippery slope. You’d expect these spaces to be ‘safe’ and inclusive, it’s very important to safeguard that. And the club we based the movie on wasn’t safe at all, and it’s important to really show that.

Q: What would you say is your favorite thing about working with film festivals?

My favorite thing about the filmmaking process is showing the finished product to the world, it’s immensely stressful but it’s one of the things that keeps me going. The people I’ve met on festivals are still in my life. Festivals allow you to make these amazing connections, to feel part of a community. I owe so much to them.

It’s so weird to be in this room, no one else knows who you are, and they are all experiencing your film on screen – I am always nervous. Pompeii is such a fast-paced movie, it was incredible to see how people sat back and let themselves experience it.

 I think my favorite experience with festivals so far was when we screened another film of mine, toni_with_an_i (2019) at the Berlinale in 2020. I remember one instance when it was screened to around five hundred kids, around the age of 12-13. Young people are so vocal about everything. When something goes wrong, they start booing and when something goes right, they applaud. When we hit the credits, they exploded into triumphant screaming. It was amazing, they really responded to every aspect of the film.

Q: What has been your experience in the industry in terms of diversity and representation? Was it your aim as a filmmaker to comment on social issues such as LGBTQ representation and discrimination (even within the community)?

Filmmaking is such a personal part of my life, I am always working or thinking about it. That’s why I think the movies I make are so personally connected to aspects from my life, not directly inspired, but still. Diversity is something very important to me, representation too. I’ve been really inspired and uplifted by the programs I have been part of. If I have to be brutally honest, I am writing from what I know, it comes naturally from within.

When it comes to creating LGBTQ characters, it is always intrinsically political. We aren’t at the stage yet where there are enough of them onscreen for the diversity they represent not to be significant. If you’re making a film and not thinking about that at all then you’re kidding yourself. Even with the best intentions, we’ve been conditioned to fall into certain traps, tropes and clichés that contribute to stigma, shame and marginalization. Film and TV has serious power to bring about change (good and bad), so you’ve got to be attentive to the story you’re telling, why you’re telling it, and whose voice is missing from the room. So I think you have to be aware of what you’re putting out into the world. You’d be surprise how little things can have huge effect. Pompeii (2019): an interview with Marco Alessi

Charming as his movies, young filmmaker Marco Alessi brings us behind the scenes of Pompeii and his filmmaking career. Despite its short length of around 9 minutes, Pompeii (2019) successfully manages to raise questions of representation, discrimination, and toxic masculinity.

©Marco Alessi

Q: The name “Pompeii” fits very well with the explosive nature of the night the main character Tam has had. How did you come up with it?

The name is a funny one, it was definitely useful that it had tragic implications linked to Mount Vesuvius. But that wasn’t particularly what we had in mind. It comes actually from another film we’ve made, Four Quartets (2018), also set in a night club. In that movie we called the night club Pompeii. So, even if they were two very different worlds, we had the right entry stamp as a prop and decided to run with it.

We shot in a few different clubs. The second club Tam goes to is based on a club that’s currently closed, a gay club in London, called XXL. They had a problematic door policy best reflected in their motto “for men who want men.” Not only was it a men-only space, they also didn’t let in men that they deemed too feminine. It rightly received a lot of criticism about discrimination of women, femme men and trans and non-binary people within the LGBT community. In that regard, the Roman implications of the name Pompeii, that remind you of a macho male-centric world were also a useful implication of the name.

Q: How do you come up with your characters? Are they inspired by people in your personal life?

Pompeii was a really unconventional film to make, we didn’t follow usual rules for creating a short film. We kind of made up the story as we went along. We filmed it over five nights. The character of Tam is loosely based on an actor, who experienced something similar to Pompeii’s Tam. Mid-night out, the friends he was with decided to go to XXL. His choice was to go with them or go home. He went and was treated horribly because of top he was wearing – “either take it off, or you’re not coming in”. You can’t discriminate against femme people especially if you are a queer club, those places are meant to be inclusive. In terms of Tam’s character, we kind of improvised around that theme.

The starting point was a conversation I had at London Film Festival a couple of years ago with Harry Lighton and Matthew Jacobs Morgan (the other two directors) and Sorcha Bacon (the producer). We were all lucky enough to have a short in the festival that year and were sad that we weren’t on track to have another film ready on time to submit again. Harry suggested we fix that by making something unusual together with no budget. We organized a night out with our friends and told them to film their night out Insta-story style and see what we’re left with. We knew a bit of what Tam’s story might involve, but we wanted to see what else would emerge organically. So, everything you see in the first half is from that first night we organised, and all the characters are drawn from snatched moments with the people that came out night, the way they behaved, things they said. And then we devised it from there. There was so much footage and so many other interesting people that ended up not appearing in the film.

Q: Tell us more about the IG story format, what was the idea behind it?

People are so instinctively turned off by the Instagram story style. To get people over that bias we felt like we had to include the 16mm footage (e.g. Tam in the subway). I guess that’s the practical reason behind the merging of the two distinctive styles. There’s also something beautifully intimate and transfixing about 16mm that worked really well for the tube sequences, though it was mostly about off-setting production values. But filming on a phone really gave both us and the actors some freedom. It really let us in the narrative, the environment. The juxtaposition offered something else as well – a sense of claustrophobia. You know how when you film on your phone it’s mainly vertical? That was very interesting because it offered a different scenic experience, not much apart from the person holding the phone gets in the shot.

©Marco Alessi

Q: Could you tell us more about your path as a writer/director? When did it all begin, what inspired you to pursue a career in filmmaking?

I started by making some very silly music videos back in university. The producer who helped me make them was Ksenia Harwood, and we’re still working together eight years later. I started shadowing her on her productions, she was kind of my mentor figure. She is brilliant. Then later, when I approached her with the script for my first short as a director, Four Quartets, she came on board as producer. Finding a team and the money to get your first short made is tough. People understandably want to see previous work to gauge who you are. Without it, how do you get the ball rolling? The relationship I already had with Ksenia, and the contacts I had made working in other roles, was the key to getting Four Quartets made.

Q: At what age did you start writing?

Well, this is a really wanky answer, but I really loved writing when I was a kid. I enjoyed film, theatre all of that. No one in my family is creative, and I never really thought of it as a career option. Writing however, we did at school, and I really liked that. It was kind of my only access to the creative world. I tried really hard but didn’t think I was great at it. I was even worse at painting and drawing though, so I held on to writing as my way of scratching my creative itch. It was only years and years later at university that I had an idea for a short story, and then realized it was entirely visual and maybe better suited to a script. And then ended up being the basis for my first short film, Four Quartets. Writing continues to feel like a strain. It’s something I force myself to do, but now it’s just a stepping stone to the final product (the film), and that takes a lot of the pressure off for me.

Q: What are your three golden tips for writing a screenplay?

I think I’m very much in the process of figuring that out myself. Personally, I’ve had to learn not to force myself with my stories, I try to let them emerge naturally, let the fictional world come to me.

A great piece of advice that I came across recently is from the writer/director of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma. In a BAFTA lecture series, she explains her idea about writing what you desire. She comes up with moments she desires (she defines that in a particular way – watch the lecture). Then she figures out all the sequences she need to make the desired moments into a coherent narrative. Then she works on the needed moments to try and make them sequences she desires. If she can’t transform them in that way, she just bins them, and most of the time the script still works.

Q: How was it like to write in a team opposed to working independently?

I love collaborating. There needs to be a balance, you need to bring something of yourself too, you can’t just rely on everyone else. But when you bring your ideas, the opportunity to make what you are bringing better are amazing. I’ve held on to the people I’ve worked with really hard, and I want to continue working with them. My current producer Ksenia, my co-directors Matt and Harry, for example. Writing can be an extremely lonely job, directing often feels isolating as well. Having people who you trust and rely on and be vulnerable with is key.

Another regular collaborator of mine is my partner, Tom Foskett-Barnes. He has been the composer on all my films. He’s very good at what he does. He also gives brilliant notes at the writing and edit stages. He’s so used to work from the other end of things in post, anatomizing films as he writes music for them. His perspective has been so enlightening and has always helped. I strongly recommend finding regular note-givers that aren’t just writers, producers and directors.

Q: Would you consider working on longer pieces?

I’m in the process of developing a feature and a couple of TV projects.

I am working on a piece, based on a true story, about an Irish hangwoman in the 18th century. It’s based on this insane story about a woman who took the place of the hangman by chance. She was supposed to be hanged, but the hangman never showed. She took her chance and she pretended to be him. Another thing I’m working on is inspired by British film director and artist Derek Jarman and his canonization by the protest group, The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, in 1991. The film explores the legacy of HIV by interweaving timelines in 1991 and 2021 to explore how much has changed while paying respect to the past through the spectacular event around Jarman. It’s shaping up to be something really special with some key figures from Jarman’s work supporting us to make it happen including the legendary Sandy Powell. I was able to find some amazing new collaborators, which I am extremely excited about.

Q: What was the casting process like?

Most of the people in Pompeii aren’t actually actors, for example Otamere Guobadia. It was a very unconventional process of casting. But we achieved something more organic with this unconventional approach I believe. We kind of let people be themselves, and it ended up being great.

A lot of Pompeii is improvised, for example the scene where Tam doesn’t get allowed into the club. We discussed with Tam what the overall direction of a scene was, we talked about the reasoning behind it, and as he understood the issue very well, the performance was really instinctive.

My favorite characters were the two women outside the club, they were hilarious. Them being not let in was similar to Tam not being let in, it’s kind of a slippery slope. You’d expect these spaces to be ‘safe’ and inclusive, it’s very important to safeguard that. And the club we based the movie on wasn’t safe at all, and it’s important to really show that.

Q: What would you say is your favorite thing about working with film festivals?

My favorite thing about the filmmaking process is showing the finished product to the world, it’s immensely stressful but it’s one of the things that keeps me going. The people I’ve met on festivals are still in my life. Festivals allow you to make these amazing connections, to feel part of a community. I owe so much to them.

It’s so weird to be in this room, no one else knows who you are, and they are all experiencing your film on screen – I am always nervous. Pompeii is such a fast-paced movie, it was incredible to see how people sat back and let themselves experience it.

 I think my favorite experience with festivals so far was when we screened another film of mine, toni_with_an_i (2019) at the Berlinale in 2020. I remember one instance when it was screened to around five hundred kids, around the age of 12-13. Young people are so vocal about everything. When something goes wrong, they start booing and when something goes right, they applaud. When we hit the credits, they exploded into triumphant screaming. It was amazing, they really responded to every aspect of the film.

Q: What has been your experience in the industry in terms of diversity and representation? Was it your aim as a filmmaker to comment on social issues such as LGBTQ representation and discrimination (even within the community)?

Filmmaking is such a personal part of my life, I am always working or thinking about it. That’s why I think the movies I make are so personally connected to aspects from my life, not directly inspired, but still. Diversity is something very important to me, representation too. I’ve been really inspired and uplifted by the programs I have been part of. If I have to be brutally honest, I am writing from what I know, it comes naturally from within.

When it comes to creating LGBTQ characters, it is always intrinsically political. We aren’t at the stage yet where there are enough of them onscreen for the diversity they represent not to be significant. If you’re making a film and not thinking about that at all then you’re kidding yourself. Even with the best intentions, we’ve been conditioned to fall into certain traps, tropes and clichés that contribute to stigma, shame and marginalization. Film and TV has serious power to bring about change (good and bad), so you’ve got to be attentive to the story you’re telling, why you’re telling it, and whose voice is missing from the room. So I think you have to be aware of what you’re putting out into the world. You’d be surprise how little things can have huge effect.

Marco Alessi is a writer, filmmaker and director. Check out his website here.

Emma Carleschi is a writer, screenwriter and visual artist. Check out her website and works here.

Mariana Dimitrova is a fiction writer.

Mariana and Emma are the writers and editor of the Barnes Film Festival Blog.

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