Q&A: Gabriele Muccino

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Talk about la dolce vita. After making such acclaimed but little-known (in the U.S.) Italian-language movies as "Ricordati di Me" and "L'Ultimo Bacio," the Italian-born Gabriele Muccino suddenly jumped from the art house to the mainstream. "Bacio" became the basis for DreamWorks' "The Last Kiss," and after he hooked up with Will Smith for 2006's "The Pursuit of Happyness," which grossed $300 million worldwide and earned Smith an Oscar nom, Muccino was squarely on the Hollywood map. The pair is teaming again for the arty drama "Seven Pounds," about a man who causes the death of someone he loves and sets to make it right; Sony opens the film this weekend. The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Muccino to talk about the movies that have influenced him, the real difference between Italians and Americans and the challenge of making Will Smith less like Will Smith.

The Hollywood Reporter: "Seven Pounds" is a movie in which you directed the biggest and most charming star in the world acting mournful and depressed. Was that hard?

Gabriele Muccino: (Laughs) It wasn't always easy. Will's a great actor and very collaborative, and there's a part of his character Ben that's charming. But you have to get something different out of him. You have to detach Will Smith from Will Smith. I don't even know if he was fully aware sometimes of how crazy the character was.

THR: There's going to be some awards talk for Smith but also some people who feel like he's such a big star that he doesn't need a statue. Do you think he should be nominated?

Muccino: There's definitely a bias against him because he's such a big movie star. But I really hope he gets attention from the Academy. He did this movie very honestly. He didn't have to do it, and it's strong enough that I hope they recognize it.

THR: How are you able to capture in your English-language movies what it means to live in contemporary America even though you didn't grow up here?

Muccino: It's hard. Making a movie about America for me can sometimes feel like making a movie about ancient Egypt. But you follow your instincts. In the end, I think there are differences between Europe and America. But there are also a lot of ideas about life and love that are universal.

THR: What do you see as the main differences?

Muccino: There's a strong individualism here, and that makes people more career-focused and neurotic. In Italy, people rely more on family and build friendships differently. But that's not always a good thing. In a calamity like this recession, Americans will be the first to pull themselves out of it. It will take longer for Europeans. They rely more on the system and wait for others to do it for them.

THR: A lot of European filmmakers also find the studio system to be a tough place to get their heads around. How do you feel about it?

Muccino: It can be very frustrating. Sometimes you wait years for a green light and there's nothing you can do. In Italy, for me, with a few clicks I can get a movie made. That's why it's very attractive to me to go back to Italy and do a small movie. But I'm sure next fall I'll want to do a studio movie and jump on a plane and come back to Los Angeles.

THR: With your eclectic resume, who would you say influenced you most?

Muccino: To me it was a real mix. Growing up I loved Italian filmmakers like Fellini. But I also loved the U.S. films of the '70s, Scorsese and everyone else. They're movies that are not being made anymore.

THR: One of your next projects is "What I Know About Love," which you're writing and directing. What's the basic idea?

Muccino: It's about a man who thinks the grass is greener and leaves his wife for another woman. But then she turns out to be a bit of a sociopath, and he needs his ex-wife to help protect him.

THR: The grass is greener also was a theme in "Last Kiss." How do you think it turns out for people who think a better relationship is just around the corner?

Muccino: It's natural to think that way, but it's also dangerous. I'm writing a sequel to "Last Kiss" now in which I explore that.

THR: Really? Is it going to pick up where it left off, tell us if all the breakups stuck?

Muccino: Yes. It's going to look at where everybody is 10 years later. Some have made mistakes they can mend, and others are stuck where they were -- just as it happens in real life.
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