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 "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 and the challenge of making Will Smith less like Will Smith.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.

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.

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.

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.

A lot of European filmmakers 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.

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.

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.

Muccino: I'm writing a sequel to "Last Kiss" now in which I explore that.

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. (partialdiff)
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