Taormina Film Fest Head on James Gandolfini's Death, 'Lone Ranger' Controversy (Q&A)

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Mario Sesti

The historic Sicilian festival nearly closed last year, but Mario Sesti touts its setting and spot on the calendar as its key strengths.

ROME -- The Taormina Film Festival garnered plenty of international attention this year, though not for reasons anyone would have wished for or could have predicted. Sopranos' star James Gandolfini was on his way to the 59-year-old Sicilian festival when he died of a massive heart attack in Rome. And then the event raised eyebrows after it was forced to screen its closing film -- Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger -- dubbed into Italian after the Disney declined to provide the original-language version of the blockbuster.

Those events and others helped overshadow the work done by organizers to help revive a storied festival that had been left for dead less than 18 months ago. With a reduced budget, the event has managed to survive with a reduce scope. Second-year artistic director Mario Sesti spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the festival’s plans going forward, as well as how the event dealt with tragedy and unexpected developments at this year’s festival.

The Hollywood Reporter: There’s a saying that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Is that something you believe?

Mario Sesti: Well, we’re talking about a terrible tragedy, along with a few things beyond our control. I don’t think anyone would think those things define the festival. But if that makes someone curious to find out more about the Taormina Film Festival, I hope they’d see the merits of the event. 

THR: That said, this year’s edition of the festival will surely be remembered for its connection with James Gandolfini, who died the night before he was scheduled to leave for Sicily. How did you find out about his death? And how did you decide how to react to the tragedy?

Sesti: Well, to be honest, I found out about it when you called that night to ask for a reaction, and soon after we had a conformation via text message from [Pursuit of Happyness director] Gabriele Muccino, who was in Rome and who was supposed to come to Taormina with Gandolfini. It’s a horrible tragedy. It still affects me.

I don’t think we could have done anything different than we did: We went ahead with the Master Class that he had planned to host, but using it as a kind of retrospective on his career. We dedicated the final evening’s program to him. We thought about naming an award for him, and we may yet do that. But at the time, I wasn’t sure it was appropriate.

One thing that people haven’t talked about enough, in my view, is how enthusiastic he was about coming back to Italy. He paid for and organized more than five flights for people to come with him. Ever since we first contacted him back in February he was excited about the whole trip. Not just being honored in Taormina, but just coming to Italy.

THR COVER: James Gandolfini Cover: 17 Tributes to the Iconic Actor 

THR : Another change you had to deal with was the romantic drama Before Midnight, which was supposed to screen in the famous Teatro Antico venue but was pulled. Why was that?

Sesti: The producers agreed to have the film screen at the festival. But then in the meantime, it was acquired by an Italian distributor who wanted to have it come out before the end of the year, and they thought it would be counter-productive to have to premiere here in June and then nobody else would see it in Italy for four or five months. I don’t blame the Italian distributors or the producers, but there was clearly a communication problem involved.

THR: And what about the dubbed version of The Lone Ranger? Disney was reportedly worried about piracy, but Taormina’s held premieres of many big-name films with no reported problems with piracy, including Man of Steel this year and Disney’s own Brave last year. In fact, security at the festival has always been tight. It’s very unusual to screen a dubbed film at a festival, and I’m told that some people asked to have their ticket price refunded. But at the same time, a lot of moviegoers that night seemed pleased to see a dubbed version of the film. What is your take?

Sesti: There’s an important truth here, which is that a lot of Italians don’t go to films with subtitles. It’s not part of the mainstream culture in Italy. So while the dubbed film put some people off and attracted some others, I don’t doubt there was a net gain in attendance. Maybe this makes the case to do something different in the future. Perhaps with big films like this we should screen both versions: a dubbed one and the original language version.

Even so, as an artistic director, I think screening the original version of a film, the version the director and producer and actors made, I think that is fundamental. It wasn’t my decision to screen the dubbed version. Disney made the decision and I admit I was perplexed by it. But we respected what they wanted to do.

STORY: Disney Premieres Dubbed 'Lone Ranger' in Italy Amid Alleged Piracy Fears 

THR: When you took over Taormina last year, the festival was on life support. But it looks like you’ve managed to at least stabilize the situation. What’s the next step for the festival?

Sesti: The key to understanding Taormina is that it’s a live event, it requires participation. The setting is amazing. Is there a more beautiful spot for a festival? Is there a better venue than the Teatro Antico? My goal is to have something for everyone. There are big blockbusters like we see most years, but there’s also an educational side for real film buffs: the Master Class events, for example.

THR: What do you see as Taormina’s biggest strength as a festival? And what is the event’s biggest challenge?

Sesti: The setting is a big strength, without a doubt. It makes the festival sexy, because this ancient venue mixes with a thoroughly modern and forward-looking festival. Another big strength is the spot on the calendar. A little before or after and it would be a very different event. But where we are makes the festival an attractive launching pad for big summer releases. The big Hollywood studios were a little wary last year, but I think they have more faith now.

And the biggest challenge is clearly economic. The economy is weak, and it’s also difficult because the backing of the various government entities that make the festival possible, like the Sicily regional government, the government of Taormina, of Messina, each year we have wait to find out if they will provide their backing for the next edition.

THR: Do your plans include reinstating the competition? I know you had to eliminate it last year because there wasn’t enough money or time. And there was no competition this year, either. Will there be one next year?

Sesti: I try to look at this question from all sides. A competition clearly makes sense with big festivals like Cannes and Venice, or Berlin or Locarno. But it’s less clear for many other festivals. I don’t think there’s enough high quality cinema made each year to allow for prestigious competition events at so many festivals. I think the compromise is to find a niche, and I’d like Taormina to focus on comedy. So for the future, I’d like to see a small competition, maybe of six or eight films, made up of comedy from around the world. But it won’t be next year. The goal for next year is to repair some of the facilities we had that the festival usually relies on. If we do that, get the festival on better footing, after that we’ll see about reinstating the competition.

Twitter: @EricJLyman