The artistic director of the Locarno Film Festival, Giona A. Nazzaro, is preparing for the 75th anniversary edition of the lakeside event from August 3 to 13. During his second year in this position, he built an eclectic program spanning mainstream Hollywood cinema and experimental cinema.
David Leitch’s action comedy High-speed train, starring Brad Pitt, makes its international festival premiere as the opening film on Locarno’s famous Piazza Grande. Pitt won’t be in attendance, but his co-star Aaron Taylor-Johnson is ready for the Piazza and will receive the festival’s Achievement Award alongside Daisy Edgar Jones, Jason Blum and Matt Dillon who are also expected to receive honours.
Other films screened at the festival’s famous 8,000-seat outdoor venue include Laurie Anderson The House of the BraveAnna Gutto’s highway to paradisestarring Juliette Binoche as a truck driver who traffics a young girl, and post-Bataclan terrorist attack drama You won’t have my hate by German director Kilian Riedhof. The festival also returns with a full industry program, including its annual StepIn sessions and masterclasses with Christine Vachon and Lucius Barre.
Nazzaro spoke to Deadline about his distinct programming style, mixing mainstream and arthouse fare, the challenge of attracting big studio films, and his desire to push Locarno into the conversation about the season of rewards.
DEADLINE: This is your second year as artistic director and your first “proper” festival after Covid. How did you find the organization of the event?
GIONA A. NAZZARO: Last year it was a rush because we decided to open the Piazza. Then the situation changed, which meant we were able to add more cinemas. We had to adapt to the situation as we went. This year, we knew we could build on the success of last year’s edition. I know it’s a little weird to hear me talk about success, but I feel like the previous edition was a great success. To give a very simple example, yesterday I received the Blu-Ray edition for holy spirit who played competitively. We managed to do something we had set ourselves, which is to bring the festival to people who didn’t know it through the success of certain films.
DEADLINE: Will you be at full capacity?
NAZZARO: Yes quite. We will be at full capacity and we will abandon all Covid security measures.
DEADLINE: High-speed train. There’s a lot of buzz surrounding this film and it boasts an all-star cast, including Brad Pitt. How did you get the title for Locarno?
NAZZARO: I’m a very avid film buff, so I look all over the place. It’s an extraordinary dazzling action movie with a lot of humor, but if you pay attention you can see that it’s also an essay on how to deconstruct traditional scripts with an anti-hero who doesn’t want to resort to violence
DEADLINE: Locarno is located between Cannes and Venice. Over the past few years, Venice has become such a launching pad for awards season films. Has that made it harder to draw in major studio awards titles?
NAZZARO: Obviously, we would love to be part of this conversation. Let’s be absolutely clear. And we’re trying to convince some of the studios that we could do that in an interesting way, but I have to say we have no problem getting into conversations with the big studios. In the end it comes down to strategies and when they fit we are more than happy to work together as in High-speed train as with the Where the Crawdads sing [also playing on the Piazza Grande]. It is therefore a conversation that really interests us and we hope that this conversation will bear fruit in the coming years.
DEADLINE: What is the value of being in the awards conversation for a festival like Locarno?
NAZZARO: We’re a true audience festival, which means we don’t rely solely on the trade press or extreme moviegoers. If a studio wants to know if a movie is working or not, then the Piazza is where they can really check that out because it’s an audience who pays the ticket, who wants to be there. So I think that, especially for certain types of films, would be extremely interesting.
DEADLINE: There is a lot of talk about competition between festivals in Europe and North America. Do you see yourself competing with other festivals?
NAZZARO: It’s important for a festival like Locarno to have films that haven’t been shown elsewhere. It’s because we want people to come to Locarno and discover new films. When people say I should also promote movies that have been elsewhere, they usually have different reasons and not all of them are for the good of the art. I firmly believe in a festival with a signature.
DEADLINE: Locarno has long been considered a space for experimental art and cinema. This year, Laurie Anderson is also honored. To what extent do you see Locarno as an arthouse festival?
NAZZARO: For me, cinema is art, so I don’t see it as a contradiction to celebrate Laurie Anderson, who has always worked with the mythology of film, deconstructing it and doing something completely new, at the same where we open with High-speed trainor celebrate the legacy of Douglas Sirk [who is the subject of Locarno’s retrospective program this year], or celebrate absolutely new filmmakers. So I would say yes, Locarno is an arthouse film festival. But in the true sense of the word, in this, we celebrate the art of cinema in all its forms. Not like a tag that identifies you to a specific location that you can’t move from.
DEADLINE: Racial and gender diversity is an important topic in our industry. There are 22 films directed by women at the festival this year. It’s about 36%. What do you think of the Locarno winnersd in terms of stimulate diversity?
NAZZARO: That’s really the key question that we face as an industry, because this industry is obviously a mirror image of everything that works or doesn’t work in society at large. And that’s why there’s this big focus on the movie industry. I think we did better than last year in terms of gender balance, although this year we received fewer entries for films directed by women than last year. So I’m very happy that we’re around 40% in the three major competitions. And, for example, we also have the Canadian film Before I change my mind called non-binary.
DEADLINE: This year’s selection includes many young, debuting filmmakers. Who should the public be aware of?
NAZZARO: If I were a young cinephile coming to Locarno to discover cinema, I would certainly make sure not to miss any of the 15 films in the Filmmakers of the Present competition. I know that sounds rhetorical, but that’s really where the future of this art form lies. We strive to get the most diverse range of filmmakers possible. There is the Moroccan film Pieces of Heaven or brazilian It was night in America or the Canadian coming-of-age film Before I change my mindwhich is a Spielberg-era Amblin film with a more unusual LGBTQ twist, or a film like the Australian film Essence reminiscent of some of the best ideas from the Australian wave of the early eighties. Those movies I definitely wouldn’t miss.