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TSR Exclusive: 'My Big Red Purse' interview with Giancarlo Iannotta

Chicago filmmaker Giancarlo Iannotta is a family man. He doesn't just embrace the roots that have make up his extensive Italian family tree, he wants to share them with the world. He captures his family's stories with his camera, and as a filmmaker of the Vimeo.com age, uploads them to the internet. Iannotta doesn't have a feature film to his name yet, but he's got a credit that isn't just handed to any man or woman with a movie camera - his documentary short, My Big Red Purse, was selected to play at last month's South by Southwest Film Festival, beating out hundreds of competitors in the process.

Expanded from a simple project for Vimeo.com, My Big Red Purse features Iannotta's mother re-telling a story from her childhood, with a re-enactment mixed in with interview footage, a la the Oscar-winning film Man on Wire.

A sampling of Iannotta's work can be found at his Vimeo page.

Tell us about the film. The inception of it, etc.

It was [originally] made just for fun. I was home from college for the weekend, and I was on Vimeo.com. They do a contest every week, and the prompt for this particular contest was childhood memories, and filming somebody talking about childhood memories, or the first memories that they can think of from their life, basically. I said to my mom, “Will you let me interview you? Tell me some stories about childhood.” And we started talking for a few minutes, and then she started telling this story about this big red purse, which I had never heard before. And I thought, “This is so funny, it would be the perfect movie.” When I finished the interview, I was thinking, “How do I make it into a film? Do I do it without my mom, do I make a three act structure?” I decided that I had to incorporate my mom. The way she tells the story is so funny, and it puts you in her shoes. I decided that we would make this hybrid documentary, and give people a little sense of slice of life, that I honestly think some people can relate to, especially from that period.

What was the timeline of the project?

We did the interview February of last year, and then we shot the film. We were casting at the last minute. My neighbors played a part, my cousin played a part. I used my dad’s old cars, and my uncle’s street.

What movies inspired your idea to make it both documentary but also narrative?

I think the first inspiration that came, it wasn’t a film, was “The Wonder Years.” I always loved that show, and loved the narration of it. The period, the cars, the costume. Always been a fan of that show. If I could relate My Big Red Purse to a movie, though, it would probably be Man on Wire. [In that film] they fill the plot with the reenactments. That was an inspiration. You could even say The Thin Blue Line, waiting on the edge of your seat, and I know we also took a little inspiration from A Christmas Story, that scene when the bullies beat up on Ralphie’s friend.

Would it be fair to say that this is also a narrative?

Yeah, I have a little trouble calling it a documentary. I think of it more as a short story. I guess it would be a documentary because it’s a real life person with events that really happened but I think there are so many elements that don’t make it documentary. I call it a short story. We’ve been submitting it to festivals as both documentary and a short story, because I think it goes nicely into both.

Has it been accepted as a narrative [to festivals] at all?

Yeah, we’re going to play in Ohio at the end of the month.

What has the film festival journey been like for this film so far?

The first festival was SXSW, and it was my first film in my first festival. It was like going to Disneyland. So many great people, so many great filmmakers, and I just had the time of my life. We sent [the film] to some big festivals, kind of on a whim. Maybe they’d like it, maybe they wouldn’t. We did get a lot of rejections, but South by Southwest was our first acceptance. I think it was a great learning experience. Doing it now, I detail everything about our experience, related to what to do before the festival, how to promote the film, attending the festival as a filmmaker, all on our website, in a section called “Tips for Filmmakers.” There’s a lot of stuff on there. But it’s great. I’ve been to so many festivals as a fan. But not as a filmmaker. And even at SXSW, I still had trouble … when we were talking to people about the movie it was like, “Wow, this is my movie down here? This is insane.” The best thing about SXSW was the learning experience, the dos and don’ts that I want to share with people.

What festivals are next?

Our next festival is on April 24th, at the Athens Film and Video Festival in Athens, OH. It has been around for a long time, like forty years. It’s a small town, south of Columbus. And I think we’re gonna go. It’s gonna have a nice vibe. And the next festival is May 7th, is in Canada. We’re going to have our Canadian premiere at the DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver, Canada. We got lumped into a collection of short films about childhood.

What impact has living in Chicago had on the way you look at film, or way you try to make films?

I’ve always thought that Chicago is a small city in a big town. It’s kind of like a community. It’s not like New York or L.A. Something about it is kind of like family. And with this film, I think it aspired to be this family production. I worked with all of my family members, and I worked with people in my class, and friends, and friends of friends. It seems with Chicago there is a family connetion. I don’t know if it’s the neighborhoods, like all these neighborhoods in one group, and Chicago works for the period; we found my uncle’s street to shoot the film. We were thinking of shooting the film in the south suburbs of Chicago, which is where the story actually took place fifty years ago.

Do you hope to make more usage of the city itself in the future with your films, or are you thinking about other locations? Maybe suburbs?

Well, my next project is going to take place in a bedroom. I think that because I want to get the actors that I know, who live in Chicago, it will probably be shot in Chicago, but it will look like it could be shot anywhere. And I do want to do a feature project that would show the city a little more, and the music from the city. It’s the story of this band that goes on the road, and all of this inspiration from Chicago music.

So you’ve been working on material for a feature?

Well, I want to do one more short film this summer. Then, after that hopefully it will create interest. I do have this feature idea, based on my band’s own touring experience. That’s the feature I want to make. It’s something dear to my heart. We took this crazy RV out on the road, and went on the Warped Tour. It was the time of our lives, and a crazy experience that I am writing about now. And I’m going out to L.A this summer, I’ll be out there in July for a semester in L.A, and it’s one of the ideas that I want to pitch.

With My Big Red Purse and this idea you have for your feature, what attracts you to working with films about earlier times?

I think it’s always been … maybe childhood wonderment? Of not wanting to grow up? Of wanting to tell stories about young people. With this next film, it’s such a 180 from My Big Red Purse, it’s not a family film at all. It scares the shit out of me, because it’s very mature material. I’m used to doing films with kids, like The Year Santa Skipped Us. I think it’s always been a fascination with memories, and nostalgia. I think that’s just always attracted me to those stories. And I think [I’m interested] in what it means to grow up, and the transition to adulthood. The changes you go through, for better or worse.

Do you feel that films are more valuable if they are more personal?

To me, I would say that. I like telling the stories, and sharing the stories that I am most familiar with. I like the rule of thumb for first-time filmmakers, is always write something near and dear to you. Cameron Crowe lives by that, Noah Baumbach too. I would say that for me the more personal, the better. Even with My Big Red Purse, some people thought it might be too personal. I was told by the programmer at SXSW that if we didn’t have the moment at the end [of the film] with my mom, they wouldn’t have programmed it. It just would have been this funny story in time. But that moment summed it up. That moment encompassed everything for what it means to be a kid, and to look back on it several years later.

You’re also saying that the ending of the film, with your mother at the end, was needed to really get the point across. Was that a part of the original interview? With the same reaction at the end?


Where can we watch your films?

On our website, there are some clips about the movie. If you want to see any of my material, you can visit Vimeo.com/giannotta. That’s got a bunch of other small documentaries I have made with my family, and tons of stuff.

What interests you about talking with and working with family characters? Is it the accessibility of family members, or do you feel that you want to tell their stories for them?

I come from this big Italian family. They’ve got so many stories. They came from this small mountain town in Italy, that’s secluded from everything, like Rome and Naples. And they have so many stories about the war, and coming to America. I am always fascinated by them. Any time we get together, I always love hearing those stories from the older men. They are able to put me in their shoes, in their time, in their struggle. And I’ve always wanted to film my family, and they can’t say no [laughs].

Quick Questions

Favorite Fruit? Grapes

Favorite Summer Movie? The Sandlot

If you could be someone for 24 hours, and then go back to being yourself, who would it be? My grandfather. When he was a young man, he just started a family, and he came to America all by himself. It probably wouldn’t be the most serious ting to be in his shoes, but I think it would be interesting to be in that mindset back then.

Age of first kiss? 17, I think.

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