A Conversation with Alessandro Borghi (THE EIGHT MOUNTAINS)
Alessandro Borghi has been working in television and film since 2006. As a teenager he had dreams to be a boxer while studying Econ. From there he watched the film Raging Bull, which changed his life forever. He has starred in numerous Italian productions over the years including Matteo Rovere’s The First King. Alessandro’s latest endeavor, The Eight Mountains, finds him teaming up with masterful writer directors Charlotte Vandermeersch and Felix Van Groeningen. He also finds himself acting, once again, across from the endlessly talented Luca Marinelli. Together, they deliver some of the best performances of the year. The film debuted in the main competition of Cannes 2022, taking home the Jury Prize. The following conversation was edited for length and clarity.
Hammer To Nail: Alessandro, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. I really loved the film. Your performance was amazing. I have seen it twice now. It is really great. I am a little disappointed to see you without such a big beard, but it’s ok.
Alessandro Borghi: Hahaha, yes something has changed.
HTN: Haha, well, I guess my first question is: What was it that attracted you to this project and what was the process like in getting this role?
AB: It was a process that was very long for me. It started around 3 years ago when I read the book for the first time. I completely fell in love with the book. It was something romantic because I met my fiance in London and one of the first things she told me was that I have to read this book because it is something special. When I read the book I also found out that someone had bought the rights to it. I thought to myself, “That’s a shame, it would be great to do that.” Then, the producer of the film approached me and told me they were trying to build the production up in Italy.
I was surprised because I knew that there was an American director involved. In the end, I found Felix and Charlotte, which was great because I am very fond of them. We met and had great conversations about our position in terms of nature, the mountains and the book itself. Then, we met again for an audition. When I did the audition, Luca was already involved. At the time, they were trying to understand what was the best role for him. Then we had this audition which was really a great moment for me. I was really into getting the role. I was so excited because it was the first time Luca and I were doing something in front of a camera, even if it was just an audition. At some point I realized that Bruno, for me, was the character that I really loved. From there everything started and it was one of, if not the best journeys of my life in terms of storytelling and humanity. We shared a long journey on the mountains with lots of people telling a story that we were really in love with. That was two years ago, and now I am talking to you about it haha, so maybe something went in the right direction hahaha.
HTN: You said that you were disappointed when you found out the rights to the book had been purchased. Is that because you had intentions to adapt it yourself?
AB: Not directing but, in the last two years something has changed in my mind about the work and my relation to the work. I am done just waiting for someone to propose something to me. It is great to be a part of the process from the beginning. This was the first time I had faced this kind of disappointment, in the future I will do something precise to make sure it does not happen again.
HTN: Two things that caught my eye from the start of the film are the aspect ratio and that it is shot digitally. What is it like acting in a tighter frame and on digital as opposed to film?
AB: I actually do not think we thought a lot about the frame. Felix and Charlotte are incredible. They are incredible human beings and incredible directors. It is as if you cannot feel the dimension of the camera. They give you the opportunity to feel really free on set. Even though the frame was a square we felt like we had all the space we needed. I think that in terms of the image, it was a really great idea. At first I did not understand it, because we were in the mountains, I figured we would shoot wide so that we could see everything. Then I understood what the point was. The feeling everyday was very free on set. In the end I trusted Felix and Charlotte to find the best way to frame the story in relation to the characters. They are actor friendly, they are always looking for ways to free the actors.
HTN: Have you worked on a set that is shooting film? If so do you prefer to work with digital cameras instead?
AB: I have always worked with digital. Unfortunately, because I would love to have that kind of experience. I have grown up with digital. I do not know what the feeling is like to be scared and not have a lot of takes.
HTN: I feel like a pretty major moment for your character in this film is around the hour 45 minute mark. It’s where Pietro is informing Bruno he probably will not return the next summer. talk about your thinking going into this moment. The subtleties in your performance are a masterclass.
AB: I love that scene. And thank you because it was one of the most intense moments of the whole process. Sometimes, you have that feeling that something incredible is happening on set. It is not related to doing something, it is all about being something. Luca is an incredible actor and a very close friend. We have a great working relationship where we try something and give each other feedback. There is always lots of feedback. It is a continuous exchange of emotions. I was worried about that moment because I felt it was a very important scene. I came in the house and was trying to decide what was the best way to do it, standing or sitting. Then I found that chair and asked Felix if I could use it. He approved it. I was trying to think about Luca’s mindset in the moment a lot in preparation. When he said that line, I was truly moved. It was very real. It felt like if Luca were to tell me in real life that we are not going to see each other for years. I felt something inside of me, I was supposed to stay inside but I had this sensation and stood up and left. It was a great moment. We had a lot of great moments but that scene specifically for me was so important, so thank you.
HTN: I love that scene. It really is special. I must have been mistaken. I thought you and Luca became very close through the film. You knew each other for a bit?
AB: We made a movie 7 years ago. Since then our relation has grown over the years but, I am quite sure that something really special happened on those mountains. There was an explosion inside of us and it forced us to express how much we loved each other. One thing that really links us is our passion for telling stories through the power of cinema.
HTN: Was this shot chronologically?
AB: Yes it was.
HTN: Got it, so what were the advantages of that for you.
AB: It was so great. It is really an uncommon thing. Very difficult to find an opportunity where you are shooting chronologically. It is easier to understand what you have to do as a character. When you are bouncing from scene to scene it can be difficult to channel the emotions necessary. When you go chronologically it’s like ok, let’s go on this journey together, and every day is a step further. In this journey you always feel very connected to everyone. Everything is very natural. You have a target and you go straight towards that target, so it is great. It was the first time I had the chance to do a film chronologically.
HTN: I feel like for this movie it is very beneficial because your character’s arc is a kind of descent. It would have been difficult to do one of the last scenes and then do one of the first scenes when Bruno is in completely different places. Another moment I’d love to discuss with you is when you let out that emotion at Luca for the first time screaming “No!” At him. You can feel the build up in your performance. What instructions were you given and how did you prepare for this excellent moment.
AB: I have to say, I am not really into method acting. I grew up watching the great American actors. We used to talk about method acting and how to deal with it. Sometimes, when working in Italy, you are under a time constraint, it does not give you the chance to be grabbed and do the method. At some point, probably 5 years ago, I figured out that the best way for me to do the job is to follow the flow. That is what I did. When you are lucky, to have a great partner, a great screenplay and great directors, you do not have to think all that much. Of course on the way you are going to make mistakes but along the way, something is going to happen, a certain feeling, if you use that feeling, it is going to turn out great and you will be surprised but what will happen.
In that scene, and throughout the film we did not do any rehearsal. We talked a lot about everything prior and then we were like, “let’s see what is going to happen tomorrow.” We would walk up the mountains and talk and in that time, through looking at each other, through getting tired together, we would find magic. There is a beautiful scene in front of a fire, yes, it was written, but, during that scene luca and I realized, we had become Bruno and Pietro, so we did not need the words anymore. Everything we would do would be in character, that is really when the magic happened.
HTN: You guys really do become the characters, it was amazing to watch. Did you watch any films to prepare for this role?
AB: No actually. I just watched Felix and Charlotte’s movies because I wanted to understand the way they would use the camera, but actually, as I said, they changed completely. It was very surprising. I was really in love with the Broken Circle Breakdown, It was a masterpiece. I thought they were going to use a lot of hand held cameras, but it was completely the opposite. We were always still, telling the story using the whole space. I was just trying to improvise my feelings everyday. The biggest resource I had were the people I met on the journey. I had a lot of people to teach me about the milking of the cows, nature, the mountains, everything. I was trying to figure out what I could steal from them. At some point I realized I had a beautiful and big bag worth of information. I had all this stuff through the many relationships I had made, and at times all I would have to do is grab something from that bag.
HTN: So I spoke with Charlotte and Felix, and they told me about one scene that made them and the crew cry on set. I was just wondering, since the film is very emotional, is the set a similar vibe? Was it surprisingly fun? Was there some levity?
AB: It was very quiet. There was a lot of silence on set. Fortunately, we were not very good at taking things seriously, so everyday there was always a huge opportunity to do something funny. Even if we were preparing for a complex scene, me, Luca, Charlotte and Felix are all very funny people. Yes, this is work, it is a job, but we are very lucky, for us this is not a job, we are all doing something that we really love. I think the secret is to not take anything too seriously. You have to enjoy it. You have to be happy doing it. You have to be focused, you have to do things the right way, but it was all very relaxed. It was a great big team, professionals, but all really funny, a lot from different places in Italy. We had people from the mountains, the sea, etc, it was great. It was a beautiful journey and at times it was very funny. Luca, who is my brother, he is a really fucking crazy man.
HTN: I originally saw the film at Cannes in the Lumiere, which is such a special place. What was your experience like at Cannes and what was it like seeing your face up on that screen?
AB: For me, the first screening of the movie is always very complicated. On the first watch I am always panicked about little things, I think to myself, “Oh my god they cut this, this is not the right take, I did something better, etc.” Even when you have read the screenplay and you even made the movie, it is going to turn out as something different. Through the editing it is as if you grab something in one world and put it in a new dimension. First screening is always very complicated. In Cannes, for me it was very emotional. I was so stressed. I felt the pressure of being at a very important film festival. After that it was great. I remember the first screening in Rome. I felt a lot of love. There were a lot of people there waiting for the movie. Their kind words just felt so good. It is so great because we did Cannes in May, and right now we are still talking about the movie. It is really a long process. It is like the movie does not want to leave us alone.
HTN: Honestly, I could feel that emotion at the Lumiere myself. It was a pretty intense screening. By the end everyone was very emotional. Are there any directors or genres you dream of working in?
AB: Internationally speaking I am in love with Derek Cianfrance. Everything he has made is great. Even the series he made with Mark Ruffalo, I Know This Much is True, is amazing. Even in a mini series, he always has a very cinematic dimension in terms of image and storytelling. I really love him and it would be a great gift to work with him. Maybe one day. In general, I think we really need new people. We need to be open to work with a new process and a new moment in Italian cinema. We have obviously great directors. I would love to work with Matteo Garrone. I am really just in love with stories. The only reason for me to be involved in a project is to be engaged in the screenplay from the first moment. It can be complicated for me to become engaged in something.
HTN: Good call with Derek Cianfrance. The Place Beyond The Pines is one of my favorites. I am wondering what your opinion is. What is a film every aspiring actor should watch?
AB: That is a good question, very difficult. I have a movie that really changed my life. That is Raging Bull. For many different reasons. First of all I think that in Raging Bull, there is the greatest actor of all time, Robert De Niro. Without a doubt. I saw that movie for the first time 15 years ago. I didn’t even know that I wanted to be an actor one day. When I watched the film I immediately realized that this feeling it gave me, this thing, it was amazing. The sensation I had watching this film was one of the best of my life. Watching the story, listening to the story, getting really drawn into that, It was special. So Raging Bull is definitely one of them. At some point I was really in love with Interstellar. Christopher Nolan is another man I would love to work with. But, when I watched the movie again last year, I thought it was too long. Maybe 30 minutes too long. Right now I am waiting for Oppenheimer, which will be 4 hours long haha, but, it will probably be very good. Number one is Raging Bull. After that, something changed in my mind.
HTN: How old were you when you saw it?
AB: It was 15 years ago so I was 20 years old.
HTN: So did you know you wanted to be in film as a teenager?
AB: Absolutely not. It was really not planned. When I was 18 years old I was studying economics and I wanted to be a boxer.
HTN: Haha and then you watched Raging Bull.
AB: Exactly that was it. Then I met the person that is still my agent who completely changed my life, outside of a gym. He said, “Do you want to have an audition?” I said, “Alright, let’s try it.” I was so shy and so insecure. After that audition I understood, not that I was able to act because I was so bad, but, I understood, I was able to play with my emotions. It was a discovery for me.
HTN: And now here you are, delivering a masterful performance as Bruno.
AB: Thank you so much.
HTN: Do you have any other projects you are working on right now that you would like to mention?
AB: I just finished working on a series called Supersex. In that I play a very famous porn actor. It should be released on Netflix in December. It is going to be something huge I think. It was very challenging, completely different than anything I had done before. It was an opportunity to grow and deal with something new. In September I am going to start something new so everything is going to be great. For now I am taking some rest.
HTN: With television and film blurring so much these days, do you find a difference or have a preference in acting between one or the other?
AB: Yes, my dimension is cinema. When you have in front of you the whole process, you can be very precise. In series, it can be very difficult. For example, in the last series I did, Supersex, sometimes I was struggling with jumping from episode to episode. It is exactly the opposite of going chronologically. You always have the feeling you are missing something. Over time I was able to realize that the best way to do the series is to be free and not overthink it. Follow the flow, follow the story and you have to trust people. If you can trust the actors and the directors you are responsible for only 50%, the other 50% is on the other person. I have had some problems doing this because I am a manic control freak. I want to be a part of the whole process, but maybe sometimes, that is not the best way. You can become obsessed, and this is bad because I need to feel free. Being trusted and being able to trust people is the key.
HTN: That is all the questions I have for today. Thank you so much for your performance and for taking the time to speak with me. I am an aspiring filmmaker and this is the type of stuff that inspires me.
AB: Thank you Jack, I hope to see you again.
– Jack Schenker (@YUNGOCUPOTIS)