Interview with writer Francesco Piotti

I was born in Florence in November 1975 and artistically grew up in Bologna, where I graduated at the D.a.m.s. Cinema. It’s there that I began to gain experience as a theater and film director. In independent theaters and sets, which the lively artistic panorama of that city was able to offer at the turn of the 2000s, I made first steps towards my career. For the theatre I directed five plays, the latest of which, My Big Gay Italian Wedding written by Antony J. Wilkinson, was staged in Los Angeles and across the West Coast. Since 2019 I’m based in Berlin. I directed several music videos and a short documentary and worked as assistant director for films and short movies. I am also writing screenplays for short movies and Serie projects. Van Girl_s is one of my last screenplays looking for a producer to be realized.

  • What is the first story you ever wrote?

When I was a child, I really loved to play invented stories. I had a friend with a garage and we spent hours and hours, playing like fishermen looking for sharks or sea monsters, or like space boys fighting against aliens. I’m sure, I wrote some of those adventures somewhere…maybe these scrips are still inside some old trunk, together with a map of the treasure hunt.

  • Growing up, what movies or stories inspired your creative passion?

The first film I saw as a teenager was “The purple rose of Cairo” and this film really changed my attitude towards watching movies, I loved it. But I was too young and I didn’t care about who made that film. It was years later, when I saw “Manhattan” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors” – for me two Masterpieces – that I discovered that all these three films were made by the same director and screenwriter: Woody Allen. Since then, I haven’t been missing a single Woody Allen movie. Later I studied cinema at the University and I came to love a lot of different directors: François Truffaut, Federico Fellini, Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick. But if you ask me to be sincere, Woody Allen’s movies are still my main inspiration. I really prefer stories which can
make you smile, think and move your heart.

  • For an unknown writer, what is the best way to get their screenplay seen?

Oh, I’m still an unknown writer, so…if someone out there have some suggestions for me, I’d be really glad! I think that first of all, you need to trust yourself, sometimes we are our own worse critics and we leave our stories in a drawer, like I did for a long time. Then I started to send my screenplays to festivals, and when you see that your job is not that bad, then you are ready to fight and if you fight, your screenplay will be definitely seen. Then, finding an Agent, it’s also not bad, but it’s a process, I think.

  • What experiences from your life influence your characters?

I’m definitely not an autobiographic screenwriter. I deeply love to create female characters for example. In Van Girl_s – my short script that won in your festival, the two protagonists are also women. I find it more stimulating to create characters far from who I’m. I can discover more things about the world and also about myself and I feel more confident to show their downsides without judging them. If you speak about yourself maybe you don’t want to appear like a monster and your writing might be more auto censored. Of course, I have attitudes, experiences, visions that I use to build my characters, it’s me writing, not someone else, but it’s more related to my personal taste, to what I like to speak about, to what I see around me, then about what happened to me.

  • Can you explain your character development process?

An example: few years ago, I was watching a lot of YouTube channels, cooking channels, travel blogger channels and I couldn’t stop watching a girl proudly exhibiting her fancy “Van Life”. Her videos could be considered really superficial, she was sharing her experiences, places that she was visiting and making stupid tutorials like “how to have a shower in a van”. She had millions of viewers though! A new world opened before my boomer eyes. I started wondering about her character, who she was, why she was doing this, her goals, her frustrations, ambitions etc. Then I built a story based on this YouTube character and created a second character who was completely different from her, her point of view, her philosophy. Van Girl_s is born in this way. Then of course you need to know your characters, more than a real friend, and at a certain point
they decide for themselves what they are doing and how they are doing something, you can’t force them to follow your path anymore. If you force them, the story doesn’t work. When you know your characters, it’s like writing the story together with them.

  • Do you write bios before you start writing?

A good screenwriter should always write bios of the characters, it’s a great tool, a map that you can always turn to when something is not clear. So, I should definitely use bios and I do, especially at the beginning of the process, but not always to tell you the truth. I mean, bios are really important, I know, they are useful to build the base of the character, past, trauma, skills, downsides, scars etc. But after that, I think bios are not enough anymore. You need to empathize with your character, you need to feel it, feel the soul, and when this happens, it means you truly own your character, and this is much better than any bio you could have written previously.

  • How emotionally involved are you with the characters you create?

Italian culture tends to prefer good characters with small flaws but big hearts. At the end of the story, you feel reassured and full of good feelings. I also grew up with this influence, but since I moved to Berlin, I have realized that I prefer to build controversial characters. It is more exciting for me to speak about people who also do very questionable things. I try to understand them, to think from their point of view and I always find in them some right, some reasons, some visions of life, that are sometimes more open than mine. When my partner reads the bios of my characters, or the first drafts of my stories, she often polarizes my characters, she asks “but why does she do this, she’s wrong!” And I find myself defending my protagonists as if they were real friends. These are actually very useful discussions for me, because every time I take my characters’ sides, I find out even more about their point of view, I get to know them better and better, and of course I also figure out how to correct what I’ve written, because nine times out of ten, if the reader doesn’t understand it correctly, it’s not his or her fault, it’s the writer’s fault. It is an exercise that I recommend to everyone.

  • What are your thoughts on structure?

Structure, for me, is the box that contains the narration, and because a story is made out of so many different and interrelated elements, it would be impossible to bring them all home without a good box. Without structure, our story would have neither head nor tail. However, if at the beginning of my adventure as a screenwriter, the structure was the most important thing and I often sacrificed ideas, events or behaviors of the characters in order to comply with the structure, I had decided on, today the structure remains in the background. I am more flexible now; my focus is on the characters and I think my writing has improved a lot since I changed my mindset.

  • Do you outline before you start writing?

Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. It depends on the creative process. I don’t have just one way of creating stories. Sometimes I use colored post-it notes, stick them on the door of the room and try to describe events, actions and reactions in two sentences each. One event, one post-it, character reaction, another post-it, and so on. It’s helpful to see your whole story in a few sentences and see where the weak points might be. But sometimes I like to start writing character journals like a stream of consciousness, so that I have more material about the character than the decided pattern of events. Each story has different needs, so I use different tools before I get to the actual writing. Now for example, I’m working together with two other screenwriters, one other Italian, and an American on a new project, and before writing the script we spent days and days, hours and hours discussing, talking about the theme we wanted to deal with, our points of view, the point of view of the characters, what we wanted to say, very often forgetting even to take notes. We spent months like that, but now that we’ve started writing the script, it’s as if we had ten outlines behind us, and in just a few weeks, we’ve already completed the first draft.

  • What is the most important aspect of building a great character?

From this point of view, I am a very classical screenwriter and I always try to answer these two eternal questions: what does the character want? what would heshe really need? But then a great character is also made up of details, little things, attitudes, vices, ways of doing things that make him her specific, out of stereotypes and therefore real. But spending hours in front of the computer, locked in your room or office, are not enough. You have to go out amongst people and observe, imagine and study the small gestures and spleens of real people. And, or even better, fish from one’s own past, from what we or our close friends used to do in certain situations. Actions speak louder than words and it is how things are done, that tells us best about the character and these details make the difference between an ordinary character and a great one, the one that can thrill us.