Interview: Vanessa Kirby and Adam Leon on the Experiment of Italian Studies

Kirby and Leon discuss the roots of their partnership and how they navigated the portrayal of the main character’s sudden amnesia.

Vanessa Kirby and Adam Leon on Surrendering to Experimentation in Italian Studies
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Over the course of her young career, Vanessa Kirby has delivered memorable supporting turns within the expansive worlds created in projects as disparate as Netflix’s historical drama The Crown and big-screen sequels in the Mission: Impossible and Fast & Furious franchises. And while her Oscar-nominated performance in Kornél Mundruczó’s Pieces of a Woman clearly marked a turning point in her career, it was actually Italian Studies that gave the actress her first opportunity to be at the center of a film.

Adam Leon’s latest began production back in mid-2018, proceeding in brief spurts over the course of several months, with the filmmaker frequently introducing unpredictable elements into scenes. The unconventional shooting schedule and style proved an essential element to creating an impressionistic portrait of a city and Alina, Kirby’s amnesiac main character.

Kirby and Leon, from their respective positions, hold onto the core of Alina with remarkable consistency throughout Italian Studies. This collaboration delivers a film with a more mystical quality than Leon’s two previous New York-set adventures—Gimme the Loot and Tramps—a vision of the city that actively forges rather than merely reveals individual identity.

I spoke with Kirby and Leon days before the theatrical and on-demand release of Italian Studies. The collaborators discussed the roots of their partnership, how they navigated the portrayal of the main character’s sudden amnesia, and why Kirby feels like Alina functions as a secondary character reflecting the adolescent energy in the film.

Vanessa, I read you refer to Adam as “the best New York film director.” What is it about his approach to the city that you find so special?

Vanessa Kirby: I was just thinking this morning about how Adam’s movies are like the soul of New York. He described this one as almost like a pre-pandemic artifact of New York, because the world has changed so significantly. We started it in 2018, so it’s like a time capsule in a way. Life is so different now. So, yeah, I loved his movies, and it was sort of natural in a way that it would be about New York. We talked about Lost in Translation and how cities become one being, essentially, and how you would look at the nature of an urban jungle through the eyes of somebody who’s never been in one before. What would it look like to really look at the environment we built as new and how that environment shapes our identity and our sense of selves? What are the things that form that? Is that elusive, and is it getting stranger as we go?

Adam Leon: We’d been talking for a while about trying to do something together. She really wanted to be thrown out into the streets.

VK: Wait, wait, wait, I don’t think I ever said that! I don’t think I said to throw me out into the street. Remember—

AL: This is our bit, by the way. This is what we’ll be doing.


VK: But I was in New York for a period of a few days. And I was like, “Maybe we can make a short film. Are you around? Are you free?” I’d always loved his work so much for being so open and non-prescriptive. How can we go on a journey together with these very sporadic, non-planned dates and actually surrender to that in some ways? It’s the opposite of most filmmaking, which has to be on a [very strict time] schedule. Adam was very open, like, “Okay, we have a few days to shoot this, what can we explore and discover in the moment?” I don’t know if I was courageous enough to say, “Throw me out to the street.”

AL: See, I think you did. No matter what, you truly embraced that right away. One of the amazing things about Vanessa is that she’s always looking to push and isn’t afraid to fail in order to succeed. That’s something that was very inspiring in the prep of it, and then also just immediately, on the first day, how much you did want to keep going. You welcomed challenges.

VK: Because there wasn’t a script, was there? It was just kind of discovered. So that was definitely an unknown quality. But it was part of the journey. Adam was always like, “This is an experiment, and how rare is that in filmmaking? To truly have the freedom to experiment.” That, I think, is more courageous for you rather than me.

AL: [deadpan] Well, we’re both very brave, let’s just say that. But, yes, I do think we had this unique gift, in part because of the scheduling and in part because of the nature of the story that we were telling. [Through] our partners, we really were encouraged to go and try things. And that was awesome. I don’t know what I learned, necessarily, but it was such a freeing and exhilarating experience. I loved making this movie! I think I take a lot of it with me into the next things that I’m working on, even if the process is very different on these other projects.

How do you strike the balance between the specificity of Alina suffering from amnesia and a more general feeling of just what it feels like to wander the streets of New York?

AL: I think our approach was to ask: “What’s the story, and what’s the character experiencing? What’s the emotional state?” I think that that can be true for graffiti writers in New York or someone who’s lost their memory. And hopefully, in taking that approach, you have a universal connection in terms of the human experience. I think, for Vanessa, it was important to have a grounding of research into the specifics of that. But once we were shooting, it was really about the character, the situation, and being reactive to the environment around us.

VK: Yeah, I wanted to get very scientific because I sort of do get forensic about it. And I remember Adam at one point being like, “You don’t need to do that because this is an experiment in identity. It’s not actually an experiment in a literal, diagnosable psychological state.” I found that quite tricky, because that did require trust and surrender when you don’t have themes and you can’t be prescriptive on scenes that you have. That was tricky for me, as I’m quite self-disciplined maybe to my detriment sometimes. That was hard to give over to.

Vanessa Kirby and Adam Leon on Surrendering to Experimentation in Italian Studies
A scene from Adam Leon’s Italian Studies. © Magnolia Pictures.

But I think that the soul of this film is fundamentally those teenagers. Their energy is much more present, I find, than most adults. I’ve never been ingratiated in a group like that. I haven’t been a teenager for a while. To be with them when they’re in that state—and we all remember that fluid, mercurial state where your sense of who you are is being formed—I think that’s really what the movie reflects. I feel like a secondary character, quite frankly, to that energy. I was in awe of it. I was in honor of it. And I was really proud that Adam and the film wanted to put those teenagers on screen when you don’t really get a look at that.

You might get a mode, or a film about teenagers for teenagers, as opposed to the real people who are growing up in a city like that, in a day like this, pre-pandemic, trying to find who they are. At what point does that become definitive? “This is who I am, this is my name, this is what I do, and this is how I interact based on that.” Whereas Italian Studies felt like one ode to adolescence and the formation of a sense of self. I know Alina’s extremely elusive and kind of transparent, and I think Adam was always encouraging me to do that rather than to play a state of mind. Because, in a way, she’s the reflective glass on a group of people who are growing up and forming who they are in this quite mad world.


With the film shot in such a guerilla style, how aware would you be made of camera placement or movement? Was there choreography behind the spontaneity?

VK: Not really…maybe minor, but Adam kept being like, “I want you to forget where the camera is!” I’m trained, generally, on film to try and forget the camera emotionally. But physically, in the space, you can’t go out of the frame. You can’t just go over to a place that’s not lit. It was quite a new thing for me. I had just been doing a play, so I was coming off the stage, where you can roam freely. But I never really had permission to just wander [on screen] and someone say, “Today, I want you to be discovering this.” Or, “Today, I might throw the kids in here.” That, for me, was an unnerving and formative experience because it was unrestrictive. And I think the nature of the film is not supposed to be prescriptive in any way to anybody.

Adam and I saw Milos Forman’s Taking Off in the cinema. I remember being like, “But what is it about?!” He’s like, “That’s not the point! The point is these people are emerging and moving through time, space, and reality trying to find the essence of the moment.” That really was his intention. Truly, the main thing was just feeling honored to share space with a group of people that I wouldn’t have the privilege of sharing space with. And, to be honest, I felt they knew far more about life and the world than I did. It was a very humbling experience, and I still think they are extraordinary. I actually felt very intimidated by them. My adult self, I realized, was stricter and more rigid way of relating or being than them. I think that’s Alina’s journey, really. I was honored that I got to learn that with her while trying to lose myself.

François Truffaut once said, “The film is the critique of the script, and the editing is the critique of the shooting.” Given its piecemeal shooting style, do you feel that the film broke that feedback cycle a bit by giving you time and space to calibrate throughout?

AL: Practically, in some ways, but fundamentally, no. I would say we did have a script—a dialogue-less script, except for one or two scenes. Then, yes, we beat that up during the initial production, which was a few days. We had a month off before we were shooting again. We went into the edit room where we are doing that process to the footage that we had. And then we have this extra advantage of being critics. I love doing additional photography, and I’ve done it on my previous movies and have budgeted for it. I think it’s a really important thing, at least for me in my process. What I loved about this process was that it was basically all additional photography. You really do have the ability to go through what Truffaut talks about, but we went through it three times. We went through it from the July 4 shoot to the later summer shoot, and then we had this really long gap before the winter shoot where we did a pretty intense edit. We readjusted the script and brought out characters. In some ways, we got to make the movie three times with those three processes—script, production, and editing—each time. It was long and intense, but I also found it really exciting and fun.

I was surprised to learn that you shot it that way because it feels so coherent throughout. It feels like it could have been shot in a single day.

AL: I looked at our 35-page script and lookbook when we were picture locked on the movie, and I almost want to share these documents with people. It is really surprisingly exactly the movie that we have. The London stuff wasn’t necessarily going to be a bookend, but it’s closer [to early visions] maybe than the other movies that I’ve made. In between, there was a lot of stuff that we were adding, taking away, and playing with. But it ended up being pretty true to what we thought we were going to make, even though we were very much embracing the idea that we might end up going somewhere quite different.

Marshall Shaffer

Marshall Shaffer is a New York-based film journalist. His interviews, reviews, and other commentary on film also appear regularly in Slashfilm, Decider, and Little White Lies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Previous Story

The Whaler Boy Review: A Lyrical Rumination on the Border Between Fantasy and Reality

Next Story

Scream Review: A Requel that Cleverly and Tiresomely Skewers Fandom