CAPTURING EMOTIONS. Pietro Valsecchi is an Italian film and television producer who founded the production company Taodue with Camilla Nesbitt. In 1995, he won the David di Donatello for Best Producer for his film Un eroe borghese (Ordinary Hero). In 2016, he won the Nastro d’argento for best producer, with Quo Vado?, Chiamatemi Francesco (Call Me Francesco) and Don’t Be Bad. Born in Crema in 1953, Valsecchi studied to become a theatre actor in Bologna and later settled in Rome.
Pietro Valsecchi, what is the origin of your passion for acting?
It was the result of bereavement. My mother died when I was nine. I used to go to the Cinema Nuovo in Crema, where I would lock myself in from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. In those days you could see two, three or four shows… It was wonderful! It was a great escape to see the actors, the beauty of life, and the exotic places. I imagined myself in that world and told myself that when I grew up I’d like to be in films, to be an actor, to play a lot of stories.
You did Drama, Art and Music Studies at DAMS in Bologna?
I went to DAMS and was hired by a theatre company in Bologna and then I came to Rome to present a play at the Teatro dei Sacri called The Memorable Experience of the Wise Will, a very Brechtian Chinese text. The screenwriter Sofia Scandurra told me that I had a beautiful face, that I should be a film actor and that I would be perfect for the role of Santino in the film she was preparing, Io sono mia, based on Dacia Maraini’s book Women at War. I went back to Bologna all excited and told my flatmates that I was going to Rome to be an actor in a film. Every twenty days I would call poor Sofia Scandurra and she would tell me, with great patience, “The film has been postponed a bit”. I didn’t understand the timing of the industry so I decided to take the bull by the horns and went to Rome.
I spent a wonderful Roman summer in the house of Lù Leone, a historical agent of what would become William Morris Agency and who would later work with another important agent, Carol Levi. There you could meet directors, scriptwriters and writers such as Marco Bellocchio, Dacia Maraini and Francesco Rosi and there I understood that cinema is something intangible: a production can jump, a film can be born today and produced a few years later… So the film did not start immediately, but I stayed in Rome and started my career with Sahara Cross, a film by “spaghetti western” director Tonino Valerii, with Franco Nero. The film did not make a penny, but from there I began my film career as an actor, until Bernardo Bertolucci produced Sconcerto Rock, a film about the protest years, shot entirely in Bologna and directed by Luciano Manuzzi. This film did not do very well either, but I ended my acting career with Andrzej Wajda and I played Saint-Just in The Danton Affair.
“I love art cinema.”
Pietro Valsecchi, you also did some theatre tours but then you had doubts about acting as a career?
I had a lot of crises, partly because I was already 27/28 years old and didn’t want to lose myself. I did not like the situation of having to be “chosen” as an actor. A childhood friend of mine, Franco Bergamaschi, had created L’Erbolario, a small workshop that has now become an internationally recognised herbalist brand with an extensive network of shops, and which gave me a living for at least two or three years. I didn’t want to do any more theatre tours; I wanted to change jobs.
What did you do?
I was assistant director to Marcello Aliprandi who was going to do a TV series with Roberto Minervini, I ragazzi della valle misteriosa. I remember picking up a little boy in my Fiat 1100 who was hitchhiking home. He was very cute, very beautiful; I stared at him intently, making him a little uncomfortable. He told me that his father was a stuntman and I invited him to audition, which he did. He was Kim Rossi Stuart. He always tells the story of how he started his career: hitchhiking and meeting Valsecchi. Aliprandi cast him as the lead of I ragazzi della valle misteriosa. Then his career took off, he played several roles in TV and cinema movies, and in 2022 he wrote, directed and starred in his last movie, Brado.
I became a producer. I bought the rights to Mery per sempre (Forever Mary), which was a great success, and from there I realised there was a new world, the world of production. I love art cinema. I grew up with Francesco Rosi, Elio Petri, Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini, all of the greatest, so I was very influenced by strong cinema, art cinema, and civil denunciation. I wanted to bring back that kind of cinema.
You were a producer-investor?
Executive producer. From that film I started my own company and created my own editorial line. The first film I produced on my own was Marco Bellocchio’s La condanna (The Conviction). Unfortunately, the title was not very apt because it was an economic condemnation against me. But I learned how to be a producer.
Film producers have ups and downs. It’s not a normal industry.
At that time we were gambling. Camilla, my wife, had guaranteed the film with promissory notes, but eventually we managed to almost break even because we worked so hard. Later my film Un eroe borghese (Ordinary Hero) was nominated for the David di Donatello. Silvio Clementelli, historical producer of “neorealismo italiano”, liked the film very much and fought to get me the Best Producer award, and I managed to get the David.
You also went into television?
It was Camilla, with whom I have shared a very long journey, who had the intuition. We went to see Bernasconi, who interceded with the producer Riccardo Tozzi, who was at Mediaset at the time, to get me to do the two-episode film, starring Raoul Bova, which had 11 million viewers. At that point we fell in love with television and we decided to make Ultimo 2 – La Sfida. From there I started a very long journey inventing a new language for television. The first TV series we made, 26 episodes of 50 minutes each, was Distretto di Polizia.
You cast Italian actors in the series?
Absolutely, but above all I invented a new way of making television, with a protagonist who goes through an entire series. While the Americans made series that ended in 50 minutes, I created a horizontal story of the protagonist who starts his drama in the first episode and continues until the last. I managed to achieve a great result.
“I love people who have made an extraordinary journey.”
Pietro Valsecchi, did you also write scripts?
I wrote all the themes of my series and I correct some dialogue now and then, but mostly I make up the stories. I’ve done a whole series of films about the Mafia, from Paolo Borsellino, to the Boss of Bosses Totò Riina, and Libero Grassi, an Italian entrepreneur who stood against Mafia extortion.
Has the Mafia ever bothered you?
Yes, once. When I was making Il capo dei capi, which is the story of Riina, it came out that he did not really like the way we treated his wife, Ninetta Bagarella, in the film. I was very angry because I wondered how a man who was in the harsh 41-bis prison regime could externalise this idea of his. In the end, things went on, nothing happened.
Were you scared?
Camilla was. For a while we didn’t go to Sicily and Pantelleria and we took refuge on another island. We were fine. Anyway, it’s all in the past now. I also found out that Riina had liked Claudio Gioè‘s performance. Now I am going back to making films about the Mafia.
How do you make films about the Mafia?
I am working on a series called Cosa Nostra, and it is really the story of the Cosa Nostra: on one side there is the ostracism of the Mafia; on the other side there is Bernardo Provenzano, who thinks about dialogue with politics; then there is Tommaso Buscetta, who thinks that you should not kill with the Mafia, but do big business. Buscetta was born distributing smuggled cigarettes; he became the king of smuggling and wanted to do it all over the world. On the other hand, Riina said he wanted to take Palermo, Sicily, Italy. They have two contrasting visions of how to conceive the business and inside this container is the whole Mafia world.
Do you need to do a lot of research?
Absolutely. With journalists, prosecutors, judges. Now I am also working on Matteo Messina Denaro. It is still early, but I have an idea for a story. When you write subjects, you first have to understand what the audience wants. If I sell you an emotion and surprise you, you stick with it; if I bore you, you change the channel, so I always try to get you excited by what you see.
You also did the Pope?
I love people who have made an extraordinary journey. I made two wonderful films about Pope Wojtyla; they are still beautiful when you look at them today. I made a film about Pope Bergoglio, who enchanted us all a little bit. Nobody knew where he came from and what he had done so I went to Argentina with Daniele Luchetti to collect all the testimonies: from the Jesuits, from the schools he attended, from his classmates, from people who met him. When we finished the film, a monsignor from the Vatican called us and told us that they knew about the film. The Pope told us that he would like to have a preview at the Vatican, but he would personally issue the invitations. The guests were all the beggars of Rome; there was a huge queue of poor people on the margins of society. At the end of the film, everyone cried. It was a beautiful emotion.
How do you go from one subject to another?
I wanted to return to cinema and to find a strong story, something we often talked about in the family. I wanted to find something new. Children are sponges and my son told me that I should get Checco Zalone, who made him laugh so much. It was a big intuition and Zalone with Quo Vado? became the biggest box-office success in the history of Italian cinema. His other four films also broke important records.
“Culture soothes the soul.”
Pietro Valsecchi, you’re also an art collector?
Camilla and I have a long relationship with modern art. There’s this whole world that we came up against in the 1970s, the strength and the great expression that was there in music, in art, in cinema. There was a great enthusiasm for life; it seemed that the revolution was knocking at the door from an artistic point of view as well, so we started down this road and slowly became serious collectors.
Your collection is mainly Italian, but also international?
I don’t think I’m going to make a museum out of it. My children are very attached to art and they are slowly getting to grips with it. They also have their favourite contemporary artists, both Italian and foreign, that they buy. I know that this collection will have a future even after we are gone.
How else do you spend your time?
I love cooking, I love wine. Every day I call my fishermen and my suppliers who come from the countryside to know what they are bringing. I personally go to the market to pick things. I really enjoy it.
What are your specialities?
Fish, tuna, risotto. My children do a lot of cooking too. They love the Lombardy cuisine, such as tortelli cremaschi, made with amaretto and spices. Crema was under Venice so it’s an influence from the Turks, who brought spices. These tortelli are very good. We eat them at Christmas.
Do you love wine?
I have a big cellar. I love Tuscany, Piedmont, Burgundy and Bordeaux, the Loire and Alsace; basically I love red wines. For me, wine is just red. The other day I tasted a great wine, Almaviva Philippe de Rothschild. Made in Chile, it is an extraordinary wine with an incredible bouquet. I love Bordeaux and Barolo; there are wonderful Barolo wines.
What do you drink with tortelli cremaschi?
You need a Barbaresco. I am frightened by the world’s ignorance of wine. A friend of mine, Nino di Costanzo, who is a great cook, told me that he cooked for a producer in New York, one of the ten richest men in the world. It was a dinner with eighteen people at the table and he opened eighteen bottles of Romanée-Conti. The bottles were tasted, nothing more; and the waiters, all Italians, drank them after dinner. That tells you the difference. Even when I had no money I always drank very good Nebbiolos from Piedmont.
Have you loved your life?
Yes, very much, especially because I found a wonderful woman who is my wife. Without my wife, my life would not have been so joyful and bright. Camilla is a very brave, tenacious, intelligent, prepared, scientific woman. She goes deep into problems, she tackles them to the core; she is thoughtful in the things she does and, above all, she is a great mother. She is a very great woman; I could never live without my wife. She is the real leader of the whole family.
With your knowledge of France, is there a big difference between French films or TV series and Italian ones?
The French have many more economic advantages than we do in Italy, so they don’t worry about how much they spend because they know they are muffled in a system. We have to deal with banks and platforms that have made the producer more of a worker and less of an entrepreneur. It used to be that you took the risks yourself. Now you have to give everything to platforms that work with algorithms that decide whether a film is good or not.
Where is the entertainment world heading?
It depends on how we deal with artificial intelligence, which can easily replace us creators and is becoming very worrying. There are programs which can perfectly replay human faces and voices and use them to create fake videos. It erases history and creates a new way of making history, unless we can ethically set stakes.
People go to the cinema much less now.
Yes, but you can’t close cinemas because you would start a process of desertification of cities. They are cultural institutions; if you close cinemas, theatres and bookshops, the city is empty. You go out to eat, but then what? If you create cultural centres they become meeting places for young people and a shield against crime. If you sit and listen to the thoughts of a poet it can soothe your soul. Culture soothes the soul.
At the moment culture is no longer fashionable.
Unfortunately, it is not. Everything changes, but the real problem is that you have to know where you come from, who you are and where you are going. If you don’t know where you come from, you don’t know anything. We cannot delegate our history to artificial intelligence.
Thank you for this interview, which ends on this sad note, but which is also a call to fight to defend our life story.
I want to create some historical memories in Italy. I’m making a film about Mario Schifano, a great artist who had an incredible path, but in the end they couldn’t bend an artist like him. He produced extraordinary works. He’s really our Andy Warhol, so he deserves a great film. Another film I am starting work on is about the blues musician Pino Daniele, who, starting from the eighties, innovated iIalian music. In two years it will be ten years since his death, and Pino’s is a wonderful story.
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