A surprising amount of time passes in “Salvatore: Shoemaker of Dreams” before realizing that you have barely seen the face of its subject Salvatore Ferragamo or even much of the footwear that has made his name an enduring luxury brand well over a century after he first started as a humble cobbler in Naples, having moved from the countryside in Bonito were farmers and couldn’t understand his passion for a profession so looked down upon in every respect. In Luca Guadagnino’s spirited biography, looking up is a bit of a fool’s errand when there’s so much to be admired in not only Ferragamo’s handiwork with the shoes that continue to be handmade to this day and the way that he built an aspirational association with his name, but the craft that goes into evoking such a rich and fascinating life, returning to the designer’s old stomping grounds where the streets may feel a little emptier after his passing yet come alive with the sounds he once heard himself as he passed through them.
“Salvatore: Shoemaker of Dreams” describes a man who wasn’t only interested in ornamentation but comfort, going so far as to studying physiology at USC to get more precise measurements after moving abroad to Santa Barbara, California where his talents could be appreciated in the burgeoning film industry in the 1910s. It was but one of many businesses he would put on the proper footing, lacing up Pola Negri, Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish in heels before innovating the style completely with a cork base when leather became unaffordable and developing a leg brace when his was shattered in a car accident that took his brother’s life. His vast array of innovations leads to a number of admirers to speak to his influence, ranging from the more expected likes of fellow designers Manolo Blahnik and Christian Louboutin to no less enthusiastic yet surprising voices such as Martin Scorsese and engineering historian Emily Mayhew and Martin Scorsese, and Guadagnino even finds a novel way to have Ferragamo speak for himself, inviting Michael Stuhlbarg to read passages from his memoir while drawing on original recordings of interviews for the book.
The result is every bit as elegant and dazzling as one of Ferragamo’s creations while being clearly of Guadagnino’s singular vision as well, making the process of shoemaking seem as exciting as winter turning to spring and on the eve of a busy fall for the director, who will have both “Salvatore” and the Timothee Chalamet-Taylor Russell romance “Bones and All” in theaters, he spoke about what got him so revved up to tell the story of a fellow artist and countryman in Ferragamo, bringing his initimable style to a nonfiction film and how he stays inspired.
How did this come about?
I’m a curious person, and I read the book, “The Shoemaker of Dreams” that Salvatore Ferragamo co-wrote with this ghostwriter in the ’50s. I found his life story and idea of self and the way in which he became one of the greatest creator of icons of the first part of the 20th century really compelling. He also had this exhaustible energy that carried him from the age of five all the way until he passed away to make things, to invent things, to forge forms, and to belong to the building of a community like Hollywood, to create this idea of made in Italy that was completely created.
It struck me that there might be a kinship there, having moved back and forth between Italy and Hollywood yourself. Was that a way in for you to this story?
To be candid, it must have been quite lonely for him to go from Italy in ‘10 to Hollywood and then finding a new way and a new life and a new relationships, and constantly be determined never to lose sight of his goals, so this loneliness and this solitude I kind of share. And I knew that he was really part of the beginning of Hollywood. He was someone who landed in Santa Barbara when Hollywood was created and participated to that creation, so that was one thing that I was really adamant about telling the story of, and that’s why we planned on meeting so many wonderfully stories of Hollywood film critics, filmmakers, and we focus so strongly on that.
You also attend this full family reunion in 2018. Was that something that was convened for this film, or something you found out about and could latch onto?
No, I’d been asking them, “Can you tell me if you do things like that? What kind of family gathering could you give me access to?” And they told me that they were doing a yearly family meeting to discuss the prosperity of the business and the future ahead and they said to me, “You can come up until a certain moment of the meeting. And then they gave me an hour or so,” and then they said, You have to go now. And I laugh it, but we spoke to them not only that day, but many times during the months and months and months of filming. I spent almost one-and-a-half years in and out filming this movie and approaching them constantly, trying to sort their voices out as much as they could.
Was there anything that happened along the way that changed your ideas of what this story was?
I learned a lot about Hollywood more than I knew – I learned a lot about the fact that for instance, not only he was a shoemaker and creator of fashion, but also he was an inventor. He created the things like the brace to fix the broken foot and things like that. I discovered a lot of things that I didn’t know he was able and eager to do.
What was it was like getting your hands on those eight-millimeter home movies that he made of his family?
Fantastic, right? It’s beautiful and not the first time I worked on archival footage, but it’s always a great thrill to discover a point of view in the footage shot by someone else. Everything has a point of view, even if it’s a bad point of view in this case was a very tender point of view.
That’s such an interesting observation when you have Ferragamo’s memoirs and even passages that he reads in his own voice, which is complimented by Michael Stuhlbarg where it isn’t available. I wonder what’s it like to honor how he might see himself versus what you see and what was it like to convey his voice throughout?
You may have an idea of how you want to see something through the lens of a camera, and then somebody can marble along and show you what they would do and you realize that your point of view is just your point of view, a subjective point of view, and I am fighting constantly with myself about thinking that my point of view is an objective point of view, and it might be a real objective for me, but it’s not. So it’s interesting and refreshing to discover more.
And I wanted to it to be captivating, [for] you to fall in love with Salvatore, and Stuhlbarg in particular is my friend – and one of the greatest actors, and he has been wonderfully [generous] with me through my work from “Call Me By Your Name,” through “Bones and All” and hopefully more, so it was very intimate gesture to have Michael to play the voice of Salvatore for me.
Besides that glorious voice of his, an extraordinary part of the film is how these places where Ferragamo once stepped foot come alive again with the sounds you hear in those locations. How did that idea come about?
That’s mostly the great work of my editor Walter Fasano, who always has a very nice way into evocation through sound and the way in which sound and editing works together. Again, cinema gives you the possibility of multiple times, multiple places, multiple emotions happening at the same time. It’s one of the things that I love about the form that we tried to explore as well in the documentary form.
A nice carryover from your narrative work is the careful deployment of the spirited orchestration of John Adams. Did you know on those days shooting inside the workshop that you’d use his music?
I listen to John Adams constantly and I feel like the sound of his music is somehow bound to my soul and friend to my life, so definitely I have been thinking of John Adams as well while working on this project.
You talk to people in so many different realms, all seemingly touched by his creativity. Did it evolve into being as much about that ingenuity as the man himself?
I think Ferragamo is creativity, and it’s implied that if you talk about, then you have to talk at about the larger sense of craftsmanship, creativity, and invention, so it was quite organic to go from him to that and to hold hands with so many beautiful people to go through this journey.
You’ve managed to stay quite creative yourself, even in these recent years that might’ve seemed to discourage such pursuits. Has it been easy?
Well, I like to work. I treasure working. I treasure collaboration. I treasure finding things to say and new ways of saying them, so I’m up for the challenge every day.
“Salvatore: Shoemaker of Dreams” opens on November 4th in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal and New York at the Angelika Film Center before expanding in the weeks to come nationally. A full list of theaters and dates is here.