Open Roads 2023 Interview: Monica Dugo on Coming Out of Her Shell as a Filmmaker in “Like Turtles”

It does seem questionable why the family in “Like Turtles” all shares an adjoining wardrobe in the bedroom of Lisa (Monica Dugo) and Daniele (Angelo Libre), though as their teenage daughter Sveva (Romana Maggiora Vergano) notes, “It unites us more than the dinner table.” Minus the inconvenience of having to walk in any time she needs to fetch some clothes, it is less so than what Sveva imagines might happen if her parents’ marriage starts to fray, a distinct possibility when Daniele tells her one day that he needs an indefinite break and leaves just a note for his wife to announce his departure. The absence may not be much of a disruption when the family has become used to his being away attending medical conferences, making it easy to pretend for their seven-year-old son Paolo that nothing is amiss, but it has a profound effect on Lisa, who disappears like Daniele has, though she doesn’t leave home, tucking herself into the wardrobe with no immediate plans to leave.

Dugo places herself in a box both literally and figuratively in her role in front of the camera as Lisa and behind it for her directorial debut, but is constantly thinking outside of it in putting together the mischievous family dramedy where the estrangement of Lisa and Daniele puts Sveva in the untenable position of feeling like the only adult around, though she thought she had at least a year or two before taking on such responsibilities. The novelty of being able to invite friends over for parties at her boyfriend’s request wears off quickly, and instead she is left trying to lure her mother out of the closet to talk to somebody about her problems and keeping up a losing game against her father who still meets her to play tennis, but refuses to come back to the house. A multi-level walkup becomes a reflection of the family’s separation with Sveva often having to resort to the roof for fresh air, and Dugo employs the absurdity of the situation to get at emotions that would usually be kept more to the vest, wringing laughs from Lisa making demands of others from the wardrobe, but also conveying how the walls have been closing in.

As an actress, Dugo has long been able to do a lot with a little in terms of expressing emotion and with a small grant from the Venice Film Festival’s Biennale College Cinema, she was able to pull off such a feat with her first feature, returning triumphantly to the festival last fall with the delicate delight and “Like Turtles” has made its way to the U.S. this week as part of the series Open Roads: New Italian Cinema at Film at Lincoln Center where she was kind enough to talk about how the film came together, landing her unflappable lead Vergano and why the film may feel like it hits home for so many.

How did this come about?

Unfortunately, I found in my life one day an empty closet and that image [stayed] in my mind for a long time, and I remember that I opened the door, I closed the door, I opened the door, and I wasn’t able to put anything inside it. The only thing that I wanted to put inside was me, so I started from there to think what can happen if really a woman goes in a closet, what can happen? And from the original idea to the entire film, it took one year from the three lines of idea to the script to production.

You’re able to convey a big story about the entire family within this one house. Was it interesting to think about in terms of using a single location?

You have to know that my budget was so limited, so I had to use what I have and that’s my house. I wrote the film there, and I knew I can show this corner, this is the window, this is the closet that I have, so I have to use this closet. The only thing that I built was a fake closet when I shot [my scenes] inside the closet with the [breakaway] walls, but I had the crew for three weeks in my house totally immersed in this work. It was a crazy idea to do everything, but I could do that with the [limited] money and time that I had.

Romana seems like a real find to help carry the film. How did you come to cast her?

[She was a] wonderful actress that I saw in a [play] and I was impressed by her talent, and this was my chance was to involve good actors [because] everybody read the script and said “Yes, I’ll come with you for a [little] money.” [laughs] Fortunately [everybody] liked the script, and [Romana]’s 24 and she [could play] 17 it’s incredible how she transforms herself. I love her.

Was there anything that you wanted to do for your actors as far as preparation that you might’ve wanted from a director yourself?

We did three weeks of rehearsals with Romana, and with the director of photography, but on the set, everything changed. I dedicated all my time to the other [actors]. Sometimes when I was on the set [in my scenes], I just say, “Okay, this is okay.” I didn’t have the time to watch it. I trust my director of photography. This is my only regret about the movie. Maybe I dedicated all my time to the others and I don’t care about [myself], but maybe I could have been better. But it’s okay like that.

It came out great. Were there any surprises that made it into the film that you now really like about the film?

Not so much because we didn’t have the time to have surprises. The surprise was to be able to finish the [schedule] every day. When we did it, oh my God! [laughs] When we shot the outside scenes, [we had] one day we had to shoot 14 scenes and we [ended up] missing two, but that was a goal. But [now with the film out] in the world, it is really a surprise because it’s a local story, but everybody recognizes us. In Italy, the film will be in theatres in August, but [people around the world say] “That’s me, I wanted to be that woman. I didn’t have the courage to do it and now maybe I need a break.” So this is a beautiful thing I feel from the audience. It’s a story about a typical family located in Rome, [and] for everybody [across] every social class — who is rich or who is poor — that the pain is common. I didn’t think about this when I wrote, but [that universality] makes me happy.

“Like Turtles” will screen in New York at Film at Lincoln Center’s “Open Roads: New Italian Cinema” on June 4th at 5:30 pm.

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