Critically acclaimed filmmaker Adam Leon’s Italian Studies depicts a London woman suddenly losing her memory while visiting New York City. Vanessa Kirby (Pieces of a Woman) plays Alina Reynolds, who walks into a shop on a regular day and walks out suddenly disoriented and directionless into the hectic streets, even leaving her dog behind tied to a pole. She has no idea what her name is or who she is and experiences the city through new eyes, wandering, confused and alone.
Alina is befriended by a teenage boy named Simon (Simon Brickner), who brings her into his world of precocious city teenagers. Documentary-style interviews with Simon’s friends about love, relationships and life are interspersed with Alina, in a daze, attending parties, sleeping in stairwells, and experiencing the occasional flashback while exploring the surreal-feeling world around her. Cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz masterfully captures the chaotic nature of the city from the eyes of someone in a fugue state. Italian Studies feels more experimental than linear in its storytelling, as we experience Alina’s increased desperation to cling to any knowledge of her identity. Eventually, she is given a clue as to what her name is and learns she is the author of a short story collection called Italian Studies, after being recognized by a fan of her work on the street. Alina locates her book in the library, reading with excitement and surprise as she attempts to reclaim her identity and find her way back home.
I spoke to Leon about his choice to locate his third film in New York, the city he grew up in. We also discussed why he felt the inclusion of teenagers was important in Alina’s journey and why he chose not to show New York City through a romanticized lens but as a place of sensory overload.
Risa Sarachan: Italian Studies has such a fascinating premise. What inspired it?
Adam Leon: I had explored the idea of a story about a woman losing her memory but couldn’t crack it. And then, as I was talking with Vanessa and my team, there was this eureka moment where we realized, “what if we tell this completely from the woman’s perspective” – if we are as unmoored as she is. That felt like a dynamic way to viscerally and cinematically capture the feeling of the bigger ideas Vanessa and I were discussing when we decided to work together – how our environment and connections define our identity, how we process the world around us.
Then, the idea that this woman who is searching for her identity would latch onto teenagers, who are at the age where they, in a more figurative way, are on the same search, felt natural and also fun.
Sarachan: I loved the use of music and sound to create the dream-like atmosphere of the film. What role did you want sound and music to play in Italian Studies?
Leon: I’ve worked with Nicholas Britell on all of my movies, and he is a remarkable and incredibly versatile artist. For Italian Studies, we wanted to focus on capturing the internal emotions of Alina and to do something strange and disorienting but also warm and wistful – playing with the film’s idea of cold world versus warm world. It was crucial that the sound design, score, and dialogue were all in conversation with each other to tell Alina’s story. Nick helped bring in this incredible sound editor named Niv Adiri – just a super brilliant good dude – who worked to craft that balance and structure between all these elements.
And then we were working with so many talented young artists who were musicians in their own right and so it felt natural to fill the movie with on-screen music as well, performed by our cast. Annabel Hoffman plays Lucinda, who sings the original song in the middle of the movie, and she is just a fantastic talent that I’ve worked with before.
Sarachan: What was it like (for you and Vanessa) to build a character that doesn’t remember who she is?
Leon: I think it was a challenge for Vanessa because she is used to doing a rigorous character biography. She knows everything about Princess Margaret, for example. And here, she didn’t want to know too much about Alina, because Alina doesn’t know who she is. That changed in the London section, where Alina is aware of herself. We shot that last, and it was a more traditional character process, but for New York, it required a real leap of faith from Vanessa and a willingness to experiment. One of the things that makes her so remarkable is that it is an exciting proposition for her – she wants to be pushed and to try different things.
Sarachan: The interviews with the teenagers were fascinating. What made you think to include those?
Leon: Working so closely with these teenagers, we were so inspired and wanted to capture their open honesty directly on camera. It also provided a space for Alina to be completely honest and open herself – in London, she is this cosmopolitan woman with her guard up a bit, and in New York, she is hiding the fact that she has lost her memory. The interviews allow Alina to be unfiltered with these teens, who are also raw and honest.
The style of the interviews was inspired by Miloš Forman’s Taking Off and these kind of off-the-radar Alan Funt movies that are a bit bolder than his tv work, How to Talk To A Naked Lady, in particular.
Sarachan: How much were Vanessa’s street scenes improvised?
Leon: It’s a combination. We would allocate a certain amount of production time to just exploring with her but were always cognizant of the very specific scripted story we were telling. Often we would have bits of dialogue that Vanessa and Simon would perform while we explored, but we always kept moving. So, there’s a scene where they talk about Warm World vs Cold World. We knew we wanted that conversation, and we did it probably 20 times, but those 20 times were in different locations as we roamed and reacted to the city around us.
Sarachan: How has filmmaking changed for you because of the pandemic?
Leon: I haven’t shot anything since the pandemic started! Italian Studies was in post-production when the lockdown hit, and I’ve been working on that and my scriptwriting. One of the projects I’m co-writing was conceived during the start of the pandemic in part as something that could be COVID friendly to shoot (rural, isolated location, small cast and crew), so I guess it’s been inspiring in that way.
Sarachan: I really enjoyed that you showed what felt like the real and unromanticized version of New York City. Is that something you think about in your style of filmmaking?
Leon: We wanted to capture the feeling of the city as this place of sensory overload. Alina doesn’t know who she is or where she is going and is trying to connect with the environment around her. The idea of trying to make sense of and process the city if you don’t know it at all is both beautiful and frightening for her.
As a native New Yorker, I can take the energy here for granted, but in prep, I would walk around the streets and try to see things as if I was an alien just arriving here. That was an eye-opening experience and really tripped me out; it stayed with me and changed a bit how I view New York.
Sarachan: I know the film has already been screened at festivals. How has the response been?
Leon: Italian Studies is a movie that is definitely trying to tap into its own unique vibration. I hoped it could find an audience that would be able to grab onto that, and it’s been thrilling to see a lot of people at these screenings get really emotionally invested in the movie and moved by the characters. I’ve been lucky that my previous movies were well received, but this feels different – the people who are connecting with it are connecting in such a huge way. To be able to see that in person at festivals, especially in this moment where it’s so difficult to be in rooms with people, has felt like a gift.
Sarachan: What are you working on next?
Leon: Stuff! I don’t like to say or announce anything until we’re actually in production. I will say that none of the features I’m working on take place in New York City, and after every movie I say, one thing I know is the next one won’t take place in New York City, and then they do. So, while I think the next one won’t be New York City-based, I’ve learned my lesson and I make no promises.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Italian Studies is now playing in theatres and on demand.