By Brandie Madrid
When Lucia Mauro was a writer for Newcity, she often conducted interviews at the Bourgeois Pig Cafe, so I asked her to join me there to talk about her writing-directorial debut, “In My Brother’s Shoes.” She speaks warmly and passionately about the origins of her story and about letting coincidences and random encounters lead her in new directions. Mauro has spent much of her life as an arts writer and critic. Her first foray into film was the screenplay for “Anita,” a story inspired by a statue in Rome of Anita Garibaldi, a Brazilian freedom fighter who fought against foreign occupation in two countries, including Italy. “In My Brother’s Shoes” is based on another experience she had in Rome, this time meeting a man who, after his brother died in the Iraq War, put on his brother’s shoes and backpacked through Europe as his brother always planned to do.
You have a long and varied background as an author, critic and teacher. Why the move to film?
Here’s the interesting thing—I feel like my whole life led up to this film. And I never said, “I want to be a filmmaker someday.” It’s just that all these other areas that I either studied or worked in, and that set me on this path, led up to film. First of all, I’ve always loved film and the specialized quality that comes with it. Also, photography is a great interest of mine. By doing that, I learned a lot about light and composition. I am truly a writer at heart. By interviewing a lot of theater directors, film directors, actors, designers, I think I just absorbed what their philosophies are. I sat in a lot of rehearsals, auditions, tapings, radio as well. That was my hands-on training.
In terms of Rome, my background is Italian. But I grew up in an American family. I always was interested in my roots. We didn’t speak Italian at home, so I actually studied it in high school and in college. My great uncle Frank, who was actually born in Sicily and used to share all these beautiful, vintage picture books of Rome and Palermo with me, got me to love the country. And I remember when I was looking into universities, I kept going back to Loyola because they had the Rome Center. There weren’t as many study-abroad programs. I did eventually [go] my junior year, and that just sent me on my journey to Rome. And I just fell in love with the rhythm, the energy of the city, of Italy itself. And I just kept studying the language. After I graduated, I was working in arts writing. And I began to write for a newspaper that’s called Fra Noi, and it’s a newspaper for really the Italian-American community, but there’s a whole section that’s really specific to Italy. And I was assigned, basically, to cover Italy. My editor gave me this free rein. There was this new section. “You know, I’d love for you to plan trips…” It was where part of the time the newspaper paid. But it just got to where I had my own separate fund. My husband and I—he actually has an Italian background—”You know, we’re just going to go on our own. We love it to begin with. We have relatives there. We have friends there. We love it.” I thought, “Why don’t we just go there and I could continue to write about it for the paper?” I would pick regions like the Veneto, Sicily, Sardinia, and we’d get totally wrapped up in it. It wasn’t a guidebook kind of writing. It was stories, meeting the people, experiences that we’d had, the unique history of those areas, and they had allowed me to then go back to Italy.
Through “Anita,” since we wanted to film it mostly in Italy, we started doing all this location scouting, having meetings with potential co-production companies, actors. So here I am roaming the world, going to Sardinia, doing all this. This is what takes me to “In My Brother’s Shoes.” I was waiting for a film colleague who is actually going to be our production assistant. I was standing in St. Peter’s Square just waiting, and this young American guy out of nowhere stood next to me and leaned against the railing and struck up a conversation. It was the usual “Where are you from?” And I looked down, and his shoes were torn to shreds. The backs were cut out. And I asked him about his shoes, and he said, “Well, my brother was a Marine. He was killed in Iraq. He always wanted to backpack with his friends. I put on his favorite shoes and honored him by coming here.” I just got so emotional, and we were hugging each other. It was amazing. But I didn’t get his name or anything. It was one of those where he just continued his journey. I keep a journal, so in the margin I wrote “In My Brother’s Shoes.” I didn’t know what I was going to do with that. That was five years ago. I had some things happen health-related in 2012, but I got through all of that. While I was recuperating, I revisited “In My Brother’s Shoes,” and there was suddenly this tremendous sense of urgency to it, that I feel like I need to reimagine the story. It wasn’t going to be a documentary, so I wanted to craft a character. And this was the definitive harmonic convergence, because the first actor I thought of was Danny McCarthy. I wrote it for him, and there was no one else who could have been in that role. It’s so different, because it wasn’t where I had the screenplay in my drawer. I feel like being part of this arts community, theater—that that was organic. I think Danny is perfect, and I called him.
There’s something else. I had taken a trip after I was feeling better. I just took a week and went to places in Italy I had never been to, and I took a train to all of them. I just needed to challenge myself, be out there, and breathe. And I was meeting people. I met a woman on the train who inspired one of the characters in the short film. I met an elderly gentleman on a bicycle. We were talking about his life and philosophies. Then he disappeared at some point, just rode off. It happens when you travel. So “In My Brother’s Shoes” became this combination of the man I met who lost his brother and some of my own personal experiences channeled through him to make sense of—you know, when we travel, especially by ourselves, magical things happen. You meet people that touch your life. Situations are random and improvised. And that’s how I wanted this film to feel. And through it all, it’s how you move on with your life.
So what can we expect from the film?
It’s very gentle, touching. I would have to say sweet, moving, but also funny in an absurd kind of way. You can’t do a film about Italy without having a degree of quirkiness of absurdity in it. And some of it just happened on its own. There’s a very pivotal scene which was a really happy accident. There’s a neighborhood in Rome called Eur, and it’s this very strange, neoclassical sort of neighborhood. First of all, I didn’t want any shot of the coliseum because I thought that was cliché. So there’s another coliseum that was built in the 1940s—a modernist coliseum—that happened to be in a Roberto Rossellini World War II film called “Rome, Open City.” Since this is a sort of military theme [in the movie], this is an inside reference for me. But this is one of the most surreal-looking buildings. I wanted to have Danny walking up the steps. We got there, and of course there was this big gate around it. It was locked, and we couldn’t access it. So we said, “Okay, what do we do with this?” I love the improvised nature of it. And that’s so true—when we travel, we want to see something and it’s closed or it’s under scaffolding. So basically Danny goes up there, goes up to the gate, it’s locked, kind of frustrated, and I would have to say symbolically, certain avenues or outlets for his grief are closed. So that was one of those instances that it actually fit so much better for our theme that it was closed. We had various situations like that. Actually, they kept hosting all these student rallies and things like that, and we had a difficult time trying to get in to St. Peter’s which is where our pivotal scene is. We did it in pieces, and we tended to do it either really early in the morning or right at sunset. And even that worked out better than we had planned.
Did your background as a theater critic lead you to be open to improv?
Yes, it does. I used to cover so much improv, and I always loved the idea of actors playing and being uninhibited, being childlike. And I was so impressed by the naturalism in this movie—I never wanted anything to look staged or faked—that in terms of writing this movie, I wrote the scenes, but I only wrote one exchange of dialogue, and that was when Danny was on the train with the woman. But I even told them if they felt that they wanted to go in a different direction while they were delivering those lines, they could. They weren’t completely married to that. Going back to theater, I’ve always admired actors. And I feel how they can embody the character, how they have to work so hard and over-prepare to work really naturally. When it comes to film, it’s so different. I know we can’t really compare film to theater. But I really love film, and I’ve spent a lifetime watching it. I can’t commend Danny enough. He was just really incredible. He lived that character. And I want to bring dance in for a second. I just love the body language and how actors move and what they can convey. When Danny is on the Janiculum hill and the camera pans around him, you’ll notice there’s a point where he shifts his body weight in a way that transforms him. I just like the way the second we said “action” how he became that character in his body, in the way he moves. And he could actually be joking, and he would be goofing around right before a super serious scene, and “Okay. I’m on.”
Tell me about your not-for-profit.
Our goal is for the not-for-profit to be a charity to raise funds for veterans groups, but different kinds. There are some that help the children of veterans with scholarships, families, wounded warriors. There’s one that I really like called Purple Heart Homes where they retrofit houses for wounded veterans. There are so many that it’s remarkable and kind of looks to the state of the world. It doesn’t seem to be stopping. There’s no end to this. I also want to stress that when you’re discussing the military and war, it gets so political. And I have to say, this film really isn’t politically motivated. I feel like no matter how you feel one way or the other, there are a lot of people that get caught up in it. And they’re fighting for what they feel is a really important cause. And I feel that I am always about the individual. I always want to help. It’s, for me, more of a personal thing.
Members of your family were military?
My father was in World War II. He was in the navy. My oldest brother was a marine. It’s interesting—he joined the Marines in the late 1960s which would have been Vietnam, but he never got called. And then my husband’s uncle was also in the Marines during the Korean War. So I know a lot of people who have been in the military.
So that made you connect even more with the story?
His story touched me immediately. But a couple years later, I had a bit of a health scare that I recovered from, and it gave me a whole new perspective on life. And it suddenly became about anyone who suffered a hardship or loss of any kind and how they put it behind them and moved forward. So for me personally it became a little more tied to what was going on in my life as well. And then of course going on that journey and meeting people who renewed my spirit and that I’ve immortalized. This is one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments where the story found me; it’s a pure gem of a piece of life somehow. I feel like it needs to be told. Film is the ideal medium for it. That’s it. This is not my gateway to working in L.A. I don’t want to be a screenwriter in L.A. This just found me and this medium worked. It doesn’t have any kind of agendas or anything beyond that.
Do you think that the gentleman that you met comes across in the film?
My husband Joe and I were having this discussion. Joe truly wants to find the guy I met. Now all I know is that he was from Louisiana. And I have an idea of when his brother was killed. It was between ‘08 and ‘09. We have looked. We’ve gotten records of the Marines from those years who are from Louisiana. But it is very difficult. So I feel at this point rather than trying to seek him out, I’m hoping he may find it. Because it is inspired by him. And it is another tribute to his brother. I feel like there is a very good chance that once it’s out there, he may see it.
I like that full circle.
I do, too. I realize that we live in a world with all this technology. People are filming everything. I know I made this film, but I don’t film a lot of things. I don’t whip out my phone and start filming things all over the place. I’m not that kind of person. I may not always take someone’s phone number either. So when I met him in Rome, I just had no inclination to take a picture. I thought it would just ruin everything. And I didn’t write anything down. It was such a sacred moment. Could you imagine if I would have photographed or wrote everything down. But then I think then it would’ve been too easy. It would’ve been too easy to call him. It would have been more like a documentary, but I didn’t want to make a documentary.
When I first read the story, I thought it was a documentary. It lends itself to that feeling.
By the way, I love documentaries, and I do watch a lot of them. But I always like the well-crafted narrative. So for me, I welcome the poetry of the storytelling as opposed to having a narrator. I really want the music to carry the story. The music and the ambient sound is what is going to carry this film.
The screening-fundraiser will be Sunday, September 21, 2014 at 5pm in Rudolph Ganz Memorial Hall, Roosevelt University, 430 South Michigan, 7th Floor.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.