Superhero movies are all the rage right now, but most of them -- including the bulk of the Marvel Studios and DC Entertainment output -- follow a specific pattern.
Italian director, actor, producer and composer Gabriele Mainetti has no patience for following patterns.
His debut feature, They Call Me Jeeg, is a fascinating and thrilling exploration of what happens when the unlikeliest of people is gifted with the power to effect great change.
Culling from a wide list of influences, Mainetti and his team have created something rare and special -- a deconstruction of traditional hero tropes that also serves as a celebration of genre cinema.
BVB: Blood Violence and Babes was thrilled to have the opportunity recently to speak to Mainetti by phone to talk about Jeeg, a shared love of classic Japanese manga and mecha characters and why Mainetti won't return to do a sequel for one of the most successful films in the history of recent Italian cinema.
BVB: I’m doing well, Gabriele. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. How are you?
GM: I’m fine. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to me.
BVB: You’re so welcome. I have a website, it’s called Blood Violence and Babes, and I basically try to use it as a way to educate and introduce people, not only in Florida, but my audience reaches across the country, to films they otherwise might not discover on their own. And when I got to finally see They Call Me Jeeg, I knew immediately that I wanted to talk to you because it’s such a fantastic film and such an interesting addition to the canon of superhero films that have become quite customary, especially here in the United States. I’m thrilled to be able to talk to you. This is great.
GM: Thank you so much for saying all these beautiful words, and especially to have your voice in the year of the Americans.
BVB: You’re so welcome. So now, you have been acting, and this is according to IMDb, which I know is not the most reliable source, but you’ve been acting since the late 1990s, but this is actually your first feature as a director, correct?
GM: It is, right. I’ve done a lot of short films, like I think almost 13. I’ve been working as an actor almost 20 years also, so I knew the job, but I wanted to arrive prepared.
BVB: Sure, absolutely! What was it about this property? Were you – I did some research because I was not familiar with the story of Jeeg, and what I discovered, and correct me if I’m wrong, this was based off of a popular manga from the ‘80s called Steel Jeeg?
GM: Yeah, you’re right, a popular manga of the ‘70s. And it’s a mecha, which is the name for the huge robots. Go Nagai is the comic artist. He’s like God in Japan. He invented all these robots in movies in Japan in the ‘70s. When we were very young we were watching all this animation. When we were coming back from school, after school, we were in front of this animation from Monday to Friday, you know, after school ‘til dinner, so it educated us. And it’s so strong in Italy that we have sentences – like, ‘Who do you think you are? Steel Jeeg?’ We use it more than Superman. So when we wanted to tell a story for my first movie, we thought why don’t we do a super hero story because now everything seems to be super hero style, but we have to make it our own. We have to make it clear. And the first thing that came up to our mind was, yeah, the myth, the reference should be Japan. It shouldn’t be U.S., because for us, the real superheroes were the super robots of Go Nagai.
BVB: So, this is – and again, you’re educating me, which is wonderful – so when we look at the character of Enzo, he’s not technically a character that was in the property when it first debuted? He kind of embodies the spirit of those cartoons from the ‘70s, is that correct?
GM: Yeah, it’s not a – the character is just – that’s just a reference. How do you call the, the – we have an expression in Italian. Do you remember Pinocchio, you have the cricket who talks in the ear of Pinnochio and tells him what to do?
BVB: Right – Jiminy Cricket.
GM: Yeah, Jiminy Cricket. Ours is like Jiminy Cricket and tells him what to be. What to be is like [inaudible], this character of the manga, but the story’s something else. It’s not about Go Nagai’s mecha. It’s just a reference. We worked so much on our imaginary. It was – how do you say – it grew up and was born in those times because it was the purest time. We were very little, we were children, we were watching all these images and they were so strong for us. So we try to use them again as an instrument to tell our story to the purest part.
BVB: Absolutely! I remember when I was a kid, I grew up on Ultra-Man and…
GM: Ah! Ultra-Man! Yes!
BVB: Oh my God, I loved Ultra-Man! I would watch that every day after school. And it was something I would look forward to, getting home just so I could catch the next episode.
GM: Ah, Ultra-Man was so nice! I thought you are almost my age. I mean, Ultra-Man is a Japanese character, so…how old are you?
BVB: I actually am 46.
GM: Ah, see I am 40 years old, so we’re close.
BVB: We’re close! We’re not too far.
GM: I was in Tokyo before coming to the states and I seen an action figure of Ultra-Man, an original from the ‘60s.
GM: I wanted to buy it, but I asked how much it cost and he said $6,000.
BVB: Wow! Yeah, we like Ultra-Man but maybe not that much. (Laughing)
GM: (laughing) Yeah, yeah, you’re right.
BVB: So, talk to me a bit about Enzo. I love that Enzo is not your typical superhero character, especially that American audiences are used to. You’ve got a guy who is a petty criminal, he’s addicted to pornography, he smokes, he drinks. And he has to really grow to embody the heroism that is expected of him, especially by Alessia. Did that attract you, crafting a character that wasn’t just good from the get-go?
GM: Absolutely. First of all, I remember what my mentor said. Directors have a great responsibility because people, when we go to see a movie, people, the audience, is giving you two hours of their life and they are paying also a ticket for that, so you don’t bust their balls with your petty [inaudible] and your shit. You’ve got to tell them something that is original. So, I try to work and try to tell stories differently. For example, you have a superhero, so I wanted to do a crazy thing. Superhero? OK, I want this guy to hate people. Usually superheroes don’t hate people.
GM: So, I wanted to go on the opposite side. What helped me is the fact that in Italy is completely different than here – from great power comes great responsibility. Not in Italy, not even close, man. We just think, I have power, I keep it to myself. This is really natural. This is very grounded. I think this is human, to try to use it for your need. And then we just put it in the hand of a criminal who – it’s obvious…he doesn’t have anything in his life. Everything he had before. It’s right that he keeps it for himself. But we know having a power that big has a responsibility. It’s noble. But we didn’t want a voice in his head, like an imperative, telling him, ‘Now you have to do this because it’s right.’ We wanted him to go with his guts. So we needed emotion to drive the guy to being a hero. So what we did basically, it’s a story about a guy who doesn’t believe in himself and needs [inaudible] to teach him how to do it by loving the guy. So it starts lifting him up. When she goes away, when she fades away, behind her are all the people. So he knows what to do. But he does it with emotion, he doesn’t do it with the head. When we watch all the superhero movies, we just laugh because it’s unnatural to immediately become a hero and immediately help people. So, that’s why we did it that way.
BVB: You had – Claudio (Santamaria) did a magnificent job in the role because you really believe that he was struggling with this new-found responsibility and power and just trying to overcome how he had lived his life up to that point. I thought it was a fantastic performance.
GM: It was really, really great. He’s a great actor. He’s a star in Italy. He was actually a sex symbol. He gained for the role 45 pounds because I wanted him to change. Since he was very well known as an actor, I didn’t want people to go, ‘That’s the guy.’ When you want something that is fresh and new, actors are the [inaudible] thing. Usually you take the actor who is known for always doing that same thing. So, it’s not your movie anymore. It’s part of that actor always doing the same things. So, I wanted him to change so much. He gained a lot of weight, changed his voice – actually he talks an octave lower than his natural voice. He learned the dialect of the south of Rome, which is different because he comes from the north of Rome. Everything is more open, everything is more light. He did a great performance. I mean the weight helped him very much feel the weight of the part. He had this huge shell that she breaks with love. He did a very interesting job.
BVB: I was struck by, and I wanted to know if this had influenced you at all. I’m a big fan of comic book and superhero movies, but I don’t just jump on-board with every one because it has a popular character or what not. I expect to see something or be moved in a way that I wasn’t expecting to. And I felt like Jeeg was very similar in tone and style to Unbreakable by M. Night Shyamalan, which is technically not a comic book movie, but it really is because it takes all the typical conventions of that genre and applies it to an ordinary, everyday guy who isn’t looking to be a hero who suddenly finds himself in that role. Had you seen Unbreakable? Did that influence you at all in crafting this story?
GM: Absolutely. Absolutely. Unbreakable was very important to us. We loved the fact – it’s a different movie, but I think it’s one of those characters that is so down to earth that inspired us so much. So, we could say for the character we were inspired a lot by Unbreakable. I love that movie. I love the fact that in the end, someone said, one of the characters, said I needed to find you. Now that I find you I know who I am. It’s so beautiful. And the fact that he doesn’t realize the character for so long, the great thing he has inside. He just conducts a normal life. It’s so beautiful. That is so, so interesting and beautiful the way it is portrayed. And also The Professional – Luc Besson – was very important to us too. The triangle between the characters is so important to us. We were inspired by that too. If you think about it, Leon, the character portrayed by Jean Reno, he drinks milk and goes around with a plant. [Inaudible]
BVB: Are there more stories in this universe to tell? Have you thought about doing a follow-up to this, a sequel of sorts?
GM: Everybody asks me to do it because in Italy it was a huge success. I mean, it was crazy. Even the critics and the audience mentioned together. It’s very difficult in Italy. Usually critics are only for arthouse movies. The awards are only for arthouse movies and comedies are the ones that get the box office. In the right way, we managed to get all the awards and from the critics too and all the box office. So, everybody wants me to do a second one. The audience, and of course, producers. But I, you know, I produced this thing myself because nobody wanted to produce it. They said genre film in Italy was dead. There was no possibility. I fought so hard. It took me six years to make this movie. I’ve been six years with this character. And I have this thing that I said to you before, about what my mentor said, that I want to do new things. So, for me, if I’m going for a sequel, I’m not doing a new thing. I’m going to be [inaudible] like everybody. I’m going to be comfortable in a comfortable zone and I don’t want to be comfortable. I want to be in an uncomfortable zone. I want to be at risk. So, we will be shooting another movie at the end of this year, which is fucking crazy. And it doesn’t have to do – maybe some connection to Jeeg, but it’s not a sequel at all.
BVB: Well, I cannot wait to see that. You are definitely on my radar now, and I hope to introduce you to as many people as possible because it’s a fantastic film and you should be so proud. I’m so thankful for the opportunity just to hear your thoughts and talk about it because these are the type movies that reinforce why we love movies. Because they take us someplace we’ve never been and we didn’t expect and they show us things that we didn’t realize we needed to know until we’re seeing it. So, well done.
GM: Thank you so much for being so, so, so…I can say thank you, so much. Thank you.
They Call Me Jeeg from Uncork’d Entertainment is available on most online streaming platforms, and was just released on iTunes for purchase or to rent. BVB highly recommends you check it out!