Tuesday, May 22 – Our time in Italy was short but sweet, punctuated with our sound designer Matteo and a stunt team called D-Unit. We went into the fashion capital of Milano, where we went to the only coffee place that resembled Starbucks called Arnold Coffee. Italy is the only European country that doesn’t have Starbucks, so instead they have Arnold Coffee, where they sell huge drinks and pancakes and all that crap. Like France, Italy doesn’t seem to offer “large” coffee sizes, or any sizes for that matter, but rather those tiny cups you drink at the bar, so it was a relief for two Americans to get a big drink for once.

The galleria was massive, with chairs lining the sides that cost 20 € to sit in. The whole place was a tourist trap, a gorgeous tourist trap, and we got out before the twentieth Senegalian tried to sell us another bracelet. There was the Duomo, a massive Catholic church which was like a step up from a “Cathedral”. The outside was tiled entirely with marble, which is incredible if you think about how much a marble countertop costs these days. Police and a Father were teamed up at the front door, making sure nobody desecrated the Duomo by wearing revealing clothes inside. One woman was wearing a low tanktop, and the father shook his head and cast her away. The inside was lined with gigantic paintings and confession booths, some multilingual, carved from wood. Something like the Duomo simply couldn’t be built today. America never even had these kinds of things because it just wasn’t around before 300 years ago. And it never will. So I did what any intelligent person would do and took a bunch of pictures.

Matteo talked about Apple stores in Milan. I brought it up because it’s a hip town, but I didn’t see one. Apparently the nearest Apple store is dozens of miles away, they just don’t have many of them, but when the iPad 3 came out, eager artists and students all flocked to that Apple store to buy it. A critical thinking citizen said, “But the other electronics shops all have it too, and there’s no line! Let’s go there!” and the people responded, “We want to get it in the true Apple way!” Like Americans, Italians crave an experience, however banal it may be. They also seek the prestige not just of owning an Apple product, of but associating with other Apple customers, lined up for hours with equally fanatical consumers to get the latest and coolest. Buckingham said that modern audiences don’t just want what they pay for now. It’s all about the “added experience”. Anything a company can do, be they a production company or an electronics manufacturer, to give the audience more than just a product, makes them that much more marketable. Plus, Apple doesn’t just sell a product, they sell “creativity”. If you buy Apple, you’re buying into a cool marketplace that sets you apart. If as filmmakers we can tap into that extra selling point, in the form of a “movement” on top of the film’s basic premise, it’ll really set us apart. Seems to work for Apple, even when there are almost no Apple stores.

After a lunch of mozzerella and prociutto, we passed through a castle, which was another tourist trap. We made our way to Monza to meet with Loris Rippamonti of D-Unit. There were signs for Monza everywhere, so we assumed it was close. Big mistake. We ended up on the freeway, walking for what felt like miles trying to navigate the Italian bus system. My broken Italian got us to a train, which turned out not to go to Monza anyway. Loris told us where to find a McDonald’s, where we waited for him. McDonald’s in Italy, obviously, looks nothing like a McDonald’s in Oakland. There aren’t even trash cans in the bathroom. I bought another tiny but super-strong coffee (at this point I had really started to hate these) and Loris arrived.

It felt as if I had met a long-lost brother. Loris, Mirco, and Ivan of D-Unit have been taking gigs in Italy for years, trying to break into the action scene like any of us, except of course with the added disadvantage that the independent film market in Italy is skewed toward certain films that get government funding, and D-Unit, God bless them, don’t turn to dramas and documentaries to take advantage of that. They’re action people, and Rebecca and I joined them for their stunt practice session at a big gym in Monza. Loris gave us some D-Unit shirts, we practiced tricks and taught each other new stuff that I’m excited to take back with me to SP practice, and shot a little fight scene, which I’ll post here soon along with photos.

At a pub we got a better handle on D-Unit’s situation in Italy. Apparently the Italian action film market is embarrassingly bad, and I started feeling guilty for my frequent thrashing of America’s market. Differing standards aside, they are face with an action film market that, like all the others, requires a name actor. They have the writing, directing, editing, and action, all key elements of the Action Kickback model, but they don’t have the name, which means they don’t have the complete marketing parkage, therefore they don’t have the funding. It’s the catch-22 we all know: to get a star, you need money, and to get money, you need a star. Meanwhile they all keep their day jobs and do stunt gigs, the latest of which had fallen through without their even being told. Hopefully on one of these gigs they can meet an actor who can bring them some financing, and Loris can become the Luc Besson of Italy.

We parted ways that night after they drove us back to Matteo’s. The next day was spent entirely on the train, traveling back to Cannes, where we’ll spend one more day checking out what we missed at the market and maybe catch another screening.

Check out D-Unit’s Facebook page here and their YouTube channel here. Thanks Matteo and D-Unit’s Loris, Mirco, and Ivan for introducing us to the best of Italy.

Sunday May 20. An early start today was necessary to catch the 7:45 am train to bordighera, which would lead us to our final destination of Seborga, the independent principality that was celebrating its second anniversary of the election of their prince. The euro rail was smooth, the tray tables long, and we hopped off at Bordighera to find the bus to Seborga. Our combined knowledge of Spanish and about three pages out of the Italian phrase book was enough to find the bus stop, and we caught the next bus to Seborga three hours later, climbing the twisting road to the scene of the party.

We searched for where the ceremony might be. The entire town is a series of small corridors, centuries old, with feral cats running every which way. I had managed to get a hold of Her Serene Highness Mrs. Nina Menegatto and secure an informal meeting to talk about Seborga’s independence and other sovereignty-related topics, since this relates to my day job at The Seasteading Institute. So we had an invitation to the anniversary party, we just had to find it and then get past her Italian entourage to say “Hey, remember us?”

We found the party at a quaint restaurant, which was packed. We asked if there was seating in more bastardized Italian, and the waitress looked at us like we were crazy. Rebecca added, “Princess Menegatto invited us!” and the waitress glowed and brought us to the only remaining table and showered us with a four course meal. We could only eat half of it. Meanwhile the room was all stares. Who are these strange non-Italians walking into our small town and getting quick service?

We spotted the princess, surrounded by about seven men all three feet taller than me, and this was our only chance. With about eight seconds before she left the restaurant for the maze-like corridors of Seborga, I walked up, said “Nina, I’m Eric” and she remembered me, shook my hand, and said she’d meet me at ten am the next morning.

We started searching for the local bed and breakfast, and the owner just happened to be walking out with her dog. In another mix of Italian and English and hand gestures we convinced her we had made a reservation. She believed us and took us upstairs to a small room. I was skeptical though, and told her that we had talked to someone else when making the reservation. I showed her the phone number, and she recognized it, except the reservation was at a bed and breakfast a mile away. Rather than giving the room to the wrong people she called the owner to pick us up.

A constant struggle for introverts like myself and other directors is building up the guts to approach people, be they a princess or a film financier or a celebrity, despite feeling completely alien to the situation. This opportunity was too good to pass up, so swallowing my insecurities paid off, and we had arranged a meeting. They say the more you do this kind of thing, the easier it becomes in the future. I hope that’s true.

Watched Bangkok Dangerous in Italian, The Shining in Italian, and other stuff in Italian, and took advantage of the free food in our room.

Monday May 21. After a much-needed 9+ hour sleep, I woke up at 7am to attempt to make coffee with a metallic contraption that I believe is a “French press.” It didn’t work, or I’m too stupid to use one, so I heated up some water on the stove and dipped a hand-made coffee filter made out of a napkin filled with grounds into the hot water to make some extremely strong coffee that sent me into cardiac arrest.

We met the Princess in her office at ten, where she told us some Seborgan history and detailed the situation with Seborga. Basically, Seborga is its own country within Italy. When the Italian states united in the 1800s, Seborga was the only one that wanted to maintain its independence and has succeeded in being independent to this date. They’ve successfully turned Italian police away, and judges have noted in proceedings that their independence is valid. It’s all very Zen-like. I asked, “What did you guys do to avoid unification with Italy?” Her reply was, “Nothing, we didn’t agree to it.” There’s a very good chance that Italy will officially recognize this small Principality’s independence, which can only result in good things for this small community.

There’s also a chance that we’ll look at Seborga as a filming location some day. As Rebecca and I talked about our work as action filmmakers and producers, Princess Menegatto openly advocated making a film in Seborga. I pitched a kind ofIn Bruges style fish-out-of-water film. We’d have to is figure out where to keep all the cast and crew, since the two bed and breakfasts only have about 6 rooms each, and devise some content that would sit well with the locals, since they’re mostly Catholics who want their town to look good. Logistics aside, all we need is a killer concept. So, consider that an open call for concept pitches, if you’ve got any!

We toured Seborga for the next hour, visiting their church, musical instrument museum, and convenience store. The B&B owner was nice enough to drive us back down the mountain to Bordighera so we could withdraw enough money to cover the room. Went to a bar nearby, took a long train ride to Milan, met with our sound mixer Matteo, and had dinner at his place.

We shared our experience in Cannes, and Matteo reciprocated our “Euro-shock” with a surprise that we just didn’t know these basic facts about art film financing in Europe. We talked about Italian cinema, and apparently Italian films are all dubbed, and it’s just the traditional way it’s done here. And it seems films are more about “the director’s vision”, ala Frederico Fellini, where he writes a script that is less story and more “idea”. The film is a bit abstract in the end (is that unbiased enough?). Not exactly a winning formula for action film.

There are also no Italian action films, though not because of the reasons above. Basically, there’s no Luc Besson of Italy. I’m no expert on Italian culture, but they seem to dig action, and I’m pretty sure they dig Italians. Talk about a gaping hole in the market. But I guess if you’re convinced your film industry needs to follow in the footsteps of the art-house film, and your action concept doesn’t stand a chance of being funded with public money, it’s easy to see why this hole wouldn’t easily be filled.

Then again, apparently Milan’s the money place right now. Makes you wonder whether it’s difficult to invest in film here. The guys at D-Unit could certainly use a budget.

Matteo’s been nice enough to let us stay at his place and cook us dinner. Tomorrow we check out downtown Milan, train with D-Unit, and experience some night life!