Julian Schnabel is in Italy on the set of his star-studded crime mystery “In the Hand of Dante,” for which he and Louise Kugelberg, his wife and close creative collaborator, have been narratively and literally criss-crossing between the 14th and 21st centuries in locations including Sicily, Venice, Verona and Rome.
Besides the film’s previously announced leads — Oscar Isaac, Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa and Gerard Butler — “Hand of Dante” will also see British musician and actor Benjamin Clementine (“Dune”) playing a quintessentially demonic character who seesaws between past and present. Clementine also contributes to the film’s score. Other A-list recruits comprise John Malkovich, Al Pacino and Louis Cancelmi (“Killers of the Flower Moon”) who plays both a present-day hitman named Lefty and nobleman Guido da Polenta, who was Dante’s benefactor.
Julian Schnabel, speaking to Variety on a spectacular Rome set – a palatial villa on a hill overlooking the Eternal City – is adamant about pointing out that “Hand of Dante” will also feature a slew of Italian actors, including Sabrina Impacciatore (“The White Lotus”); Franco Nero; Claudio Santamaria; Guido Caprino; Paolo Bonacelli and Dora Romano, who played the matriarch who eats mozzarella with her hands and spouts vulgarities in Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Hand of God.”
The film is based on the eponymous book by Nick Tosches, which revolves around a handwritten manuscript of Dante Alighieri’s poem “The Divine Comedy” that is found in the Vatican library and makes its way from a priest to a mob boss in New York City, where it is taken by Tosches after he’s asked to verify its authenticity. Then, like Dante, Tosches embarks on his own journey.
Producers include Jon Kilik, Francesco Melzi d’Eril for Italy’s MeMo Films and Julian Schnabel’s son, Olmo, for TWIN Productions. Martin Scorsese, who is among executive producers, is closely connected to the project.
D’Eril, who was among the producers of Luca Guadagnino’s Timothée Chalamet-starrer “Bones and All,” more recently shepherded Olmo Schnabel’s directorial debut “Pet Shop Days,” which bowed from Venice in September. That’s how he got involved with Julian Schnabel and became instrumental to assembling the film’s roughly $25 million budget provided by equity investors.
“Francesco and I started having conversations about putting this film together and seeing if we could do it,” Olmo Schnabel said. “It seemed like kind of a long-shot. But now, we are making it and it feels like a miracle that I’m producing Julian’s film.”
“I’m very proud to be contributing to the dream of this great artist,” said d’Eril, who noted that “this has been Julian’s passion project for a long time.” “Hand of Dante,” which has been shooting in Italy for about six weeks, now has two more weeks to go before the production moves to New York. A world premiere at next year’s Venice Film Festival may be a good fit.
The screenplay was co-written by Julian Schnabel and Kugelberg, who previously co-wrote her husband’s 2018 drama “At Eternity’s Gate,” about the last days of Vincent van Gogh. Kugelberg is also serving as co-editor on “Hand of Dante,” in tandem with Italy’s Marco Spoletini, who is Matteo Garrone’s regular editor. The “Hand of Dante” cinematographer is Roman Vasyanov, whose credits include David Ayer’s “Suicide Squad,” “End of Watch” and “Fury.”
In Rome, Julian Schabel spoke to Variety about being grateful to Johnny Depp for proposing that he put “In the Hand of Dante” on the big screen, and revealed his cinematic reference in tackling the story’s parallel lives.
How did the film germinate?
When we made “Before Night Falls” [in 2000] together, Johnny Depp gave me a book. There were about five books he had [bought the rights to] and the one that seemed the most complicated was “In the Hand of Dante” by Nick Tosches. It’s a very dense book that really addresses so many things. But it revealed Nick Tosches as this brilliant writer who could not only write in New York City slang in a very poignant and accurate way, but also in an English that sounded like verse. And then I found out that he was an expert on Dante.
Tell me more about the process developing this film.
So in taking a walk in his shoes, I’ve found myself in the Marciana Library [in Venice], or having to go to Verona, or having to go to Ravenna, or having to go Sicily. Places that Dante would have had to visit and where Nick [Tosches] had to go in order to retrace these things. When I read the book – and Nick never really said this – my view is that Nick was actually the reincarnation of Dante. So you have a guy who was born in New Jersey from a gangster-type family that is actually the reincarnation of Dante Alighieri.
I thought, “Well, the reason why he’s so interested in ‘The Divine Comedy’ is because somebody messed with his stuff and he had to come back and fix it.’” Then, I started to think about [1942 romantic drama] “Random Harvest” with Ronald Colman and Greer Garson. There’s a moment where Ronald Colman has amnesia. He meets this nightclub singer who takes him under her wing. They have a baby, they live in the countryside, and then he goes to Liverpool to get a job as a writer and gets hit by a car. And [afterwards] he remembers who he was, but he forgot that he was married to her and that they lost their baby. Then [later] he’s a lord of industry sitting in his office and he presses a button and this woman comes in, it’s his secretary, but it’s actually his wife. Point being, that the audience knows it’s his wife. And basically they spend the rest of the movie hoping that he is going to figure it out.
Anyway, in this film, Gemma [Donati] [Dante’s wife] and Giulietta [Nick Tosches’ beloved] are the same character [played by Gal Gadot]. So you have these parallel lives that are going on in the 14th century and the 21st century.