Ahhh… romanza. One of the films I enjoyed most at Minneapolis-St. Paul Film Festival (MSPIFF) this year is this sweet, whimsical fantasy rom-com starring Darren Criss and Mãdãlina Ghenea set in the picturesque Italian Alps. Smitten! is a directorial debut from Minnesota’s own Barry Morrow, whom cinephiles might recognize as the Oscar-winning writer of Rain Man (1988). The film won four Oscars, including Best Original Screenplay for Barry Morrow.
A young New York fashion executive’s trip to Milan takes a bad turn when he is kidnapped and whisked off to an Alpine village to be held for ransom money. Little does he (or his three abductors) know that the small, rustic cottage they end up spending the night in is under a gypsy love spell. Or that when they awaken, they will be Smitten! by the first living soul that meets their eyes.
I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation at Renaissance Minneapolis Hotel aka The Depot. We were fortunate to find an empty meeting room so we could chat uninterrupted for more than a half hour! I could’ve easily chatted with Barry all day… he’s so personable, warm, funny, and simply a delight to chat with. In fact, our interview started with him asking about me and why I have a blog. Later on I told him I have a short film screening at MSPIFF and he was curious to find out more. In fact, when I found out my press pass fell off my lanyard, he was kind enough to help me look for it! I love that Barry has such a huge heart for people with disabilities. In a way, that experience helped him in his Hollywood journey, but he has been giving back to disabled people all his life.
No wonder his film Smitten! is so joyful! He seemed like he had a blast making it, so hopefully he’ll be directing more movies in the future. So check out my interview below on Barry’s journey to Hollywood (via a TV movie that’s based on his own story), winning an Oscar for Rain Man, and making a joyful movie about love.
Q. You’re originally from Minnesota (born in Austin, MN), then you moved to teach drama in Hawaii. Would you tell me a bit of your journey to Hollywood?
I only went to Hollywood when I already had a movie already in the works. I have a wife, two little kids, plus a dog and a cat. When I left Minnesota initially, it was to teach at University of Iowa and I was there for seven years. It’s there when I wrote this story about this gentleman that my wife and I rescued, and more or less adopted him, I became his legal guardian. His name is Bill Sackter and he was institutionalized for 44 years at Faribault State Mental Health Institute. I find that Bill was an intelligent man, but that his intelligence comes in many different ways. His intelligence was reading people, he instinctively know who would shun him and who would be warm and gracious to him. So he has a deep emotional intelligence.
Q2. So the TV movie Bill (released in 1981 starring Mickey Rooney as Bill – ed) basically brought you to Hollywood?
Yes, at the time I was living in Iowa. So I said to Bill, ‘Look, I help you get a coffee shop, and now I need a career.’ I’m going to try to go to Hollywood, see how this movie works and see if I could continue to be a writer. Well I asked if he wanted to come with us and he said ‘Buddy, I hate to disappoint you but I’m happy here and lots of people need my coffee. So you’re on your own now.” So my wife and I went to California and we ended up winning an Emmy for Bill, as well as a Golden Globe for Best Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television. (Mickey Rooney also won an Emmy and Golden Globe for playing Bill – ed).
Q. So did you already start writing Rain Man by then?
No. Bill was still alive then. The movie became so successful we made a sequel in 1983 (Bill: On His Own) and he died just before it was released. I think what Bill would’ve said was, “Oh I don’t need to see the sequel, I lived it.” By the way, when Bill saw the movie for the first time with me, we had a private screening for him in New York at CBS, he said “You know what buddy, Mickey Rooney has a rough life too.” He couldn’t distinguish that Rooney was playing him.
So after Bill passed away, I started volunteering at various organizations dealing with disabilities. I was in Texas on a committee for the Association for Retarded Citizens (now called the ARC) and that’s when I met the real Rain Man, Kim Peek. His father was there and when I saw him he was reading some books. He was reading this book upside down and I heard him groaning while I was in the hallway. I said “Can I help you with anything?” and he said, “Don’t bother me, I’m reading.” Well I found out later from his father, that he could read books upside down. I was in the room at the NASA Medical Research Hospital in Monterey CA and the scientists said after reviewing Kim’s brain scan that they’d never seen anything like it. His brain is so unique so he’s considered to be the world’s greatest mega savant. He has the largest memory capacity of probably anyone who’s ever lived. That’s how Rain Man started.
Q. I read on IMDb that during filming, both Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise doubted the movie’s potential. Of course little did they know it went on to win awards, and Hoffman winning an Oscar for Best Actor.
Well it’s because of the subject matter. I mean nobody’s ever done a TV or movie with a starring role about a mentally-retarded man until Bill happened. Eunice Shriver said to me, “You know what you’ve done don’t you, Barry? Bill is the most sympathetic portrayal of a mentally-retarded person in television history.” Then Rain Man came along and nobody thought it’d held up to its potential. It’s two guys driving in a car and one hardly talks and doesn’t have much emotion, how’s that gonna work?
In a way it’s the same about Smitten!, I’m doing an old fashioned love story in a time where nobody does this kind of story. I like to call it ‘an analog movie in the digital age.’
Q. That’s a perfect segue to Smitten! Now 30 years later, after years of writing dramatic projects, you not only wrote but directed a rom-com. What inspires you to do that?
The message. This is what I’ve learned in nearly 70 years living on this planet: Everybody needs love, every wants love, but love is hard. It’s full of disappointment. Your heart will be broken more times than it’s mended, but still we pursue it, we can’t help it. I think love is in all my movies. It’s in Bill, in Rain Man. Love is there, I just never took a comedic angle.
Q. What I find particularly interesting about Smitten! is its magical realism aspect. I’m curious if there’s a certain event that happened that inspired you?
There’s actually very specific thing that happened. I have a friend who speaks and writes fluent Italian. I said to him that I’m looking for something to do in Italy as I love that country. It wasn’t even to direct a movie, I just want a good story. Then one day he sent me an obituary column in Italian. It’s about a young lady, 16 years old, on the cusp of World War I. Her boyfriend was about to go to war the next day, so they spent one night together in an old abandoned cottage. The next morning she woke up and he’s gone and never returned. He was killed in the war presumably. But she never married, she never fell in love again. She was smitten from that moment and so when she died at the age of 90, she left a small fortune to the village where that cottage was, that every year they’d have a Festival of Love to honor love. But what happened was, as the mayor was getting ready for it, the lawyer ran off with the money, he stole the money and they never got him. So I said, ‘that’s terrible!’ If we were to make a movie of it, I’d grant this woman his dying wish. So we did it, Smitten!, at least in my heart is dedicated to her.
Q. How did the casting of Mãdãlina Ghenea and Darren Criss came about? Did you do audition for the main roles?
We first learned about Madalina Ghenea, who moved to Italy from Romania as a teen, through Lilia Trapani, our amazing casting agent in Rome. Lilia, in fact, found all of our cast’s great Italian actors, too. She knew that the film’s role of “Rosalia” required someone of striking beauty, one of the film’s conceits, and Madalina, an international super model, was certainly that. So the bigger surprise upon our first lunch meeting was to discover her vulnerable side, but most of all her inner beauty. She is a spirited but decent soul, which I believe she inherited from her mother, who visited us on set. Her mom was, and still is, a veterinarian in the small Romanian village where Madalina was raised, so farm animals and small town life is something in their family DNA. All of this came together in a kismet sort of way, so there was no doubt in my mind that Madalina was our Rosalia, and she accepted the role on the spot.
My producing partner Jules Rask and I had a more strategic way of approaching Darren Criss. Darren wasn’t on our radar when we began our search, but the more we learned about this guy, the more we knew we had to have him. What we didn’t know, and had to laugh about later, was that Darren had spent time in Italy studying acting and spoke fluent Italian. We never found a way to use that in the film, but it sure helped with all the singing and dancing and carousing we did together after work or on weekends, and of course our cast parties.
To watch and hear Darren and our Italian cast members belt out songs together in Italian was just one of the many magical moments we shared during filming. Darren, of course, has gone on to make a big splash in the recent The Assassination of Gianni Versace, and has an excellent shot at a Emmy for his role as spree killer Andrew Cunanan. On a more personal note, everyone fell in love with Darren’s beautiful girlfriend and now fiancé, Mia Swier, as well as Darren’s parents, Bill and Cerina. You might say we were all smitten.
Q. Many of your supporting cast are Europeans. Was there ever a language barrier or culture clash during filming?
Our cast and crew were at least 90% Italian, so we did face the inevitable language and cultural barriers. But not many. When in Italy, you can almost bypass language altogether by using gestures, facial expressions, even pantomime, and when you’re working with the caliber of talent that I had, reading one other was not a problem.
Our main shooting location was in a tiny village in northern Italy, formerly a part of Austria, so German was the dominant language there. There are still a bit of strain between the two cultures due to this history, but we overcame that almost instantly. Some credit for that, perhaps, had to do with the film we were shooting, which was light-hearted and all about love. At least I’d like to think so. But mostly it was about the people we picked to work with, and those who picked us. Everything about the making of Smitten! seemed to be fated that way.
Q. Lastly, what tips do you have for aspiring writer/filmmaker trying to break into the business?
You’d think that after nearly 40 years of working in film and television, I’d have some sage advice for young filmmakers looking for their big break. But I don’t. Every road to success, or failure for that matter, is a personal one, often a painful and lonely one, but everyone must find his or her own way. I can only offer a few platitudes. Work hard. Be the best you can possibly be. Treat others as you would like to be treated. Never quit. If I can think of anything else I’ll let you know. I’m still learning.
Thanks so much Barry for taking the time to chat with me!