An interview with Philip Roth: Unmasked co-writer and co-director Livia Manera, an Italian literary journalist and contributing editor to the literary pages of the leading Italian daily newspaper, Corriere della Sera.
AMERICAN MASTERS: What first got you interested in doing a film of Philip Roth’s life and work?
LIVIA MANERA: Philip Roth and I have been friends for about 15 years. A professional as well as a personal friendship that sprung from my interviewing him many times for my newspaper, the leading Italian national daily Corriere della Sera. In 2008 I was developing a project of a series of interviews with American writers for the Italian national broadcasting service RAI, when I flew to New York to interview Roth about Nemesis for my paper, and ask him advice on my other project. Knowing Roth, I didn’t count on him being interested in it himself, but I was wrong. When he told me he was willing to be extensivley interviewed on camera, I realized something unique was happening, something to which I should devote my full attention.
What happened next was that I dropped my other project to concentrate on this one. I looked for a serious producer in Paris (Fabienne Servan Schreiber of Cinetévé), this producer involved the French/German cultural Channel ARTE and the film director William Karel, and we made a 52′ film called “Philip Roth sans complexe”, that ARTE broadcasted in France and Germany in 2010. Then we thought of American Masters on PBS and we contacted its executive producer, Susan Lacy.
At first, it didn’t seem that what we were offering would be in tune with the requirements of a big American TV documentary film: no celebrities, except for Mia Farrow, no film clips with Penelope Cruz or Nicole Kidman, and also, as a matter of fact, no gossip. Here I must credit Susan Lacy with great openness of mind and intelligence. Despite its being “different,” she saw something unique in the intimate quality of our 52′ film, and asked us to elaborate on it, adding 4 new interviews (Franzen, Krauss, Pierpont, Englander), and more stuff with Roth either answering questions or readings from his books. The result: “Philip Roth: Unmasked,” produced by American Masters and Cinetévé, a new, 90′ film that keeps intact the feeling of a long and intimate conversation with an exceptionally talkative and generous protagonist, while adding other people’s perspective to his work.
AM: While making the film, what surprised you about Roth?
LM: I learned that Philip Roth, despite a lifelong habit of being very guarded in interviews, can actually deeply enjoy the process of remembering the past and sharing thoughts about his books with someone who has read them — better if she or he has read all 31 of them. I always felt there was a big gap between the stiff interviewee he tends to be when the tape recorder is rolling, and the humorous, lively and engaging person he is when he talks to friends. He did surprise me by bringing this part of his true self in our conversation on camera. To tell you the truth, I think he was surprised by it himself.
AM: What was your approach to the film?
LM: A very simple approach. I wanted to bring to the film the flair, the intensity, the depth, the humor and the energy of an informal but serious conversation with Philip Roth. Fun had to be part of it, as well as sadness.