Real Fear in a Thriller

Director Ferdinando Cito Filomarino on how he brought genuine human emotion and an unconventional protagonist to his manhunt movie Beckett.

I read in an article that T.S. Eliot, one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, appreciated hardboiled fiction for its capacity to convey intensity of sentiment and human experience within strict formal designs — a quality, he said, that may just as well apply to literary fiction or poetry. I find his observation also applies perfectly to genre cinema. Our great masters have shown that in a Western, a noir or a thriller, they could push characters through the canon of these adventures and into the deepest landscapes of the soul. There is something so satisfying about finding a relatable human conundrum while enjoying an entertaining story. It catches you off guard: as the journey takes you to faraway places, what are your deepest feelings doing? With this in mind, I set out on a six-year journey to make Beckett, a dramatic thriller about an American tourist in northern Greece who finds himself hunted by strangers across the crisis-stricken country.

I knew I wanted to make a manhunt thriller. It is a sub-genre I’ve always loved, with one character finding himself loaded with great danger and responsibility; there is something to this focus and immediacy of storytelling, and its relationship with places and landscapes (hosts to the hunt itself) that I’ve always found innately cinematic. The manhunt thriller also opened the door to a profound human experience; my way there would be through a unique character.

Kathleen Ryan and James Mason in Odd Man Out.

For early inspiration, I began by absorbing British literature of the early 20th century, like Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male, in which a civilian English hunter goes all the way to Germany to “stalk” the most dangerous prey in the world, the Führer himself. He is captured but manages to survive a murder attempt and escapes back to England, only to find that the Nazis are secretly using his actions in an attempt to invoke war — fearing such drastic consequences, he now has to act fast to prevent them. Moving on, in Carol Reed’s 1947 film Odd Man Out an IRA agent who’s been hiding away in a small apartment participates in a necessary bank robbery. However, when he steps out of the bank, in the open air for the first time in months, he is overwhelmed, faints, and gets left behind; with the police now searching everywhere in Belfast for him, he must overcome his physical and mental frailty to get back to safety, alone and afraid for his own life as for the whole operation at hand. Another touchstone was The Three Days of The Condor, in which a CIA agent, tasked with reading books and finding useful ideas for the agency, finds all his colleagues murdered. Knowing he was supposed to be among them, he has to hide out in Manhattan while trying to figure out why that happened in the first place; what he discovers is chilling.

Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor.

What all the characters in this canon seemed to share was fear. These different kinds of fear were inspiring to riff on, but I also wanted to find something more primal as my central point of view, something closer to the protagonist’s very identity.

I needed to break away from the comfort of perfectly adequate and heroic characters who are able to elegantly tackle all the dangerous problems thrown at them (it’s fun, but we’ve seen it a bunch). Instead, I thought about a character who wouldn’t typically belong in a thriller, one who could be more interesting and above all relatable. It is here that two threads met in my mind: this investigation of fear within the genre, and my own fear.

Director Ferdinando Cito Filomarino and John David Washington during the making of Beckett. (Photo by Yannis Drakoulidis / Netflix.)

When I was younger, I experienced a distinct discrepancy between my inner life and outer life, as most of us do. The most disturbing way this manifested itself in me was a resistance to allow some of my thoughts or urges to emerge in the outside world, for fear of the consequences. In my past, this may have happened in important moments, things I look back upon with regret, as well as in more mundane, everyday instances. Thankfully, therapy has been healing, but thinking back on this old thorn in my mental health, I realized what could fuel the film’s identity. If properly applied to our character, this type of fear — which belonged more to a drama — would make Beckett one of the worst possible people to be the target in a manhunt thriller, and that was the quintessence of my initial search.

My driving force for Beckett became the cross-pollination of a dramatic character with the thriller plot. Beckett as a person would now feel realistically warm and pull us in, and it would hit us much harder when the bullets start flying, knowing well just how much he is out of place in that situation.

John David Washington in Beckett. (Image courtesy Netflix.)

Therefore, in the words of our screenwriter Kevin A. Rice, Beckett is “a man who lets life happen to him.” He has spent his existence trying to have the least possible impact on his surroundings, and keeps to himself when he has something to say. What is behind his passive demeanor? Fear, of course. He is afraid to act, to stand up for himself, to expose himself. We witness the most tragic consequences of this flaw in his character in the first part of the story. When he enters a deep personal crisis because of this, guilt and regret consume him to a pulp. It is here that Beckett’s instinct is suddenly challenged when he finds himself threatened and tangled in something unexpected and fatally dangerous (the hunt itself) that requires all his mental strength. If he wants to survive, he needs to engage in action, confront danger, ask for help – things he never previously did. Could this extraordinary situation make such a man change? This drama within the genre film can show Beckett’s existential problem, and maybe show us something in our far less dangerous lives too:

The real fear is not the killers approaching, but the fear to engage. So, what are we going to do about it?

Featured image shows John David Washington in Beckett; image by Yannis Drakoulidis / Netflix.

Ferdinando Cito Filomarino’s English language debut feature, Beckett, a manhunt thriller set in contemporary Greece starring John David Washington, Alicia Vikander, Vicky Krieps and Boyd Holbrook, is now streaming on Netflix. Filomarino began working as an assistant director and editor of documentaries and short films, and in 2010 wrote and directed his first short, Diarchy, starring Louis Garrel, Riccardo Scamarcio and Alba Rohrwacher, and produced by Luca Guadagnino and Marco Morabito, initiating their many collaborations. After Diarchy won awards at Sundance and Locarno, Filomarino directed the documentary Deceit. Visconti’s Conversation Piece, which premiered at the Rome Film Festival. His fiction feature debut, Antonia, a portrait of the Italian poet Antonia Pozzi, premiered at Karlovy Vary, where it won the Jury Prize. Filomarino continued his collaboration with director Guadagnino as second unit director on A Bigger Splash, Call Me by Your Name and Suspiria. (Image courtesy Netflix.)