In The Lonely Italian, MTV Italy star Domenico Nesci is looking to find love in America by joining every online dating website and app, while documenting his experience at the same time. It’s easy to compare The Lonely Italian with Sascha Baron Cohen’s Borat and The Ali G Show. Film Threat caught up with The Lonely Italian star Domenico Nesci and its director Lee Farber at the San Diego International Film Festival. We spoke about their hybrid-documentary that combines scripted comedy, reality and real innocent civilians.
How would you explain The Lonely Italian to someone who is not Italian and only knows about Italians from The Godfather?
Domenico Nesci: So, plot of the film, it’s an Italian man-
Lee Farber: Okay, forget it. They’re not going to understand a word he’s saying.
Domenico Nesci: What? That was the best.
Lee Farber: You … I swear to God, your English is more broken than my heart in college. Domenico is Italian. He really is Italian. And he is having trouble meeting women in America in the traditional Italian way of saying, “Ciao, Bella? How are you? Can I take you out, tonight?” The idea is that as Americans, we’re all so buried in our devices, looking down, that we don’t look up at the world around us. So, Domenico joins not just one online dating website, but he joins every online dating website, trying to find love. It’s a hybrid narrative documentary. Domenico really is a person. He really did join every online dating site in America. And we followed him, and then wrote a script that connects all those real dates together.
“Domenico really is a person. He really did join every online dating site in America. And we followed him, and then wrote a script that connects all those real dates together.”
I’m interested in the process. You go on these dates. You film them. Where does the story come into play?
Domenico Nesci: We shot all the dates, first. And from the beginning, we felt that we had an outstanding movie going on based on all the womens [sic] I met. And after we shot for a year, Lee starts thinking about how he was going to put this movie together. We started a Kickstarter campaign to raise some money, while Lee was writing. After we raised some money, we shot the scripted part that tied all the movie to that.
Lee Farber: So we basically made the movie backward. When we started, we had an idea, but we didn’t know if it would be a movie. My background is that I was a writer and co-executive producer of the show The Soup on the E Network. And Domenico had not one, but two MTV reality shows. He approached me a few years ago, and I ran screaming. I thought he was just one of these reality show famewhores, trying to extend his, you know 15 minutes of fame. Which he was, but he had said, look, “I don’t do this reality stuff no more. I am looking for love. What do you know about online dating?” And at the time, I didn’t know really anything. I had been married for seven years. I didn’t know really, anything about online dating, other than I knew there were Match and OkCupid.
So, Domenico had done all this research about how many people are doing online dating. Because this is about four years ago, there was a real stigma in this country about online dating. And I was so impressed because I mean, he’s kind of an idiot.
Domenico Nesci: A smart idiot.
Lee Farber: A very smart, idiot. Domenico initially thought, let’s do a straightforward documentary about the world of online dating. And I said, well, that’s really interesting, I’d watch it. But, I’m not really a documentary guy. I’m a comedy guy. I know Domenico is funny. Why don’t we make it a personal journey about him?
So, luckily, we had a couple Canon 5Ds. We got some hobos to be our crew, off Craigslist. If this works, then great. If it doesn’t work, so, we wasted a couple bucks on coffee. And I think by the third date, we realized this was something special.
“The priest was very nice. But the rabbi tore him a new a*****e.”
Not to give away too much of your trade secrets. But, setting up those dates, getting the cameras, getting the location and stuff, was that difficult?
Domenico Nesci: We discuss whether we should shoot like Candid Camera, and then see if the dates want to sign a release. But then, it would have been too much [sic] time-consuming.
Lee Farber: Also, that’s a reality show. See, I spent 11 years on The Soup making fun of reality television, I was really sensitive about that blurred line between cinema, documentary, and reality show. If we’re going to do this, this is a movie. This has to be cinema. So, this is no GoPro’s and no hidden cameras. We’re not pranking these people. These people are going to know that they are being filmed, and they’re participating of their own free will. I want this to look great.
Domenico Nesci: I approached 1,000 women a week. And the first message was a normal message. “I really like you. I would like to go out with you.” And then, I would follow up, and I would say, “oh, yeah, sure. Blah, blah, blah.” Then, I would follow up with a second message, saying how about a date? And then, I’d say out of 1,000, half of them would say, “okay, let’s go onto [sic] a date,” based on the time and charm.
And out of these 500, I would approach them again, and say, “hey, I would like to document my search for love in America, do you mind if I bring non-invasive cameras to our date.” In a town like L.A., you would expect that everybody would say yes to cameras. We were lucky when we had five, maybe six girls a week that would agree to go on a date with me. That was a challenge.
Lee Farber: It’s funny, because after doing this for a few months, ultimately we had seventy to eighty dates that we actually filmed. There was a real learning curve when it came to actually filming the dates. At first, Domenico would go on these dates, and they were kind of boring. People get a little camera shy. We said to them, “Ignore the cameras. React naturally to him. He’s Italian. He has a different culture. He doesn’t really have a filter. If he’s being a schmuck, tell him.”
Domenico Nesci: And they trusted me. They actually liked me, and they trusted me. They weren’t super scared about it.
Lee Farber: And that was another challenge, he actually hit it off with a lot of these women. If he would start making out with them at the end of the date, I’d be like, oh, s**t. Because the movie is not about relationships. The movie is about the search. So, every time it would work out, I would say, “Well, great, now the movie’s over.” So, we’d have to pick just the right moment to why does this date end? And luckily, he had enough embarrassing moments on each of these dates, that we could just show that.
As the Italian in The Lonely Italian, what is the perspective that you bring toward the subject matter?
Domenico Nesci: I mean, it’s very hard, and interesting, and unexpected that in America I have to use an app, or a website to date somebody. In Italy, I used to approach women in the middle of the street, in a bar, like in a normal, natural way. So, I was kind of surprised on how popular this has become in America. It was very hard for me to go on a website like OkCupid and fill up [sic] 600 questions.
But you have to do it, the more question you fill up, the more chances that people will like you. And then you go through these algorithms, where they match you up with somebody. All based on who you like, and who you don’t like. They tell you, you match with this women 60% or 80% [sic].
You speak with experts. Did you do that to show that as Americans, we overanalyze love, and overanalyze dating?
Domenico Nesci: Actually people like that, they make a living off giving tips to people, like me, on how to go and date, what to wear, how your profile should be. And they’re very helpful; they make a lot of money doing that every year.
Lee Farber: Domenico had the good sense to say, we should be interviewing these people. From the research that he had done, there are people that are very earnest and are really doing this to help people. Then there are other people that are kind of shysters trying to make money preying off the lonely. “I’ve got what it takes. I can help you find love.” And so, we interviewed all kinds.
There’s the one guy who’s very outspoken. We had all these questions prepared, and the guy opened his mouth and didn’t stop talking. It was amazing. And he’s 100% real. And the moment he started talking, I stood behind him and looked at Domenico, and just said, don’t say anything. Let him keep talking. And it was, I think actually his interview was the moment I realized we had a really funny movie.
Your readers might be interested in this because they’re cinephiles and film fans. The context in which you see certain things in this film are not necessarily the context in which we shot them.
For example, Domenico had the idea to interview a priest, and a rabbi together. Mostly because he just wanted to see what happens when a priest, a rabbi, and an Italian walked into a bar. And Domenico was very much himself. And the priest was very nice. But the rabbi tore him a new a*****e. I mean, the rabbi came with an agenda. He sensed that Domenico was kind of this clown. And he gave him a dressing down as I’ve never seen. And this was, I think this was like in our third week of shooting.
At one point, I was mortified, because I was like, “Oh, my God, we’ve pissed this guy off.” Because I never wanted anyone to leave this experience of making this movie, feeling like we had put one over on them. As I said, it’s not a “Borat,” or a prank thing. Later, I realized just because we shot this in week three; this moment could be kind of the emotional low point of the film. So, we used that moment in a different context.
“About film festivals, it gives deserving movies an opportunity to be seen the way, really, movies should be seen.”
Tell us about your festival experience. How are audiences responding to The Lonely Italian?
Domenico Nesci: I mean, it’s great to see the reaction. We did a screen test in front of 330 people. It’s great to see that reaction in a movie theater. It’s great to see that a movie like ours can be enjoyed in such a big room. Even though I think we have a movie that it’s great for couches, and people that they want to watch with their girlfriends on Valentine’s Day. But, it’s good. It gives us a voice. It gives us a platform that we can actually show it to the world.
Lee Farber: Yeah, we … You know, we’re in a weird situation, because we made for the most part, a silly comedy, with no stars. Sorry, Domenico.
Domenico Nesci: And no director.
Lee Farber: And no big famous director, too. And now that it’s easier, physically, to make a movie. It’s harder to get your movie noticed. And especially for comedies. Film festivals really thrive on these artsy, brooding, dramatic films. And film festivals, too. It’s a business. So, they want something flashy, with big stars. So, here at the San Diego International Film Festival was so welcoming for us. Because, they just said, we don’t care who’s in it. We just love the movie. We laughed. And they just welcomed us with open arms. That’s everything to a movie like this. It’s so easy for little movies like this to get lost. I mean, if we made this movie in 1990, I’d like to think it would really catch on. Nowadays, there are just so many films out there. And a lot of them are great. And some of them suck. But, the ability for us to be able to see our movie in a theater is amazing.
Domenico Nesci: We were discussing is how. First, you used to just put a movie in a movie theater, and then you distribute it, and now it’s becoming the opposite. You have the movie out on VOD, and you screen it at the same time in a movie theater. It’s crazy. But, I think that the future of movies its video on demand. Especially, for independent movies.
Lee Farber: Yeah, and you lose that shared experience when it’s at home.
Comedies are really important to be seen in groups, in a crowd.
Lee Farber: At one point, we test screened the movie just in a living room, with some college guys, people in their 20s. We really wanted people that have had this experience of online dating. And we got great feedback from them. They were so excited. I think this was one of our first test screenings. And we said “That’s great. So, you’d pay money to see this in the theater, right?” And they said, “Absolutely not.” We were like, what? They said, look-
Domenico Nesci: Twenty bucks.
Lee Farber: … if we’re going to pay $16, $20 to see a movie, it’s going to be a Marvel movie. It’s going to be “Star Wars,” you know. And unfortunately, that’s the reality. So, your question about film festivals, it gives deserving movies an opportunity to be seen the way, really, movies should be seen.