When Angelina Jolie read Alessandro Baricco’s short novel “Without Blood” — the basis for her next directorial effort — the Italian fable about the brutality of war and healing in its aftermath had an immediate therapeutic effect.
“I read it right as I was going through the beginning of a very dark time in my life. I read it in the month that followed my divorce [from Brad Pitt in 2016],” recalls Jolie, who shot the adaptation at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios. “It had the effect on me that it’s had on so many people,” Jolie says, noting that the blurb on the cover says that the book is about the complexity of the human condition.
“I didn’t understand that when I first read it. I just knew the book had a profound effect on me,” she says. “I think it’s one of those pieces of art, of somebody’s intuition and mind, that puts something forward that has so much truth in it about who we are as people.”
She talks to Variety in the midst of shooting on a bustling soundstage where a key scene following a shootout at an isolated farmhouse is being set up. Ironically for a movie titled “Without Blood,” the wood farmhouse floor built on the Cinecittà soundstage is strewn with blood and bullets, and final touches are being put on a bullet-ridden dummy lying on the ground. “A Western?” says Jolie, about the tone of the film. “We’ve embraced that.”
“We love dead bodies; we definitely have dead bodies,” says Emmy-winning production designer Jon Hutman, who recalls meeting Jolie in 2010 on the Venice set of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s “The Tourist.” He has worked on four of the actor’s five films since then.
“Having a lot of shootouts means you have to have multiples of the same costume,” says costume designer Ursula Patzak, who adds that the main visual reference she got from Jolie is “The Godfather,” which “has lots of black and white costumes.” The color palette of the film’s outfits is sober because “color distracts from the narrative of the story and from the actors.”
“My first film was about the war in the Balkans,” Jolie recalls of “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” saying she wrote it “trying to understand” how people who love each other can turn against each other. “How come in the beginning of the film they love each other and in the end of the film they’re killing each other?” she says. “The film is a study in how that happens.”
But “Without Blood,” which is told in a series of flashbacks, is a more complex work about violence, war and choices. “This film raises different questions; there is no clear good and bad in this film, even though there is clearly bad, horrible, horrific and criminal behavior.”
(This interview was conducted before an FBI report from 2016 leaked last week where Jolie alleged that Pitt assaulted her on a plane ride, leading to their divorce.)
Having the human condition at its core makes for a nuanced narrative in the book, for which Jolie personally optioned the rights. “It’s quite extraordinary,” she says. “Baricco gives almost every single character a memory, a history, many textures. So it’s almost impossible to see where one ends and the other begins.”
Baricco’s novel is set in an unnamed place with echoes of Mexico, and in an unspecified time, though the film spans the 1920s to the 1970s.
The story revolves around Nina, played by Salma Hayek, who, as a young girl, witnesses the carnage inflicted by her father’s enemies on her father and brother. She escapes by hiding under the family’s farmhouse floor, and although one of the murderers, a man named Tito (Demián Bichir), spots her, he decides to keep quiet. Many years later, they will meet again.
After reading the book, Jolie met with Baricco and wrote the screenplay. But it was not until six years later, after meeting with top executives from Fremantle and Lorenzo De Maio, who launched De Maio Entertainment in 2021 with backing from Fremantle, that she was able to get traction on bringing this passion project to the screen. “They loved the material, so it just really came together,” she says. “I couldn’t believe it because they don’t make a lot of films like this these days.”
Earlier this year, Jolie inked a three-year deal with Fremantle; “Without Blood” is the first project from that pact. De Maio calls it “a great opportunity for us.”
Andrea Scrosati, group COO and continental Europe CEO of Fremantle, points out that just one month after signing the overall deal with Jolie, “Without Blood” was already in pre-production, fully financed by Fremantle, which has been making a major push into film. The budget, which is high end for continental Europe, is being kept under wraps.
The film’s casting came together “very rapidly and organically,” says De Maio. This was thanks to Jolie’s close rapport with her “Eternals” co-star Hayek, and also because Bichir starred in a Baricco theater piece in Mexico and holds the writer in high esteem. “The majority of the cast are Mexicans speaking with Mexican accents,” says Jolie, who calls the film a “hybrid” in terms of nationalities as well as genres.
She has been happy to shoot “Without Blood” at Cinecittà, where Fremantle has a long-term rental deal, and in other Italian locations, including the ancient Southern Italian town of Matera, where the opening car chase in Bond pic “No Time to Die” was shot; in the adjacent region of Puglia, “Angie’s favorite set,” according to Hutman, where they shot the field hospital where Nina’s father, a doctor, worked; and Procoio, an estate west of Rome where the perfect farmhouse for the film’s opening scene was found.
Several Andrew Wyeth paintings serve as the visual reference for the farmhouse scene, says Hutman, who points out that “besides the tonality of the farmhouse, there are lots of faded whites and natural woods throughout the movie.”
A climactic scene very near the end of “Without Blood,” in which Nina and Tito reconnect in an art nouveau cafè, was shot at night in central Rome’s Piazza della Repubblica in order to capture the cafè, and then reworked at Cinecittà using a giant LED wall.
Now the plan is for “Without Blood,” which is being edited in Los Angeles, to be completed during the second half of 2023.
As for the film’s themes of war, revenge and forgiveness, “The reality of these never-ending wars we have has helped me to look at violence and trauma and revenge in very different ways, and there is no easy answer,” says Jolie.