Interview: Leonardo Bigazzi on Curating the Art in Director Vasilis Katsoupis’ New Film, “Inside”

The contemporary art curator explains how a character was born from a collection of artworks

As viewers attempting to estimate the value of a film, we often hone in on the nuance of performance, the depth of the story or the role played by cinematography and the style of the visual language. For Inside—a profound feature-length film, co-written and directed by acclaimed Greek filmmaker Vasilis Katsoupis, produced by Triangle of Sadness‘ Giorgos Karnvas and starring Willem Dafoe, who delivers an utterly enveloping performance—there’s one unexpected piece to the critical puzzle: art curation. In the movie, tenured art thief Nemo (played by Defoe) becomes trapped alone in a penthouse with the priceless artworks he attempted to purloin. Curated by Leonardo Bigazzi, in conjunction with Katsoupis, the artworks transform into metaphoric characters that Defoe engages with over time—and together the art informs our understanding of the collector whose home Defoe cannot escape.

Bigazzi works as a curator with Fondazione In Between Art Film, a commissioning cultural institution founded by Beatrice Bulgari that probes the boundaries between film, performance, installation and other time-based media. “The way we operate is through exhibitions, and commissioning, producing or supporting art with moving images,” he explains. “We also support the artist film program for the Tate in London. We support the MAXXI video gallery in Rome. We work in different capacities to support the development of the medium.”

Image of art curator Leonardo Bigazzi (left) placing Joanna Piotrowska’s “Untitled” (2014), with director Vasilis Katsoupis (right) on the set of “INSIDE,” a Focus Features release. Courtesy of Focus Features

It’s partially thanks to In Between Art Film that Bigazzi came to be involved with Inside. Through the foundation, the curator worked with the artist Janis Rafa. “Giorgos Karnvas is the producer of her first feature film, Kala azar,” Bigazzi explains. “When Giorgos was speaking to her and saying, ‘We need an art curator to work on the art collection of Inside,’ she said, ‘Why don’t you call Leonardo.’ Giorgos pitched the idea over email. It was a very busy moment in my life and I waited to open it. On a Sunday morning, Giorgos followed up. I opened the email at 2AM and I couldn’t believe it. This was an opportunity of a lifetime: to work with Willem Dafoe and to develop a character in a movie through an art collection, to be able to contribute with the selection of the works to the narrative of the film.”

Willem Dafoe stars as Nemo in director Vasilis Katsoupis’ “INSIDE,” a Focus Features release. Image courtesy of Wolfgang Ennenbach / Focus Features

“It took some time to develop,” Bigazzi explains of his approach to the art collection. “There was this idea that I had to work in two different tracks. One was the development of the character of the art collector. The art collection is the physical manifestation of this character, of this antagonist to the character Nemo in a sense. As with every art collection, this art collection itself is the result of the passion, obsession and encounters in life of the person who put it together. The other track, which is even more fascinating and often came up in a dialogue with Vasilis, is the question, how can we put in Easter eggs? How can the art recall the psychological development or physical evolution of Willem’s character?” This is so meticulously executed that the art can also be analyzed at great length with parallels drawn to plot and character.

Willem Dafoe stars as Nemo in director Vasilis Katsoupis’ “INSIDE,” a Focus Features release. Image courtesy of Wolfgang Ennenbach / Focus Features

The collection features photography, painting, sculpture, video projection and more. Certain pieces were commissioned specifically for the film. “Every one of the 25 artists that are part of this collection, I had to approach in a different way,” Bigazzi says. “Some directly because I had worked with them in the past, others through their estate or their gallery representatives.” Working on a four-and-a-half month timeline, Bigazzi came prepared with thoughts on why and “how the art would work in the film and what I thought it would bring to the narrative.”

Two works were specifically named in Katsoupis’ script that remained in the film. “There’s the work of Breda Beban, a double video project, because Breda was an influential art teacher at the university Vasilis attended and the work was absolutely perfect because it speaks about the impossibility of meeting and the idea of being isolated,” Bigazzi says. “The second work is that of Stefanos Rokos. All the others were the result of a dialogue.”

Willem Dafoe on the set of director Vasilis Katsoupis’ “INSIDE,” a Focus Features release. Image courtesy of Wolfgang Ennenbach / Focus Features

Perhaps of greatest importance to the plot are the replicas of work by Egon Schiele. “I went with this option for two reasons,” Bigazzi says. “The first being I only wanted to select works that were known to be in private collections to avoid seeing something on screen and knowing it is in a museum. Those Schiele could legitimately be in that apartment.” Second, Bigazzi notes, Schiele depicts such torment that it aligned with the plight of Nemo.

Bigazzi installed the collection on location exactly as he would have an exhibit. At least 40% of what occurs in the film is the result of improvisation, born of consequence and shooting the film chronologically. “Willem himself began to have different relationships to the objects,” Bigazzi says. “When Willem saw the costume of the moth by Petrit Halilaj, he said, ‘This is something I want to try to wear. I am freezing cold. This is the warmest thing I could put on myself.’ This is the most fascinating part of this work for the movie, the generative possibilities of the encounters between art and film.”

Inside premiered at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. It will open across the US on 17 March. “What’s beautiful about this film is that you will hopefully want to watch it again,” Bigazzi says. “Vasilis always says that he is interested in the experience of the movie. What I’m interested in, is that the audience will recognize the labor of love that went into selecting these works. It’s not about decoration. It’s about possibility.”

Hero image Willem Dafoe stars as Nemo in director Vasilis Katsoupis’ INSIDE, a Focus Features release. Image courtesy of Wolfgang Ennenbach / Focus Features