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House of Gucci’s Screenwriter on Lady Gaga’s Ad-libs and Why Jared Leto Keeps Saying ‘Boof!’

Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

“A sequined Godfather” is how Roberto Bentivegna describes the opulently melodramatic movements of House of Gucci, the Italian fashion epic whose screenplay he co-wrote. Bentivegna is still buzzing from the movie’s showing the previous night at the Academy Museum’s resplendent David Geffen theater. Who can blame him? Between Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, and Jared Leto, House of Gucci has the kind of Hollywood star power the Academy museum was built to house.

For years, director Ridley Scott and his producing partner, wife Giannina Facio, had wanted to adapt Sara Gay Forden’s tome The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour, and Greed into a movie. The story holds all the flashy gowns, juicy family drama and backstabbing power struggles — plus infidelity, avarice, and murder — made to order for the silver screen. Bentivegna relished the challenge to cohere the book’s whirlpool of events into the mammoth movie now in theaters.

His sprawling screenplay (co-credited to Becky Johnston) is a deluge of fantastical characters luxuriating in extravagance. It recalls the whirlwind romance and stormy marriage between bookish fashion heir Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) and the beguiling Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga). Along the way, we’re introduced to Maurizio’s filthy rich family: His sickly father Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons), his uncle Aldo (Al Pacino), and a buffoonish cousin named Paolo (Jared Leto), who harbors dreams of running his own fashion line. Similar to Michael Corleone in The Godfather, the quiet Maurizio would rather defect from the Gucci clan’s incessant squabbling and calibrated mythification. But the power-hungry Patrizia, played with major gusto and copious hand-waving by Gaga, slowly carves them out by one-by-one, leading to the dissolution of her marriage and the eventual assassination of her Maurizio.

Is it any wonder the real-life Gucci family is fretting about their depiction in the film? Bentivegna brushes off their concern. “They should be flattered Lady Gaga made a movie about them,” he quips. The English-Italian screenwriter spoke at length with Vulture about everything else it took to bring this wild story to the screen.

House of Gucci is your first feature-film credit to make it to screen. When did you begin working on the script?
I started writing it two years ago. And the process by which I wrote it was quite serendipitous because I wrote a script that Scott was producing, something else that hasn’t been made yet, and Giannina and Ridley had been working on different versions of the Gucci movie that never quite worked for many years. Kevin, who runs the company [Scott Free], brought me in to meet with them. They basically just said: Do you want to take a crack at this? I grew up in Italy. I grew up in Milan. My mother is in fashion and I lived very close to where Maurizio Gucci was murdered. It just felt very personal to me.

Did you draw from the other scripts or did you start fresh?
I started completely new. I only used the Sara Gay Forden book, The House of Gucci, and I looked at a lot of articles from the 1970s and 1980s that came out in Italian newspapers, like la Repubblica, and it was really interesting to see what people were saying at the time about the family, whether it was about Paolo starting his own line or Aldo going to prison for tax evasion. Obviously, the murder was massively covered, but to go back and kind of look at all those articles from the ’70s and ’80s really helped me find little nuggets of gold and details that I could put in the script.

Becky Johnston is listed as a co-writer. When did she come on? 
So Becky Johnson wrote a script for this movie 12 years ago that I never read. I never met Becky or worked with her on it, so it was a completely different time.

While on set, how did you and Lady Gaga work to shape the dialogue?
Every now and again we talked about some lines of dialogue, here and there, that she wanted to leave or I wanted to change or move around a bit. There were a couple of lines that Gaga came up with, like the wonderful “Father, son, and house of Gucci.” I did not write that. I admit it. But she was so good and she really took the cues that were in the story and in the script, and just ran with it. So did Jared Leto.

Leto’s character Paolo says “boof” all the time, like it’s a catchphrase. Did Leto improvise that?
He totally ran with that. Yeah. That was completely his invention. I never met Jared Leto on set. I met Paolo Gucci for three months. He was completely in character. He was in makeup and prosthetics, and then I would see him in the morning, and he’d leave in the evening. I never saw Jared out of prosthetics. Last night was the first time.

In the beginning, it’s not altogether clear if Patrizia is in love with Maurizio for his money or not. What’s your read on their early relationship?
It’s supposed to be opaque because I think it’s opaque in real life. Gaga took the emotions seriously, you know, she didn’t want to come across as a gold digger. It’s a much more interesting arc for her to go through those emotions the way that she’s presented it. Also it’s a much more empathetic character. I’m not a huge fan of talking about sympathetic protagonists. I always find that a little bit annoying. But at the same time, you want to feel something for that person, you know? And I think by the end of the movie, you’re with her for so long that your heart breaks for them. It also breaks for her in a way because she, by killing him, she’s really killing herself.

I’ve gotta ask about the sex scene in Patrizia’s father’s office, which is … energetic. How’d you write it? What was your approach? What did you want the scene to convey?
I’m quite prudish, so I don’t write sex scenes in full detail. I’m not describing GPS coordinates: Turn right or left. [Laughs.] I mean, I think the idea is that he’s so horny and she’s very sexy. She can manipulate him through sex in a way that she knows what he is missing in his life and she has what he needs. You know? It’s almost like the roles are reversed. She’s the alpha in that scene and in that relationship. I also love that she puts his glasses on herself. It was a great touch.

At one point, Patrizia calls into a television psychic’s hotline and asks Pina, played by Salma Hayek, for relationship advice. What inspired that scene? 
I’m really glad you asked because I’m very proud of this stuff. When I grew up in Italy in the 1980s, there were all these regional channels and they’re pretty tacky and very low budget. It’s people shooting stuff in their living rooms. There was this wave of psychics that would go on television and they would basically get people to call in and you would pay them by credit card. There were actually a few that went to prison for fraud. But you couldn’t go through Italian television at 2:00 a.m. in the 1980s without seeing at least ten psychics. They were usually from the south, and they were usually from Naples or Calabria or Sicily. So I just loved the idea that Patrizia calls in and they have this kind of telepathic connection.

How did you build Pina as a character?
She’s definitely faithful to the character in the book. The biggest thing with her was whether her powers are real or not. For example, Ridley doesn’t believe in that. I’m sort of on the fence. But I liked the idea that maybe she is a fraud, except for that one time when Maurizio’s shagging the femme fatale, [Paola] Franchi, and Pina gets a real message, a real psychic connection.

Speaking of femme fatales, what other movies did you draw from while writing the script?
If I had to pick three, I would definitely say Sunset Boulevard was a huge one. And it’s one of my favorite films. I actually remember pitching it to Giannina and Ridley as Sunset Boulevard, but told from Norma Desmond’s point of view, as opposed to the William Holden character. When you’re writing something like this, this massive thing in terms of all these storylines and characters, you have to grab onto a couple through lines, things you can hold onto for dear life as you’re writing. That idea was a big one.

The other movie was Scarface, funnily enough. I thought of Patrizia as a female Scarface in a way. And the third one was The Godfather. This is like a sequined Godfather. It has a similar family dynamic. Maurizio is almost like a Michael Corleone kind of character. He’s reluctant to join the family and all the family members, essentially, are plotting to take over. He does it in a very quiet way. And of course having Michael Corleone in this movie helps.

In the scene where Aldo knows he’s been sold out by Maurizio to foreign investors, he talks about designing a rare pair of Gucci shoes for Clark Gable with gold leaf hidden in the sole. Where did that come from? 
The one with the golden leaf in it? That’s a good question. Aldo definitely designed the shoes Clark Gable wore in Mogambo. The gold leaf was my touch. It was just the idea that when the investor puts his foot up, it shows Aldo who gave it to him. There’s no way anybody else could have given him that shoe, except Maurizio. So it’s very Shakespearean in that regard.

Was anything left on the cutting-room floor?
The very first draft had a ten-page opening sequence. It was the history of the brand and the Gucci family. One of my favorite openings ever is the first five minutes of Bram Stoker’s Dracula by Francis Ford Coppola. I was trying to do that. The other thing that got cut was a voiceover throughout the movie that I wrote for Patrizia. Ridley decided that we didn’t need it and we got rid of it. But all the drafts had that voiceover. I mean, I’ve been very lucky, at one point, the script was 150 pages long, which is kind of insane. It got down to 135 by the time we were shooting. We didn’t really cut any scenes.

Has anyone connected to the Gucci family reached out or watched the movie?
I have no idea if they’ve seen the film or not. Unless they snuck into a screening, I don’t think they’ve seen it yet. But I have two thoughts. First of all, Gaga made such a beautiful point about this, it is about a man who was murdered incredibly unjustly and regardless of what his misgivings were, it’s important to remember that and to honor that. The other thing is that this is a work of fiction. It’s not a journalistic piece. It’s not a documentary. The family, for better or for worse, is an incredibly interesting, colorful one. We made the best movie we could about them.

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