Paula Brancati stars in the film From the Vine (2019), directed by award-winning Canadian filmmaker Sean Cisterna. Brancati co-produced the film which also stars Emmy Award winner Joe Pantoliano, veteran Italian actor Marco Leonardi, and Canadian icon Wendy Crewson. Set in Toronto and Acerenza, Italy, From the Vine is based on the acclaimed novel Finding Marco by Kenneth Canio Cancellara. “At its core,” says Paula Brancati, “this film is about family, about returning to your roots when you’re in crisis, and discovering that there’s a lot of joy to be found there.” The interview was conducted via Zoom by Accenti editor at large Liana Cusmano. Click here to see the video.
Hi Paula Brancati. Thank you for being here and doing this interview with Accenti Magazine. You star in From the Vine, a Canadian production set in Canada and Italy also starring Joe Pantoliano and Wendy Crewson. Can you tell us about the movie?
Sure. It’s an Italian-Canadian production, as you said and it’s about a down-trodden CEO who is facing a moral crisis, so he goes back to his hometown of Acerenza, Italy, to recalibrate his roots. In going back there he reconnects with old friends and wants to revive his nonno’s old vineyard; he finds this new-found joy there.
You also co-produced the film. What made you decide to get involved in this aspect of filmmaking?
You know, I’d produced a couple of films before this, and I was looking to make something that felt like a love letter to my family, to my nonni who helped raise me, and Sean [Cisterna] and I had worked together years prior. We’d been circling around a few ideas for Italian-Canadian co-productions and he brought this story to me that Ken Cancellara wrote, and pretty early on he attached me as an actor and as a producer. I felt it was exactly the right fit for me in both those regards. One of my absolute pleasures on this was being able to bring in cast that I had either admired or worked with prior, and crew that I had a rapport with or was a fan of. Getting to bring them overseas and getting to do this as an experience as a team was a delight for me as a filmmaker.
So is this aspect of [film] production something that you see yourself doing more of in the future?
Producing? Yeah. I have a production company called BrancSeater Productions. We’ve been producing for about five years now, and I’ve been producing things with my co-producer Michael Seater and also without [him]. So, my rule of thumb as a producer is that when a story won’t get out of my head and I’m stuck with it, when I get a little obsessed about it, I know that that’s a really good inclination that I should pursue it. Whether it be in a web-series format. Or right now I’m developing a couple of television shows. And I’m about to go into production on my fourth feature as a producer, a really great script that Katie Boland wrote. I think I feel compelled to produce content that feels really original, and that maybe pilots a voice that I haven’t heard before. I certainly have a bug for wanting to continue to create content that feels reflective of my experience as a Canadian-Italian young woman. I definitely loved that in From the Vine, and some of the content I’m looking toward has that theme in it. Toronto’s so special in that way. We get to grow up, and I had my grandparents with me, and Italian was my first language. So there’s something very specific about growing up in Toronto and being encouraged to let those colours of your roots flourish. I’d love to continue on that journey as both an actor and a producer.
That level of representation is very important. You said that this film is a love letter to Italy and also a love letter to your nonni, in particular, who helped raise you. Can you tell me more about growing up in the Toronto area and that relationship with your grandparents?
Oh, absolutely. They were like other parents for me, so I felt like I had six parents growing up. Italian was my first language and their backyard was my haven. I didn’t go to camp or, like, sleepovers or anything and my grandparents were my friends. My nonno who passed away a year ago this week, he was such a huge source of support as far as this industry goes – all of them were – and he drove me to every single audition with my nonna. They were champions for me, as were my parents, and a huge part of wanting to do this movie was for him and for my other grandfather who passed away years ago. So I have such a connection to them, unrelated to this business. They’re some of my best friends. I feel that connection to my roots in Sicily – I’m not from Acerenza. As a second-generation Canadian, when I first travelled there I was ten years old, and I was so overcome with emotion because I immediately felt this connection to my family that was there. I don’t know if you have family elsewhere, but you meet these people that you’ve never known before and you feel immediately tethered to them and to the land; I couldn’t believe how much that felt like a part of me, too. In some ways they are a part of everything that I do, and they will continue to always be a part of the fabric of my creative process.
You’re right. I felt that same connection. When you go there and you meet these people, that you’ve not seen before or only seen in pictures. And all of a sudden it’s something that you really feel and it’s really visceral and emotional. You said you went to Italy for the first time at the age of ten, how did that compare to going there to film, to do a project in Italy?
I’ve been there quite a few times since. Getting to go there and work was like, surreal, of course. I got to go for one day to Sicily for my dear cousin Mariangela’s wedding right before we started. Leading up to a production it’s always stressful in all the best ways. But going overseas, there’s all these challenges to contend with and more worries. I think that’s part of the job as a producer is preparing for every scenario. So it was really beautiful and grounding to be in Sicily right before. I was obviously crying for days straight because you’re crying saying hello, you’re crying saying goodbye, and then to go to Acerenza where – one of the things I find most spectacular about Italy is you go to all these different places and towns and there’s a whole new personality to the town. It feels totally different, town-to-town. I’d been there, to Acerenza, for a location scout earlier in the summer for a week with our DP [director of photography] and with Sean and Ken. They were so welcoming right away — arms wide open when I landed, when all of our crew that they hadn’t met landed. I was quite overcome with that generosity from them, and I was also excited to get to feature a town like that on film, that I don’t think gets highlighted. I think we in North America get to see a lot of big city Italy. It was really interesting to get to be legitimately working with and featuring actors who were from there, and you can really feel that in the movie; you can feel the DNA of the Acerenza people in every frame. I’ll never forget it. I had to keep reminding myself in stressful moments like “Look out the window. Remember where you are.” It really was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing, so my nonni were certainly very proud, for sure.
What was it like to work alongside actors like Joe Pantoliano and Wendy Crewson in that environment?
So, so cool, and even Marco Leonardi who joined us from Italy — we had this incredible cast of Americans, Canadians, and Italians working so seamlessly. Joe is such an incredible character actor, his body of work is so extensive. I was so excited when we thought of him for this and I said to Sean, “I don’t know we’ve seen him do something like this,” and [it was] an extra treat for me to get to play opposite him as his daughter. With Wendy, she is absolutely Canadian royalty, and she had come out to do a tiny web series I produced a couple of years ago, just to support me as a young filmmaker, and was just so amazing. So when she said yes, it was just this vote of confidence, I think, for other cast signing on, and she’s a dear friend, also. So, there were lots of dreams that were checked for me on this project and working alongside this cast was certainly one of them.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed civilization as we know it. How are you coping with this, keeping in mind there’s been a halt to television and film productions everywhere?
It’s been so strange to see that complete halt in the arts, in so many fields of work. It’s been quite devastating. When I think about the arts in this period, we are all leaning on the arts so heavily for, you know, to take a breath. Binge watching, that’s a verb now, we all partake, so thinking about how much has been stalled, it’s quite incredible. It’s not just the actors, it’s all of the crew; there are so many jobs that aren’t able to work right now. That’s been difficult to see. For me, personally, there’s been times that I’ve been feeling incredibly creative, and there’s been other times when I feel really low about it. We’re seeing such an incredible shift in the world, and I think that it was long overdue. But I think that, from all of the unrest in the world, we’ll come out of this hopefully having learned something. I think we are going to see a shift in the television and film industry as far as what is being created, what voices are creating, and I look forward to when we are going to get to be back on set. We are slowly doing this. I’ve been in soft pre-production on the feature I mentioned, We’re All in This Together. We’re about to start shooting, in August. So it’s baby steps, right? We’re all looking to each other for support, we want everyone to stay safe, and I think everyone is so eager to have new content, and maybe have content – and I hope From the Vine fits into this – where there’s a little bit of hope that comes from the kind of product we’re putting out there. Maybe people’s appetite for feel-good content is [now] a little bit greater.
Well, we will probably need a lot more of that than we might otherwise have. Have you felt that pressure to “take advantage” of quarantine at all?
That’s a good question. Some days yes and some days not. I can be hard on myself, as I think a lot of us can, and especially when you are passionate about your career and you enjoy your work. When that’s taken away there’s an identity crisis of sorts. That being said, health — mental health and physical health — has been at the forefront of my mind. I think a lot about our frontline workers. I think so much about my nonni’s generation that are isolated right now, that can’t see their families, that can’t have that physical touch. That stuff has really weighed heavily on me. I missed both my nonnas who are still around, and even when we screened From the Vine a couple of weeks ago for Father’s Day, we screened it at over thirty retirement homes and seniors’ homes across Canada; thinking about that and thinking about all of the people that can’t see their families right now. When I’m having a down day, I think about that and I’m fine. I want everybody to be able to be healthy and be able to hug each other and that I think is top of mind. So, everyone, wear your masks. I think it’s about gently entering the new post-COVID land, so we don’t have to go back into it. I think that’s something I’m thinking a lot about.
Yes, we’ve seen a lot of communities and a lot of countries that have rushed, and that’s really the last thing we should be doing…
Yes, it’s very scary. When we talk about going back to work for all those reasons, that, as well, won’t happen if we don’t all do our part. So all of that’s floating around in my brain. It’s definitely a strange time to be releasing a movie, but then we think hopefully this is exactly the right time for viewing a movie like this that can be such a “co-viewing” experience that can be watched amongst so many generations.
Exactly. How was it received at the screenings a few weeks ago?
So warmly across the board, for it not having to be for a specific age group. I think we’ve seen it at film festivals before, people bringing their parents or their kids and feeling really connected to it, and I think feeling a different sense of nostalgia depending on where you’re at in your life. But it’s felt like everyone’s really gotten it and there’s been a lot more levity and a lot more humour and a lot more laughs than I even anticipated, which is so great. It’s been a joy to share and hopefully a lot of people will want to watch it just as much, cozy on the couch. I hope it brings some sort of soothing.
Canadian television audiences will remember you from your starring roles in shows such as Degrassi and Being Erica. Do you see yourself returning to television or do you plan to focus more on film? What can you tell us about the difference between those two areas?
I love acting, I love performing, and I’m also a theatre actor so all mediums excite me. I think we’ve seen such a shift in how television is ingested, the sheer amount and speed since the rise of Netflix. I do an anthology show for Netflix, a horror anthology show called Slasher and it’s sort of in the vein of American Horror Story, and every season we play new characters. Getting to see the reach of that show, across the world because of Netflix, has been so incredible – the binge-watch culture. TV was my first love, truly, because I’d watch soap operas with my nonni after school, and just wanted to be inside the world all the time and I loved that you could watch it every day, and it felt like these characters were your friends. I grew up watching a lot of films with my father. I think the biggest difference for me is that, as an actor, you know the lifespan of your character when you have a script for a film, and you can map out the beginning, middle, and end. With a series, you really don’t know a lot of the time if it’s going to go many seasons, how that’s going to evolve. So both really excite me for different reasons. But I’m certainly creating content that has roles for both me and other people in both film and television. I think the best story wins: whether it be for miniseries or an anthology, or an eight-season network show or a film. I think that kind of reveals itself depending on what the kind of story you want to tell is.
Those stories are really at the heart of how people connect and what draws them to those projects. What more can you tell me about the projects you have in the pipeline?
Well, I’m working with Bruce MacDonald whom I am such a fan of as an actor, since I was working on Degrassi. He was a director there, and he’s Canadian royalty, for sure. So myself and Michael Seater are working with him on his next feature, written by Daniel MacIvor, who I’m also such a huge fan of, and getting to work with those legends is pretty spectacular. That’s coming down the pipeline, so we’ve been developing that with them for the past year. I’m very, very excited about that. That’s an aging, queer love-story road-trip movie with an incredible script. It’s called Vic and Doc and Duke Go to the Store. The series that are cooking: there’s an Italian-Canadian sitcom that I’m writing with Salvatore Antonio, who I worked with on Slasher, and myself and Vinessa Antoine, who’s the star of Diggstown on the CBC, have a show that’s very close to us about Toronto and about mental health that’s evolving. So I’m very excited. Whether it’s in front of the camera or behind the camera, I just look forward to creation.
Thank you very much for taking the time to do this interview. It’s so great to hear of a young Italian Canadian bridging these two worlds and being dedicated to telling these stories that resonate with people, especially in a world that’s changing so quickly and a future that is so uncertain.
Thank you, Liana, for the kind and thoughtful questions.
Liana Cusmano is a writer, filmmaker, spoken word artist, and Accenti editor-at-large.