Roberto Rossellini on his "absolutely spontaneous" filmmaking process

Plus: How do creators create when life is literally falling apart?

Welcome to the third issue of Subtle Maneuvers. I’d love to hear what you think of the newsletter so far—feel free to let me know by replying to this email.

Roberto Rossellini (1906–1977)

The Italian neorealist filmmaker didn’t believe in “fixed scenarios” for his films, and he placed great importance on inspiration and improvisation during the filmmaking process. He did write scripts, “because it would be crazy to try to improvise everything at the last minute,” he said. “But the scenes, the dialogue, and the scenography are adjusted from day to day.” He often invented new episodes on the spot, and he would jot down dialogue on the backs of envelopes or even the cuffs of his shirt.

This freewheeling approach made some actors uncomfortable (including Rossellini’s third wife, Ingrid Bergman, who hated to improvise on camera.) But Rossellini insisted that it was the only way he could work. “Maybe people think I’m crazy, but I refuse to know how my film will end on the day I begin to shoot it!” he said in 1948. “I’m incapable of working in a corset. A detailed script to be followed step by step, a studio full of equipment, all that preplanning with scenery and lighting, it’s totally odious to me.” In another interview, he said, “One must be absolutely spontaneous and nothing else, because if you start to think in terms such as, ‘I am an artist,’ you are immediately a son of a bitch.”

As a result of this emphasis on spontaneity, Rossellini’s working days were often chaotic and unpredictable. But his nights were always spent the same way:

I don’t sleep much at night. I read in bed, always a number of books at the same time, often six or seven. I find it tiring to concentrate on a single book, to wait for the end. . . .

While reading, I have the courage to note on the books’ margin the ideas that come to me. Later, before shelving the books, I make up some bibliographic cards. I make signs with different colors so I know what’s most important, less important, what’s complementary, what’s basic, et cetera. And I also write down the thoughts that come to me, impressions absolutely virgin. I reread my notes on the books’ pages and I write them down in notebooks under headings divided by letters A, B, C, D. Then I write ‘human,’ ‘education,’ ‘thievery,’ et cetera. These cards, later on when I need them, will permit me to reconstruct a certain type of person.

Near the end of his life, Rossellini estimated that he had read and annotated some nine thousand books. And it was this nighttime reading, he insisted, that enabled his improvisatory approach during the day. “As far as I’m concerned,” he said, “in order to work I first need to gather an extraordinary amount of information, so as to know what I am going to be dealing with through and through, after which I allow myself total freedom of action.”

Roberto Rossellini with Saha the cat, 1952

Sources: Roberto Rossellini, My Method: Writings and Interviews, trans. Annapaola Cancogni (1987; repr. New York: Marsilio, 1995); Tag Gallagher, The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini (New York: Da Capo Press, 1998).

[Editor’s note: Last week, Ana wrote for advice about starting a new project. This week, part two of her question.]

Dear Subtle Maneuvers,

Have you found anything interesting regarding artists or creators living in a very complex urgent social context and feeling blocked or less important than the realities they are living? How do creators create when life is literally falling apart? (I’m thinking of social injustice, violence, human rights violations, climate change, economic crisis, etc.) —Ana in Santiago, Chile

Dear Ana,

I’m glad you asked this, because I suspect that many people are grappling with feelings of futility and impotence in regard to their creative work right now. But what I’ve found in my research is actually a bit different—that in moments of historical crisis, artists tend to vacillate between, on the one hand, yes, feeling shocked, depressed, and unsure of how to proceed. But, on the other hand, many end up finding that their work is more urgent than ever, or at least that it’s the best way for them to personally weather and make sense of the events unfolding around them.

One example that springs to mind is the New York artist David Wojnarowicz, who in the late 1980s watched as the AIDS crisis killed many of his friends and fellow artists, including his former lover and longtime mentor, the photographer Peter Hujar. In 1988, Wojnarowicz learned that he was HIV positive as well; he died from the disease four years later, when he was 37. In his memoir Close to the Knives, Wojnarowicz wrote about how the disease “periodically knocks me on my ass with its relentlessness.”

With almost any other illness you take for granted that within a week or a month the illness will end and the wonderful part of the human body called the mind will go about its job of erasing evidence of the pain and discomfort previously experienced. With AIDS or HIV infections one never gets that luxury and I find myself after a while responding to it for a fractured moment with my pre-AIDS thought processes: ‘All right, this is enough already; it should just go away.’ But each day’s dose of medicine, or the intermittent aerosol pentamidine treatments, or the sexy stranger nodding to you on the street corner or across the room at a party, reminds you in a clearer than clear way that at this point in history the virus’ activity is forever.

Not only was life literally falling apart all around him, but the government was responding with willful obfuscation, conservative propaganda, and blatant homophobia, vilifying the community that was being afflicted rather than addressing the epidemic. Wojnarowicz’s reaction was rage and loneliness—but also a powerful urge to make his private experience public, to force the wider world to accept a reality that was scary and uncomfortable. He did this through his photography, writing, and painting, as well as through political activism, showing up at demonstrations in a jacket on the back of which were printed the words IF I DIE OF AIDS — FORGET BURIAL — JUST DROP MY BODY ON THE STEPS OF THE F.D.A.

Near the end of the essay “Postcards from America: X Rays from Hell” (which you can find in Close to the Knives), Wojnarowicz wrote:

But, bottom line, this is my own feeling of urgency and need; bottom line, emotionally, even a tiny charcoal scratching done as a gesture to mark a person’s response to this epidemic means whole worlds to me if it is hung in public; bottom line, each and every gesture carries a reverberation that is meaningful in its diversity; bottom line, we have to find our own forms of gesture and communication.

I realize that is just one example, but it’s what I’ll leave you with for now. One could write an entire book on this subject—and, indeed, it looks like the wonderful English writer Olivia Laing has done so. Her new book, Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency, comes out in the U.S. in May, and I’m looking forward to what she has to say on this subject.

As it happens, it was in Laing’s 2016 book The Lonely City that I first read about Wojnarowicz—and that’s the artist on the cover of her new book, in a 1991 self-portrait that feels all too relevant to our current moment.

Having trouble finding time for a creative project alongside your other daily obligations? Or feeling stuck, blocked, or discouraged during the time you do have? Email your dilemma to (or just reply to this email) and I’ll do my best to provide some concrete advice based on my research into great minds’ work habits.


Last week was the one-year anniversary of Daily Rituals: Women at Work. On Instagram I shared some of my favorite photos from the book, and on Twitter I created a thread of choice quotes—read some examples below, or browse the entire thread here.

Twitter avatar for @masoncurreyMason Currey @masoncurrey
Daily Rituals: Women at Work came out one year ago today 🎈… To celebrate, here's a thread of some of my favorite tidbits from the book. @AAKnopf @TL_Agency9Image