Susan & Thomas is a stream of consciousness narrative inspired by Susan Sontag's first encounter with her then literary idol Thomas Mann as an admiring 14 year old high schooler with literary ambitions living in 1947 LA, and it is based on Sontag's 1987 New Yorker magazine essay "Pilgrimage." It is a personal take on a true story.
Susan & Thomas was completed in November, 2016 and revised in April 2017.
In Professor Villani's own words:
All my films are all triggered by random encounters with significant people and stories though most are set in and inspired by my hometown, Los Angeles. Susan & Thomas is no exception. Here's its genesis. In 1993,while doing preproduction on another film project in LA, I came across the December 1987 issue of the New Yorker magazine featuring an inspiring essay by Susan Sontag. "Pilgrimage" was the story of Sontag's own first encounter with her then literary idol Thomas Mann as a precocious 14 year old high schooler living in Los Angeles, "roped into" her "audience with the great exiled master" by an enterprising friend. My fascination with her story, Mann, LA and its exile and emigre community prompted me to contact Ms. Sontag who kindly agreed to an on camera reading from her essay. We started corresponding but unfortunately, as all too often the case with non commercial independent work and in spite of Ms. Sontag's enduring support, lack of funding and various other hurdles slowed things down, and I was only able to start production on what became Susan & Thomas shortly after Ms. Sontag's untimely passing in 2004.
Many years later, this film is intended as a humble tribute to this great woman and thinker. Though Sontag's memoir was adapted for the screen, not a single word was changed. From a formal standpoint, Susan & Thomas attempts to evoke the layered, disjointed but seamless nature of memory, and though the story is sequential in nature, the non linear visuals mix chronological time showing "the writer" at different moments of her life retracing Sontag's steps in spacetime in a non sequential manner. That explains why, like Richard Linklater's Boyhood, Susan & Thomas was intentionally shot over a time period of many years and it also explains the subtle changes in aspect ratio.
Though meant to discourage interpretation and not intended as a record of the real life events that inspired it, Susan & Thomas may be arguably dubbed a fiction/documentary hybrid where Melissa Chalsma as "the writer" walks on Sontag's footsteps seeking inspiration and identifying with her story. It was shot entirely on location, mostly in Thomas Mann's own San Remo Drive residence in Pacific Palisades. The house was put on the market, and extensively remodeled after the shoot, and has recently been purchased by the German government committed to try and bring it back to its former glory. What you see in Susan & Thomas is the great author's home as it was prior to its recent alterations.
The film features other historic LA locations including the Aldous and Laura Huxley Hollywood Hills home. All objects appearing in the film are authentic. The typewriter was owned by Thomas Mann though his secretary Hilda Kahn Reach did the typing as the master was known to always write by hand. All the signed Thomas Mann books originally belonged to and were given to Mrs. Reach by the author himself. With respect to that, I would like to express my deep gratitude to the Reach family for having given me access to the Mann books, and to the Lappen family for having let me shoot in the Thomas Mann San Remo Drive home. I would also like to acknowledge the late Laura Archera Huxley, my good friend and mentor, the late Marvin Paige, and of course Susan Sontag, the inspiration and driving force behind this film. Of course my deepest thanks go to Melissa Chalsma and the other actors, Paolo Crocchiolo and Joseph Villani.
Susan & Thomas and another of Professor Villani's short films, Shindler's War, have been selected for the Worlf Film Fair in New York, 2018. Find out more at https://worldfilmfair.com/films-market