Welcome to Kind of a Big Deal, a series dedicated to introducing powerful women who are breaking boundaries in their fields. You’ll meet the rising stars and get the inside scoop on how they made it, what they’re working on now, and what’s up next.

Marta Savina
Credit: Getty (2)

Director Marta Savina has high hopes for her 15-minute short film Viola, Franca. It’s based on the true story of Franca Viola, the first woman in Italy to refuse a “reparatory” marriage, meaning she refused to marry the man who raped her.

In Italian law, sexual assault was absolved if the woman agreed to marry her attacker. The trial and conviction of Viola’s assaulter was the first step in changing this archaic ruling and understanding sexual violence. Viola’s courage led the Italian society to overturn reparatory marriage in 1981.

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Savina’s short story, her graduate thesis for UCLA's MFA Directing program, was chosen to screen at Tribeca Film Festival this year. As a student, she built impressive connections, working with filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola and James Franco. Now, the Italian director’s set on turning her short, which is nominated for a David di Donatello (Italy's Academy Award) as Best Short and Nastri d’Argento (the oldest film award in Europe), into a feature-length movie. She’s written the script and hopes to begin filming by this winter.

We sat down with the up-and-coming director before Viola, Franca’s final Tribeca screening to talk about what sparked her interest in the story, women’s rights in Italy, and what she learned from working with Coppola.

What made you want to tell this story?

I found this name “Franca Viola” in a collection of short graphic novels about women who changed history. Translated from Italian, the title would be Bad Girls. This idea of badass women interested me. When I saw that it was a Sicilian woman (I’m from Sicily) I was like How do I not know this person?

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Credit: Giulia Fassina

You also got to meet the real Franca Viola. What is she like?

We’re used to thinking of leaders as very outspoken and very loud up at the forefront of society—she’s everything but. She’s quiet, reserved, shy, and yet somehow she had it in herself to show this incredible strength and determination.

“Reparatory” marriages were made illegal in 1981. Hearing that as an American is insane.

Hearing that as an Italian is insane.

Right now protecting women’s rights is talked about with increasing ferocity every day in America. Do you feel the same way about Italian culture?

I don’t think we’re there yet. We’re just starting to have conversations about women’s rights. But we’re not yet at a point where we’re aware of what the problems are to try to fix them. So, I’m hoping Franca’s story can propel this change. I hope that young women can look at her and be like “Hey, she did that. Maybe I can do it, too.”

After working on this short and premiering it at Tribeca Film Festival, do you think you want to work more in Italian film or American film?

I think my auteur work, if I may use that awful word, obviously comes from Italian iconography, stories, places, and characters because it’s what I know. Ideally, I would be able to marry that with an American sensibility to storytelling.

Why did you decide to study film in the US?

I think I really needed to get perspective. It’s hard to understand yourself and your country if you’re inside it. I had to remove myself, go outside and miss my country, my people, my family to then get a good perspective on who I was and what stories I wanted to tell.

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Credit: Giulia Fassina

You’ve also worked with Francis Ford Coppola on his project “Distant Vision.” What was it like to work with such an accomplished director?

That was absolutely mind-blowing. He’s pushing the boundaries of the film language trying to blend film, theater, and TV into one new experience. I learned a lot by just watching and listening to him. He says that each shot is basically an atom of a full film and he carefully designs each one, which I love. Working with him was an empowering experience.

How was it empowering?

One day he wanted to have this scene with rain pouring on a soundstage and the stage manager was very resistant. He got so upset. He was like, “This is not wet at all! I want more rain!” And everybody was rolling their eyes at him as if he were this crazy child. That, for me, was a great moment because as a young female director I sometimes feel like I’m bugging people to do things. Seeing people roll their eyes at Francis Ford Coppola, the man who directed Apocalypse Now and The Godfather, taught me that I should demand what I want. Be kind, be polite—he’s very nice, he’s very kind. But it’s okay to demand what you want even if people roll their eyes at you.

Is he a major role model or influence for you?

Obviously. He is part of cinema history. And I think he’s a really fearless director, which is inspiring. It was incredible to see him making mistakes. I’ve always felt you had to walk on set and know boom, boom, boom, what you’re doing as the director. But hearing him say “Oh, no. This doesn’t work. Let’s figure it out” actually gives you a lot of self-confidence. You just see what doesn’t work and you fix it.

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Credit: Giulia Fassina

As a student, you also directed James Franco in a short film rendition of William Faulkner’s short story Elly for a class. Was that nerve-racking?

Big actors are like big horses. Usually you start with a pony and then you go on the big horse. And having to work with a big horse right away was daunting, but then having James as not only my professor, but also my friend made it a lot easier. He’s phenomenal.

Who else do you admire?

[Federico] Fellini, Kelly Reichardt, and other independent filmmakers have a special place in my heart. I think they’re directors who have expanded on what it means to be human and what it means to live this life. If I accomplish that with one of my films, I’ll be happy for life.

What are you working on aside from the feature-length version of your short?

I’m developing a TV project. It’s in the realm of mental health and teenagers, which is something I’m super interested in. I think TV now is basically what the movies were in the ‘70s. We’re experiencing this sort of renaissance. So it’s a really exciting world. Netflix is just starting to do its own original content in Italy as well.

You have an interesting perspective being from Italy but also studying here.

I think that gives me a little bit of leverage. Definitely there’s a thick glass ceiling for women and young people. If I were in Italy, I’d be right below that glass ceiling. But I feel that coming from America, I’ll hopefully be attacking from the top, smashing through it. It’s a different approach, but maybe that’s the way to crack it.