Hands Over the City was another situation, like Divorce Italian Style, where as soon as I hit "stop" on the VHS screener, I knew what I wanted the cover to be, and I knew who I wanted to do it. First, the what:
After watching the film, I recall being left with the sensation of having watched history unfolding, rather than having watched a narrative. It struck me that this isn't a film about individual people—characters come and go as necessary to move the plot along, but there aren't really "main characters" so much as historical forces that move the plot forward. Certainly, Rod Stieger's Nottola emerges as a primary mover and shaker, but it's not his story, really, it's the story of the city itself. All that boils down to the idea that I didn't want any people on the cover.
I also knew, from our briefing process, that we wanted to find a way to get Rod Steiger on the cover—he's a recognizable face, after all, and this was kind of a lesser-known film. Luckily, there was an easy way around that, since one of the major motifs in the film is Nottola's campaign posters, which allow sort of an end run around my "no people" idea.
The other repeated visual motif in the film is the enormous city planning map in Nottola's office, which is obviously a pretty good way to reference the importance of the city.
Combining those two elements works out to be a pretty simple idea, and easy enough to execute—but also, in the wrong hands, very possibly lifeless and dull. Which was why it was lucky that I simultaneously thought of artist Danijel Zezelj.
A longtime favorite of mine, Danijel's work is incredibly expressive. His work often revolves around architectural elements, textures, stark blacks and whites that evoke iconographic political art, even, occasionally, maps. You couldn't ask for a better candidate for this job.
(By the way, if you're only familiar with Danijel from his American comics work, do yourself a favor and check out the collections of his more personal work—Small Hands might be my favorite, but they're all good.)
So I knew Danijel was perfect for this project, and that was further confirmed when I contacted him and told him about the project, and he told me that he had actually lived in Naples for a while a few years back, and knew it very well. It's always a good sign when you find connections you never knew existed between an illustrator and a project.
I told him what we were looking for, (faithful blog readers might note that on previous art direction posts I've included the original briefs I sent to the illustrators. Unfortunately, I can't seem to find the brief I sent to Danijel anymore, but it basically said all that stuff I say above), and here's what he sent back to us, in what are probably the most fully realized "sketches" I've ever seen:
The first one is almost exactly what we were hoping for, with the caveat that we can't really see Rod Steiger's face, which was kind of the whole point of using the poster in the first place. The second was gorgeous, but producer Abbey Lustgarten felt (and I agreed) that the moped was too central on the cover, considering neither of us could recall any mopeds in the film.
So we went back to Danijel and asked him to find the happy medium between the two. He came back with this:
Which was maybe a little too far from what we were liking about the last round—pulling back so far loses some of the immediacy, I think, and losing the "Votta Nottola" type (which Danijel did because he was worried about it conflicting with the title treatment, which is a valid concern) made the political poster idea less obvious at first glance. So I backpedaled a little bit and explained our concerns to Danijel, and he turned in what became the final cover:
I tried a few title treatments, and we settled on the last of these:
Then at the last minute, we decided to move up the launch date of our then-new branding system, so I retrofitted the cover to include that, and we had ourselves a final cover:
On the cover, I needed someone of Danijel's talent to make an otherwise somewhat pedestrian idea sing. But I also worried that I was confining him too much; wasting the opportunity to work with someone of his talent. So, on the interior packaging, I wanted to be sure to give him as much freedom as possible. I asked for cityscapes, broadly, but left it to him to interpret the film as he saw it. And what he turned in for the interiors was better than I could have hoped:
For all the conceptual reasons discussed above, the cover illustration was still the best cover, (and don't get me wrong, I love that cover), but the piece that wound up on the booklet cover (the first above) is one of my absolute favorite pieces of art we've ever commissioned for Criterion. And at the close of the project, Danijel was kind enough to gift it to me, so it now has a place of honor on my wall of art (I'm not sure you can quite make it out in the photo, but seeing the actual paint strokes used to create the final image is really fascinating):
It was a privilege working with Danijel, and the end result is a package I'm incredibly proud of. Thanks again for taking on this project, Danijel!