How I Made a Movie in Italy


It started innocently enough. I watched a short video on YouTube about the origins of Carbonara, which I highly recommend. It’s a fast-moving explanation of the origin of the classic Italian dish. The film’s handful of scenes tell a story about how food brings us together across cultures, the importance of creativity and collaboration. Quite a lot to pack into a film less than 10 minutes long. It even comes with a sweeping, Spielbergian score.

Although I have written multiple books and hundreds of articles over the decades, I had never written a screenplay. Something about living in Italy for almost seven years has repeatedly inspired me to move out of my comfort zone. A decade ago, I never would have dreamt I would have published a book in Italy, in Italian, for Italians to read. Encouraged by how well my book has been received, I decided to explore screenwriting.

Over the course of several weeks last fall, I crafted a screenplay, as much as a personal exercise as anything else. It’s a story of a straw hat, made by an artisanal workshop, that gets blown from person to person by the forceful winds well-known in the Marche region of east-central Italy where my wife and I now live. Everywhere that the hat momentarily stops on the heads of people finding it, you see a slice of life in that location. Perhaps, at a subconscious level, I was doing a riff on the 1956 French film The Red Balloon — a landmark in cinematic history.

Similar to that film, my screenplay has no dialog, so people might enjoy the story unimpeded by language. It’s whimsical but also expository, depicting “real life” in Italy rather than a typical travelogue filled with monuments and museums. The score is an operatic overture by Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868), one of Italy’s great composers, who was from a town in this region.

Initially, the screenplay was simply theoretical; there was no client, no studio, no one to actually make the movie. Or so I thought. This is where the unpredictability of personal connections in Italy can make magic.

I happened to mention my little personal film project to a teacher in an art liceo (a specialized high school) where I had spoken as a guest lecturer a year earlier. She responded with a complete surprise: she would assign my script to her students to produce as part of her lesson plan on videography.  I was certainly flattered, but with my naivete about producing a film, I had no idea what I had unleashed.

The old 1930s matinee movies with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland sprang to mind. “Let’s put on a play!” was their irrepressible exclamation.  A nice model to follow. Except for one teensy-weensy thing: I didn’t have a passel of neighborhood kids to pull it together.

But I did have a class of high school kids. 

The professor also pointed out that we needed one more thing — money. The school, Liceo Artistico Preziotti, had a limited budget, and the logistics involved in this endeavor would exceed that. She asked me to find a sponsor. My immediate response was: “Wait. I’m an American, recently immigrated to Italy. I have no little black book of Italian contacts willing to hand over money. Moreover, how would I even explain such a request, with my limited facility in the language, much less understand the protocol involved in raising funds?”

But did I let that stop me? No. Because the story uses a hat to propel the action, I wrote a letter to the president of a large hat-making company, Sorbatti, which is known for the durability and style of its headwear. An Italian friend helped me with the proper business-like phrasing.  As with any request, it makes a difference how you ask.

Face-to-face communication is a main part of the culture here, so I decided to take my message to the president personally. I went to the business, letter and script in hand, but I really had no idea what I was doing. When I reached the factory, the door was closed and locked. I had no appointment; I just showed up, hoping for the best.  As I turned to leave the premises, a man standing 50 feet away yelled out and asked what I wanted. I told him I was looking for the president of the hat company. “That’s me!” he replied.

I handed him the letter and the script. Looking puzzled, he read the letter out loud and scanned the script. He paused, looked at me, and said, “I think you need money, correct?” Subsequent conversations with the school resulted in his providing resources to offset some of the expenses. The school itself secured a grant that paid for more. With that, we had our money. We were going to put on a show!

Working with these student cinematographers has been a joy (Image: Mark Hinshaw).

Over the subsequent months, the student crew got organized. The grant paid for a professional director to instruct them on techniques. The school convinced a music conservatory to have its orchestra perform and record the thematic music.

Some of the students worked in front of the camera, playing characters in the story. Others were behind the camera, taking turns with different tasks. All of them were enthusiastic, attentive, and focused. At each shooting location, passersby gathered to watch. There was a buzz. We were making a movie!

The mayor of one town found a man to play a key role in the story — one that represented the old-school craft of making hats by hand. He performed commendably, smiling after each take. My wife made his historically authentic costume, which he offered to buy from her after his scenes were finished. A friend in another city agreed to be the character of a monk.  I also played a small part — a university professor hurrying off to teach a class.

The next step is the editing process where the best takes will be composed into a continuous and coherent story, and the Rossini music will be added as the soundtrack. It remains to be seen whether all this effort, logistics, and coordination will pay off with a wordless, five-minute masterpiece. For me, at least, it’s been fun working with the students and being the screenwriter, instantly adapting a script to meet unforeseen situations. 

The original storyline ended with a donkey wearing the hat. As it turned out, that particular actor obstinately refused direction. Some actors can be hard to work with. In this case, calling him an ass would not be an insult — but simply accurate.

Mark Hinshaw
Mark Hinshaw
Mark Hinshaw is a retired architect and city planner who lived in Seattle for more than 40 years. For 12 years he had a regular column on architecture for The Seattle Times and later was a frequent contributor to Crosscut. He now lives in a small hill town in Italy.


  1. Love Mr. Hinshaw’s writing, it brings the reader into the scene, it is cheerful and friendly, and wonderfully descriptive. Always a pleasure!! Thank you so much!!

  2. This is utterly delightful. Mark, your entire tale was a movie in my mind, so I hope to see the final product!

    Are foreign films eligible for the short subjects at the Oscars? 2026 is coming soon enough!


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