Italian Filmmaker, Real Estate Investor, and Philanthropist
I have interviewed many A-list celebrities for both Luxury Las Vegas Magazine and as a freelance writer—actors, musicians, sports figures, fashion designers, and entrepreneurs—including Andre Agassi, Anthony Hopkins, Barry Manilow, Bette Midler, Carlos Santana, David Copperfield, Diane von Furstenberg, Eva Longoria, Faith Hill & Tim McGraw, Jay-Z, Jerry Rice, Lionel Richie, Mick Fleetwood, Olivia Newton-John, Reba McEntire, Shirley MacLaine, Tony Bennett, William Shatner, and Wynonna Judd. Many of them use their platform of fame and fortune to do good things in the world, which is important to me.
In 2018, I was introduced to an Italian independent filmmaker in my hometown of Las Vegas by the name of Valerio Zanoli.
Valerio isn’t a household name like the celebrities I just mentioned, but he is a bright shining star just the same. He is a man with an interesting story, an important vision, a worthy mission, and a huge heart.
Valerio is an important and necessary part of the Las Vegas community. The world needs more Valerios. And we are thankful to have him in our backyard. He has found a way to combine his film-making, his real estate investments, and his passion for philanthropy into a business model that inspires his movie audiences and benefits low-income tenants who need a helping hand.
I interviewed Valerio Zanoli in early 2019 for a publication that is no longer around—another casualty of Covid. So I posted it on Celebrity Scribe. Here is my conversation with Valerio up close and personal.
Marsala Rypka: What three words describe who you are?
Valerio Zanoli: I’m creative, and not only as a filmmaker. My creativity has more to do with how I imagine a better world, and I try to make it happen. That’s how I developed a business that can generate money as well as help people.
I would also say dedicated because if I choose to do something in my personal or professional life, I give it my all. When I believe in something I don’t hold back.
The third word is shy. Before coming to the United States, I was really introverted. I rarely spoke unless I was spoken to, and I kept a lot to myself. Nowadays I may seem extroverted, but inside I’m still that shy kid. I look at life through those eyes.
MR: What three people have had the greatest influence on your life?
VZ: My parents. They both taught me the importance of thinking about other people and giving back whenever possible. Mom was a social worker at the local hospital, while Dad was a generous man in every aspect of his life. They both sacrificed a lot just to make sure my sister and I had everything we needed.
I went to Catholic schools in Italy, so it’s natural that the nuns had a great influence on me. From them I learned to be a nice and kind person and to always think about other people’s feelings. Every choice we make has an impact. The best example is that they talked about helping children from third-world countries and, the next thing you know, I convinced my parents to fly to India and adopt my little sister.
And Rocky Balboa, the underdog in the film Rocky had a great influence on my life, too. I watched all the movies from the franchise while I was growing up. From them I learned to pursue my dreams and never give up. I remember Rocky telling his grown son, “You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done. Now if you know what you’re worth, go out and get what you’re worth, but you have to be willing to take the hits and not point fingers saying you’re not where you want to be because of him, her, or anybody. Cowards do that and that ain’t you.”
MR: That movie had a profound effect on you.
VZ: Yes, as did many others. I was about eight years old in the late 1980s when I saw a very successful Italian film called Cinema Paradiso. It was the heartwarming story of a little boy who goes to the movies every time he has the chance and falls in love with cinema. That film was about me. I was a young boy who grew up in a small town in Northern Italy. I went to school, played basketball, and every Sunday, I went to church. Afterwards I went to the movie theater, where I fell in love with cinema. Those afternoons were the best part of growing up, where I could escape from reality.
As I said I was very shy, without many friends. Sometimes I was bullied. But at the movie theater, when the lights went off, it was just me in another world. I could see myself as Mikey from The Goonies, or Totò from Cinema Paradiso, or Elliott from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. I didn’t know it at the time but film would change my life.
MR: How so?
VZ: My last year in high school I decided to turn my dreams into goals and my goals into reality. I wanted to pursue a career in cinema and there was no question in my mind that Hollywood was the place to be. As soon as I graduated, I left behind my parents and my sister, a nice house, and an almost certain cozy life in order to do something that seemed crazy—except that I knew it wasn’t.
When I first came to the U.S. in 1996 with my big American dream of becoming a filmmaker, I realized that, if I wanted to turn my dreams into reality, I had to change and… grow up. It was a huge step, but I said to myself: “Hey, no one knows who you are here, and no one is going to judge you for speaking up. They will judge you and not respect you if you don’t say anything.”
In the beginning, I met a lot of fellow aspiring filmmakers and musicians from other countries. They used to send their scripts or CDs out, but they’d give up after a few weeks and go back home. It was harder than I thought, especially because my English wasn’t very good. My goal was to attend the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, but I understood right away that if I wanted to get accepted to the most prestigious film school in the world, I had to do more. So I moved to a small town in Idaho for a few months, where the money I had saved would last longer and where I could learn English and make a proper plan.
On the way to Idaho, I stopped for gas in Las Vegas, and I fell in love with this city. I knew right away one day I would go back there. When I was ready, I left Idaho and returned to L.A. where I earned three Associate in Arts degrees at Santa Monica College, and kept a 4.0 GPA that allowed me to transfer to the University of Southern California and fulfill my dream.
I wanted to make films that had a positive social meaning. So in 2007, I wrote, directed, and produced my first movie The Minis with Dennis Rodman in Los Angeles, about a talented team of basketball players made up of little people who enter a tournament to help a teammate’s son go to college.
In 2010 I made the film Hopeful Notes about a young violinist with leukemia who brings hope and life into a desolate Russian hospital for children. I was very proud to receive the International Social Commitment Award for Hopeful Notes.
The following year I made the film The Opening, about a father and son who try to rebuild their relationship after they have a paragliding accident.
MR: And in 2012, you tackled the subject of obesity and bullying in the film All You Can Dream about a young girl who changes her perspective on life by modifying her eating habits and learning to become self-confident.
VZ: I was fortunate to get the singer Anastacia to play herself in the film. In the story, she is an angel and mentor to Suzie, inspiring her to share her beautiful voice with the world.
MR: I know you are modest Valerio, but you received a special award from UNESCO’s “Education for Children in Need” program for All You Can Dream, which is just one of the many recognitions you have received over the years.
VZ: I’m not comfortable talking about awards. I am proud of the fact that I was able to master the skills that allow me to create a Hollywood movie with a tight schedule and limited budget, which is an art of its own. I put film crews to work in places where we filmed like Michigan, Louisiana, and Georgia, and my projects had a positive impact on those communities.
I spent several months at a time away from Los Angeles filming, and I realized L.A. was too big for me. I finally decided to move to that crazy place I first fell in love with on my way to Idaho. Las Vegas has been my home since 2013, and I don’t have any plans to leave. I can still write my next screenplay and take care of pre- and post-production from here, while I also manage my real estate business.
MR: Do you have any idea what your next film will be about?
VZ: There are an endless number of social issues to write scripts about. I recently finished post-production on a film about acceptance and inclusion. It was particularly challenging, because it was shot in Italian, with an American crew, in the Georgia countryside.
I’m getting ready to shoot a film not just about the disease of Alzheimer’s, but about the heavy physical and emotional toll it often takes on the caretakers who assist their loved ones when they are sick. It’s sweet, but sad at the same time. The title is Not to Forget. It’s about a young self-absorbed millennial scam artist, who is sentenced by the judge to take care of his grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s. I have a dream cast that includes Cloris Leachman, Tatum O’Neal, Louis Gossett Jr., Olympia Dukakis, and Karen Grassle.
MR: I love the themes you’ve picked, Alzheimer’s, obesity, bullying, care-giving, poor and sick children, discrimination. You are always shining a light on the invisible, neglected, and under-served people in the world. But you tell these important stories about sad topics in an uplifting and inspiring way.
VZ: I want to use my movies—and my entire life—to raise awareness about important health and social issues, and move audiences to take action.
When I came to Las Vegas, I started purchasing property as a way to make an investment grow over time. Then, one day, a charity contacted me about some of its clients who were difficult to find housing for. These people weren’t making a lot of money. They had a less-than-perfect background and a history of being evicted. I decided to give it a shot and I’m glad I did. Since then, I’ve been renting only to those people nobody else wants to house. I don’t care about their past—I just care about the fact that they need decent affordable housing and, if I can provide it, I’m happy to do it. At the end of the day, I can still make a living out of the rental business, but I choose to do it while also making a difference in someone else’s life.
MR: What is your greatest strength and greatest weakness?
VZ: I’m a perfectionist. If I choose to do something, I want to do it right or not do it at all. I expect the same from everyone around me. That might be a strength and weakness. I’ve had some people turn their back on me because I’m very demanding when it comes to work. I always try to perfect every aspect of my movies, and, sometimes, that leads to longer days on set or a last-minute rush to deliver the film to the distribution company.
MR: What are you most proud of professionally?
VZ: That I got to fulfill my dreams and turn them into reality.
MR: What words of wisdom do you try to live by?
VZ: One of my favorite quotes is by Archbishop Desmond Tutu who said:
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
I don’t know who said this other quote.
“Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.”