Argento is much more than the guy who epitomized two very cool film styles.
Sep 1 2009, 12:00am
INTERVIEW BY TIM SMALL
PORTRAITS BY LELE SAVERI
When people talk about Italian horror and giallo (which is—film-nerd alert—Italian for “yellow” and means “Italian thrillers” and is a term taken from the yellow color of the covers of the Italian penny-dreadful horror/thriller/crime-novel paperbacks from the Mondadori publishing house, which eventually became known simply as gialli, or yellows), whether they know it or not, they are only talking about them because of the work of one guy: Roman-born-and-raised Dario Argento. With his films The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970), The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971), and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971), and especially his masterpiece, Profondo Rosso (1975), the ex-film critic essentially defined the parameters of the sexy, gory, stylistically dazzling, musically proggy giallo genre. After that, with the delirious Suspiria (1977), Argento moved toward supernatural, macabre, unhinged horror, thereby enlarging his area of mastery to two genres, which he then continued to explore with the classics Inferno (1980), Tenebrae (1982), Phenomena (1985), and Opera (1987), as well as many others. He made it possible for these genres to escape the land of the film buff and cross the border into the mainstream. You would do well to see all of his movies.
But Argento is much more than the guy who epitomized two very cool film styles. Arguably, after years of being considered a commercial B-movie maker, he is the man whose late critical acclaim first made it even conceivable to talk about slasher films as art. Also, he is largely responsible (together, perhaps, with Sergio Leone, with whom he cowrote the spaghetti-western masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West in 1968) for the rediscovery of Italian cinema as more than just the purveyor of dense, difficult films of social responsibility, philosophical musing, and high art, but also as a rich basin of fantastic populist movies that go way beyond the borders of what genre stuff can usually do.
Oh, and Argento cowrote and produced the best zombie movie of all time, George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978). And he first discovered Goblin, Claudio Simonetti’s seminal prog band. It’s all Argento. Not bad for just one guy.
We recently took a train to Rome and met the legendary Italian director at the shop and museum that he owns. Here is what we talked about.
Vice: How did you first move toward cinema? I know you started off as a film critic, but what were your first steps toward directing?
Dario Argento: I first came to cinema as a passionate filmgoer, when I was a child. Then, when I was a very young man, I became a film critic precisely because of my knowledge of cinema. I did better than others because of this. Then I moved on to screenwriting. I wrote a film with Sergio Leone, Once Upon a Time in the West. And then I moved to directing. It came very naturally to me.
And the first film you directed was The Bird With the Crystal Plumage.
Yes. I wrote that one as well. I initially thought that I was going to write it and someone else would direct it. But when I finished the script I decided I would like to try doing it myself. So, seeing that I’d had good success as a writer, they trusted me, and I did it.
How did the Once Upon a Time in the West job work out?
I had met Sergio Leone a few years previously. I was very young. But we talked as film people talk—we talked about cinema—and we became friends. We had a great relationship, even if our age difference was substantial. So then, when he decided to make the only film in his entire filmography with a female protagonist, he didn’t want to work with his old screenwriters but to work with new people. So he asked me and Bernardo Bertolucci, and we all wrote that movie together.
When you first stepped behind the camera, you made gialli. Why did you choose this genre?
It was all born accidentally. My first film was The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, which was a good giallo with an interesting idea behind it. After that one, it was quite natural to make a few others, because they asked me to do them, and they worked, they had success. So it continued.
And after all that you moved on to the supernatural-horror phase.
Again, it was quite natural. I had always been passionate about horror films and horror literature. My first horror movie was Suspiria, and then I made Inferno, and then Phenomena and many others. I am very happy with them. I like to walk two roads: one of the more naturalistic thriller, and one of weird, delirious magic.
What were your influences?
Certainly Hitchcock, but also Fritz Lang and German expressionist cinema. You can see that in Suspiria, which is filled with homages to Kokoschka and Escher. Clearly, Edgar Allan Poe was the first great so-called genre writer I encountered in my life. I was very young, and I discovered him in my father’s library. But I can’t forget Dreyer, Ingmar Bergman, and also the American film noir cinema of the 40s and 50s, which was very interesting to me.
In Suspiria you give a lot of attention to female clothing.
Clothes are very important, especially for female characters. They tell a lot about them. And the film is very particular, there is a very strong lesbian undercurrent to it, even if it remains unsaid and untold. It’s clear that there is lesbianism in the Dance Academy.
What attracted you to prog music for your soundtracks?
I made my first three films with Ennio Morricone. Naturally, he is a great master, a great musician. Working with him was wonderful. But then the rock ’n’ roll part of me insisted I should work with other musicians for Profondo Rosso, which is the first movie on which I worked with Goblin. I had gone to London to meet some musicians, but for one reason or another they were all busy or taken up with other things. I came back to Italy quite disappointed. Then my music supervisor made me listen to these new kids, Goblin, who had all come from studying music at the conservatory. They had classical-music preparation, but they had lived one year in England, trying to open things up over there. That had been tough for them.
And you were into them right away?
I liked them a lot, and I bet on them, even against what my father, who was also my producer, told me. He said, “Why work with an unknown band? Ask somebody who’s already famous.” But I had a feeling things would work out, and they did. It was a great experience and a relationship that I have carried on up until today.
So your father was also your producer, and you’ve worked for many years with your daughter, Asia Argento. Have you always found it easy to work with family?
I always worked very well with my father. It was a beautiful thing—a thing that I lost, unfortunately, too soon, because he fell sick, and then he was sick for a few years, and then he passed away. He defended me, he helped me, and if he hadn’t been there I would never have reached all that I’ve reached today. Regarding Asia, my daughter, she had met directors since she was a child, and she was always very expressive, and so she had begun being in movies when she was eight or nine, with small roles, and then bigger and bigger parts, and then I gave her a part in a film I produced, The Church, when she was 14. She had some very demanding roles, and then I asked her to act for me again and we made Trauma together. We then went on to make many movies with each other. It’s very rare, in cinema, for a father and a daughter to work on so many films. Very rare. For me it all played out beautifully, naturally.
Women, in general, are central figures in many of your films. Can you tell me about this? Many critics have defined it as an obsession.
Seventy percent of my films feature a female protagonist. It’s because I am interested in women. I like their way of expressing themselves. I like their way of being actresses, which is different from being an actor. Actors are colder and shyer. They are more recalcitrant to letting go. But actresses let themselves go with much more enthusiasm. They enter the project much more easily, and they understand it more naturally. This is why I have used women so often—as protagonists, as victims, as assassins—in every possible role in my films.
What about your relationship with film critics? You started as one, but your relationship with the critics regarding your own movies has been very difficult, with many extreme ups and downs.
At the beginning, I was considered a “commercial” director. After a long time, French critics first started to notice that my films were different from the standard fare, and they began talking about them, and then on from France to England, and then to America. The last critics to jump on the bandwagon were the Italians, many of whom still consider my films to be commercial.
I wonder why they are so stubborn about it.
It’s hard to go back on your word.
And is criticism even the same thing now as it was when you started?
Generally speaking, criticism is much less important today. Now they just tell you the plot, tell you a few things about the actors, and that’s it. It used to be different.
How do you feel about this shift?
I’m not happy that the critic has lost his power, has lost space in papers and weeklies and on television. I’m really sad about it. If we’re talking about interesting criticism, that is something that could be important, that could guide the public to understand more. I am honestly sad about it. The critic is now expelled from the cinema industry.
You mentioned your “rock ’n’ roll” side earlier. Did you ever get into that sort of hedonistic life?
No, no, no, I have never lived a rock ’n’ roll lifestyle. I live a very solitary life. I live on my own, I travel on my own. Solitude is the clearest aspect of my life. It’s always been this way, since I was a child. It’s not that I’m boring. I go to concerts, I go everywhere, I travel—but, whenever possible, on my own. I love to travel alone.
It means that you don’t have to talk to other people all the time. I don’t need to talk. I keep a dialogue alive inside my head, and I avoid wasting time in conversation. I went to India four times on my own. It was wonderful.
Writing is a true loner activity. You must feel happy when you’re doing that.
When I write my films, I write them alone, in a hotel, and it’s magnificent. I truly enter the plot of the movie.
Have you always worked rigidly from a script while shooting a movie?
There were moments when I made only a storyboard and others in which I preferred having a shot list. And now, more recently, I am feeling the emotion of improvisation. I have it all clear, in my head, but I find myself on set and I let the actors influence me.
Do you like working with actors?
In the beginning, I didn’t. I worked with them, but I thought of it as a great waste of time. Then I started to appreciate them, to appreciate what they bring to a picture—the emotions they can bring to the screen.
Many of your movies are international coproductions. How do you work with language? Do you dub voices in for different territories?
I always shoot in English, and I always keep the original voice of the English or American actor.
Tell me about your collaboration with George Romero.
We have been good friends ever since we met in New York many years ago. We instantly decided we would do something together. That’s how we began working on Dawn of the Dead. We did a good job on that one.
That’s an understatement.
He came to Rome to write it. He didn’t believe in the subject too much at first, but we got it right together, and it turned out very well. Then we worked together on Two Evil Eyes. We did two different episodes, both taken from Edgar Allan Poe, our master. We were supposed to have a third one too, directed by Stephen King, but at the last moment he decided to stop all his filmmaking. Too bad. It would have been great. He wanted to make “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
Wow, that would have been interesting.
Oh and my daughter, Asia, also made a film with George. What is it called… Land of the Dead? So yes, we’re like a family.
What do you think of the recent rebirth of the zombie genre?
The zombies now aren’t in the same style. These movies are more commercial, simpler, and more slapdash. They just make them to sell DVDs, it seems.
And now, the zombies run. Do you prefer running or walking zombies?
I think that the walking zombie is more frightening than the running zombie. It’s slow and unstoppable. That’s frightening.
And more generally, what do you think of this recent Hollywood fixation on remakes of classic horror movies?
I think they want to do it because of a lack of ideas, maybe. It’s the only reason. They see that horror movies sell, and so they decide to remake safe, classic movies. They are remaking Suspiria. That should come out soon. And then The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, which they will produce next year. I thought about making remakes of my own films, but I don’t like the idea and I would do it only if a very specific, particular situation called for it.
Michael Haneke remade his Funny Games, identically, shot-for-shot, because Americans don’t watch subtitled movies and he wanted the film to reach a wider audience. Is this a reasoning you can appreciate?
No, it doesn’t attract me very much. It’s too mechanical, too artificial. I live in my world, and my world is made in a certain way, and I don’t care about the rest.
You’ve said that the making of Opera was the most difficult time of your life.
Yes, for an entire series of very weird reasons. The movie is based on Verdi’s Macbeth, and since everybody in show business knows that Macbeth is cursed, they all told me to not do that opera, but to base it on La Traviata or something else. But I wanted to do Macbeth, so I made Macbeth. I must say, so many things happened in that shoot—I probably should have changed it after all. I fought with the actress the entire time, then my father died, and then the English actor had a car crash and had to stay off the set for a month and a half. There was so much other stuff going on that a guy in production had made a poster where we could list all the terrible things that happened, and about halfway through, we had filled up the entire thing!
So now do you think Macbeth is cursed?
I think that Macbeth brought me very bad luck.
When you think back over your filmography, is Opera the one you remember with the least pleasure?
No, no. Opera is a good memory to me now. It ruined me, and when the film production ended, I decided to leave. The movie had just come out, and I left it all behind and went to India to look for some spirituality. I forgot about the film. When it was time for me to return, I went the other way and landed in Los Angeles. And the day I landed, I met an English film-critic friend of mine who hugged me and said, “What a great movie you made! It’s one of the best!” And I thought, “Oh wow, maybe it’s true.” And so, slowly, I regained my life. I came back to Italy happy and satisfied. Now Opera is one of the films I love the most. I don’t know which one I love the least. Maybe The Cat o’ Nine Tails.
Your death scenes are famous for being extremely well choreographed. Do you have a favorite death scene of yours?
I made so many, really. I put a lot of effort into those. They are like feasts. I couldn’t say which one of my death scenes is the most interesting. There are too many! It would seem like a lack of respect toward the other death scenes. I can’t choose.
What do you mean by “feasts”?
The death scenes in my films are not scary.
Actually, yes, they are scary. But they aren’t real, not as real as those on TV. They are inventions. They are like pagan feasts, or Aztec feasts, where people would be decapitated and people were eaten alive, and everybody was happy, everybody took pleasure in the blood. It’s a representation, not a reality.
Do you scare yourself with your films?
No, not me. I am scared of them when I write them. But once I’ve made them, they stop scaring me.