During the Cine-Excess cult film festival in May, Italian film director Dario Argento was in London to introduce screenings of Suspiria and Dawn of the Dead. Alex Fitch caught up with him to talk about his career, from writing Once upon a Time in the West to directing Mother of Tears, released on DVD last year. Argento’s newest film Giallo, named after the Italian term for pulp mystery novels, premiered in the UK at the Edinburgh Film Festival on June 25 and will screen at London’s Film4 FrightFest on August 29.
Alex Fitch: You’ve been making movies now for 40 years, primarily in the horror genre and thanks to directors like you, Michele Soavi, Mario Bava and his son and others, Italy has a reputation for making some of the finest horror films in the world. What do you think it is about Italy and the Italian temperament that lends itself so well to horror?
Dario Argento: I think it is fundamentally because we have a Catholic culture: sin is important! Also, at the same time, we revolt against this, which is very particular to the Italian culture. But I’m not only, like Bava, a horror film director, I also make thrillers and giallo.
AF:Giallo uses a lot of tropes of horror, though – the fear of bloodletting, ‘cat scares’ when something unexpected happens and the audience jump out of their seats… What would you say your influences were as a director? You are obviously strongly influenced by Hitchcock, something you acknowledged in your film Do you Like Hitchcock?, but other than him, what other directors impressed you?
DA: Before I became a film director I was a critic, and over many years I saw a thousand films and wrote reviews about them. A big influence, someone I admired especially, was Antonioni, and also Ingmar Bergman. The French New Wave was very important for me because it broke away and changed everything… Of course Fellini as well, plus Luis BuÃ±uel and the surrealists’ films.
AF: Actually, I was going to ask about BuÃ±uel and the surrealists, as there seems to be a surrealist aspect in your work – the camera angles, the lighting, the cutting: it doesn’t adhere to a conventional narrative, it’s a more impressionistic sort of filmmaking.
DA: Yes. Impressionistic films are very important to me. I remember when I was in the famous film museum in Munich – it’s very important, one of the biggest in the world – and they were having a retrospective of my films. Every morning, I would go down to the basement where they had a small room where you could watch films and I watched impressionistic films, very rare films that almost nobody had seen. I spent wonderful days there! I also saw expressionist films – The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, which was the only colour-tinted copy from the Murnau institute. The colour was marvellous and unique to this copy as it was coloured by hand at the time. It was like a treasure and I was so proud to see these films. I also discovered something like Nosferatu, which had marvellous use of angels. It was all very inventive and not ‘real’ – they didn’t shoot these films on the street or on location, they invented everything!
AF: I’m glad that you mentioned Caligari and Nosferatu as they are part of a small number of films that are like moving paintings, and it’s something you approached in films like Suspiria, which is as much about the colour and the visual experience as anything else.
DA: Yes. In that film I also have some homages to Escher and to Kokoschka. I wrote in the screenplay: ‘We see a book on Escher, a poster by Kokoschka…’. There are some messages I put inside the film so people can easily understand what inspired me for the film.
AF: I watched your most recent film Mother of Tears, which completes the ‘Three Mothers’ trilogy. A lot of people had been waiting for that, since Suspiria and Inferno. Did you feel a lot of pressure from your fans as they’d been waiting nearly 30 years for you to make this movie?
DA: Yes and no. I didn’t hear about the pressure, because when I made the second film of the trilogy, I found it boring to do the same things, I wanted to make another thriller like Tenebre and then I forgot about it. But some years ago I saw Suspiria again – I don’t watch my films, when they’re finished they disappear for me! I was in the United States at a screening of my films in a university and for the first time, I stayed to see Suspiria, and I liked it and thought maybe I’ll do some more sequels.
AF: One of your collaborators, Luigi Cozzi, had made an unofficial third movie called The Black Cat in 1989, so obviously there was a lot of feeling for those films over the years.
DA: He’d worked with me as my assistant and The Black Cat was also a homage to Edgar Allan Poe. We made two films between us. George Romero and I also wanted to do a homage to ‘the master’, to the author whose themes of suffering were too much for the mind, whose stories of terror had people die like animals. George wanted to make ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ and I, ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’. But when I finished writing I thought, ‘I don’t want to do this’, and he felt the same. So he did ‘The Facts in the Case of Mr Valdemar’, which importantly is the only tale of Poe’s that contains something like a zombie! And for me, it was ‘The Black Cat’ because in my house I have a black cat and I watch him carefully and know his movements are pretty…
AF: The dialogue between Italian cinema and American cinema is interesting – for example when Italy started making Westerns in the 1960s, they improved on what America had been doing and also took some of the American stars along with them. In the same way, some of the work you’ve done has inspired directors like John Carpenter, and as you mentioned, you’ve worked with George Romero and so on. What do you think of this dialogue?
DA: Yes, it’s very important for both countries. I know lots of American directors and I’m friends with them. I like strong direction that’s not for children, I don’t like children’s films, I like films for adults that are strong and deep and profound. Of course, John Carpenter is a great friend of mine… I also like mannerist directors like Quentin Tarrantino – I love mannerism, it’s interesting!
AF: I suppose the ultimate combination of Italian and American filmmaking came when you re-edited and rescored Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Was the point of the re-editing to give the film a more Italian sensibility?
DA: No, the problem was much more complicated… It’s a very long story! George sent me the rough cut to make some suggestions and the film was completed in Italy, but our censor said, ‘No! Cut it!’ and the film was forbidden. So I said to George, ‘I must cut something, because they forbid the release of the film’ and he said, ‘It’s OK, cut it, we need the money because we’re strangled financially!’. In the past the power of the censor was really strong, now it’s different, but at the time in Italy we had the Christian Democrats in the government; it was terrible, it was unbelievable. So, I had to cut something… I presented the film in France and they forbid it too! I cut something again, like in Italy, but again it’s forbidden! In France there’s a law – if it’s forbidden twice, it’s forbidden forever! So I had the idea to change the title to Zombie, it’s simple, but they said no because they understood what I was doing. I waited four years… After four years, I’m watching television and I see the change of government, the new government is socialist – much more open, much freer, especially for culture – and I call George and say, â€œMaybe now is a good moment’. So I present the film with this different title and I put the things I cut back in. It was good to see the film after those four years and George was happy!
AF: I suppose throughout your career you’ve had those battles with the censors; at least on DVD these days you can have uncut versions of your films…
DA: Now the censor is not so strong, even in England! At that time it was terrible. I remember when I made my film Tenebre, Thatcher was in and they even censored the poster. Unbelievable! It showed a female stretched out with a cut throat and in England…
AF: …they put a sash over it!
DA: Yes. Unbelievable! They also cut the poster in Germany. It was a terrible moment but times are much better now.
AF: Another important aspect of your films are the scores. When it came to scoring your movies and collaborating with your own rock group Goblin, was it something you approached on a film by film basis or do you see certain themes running through your work musically?
DA: I’ve worked with many, many musicians: Ennio Morricone on many films – beautiful work – also Pino Donaggio, another great, great composer, and Brian Eno on Opera – it was a very good score. With Morricone, sometimes we like to do the music before shooting. I go to his house, he composes and plays in my presence and if it’s good, we do the film and he finishes the score. With Pino Donaggio, it’s the same thing. With Goblin or with Claudio Simonetti, it’s different. For Profundo Rosso (Deep Red), we meet in my house nearly every night and they introduce me to the work of the day and it inspires me to do the next scene. It was very important. For Suspiria we collaborated on the music – it was good to do it before shooting. Also on The Card Player it was just Claudio Simonetti doing electronic music, which was very interesting. I remember, he came in at the end of each day to show me how the music is going. It’s a great adventure the music in that film; not so well known by everybody.
AF: Certainly with a film like Suspiria it seems like the score influences the editing as well…
DA: Editing is different. For Suspiria, we had a problem: we wanted to shoot with the look of old Technicolor but the printers we used were no good! They were too sensitive, they’re used to 500 ISO, and we like to use the old film stock, 40 ISO, which is good for deep contrast and strong colours, but it needs much light. It was also difficult to find. We found only a few hundred metres of it, in one laboratory, so we could shoot only very few takes…
AF:…because the film stock was so rare?
DA: Yes, it took a lot of preparation, so we’d shoot two or three takes and then finish, because we’d have no other prints. When the film was finished, the edit was very easy because we shot very short lengths of film. We shot for 14 weeks but only printed a few hundred metres.
AF: Before you started directing, you were a screenwriter. Did you have aspirations to be a director? Your first film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, is a stunning debut and you had a very strong style right from the start.
DA: No, when I was a writer, I was so happy to be a writer, because it’s wonderful to be alone in a room with your dreams and your fantasies. I think it was the best job of my life. But then, one day someone asked me, ‘What is this film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage? Why don’t you do the film yourself?’ and I started to think, maybe, yes. But I don’t like being on the set with too many people, there’s too much talking, speaking with the actors, speaking with the producer, speaking with everybody! My god, this is the phase I don’t like, but it’s my job now.
AF: The new film you’ve just finished, which is just called Giallo, wasn’t a film that you wrote, it was written for you. Was it some kind of homage to your earlier work on the part of the screenwriters?
DA: Yes, the film is finished but it’s not screening yet. It was made with good actors, Adrien Brody, Emmanuelle Seigner – she’s a beautiful and wonderful French actress. That was a good experience, but the American producers were not so easy to work with.
AF: You’d think that since you have such a long and distinguished career they’d let you get on with making the movie, but I suppose you always have to work with the people funding the movie and hope that your vision will come through.
DA: Yes, but I’m usually my own producer which is easier for me when I do a film. I write, I prepare, I make it and then I do the post-production. Everything is in my hands. This is the first time I worked with American producers. It’s not so great to work with American producers because they’re supposed to be the owners of the film – they suggest things, then they want to cut this… I suffered a lot! Never in my life have I suffered like this…
AF: So, will you be following it with a more personal, more Italian movie that gives you more freedom to do what you want?
DA: My next movie? I don’t know. I’ve no idea. With Giallo, it was like some mountain. Yes, it would be better…
Interview by Alex Fitch
Dario Argento’s Sleepless (2001) is released by Arrow Video on June 29. Giallo screens at Film4 FrightFest on August 29.