The Italian director talks about fantasy movies, casting Toby Jones as an eccentric king and why every director only needs to make one good film.
Matteo Garrone might have made his name with the gritty, realist mafia drama Gomorra (2008), but his latest offering is a different beast entirely. A fantastically bizarre, wildly imaginative and highly stylized affair, Tale of Tales features a trio of stories, set in three neighbouring kingdoms and focusing on the increasingly mad and often hilarious miseries of their royal leaders, all of which are loosely based on the folk myths collected and published by the 16th-century Neapolitan poet and scholar Giambattista Basile.
Pamela Jahn met with the Italian director at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2015 to talk about fantasy movies, casting Toby Jones as an accentric king and why every director only needs to make one good film.
Pamela Jahn: It seems like Gomorra, which turned out to be your most successful film to date, and your new film Tale of Tales could not be further apart?
Matteo Garrone: Yeah, it seems strange…But, for me, there are also dark fairy tales in Gomorra, in the same way as the tales talk about archetypes, about human beings, so they are also somewhat modern too. And my approach is always one that starts from a realistic approach, from observation of contemporary reality, but at the same time there is also a fantastic dimension. In this case, I started off with fantastic tales and tried to bring them a little closer to reality. But all my movies are very visual, so the approach was not so different from my point of view. I actually felt that the line was quite natural, especially since I always talk about obsessions in my films, and Tale of Tales is about desire and how this desire becomes obsession. Of course, the language of Gomorra was much more based on a documentary style, but behind this choice of the language is an important visual work.
There are not many fantasy movies coming out of Italy these days.
No, but we also have directors who in the past worked well in that genre. For me, one of my references was Mario Bava, for instance. He worked with horror but also with fantasy. And I also like the early work of Pasolini, his short movies and fairy tales in particular, so we do have a heritage of that in Italy too.
When did you discover Giambattista Basile’s tales for yourself?
As a kid, I read tales like the ones by the Brothers Grimm like everyone else. I discovered Giambattista Basile only four or five years ago, through a friend of mine, who is a painter. I immediately fell in love with them, with the different characters of the stories, but also with the visual aspect.
This is your first English-language film. Do you think anything got lost in the translation of the stories into English?
No, because, first of all the original stories were written on the streets in the Neapolitan dialect of the 16th and 17th centuries. So even when you read the book in Italian you are already reading a translation. I also think there is something Shakespearean in the way Basile writes, and hopefully we helped a little to make him known in the world, finally. Because it’s really unfair that nobody knows this author who wrote the first book of fairy tales in Europe and who was the first to write about Cinderella and about many other famous tales…everybody only knows the Grimms. And at that time, the tales were not for kids, they were seen as entertainment for a mixed audience. That’s partly why these tales are also very dark sometimes and also almost oral because they are of medieval origin. It was important to me to keep the soul of Basile’s writing, the violence but at the same time also the comical aspects, because Basile is a master of mixing comedy and fear.
Toby Jones is brilliant as the eccentric king whose love for a giant flea overpowers the love he feels for his own daughter.
Yes, he’s wonderful. Jones is an actor, who like Vincent Cassel, can play comical and dramatic, all at the same time, and always in a way that never becomes cliché, he’s always believable. And that was very important for me with Basile’s tales, to find the right balance between comic, dramatic and the grotesque.
Like in the scene in which Salma Hayek, who plays a queen desperate to receive a child, has to eat a sea monster’s beating heart.
Salma was very generous with me. She’s Mexican, you see, and when we met, she basically told me I’m like a Mexican director because I’m so crazy. But in all honesty, when you believe in something the rest doesn’t matter, so she went through that scene without flinching because she believed in what we were doing.
What is she actually eating in that scene?
It’s a sort of disgusting cake, I think.
Together with Paolo Sorrentino, you are one of the most acclaimed Italian directors today. Is it true that you live in the same building?
Yes, it’s true. We meet in the elevator sometimes, but since he won the Academy Award for The Great Beauty I decided we shouldn’t meet too much. (laughs)
Why did you decide to work with Peter Suschitzky, the cinematographer, who is also a long-term collaborator with David Cronenberg and who shot all of his films?
I saw the work he did with Cronenberg. It’s realistic in its roots but at the same time you can feel something that is artificial in a way. And that’s exactly what we wanted to do with this film, we wanted to create an image that is believable but at the same time you feel like it was created in a studio. Almost like the beginning of the cinema, like the Méliès, something that is almost a performance, something that can surprise the audience, visually and emotionally. But at the same time you feel it’s artificial.
You used to be a painter in your earlier career. Why did you stop?
When I stared making movies I stopped painting, because for me making movies is always a figurative art, and it’s my way of painting now. Unfortunately, I can’t do both, because when I do cinema I think about it 24hours a day, I’m constantly thinking about the language of cinema. It’s something that I cannot combine and think about both at the same time. So if I ever start painting again I have to stop making films. But I’ll probably need at least two years to switch my mind because it takes time. I am very curious though to see what would come out of it, so maybe if I make a movie that is a complete disaster, I’ll go hide in my studio and start painting again.
You mentioned elsewhere that making this film was a very difficult experience for you.
I learned a lot about the technical aspects with this movie, but sometimes it was very frustrating for me because I like to have the control, especially the visual control. And sometimes when you work with special effects you shoot only with a green screen, so you have to imagine what it will actually look like. It’s like you’re giving away your brushes to somebody else and see what they do with them. And it took a long time to see something, like for example, even only to see the giant flea, I had to wait five months.
Has that somewhat discouraged you from making more ambitious fantasy or genre-twisting films like this in the future?
I think making films is always difficult. The world of cinema is somehow connected to something almost esoteric, because when you make a movie in a way you’re blind. Every day you make a piece but you forget what you’ve done the day before, it’s not like when you’re painting that you always see the colour that you put in front of you on the canvas. Instead, putting all the different pieces together is like a mosaic and finally, hopefully, you understand the tone of the movie. But sometimes it is easy to lose the control, visually. And my point of view is this: if a director makes just one really good film in his career, that’s enough. Then you can make mistakes. But imagine if every director would make just one good movie, how rich cinema would be!
Interview by Pamela Jahn
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