A Conversation With Michelangelo Antonioni (October 1960)
You are the author of all the stories of your films. Is that because you haven’t found any other way of illustrating what you have in mind; or is it that, for you, to create a film story and to direct it become one and the same thing?
For the principle of the cinema, as for that of all the arts, there is one choice. As Camus says, it is the revolt of the artist against actuality. If you stick to that principle, how important are the means by which reality is disclosed? Whether the author of a cinema finds it in a novel, in a news item or in his own fantasy, what counts is his way of isolating it, of stylizing it, of making it his own. If he achieves that, the source has no importance. The plot of Crime and Punishment without the form which Dostoevsky gave it is a mediocre plot. It could become either a very beautiful or very ugly film. That is why I have almost always written my own films. Once I was struck by one of Pavese’s novels. As I worked on it, I knew that I loved it for reasons entirely different from those which had originally made me think of it as a film. And the pages which had interested me the most were those which lent themselves least to a cinematic translation. On the other hand, it is very difficult to find one self an original story line, since the original material is already selected in terms of a very definite narrative style. Finally, I find it much simpler to invent the story completely. A director is a man, therefore he has ideas; he is also an artist, therefore he has imagination. Whether they are good or bad, there are so many stories to tell, it seems to me. And that which I see, that which happens to me is constantly changing these stories.
The subjects of your films resemble one another curiously; they always revolve about the same problem: the couple, the woman, solitude. Why?
The characteristic choices of a director answer to the same logic which determines his limits: if you accept the latter, it is much easier to evaluate the first. It is possible that the public (at least the part of the public which is interested in my work) is tired of seeing me constantly returning to the same subject. But, if it is true that, up to now, I have only produced variations on the same theme, it is also true that I have tried to develop this theme, to enrich it, to renew it in the light of my own experience. I have been making films for ten years. I began with Story of a Love Affair, here in Milan, where I am now making La notte. The places, the atmosphere, are the same. The characters belong, more or less, to the same social class.
However, this film seems so different to me if I didn’t know that it is much more autobiographical than Story of a Love Affair, I would say that La notte is the film of another director. Probably, just like the surroundings’ I have also changed countenance. Take The Cry, for example. In that film, while you will find my favorite theme, I pose the problem of the emotions in a different aspect. If, before this, my characters usually accepted their failures and emotional crises, this time we meet a man who reacts, who tries to overcome his unhappiness. I have treated this character with much more mercy. The landscape also has a different function. If in my other films I used it to add better definition to a situation or a spiritual state, in The Cry I wanted it to be the landscape of memory: the countryside of my childhood, seen through the eyes of someone returning home after an intense cultural and emotional experience. In The Oy, this return takes place in the most appropriate season: winter, when the wide, open horizon becomes a counterpoint to the psychology of the film’s central character.
L’avventura: this is the story of a cruise on a yacht. The disappearance of a girl during the period of several days is meant to symbolize the fragility of emotions in a real situation. In a certain sense, it is the answer to II grido provided by the characters who peopled my preceding films. To make a play on words, you might say that L’avventura is The Cry of The Girlfriends. At any rate, it is not a question of truth seen from different perspectives, but of two different ways of seeing the same truth. The result is the same: solitude. With La notte I will arrive at one result of compromise; the compromise that is found today in morality and even in politics. The characters this time find themselves, but they have trouble in communicating because they have discovered that the truth is difficult, that it demands great courage and decision, impossible to achieve in their way of life.
What does your work bring you? What would you do if you could no longer make films?
If you have an enemy, don’t try to beat him up, or curse him, or humiliate him, or hope he will have a traffic accident. Simply hope that he will be left without work. It is the most horrible fate that can strike a man. Every vacation, even the most marvelous, makes no sense except as a way to counteract fatigue. I consider myself privileged in this: I do work that pleases me. I don’t know many Italians who can say as much. This work is the most important thing in my life. It is superfluous to ask me what it gives me. It gives me everything. It gives me the chance to express myself, to communicate with others. Being inept at speaking, I would have the sensation of not existing at all without the cinema.
The other things I would have been able to do are, in order: architecture and painting. As a kid I didn’t design puppets as most children of my age did; I designed doorways, capitals, plans of absurd battlements; I constructed city districts in cardboard and painted them in violent colors. I have always loved colors. The few times that I dream, it is in color. The thing that strikes me first about a face is its coloring. I don’t say this to make myself singular: it’s simply a characteristic like any other. I am naturally very impatient to make a film in color.
Authoritative critics have written essays and books on that subject. I am not a theoretician of the cinema. If you ask me what directing is, the first answer which comes to mind is: I don’t know. The second is this: my opinions on that are all in my films. And then, among other things, I am against the separation of various phases of the work. This separation has only a practical value. It is valuable for all who participate in the work: all but the director, especially if he is also the author of the film story and directing the picture. To speak of direction as one phase of the work is to carry on a theoretical discussion which seems to me antithetical to the concept of unity of creation to which each artist dedicates himself during his work. Doesn’t one edit and do the montage during the shooting these days? And during the shooting, isn’t everything automatically in question: from the story to the lines of dialogue which reveal their true meaning only when heard in the voices of the actors?
To be sure, there is always a moment when from ideas, images, intuitions about movements, whether psychological or physical-you must arrive at a concrete realization. For the cinema, as in all the other arts, it is the most delicate moment; when the poet or the writer puts his first words on paper, the artist his brush to canvas, or the director arranges his characters in their setting, makes them speak and move, establishes by composition and framing a reciprocal harmony between people and things, between the rhythm of the dialogue and that of the entire sequence, makes the movement of the camera follow the psychological situation, etc. But the decisive moment above all is when he receives from all these and all that surrounds him all possible suggestions in such a way that his work acquires a more improvised direction, becomes more personal and even, in the broadest sense, more autobiographical.
What importance do you give to Italian neo realism? Do you consider yourself attached to it, for example, by the sketch in Love in the City, and in what way?
To answer a question of this kind, I would have to write an entire essay on Italian neo realism. At present I am engaged in making a film. I find myself in a creative period and not a critical one. All I can say is that Italian neo realism has produced some very beautiful films; in that way it has been important. For me the sketch in Love in the City belonged completely to the neo realistic current. But how can one judge from the fragment of a film which the exigencies of length forced me to mutilate so much. I should have and I wanted to related so many stories, I even shot certain others. There was one in particular that I had to cut out because of the unbearable ugliness of the principal character: a servant. Nevertheless it was a strong, dramatic story. And it is precisely then during the shooting of Love in the City that I learned how much can be discovered while making a film. These people who tried to commit suicide were great characters. They were that during the making of the film itself by virtue of the understanding they established among themselves and because of what they told me. They were terribly proud of their deed, but at the same time so happy (almost against their will) that they were still alive, that they were truly touching. I should have put all that on film there, right away: perhaps that would have been the true neo-realistic film that Zavattini talks of so much.
What is the most important moment for you in the creation of a film?
I’ve already answered that in discussing directing. All the moments in the creation of a film are of equal importance. It’s not true that any sharp distinction between them can exist. They are all in synthesis. Thus, during the elaboration of the story, it can happen that you decide on a tracking shot, or while planning scenes you may change a character or situation, and even during recording change one or more cues. From the moment when the first idea of the film came to mind, still formless up to the projection of the rushes, for me the making of a film represents a single, unified work. I mean that I cannot interest myself in anything but that film, day and night. That shouldn’t be considered a romantic attitude on the contrary, I become, rather, more lucid, more attentive; I almost have the feeling of becoming more intelligent and ready to understand. But, if you want a single answer to your question: the moment of shooting, beyond any doubt. Since it is then that all thoughts, all other moments an author experiences, come together.
In each of your films, framing plays an important role. Do you think of the composition of an image, or are you more concerned about following your characters? Or both?
Both, naturally. I always try to manage so that each element of the image serves the narrative, serves to specify a particular psychological moment. An image is only essential if each square centimeter of that image is essential.
What do you call “improvising,” then, when at the moment of shooting you have written a detailed script?
You cannot help but recognize that direction today is less detailed than formerly, less detailed even than several years ago.Technical indications have virtually disappeared, also the “column on the right” the dialogue. In my directing I have almost eliminated the numbers that used to indicate shots. Only the script girl uses them to facilitate her job. This, because it seems to me more logical to decide the angles and aspects even at the moment of shooting the scenes. That is already one way of improvising. But there are more. I seldom care to reread a sequence on the eve of shooting it. Now and then I arrive at the location where we are working and I don’t even know what we must shoot. This is the system I prefer, arriving at the moment of shooting,absolutely without preparation, virginal. I often ask that they leave me alone for fifteen minutes or a half hour, on the location, and I let my thoughts wander freely. I confine myself to looking around me. I use the things around me too: they always suggest ideas to me. I have great sympathy for objects, perhaps more than for people, but the latter interest me more. In every way I find it useful to gaze at the surroundings and sense the atmosphere for a while, in anticipation of the characters. It can happen that the images I have before me at that moment coincide with those I have in my imagination, but that doesn’t happen often. More often, the image in mind has something insincere, artificial. This, then, is a way of improvising. But that’s still not all. It may also happen that in rehearsing a scene I change my mind abruptly. Or I change it progressively as the electricians set up their lights and I see the actors move and talk under them. I believe it is only then that you really evaluate a scene and correct it. Speaking of improvisation also, I refer you to another thing which I have already spoken of in my answer to your fourth question.
When you are preparing and making a film, do you think of the public and does this thought influence you?
I believe I’ve answered that above. I repeat it: I certainly think about the public in the sense that I need someone to show what I have done, with whom I can communicate. However, I don’t consider that the public influences me. If I made films for the public, shouldn’t I make them for money or for glory? One makes films by thinking only about films and above all not about that sort of thing. I try to make films that have the greatest possibility of pleasing myself, and I am certain that, the more beautiful they are, the more they please me
Chiefly in your last films, the sound seems to have been the object of particular care. Have you any ideas about the relationship between sound and image which are uniquely yours?
I give enormous importance to the soundtrack and I always try to give it the greatest attention. And when I say “soundtrack,” I allude to natural sounds, to noises, rather than to music. Music rarely reinforces the image, more often it serves merely to put the spectator to sleep and to keep him from appreciating clearly what he is seeing. All things considered, I am rather opposed to “musical commentary,” at least in its original form. I feel something old-fashioned, rancid in it. The ideal would be to compose with noises an impressive soundtrack and to appoint an orchestra conductor to direct it. But then the only orchestra conductor capable of doing it wouldn’t he be the director of the film?
Which is in your career is the film that seems to you, today, to be most important and why?
I have always thought that a certain amount of frivolity was necessary to answer such questions. These are questions which only aim to satisfy the curiosity of readers. It is obvious to say that all my films have as much importance in my career as in my life. Finally, I don’t seem to understand how I should answer: from a critical viewpoint, certainly not, that is not my business. I would not be objective, and I would try in vain to identify the reasons for a preference among my films. From the human viewpoint, let us say, then. In this case, I would say the most important of my films in L’avventura, because it is the one which cost me the most, which taught me the most, which more than any other film forced me to be present to myself. In respect to that I ought to explain how it often happens that I am absent from myself, but we get into the realm of gossip there and I don’t enjoy that.
What are the ties in your work with that of Pavese?
Here is another embarrassing question. Perhaps (excuse me for saying this to you) it is badly worded. I could always reply that it is not for me to say, or even that no particular empathy exists beyond that of a reader for an author. I believe I have read Pavese pretty thoroughly, but there are writers I love and esteem more than I do him. What I love in Among Women Only, the story (by Pavese) from which I drew my film The Girlfriends, are the feminine characters and what goes on in their inner selves. Besides, one of these characters resembles extraordinarily another character whom I knew only too well in reality, and I wanted to speak of it, to demonstrate it. It will be said that this answer eludes the question: if it is accepted literally, the sense of it will escape you. But, frankly, I have little to add. Critics have mentioned a certain analogy between Pavese and me, recognizing in both of us our pessimism a very small common denominator. Personally, it seems to me the intellectual experiences of Pavese coincide tragically with his personal experiences. Can as much be said for me? Am I not here engaged in making a film, I would even say obstinately? And, everything added up, this obstinacy, isn’t it a proof of optimism?
From Cahiers du Cinema 112 (October 1960).