My Method (December 1982)
To begin with, we want to ask a ‘very simple question, the same one that the child asks Niccolo in Identification of a Woman: “Why don’t you make science-fiction films?” Let us ask you the same thing.
A question like that isn’t for you – it’s OK for a child like the one in the film! You know well that I haven’t been able to do everything that I wanted to do. I suggest ideas, but it is the producer and his distributor who make the decision. It’s very difficult today to make suggestions for films, especially for a science-fiction film; they immediately make comparisons with what the Americans are doing in this field, even though we don’t have access to the same resources as they do. It’s useless to try and compete with them; we have to do something different. In the end credits to Blade Runner; there were at least forty technicians. There aren’t that many in the whole of Italy! And even if there were, they would cost too much to hire.
I thought your film was trying to be an answer to American science fiction films – an answer to E.T. and Blade Runner, a European ‘version of these things, dealing with everyday issues.
Perhaps. What you say is interesting. Why did you think that?
The character of Niccolo – the director seems very interested in everything that has to do with science. The telescope allows him to approach the farthest his human eye can reach. And then there is the issue that recurs throughout the film: the issue of otherness, be it a woman or other objects. Or perhaps the “other” is extraterrestrial?
That’s interesting. I like interpretations, a film is always open. You can interpret it any way you want. Seeing a film is always a personal experience. I would like to make a science-fIction film, but to do so in an Italian style isn’t easy. It’s such an alien mentality to us. Still, I did write a script for a science-fiction film: it’s half classic science fiction, with extraterrestrials; but then that format gives way to a different type of science fiction, where you find yourself inside the characters, who are all characters from science fIction. It was interesting, but I wasn’t satisfied with the production deal so I didn’t go ahead with it.
The difference between the Europeans and the Americans lies in the fact that while the Americans live in daily contact with science, ‘with technology, and with the future; the Europeans live with their own culture – especially the Italians and you in particular. In Europe there isn’t the same proximity to the issue of science, which is nonetheless a constant presence in your films.
In Italy there is no research being done. There is a Center for scientific research, but it hasn’t any money and can’t do anything. In the (mostly private) laboratories of the United States, they have the greatest scientists in the world. Research serves to develop ideas which are destined to be sold on the world market. In Italy, not even students have any contact with science, other than in their textbooks. The scientific games that American children have don’t even exist here.
But that is also a cultural phenomenon. I have just come back from Japan, and despite the fact that there is a lot of technology there, too, there isn’t the same interest in science fiction as in the United States. The Japanese feel little interest in other possible worlds. Do you think we will ever get to explore them?
The Japanese are very practical. For them, technology only serves an immediate purpose, making things that are useful to mankind and can be sold abroad, not things that are useful to go into space.
What meaning can we give to the yearning that moves Niccolo, since in your films – unlike those of Bresson – religion and the divine order of creation seem to have been replaced by a “common-people” investigation, rather than a theological one. Do you mean to say that an artist is a kind of lay scholar?
You are giving me explanations of what I have done. Naturally, you can do that, but I must tell you that I have never thought about it. I have only thought about a character, and he came out of my imagination in the way I wanted him to. He’s a sort of sculpture. I can’t answer your question, I would need the detachment that only a critic or a viewer can have. I am still too involved with him; I can’t answer.
Independently of this film, are you interested in religion?
They asked me to do a film about St. Francis of Assisi, but for bureaucratic reasons I don’t think it will be possible. At RAJ [the Italian state TV], they’re late with their contracts, and in any case, I have signed up to do two films, so at least for the moment I can’t do anything about it. We’ll see. The second of the two films, in a sense, has to do with religion, but seen through the eyes of a layman. I think that because of a professional bias we tend to seek out all those who can help us understand the world in which we live and tell stories about it. The religious spirit is there, it’s a real fact, so why not talk about it or even try to capture it? In the case of this film, it’s a matter of a man trying to understand why a young girl has shut herself up in a convent. His inquiry has a practical basis: he wants to understand. He doesn’t mean to get into the question of religion; he wants to see why others do, in such a profound, total way that it changes their lives completely. It’s a sort of scientific research project. For this film, I visited fourteen convents, and I have to say that I had very strong feelings about them. It really impressed me to meet nuns who were so serene, so happy. I met some very special, very intelligent women. One of them had been inside the convent for fifty-five years.
Recently I spent a month in the United States. It’s very difficult to get Italian newspapers (in Los Angeles, not in New York), and when you do find them, they are a week old, practically useless. So you forget newspapers, you forget Italy and all its problems, and when you come home and open the newspaper, it’s as if you’d been gone only a day: the same names, the same politics, terrorism, crime.
But is it the world that doesn’t change any more, or is it you who are no longer attuned to the changes?
Yes, that’s true, it’s us. You even get used to crimes and scandals, to the hypocrisy and corruption, to everything. It’s very serious.
Wasn’t it like that when you started out in cinema?
No, there was a certain amount of honesty then, at least people tried to be honest. Nowadays, people are as cruel as they were in the Middle Ages. Two days ago, some bandits killed the security guards at a bank. They were on their way out, they had stolen everything, the guards were lying on the ground. They stopped for a few seconds and killed them just like that, for no reason at all. It’s crazy!
To what extent is the character Niccolo autobiographical?
He’s a film director like me. We have a few things in common, but his story is different; what happened to him never happened to me. And besides, I don’t believe in autobiography. One always has to make choices in order to draw a self-portrait, and there are instinctive inhibitions which lead to all authors drawing the same basic two or three types of self-portrait. A film is autobiographical to the extent that it is authentic and, in order to be that, it has to be sincere.
Do you use the same method that Niccolo uses to create his characters?
No, I don’t think so. First of all, I have to admit that I have no method of creating [the story for my] films; a film simply occurs to me. The Cry occurred to me while I was looking at a wall, L’a’vventura while I was on board a yacht, heading toward an island. A girl that I knew, a friend of my wife’s, had disappeared and I wondered if she could be on that island. That’s how I thought of the story for L’avventura. In short, there is no fixed method.
What do you think of Niccolo’s method? Will his film turn out well?
I hope so, for his sake. Perhaps I should make another film for him. Yes, I think his is a good method. When you begin to think about a film you always start from a sort of chaos in your mind and from there you choose a particular thread that leads you in a particular direction. A director’s work is a bit like a poet’s: before writing a poem, isolated words float around in your head, and then they join together, one, two, three at a time, until you have a whole line. Niccolo says he feels the shape of a woman in his mind. That’s a good beginning; he feels he has to build the fIlm around a female character. He doesn’t yet know who she is – anything about her. His affairs with the two girls complicate matters for him. When you are in love and you respect the woman with whom you are having an affair, it’s the natural thing to do to take her as your model. At that point, you don’t know any more whether you’re looking for a woman for yourself or for the film.
There is a word you use very often, the word ”chaos. “Should we take it in its scientific or political meaning?
No, in its literal sense of disorder. The disorder of ideas. Once I finish shooting a film, I always allow myself a period of rest, after which I immediately have to think of another film. This way, I begin to look, read all the newspapers, listen, go for walks, waiting for an idea to come to me. It may happen that this occurs in the space of two days, but sometimes a whole year can go by. Naturally, it’s impossible for the material that I collect during this process to take on a coherent form right away. Diverse elements have to emerge from the chaos and stand out, so that I can begin to see whether my character will be a poet or an architect, a man or a woman. Naturally, I know that other directors work differently, read novels, prefer to keep their feet on the ground.
It’s a little like a photographer who allows the portrait to develop bit by bit. You travel a lot. What role does traveling have in your conception of the world?
Travel makes the creative process more difficult because it’s distracting. I’d love to shoot a film in every place I go. Fortunately, I don’t do it, it wouldn’t be good for me, but I am tempted. What holds me back is that when you’re traveling, you rarely have the chance to examine carefully the reality of the place; you can only give it the fleeting glance of a tourist, and I don’t like that. I hate being a tourist, you don’t get to understand anything. One day I went to Finland; a helicopter was put at my disposal, so we went to a little island inhabited by about a dozen people. It was an interesting situation, ten people on this little island off Finland, covered with snow. But when the helicopter landed, they all rushed up to us. That was the end; there was no reality any more except for those people who were so curious to see me. The same goes for any phenomenon in a microcosm: once you put in an observer, the situation changes, and then how can you have a true representation? On the other hand, when you work in a country, you know its problems, you’re in direct contact with the people and their reality, you speak the same language. Besides, any journey is always a little sad: as soon as you fall in love with a place, it’s already time to leave. I couldn’t care less about memories. I couldn’t care less about being able to say: “I’ve been to Afghanistan.” But when I’m actually there, how do I feel? Seeing things, problems, and not being able to reach out and touch them makes me feel frustrated. If I can use the images to make a film, it’s different. But if I don’t use them, despite the fact that the experience has of course been useful, then I have to say that my relationship with Afghanistan is over. Finished.
So you only have a relationship with things while you are actually in the presence of them?
Certainly, and the same goes for the past. The past doesn’t interest me, my only alternative is the future. All I have in front of me is the future.
I think you are the only important Italian director never to have made a costume film.
Yes I have – The Mystery of Oberwald, even if it wasn’t completely my own project. And then, I was supposed to do a film about St. Francis of Assisi – but probably nothing will come of it. I thought of doing a period St. Francis, a St. Francis of his own time – which, by the way, was an extremely violent, crude age; at the time there was a war between the people of Assisi and the nobles of Perugia. With his ideas about peace, St. Francis was everyone’s enemy. He was alone, a voice crying in the wilderness. That’s how I wanted him to come across – ahead of his time. For example, the idea of the convent was born at that time. Nuns used to sleep with anybody; and to restrain them, they invented the convent. They were times of extreme cruelty. Think of the relationship between society and lepers. In order to declare someone a leper and send him out alone into the world, they organized whole ceremonies. The leper had to announce his arrival by ringing a bell. St. Francis met one and gave him a kiss. Now that’s a great story.
We also find it in Rossellini’s The Flowers of St. Francis.
That’s a good film, but from the historical point of view it’s not a very serious contribution.
And Pasolini’s The Hawks and the Sparrows?
Pasolini is more of a poet, that was a beautiful film.
Do you think there are any similarities between the age of St. Francis and our own age?
All things being equal, perhaps that will be what the world is reduced to in twenty years’ time. Maybe worse.
Since we are in a pessimistic frame of mind, were you surprised that a young director like Wenders asked your opinion at Cannes on the death of cinema?
No, but I have to say that I’m not as pessimistic as he is about that. It’s true that children are so used to television that they are incapable of having an independent thought these days. They are completely conditioned, they study by computer as they watch television. One day, a boy came to my house and immediately noticed that the television wasn’t on. He wasn’t used to silence. They need noise, even if they don’t listen to it. I think we will have to adapt, they are already ready. We are asking what cinema will be like in ten or twenty years, but it is they who will make it. They will make films according to their views, their psychology, and among their generation there will certainly be some bad directors, but there will also be some poets.
When you and the other directors of your generation were younger, did cinema have any rival equivalent to what television is now?
Radio. But it wasn’t as strong. Unlike television, which is very popular with young people, for the most part it was older people who listened to radio; they stayed at home and listened. It’s a sort of mystery. I remember when I was a child, my parents’ bedroom was next to the living room; my mother listened to the radio and I always asked her to turn the volume down because I couldn’t get to sleep. It annoyed me, but for her it was a quiet time with a voice talking. And it did have a strong impact on the imagination: when you hear things, you automatically create in your mind pictures to visualize the things you have heard, to give a shape to the words. Television, by contrast, is like a photograph, everything is already given.
Rossellini thought television was a great tool for educating people. What do you think of that?
Yes, I agree, I think it’s already being used in schools. I think it is very direct – it goes straight to your brain via your eyes. I don’t know much about it, but I think it’s a good tool. However, you need to make educational programs, invent a new method of teaching, and that is not easy. I could never make a film like that, I’m not capable of it.
In a way, you are very up-to-date in terms of your grasp of the language of modern cinema. You are careful to frame your shots, your use o flighting and color is deliberate, and yet at the same time your films are concerned with a certain part of the “in” society, the bourgeoisie, the aristocracy in Rome. The characters in your films are often directors, architects.
They are characters who are part of the daily life of Rome; I don’t think that to make a thoroughly modern film you have to choose a boy who knows about electronics or can solve the Rubik’s cube in ten seconds flat – that’s not a valid criterion. Of course, nowadays a boy like that is someone important. Anyway, for my next film in the United States, since the main character will be American, I’ve found an American partner to review the script: he’s a very intelligent guy, very up-to-date, he has just written a screenplay for Spielberg based on these young electronic geniuses. I really like his whole view of the world. We have in common an interest in everything around us; only, he understands everything, too, while I don’t necessarily. His way of writing is very different from mine. He uses words I don’t know – even though I do speak English – and I like that, it’s a very fruitful collaboration.
Does Identification of a Woman describe one character’s investigations of the world around him, or are you using the film as a vehicle for investigation?
Both. My films teach me a lot, not because I make them, but because they are the sum total of experiences which I otherwise would not have had. Talking about this society, this reality, is for me a way of understanding them more profoundly.
American cinema is becoming more financially healthy by aiming at the children’s market, while European directors like you still aim at an adult audience. Do you think that cinema today can count on a large adult audience?
Adults also go and see E. T It’s an extremely intelligent film, but very old, full of nineteenth-century sentiments. Spielberg’s great idea was to make the little monster capable of love.That’s the novelty of the film, and children aren’t interested in it, only adults are. Feelings are too old for children – the petit bourgeois, the family, the mother, the intruder. Let’s take another example: Blade Runner. That’s quite an interesting film. I like the idea – which, by the way, comes from a novel – of the Earth being on the point of dying. Everything is in a terrifying state, some of the scenes are extremely beautiful. The technological side of the picture is marvelous, too: a world full of light and noises, very modern. And at the end, a man asks a woman: “Do you love me?” And what does that mean?
Their films end where yours begin.
Yes, but they are passed off as being artistically avant-garde and it’s not true.
They are popular because they signal the return of both the spectacle and metaphysics. For fifty years, America has had a monopoly on speaking to the future and the next world. It’s something that the Europeans aren’t interested in. That is why we asked you to talk about religion. When Europeans take an interest in the invisible, whether it’s from a scientific or religious point of view, they look for it around them. In your film, one has the feeling that the camera is sometimes a microscope and sometimes a telescope.
You will remember the image of the sun. It’s quite a rare image, because it was taken by shooting directly at the sun. The images of the sun you get in the observatory’s telescopes are, instead, the image of the sun reflected onto a screen. The sun is seen on a white screen in a context other than its own. In the film, what you see around the sun is really the sky, filmed directly. I had an adapter built with the right focal length and we shot the sun directly, using filters. It had never been done before. I love science, it used to be a great interest of mine.
Do you think that human emotions counter balance science? In your film we see them both.
As creative moments, yes, but not – I would say – in real life. For example, The Mystery of Oberwald, in my view, was a hateful story. I didn’t like it at all. And yet I felt relieved by it. At last I was able to let myself go and use certain techniques. It wasn’t “my” film, it was just “directed by” me.
What did you learn in making that film?
I learned to film without being personally involved in it, being completely detached, and I also learned how to work with videotape. The range of possibilities which videotape offers is extraordinary. I enjoyed myself a lot. There’s a machine called color enhancer. It’s a great toy. It made me want to color one of my black-and-white films, The Cry or L’avventura.
Is the average viewer of Identification of a Woman the same age as Niccolo? What is the profile of the typical cinema audience today? Does everybody go to the movies?
No, today there are more young people than there used to be.
How do they manage to understand your films?
I don’t know, that’s a good question.
I read in an interview that many of your friends are young people.
Of course, that’s natural. There are my assistants, for example, or the friends of the woman I live with. She’s very young, too. I’m surrounded by young people. And yet, it’s a strange thing; with friends who are my age, we don’t talk the same language any more. I don’t feel comfortable with them. It’s worse than with sixteen year-old kids; we have nothing in common any more. But with someone who’s twenty-five or thirty, there’s a dialogue there, we like the same things. For example, one thing we both have in common is violence. I’m ready to do anything, face any situation. Sometimes I do dangerous things. For example, during the shooting of Zabriskie Point I had to make a forced landing. I was in a small plane with my cameraman, who was really scared and had turned completely silent. The pilot was going crazy, too. I was the only one who stayed calm and organized everything. It made me laugh – who knows why? It was crazy. I said we had to throw out everything in order to lighten the plane, get rid of the gasoline so there would be no explosion, and I did everything myself. The pilot managed to land and we were safe!
To hear you talk, it sounds like being in a war film by Hawks, although the manly world of war and heroism is completely alien to your films. You seem more interested in the female world.
And yet I did do that sort of thing. For Lattuada’s The Tempest, I shot some battle scenes with thousands of horsemen. I shot them as if they were love scenes with Silvana Mangano. I enjoyed it a lot. It was like going to the movies. It wasn’t tiring, like the movies I usually make. In fact, I’m fed up with making this type of film. A phase is coming to an end, a long phase which has lasted almost all my life. From now on, I’ll do something different.
Are you making a change because you’re fed up, or because you’ve found something else?
Of course, if I have found something else it’s because I was tired of those issues, of that conception of life. For example, I would like to make a thriller, if I could find something realistic, because all those thrillers, even Hitchcock’s, aren’t at all real. They have an amazing format, great suspense, but they aren’t realistic. Life is also made up of pauses, of impurities; in both content and its representation there is a sort of dirtiness (in the same way that we say a painting is dirty), and that should be respected. The rhythm of films in which one sequence is closely linked to the next one creates a false movement, which is not that of real life. Why do you think that L’avventura, in its day, caused a scandal? Because it had a rhythm that was more true to life.
You use the terms “dirty” and “clean. “I don’t think that in Identification of a Woman there is anything that could be said to represent the dirtiness of life. I think, rather, that in your films and your characters there is a certain natural aesthetic pureness.
That’s not true as far as the characters are concerned. What matters is the spirit.
Sometimes Niccolo seems grotesque, just a little bit. Was that deliberate?
Whatever the equivalent might be in women for this grotesque element, I think that, almost by nature, women cannot be grotesque.
I don’t think you can make generalizations. The two women in this film aren’t. Niccolo sees them as grotesque, and for that reason they aren’t. Although the film is generally objective, this is his view of the world. Well, perhaps that’s what links us, him and me, this view of the world. I take women seriously, too – perhaps too much so. And for that reason I make films especially about women, and I know them better than I know men. I’ve never been to bed with a man, so I know them less intimately. I know myself, but not other men.
During the whole film, it is Niccolo who directs the situation. But when, at the end, Ida tells him she’s expecting a child by another man, he’s completely lost, his film slips away from him.
Yes, but then there’s the sequence about science fiction. In that he takes control of the fIlm again and writes his screenplay.
Do the advances made by feminism, and the fact that the social status of women has changed, make women more difficult to understand than before, or has little really changed?
I think that you have to make a distinction between the real feminists and the rest of women, who are another thing altogether. Perhaps we are struggling to understand feminists, but we do understand the others and they are the majority. Feminists are the ultimate expression of a need for liberation; today however, we are seeing a kind of backlash.
The Lady without Camellias dealt with the theme of the alienation of a woman who aspires to become a star.
It’s a film that the feminists loved. I don’t know whether they will appreciate the latest one.
Did you get the commission to work on the project in the Soviet Union?
One year I went to the Moscow Film Festival with Tonino Guerra, one of my partners. There he met the woman whom he later married. So he wanted to go back to Russia, and I did too. I was very happy to go. They said that if I wanted to make a film they would give me everything I wanted. So we thought about a science fiction story. We made four trips, and visited many of the Soviet republics, but then we weren’t able to make the film. I needed technicians who weren’t available there, at least not at the time. So we would have had to pay some Americans or some British to do it – an assistant director, a cameraman – and where was the money going to come from? They would only give me rubles. It was impossible! And for a film with Russian actors, the distributors wouldn’t give me an advance. And on top of everything, the Russians would have wanted to develop the film there, and I wanted to do it in Rome. The new Kodak film had just come out and it wasn’t easy to develop.
Had you already written the screenplay?
Yes, the book will be published in the Soviet Union and in Italy. I wrote it together with Tonino and it’s illustrated by a Russian painter.
Does the Soviet Union interest you?
No, that’s the point. It would have been a completely abstract film. They had asked me to do it that way. And I said: “If I put a camera here, inevitably it will film something of your reality. And what else am I supposed to make it say? That your reality is just that? I can’t do it!” I would have had to film in Uzbekistan, in ancient, out-of-the-way cities. The peasant costumes were quite different from the way they dressed in Moscow! No one knew in what period the film was supposed to be set, and I didn’t like the idea of going to Russia to make a film that didn’t show anything.
But the film about China was another matter:
Yes, but the Chinese are more candid than the Russians. The Russians wouldn’t allow me to even glance at their reality.
Why are you about to shoot another film in the United States? After Zabriskie Point you said you’d have some reservations about doing it again.
This time there will be no problems. The story takes place mostly at sea, on board a yacht. The theme will be the relationship between one character and his crew. I met some producers who asked if I had any projects in mind. I made a proposal and it was accepted. In Italy I had been asked to do an adaptation of a novel which I didn’t like, and besides that, the producer was terrible, I couldn’t work with him. So I accepted, for practical reasons, but I have to say that I also wanted to shoot a second film in the United States. I like America a lot; I don’t want to start any polemics. I will shoot in [Miami,] Florida – rather a nice place where everything is static, where everybody is wealthy, and the poor are there too, but they are Cubans and Puerto Ricans.
Because it’s right for the story. Anyway, I’ll be filming very little on land.
Is it a major production company or an independent one?
It’s a French-American production company with a budget of nearly eight million dollars. It’s the most expensive film I’ve done to date. In America, with the unionized system you can’t make films cheaply. The actors are Robert Duvall, Joe Pesci, perhaps [Vittorio] Gassman, and another famous actor whose name I can’t reveal. There will also be a woman. The title is The Crew. It will be quite a crude film, but humorous, too – a strange story.
Can we talk about Italian cinema?
What is Italian cinema today? It doesn’t exist. There are a few comedies made with the advances given by distributors. But in Italy these days they can’t afford films which cost more than four hundred million lire!
Did you ever want to do any shooting in France?
I have to say no to that. I’ve never really courted the producers. French television made me an offer two months ago, but to do a TV movie – no, I prefer cinema. French production companies like Gaumont have never made me any offers.
Did you write this story with an American?
No by myself. I took my inspiration from a news report; then I invented a story and wrote the screenplay with Mark Peploe, the author of The Passenger. Currently we are tidying it up. We’ll begin shooting at the beginning of March. I admit that I’m having trouble getting away from Identification of a Woman, with the New York Film Festival, the subtitles in English and French, the dubbing, sales promotions.
It makes me curious to hear you say that you are ending a phase which has lasted all your life, and that from now on you will do different things.
Still, it’s what I think. I don’t know how much of the old me there will be in my next film. Anyway, the conflicts will arise from natural situations, the sea, storms. No intellectuals.
And your violent side?
I hope to make a film which is violent and less realistic.
From Cahiers du Cinéma 342, December 1982.