HITCHCOCK IS MY MASTER, BUT MY LOVE FOR CINEMA I LEARNED AT HOME
Hitchcock is my master, but my love for cinema I learned at home
The master of the Italian thriller, bestowed with the Fellini Platinum Award in Bari, the Golden Globe for his career in 2017 and among the honoured guests at the 70th Cannes Film Festival, is a continuous surprise. He never struggles to talk about the unconscious, the creative resource and font of primary inspiration for his work. He is inclined to admit his dark side as well as to showcase his very latest projects: a television series of “Suspiria de Profundis” – the work by Thomas De Quincey that inspired his own legendary “Suspiria” – on which he will be supervisor as well as directing a couple of episodes; plus a feature film entitled “The Sandman”, with rock star Iggy Pop. In true Argento style, everything is murkier than ever: “Producers of various nationalities are involved”, he declares. “As far as I know they cannot agree… and it’s a while since they’ve told me anything”. Mystery, in essence, is something that is part of his own character.
Was he born with a love of cinema?
My father was the filmmaker, so at home he always talked about cinema, and often actors, directors, authors and critics came to dinner. My mother was a photographer, she specialized in portraits of women. This also influenced me very much, I always paid close attention to female characters and learned the use of light from my mother.
“But if I hadn’t gone to work as a journalist...” Exactly, going on to become a film critic, I perpetually disagreed with my director who challenged my preference for certain film genres! Later I went on to write screenplays, including “Once Upon a Time in the West”, a very important experience. At some point I wrote the screenplay for “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” and I hit upon the idea of directing it myself. It was a great success, it was even well received in the United States and I went on with what was then called the ‘Animal Trilogy’.
Looking back, what does he owe Sergio Leone?
I learned from him what is cinema, technique, the possibilities offered by the camera.
The latest work of the king of thriller will be called “The Sandman”, a project inspired by the eponymous tale of E.T.A. Hoffmann, for which the director has launched a crowdfunding campaign on the web.
And then the passion for horror, how did that start? Everything started out when I saw Arthur Lubin’s “Phantom of the Opera” as a little boy. He made me discover a world, the world of the fantastic, of the mysterious, that I did not know and which grabbed me straightaway. Then I read books by Edgard Allan Poe and Bram Stoker, and I realised how this movie genre, more than anything else, gave me particular emotions.
You have managed to direct great actors over the years, foreign and Italian. Who has particularly impressed you? Jennifer Connelly was so young at the time of “Phenomena”, then my daughter Asia, who debuted with a movie produced by me and whom then I directed five times. I also remember a marvelous relationship with Harvey Keitel, whom I directed in an episode of “Two Evil Eyes”, a real phenomenon. But there are the exceptions: on the set of “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage”, I had a terrible rapport with Tony Musante, right from the first clapperboard.
He knew I was a beginner and he thought he was going to make all the decisions, and my instructions never went down
well. At the end of the shoot, he asked for my address and came to my front door, punching and kicking.
Really? And how did you react?
I pretended not to be at home and after a while, thankfully he left. Another conflict was with Cristina Marsillach, whom I personally chose for “Opera”, but who showed herself to be capricious and controversial even from the beginning. We quarreled for several days until, at a certain point, I started talking to her only through my assistant director, Michele Soavi, far more patient than me.
“Suspiria” is my most famous film abroad, but the Italians are more attached to “Deep Red”, because it speaks about some of our country’s vices while “Suspiria” is the ultimate fantasy, invention, vision.
What do you say about the memorable acting trio formed of Clara Calamai, Joan Bennett and Alida Valli?
Clara Calamai I directed in “Inferno”, because I wanted an actress from Italian cinema of the past, with that kind of experience, with an ancient way of acting. She was very rich but she accepted the part. When I went to pitch it to her, she was always sipping vodka with chili. Joan Bennett I chose for “Suspiria” because she was Fritz Lang’s wife, one of my cinema heroes, and I was hoping she’d tell me something about him. But she always postponed it until we ended shooting and she still hadn’t said anything about him to me. Alida Valli, invariably for “Suspiria” I chose for her Nazi-type grin and she was really gorgeous, polite and kind. And above all, she did not drink.
Do you have any regrets?
There’s a tinge of regret that I could not produce a film with Lucio Fulci, who made me angry when he did “Zombi 2”, the supposed follow-up to a film I had produced for George Romero. We had patched things up but he died two weeks before the start of shooting.
Who do you feel has had the most influence on you?
Fritz Lang has already been mentioned, German expressionism, the first Danish cinema, Bergman, the Nouvelle Vague, Fellini, but above all Alfred Hitchcock, whom I consider to be my absolute mentor. Even though I never knew him.
What relationship does a horror master like you have with censorship?
I suffered it once when the American distributors cut 20 minutes from “Opera”, the most beautiful scenes among other things. But then I took my revenge. Having kept the original copy, I was able to reassemble the movie as I had conceived it to make it succeed as a home video in the full version.
And with Italian cinema?
They were fine as long as they did not start to zero in on things, and always on dull, stupid comedies, more for television than film.
Cinema is a family art. Dario Argento, class of ’40, father of actress and director Asia and son of Sicilian producer Salvatore, knows this only too well.