Dario Argento visited The Scala in 1991 for the launch of Maitland McDonagh’s Broken Mirrors / Broken Minds tome (first published in the UK by Sun Tavern Fields.) I got the job of showing him around and introducing him to various folks. If you remember how people gawped, gobsmacked, at The Fab Four in the 1966 concert film Beatles At Shea Stadium (or indeed at Adolf Hitler in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph Of The Will, 1935) then you’ll have some idea of how they reacted to the presence of Dario Argento. I was virtually foaming at the mouth myself… bear in mind, though, that this was 1991.
While Inferno or Opera or whatever was screening I taped the following interview with Argento. The interview was also filmed, with some pretty nifty Suspiria-esque lighting. My subsequent efforts to turn this footage into a documentary met with enough fuck-ups, fuck overs and rip-offs to themselves fill a book… not exactly Jodorowksy’s Dune or Terry Gilliam’s Don Quixote, but a missed opportunity nonetheless and one that I very much regret.
The interview appeared shortly after it took place, in radically abridged form, as The Blood, Shit And Sperm Of Dario Argento in issue #1 of Andrew Featherstone’s short lived fanzine Blood & Black Lace, on which I served as an associate editor (whatever that means.) The full version subsequently appeared under the title Profondo Argento in the 1993 debut issue of my own fanzine, Giallo Pages.
Thanks to Mariano Baino who put me up for the weekend, acted as interpreter and even threw in a few crafty questions of his own. Probable credit for some of the Scala photos used here should go to Andy Bark, no relation (as far as I know) to Peter Bark. Thanks, Andy.
But hey, enough of my yackin’. Here’s (ta-da!) the Dario Argento interview…
Your big career break was on Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West with Bernardo Bertolucci… How was the collaboration between three such giants of the Italian cinema worked out?
Well, Leone brought me and Bertolucci together, we already knew each other, we were friends, but it was Leone who enabled us to work together. It was wonderful! I got to spend many months working on a Western, a genre that I had always loved but never dreamed that I would actually get to work in. The first thing we did was watch Johnny Guitar six or seven times and The Searchers with John Wayne, we also watched that several times, and then we started writing. I bought a gun, a colt…
A real one?
Yes, a real one! I needed to feel the weight. So, alone in my house I would play with the gun, turning it around and around in my hands. I bought a cowboy’s hat too, and I used to wear it in front of a mirror. It was all done to try and get into the spirit of the thing, and it worked very well, in fact the opening, you know all the stuff with the fly, that was my idea. It came from studying the gun and the hat.
Could you tell us something about the influence Mario Bava has exerted over your career?
I knew Mario Bava since I was a small child, and I also know his son Lamberto very well… he’s been my assistant on three films. Mario was a technical genius, a real master who discovered many tricks – in the use of lenses, camera movements, and so on – that nobody else could do. His father was a cinematographer at the time of the silent films, and he taught Mario many tricks. It was a family tradition of tricks, special effects – underwater effects, fire effects, etc – it was a wonderful experience working with him on Inferno. For instance, he would say: Do you want to make a film where there are 50,000 people killed in a battle? I’ll do it for you, give me a week and I’ll do it for you, and he would draw them. He was a master of the mirror effect, a technique widely used in films but difficult to master, and he knew it perfectly. He could make things appear using glass panes. The glass is transparent, but when the light strikes it at a certain angle, it becomes like a mirror and you can reflect things into it but you’ve got to find the right angle. And sometimes he would draw on these panes of glass… he would draw little cities and he’d build it up and you’d have an actor in close-up and a city behind him, alive with lights and movement… he was a marvellous man!
While we’re on the subject of such hi-tech trickery, what were the difficulties involved in shooting the slow motion car crash decapitation that closes Four Flies On Grey Velvet?
Well, it took a long time, I used this camera from… Dresden University, the department of engineering. It’s called Pentaset. This camera reaches a speed… I don’t remember now, I think it’s about 25,000 frames per second. It’s unique, radically different from another camera, otherwise the film, at that speed, would burn, it would disintegrate immediately. I think the film is travelling at something like 400 KM per hour. But in this camera the film is immersed in an oil-bath, and there isn’t an ordinary shutter… it’s got prisms, glass prisms that can reproduce the same image 25 times. The prism rotates at an incredible speed, and so does the film. It’s a very complex piece of equipment but it was the only way to get that extreme slow-motion.
Are technical innovations always at the forefront of your mind when writing a screenplay?
Yes, in the script I put lengthy technical notes, and also musical annotations… it’s a very complete screenplay, as I’m writing it for myself… I’m not going to hand the screenplay over to somebody else, so I write down everything that comes into my mind… the colours, the costumes… everything!
Is there any scene that you would like to have shot differently, but couldn’t, for want of the proper equipment at the time?
There have been so many… so many times I’ve had to abandon some good idea because the right equipment wasn’t available. In my next film there’s a segment shot from an animal’s point-of view… not the whole film, just a small segment of it is from the animal’s point of view… the point of view of a lizard. I did have a project to be shot entirely from an animal’s POV, but it would have posed far too many problems, technically.
On Opera you came up with several novel camera effects, and to achieve them you worked for the first time with a non-ltalian director of photography…
Yes, RonnieTaylor… I met him when I shot a commercial in Australia, a car commercial for Fiat. He was the DP on this commercial, which was shot in the Australian desert. We worked together for two or three weeks, quite a long job. We got to know each other and I discovered he was a fantastic man. When we finished the commercial, I started shooting Opera straight away and I asked him to work on it. We became great friends… a great friendship was born there.
Opera, particularly the end of the film, seems to reiterate the themes of its predecessor, Phenomena…
No, in fact I think that Opera ends where Phenomena begins, even if I made Phenomena first. Opera is the story of a director who leaves the theatre to make a film about insects in Switzerland… that’s how Opera ends. In reality the director does make the film Phenomena! The order in which I made them is not important – it doesn’t really matter which order you watch the videos in, does it?
Phenomena, your least well-received film, is the most personal of them all…
Yes, the story of Phenomena is the story of this girl’s spiritual odyssey, but in reality it’s my own odyssey… it was me… I’ve told it through the story of a 13 year old girl, but I wanted to tell my story… I was coming out of a certain period in my life… nobody understood it.
Is this because your films are often viewed purely from a technical standpoint by true critics, completely disregarding their substance and subtext?
When the critics are confronted by a different way of making cinema, one that changes the rules a bit, they are puzzled and don’t understand what they’re experiencing. All the critic sees is the surface… he sees the surface of the water, which we could call the technique, the style… but he doesn’t go under the water’s surface to discover what lies there… and there’s a lot! It’s deep… there’s politics, there are symbols… for example I had the idea, for Phenomena, that reality was not what it is today, but a different reality: I imagined that, at the end of World War II, the Germans had won, not the English and the Americans, and that a new order had been established… a sinister order, in which people are reduced to nothing more than children, and teachers who behave as if in an S.S. camp.
Does it worry you that your fascination with the dark side of the psyche could end up consuming you, as in the case of your inspiration for Two Evil Eyes, Edgar Allan Poe?
That’s something that has always worried me… not only Edgar Allan Poe, but also Cornell Woolrich… he had a tormented life… and others… Lovecraft… nobody knows where he’s buried. That’s because they… it was a different age, you know. It was the times, I think. Today it wouldn’t happen… and of course Poe probably had this tendency towards self-destruction… whereas when I finished Opera, for example, I was so shattered… my soul was shattered… that I had to go to India for two months. I went to Katmandu, then I toured India…
Yes, it was very important for me to do it… otherwise I would have gone mad! It wasn’t exactly a holiday, more a pilgrimage, a self-renewal. But when I’d done it, I felt able to get out and socialise again. I’m not some kind of recluse. I love to meet my fans. I travel around a lot, in fact I’m a globe-trotter! Wherever one of my films is released, I go… always! I love people… they interest me.
You have such a tremendous cult following among young people… do you make any special effort to appeal to this young audience?
No… it just happens. I tell my dreams, and if that’s the way my dreams come out… (shrugs). But I am devoted to my public. It is because I need to have this dialogue with my fans, and for that reason only, that I am prepared to make some compromises. You have to accept compromise if you want to make films: cinema is the art of compromise… especially today.
Is it difficult for you to accept these compromises?
I don’t accept all of them, more often I find that I have to fight the system… that’s why I keep saying we should abolish censorship and set the directors free.
Those who criticize you for the violence in your films take particular exception to the violence you direct against women, they accuse you of misogny… and yet your films are full of strong female characters…
It’s true that there are killings in my films, and women often get killed… but plenty of men do too! Apart from anything else, of course, you have to remember that it’s not real… it’s fantasy. But these women aren’t just poor victims anyway… think of Phenomena: the two female characters, the teacher and the girl – the girl has got these supernatural powers and the teacher is a ‘fury’…
Suspiria, as well. I think it’s a perceptual error… a small one.
Do you think that increasing international censorship is to blame for the poor shape that the horror genre currently finds itself in?
Yes, I think that’s the case… especially in America, where horror films have disappeared. A year ago… no, three years ago, let’s say… there were lots of American horror films being produced. This year? Nothing! And certainly, censorship has played a part in all of this. That’s why I say that censorship must be stopped. It’s absurd!
Isn’t the Italian horror scene in an even worse state than the American one?
In Italy, horror cinema has virtually disappeared. There’s only me and my small ‘factory’ now… Lamberto Bava, Michele Soavi, special effects man Sergio Sivaletti… a few script-writers. There’s just a handful of us left doing it.
Are you comfortable in your role as a producer? Do you find it hard, for example, to walk onto Michele Soavi’s set and see somebody else direct the picture?
No, no, I find it very easy. We know each other well. I’m comfortable with them, and they’re at ease with me. I go on Soavi’s set without any problems… but he makes his film, not my film… he makes it and I produce it. Otherwise I would direct it myself, I show him that respect.
It’s said though that you don’t have much respect for actors…
No… maybe it’s my attitude. Some directors who make… (pause)… comedies or other kinds of films, have a very complex and deep relationship with the actors, they practically live in symbiosis during the making of the film. But my films are very mathematical and the actors have got to do what’s required of them exactly, without deviating. They have to do what’s been written and drawn for them. I haven’t got such a close relationship with the actors, I tell them what they’ve got to do, explain things, and then it’s everyone to their own devices. So they think I despise them… but I don’t. Hitchcock used to, but not me.
Did you experience any problems with Harvey Keitel, given his ‘method’ approach, on Two Evil Eyes ?
No, not at all! Everybody told me I was going to have problems with him, but I didn’t. One actor who did give me plenty of problems though was Tony Musante, in my first film, The Bird with The Crystal Plumage. We fought all the way through the shoot. For me, getting up in the morning to go to work became a nightmare, because I knew that I would have to fight with Musante… everyday, day after day! When we finished the film, we met again, and this time we had an actual fist-fight… as he was much bigger than me, he gave me a good hiding!
And that was your worst ever experience with an actor?
Yes, luckily I’ve never had to work with anyone that obnoxious again.
There’s a shortage of really top-notch special effects people in Italy…
Well, Sergio Stivalettii is pretty good… and we had Rambaldi, the great Rambaldi.
Yes, but you used the American Tom Savini on Two Evil Eyes…
Well, Tom Savini is an artist, a great artist… he’s a sculptor, he builds models that nobody else in the world could do… his models are truly unique. He also does animatronics exceptionally well. For example, the cat head he did for me on Two Evil Eyes… it was about this big (makes sweeping gesture)… the head moved… the eyes, the ears, the nose… but Tom was born a great artist, it could have happened anywhere… in America, or France, or wherever… sometimes a genius is just born.
Will you be using him on your next film?
Yes, because I’m shooting in America again.
Can you tell us something about the picture?
It’s called Aura’s Enigma (released as Trauma – Bob). I had the idea while I was working in Pittsburgh during the three months it took to edit my Black Cat segment of Two Evil Eyes… I find editing very easy, it doesn’t take too much out of me. So I was all alone in my room for long periods, and I spent the time writing the story, then I wrote the screenplay, and now I’m shooting it.
Are you still, in the words of Sergio Leone, “full of cinematic sperm?” Are you still in love with film?
Yes, it feels like my career has just started, like it started only a moment ago. Yes, I am still “full of sperm!” (Laughs) For me it’s really like a natural function… if you didn’t shit you would die, and it’s like that. I’ve got to do it, because if I didn’t, I would die… it’s a necessity!