Mr. Beaks Talks MOTHER OF TEARS And GIALLO With Dario Argento!!
For most of my childhood, the films of Dario Argento were nothing more than a collection of stills in Fangoria and books like Phil Hardy's THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF HORROR MOVIES. Though I was coming of age during the home video revolution of the early 1980s, which horror dominated by dint of omnipresent slasher dross and supernatural EXORCIST rip-offs, Argento's films were tough to track down. Sometimes, this was due to rights issues (as was the case with SUSPIRIA), but, for the most part, there just wasn't a big enough outcry from critics or moviegoers to shame distributors into releasing his seminal '70s work.
This began to change in 1985, when New Line Cinema took a shot at loosing Argento's creepy-crawling PHENOMENA on U.S. theaters. Though the film remains one of the director's most deliriously entertaining efforts, New Line ignominiously hedged their bets by slashing twenty-eight minutes out of Argento's cut and rechristening it CREEPERS; the timid result was loathed by critics and largely ignored by American genre fans (who didn't have the internet to clue them in as to what they were missing). Still, the seed had effectively been planted; the studio could mangle Argento's vision all they wanted, but they couldn't completely blot out the visual/aural genius (though the Goblin score was also a casualty of PHENOMENA's crass Hollywood-ization).
By the time SUSPIRIA hit home video in the early 1990s, U.S. horror geeks were primed to adore the thing - which they did in numbers sufficient enough to hasten the release of DEEP RED, INFERNO, TENEBRE, etc. I harbor a varying degree of affection for all of those movies, but it was Argento's directorial debut, THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, that truly blew me away. The cruel precision of the opening art gallery murder was positively mind-blowing (thanks in part to then up-and-coming DP Vittorio Storaro); once I factored in the Ennio Morricone score and the fetishistic use of black gloves (this was also my introduction to giallo conventions), and it was basically the best Brian De Palma movie I'd never seen. That was all the prodding I needed to devour the rest of Argento's filmography.
When I headed out to Santa Monica last week to chat with Argento, it was ostensibly in support of his new-to-DVD MOTHER OF TEARS (the concluding chapter to his loosely-related "Mothers" trilogy which includes SUSPIRIA and INFERNO). But when I learned he was in town editing his latest film, audaciously titled GIALLO (starring Adrien Brody), I felt compelled to press for details on what is purported to be something of a career-capper. It was the end of a long day for Argento (he was eager to order a glass of Pinot Grigio before we got started), but he was more than happy to discuss... anything, really. In fact, I found that what he wanted to talk about didn't always correspond to the question I was asking. Bunuel, Leone, falling asleep on a beach in Africa... I just let the man go.
Mr. Beaks: You're in the midst of editing GiALLO. When do you expect to be finished?
Dario Argento: Not before December. I think the film may be ready for the Cannes Film Festival. It's important because it's the festival where [THE PIANIST] with Adrian Brody won the Palme d'Or. Also, we have Emmanuelle Seigner, who is very important in France.
Beaks: You're hoping to be in competition?
Beaks: That'd be incredible. Have you ever had a film in competition?
Argento: No. Two years ago, we had a big celebration of my work at the festival in the wonderful theater named after my master, Luis Bunuel. At the end, they showed a completely restored SUSPIRIA. It was a beautiful copy from the French people. I think they are the people who most love my work; they recognized it first. At the beginning, it was "good", "something"... but then SUSPIRIA exploded, and they recognized me as a [prominent] filmmaker. The same thing happened to Sergio Leone. When they do the the first three films [A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE and THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY], there was little [critical acclaim]. And then with ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, which I write... it just *boom* exploded!
Beaks: The French have always been so good with understanding and celebrating genre.
Argento: They understand. But it didn't just happen to Sergio Leone; it also happened to another great Italian director, Michelangelo Antonioni. In Italy, they said, "Oh, you're strange and incomprehensible!" And then the French said, "No, he's a master!" Now, everyone says he's a master. Sergio Leone, too. I worked with him and my friend Bernardo Bertolucci, and we write [ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST] together. It's the only film by Sergio Leone with a leading woman. The other films were all men, but this one had a woman. I remember that, at the beginning [of shooting], Leone was very concerned with this; he said, "It's difficult to speak to women." And we said, "No, it's better with women!" But it was very good to work with a woman actor; women are much more free and open to experiment. Usually, the man says, "Oh, I want to think about it." But the character of the woman is different.
Beaks: You made your first film, THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, soon after working with Leone.
Argento: Yes, I was in Africa. I had a vision sleeping on the beach, and I woke up so disturbed... I come back to Italy to write.
Beaks: Do you find that the set pieces in your films emerge fully formed from these visions or dreams?
Argento: Yes. I think because the material is like a dream. Films are dreams.
Beaks: That's what I love about your films. They're governed by a sort of dream logic. They aren't concerned with making real-world sense.
Argento: Many, many critics say to me that my films are not good because they are too unbelievable. But this is my style. I tell stories like they are dreams. This is my imagination. For me, it would be impossible to do a film that is so precise, that resembles real life.
Beaks: That's so boring.
Argento: (Laughs) Yes.
Beaks: Now, you did SUSPIRIA back in the late '70s, then INFERNO in 1980. Why wait twenty-seven years to conclude your "Three Mothers" trilogy? Were you waiting for a vision, or a nightmare, to inspire you as before?
Argento: After I make those first two films, I was too tired to do another "Mother", so I postponed. "Maybe when I have a good idea." So I do other giallo and other films that are in my style. But years later... I was by the sea in this house to write a new film. I was alone at night, and the telephone rang. I answered, and there was nobody. But then I heard this voice. It was very far away and very incomprehensible. So I put the phone down. But then I think, "My god. This voice was the voice of my father." My father is dead! Why would he call me? Maybe to give some advice or... something. I don't know. Maybe to say something to save my life. That started me thinking about MOTHER OF TEARS, with the girl having a relationship with her mother, who is dead.
Beaks: Then it made sense to cast your own daughter in the lead, and also to bring Daria Nicolodi back to co-write the screenplay.
Argento: Yes, they were both good. Asia was very good for this character.
Beaks: In terms of scale, MOTHER OF TEARS is a big movie. It's depicting a full-scale apocalypse - at least, the beginnings of it. Usually, your movies are more intimate. Why did you go so big?
Argento: We are at the moment in a very dangerous moment. There is an evil force pushing, pushing, pushing... it is like a civil war everyday. The conflict is in our cities, not just Iraq or wherever. It is in every country. Whenever we have a moment when violence is so strong, it is impossible to [maintain]. Violence is our destiny. It's normal. And everybody in every country is touched by this violence. They say even people in Switzerland are nervous. Switzerland! A country that is known for being happy and peaceful. People are nervous and fighting on the streets. I think it's very bad at the moment. So I imagine witches [for MOTHER OF TEARS]. Witches are a symbol, no?
Beaks: The witches in MOTHER OF TEARS have a youthful vitality to them. Also, they behave like spoiled, out-of-control celebrities. One reviewer aptly compared them to Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton.
Argento: Also, she's naked, no? She's saying, "I'm a truth. I show my body." Not because it's sexual; it's something else. You know, at the beginning, [the actress] said "I am much too naked." But then she understood. She was very good.
It's wonderful for me now that I am recognized in the USA. I grew up on American cinema, and those films are some of the most important in my life. I'm so happy that my films are now recognized here.
Beaks: It's about time. When I was a kid, most of your movies were very hard to find on video. SUSPIRIA, THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, DEEP RED... none of these were widely available. Mostly, I knew your movies from Fangoria and and books on the horror genre. Why do you think it took so long for audiences and critics to catch on?
Argento: There is an order. It takes a lot of time to be recognized, and it is different for everybody. It takes time for the audience to better understand your work. Look at Bunuel. He was not recognized as a master until he was very old.
Beaks: It makes sense that you're an admirer of Bunuel. A lot of what you do wouldn't be possible were it not for Bunuel slicing that eyeball.
Argento: He made so many wonderful films. So different, too. "Un chien andalou" to the last one [THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE], which was very good. BELLE DE JOUR, VIRIDIANA... great, great. So imaginative, no? When he did VIRIDIANA, the film was full of symbols. Everything is a symbol of another thing.
Beaks: When MOTHER OF TEARS was shown at the Toronto Film Festival, it divided audiences. Some loved it, some loathed it. How did you feel about that?
Argento: To divide the people? Jesus said, "I come not to unite the people, but to divide the people." Fathers against sons. Divide the people.
Beaks: (Laughing) But is there a moment in the film where you can feel the schism forming in the audience?
Argento: I think it is when the mother kills her [infant] son. (Laughing) "Someone is crazy, whoever create this! Too much!"
Beaks: Did you watch the film with the audience?
Argento: Yes. Some respond very good, some respond very bad. I remember the premiere. It was in Florence, and I was with my daughter. We sat for the beginning, and then we went out to eat at a place very close to the theater. After some time, people start to pass [in front of the window], and I say, "Oh, the film is finished." Then one young woman goes to the window, and points at us and screams "You bastard!!! You bastard!!! This is too much!!!" (Laughs) I was so concerned by this. I don't want the reaction so strong.
Beaks: Well, at this point in your career, people should know what they're getting into - especially if they're at your premiere!
Argento: Yes, I think so.
Beaks: You mentioned that you'd like GIALLO to play at the Cannes Film Festival. Are you looking at the film as a summation of your career thus far?
Argento: It's a moment in my career. It's a step. It's something a bit different from the giallo films in my past, but also a bit different from the horror genre. It's something in the middle.
Beaks: Adrian Brody recently said that he felt you were paying homage to your earlier films, like DEEP RED.
Argento: He is very excited. He's a great actor. Full of ideas and spirit.
Beaks: Have you ever worked with an actor who was so involved and collaborative?
Argento: I have worked with many actors, but this one is special. And this movie. (Laughing) I will surprise you.
MOTHER OF TEARS hits DVD on September 23, 2008.