OUT OF THE DARKNESS
by Michael Flores
The myths about film director DARIO ARGENTO are growing every year. Fan publications publish as fact stories about him that are untrue, which are then repeated and enhanced as they pass into the film community. What is true about him is his vision-a unique, stylish approach to murder and mayhem. To the casual viewer, he is known as the co-writer and producer of George Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD. His film SUSPIRIA, perhaps the most fascinating horror film of the 1970’s, continues to win over audiences with its brutal elegance. Even those repulsed by the violent shocks in his films are drawn to his visual rhythms as his camera floats through cinematic space.
Many of his films are butchered upon release. The grand guignol TENEBRAE was slashed into incoherence by distributors and released as UNSANE. The extreme color effects of SUSPIRIA were toned down even in the so-called “uncensored” version released by Magnum video, leaving collectors to search down Japanese versions for the definitive edition, until recently when deluxe laserdisc editions were finally released in the USA.
Yet once you see his films, INFERNO, TENEBRAE, PHENOMENON (CREEPERS), TWO EVIL EYES, DEEP RED, TRAUMA, SUSPIRIA, OPERA, and THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, it’s guaranteed you’ll begin searching down his films.
Dario Argento was in Chicago to be honored by the Film Center of the Art Institute. He was staying at the Swiss Hotel and my good friend Pat Schenning (whose photography, computer skills and cooking of the sacred desserts I can only envy. Rock bands called her when they came to town to get her chocolate chip cookies and banana bread [from Anthrax to The Mission]). We entered the formidable hotel about 15 minutes early. I looked around the lobby and noticed more blondes than I think you could find in the entire downtown area.
We headed for the bar to down drinks before the interview and chomp on the bowls of mixed nuts that adorn the bar. I made a mental note to stop in next time I was downtown to grab a brew and observe the scenery. It was soft on the eyes.
Pat and I prepared for the interview by dishing the dirt on ourselves and others. I
resolved to talk to Dario about the myriad of rumors about him and subject matter that fan boys would never ask him. We headed up to his suite and were greeted by Mr. Argento. Thin, dark haired and smiling from ear to ear, he welcomed us in.
[Note: this interview took place in 1990, before the release of TRAUMA and THE STENDAHL SYNDROME]
THERE ARE SO MANY RUMORS ABOUT YOU IN THIS COUNTRY, LET’S BEGIN BY ASKING YOU IF YOU STARTED IN FILMS BY WRITING NUDIE FILMS.
Argento: No! I don’t know where these stories come from. Never!
HAVE YOU RETIRED FROM MAKING HORROR FILMS?
Argento: A British writer started that one. Absolutely not. I’m working in America right now on a new one. He wrote I retired and magazines began repeating it. (Laughter) I’m not retired!
SO, LET’S TALK ABOUT YOUR WORK WITH SERGIO LEONE.
Argento: I learned much from him. I worked as a writer with BERNARDO BERTOLUCCI on ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST and other films. Sergio was a great director. He almost never gave his actors hand holding scene direction that bad actors demand.You got a general idea of the character and the camera did the rest. He taught me that the camera became your eye. You see the scene and the people in it and examine the frame. He taught me to use the camera as my eye.
I want to see everything in the picture. If there is a desk, I want to see what’s
on it. Everything in the shot must have a purpose, so I want to see it. (Dario rises from his chair and motions around the room). Some people would focus in on the actor but look around this room. The table, the chairs, the things on the table. I let the camera take all that in. I learned that from Sergio Leone. My time working with him was very good.
HOW DID YOU GET TO GO FROM SCREENWRITING TO DIRECTING?
Argento: Believe it or not, when I did the script to THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, I wrote that I was to be the director on the first page. No one questioned it! I was glad I wrote that down! In those days it was easier to do than now. Now it’s more difficult.
DID YOU ENJOY DOING YOUR FIRST FILM?
Argento: No. I had hired an actor, Tony Muscante, who seemed pleasant to begin with, but I hated working with him. He was trained in theatre and would be waiting to ask me questions every day. I hated it. We didn’t get along. Difficult. Very difficult. Why am I doing this or that. All the time. (Dario rolls his eyes) After a time I hated going to the set. I wanted the film to be over. He still works in theatre.
YOU HAVE OFTEN COMPARED FILMMAKING WITH GOING TO WAR, AND WAR CHANGES PEOPLE. WHICH FILM HAD THE MOST IMPACT ON YOUR LIFE?
Argento: SUSPIRIA. Without question. When I finished the film I bought a gun and went to a hotel room for 2 or 3 days. I thought about killing myself.
BUT THAT’S CONSIDERED YOUR GREATEST FILM!
Argento: Some call it my masterpiece. My wife walked out on me and the set of the film the first day. It was all down hill from there. Troubles. Troubles from complicated shots, troubles in my life.
If I had to do it all over again I wouldn’t do it. Every film has an impact, every
project. SUSPIRIA was a disaster until it reached the screen. (Laughter). Maybe because it was about witches! When I finished it I wanted to die. I was never so depressed in my life. I sat in the hotel room alone. Trying to decide.
HOW DID YOU COME OUT OF IT?
Argento: I don’t know. It just passed.
DID YOU MEET ANY WITCHES AS A RESULT OF THE FILM?
Argento: No. Never have. I’ve met people who say they have studied it or claimed to be witches, but I’ve met no one with supernatural abilities or powers. I’d like to. (Laughter)
IF YOU WERE TOLD THAT YOU COULD DO A FILM AS EXPERIMENTAL AND GROUND-BREAKING AS SUSPIRIA AGAIN, BUT THAT YOU’D HAVE TO GO THROUGH THE PAIN AGAIN…
Argento: I wouldn’t do it! No. (Laughter) No, never. Every film or creative project influences your life. SUSPIRIA was devastating.
THE LAST FEW YEARS HAVE BEEN DIFFICULT FOR THE HORROR GENRE. WHY DO YOU THINK WE ARE SEEING A RESURGENCE NOW?
Argento: I have been through this before. Horror follows cycles. When people are optimistic and want happy endings, that is what kind of film gets distribution. People expected great change with government here, I think they are now more cynical. When they are cynical they are more open to violence, death, antiheroes and horror. The optimistic comic book violence is replaced by more realism in the violence depicted.
WHAT IS ONE OF YOUR PERSONAL FAVORITES OF THE FILMS YOU HAVE DONE?
Argento: Tenebrae. I really liked the craziness of it.
THAT WAS CUT HERE AND RELEASED UNDER THE TITLE UNSANE.
Argento: The scene most cut around the world is when the womans’ arm is cut off and the blood goes all over the white walls like a hose shooting blood! (Laughter) I like this scene. the camera on the second girl victim is also cut. Some distributors hate sequences when the camera moves through space. Oliver Stone got away with it a lot in Natural Born Killers, I think it will open the door to more violence.
HOW DO YOU LIKE WORKING IN AMERICA?
Argento: It’s good. I was shooting in Minnesota. I enjoyed it. The name of my new film is Stendahl Syndrome, which I’m doing here. Every city I go to I visit the museum and look at the art. The title is a real syndrome some people have. They look at a painting or a sculpture and it affects them emotionally.
It is a famous syndrome. Stendahl wrote of it. So did Freud. Some painting or sculpture will shake them up. They will actually hallucinate off of them. That is my next American movie.
I SAW A FASHION SHOW YOU DID FOR THE HOUSE OF KRIZIA.
Argento: Oh my God-how did you see that? Where?
WHAT IS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH THE ITALIAN FILM INDUSTRY?
Argento: No relation really. I wanted to experiment. The models usually come out and walk around. Then they leave. I wanted to tell a story. Covering morning, noon and night.
It was on Italian television. Then it was cut and shown as a five minute commercial. The audience went crazy and gave me a standing ovation. Articles in the fashion magazines and newspapers. Then they went right back to the runway walk. (Laughter)
IT WAS A SCARY SHOW WITH RAIN AND LIGHTENING. IT WAS WONDERFUL.
Argento: I cast the models from schools. I told them I did not want professional models, because they look too aloof and try not to show emotion. So I cast every person in the show. I think it scared the regular models. (Laughter) They were afraid actors might replace them!
It took a week to cast, but only three days to rehearse and do. Most runway shows take a day to put together. I think it shows.(Laughter)
YOU OFTEN CAST FAMILY MEMBERS IN YOUR FILMS. FIORE ARGENTO AND ASIA ARGENTO COME TO MIND.
Argento: I think it’s been good. Asia is a great actress, very, very good. She is in other films too.
ARE YOU GOING TO USE COMPUTER ANIMATION IN STENDAHL’S SYNDROME?
Argento: Yes. I want to see how I can change the paintings. This is my third feature in America; next film I return to Europe. I’ve also been reading a Japanese book so I’d like to do a film in Japan.
I KNOW JENNIFER CONNALLY WAS IN ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST AS A CHILD, A FILM YOU COLLABORATED WITH BERTOLLUCCI ON. THEN SHE SHOWED UP YEARS LATER IN PHENOMENON (KNOWN IN THE STATES AS CREEPERS), I REALLY THINK SHE IS A STRONG PRES-ENCE.
Yes. I enjoyed working with her. She was good in Career Opportunities and The
Rocketeer, but the movies weren’t so good. She’s a pleasure to work with.
SHE HAS DEVELOPED A TERRIFIC BODY OVER THE YEARS AS WELL.
Argento: (Laughter) Uh, yes.