A three-time Oscar-winning production designer, taking gold most recently for Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, Dante Ferretti’s professional relationship with the legendary filmmaker takes him through nine films, from 1993’s The Age of Innocence all the way up through Silence. Starring Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver as Jesuit priests facing violence and persecution in 17th Century Japan, Silence was a mammoth undertaking, a nearly three-hour film shot in dozens of locations across Taipei. Speaking with Deadline, the 73-year-old production designer breaks down his research process, his methodology as a production designer, the film’s numerous halted production starts over the years, and his long-standing relationship with Martin Scorsese.
How did you first come to be involved with Silence?
We talked about Silence many years ago, because I did prepare this movie five times. The problem was the money. I remember the first time when we sat down. We said, “We have to do this movie, but we can’t do it in Japan, because in Japan, it costs too much.”
I went for the first time to New Zealand. In New Zealand, I found some places, beautiful places. Then at the last moment, they said, “Oh, Dante, forget it for the moment, because we have to do another movie; we don’t have the money for this movie.”
Then, he called me again, another time. He said, “Oh, Dante, you have to find something more close to us.” So I went to see [Northern] California. California has so many places, so maybe we can do this here, in terms of a landscape. I said, “We have to build anyway—the villages, everything.”
Then, I went to Canada. Over there, I also found some place which was okay. Also this time, he said, “Oh, Dante, forget it.” I say, “Okay. Forget it.” [Laughs]
Then one day, he said, “Dante. We’re going to see Taipei in Taiwan, because over there, we are in China, we are close to Japan, and it really costs much less to do a movie over there.” I said, “Okay, we’ll go.”
I went over there, I saw everything, and then Marty said, “Dante, this time, we’re go ahead. We’re going to do the movie.” I went for nine months to Taipei in Taiwan. I found many locations for building the villages. Actually, I built all of Macau in the studio, on the back lot. On the back lot, we built the college. We started with the big cathedral, with all the stairs.
Nothing was there. Everything was built. Then, we built the Macau waterfront—for when Rodrigues and Garrpe go to find Kichijiro inside the tavern. Then, all this stuff—the whole street, the tavern—everything is built. Everything you saw in the movie is built from scratch. We didn’t find anything. Then we did the missionary college and missionary Rodrigues’s room. Then, we found the location near Taipei where we did the beach, the wood, the village. Everything also was built with all the art in different places.
Then, I found another place for Gotō, the second village. We built the village, crumbling for miles near the beach, where we had the execution. We built everything. [Laughs]
How is it, today, working with Scorsese? What is your working relationship like?
To work with Marty, for me at this point, has become not difficult, because this is movie number nine which I did with Marty. With Marty, in the beginning, of course I had to read the script, and then we see each other for a couple hours and he tells me what he likes to have. Then, I tell him what my idea is. He shows me some movies in his office, in the screening room. And then sometimes he’ll say, “OK, look at the movie. Forget it. There is only one thing maybe that’s interesting.”
This normally is my job with Marty—this is the way to work with him. Also, he always comes to see the set at the last moment. At the last moment, I call him, I say, “Marty please, come to look at the set, because what’s going on if something doesn’t work?” “Oh, Dante, I’m tired. I have to shoot this.” I say, “OK, but tomorrow, you come here with all these people and then something doesn’t work, what’s going to happen?” “OK, OK.” Then he comes to look. “Oh, great. Great. Bye.” [Laughs]
What kind of research process did you go through for the film?
For this, it was 17th Century, so the research which I did was for the old Nagasaki. It was the paintings, and the drawings and all this stuff because there’s obviously no pictures, nothing. I saw many books with a lot of design like it was in the period.
I changed many things. I put my own fantasy because I’ve been to Tokyo and Kyoto for many days, many weeks. I looked all around—how was the city, the village of that period? Because part of the villages are still there. Even if there is more stuff—[and it’s] more modern—there is also the old part. It was very interesting to see everything also for building Nagasaki.
This project seems like it was a feat of endurance to shoot, coming in at almost three hours long, at so many locations. How did you make your way through a production with such extreme requirements?
Yes, it was difficult. It was difficult because there were many problems. We worked well in Taiwan, but at the same time, they don’t make too many movies. The problem was to have a lot of people for the build, but at the same time, we didn’t ever have the money for bringing people from our side. For me, the only person I ever had was the set decorator, and a painter from Italy. That was it. For all the rest, we used people from Taiwan. Then, we divided all these people just to go to make all these different villages. During the shooting of these two villages, we did the big prison. We did the prison, and at the same time we built also the Inquisitor’s house. And also the little prison, and then the hole in the floor to put the prisoner upside down. All this, like I said, it was built. Nagasaki, it was built. The temple was built.
Did the climate on location present challenges for you?
Yes, because when you go to build something outside, on location, when it’s difficult to find everything… In every location, we’d bring all this stuff from Taipei to build an entire village. When you’re on the stage, it’s OK, because you have everything here for work. But anyway, we’re still alive.
Did seeing the film premiere at the Vatican have special meaning for you?
I saw the movie before in New York—I went to New York and then Marty showed me the movie. And then Marty came to Rome, a week later. He showed the movie for the Pope, but they were alone. What happened, I don’t know. A day after, we went again to the Vatican, with the priests, Jesuits. Everybody loved the movie.
I was curious, also, because when I was shooting, I didn’t have the time to go to look at what we shot the day before, two days before. Sometimes, I went to see Thelma [Schoonmaker], the editor—I would say, “Please, can you show me what we shot? I need to see.” Then, “Oh, this is good. Maybe it’s better for next time to change something, more or less.”
With all the building that went on, what was your single greatest challenge with this production?
Just in the beginning, to think through what we have to do. Also, another thing—I like to always make a mistake, because if you make a mistake, everything looks more real. When everything is perfect, it looks like a set. When you make a mistake, for me, it’s like being an actor. It’s important when I say, I want to always make mistakes, because it’s like somebody lived the period which we’re going to do. It’s like I am an architect in that period—I have to do what I like to do.
You’re attached to Scorsese’s next project, The Irishman. Is that right?
Yes. Now, we’ll see when. I actually don’t know. Marty said, “OK, maybe April, May.” We’ll see.