“It’s amazing when a studio backs a movie as bold and auteured as Suspiria,” someone close to the Amazon and K Period Media-backed chiller admits. “It’s like ‘woah’, even as you’re watching it. There’s nothing quite like it.”
Call Me By Your Name director Guadagnino’s $20M re-imagining of Dario Argento’s 1977 cult classic stars Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Lutz Ebersdorf (perhaps), Jessica Harper (of the original) and Chloe Grace Moretz. Johnson leads cast as the American newcomer to the prestigious Tanz school who comes to realize it is a front for something very disturbing. The pic debuts at the Venice Film Festival on Saturday. But that’s only a slice of this movie’s story.
Cinema-con footage left audiences reeling and buzzing at the same time. The first teaser was one of the best I’ve seen and Amazon’s marketing and artwork has been consistently compelling. Private screenings have had some squirming in their seats and others watching through cupped hands.
Guadagnino has crafted a movie which chimes deliciously with its original and a host of 1970s horror pics which were distinctive and intricately crafted but also unsettling and shocking. It speaks to a type of auteured genre film which rarely gets made by studios today. Don’t Look Now and The Wicker Man come to mind. As do controversial dramas Caligula and Pasolini’s 120 Days Of Sodom and more recent cult classics Under The Skin and Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water. Like some of those movies, Suspiria could divide opinion. Its box office potential is enigmatic. Given the more commercial direction Amazon has said it is going in, and the direction other studios have been going in more generally, we might not see its like again for a while.
Why did you want to revisit Dario Argento’s 1977 classic?
Luca Guadagnino: I first saw the poster for Dario’s movie when I was 11 in 1982. I saw the film two years later. It made an incredible impression on me. The idea of trying to transfer the explosive emotion I felt into a new movie began almost immediately.
Dario’s movie is evocative of so many things including of motherhood. It’s the story of a group of women united by an obscure agenda. There is something that I couldn’t stop thinking about. For all the violence of Dario’s movies they are also beautiful fairy-tales. There is something alluring about it for a young person.
There is an incredible sense of unease permeating the movie. It is a very eerie mood piece. Dakota Johnson said she needed therapy after the production and described a very haunting production location. Can you tell us more about that space and how you generated that sense of unease?
Honestly, I don’t think the shoot was traumatic. It’s a complicated movie because of its set-pieces but every day was a joy to work with such a skilled team. The problem for Dakota was that it’s an intense storyline and it’s an intense performance. We were shooting on top of a mountain overlooking the Italian city of Varese in an abandoned hotel. We completely remade it into our Tanz Dance Academy. There was a lot of eeriness in the place, which probably resonated with Dakota.
I like to think that when you make a movie you are orchestrating a combination of elements that must sing together but at the same time individual contributions stand by themselves. These blurred lines between the personal identity of the performer and character may become very intense. I bless that. With that kind of intensity you get amazing performances, which I’m very proud of.
Have you spoken to Dakota about her reaction? Perhaps the therapy comment was tongue-in-cheek…
We spoke about it constantly. We had fun with it. Dakota is very sharp and very witty. I very much doubt she has been permanently damaged by the movie…
There are some disturbing scenes. Were there any things the actors were reluctant to do?
None. Zero. The cast dared themselves to do everything. Dakota, Mia, Jessica, the dancers, all of them. Nobody was shy about anything. We emboldened each other. I like to think my movies are an eight, nine, ten-week party. We were having fun.
There is a brutal dance scene which caused quite a stir at Comic-Con. It’s a tough watch but also remarkable in its composition. The actress, Elena Fokina, is a dancer. Was there much CGI in that scene?
Elena is an incredible dancer and a wonderful actress. I’m really proud to have directed her in her screen debut. We shot the sequence mainly without VFX. It’s 85% Elena’s performance and Damien Jalet’s choreography. We used some prosthetics and we removed some physical elements afterwards in the digital process but we did not use CGI 3D work.
The movie has a number of striking, dream-like cutaways [it’s masterfully shot by DoP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom]. Dario Argento’s vibrant and psychedelic colour scheme was influenced by Disney films. Your colour scheme tends to be darker. Were there particular inspirations for you and your creative team?
I had conversations with [screenwriter] David Kagjanich in which we wanted to encompass the power of German cinema and particularly the cinema of Rainer Werner Fassbinder from the 1970s. With my production designer we looked a lot at Fassbinder but also the great painter Balthus who was well known for dreamlike paintings and portraying young girls in eerie settings. The colour and palette of Balthus is very evocative. Dario and his DoP Luciano Tovoli worked on the primary colours in a definitive way and I didn’t want to go in exactly the same direction. We also thought about radical feminist art of the 1970s which looked a lot at violence on the female body.
Dario Argento was quizzed about the amount of violence towards women in his film. Were you concerned about that?
Well, the majority of the cast are women. My relationship with my performers is a mutual co-operation. I’m not there to puppet anyone. It’s a tango. I have no anxiety about portraying violence. We were creating together. The violence in the movie is not gratuitously acted on the female identity, it is a little more layered and complex than that I hope. I had brilliant partners in Amazon. They supported and shared the vision of this film. Being a studio movie, it’s a great example of how with the right people and perspective you can create a very bold studio film.
This must be Amazon’s most violent and experimental film production to date. It’s their first Original horror. Were they comfortable? The last 20 minutes, for example, is quite something…
Totally. We had great conversations about all the different shades of blood…
It is really refreshing to see an avant-garde studio movie [the film is also backed significantly by Kimberly Steward’s K Period Media]…There are a number of key diversions from the original film in terms of plot and characters. Did you have female empowerment or the #MeToo movement in mind?
We weren’t thinking about female empowerment in that way. We just did it as a matter of course. It’s problematic when something becomes a topic that you have to address. It’s more important to be in the right mind-set without having to think about it.
The production design is beautiful. I saw $10M quoted as a budget online but it was surely more than that?
It was $20m.
The story around Lutz Ebersdorf, the 82-year-old male lead, is pretty surreal. He has never been in a movie before. How did his casting come about?
We wanted to have a fresh face. Someone who was born on screen with this movie. We wanted someone who could embody the tragedy of the 20th Century somehow. His character wants to try to survive but also claw back what he has lost.
Was he dubbed? He has an ‘other worldly quality’…
No. [Guadagnino has dismissed speculation that the mysterious Ebersdorf is in fact Swinton under many prosthetics].
This is Radiohead frontman Thom York’s first film score. He has said was very nervous about tackling it. The original by Italian band Goblin is very cult. What were you both trying to achieve with the music? I was particularly taken by a song that plays over the final credits…
Thom, myself and my editor Walter Fasano spoke at length about a score that sounded in line with the sound of the times, 1970s Europe. Thom really enjoyed working with electronic music and contemporary classical sounds, two different musical worlds. All the songs from Thom are originals for the movie.
Have you shown the movie to Dario Argento?
Dario saw the movie. He is one of our associate producers. I had a very good call with him about it. But it’s up to him to say what he thought about it.
The original had sequels. There have been hints about a potential triptych. Could you make a sequel to this film?
At the beginning we were going to title the movie Suspiria: Part One but we didn’t want to give the impression of something that couldn’t stand alone. Truthfully, I’d be interested to explore the origin of Madame Blanc and Helena Marcus and also the future of Suzy Bannion in the world. So maybe. We’ll have to see how the movie goes.
Have you spoken to Tilda about that possibility?
I plot adventures with Tilda on a daily basis. This could be one. We have to see how audiences react.
There is a moment worth waiting for after the end credits. What was the message behind that final shot?
The character is looking forward towards something. I think it would be interesting to know what that is…
On occasion in the past, Italian media on the Lido have gone after English-language films made by successful Italian filmmakers. Do you have any concern about their reaction?
I’m old enough and experienced enough that this time I’ll go and try to have fun and not worry. I’m very serene.
Do you understand that type of reaction?
You should ask them…
What’s next? You’re also working on a Call Me By Your Name sequel, right?
A long holiday. I’m scribbling things for it, yes. But I need to have a rest now.