FILMMAKERS IN FOCUS! MONDO ARGENTO
As Told To Simon Drax
Simon Drax caught up with Ultra-Cult Auteur Dario Argento at Fangoria's Weekend of Horrors in January 1999. Let's listen...
SIMON DRAX Tell me about your new project, The Phantom of the Opera.
DARIO ARGENTO I just finished it! I wanted to make a faithful adaptation of the original novel by Gaston Leroux. I didn't change anything! Well, maybe a few things. Obscure things, which was unavoidable. It's a story seen through my eyes, after all. But it's Leroux's story, not a remake of earlier film versions. Those films made enormous changes to the character of the Phantom and Christine, they were almost puritan in their thinking. My version is more romantic. I tried for more of a balance, because it's not a simple story, it's complex, it's long, it's a very interesting story. In many ways, it's a portrait of an era, the end of one century and the beginning of another.
SD Sounds great. When's it coming out?
DA In the States, you mean? It should be in theaters in a few months.
SD Is this new Phantom in any way revisiting themes you first touched upon in The Opera?
DA No. They are entirely different films, different feelings. The Opera was a very cold film, a hopeless and dark film, no hope, no love. Love is finished, no? That was the mood I was in when I shot The Opera.
SD While we're on the subject, let me ask you a quick question about The Opera. I just watched it again recently, and...
DA Aha! But which version did you see? The original or the Orion version? Because there were many changes made, many, many changes!
SD That happens a lot to your films, doesn't it?
DA It's incredible! They change the editing, they change the sequence of the scenes! And they cut a lot of things! It's unacceptable. They're mutilating my films!
SD At least more of your films are becoming available in their original forms.
DA Yes, yes. But no one should have the right to manipulate my films in the first place. If you don't like my movies, don't watch them. But if you're going to buy [the rights], don't change anything, not even the titles!
SD There is a certain amount of literal mentality when it comes to the distribution of foreign films. The Opera has to become Terror at the Opera so that the idiot filmgoer knows it's a horror movie. Phenomena becomes Creepers.
DA Yes! Yes! And do you know what they called Tenebrae? The First Aged Woman! And it was heavily edited, of course, and after two years they changed it again, and it's garbage. They cut 25 minutes! It's incredible! I saw a version [of Tenebrae] years ago in France France, France and it was an entirely different film. It wasn't mine anymore, it belonged to somebody else. But you know, as you say, the original versions of my films are getting out there, slowly. It's true. France? Now they have some good copies of my movies. Japan? Excellent. Even in the former Soviet Union, they have good copies of my movies. Do you know what the critics say? Do you know what the critics say about me? They say, "Dario, you are the most censored auteur in the history of cinema." None of my films have escaped with less than 15 minutes of cuts! Not one.
SD But Dario, you should wear it as a badge of honor! You can say, "Hey, I've been censored more than anybody!"
DA No, no, really, it's not right. It's incredible that they censor films. It's sad.
SD It's weird that films are perceived as products of commerce, that they're subject to be cut and repackaged any way the money men see fit. I mean, they wouldn't cut up a Picasso if they didn't like a part of it.
DA Yes, exactly. If you don't like it, don't look at it. But don't cut!
SD What was it like making Two Evil Eyes with George Romero?
DA I remember, we talked about the project a lot. George is a good friend of mine. I remember when we met in Florida. It was beautiful. The sky was so blue. We talked about what we wanted to do, and it was so obvious. We both knew.
SD How is shooting a film in the States different from shooting in Italy?
DA It's the same.
SD The same?
DA The same. If you shoot an independent film, no matter the size of the crew, it's still simple, no? You still have control. No matter where it is: Italy, Paris, Budapest. You know, Soavi's The Church? We shot The Church in Budapest. Small crew, small budget. No different. It's a matter of control. Vision.
SD Can I ask you about your earliest cinematic influences? Was there an image, a moment in any movie that spoke to you, that made you say, "Aha, I can do that, I can be free."
DA Be free? When I was five. That's when I started to love film. The Phantom of the Opera. The German films, the impressionistic movement. Murnau. Nosferatu. Hitchcock. Poe. The Cask of Amontillado. Some dark films from the United States. Noir...
SD Was there anything violent or murderous in a movie that unleashed something inside you?
DA No. When I was a teenager, I read a lot of Poe. Poe opened a door inside me. It was a landscape, a new world, a new perspective.
SD When you encounter negative criticism, how do you respond?
DA I'm used to it. I'm used to it. Why? It's always the same. It doesn't bother me. Not because I'm proud, but because there's a new generation of critics, an international level of critics. What's shocking to one generation or country may become acceptable, even commonplace. So I haven't thought about the critics for a long time.
SD You must get upset sometimes, though.
DA Oh, sure. But it's only for a moment. Next week, they're nothing. Sure. Who cares?
SD Okay, but let me push this for a second: Was there ever a moment, a scene in a film you made where you thought afterwards, "Oh God, I shouldn't have done that, I shouldn't have gone that far ..."
DA Never. I'm loyal to the dream, the fantasy. It's like a painting, no?
SD Is there a connection between desire and fear? Is there a difference?
DA Of course. It's something better described by Freud than me. I've never gone into analysis. But Freud opened a door, I know. Like Poe. A landscape different than people see every day. I've tried to explore that.
SD You once said that viewers of your films know more about you than you know about yourself. Have you come any closer to walking into yourself and seeing what's inside?
DA No. No. When I see a film I've finished, it's like another person made it. Like another mind. I've tried to honor that. Look, I'm Dario Argento, okay? At the same time, I'm also another person who looks like Dario Argento, walking, speaking, but another person, no? He looks like Dario, but he's another person. Maybe when I stop making movies, I'll understand my work better. Until then ... you look sad, my friend. What's the matter?
SD I had a question about The Opera.
DA Ask it. I'll answer anything!
SD At the end of The Opera, your heroine is confronted by the killer. They're in Switzerland. It's beautiful. Like heaven. Weren't you tempted to have your hero/villain walk off into the sunset with the heroine in love with him?
DA No. No! Paradise is too perfect for humanity. Our dark side would never be allowed inside. Like contamination. Disease. We can never do away with our dark side. It is part of us.
SD Can I take your picture?
[Special thanks to Tony Timpone and Reel Life Video, 209 Bedford Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11211, 718 302-9747.]
Anchor Bay accords the (blood)-red carpet treatment to two vintage Argento gems, presented for the first time Stateside in all their uncut, uncensored, widescreen gory glory, compete with Dolby Surround Sound to heighten the films' hard-rock-and-screams-driven soundtracks. The gripping 1982 nail-biter Tenebrae, formerly out in truncated form as Unsane (Fox Hills, n.i.d.), stars Anthony Franciosa as a mystery novelist whose fictional crimes are being replicated in real life. The cassette includes the original theatrical trailer and two behind-the-scenes segments. Reportedly the director's own fave among his eerie ouevre, 1985's Phenomena, first seen here in a butchered edition called Creepers (Media, n.i.d.), chronicles the terrifying traumas of schoolgirl Jennifer Connelly as she battles a serial killer with the help of insect-specialist Donald Pleasence. Among the extras are two music videos, a "making-of" short and an interview with Argento conducted by legendary talk-show host Joe Franklin (now that's scary!). Anchor Bay lavishes the same care on Lamberto Bava's 1985 bijou-set terror tale Demons and the 1988 sequel Demons 2, both produced and co-written by Argento. The handsomely packaged tapes (2/99) are $14.98 each. The DVDs, with audio commentary by the directors, sell for $29.98 each. Dario's Rome-set serial-killer thriller The Stendhal Syndrome, starring daughter Asia Argento, is slated for a select Stateside theatrical release this Spring, followed by a late June video debut via Troma ($59.98). No word as we go to press when The Phantom of the Opera may appear theatrically here. More next time.