I don't know about you, but when I consider the works of the great Italian filmmaker Dario Argento, I think of the pure artistry involved in every aspect of his movies, from the set design to the inventive types of gore that results from the many deaths featured in his films. Argento began his career as a writer, largely of spaghetti Westerns, including, most famously, Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, for which Argento gets a story credit, as does Bernardo Bertolucci.
He moved into directing in 1970 with the wonderful serial killer thriller THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, and began down his road to bringing giallo films a bit more to the foreground. Argento built up quite the impressive filmography of horror work through the 1970s, including THE CAT O' NINE TAILS, DEEP RED, and culminating with the masterpiece of psychological horror, SUSPIRIA in 1977. He continued through the 1980s withe INFERNO, TENEBRE, PHENOMENA and one of my personal favorites, OPERA. Things got a little shakey for Argento in the '90s, but there's still a lot to like, including his segment of TWO EVIL EYES (with George Romero making the other half of that film), TRAUMA (marking the first of many times Argento worked with his daughter, actress Asia Argento), his blood-soaked version of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and THE STENDHAL SYNDROME.
Outside of his two enjoyable "Masters of Horror" episodes, Argento's work in the 2000s has been tough to get through. THE CARD PLAYER, MOTHER OF TEARS and GIALLO are not often cited as fans' favorite works by the maestro, although I'd got to the mat for MOTHER OF TEARS; I think it's great. I'm excited that IFC Midnight picked up Argento's latest, DRACULA 3D, for VOD and a limited theatrical run because it's exactly the kind of film you should watch with a crowd in the mood for a truly crack take on the Dracula legend. It's bloody, it's nutty, it's actually quite beautifully shot, and the 3D works remarkably well, with Argento always keeping in mind the depth of field aspect of 3D. It also features a giant praying mantis, and that I can't explain. You may not buy into this verion of Dracula, but I promise you, you won't be bored by it.
I had a chance to sit down with Argento recently when he was in town during the Chicago International Film Festival for a late-night screening of DRACULA 3D. Please keep in mind that English is not his first language, and I wanted to retain his charming way of speaking, which may not include perfect grammar. He didn't have a translater, but I got everything he was trying to say. It was one of my great honors to have a chance to talk to this true living master of cinema, and I was close to labeling this a part of the AICN Legends series, but I don't think we cover enough of his history to quite qualify for that. Still, we cover a lot of ground, so please enjoy my talk with Dario Argento…
Capone: Hello, sir. How are you?
Dario Argento: Hello. I just received a book [the journalist before me had actually written a book about Argento and had just given him a copy].
Capone: Is it a little strange when you get something like that and you didn’t even know was being written about you?
DA: Yeah. [laughs]
Capone: When you are making a film version of DRACULA--a very well-known character, many versions have been made--do you worry about staying faithful to the story, or do you say, “It’s my DRACULA; I can do what I want with it.”?
DA: If I betray Bram Stoker, it’s OK. Because I, this is my DRACULA. When you have a book or story from another, you take the story, and the story becomes yours. It’s not the same, you change it and you adapt it to your personality, to your style.
Capone: It is most definitely your style on this one.
DA: Yes, yes.
Capone: What aspects of the story did you want to emphasize and pull to the foreground? What were the most important?
DA: I think this is, everything has changed. Important is color, for example. The color, it’s similar to the paintings a bit because it’s old, it’s in all the story. With the castle, with all the village, it looks like a fairy tale. I worked with the same DP who was director of photography for SUSPIRIA.
Capone: I noticed that.
DA: Yes. We also looked for the color of fairytales in SUSPIRIA. He worked with me again, and we have the new atmosphere that is very strange, very. And then I changed the characters of the Dracula, because I have a problem. Dracula is in my mind for many years, because it’s interesting for me, the characters of the undead, and the man, he drinks the blood of the women and the men. It’s something interesting. But for many years, I don’t find the idea to do make it new, something new. Then, we have a new technology for 3D. This changed my mind, the technology. Same technology used by Scorsese in HUGO. It’s different from AVATAR, from the other films, completely different, it’s a new one. Then, you see the film, you see the depth is very profound. This convinced me to do the film because it becomes a new way represent Dracula. The audience comes inside the screen with him because you are there. When we are in the forest, the trees are there; you are in the forest. This is when I decided to make it.
Capone: That’s one of the things about Dracula is that he invades your home and your body.
DA: Yes, yes.
Capone: If you had access to this 3D technology in the past, might you have made some of your other films using it?
DA: No, this is in the past. The past is the past.
Capone: OK. No conversions for you?
DA: [laughs] No, impossible.
Capone: By casting Thomas Kretschmann in the role of Dracula, you went with the very handsome version of the vampire, and there’s this sexual aspect to the film, that to me is less about the book and more about what Christopher Lee did in the Hammer Films versions of the character.
Capone: He’s always been my favorite Dracula.
DA: Yes, yes. OK, the old-school Terence Fisher, the director, is one my favorites and my great friend. I know Thomas Kretschmann because we work together on THE STENDHAL SYNDROME, and we are friends. And also, he’s European, and Dracula is European. The fact that he’s European is good; we work together very well. When I have an idea, I call him, and he was enthusiastic with the screenplay. He was in Cannes Film Festival, he was great.
Capone: And, in fact, the first DRACULA [PRINCE OF DARKNESS] that Christopher Lee did just came out on Blu-ray in the last couple of weeks. I don’t know if you’ve seen it yet. The transfer is gorgeous.
DA: Yes, it is.
Capone: The festival is celebrating this new wave of horror films--they’re calling it a renaissance of horror. With this new wave, I think there’s an emphasis on the artistic aspects and the beauty of horror films, which is something that you certainly embraced in a lot of ways. Do you pay attention to the modern horror scene, and do you agree that people are focusing more on the beauty and artistic elements of horror than maybe 10 years ago?
DA: Yes, some, but not many. Ten years ago, there was not. Now there is more because some years ago, we have torture, just torture. Now, it’s more different. Now, we have some films that pay much more attention to the psychology. The psychology it’s the most important thing. You must watch what’s inside you, because what's inside of you is profound, and inside your dreams. Then, put on the screen all your world. If your world is interesting, the film is interesting; if it’s bad, it will feel bad.
Capone: But that was always something you were so good at, taking what is inside a person’s head--dreams, nightmares, psychology--and finding a way to get it on the screen that’s. What inspired you to take that approach?
DA: Inspired by my profound soul, my dreams, my subconscious. I think Freud is important. When Freud appears, everything changed--literature, paintings, films, everything is changing because they discover the unconscious. You have a sexuality. It’s something. I think Freud inspired me a lot.
Capone: You just directed an opera for the first time.
Capone: And opera has been a theme or an aspect of a couple of your films.. Has that always been a lifelong passion, or was that something that you got excited about later in life?
DA: Yes. When I was very young, when I was child, my grandmother had small part in the opera house in Rome. I was the person who would go with her. Sometimes I would sleep [during the opea] because I was young, but sometimes I like. And then, I became fond of the opera. Then, in OPERA, I put on Macbeth, the same I put on in theater. In PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, I chose a French opera, a French melodrama. Now, I have a stage, I do Macbeth by Verdi, with the special effects from the movie. Yes, with blood, nudity. Sometimes people were stunned but they like. Like a lot. It’s a bloody story, with the witches.
Capone: How was the experience for you? Were you nervous doing that?
DA: No, no. It was good. The singers are like actors. You must do acting and not just singing, like in a theater.
Capone: Is making a film a little bit easier for you when you’re able to use your daughter in it?Has she become a good luck charm for you at this point?
DA: Yes. We've done five films together. I saw her grow up in front of me. In the first movie, she was 13, and the second 18, she grew up and changed. She's become a director.
Capone: She’s a great filmmaker.
DA: Yes. And then, when we are together, it’s good to work together, to invent something. Now, it’s marvelous to work together.
Capone: Lucy has always been one of my favorite characters because she starts out as a good character and becomes a bad character.
DA: Becomes bad, yes. That's why I choose her. [laughs]
Capone: When Rutger Hauer comes into the film, I feel like the film changes a lot. There’s a little bit more electricity and energy.
DA: Ah, Rutger Hauer, yes. He changes the momentum of the movie. Yes, it’s marvelous to work with him. What’s strange is that Rutger Hauer is Dutch like Van Helsing the Bram Stoker's book. And Rutger Hauer puts on a Dutch accent in the film. It’s good.
Capone: It might be the first time a Dutch person has ever played Van Helsing.
DA: Yes, first time.
Capone: I know a year or two ago there had been some discussion of David Gordon Green remaking SUSPIRIA. Did you have a hand in that? What did you think about that?
DA: No, but nobody asked me.< No one called me. Nobody gave me information, nothing. I think this is very bad things because I was the original owner. Is is possible to ask me to speak about it? No, no. Nobody. I don’t think this is very nice. I don’t like this.
Capone: What countries do you see the best horror films coming from these day? Which ones do you like?
DA: Some films are very good from France. Some very good from Spain, some very good from South Korea, many very lovely things, very good. Some inspired by my films, but it’s OK. Also Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong. New films from Mexico, yes.
Capone: I notice you don’t say United States. [Both laugh] Do you think you’ll use 3D again in your film?
DA: I’m not sure. It was a good experience, yes, but I am not sure because it is a very strong experience. It’s very strong to do films in 3D. I did a film in 3D, OK. I do my work.
Capone: Is it more difficult for you now to get a film made in terms of gathering money? Is it a longer process?
DA: In Europe, it is difficult to do a film because there's no money. Europe, it’s much more difficult. Everything is much more difficult.
Capone: Do you have any thoughts about the next film?
DA: No, no, no. For the moment, no, because I just finished the opera. I want to rest for a moment.
Capone: Understood. Well, thank you very much. It was really wonderful to meet you.