The director of Last Tango In Paris and The Conformist talks butter, De Niro's package and the spiritually consoling properties of filmmaking.
Bernardo Bertolucci is one of Europe's most celebrated film directors, having made movies in a variety of styles, languages and continents. He is best known for his transgressive chamber drama, Last Tango In Paris, but also made waves with his manic anti-fascist treatise, The Conformist, and the Oscar-hauling Chinese costume epic, The Last Emperor. It's been 10 years since his last film, The Dreamers, about a youthful ménage à trois holed up in a Paris flat during the "events" of 1968. Confined to a wheelchair due to a back injury, Bertolucci managed to get back behind the camera for Me And You, a sweet drama about social seclusion and family bonds. LWLies met him in London on cracking form.
LWLies: When you read books or newspapers are you constantly thinking about how they might look as a film?
Bertolucci: I wasn't at the moment I read this book because during the last eight, nine years, I decided that I couldn't work any more because I have problems with my back and being in a wheelchair. I decided to accept my condition. And in the meantime I read the book by Niccolò Ammaniti. I read it fast. It was a novella; 100 pages. I really felt a lot from this story of a half brother and sister. I loved the fact that, finally, after the conflict they have due to their differences, something happens and they finally love each other. It was a very strong emotion and I like that. The fact that it all happens in one location, the basement of a house, meant it was possible for me to do it. I was shooting and, in the beginning, I thought it was a miracle. I'm back doing what I like most in life! But then I thought, it's normal. It's what I've been doing most of my life. It was a big, big therapy for a certain kind of depression you can have.
Has that idea of filmmaking as a form of therapy been noticeable throughout your career?
I must say that all my movies have had a strong personal impact. I am so kidnapped by my own films. I don't see what's happening in the world around me. I'm absorbed inside these movies. I remember, to give one example, I was shooting The Sheltering Sky in southern Morocco. I sent a fax back to my wife telling her that I'm here in the desert shooting a scene in which a couple are divided by an invisible glass wall. They can see each other, but they've lost that magic moment. A few hours later, my wife sent me a fax saying that while we were shooting this scene, in Europe, the Berlin Wall had fallen. It was in 1989 and the feeling was extraordinary. John Malkovich is very careful about the way he dresses as and actor – he's a dandy. He was saying that now that the Berlin Wall is down, everything will change. He just wanted to know how people would dress in this new world. So when I'm shooting a movie, reality is far, far away.
What do you do when you're not shooting a movie?
Reading. I liked fly fishing at one time. I don't have any hobbies.
When you're not making a movie, are you thinking about making a movie?
I try not to do that as it creates frustrations. I'm trying to "be". I need to search for enrichment when I'm shooting, so live the rest of my life like a vegetable. Very quiet.
Do you have any connection to the area in Rome that Me And You is shot in?
The area the boy lives is a section of Rome called Parioli which is historically rich, middle class.
Was that a specific choice to have him come from that world?
Yes. But this is just for Italians. To give the sense of the social class.
The film ends on a David Bowie track where he sings in Italian. Where did you find that?
It was a long, long time ago. A friend in Los Angeles let me hear it. The Italian version of Space Oddity – have absolutely no idea why he made it, but he did. I know that I was so happy to have Bowie singing in Italian and then to have him singing the original version over the end credits. It was like a little present to those who love Bowie.
Do you collect those kind of esoteric songs?
I love music in movies. Sometime you have the temptation of putting too much music. I'm trying to be discreet with that. In the past I had moments where the music helps things swell, like Morricone.
Why did you chose to make this soundtrack up of pop songs rather than using an orchestral score?
We have a classical score. There are a few pop/rock songs and there's also the work of a composer called Franco Piersanti which is very atmospheric. I wanted it underneath the action. The rock pieces are just what the boy liked. I asked the actor, Jacopo Olmo Antinori, what he was listening to, and he said Red Hot Chilli Peppers. So in it goes. Between the pop moments, there's a score that you can barely hear. It becomes part of ambience.
Did you ask the actors about any other aspects of their lives, like how they dress and how they wear their hair?
I steal from reality all the time. That's why, in a way, my set is open to anybody who can come. It's open because something can happen. It's the offer of reality. When I have chosen my actors, they've done nothing before that. The two kids had strong identities. For example, the girl is a photographer in the film. It wasn't in the script, that happened because I discovered she was a photographer. So it became part of her character. The photographs in the film are actually by her, Tea Falco. They're nice. I like to observe, to be influenced by a personality in front of the camera. When you shoot you have real people and they are giving their blood and their faces and their bodies. More than asking them, 'be this,' or 'be that,' I try to see if I can find secrets inside them. Mysteries. I select actors who have a big mystery inside them.
Do you spend a lot of time with the actors before you shoot?
I don't spend time with them socially, but I ask them what they're reading, what movies they like.
Do you ever give them movies to watch?
Yes. I showed Tea Falco Von Sternberg's Shanghai Express with Marlene Dietrich. When she enters the scene she's wearing this black fur. The camera follows the fur and you don't know if it's an animal or not. I was also thinking of Blonde Venus where she's wearing the gorilla outfit and she takes off the hat and this blonde beauty is revealed. I was reminded of that. I wanted that long, long fur because it reminded me that with a movie, you say something, then another movie goes on with what you say and another one and another one. I feel that directors I like are influenced by other directors I like.
You don't seem like one of those directors. Your cinema feels very distinctive.
I see a shot in a movie and it will come back to me. When I want to do a quotation in brackets, it's clear. But otherwise, my references are secret. I wrote the treatment for Once Upon A Time In The West with Dario Argento. And I put many homages to classic westerns in there. It was the '60s so the homage, the quotation was a very new thing. I thought it would be fantastic if Sergio Leone makes these quotations without knowing what they are from.
Or you tricked him.
Yes, I suppose I did! When the movie was completed, I told him. And he said that he knew them all! That man... He was so in love with movies and particularly westerns. He believes so much in that world that he made us believe in it too.
Have all your films got these secret references in them?
Somebody asked me this when we were shooting 1900. Alberto Grimaldi was a very good producer, he worked with all the greats. He was asking, 'so what's the reason behind this shot?' and I told him it was an homage to Godard which nobody would notice. He said, 'careful Bernardo, one shot is homage, two homages is plagiarism.' But the last shot of Me And You is an homage to the final shot of The 400 Blows. The boy's face is in freeze frame and there's the hint of a smile. It's the first time one of my movies had had a happy ending. It was odd to see people smiling as they were coming out of the cinema. It was a new thing for me. I only see people who have been punished.
One of the most shocking scenes in your back catalogue is the three-way sex scene between Robert De Niro and Gérard Depardieu in 1900. Can you talk us through how you created that scene?
They were young enough to accept being naked in that way. Neither would hide behind those terrible words that you seen on actors' contracts: No Frontal Nudity. So, we decided together it was good because it showed a kind of familiarity between those two characters, even if it is through a girl who is grabbing their penises. It was funny shooting that because Bob was very dressed up and then at the very last minute he would take off his clothes. Depardieu, meanwhile, was stood in a corner naked. He was... Let's just say they each wanted theirs to look bigger than the other's. It would be difficult to do that scene with De Niro and Depardieu today.
With something like Last Tango In Paris, could you have made that film today?
You know, Last Tango came from an idea I had in 1972 about a relationship between a man and a woman who didn't have an identity. I wanted that they the only language they spoke was the erotic language. This is what I told the tribune that investigated me. I told them I was innocent. I did what I felt. Why in literature can you write what you want and no-one stops you and in a movie you can't? I did this with the full complicity of Marlon Brando. Poor Maria Schneider was very offended at the end of the film and she hated me all her life. There was the famous scene with the butter. It was a scene that Marlon and myself thought of when we were eating breakfast. A baguette came and a Marlon started to put butter on the baguette, and then we looked at each other and we knew.
The use of butter in that situation was very transgressive. Otherwise it's the most innocent thing in the world… apart from the cholesterol. I decided not to tell Maria what was going to happen. He is kind of raping her, and I wanted her to react like she would have reacted in real life. She was humiliated and she never forgave me for that. More than using her acting talent, I was using her like a girl in a documentary. She was young. I was young. The wind of the moment was transgression. We were all taken by that mission. I mean transgressive in a poetic way. She was a very transgressive girl, but what was wrong wasn't the action or the scene, but that I didn't tell her. I didn't ask her to act, I asked her to react.
Have you done that in another films? Maybe on this new film?
Yes, when the couple dance at the end, we didn't know that was the moment they were liberated and could love each other. That's what I wanted: strong, strong emotion. We shot it just twice. There's something between them that was provoked by the Bowie music. Maybe another time, another life, there could have been some incest in the film.