Prosthetic makeup designer Mark Coulier has been responsible for some of film’s most transformative looks, from “Harry Potter’s” Voldemort to Meryl Streep’s Margaret Thatcher. But working on Italian filmmaker Matteo Garrone’s adaptation of “Pinocchio” marked the first time Coulier had been tasked with creating a human made of wood.
Garrone wanted to visually mirror Enrico Mazzanti’s illustrations in the original 1883 print edition of Carlo Collodi’s “Pinocchio,” and Coulier, along with fellow Oscar nominees makeup artist Dalia Colli and hair designer Francesco Pegoretti, had the challenge of reimagining nearly 30 characters, as well as the living wooden puppet.
“Matteo wanted the presence of poverty on each character,” Pegoretti notes. “He wanted each character to look believable and real, even though they were living in a fairy tale. In order to achieve this, it was important to find the right equilibrium between the animal and human worlds, to make the audience believe that a cat or a fox, for instance, could interact with a human being or even a puppet.”
“We tried to create all of the characters in the most realistic way,” Colli adds. “Farmers, breeders and masters were all people who at the end of the 19th century could not guarantee their personal hygiene or a daily meal and therefore had signs of fatigue, dirt and coldness on their skin.”
For Coulier, who worked on the prosthetic designs for 10 months ahead of shooting, Pinocchio was the biggest task. Played by Federico Ielapi — who was only 8 years old during production — the character had to be able to move easily but also evoke actual wood, both in texture and color. Garrone mailed Coulier a piece of oak, which the prosthetics team then copied. Ielapi’s makeup, which covered his face and neck, as well as his hands and feet, took three hours to apply, and each piece had to be remade and painted every day.
“It was painstaking work,” says Coulier, who earned an Oscar nomination for his work along with Colli and Pegoretti. “The paint job to re-create these things was really a meticulous wood-grain paint job, which was very labor-intensive. It took about one whole day to do a set, and there were 60 total sets of the facial prosthetics.”
Pinocchio’s wooden appearance also evolves in four stages over the course of his adventures, with the wood becoming subtly scratched and chipped. Almost all of Pinocchio’s appearance was done practically — as with most of the film — and VFX came into play only when his nose needed to grow or his feet needed to burn. Because so much was real prosthetics, a lot of attention was paid to how the makeup would sit on Ielapi’s face.
“It’s quite a fine line between making it look like wood but also making it conform to the human face and making it look appealing and friendly,” Coulier says. “We spent four or five months sculpting that makeup. It was quite a task getting all those various items together and making it work.”
The other characters, which include a human-sized snail, a gorilla judge and a tuna with a face, also required imagination and preparation. The snail, played by Maria Pia Timo, was created with prosthetic makeup, a latex bodysuit and a fiberglass shell pulled on a small trolley. Her antennae moved thanks to VFX, but everything else was sculpted and made. Even as the characters embodied different animals or puppets, the team wanted to ensure that the human aspect of each creature came through.
“It was very performance-oriented, so we always wanted to create the makeup so the actors could perform inside it,” Coulier says. “With the cat and the fox, we started with complex prosthetics, but the actors had such great faces that when we did the first test, Matteo decided we should keep them a bit more on the human side. It was important to keep them all sitting in the same vocabulary.”
The makeup part of the process is dependent on Coulier’s prosthetics. “Thanks to the perfect and invisible prostheses they had created for Cat and Fox, I was able to mix makeup with special effects makeup to achieve the results of truth that Matteo so craved, creating two dirty and evil individuals half between human and animal,” says Colli, who created more than 50 dirty fingernails for the pair of characters.
Blue Fairy, who appears as both a child and an adult, marries what Colli calls the perfect balance of “beauty and sweetness, and death and restlessness,” with pale skin and monochromatic costumes and hair. She wears a custom-designed flower crown made of real withered flowers, as well as vintage fabric flowers, and a light-blue wig. All of the wigs in the film were handmade, from human, yak and horse hair, and Pegoretti used a dying technique from the 1800s to give them a vintage look.
“Many wigs were used, and there were many techniques involved in creating them in order to differentiate the nature of characters belonging to human, animal and puppet worlds,” Pegoretti notes. “I don’t know the exact number, but everyone in the cast is wearing wigs. My main inspiration was the commedia dell’arte, which is an Italian theater genre.”
Although Coulier’s greatest challenge was Pinocchio himself, Colli spent a long time designing Geppetto, played by Roberto Benigni, a character whose aesthetic felt equally important. She planned his look in two phases: first, when he creates Pinocchio, and second, after he’s been trapped in the belly of a whale, with the goal of bringing out Benigni’s “sweetness and comedy.” Ultimately, the team wanted the makeup to feel seamless, while still telling a fantastical story.
“What we were trying to create was a visualization for Matteo of when he read the original book,” Coulier says. “It hasn’t really been made so faithfully before, with the amount of makeup and fantastical characters we’ve done. Hopefully, it’s quite a natural interpretation of the book.”
Interesting times of late for our AVOD team! 2020 was the veritable rollercoaster; with fundamental changes in how we are able to promote and monetise content, and the broad impacts felt from the pandemic. In a complex year, to say the least, I am delighted how we at Aardman have come through it all, culminating in record views and watch-time resulting in our biggest ever audience reach.
The team achieved this by mobilising and responding to new demands; from creating YouTube craft content to inspire kids at home, distributing our key titles to new markets and new platforms worldwide, working with our brilliant international brand partners; all with the goal of reaching new audiences everywhere. Our titles go from strength to strength on digital platforms showing incredible engagement, and we are on track to grow further and set new heights this year.
Along with our own IP, we at Aardman pride ourselves as a ‘boutique’ distributor; curating content from select producers that fit with our core values, keeping a consistent rhythm of shows for us to present and pitch to our extensive list of partners around the world, and using our in-house expertise to grow YouTube channels. This careful, strategic catalogue management and selection allows us to give every property due focus across all platforms, territories and rights, to help brands thrive and realise their full potential on a global scale.
It has been a great week for one of those third-party produced shows, Jungle Beat from Sunrise Productions, a show we’ve distributed on YouTube for 3 years now. This week the channel surpassed the incredible milestone of 5 million subscribers! An amazing achievement, testament to the team at Sunrise for being so proactive in making consistently strong content for the channel, and my great Aardman/YouTube colleagues for the work that’s done behind the scenes to grow audience. Next stop – 10 millions subs!
More excitement this week as we started the YouTube journey for a new content partner, Lil Critter Workshop, by launching their fabulous preschool show Hogie the Globehopper – a fun preschool series about a curious frog who loves to explore the world and learn about different cultures. It’s funny, warm and enriching content; our team have been doing a great job developing materials (do checkout the thumbnails!) and we are confident the series will resonate with kids on YouTube.
AVOD is not all YouTube of course, and there are some compelling new platforms emerging in the space that we are starting to work with and see excellent traction in the UK, US, China and elsewhere. Look out for more announcements soon.
By continuing our selective approach to content partnerships, sticking to our values, syncing harmoniously with platform principles, and learning from audience data; 2021 is sure to be another great year.
Please do get in touch if you would like to know more. email me directly, or connect via LinkedIn.
Robin Gladman, Senior Distribution & Acquisitions Manager at Aardman, is primarily responsible for distribution of Aardman and third-party content on digital platforms working with global SVOD and AVOD services and many flagship TV content buyers around the world. Robin also manages the long-term content exploitation strategy across Asia.
In addition, Robin acquires third-party series and specials for distribution, and manages the roll out across a variety of media, currently representing a carefully curated portfolio of children’s properties.
With more than 15 years experience within the industry, Gladman specialises in strategic roll-out of kids and family content across multi-territories and platforms and has been instrumental in the studio’s expansion over the years.
The first movie that Nicolas Roeg and Theresa Russell made together, Bad Timing (1980), was denounced by its distributor, the Rank Organisation, as a “sick film made by sick people for sick people,” which may sound to some like a ringing endorsement rather than a condemnation. Russell was twenty-two years old when she made it, and she was ambitious and very much her own person. She married Roeg, who was thirty years her senior, in 1982 and made four more features with him, plus a short for the movie Aria (1987), before they divorced sometime in the late 1990s.
When Roeg was conducting his last interviews before his death in 2018, journalists noted that a David Hockney portrait of Russell was prominently displayed in his home along with many other framed photos of her. This photo collage was commissioned by Roeg for Insignificance (1985), where Russell played a version of Marilyn Monroe. She is seen splayed out nude on pink satin sheets from many angles in the Cubist-style Hockney was favoring at that point, with her tongue lasciviously poking around her open mouth and her left profile seeming to merge with her full face, as if she is giving herself a kiss. This major Hockney piece expresses the deepest intent of the films that Russell and Roeg made together, which present the women the actress played from many angles simultaneously.
Russell’s character in Bad Timing, Milena Flaherty, is married to Stefan Vognic (Denholm Elliott), a man who is thirty years older than her, but the main drama here is the obsessive affair between Milena and the psychiatrist and teacher Alex Linden (Art Garfunkel), who is nearly twenty years her senior. Russell herself had been dealing with older men from the time she dropped out of high school at age sixteen and enrolled to study at the Lee Strasberg Institute in Los Angeles. She was introduced to the producer Sam Spiegel, who aggressively pursued her in vain and helped get her into her first movie, Elia Kazan’s The Last Tycoon (1976), where she played Robert Mitchum’s daughter. Russell then played Dustin Hoffman’s girlfriend in the very bleak Straight Time (1978), where her catlike, blue-gray eyes stared out at us from a default-sullen face that held touchingly limited hopes.
“Russell is very direct. Everything about the way she behaves says, ‘This is for real, this isn’t just pretend.’ ”
The opening credit sequence of Bad Timing features beckoning, decadent Klimt paintings, which Milena and Alex gaze at in a gallery in Vienna, where the film is set. Roeg cuts to Milena being loaded onto an ambulance after trying to kill herself with pills, and there is a key moment here when a male emergency responder leers at Milena’s unconscious body and Alex jealously pulls her shirt up to cover more of her flesh. Milena is just a sexual object to men even when she is near death, and this is part of what pushes her to the edge throughout the narrative.
Roeg flashes back to the first verbal meeting between his leads at a party, and Milena comes on strong with Alex, sticking one of her legs up so that he cannot pass her in a doorway and shooting him a look that is knowing and soiled and blowsy—and angry, too. There is no separation between Russell and Milena, no signaling that she is just playing a part. Russell is very direct. Everything about the way she behaves says, “This is for real, this isn’t just pretend.” She really puts herself on the line in Bad Timing and trusts that Roeg will control her most out-there and ugly physical and emotional impulses with his framing and editing.
In interviews, Russell has spoken about not wanting to have “ego” as a performer, and she isn’t afraid of looking bad here; her most persistent urge is defiance, and that means defiance of all norms of female presentation and beauty. She will widen her eyes or stick out her tongue to express the parts of Milena that are breaking down or fragmenting, and her own insecurities feel like fair game for her work. As someone who studied the Strasberg Method, Russell was taught to find the areas of herself that would best express the character she is playing, and she does that with such iconoclastic intensity that she is that rare thing in movies: an original who cannot be quite compared to anyone else.
Russell’s victimized Marilyn in Insignificance is just as direct as her Milena, but far softer and more innocent. The steadiness of her gaze was tested by Roeg’s Track 29 (1988) and Cold Heaven (1991) with plots that made her characters wonder what was real and what wasn’t. Roeg knew that Russell’s often deadpan “thereness” on-screen would be most disturbing when confronted by people and things that might not actually be there.
But in Bad Timing, Russell’s Milena is a person who is always projecting, “Who do you want me to be?” to the men in her life. Her voice sounds low and mature at one moment and then high and immature at others, and she often seems childlike with Alex. Milena can be a lot of fun, good-humored and lively, a party girl, but Alex wants to control her, and she rebels against that like a powerless teenager yet usually collapses under the pressure of his lordly glare.
When Milena tells Alex about her past, she breezes her way through the expected tale of woe. She says her father is still alive and has remarried. Her brother was killed in an auto accident, and she says she misses her mother. “She was only forty-six when she died, have a cigarette?” Milena says, and Russell makes certain that there is no pause or break between that statement and that question; it sounds like when a little kid unashamedly jumps away from a topic an adult is supposed to linger over.
When she has been pressed to her limit by Alex, Milena lines her eyes with red and paints a red clown-mouth on, making herself as grotesque on the outside as she feels on the inside. This is the reverse of the moment where she gives in to having sex with Stefan and her face takes on a detached look as he works away on top of her. Milena knows full well that she doesn’t need to be there for this sex and that only her body is necessary for Stefan, and yet this moment of disconnection is the shot in Bad Timing where Russell looks the most conventionally beautiful. It is in capturing this contradiction that Roeg’s own love for Russell feels as genuine and total as Alex’s “love” for Milena feels false and contingent.
Milena lies when Alex asks if she is married, but her nostrils flare with the effort as they lie together in bed. “I hate these sheets,” she says right afterward, for the look of sheets and colors and hairstyles and clothes mean a lot to Milena, yet she is unable to keep any living space neat or tidy; she cannot help wanting an external representation of the mess inside herself. At the end of Bad Timing, Stefan calls Milena a “difficult woman,” but is she really? She is driven to drink and self-destruction because men say they love her when all they want to do is have sex with her, and that’s not being difficult so much as being pushed to the end of your tether.
Russell’s Milena often tries to roll her eyes and shrug off her darker emotions, but Alex is always using words to hurt her, leaving scars that cannot ever be healed. In the key scene below, where Alex confronts her yet again, Milena’s mouth tightens as her feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing well up, and she starts to cry but fights against it. Russell does not protect herself at all here; she channels what she needs to channel emotionally in a way that is both admirable and uncomfortable. Roeg blurs the people in the background of this scene because he wants us to focus only on the gradations of emotion on Russell’s face, which by the end of the film has earned a look of secure contempt for a man who has tormented her, raped her, and refused to love her unconditionally.
According to David Cronenberg, Cannes jury president Francis Ford Coppola was “totally against” his controversial J.G. Ballard adaptation.
David Cronenberg, though never officially retired, is in no rush to get back to filmmaking even after a six-year hiatus since the release of his Hollywood-skewering satire “Maps to the Stars.” Instead, the Canadian auteur, who is 77 years old, is reappraising his legacy at the moment, and in the form of a 4K restoration of his 1996 film “Crash.” To promote the new transfer of his controversial J.G. Ballard adaptation about car-crash fetishists, Cronenberg spoke with The Canadian Press (via Yahoo! News) about the film, and specifically its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival when Francis Ford Coppola was president.
According to Cronenberg, Coppola went out of his way to make sure people knew that not everyone supported “Crash,” which bowed in the main competition and received a Special Jury Award created exclusively for it, since other people opposed its Palme d’Or contention. And those people, according to Cronenberg, were pretty much just Coppola.
“Coppola was totally against it,” Cronenberg said. “I think he was the primary one. When I’m asked why [‘Crash’] got this Special Jury Award, well, I think it was the jury’s attempt to get around the Coppola negativity, because they had the power to create their own award without the president’s approval. And that’s how they did it, but it was Coppola who was certainly against it.”
Cronenberg also said that Coppola’s distaste for the movie visibly carried over to the festival’s awards ceremony. “The strange thing is that I’ve run into him several times at various festivals. Always the first thing he says is: ‘Remember, we gave you this award.’ I swore to myself that the next time he said that, I was going to remind him that he was not amongst those who wanted to give (“Crash”) a prize. In fact, during the final closing night ceremony he wouldn’t hand me the award. He had someone else hand it to me. He wouldn’t do it himself,” Cronenberg said.
Coppola at the ceremony that year said that certain jury members “did abstain very passionately,” and The New York Times reported that Cronenberg was loudly booed upon heading up to the stage.
Cronenberg told The Canadian Press that he thought Coppola’s discontent about “Crash” was petty. “Later I was president of the (Cannes) jury as well. You always end up with awards that maybe you don’t think are justified, but your team jury members do. You have to be gracious about it. I don’t think he was very gracious,” he said.
TORONTO — With a deadly virus upending modern civilization, it might seem like director David Cronenberg would be eagerly drafting a twisted cinematic vision inspired by society’s collective anxiety.
But like most of us, the Canadian filmmaker is stuck in the mundanity of daily existence.
Instead of writing, Cronenberg says he’s often distracted by emails and texts, spending time with family before venturing outside for groceries. In the midst of a pandemic, the cryptic gatekeeper of unforgettable body-horror classics such as “Dead Ringers” and the 1986 version of “The Fly,” isn’t bursting with new ideas during COVID.
“I don’t find inspiration in it at all, but I do find it fascinating,” the director said in a phone call from his Toronto home.
“In my 77 years I haven’t experienced anything quite like it.”
Cronenberg’s occasional socially distanced strolls around the neighbourhood have given him ample time to reflect on his provocative 1996 drama “Crash,” which recently underwent a stunning 4K restoration.
The super high-definition version screens in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal cinemas starting on Friday before expanding to other Canadian cities.
Adapted from J. G. Ballard’s controversial 1973 novel, the film traces a subculture of people who find a sexual energy in car accidents, and frequently act on their impulses in pursuit of pleasure.
When it debuted, “Crash” agitated film censorship boards across the world with its vivid sex scenes and was so disliked by media mogul Ted Turner that he stalled the film’s U.S. debut for months before giving it an unenthusiastic release.
Cronenberg reflected on the legacy of his divisive filmin an interview with The Canadian Press, including his awkward encounter with director Francis Ford Coppola at the Cannes Film Festival.
CP: The controversy surrounding “Crash” started at Cannes where your film won a Special Jury Prize. Coppola, the jury president that year, described your work as original, daring and audacious, but he went out of his way to note that some people on the jury didn’t support the recognition. Did you ever find out who was against it?
Cronenberg: Coppola was totally against it.
CP: Was it just him?
Cronenberg: I think he was the primary one. When I’m asked why (“Crash”) got this Special Jury Award, well, I think it was the jury’s attempt to get around the Coppola negativity, because they had the power to create their own award without the president’s approval. And that’s how they did it, but it was Coppola who was certainly against it.
CP: Did you talk to Coppola about it after Cannes?
Cronenberg: The strange thing is that I’ve run into him several times at various festivals. Always the first thing he says is: “Remember, we gave you this award.” I swore to myself that the next time he said that, I was going to remind him that he was not amongst those who wanted to give (“Crash”) a prize. In fact, during the final closing night ceremony he wouldn’t hand me the award. He had someone else hand it to me. He wouldn’t do it himself.
CP: That sounds a little petty.
Cronenberg: Yeah, I thought so. Because later I was president of the (Cannes) jury as well. You always end up with awards that maybe you don’t think are justified, but your team jury members do. You have to be gracious about it. I don’t think he was very gracious.
CP: Looking back on the release of “Crash” nearly 24 years ago, it’s easy to forget just how much intense negativity this film received both in the press and with some film exhibitors. A theatre owner in Norway refused to screen the movie, tabloid newspapers in the United Kingdom regularly attacked the film and pushed for a ban, and it was edited into a somewhat nonsensical R-rated version for Blockbuster Video in the U.S. What was it like to see your film generate so much pushback?
Cronenberg: It was terrifically exciting, and a lot of fun, on one level. And then on the other level, you have made a film that you want people to see, and to have sensors jump on it in every possible country. It basically reminds you that you don’t get anything for free. You have to fight for everything. And you can’t expect to be just given carte blanche, ever. If I needed reminding, I got it then.
CP: In a video introduction on the 4K edition you suggest the film might not feel as shocking today as it did in 1996. But would a film this divisive even be financed now?
Cronenberg: I doubt it. Part of it is that everything is so politicized now, whether it’s politically correct or its opposite. It’s a tough time to make a movie that’s extreme in any way. Everybody’s walking on eggshells, for one thing. Given the Trump administration’s success of politicizing absolutely every possible thing on the planet, including grass and trees, it does make it difficult to make something that’s truly original, truly extreme, or both.
CP: You’re frequently asked if you’re retired, partly because it’s been over five years since your last film “Map to the Stars.” But considering the pandemic, are you planning any future projects?
Cronenberg: I’ve never been officially retired. There was a time when I just wasn’t interested in filmmaking anymore, but I’ve sort of come back. Part of it was the whole Netflix phenomenon. I’ve found streaming series quite intriguing because suddenly you have a more novelistic approach to storytelling. That’s brought me back to being interested in cinema of some kind, whether it’s TV series or another feature, I don’t know. I do have a few projects, but who knows if they’ll ever get made because of COVID or just the normal problem of financing difficult films.
CP: It seems like securing money for anything that isn’t a superhero film was difficult even before COVID, but with the pandemic the hurdles around safety might be even harder to overcome.
Cronenberg: Companies like Netflix have hugely deep pockets so they could perhaps afford to isolate an entire village in Iceland, for example, and have everybody tested twice a day. Most film productions can’t handle that. For an independent film to tack on like another 30 per cent of the budget just for COVID is a non-starter. I think the immediate effect of will be to filter out interesting, difficult films in favour of more mainstream, big-budget films — and that’s assuming even those could get made. Nobody can get COVID insurance. What company can afford to take that gamble? You know, the lead actor gets COVID, it’s over, the movie is done.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 11, 2020.
— This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Deborah Kara Unger and James Spader in Crash, courtesy of the Criterion Collection
In his autobiography, Miracles of Life, J. G. Ballard reminisces about a derelict casino he came across in his youth. The abandoned building gave him the sense that “reality itself was a stage set that could be dismantled at any moment, and that no matter how magnificent anything appeared, it could be swept aside into the debris of the past.” It is a canny summation of the familiar visuals in his fiction. Ballard was obsessed with facilities like hospitals and airports, places with sterile obstructive architectures and machine-like routines for individuals to perform, and theaters of reality that break down in the absence of social control. His world was one with a doomed future and no nostalgia, either. Characters often sequester themselves in their modern homes or withdraw from society in built spaces intended for passage rather than habitation. A common theme—ever relevant—is that technology cannot repress human nature and might instead contribute to the derangement of individuals and societies.
Ballard’s voice is distinctive—like he’s writing in the cool and lucid moments of shock after a disaster, before the anger, despair or resignation has set in. This emotional detachment might be why his fiction travels so well—through decades and across cultures—and has influenced many, including countless filmmakers. Ben Wheatley’s 2015 adaptation of High-Rise, while faithful to the story, filled in the emotional blanks with cheekiness and antic spirit. This High-Rise, campy and acidic, nearly annihilates the presence of the author, whose own dry humor is as much a signature as the aesthetics now synonymous with his name. Empire of the Sun, Ballard’s fictionalized account of his wartime childhood at a Japanese internment camp in Shanghai, was adapted into a 1987 Steven Spielberg film. The quiet vulnerability in the book was transformed into Hollywood sentimentality—an approach that actually delighted the author. By coincidence, the stage set of his life was reassembled in a film studio in Shepperton, the London suburb where the author lived. His neighbors worked as extras.
The idea for Crash, the author’s 1973 novel about car accident fetishists—his most infamous—began as a chapter in his earlier novel, The Atrocity Exhibition, and later, a show of crashed cars the author exhibited in a London gallery. This early material inspired Crash! Harley Cokeliss’s short film starring the author, who comments on the “speed, drama, aggression” and other elements of the driving experience from his seat behind the wheel, later visiting an automobile showroom, a junkyard and a car park. Mute Records founder Daniel Miller abandoned his film script adaptation of Crash and instead condensed the ideas into a three-minutes-and-20-seconds song, “Warm Leatherette,” with his band The Normal; later, Grace Jones covered the song with her own distinctive snarl. Crash also inspired Zoe Beloff and Susan Emerling’s Nightmare Angel in 1986. A decade later, David Cronenberg’s adaptation premiered, a new digital restoration of which the Criterion Collection has scheduled for release in December.
Cronenberg, with his “body horror” and shared fascination with technology, seemed an obvious kindred spirit. It is interesting to see where his and Ballard’s imaginations overlap and collide. This polarizing film lands right at the critical knife’s edge—Francis Ford Coppola allegedly found it reprehensible, while Martin Scorsese named it one of the decade’s best. Those with mixed feelings about it might file Crash away with other 1990s—decidedly pre-9/11—takes on white ennui like Fight Club and The Matrix. It might look like another movie about a character with a secure job and health care who is sleepwalking through a dull and purposeless life before a jump start on reality, but its scope is much wider.
The maniacs in Ballard’s fiction are always calm and in control; they are the sociopaths who run for office, not the sputtering red-faced Howard Beales who wig out with abandon. That’s why Elias Koteas, complete with motor oil–encrusted fingernails as the nihilistic charmer Vaughan, stands out among a cast of remote and enigmatic performers that includes James Spader, Deborah Kara Unger and Holly Hunter. Koteas is full of the confidence and determination of a genuine madman—the sort you might have a conversation with before realizing he’s out of his mind.
There’s more ironic showmanship in the movie. A stock car–racing event with stunt drivers becomes a rally of freaks with Vaughan emceeing. In a famous accident restaged for the crowd, he performs as Rolf Wütherich, James Dean’s mechanic, who sat next to the actor in the passenger seat of his Porsche (“Little Bastard”). He’s done his research and keeps notes on the bodily injuries and types of collisions of all famous crashes, even deep cuts like Nathanael West’s station wagon—this is the work of an obsessive, after all. In the novel, Vaughan works toward his goal of crashing into Elizabeth Taylor. Cronenberg was wise to cut this—a plot point that would be just too real on celluloid, not to mention mean-spirited toward an actress, who at that point was a senior in ailing health. No younger actress had quite the same legend status, nor would a replacement have been wise given the direction of the film. While Ballard levels the automobile technology and sexual acts in his book, Cronenberg elevates one over the other. Simon Sellars explains the difference in his feverish memoir in fandom, Applied Ballardianism. In the book, the characters are “more interested in technology than sex,” Sellars writes. “In the film, the reverse is true: It’s not technology that Cronenberg is interested in but sex.”
Rereading the novel with my right leg propped up and a bag of ice at my hip—a cycling injury, much lower stakes than these characters would enjoy—I noticed that no one in Crash ever reaches for a bottle of ibuprofen. Their pain is only briefly alluded to—even psychic wounds are blunted by the sheer force of the absurdity of modern life. The characters are never depressed, anxious, spiteful or grieving; alienation is the dominant mode. This isn’t a case of neglectful characterization, as Ballard has instead fully developed their single-minded obsessions. Ballard never needed to write about androids or extraterrestrials to get his message across; human beings are alien enough on this planet.
I’ve read most of Ballard’s work, and Crash has been among the novels I returned to the least frequently. I’m a fan, for sure, but it always struck me as Ballard at his most condensed and obvious—transgressive and unsubtle in a way that appeals to teenagers. Now, I’ve developed an appreciation for it. As the writer of quarantines, abandoned shopping centers and climate catastrophe, Ballard has seen his name invoked quite often this year. But Crash resists lazy positioning. Ballard’s particular style of deadpan is the glue that holds this work together; it is impossible to work around, as Wheatley or Spielberg did in their different adaptations. People sexually excited by car crashes? Of course, that’s bonkers! The premise can’t be distilled to an artfully drained swimming pool; the humans are right there, embedded and in bed with the machines. The lack of subtlety in Crash animates its many adaptations, and each articulates the central bleak vision: Eventually, the new will be old, all systems can and will break down, civilization has a limited moment of survival and isn’t infinite, that which we build for security or convenience might be the death of us.
“Always he deliberately side-stepped into self-parody,” Ballard writes of Vaughan in the novel. He could have said the same for himself or Cronenberg, just as keenly aware that viewers who weren’t scandalized by the film could still roll their eyes. It is a concern that shapes Koteas’s performance. In a rare moment of self-doubt, Vaughan wonders whether a line from his speech—“James Dean died of a broken neck and became immortal”—landed as he hoped. He turns to the fellow travelers in his car and asks, “Was that glib?… I couldn’t resist.”
Director of photography Peter Suschitzky discusses the methods and motivations behind his latest feature.
Interview by Allen Daviau, ASC and Fred Elmes, ASC Edited by David E. Williams
English cinematographer Peter Suschitzky recently arrived in Los Angeles to oversee the color timing of Mars Attacks!, the alien invasion spoof directed by Tim Burton [see AC Dec. 1996]. Taking a break from this task, he joined fellow cameramen Allen Daviau, ASC and Fred Elmes, ASC at the New Line Cinema screening room in Beverly Hills to watch Crash, Suschitzky’s latest collaboration with Canadian director David Cronenberg.
With AC editors Stephen Pizzello and David E. Williams in tow, a leisurely dinner followed, during which Daviau and Elmes posed questions regarding the picture’s unique visual approach and the means by which Suschitzky tackled its controversial subject.
Based on the 1973 novel of the same name by English author J.G. Ballard, Crash concerns television commercial producer James Ballard (James Spader) and his wife, Catherine (Debra Kara Unger), both of whom are engaging in kinky extramarital affairs. Later, the pair share details of their indiscretions, illustrating their emotional detachment. After being severely injured in a violent, head-on automobile collision, Ballard is thrust into a subculture of hedonistic extremism and becomes immersed in a nocturnal cult fixated upon the anticipation, and outcome, of car crashes.
Accompanied by Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), the scarred survivor of the crash he caused, Ballard soon meets Vaughan (Elias Koteas), the leader of the bizarre cabal. The producer is captivated by Vaughan’s dogma about technology’s ability to reshape the human form, and soon introduces his wife to this new interest, exposing them both to its dangers. Vaughan’s obsessions — amplified sexuality wrapped in twisted chrome and steel — later become their own, leading to a series of graphic and often violent couplings.
This link between injury and passion has been a primary focus of Crash‘s detractors. As a result of their ire, the film has been banned in various countries, and its U.S. release was postponed from late 1996 to March of this year. (See accompanying interview with director Cronenberg for further details.) However, the film also has its champions, and earned a Special Jury Prize for ”audacity and innovation” at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.
In recognition of the film’s artistic daring, AC hereby presents excerpts from the unique interview which followed a screening arranged by ever-accommodating Fine Line Pictures publicist Juli Goodwin.
Details about the key participants are as follows:
• Peter Suschitzky’s other credits include Where the Heart Is, Valentino, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Empire Strikes Back and Immortal Beloved. His previous projects with Cronenberg are Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch and M. Butterfly.
• Allen Daviau’s filmography includes E.T: The Extraterrestrial, The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun (also adapted from a novel by J.G. Ballard), Avalon and Bugsy.
• Fred Elmes’ credits include The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Blue Velvet, River’s Edge, Wild At Heart, Night On Earth, and director Ang Lee’s upcoming feature Ice Storm.
Allen Daviau, ASC: Peter, I have always admired the choices you have made and the variety of films you have done over your career. It’s interesting that you have The Empire Strikes Back on your resume among these a smaller, offbeat films.
Peter Suschitzky: As you can imagine, it would have been easy for me to have done a lot of effects films after that. But after doing one big effects film, you don’t want to rush right into another.
Daviau: Absolutely. That kind of typecasting can happen very quickly to any cinematographer. After Fearless, I was offered every ‘airplane in trouble’ picture that went into production. Coincidentally, I was also up for an ‘aftermath of a car crash’ picture not long after that.
Fred Elmes, ASC: But I’m sure the story for that film was nothing like what we saw tonight.
Daviau: No, not at all. I really admire the fact that this picture is very stylized, but always within the realm of naturalism — it’s not as ‘out there’ as highly-stylized piece like The Crow II. That’s a very delicate thing you have done here.
Elmes: I think the world that you and David [Cronenberg] created exists right there on the edge of reality, so to take it to another plane visually — say, to another level of color — would have been out of place.
Suschitzky: I think so too. I think David feels that whatever subject he’s dealing with is always so unusual that it’s best to avoid getting too stylized. While we were doing Naked Lunch, I suggested that perhaps we should go Expressionists in design, in light of the hallucinations and trips that the main character goes through. But David felt strongly that the picture should always be based in reality, and he was right. We had the same production designer on Crash as we did on Naked Lunch [Carol Spier], but we had such a small budget on this film— about $6 million — that it wasn’t an issue. On Crash, we didn’t build nearly as much as we did on Naked Lunch; instead of sets, we relied mostly on actual locations in Toronto.
Elmes: But the stylized city you’ve created for the film within this real city is very elegant. It’s very clean, and there’s nothing superfluous — you see just the right parts, with the freeways in the background.
Daviau: But there was some work done on stage — the apartment scenes, for instance?
Suschitzky: Yes, throughout the film we have scenes in [the Ballards’] apartment, and that was a mixture of location and studio work. There is a sequence that takes place on their balcony overlooking a freeway. Well, everything looking out is, of course, a location, while the reverses were done in the studio. We actually had a hothead on location and for a moment I thought about just extending it out and getting the shots looking back in. Of course that would have been impossible since the interior of the location apartment didn’t give us what we needed for the other scenes, so we built the interior elsewhere — which didn’t match the location.
Daviau: When you’re matching stage lighting to what you’ve already shot, do you use something like a Moviola picture head with a piece of print to look at the master shot?
Suschitzky: Yes, exactly, while we’re on the stage. The gaffer also always keeps a diagram, which includes the gels we’ve used. But if a scene is played back for me, I can more or less re-create it. It’s mostly in my head anyway, but replaying the scene on film can be a great help.
Elmes: It’s certainly better that the video version of that tactic — with a VHS tape standing in as a reference.
Daviau: Has anyone tried to get you to do a feature film without film rushes?
Suschitzky: Actually, that was the case on Crash. The budget was very tight and the production manager asked, ‘Is it okay if we just use video dailies?’ And I said, ‘No, it’s not. But I’ll tell you what: you can keep me happy by showing me just one take of each setup.’ That way we managed to save money.
Elmes: I did that exact thing on an independent film I recently finished, The Empty Mirror. We’d print one selected take, screen it, and then take home a daily cassette at night to see what we had in the performances.
Daviau: Well, what I wonder about with video dailies is, what are they going to do when it comes time to do a preview screening of the film if they have no workprint to put together and screen? The only option is to go back in and do a really terrible invasion of the negative…
Elmes: …and print additional take you haven’t used in order to put something together to show people. It’s a real problem. In addition, the printer lights on these various print runs will never be the same, so there is often a lot of mismatching even within very simply cut scenes.
Daviau: Part of the cameraman’s responsibility is to produce a good, representative cutting copy that can be shown to a preview audience. So the notion of video dailies is the biggest false economy in the world.
Elmes: Technicolor in Los Angeles has a system by which you can track timing lights from your dailies all the way through to your answer print. That way, when you like the way the dailies looked, the key code is used to track the timing lights to your first answer print. You can also use that information for reprinting a scene if necessary.
Suschitzky: Well, you’ll notice too that due to the fact that video dailies must be transferred, you’ll get your rushes much later in the day than you otherwise would.
Daviau: And there are also cases where you have a director who doesn’t come to projected rushes, and only sees the film on video, or on the Avid or Lightworks screen. Directors like that will have no idea what you’re talking about, because they haven’t really seen the same thing. There is no direct correlation between video and film. And with all due respect to the various charts that people have designed to deal with this problem, it still hasn’t been solved. Peter, you’re based in London…
Suschitzky: Yes, but I never work there — I haven’t since 1984.
Daviau: You don’t bring a British crew with you when you shoot in Canada or in the U.S.?
Suschitzky: I don’t even try to. There are wonderful crews in both places, and I believe it creates some resentment if one brings people in from the outside. I’m enough already, and I feel privileged to be invited, but I think it’s wrong to bring in an entire crew. I often prefer to operate myself, especially on a film with the scale of Crash. I feel closer to the movie if I’m looking through the camera, as if I am the first audience to see the movie. I can see my mistakes much more quickly! On this last picture [Mars Attacks!], we were dealing with an extremely large production, and I was lucky enough to work with one of the best operators around, Ray de la Motte. But I do get more of a kick out of it if I’m looking through the camera.
Elmes: How did you and your grips plan the rigging for the cars and the shots you wanted? And how did you decide what could be process trailers and what had to be done for real?
Suschitzky: If the scene concerned the actors in the car, we would definitely use the process trailer, but if we had to see the car come into frame, we would naturally use the real thing. My gaffer and I tried to think of different ways to enhance the sense of movement with the lighting. We were generally shooting at very low light levels, so we came up with a rig that involved a reflector and a lamp or two shining into it. By either moving the reflector or the lamps, plus some additional lamps that were panned in and out at the sides, we got a satisfactory effect. Sometimes it would be too hard and spotty, and you could even see the joins in the reflector material, but it usually worked. Those were mostly tungsten lights. We were primarily working with very small, lightweight sources, although for the exterior scene in which some characters recreate James Dean’s car crash for an audience, we did use a Musco Light. Unfortunately, it burned straight through the gel frames that we had spent hours putting up on it, and the scene looks much bluer than I had intended. I actually don’t like that electric blue look — it’s a mistake in the movie.
Daviau: There is so much car work in this film that I had to wonder how much was poor-man’s process.
Suschitzky: Well, not much. In fact the only shots done with poor-man’s process were the detail shots of the dashboard, or things of that nature. As I’m sure you’ve gathered, there were a number of risky things to shoot on this film, in terms of the car work. The rain scene at the end of the picture was done with the Motocam system, which is basically a motorcycle with a sidecar. It allowed us to get the camera really low, and it’s a powerful bike, so it’s very maneuverable.
Elmes: What I liked in your car work was the wonderful use of reflections and reminders of the world going by. So although we’re looking at the people inside of this claustrophobic capsule, we see things passing by, sometimes just inches away. There were several times during the chase scene when the camera swept between cars and ended up only a foot or two off the bumper of the Lincoln.
Suschitzky: [Laughs.] We had some excitement shooting that particular sequence. The elevated freeway we were using was incomplete, so it only ran for a distance before coming to a very abrupt end. We were using this stretch in both directions. And this was fine if you are in the normal, ‘correct’ direction. Well, on one shot, our driver had forgotten that he was going in the ‘wrong’ direction — at night, in the rain, on this incomplete freeway — and we missed the off-ramp and were suddenly faced with a precipice. We had to scream for him to stop because we were just a few yards from the end of the ramp; we came very close to going over the edge! Very few people realize how long it takes to set up a shot on a car.
Elmes: This is very true, as I found out during my experience on Night on Earth. When Jim Jarmusch conceived the film, he thought of sets and set pieces in connection with performances. Well, having two or three actors in a car was like, ‘I’ve got ’em! They’re not going anywhere!’ But he didn’t fully realize the complexity of keeping it visually alive.
Daviau: I absolutely loved some of the high-from-outside angles you got in Crash. Consider them stolen! [Laughs.] One of the most stilted and overused angles in car photography is the two-shot of the front seat from the hood or towing vehicle. God forbid there are people in the back seat. I once got a director who let me do a car sequence strictly with profiles. It worked really well, because I was able to use the entire hood for the lighting-effect rigs; I’ve just never bought the old dashboard-light method, because it is both so restrictive and artificial. A good deal of Crash takes place at night. Did you base a lot of your decisions on the texture of the film stock that would have the speed to do that, and how you’d carry it through the day’s scenes?
Suschitzky: My process of finding a look for a film comes directly from the material. The direction which I take may change once I see the locations, the actors, the costumes — with each bit of detail — and finally the performances. Earlier in my career I might have fooled myself by saying, ‘On this film, go grainy and use bounced light and make it very naturalistic.’ But I’ve settled into a simpler, more instinctual way of working now. My initial thought about Crash was that it was a very bleak, hard story. While it might sound simplistic, I wanted to photograph the picture to look harsher that I normally would do things. The last film I did with David was M. Butterfly, which was more romantic, gentle and lush in tone. I know that this new picture looks different from that one, but stepping back I can also see this sort of line I have taken from one film to the next. One doesn’t expect an actor to be completely different from role to role. They are cast because of the qualities they have or can give, and I feel that’s also true for directors of photography. We can get typecast, but we also get cast because of the material we have behind us. I wanted to make Crash more contrasty and hard, although sometimes I wonder if I went too far with that. Looking at it tonight I wondered if it was occasionally too unfriendly and ugly. But I suppose it’s suitable for the story.
Daviau: It is, absolutely. Of course, people will want to know what kinds of tests you did to arrive at that choice.
Suschitzky: I did do tests, primarily because we were shooting so much at night. But my choice [for the nighttime work] was really only between two stocks, the Kodak high-speed  and the Fuji high-speed  — Crash was shot before 98 became available. I instantly preferred the Fuji. It had much tighter grain and it was much sharper — and not quite as contrasty — at the same speeds. I think the same is still true when it is compared to 98. Having chosen this 500 ASA Fuji stock, my original intention was to shoot the rest of the film on Kodak. On a sequence change, you’d never notice the difference. But as I thought about it, I considered the fact that our budget was very tight on money, so I asked the production manager to do a price comparison. He came back to me and said, ‘I’m not asking you to shoot the film on Fuji, but we would save quite a lot of money.’ So I decided to test Fuji’s other stocks, and although I couldn’t say instinctively that they were better than [what Kodak offered], they compared well.
Elmes: Did you do any pushing?
Suschitzky: I almost never push film, because I think it’s always better to underexpose than push; that’s just my preference. But there was one scene at the end of the picture — Vaughan and Ballard are driving on the rainy freeway at night — that we couldn’t light at all. The area we were covering was just too big, so we shot it with available streetlights. It didn’t require pushing, but I really didn’t know what was going to happen. I just thought, ‘Well, something is got to come out.’ We had headlights, we had rain, and we had all the reflections that those elements created. There were several locations in which available light took part.
Daviau: Certainly one of the problems you must have had was in blending the available light with the prosthetic makeup that the actors wore. I thought the makeup work was excellent, but I can just imagine dealing with fluorescent, sodium-vapor and mercury-vapor sources.
Elmes: That must have really played havoc. With rubber prosthetics, you never know how they will look until you photograph them. The sharp close-ups looked terrific.
Daviau: Which lenses were you using?
Suschitzky: We were on Primos, without any filtration.
Daviau: Would you say that you shot a thinner negative than you normally would?
Suschitzky: On some of the night scenes, yes.
Daviau: And I assume you were using the ‘appropriate’ stock for your conditions, such as the 100 ASA stock for daylight exteriors?
Suschitzky: When I could. But sometimes during the daytime we still had to rely on the faster stocks, especially in the garage locations or under overpasses. One example is the scene early on in which Ballard arrives to inspect his wrecked car at the impound lot. That location was all in the shadows under a freeway structure. We used the medium-speed Fuji stock for that sequence — 250 ASA  — but we were still wide open because the weather was so bad. It was freezing cold — down to -8°C — throughout the shoot, and often overcast.
Elmes: You certainly had some brave actors.
Daviau: There must have been a terrific amount of trust placed in you when they were being photographed in such chilling temperatures with nudity involved. How do you help keep actors comfortable in that situation?
Suschitzky: We were a very small family group on that shoot, and the atmosphere was very conducive to just doing the work, having a nice time, and laughing a lot.
Daviau: I always find this a difficult question to answer, but is there a sequence that you are most proud of in the picture?
Suschitzky: Well, I like the look of some of the love scenes, particularly the one between Ballard and his wife. I tried to make that more attractive to look at; I didn’t try to be hard and gritty.
Daviau: That’s certainly an oasis in the middle of the film.
Stephen Pizzello: Did Helmut Newton’s photography factor into any of the discussions you had with Cronenberg? The opening sequence, beginning with the shot of Debra Unger’s shoes beneath an airplane wing, is reminiscent of his work.
Suschitzky: No, but I did at one point joke to David that Rosanna Arquette’s character is sort of a cross between Pinnochio and a Helmut Newton model. [Laughs.] Of course, I’m very familiar with Helmut’s work, and we have actually worked together occasionally on commercials.
Daviau: Was it calmly assumed at the beginning of the shoot that you would be getting an NC-17 rating? Was Fine Line [the distributor] comfortable with that?
Suschitzky: That was all decided up front. There was no way this film could have been made without that assumption up front.
Daviau: The picture certainly makes its commitment to [that rating] early on. Even though you have done three other films with Cronenberg, what discussions did you go through to decide the look of this picture, and what questions were asked by each of you?
Suschitzky: I hope I’m not going to disappoint you, but David and I have a very instinctive relationship and work together very easily without many words. We don’t often talk about the specifics of the look. On my first experience with David, after I had read the script for Dead Ringers, we did go through a lot of that. We were on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean, just talking on the telephone, and I expressed how I saw that picture as being quite cold and elegant. On Naked Lunch, I simply explained that I felt it needed an Expressionistic approach. [The setting] reminded me of paintings of that era — 1910 to 1935 — which are very important to how I see things. We didn’t really make the film look like that, but those ideas were in my subconscious. On Crash, I’ve already described the hard look I was after, but we drove around Toronto a bit in his car and looked at the roads we would be using. Still, we didn’t discuss things too specifically. David loves driving, and he took me around some very fast bends. [Laughs.]
David E. Williams: Photographically, the crash sequences seemed to be done in a way that would actually drain away any suspense or excitement in the usual cinematic sense.
Suschitzky: What David said was, ‘We don’t have the money to make this an action movie, and that’s not my intention anyway.’ So the crashes were planned in a very minimalist way. For instance, for Vaughan’s crash at the end of the picture, we couldn’t shoot him going over the edge of the overpass. We didn’t have that kind of budget, and we were faced with a very strict time limit imposed by our agreement with the police and the highway department — just six hours of shooting each night. We couldn’t afford to shoot long and break that good will.
Daviau: What kinds of safety precautions did you take for the car scenes?
Suschitzky: We often used toy cars on a little road, with our stunt coordinator showing what could be done in a given situation. It then became a negotiation, with David asking, ‘Well, then can we do this?’ and the scene or shot being worked out from there. Fortunately, since he himself is an amateur race diver of Formula One cars of the ’50s, David is very ‘car-aware.’
Daviau: Was there a piece of equipment that you really could have used for the driving scenes that hasn’t been invented yet?
Suschitzky: [Laughs] Yes, the Pana-Hot Seat — something to keep us warm!
Daviau: When I think about the visual concept for any picture I’m doing, I always like to use the term ‘design and discovery.’ You start out with some kind design, but you discover what the look of the picture will be along the way. I find that it has a lot to do with the actors — learning to appreciate what their performances are like, and what you discover in their faces.
Suschitzky: I always like to shoot makeup tests just to get to know their faces and to learn which direction the light should fall on them. That also breaks the ice between you and the performer, especially if you don’t know each other.
Elmes: It’s great to get the director to sit with you in the theater during test dailies. You might have five minutes of an actor standing there on screen, looking in different directions with different wardrobe and hairstyles, and if you can be objective for a moment, you can really discuss what things look like. Many directors don’t feel the need to do that, but they usually love it after they’ve done it.
Williams: What was running through your mind while shooting graphic scenes that you knew would put the audience on edge or possibly distance them from the material?
Suschitzky: I knew going into the film that it would be controversial, but we more or less forgot about that once the production began. Of course, it’s impossible to me to ever experience the picture the way any audience will ever see it. I have seen many more explicitly violent or explicitly sexual scenes in films, and I’m not sure why ours have aroused so much controversy except that they are confrontational and make some people feel awkward. The sex scenes are not just interludes which can be cut out, but part of the structure of the film.
Elmes: Controversial films pose some interesting dilemmas. When you are engrossed in the production, you work very hard to make the film as affecting as you can. Only when you view the results with an audience do you realize the cumulative effect of your efforts.
Williams: An example of that might be the scene in which Ballard and his wife are making love while she fantasizes about the idea of her husband having sex with Vaughan. The sequence is certainly longer than most filmmakers would have dared to make it, with very few shots.
Suschitzky: David has the final choice as the director, but neither of us are what you might call ‘fast cutters.’ I’m tired of seeing films that are cut and paced like commercials just because there is always a fear of boring an audience. David also likes the idea of intellectual confrontation, so the film is confrontational. He’s not going to give you a chance to look away with your mind or your eye. And that feels right. In that particular lovemaking scene, it feels right to hold on that shot of the two of them. You have to strive to find the right tone for every scene that you shoot. There were just three angles on the actors in that scene, but they was enough. What they’re doing and saying is so seizing that one couldn’t possibly be bored. Of course, the film does confront the spectator at many times, and doesn’t let you turn away from what might be an uncomfortable truth inherent in the material. Most of us want to turn away from that.
Suschitzky later became a member of the ASC and subsequently collaborated with Cronenberg on the films eXistenZ, Spider, A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, A Dangerous Method, Cosmopolis and Maps to the Stars.
You’ll find an interview with Cronenberg about the making of Crash and his collaboration with Suschitzky here.
Daviau was honored with the ASC Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007.
Elmes was honored with the ASC Lifetime Achievement Award in 2020.
At once propulsive and ruminative, First Love finds Takashi Miike looking back on his career while generating a steadily escalating sense of suspense. The film’s streamlined quality confirms what a focused filmmaker Miike has become over the 2010s: though it contains about a dozen major characters and several important conflicts, the director moves between them fluidly. He also exudes such intense energy while doing so that First Love generally recalls the freewheeling films Miike made in his late 90s/early 00s heyday. The director underscores this link with the past with plenty of gleefully outré content, such as multiple beheadings (all of them presented comically) and a progression of events that culminates with a harried sex worker frenziedly snorting heroin off a Yakuza’s crotch. Miike had already reflected on his legacy with Yakuza Apocalypse (2015), but that film felt like the director was rehashing past glories (specifically those of the Dead or Alive trilogy, Ichi the Killer, and The Happiness of the Katakuris). First Love, on the other hand, feels energized, as though Miike were reminding himself why he fell in love with cinema to begin with. The film also possesses a recognizable moral foundation that was largely absent from Miike’s first period—the ethical vision he’s honed since 13 Assassins (2010) remains evident throughout.
Miike is slow to reveal his vision, however. What emerges most strongly from the opening passages of First Love is the director’s unabashed enthusiasm for pulp filmmaking. The movie begins with a quick series of shots introducing a boxer named Leo (Masataka Kuobota) as he trains for a meet, then encounters his opponent in the ring; the montage culminates with Leo knocking the opponent’s head off his body and out of the building where their bout is being held. With impish glee reminiscent of his early work, Miike follows one decapitation with another, cutting (pun intended) to a gangster slicing off the head of a Filipino drug dealer with a sword. A policeman arrives at the scene a few shots later to declare that the smell of gang war is in the air. Miike follows up this declaration with a shot recognizable from many crime movies, that of an aging crime boss leaving jail to be greeted by henchmen waiting with a car.
With that image, we get three familiar crime movie set-ups in about five minutes; we’ll get two more before the title card appears. In the next introduction, Miike presents a waif-like sex worker named Monica (Sakurako Konishi) who lives in desperate dependence on her pimp, Yasu, and his girlfriend, Julie, because they feed her heroin addiction. Lastly, we get to know a crooked cop named Otomo (Nao Ohmori) who’s plotting with a greedy Yakuza named Kase (Shota Sometani) to steal a briefcase full of heroin from Kase’s organization. They plan is to kill Yasu (a fairly high-ranking Yakuza), make it look like the Chinese mafia was responsible, then disappear as a gang war erupts across Tokyo. You can sense the director’s giddiness in layering one premise on top of another, especially when you remember how relatively straightforward many of his 2010s movies have been; the accumulation of detail is arguably more exciting than any of the narrative strands individually.
Miike and screenwriter Masa Nakamura bestow sympathy on just two of the characters, Leo and Monica, and this telegraphs that these two will wind up together. At first, Monica seems like the more vulnerable character, but that changes after a lightweight punch causes Leo to pass out in the ring. Leo visits a doctor, undergoes a CAT scan, then learns he has an inoperable brain tumor that will cause him to die within the next few months. That evening, the young boxer visits a palm reader in a marketplace in the hope of getting a second opinion about his fate. The palmist tells Leo he’s got plenty of time to live; confused, Leo starts walking home when he bumps into Monica, who’s managed to run away from her captors. She’s also withdrawing from heroin, which causes her to hallucinate she’s being pursued by a ghost dressed in just his underwear. In reality, she’s being chased by Otomo, whose plan is contingent on keeping her in his custody. Leo, thinking that Otomo is trying to attack an innocent stranger, knocks out the cop, and runs off with Monica. Miike renders this narrative development more compelling by situating it in counterpoint to the other plot lines, such as the murder of Monica’s pimp, the pimp’s girlfriend’s discovery of his death and her subsequent call for revenge on whoever did it, and the beginnings of the Chinese-Japanese gang war that breaks out according to schedule.
I needed a couple viewings to parse all of this—the developments spin out so wildly that, on my first go round, I was content to accept the chaos and go with the flow. It helps that there’s a discernible direction to the flow; Miike makes you root for Leo and Monica and hope that they survive the subsequent events. The growing connection between these characters, which becomes more pronounced as their lives become increasingly imperiled, provides the movie with a moral center, the proverbial eye of the storm. Leo assumes the role of Monica’s protector because he has nothing to lose; also, something certainly appeals to him about saving someone else’s life when he can’t save his own. Later in First Love, the filmmakers upend the protector-protected dynamic when Leo gets a voice message from his doctor saying he got the wrong CAT scan results and Leo is in fact perfectly healthy. Monica (who confides in Leo that her real name is Yuri) then gives Leo the chance to extricate himself from the gang war that’s started around her. Leo stays with her anyway, confirming their newfound, mutual ability to trust others. It’s this bond to which the film’s title refers.
Then again, First Love contains so much bravura technique that the title may also refer to Miike’s longstanding passion for making movies. The film contains some remarkable set piece every several minutes; my favorites include Kase’s Rube Goldberg-style plan to burn down Julie’s apartment and the final showdown between the feuding crime organizations, which takes place in a closed department store and finds the various players raiding the hardware section for weapons. The set pieces tend to be flashily edited, showcasing Miike’s ability to move a story forward through montage, while the passages of character development tend to unfold in the sort of longer, static, off-center takes that Miike frequently employed in the first two decades of his career. These shots, as usual, convey a cockeyed curiosity about the world; so, too, do the unexpectedly poetic moments that crop up, as they do in most of Miike’s best work. Consider the scene in which Yuri finally comes upon all the heroin she could ever desire, but must dispose of it because she’s being chased by the police. At a Yakuza’s bequest, she pours the heroin out of a speeding car, creating a snow-like mist behind her. Then there’s a moment that occurs near the end of the movie where Leo and Yuri, their chaotic night finally behind them, bump into someone she used to know in high school. Miike lingers on the scene so you feel Yuri assessing how her life has gone and considering how she may have done things differently. The sudden shift to a contemplative register conveys the director’s strong command over tone.
That shift comprises one of those classic Miike moments that remind us that anything is possible in the movies. But what makes it distinctive is how Miike couples this sense of possibility with moral deliberation. It’s as though the director, feeling responsible for his characters, had to address how they evolve after the wild events of the story. The final passages of the film, however brief, show Leo and Yuri working their way to better lives. Following a short scene of the heroes visiting a public beach to use the showers to wash blood off their clothes (an oddly tender moment), Miike presents a montage that cuts between scenes of Leo resuming his training at a boxing gym and Yuri detoxing at his apartment. The montage concludes with Leo winning his latest bout; Miike then cuts to an overhead shot of Leo and Yuri standing outside his building as snow begins to fall, an image conveys a small sense of hope for the future. Miike has made plenty of movies with happy endings, but few that feel so reassuring; the return to conventional realism after almost two hours of cartoonish mayhem suggests a fluid glide down to earth. This conclusion is a fitting place for Miike to leave off after a decade of deepening his themes so that his movies now feel rooted in a relatable moral position. After living for cinema for so long, the end of First Love acknowledges that real life is worth living for too.
With 2015’s richly inventive and dark group of classic children’s stories, Tale of Tales, on his filmography, director Matteo Garrone now brings his uniquely baroque touch to the ultimate Italian fairy tale, Pinocchio, and lands perhaps closest in spirit and design to Carlo Collodi’s original 1883 creation than ever seen before. And we have seen a lot of this wooden puppet that just wants to be a real boy, most notably Walt Disney’s 1940 animated version and even one from Oscar-winning actor Roberto Benigni in 2002, where he not only played the title role (though long in the tooth for it) but also directed.
Benigni returns to the tale but this time as more age-appropriate Geppetto, the carpenter and woodcarver who discovers his latest creation has a beating heart and can talk and act just like a boy. Future takes on the beloved story already are in the works, from another animated version by Guillermo Del Toro to a live-action take from Disney (again) by Robert Zemeckis. They will all have a lot to live up to after this lavish, visually stunning version.
It is clear this material hits right at the heart for Garrone, and he does not hold back. Benigni may be the marquee draw, but Geppetto is in only for the beginning and the ending. The bulk of the film, as always, revolves around the various misadventures of Pinocchio himself, here played in a lovely performance by newcomer Federico Ielapi. The real action starts right after Geppetto drops his new creation off for his first day of school, like any proud parent might. Unbeknownst to him, though, the wooden lad never goes to class but instead sets off on a series of dizzying encounters beginning unpromisingly with a circus manager, Mangiafuoco (Gigi Proietti), and discovery he is not a good fit for that particular puppet show. Then there’s a chat with the Talking Cricket that sets him straight; an encounter with Cat and Fox as they raise him to pull gold coins off a tree; and then to a really harrowing image, no matter what your age, as some assassins he meets actually leave him hanging, lynched-style, from yet another tree. Fortunately, that is the darkest this dark vision of Garrone gets as more delightful times are to come including a fateful meeting with the wise Fairy with Turquoise Hair and her snail-paced housekeeper; words with a talking tuna fish; a demonstration of the downside of lying as his nose extends longer than any previous Pinocchio in memory; a CGI transformation into a donkey; and a visit inside a whale, which becomes an unlikely setting for a reunion with Geppetto.
What Garrone has managed to bring to the screen is nothing short of sumptuous, and that starts with the creation of the title star himself — a brilliant feat of makeup from two-time Oscar winner Mark Coulier and company. Add to that sparkling special effects, gorgeous production design and cinematography, plus a rich and melodic score from Oscar winner Dario Marianelli. Actors, decked out in wild costumes, hit their marks in style, and Benigni brings a nice low-key touch to Geppetto. The director, responsible for such recent Italian dramas as Gomorrah, Reality and Dogman, even weirdly borrows from that unlikely trio of films in some small ways to create this uniquely magical world that ought to delight kids, when not giving them nightmares, as well as being a fine nostalgic trip for their parents.
Pinocchio premiered at this year’s Berlin Film Festival and was a big hit in Italy before the pandemic closed cinemas. Roadside Attractions is releasing it Christmas Day in theaters in America as a holiday treat (hopefully they can remain open wherever the distributor finds them) in a dubbed English-language version that, as dubbed movies go, isn’t half bad in execution (most of the actors at least sound Italian). That is how it was reviewed. Check out my video review with scenes from the film at the link above.
Do you plan to see Pinocchio? Let us know what you think.
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