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.
Plus, Garrone shares the biggest challenges he faced while bringing his vision to life.
From Italian director Matteo Garrone, the latest retelling of the fairy tale Pinocchio returns to the roots of the original story, creating a fantasy world in the Italian countryside. When an old woodcarver named Geppetto (Roberto Benigni) creates a puppet out of wood, something magical allows Pinocchio (Federico Ielapi) to talk and walk, leading him to one misadventure after another on his way to becoming a real boy.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, Garrone talked about why he felt he could bring something new to audiences with his version of Pinocchio, doing a storyboard for the character when he was just six years old, what originally made him become a storyteller, the biggest challenges of this production, what made Benigni perfect to play Geppetto, and how he’s always looking to create new challenges for himself.
COLLIDER: When something like this comes your way, do you get excited about retelling Pinocchio, or do you hesitate about doing another telling of a story that’s been told so many times?
MATTEO GARRONE: It’s true that it’s had many adaptation things. At the same time, when I read the book again, five or six years ago, I discovered that there were many, many things that I didn’t know that surprised me. So, I thought that we could make a new version of Pinocchio that was really faithful to the original book, and that original masterpiece of [Carlo] Collodi. That could be something new for the audience like it was for me reading the book.
At the same time, now we are lucky that we can make incredible things with special effects, so it could be the best Pinocchio live-action, where Pinocchio could be a puppet with special effects. Pinocchio has been a part of my culture and a part of my life. I made my first storyboard of Pinocchio when I was six years old. I wanted to tell the story in a way that for sure would be different from other directors at other times. We worked a lot on research, and on paintings and illustrations, and we tried to make a movie that was really close to the original story of Pinocchio.
When made you decide to keep that storyboard you did of Pinocchio for all of these years? How did you end up hanging onto that for all of this time?
GARRONE: Because when you are a kid, you are pure. I hung it in front of my desk because it’s one of the first things I’d done. Also, it was one of the first times that I was starting to develop a story with image. It’s something that’s a model for me. When you are young, you are naive, and then when you grew up, sometimes you lose that simplicity. So, it’s always in front of me, for that reason.
What was it that originally made you want to be a storyteller? How did you realize that it was a career that you wanted to pursue?
GARRONE: When I was a kid, I loved making drawings, so I wanted to be a part of the artistic world. And then, I grew up and became a painter. Before I became a painter, I was also a tennis player and I wanted to become a professional tennis player. I had those two passions – drawing and painting, and tennis. Then, when I was 19 or 20 years old, I discovered that I couldn’t be a champion of tennis like I wanted, so I decided to dedicate my life to painting and I became a painter. When I was 26, by chance, I made my first short movie. My background is as a painter, so I grew up looking at paintings in museums. I don’t paint anymore. It’s been more than 20 years since I painted, but I don’t miss it. I don’t need it because I’m making movies.
It’s not just the wooden Pinocchio that’s a different kind of character, but you have various creatures in this film. What were the biggest challenges of this production?
GARRONE: There were many big challenges on this project. First of all, it was challenging to show a Pinocchio that could surprise the audience and be unaffected. The second big challenge was to reach the audience of the kids. We know that kids now see lots of big movies with special effects, so it’s not easy to catch the attention of kids with a movie like this. We were always thinking about the kids in the audience. I knew that adults could love the movie, but the bigger challenge was to reach the kids and to make a movie that could be for both kids and families. We had lots of prosthetics, especially for Pinocchio. Because the main actor (Ielapi) was a kid of nine years old who had to sit for four hours of make-up, every day for three months, it was an incredible effort from him. He was really brave and strong, and also a very good actor. He played a Pinocchio that was completely the opposite of him in life. He was really incredible on this project.
What was it like for you to work and collaborate with Roberto Benigni on this and to have him play Geppetto when he had also previously played Pinocchio?
GARRONE: First of all, I’ve been a friend of Roberto’s for a long time, but we decided to work together on this project by coincidence. It was something that happened one night, when we were having dinner, by coincidence. I was already working on Pinocchio, and during dinner, his wife said to me, “Roberto could be an incredible Geppetto,” and I said, “Yes, I know.” I knew that he had already made a version of Pinocchio, so I didn’t want to ask him because I thought he wouldn’t be interested in doing another Pinocchio project. But when she said he could play Geppetto, I asked him.
Roberto is Geppetto. Roberto comes from Tuscany. Roberto comes from a family that was very poor and he grew up in poverty. The story of Pinocchio talks about poverty and it talks about Tuscany. It’s set in Tuscany in a period when there was a lot of poverty. Roberto is also one of the best actors in the world, that can play dramatic and comic roles. Geppetto is a character that sometimes is comic and sometimes is dramatic. He has been very generous to work with me on this project and we had such a great time together. We loved it. I loved it, and I know that he loved working with me. I’m very grateful to him.
Do you know what the next film is that you’re going to be doing? Are you the kind of filmmaker who’s always working on something?
GARRONE: I always like to have new challenges. I like to get myself into trouble when I make a movie. I like to do something new. At the moment, I don’t know which will be my next project, but I’m looking for a new idea and a new challenge. In this difficult moment, I’m reading and looking for a new idea, but it’s not easy to find a new idea. I want to find an idea that really excites me, for my next movie, but I’m not in a hurry.
Warning to parents: This is not the 1940 Disney cartoon classic. This “Pinocchio” is the live-action version, rated PG and starring “Life Is Beautiful” Oscar winner Roberto Benigni as Geppetto, the woodcutter who builds a puppet to replace the son he never had. In adapting the beloved 1883 children’s book by Italian author Carlo Collodi, director Matteo Garrone takes a more grown-up approach that will still appeal to kids who aren’t easily scared and are ready to discuss the implications of the story with mom and dad.Warning to parents: This is not the 1940 Disney cartoon classic. This “Pinocchio” is the live-action version, rated PG and starring “Life Is Beautiful” Oscar winner Roberto Benigni as Geppetto, the woodcutter who builds a puppet to replace the son he never had. In adapting the beloved 1883 children’s book by Italian author Carlo Collodi, director Matteo Garrone takes a more grown-up approach that will still appeal to kids who aren’t easily scared and are ready to discuss the implications of the story with mom and dad.Warning to parents: This is not the 1940 Disney cartoon classic. This “Pinocchio” is the live-action version, rated PG and starring “Life Is Beautiful” Oscar winner Roberto Benigni as Geppetto, the woodcutter who builds a puppet to replace the son he never had. In adapting the beloved 1883 children’s book by Italian author Carlo Collodi, director Matteo Garrone takes a more grown-up approach that will still appeal to kids who aren’t easily scared and are ready to discuss the implications of the story with mom and dad.
Opening in theaters Dec. 25, the latest “Pinocchio” is the first to be filmed in its origin country. It brims over with visual flair, starting with the creation of the title character. Geppetto is thrilled when the boy he carves out of a log comes magically to life, in a boy played by 9-year-old Federico Ielapi. Benigni and Ielapi make a delightful pair as the poor-but-proud carpenter makes his splintery son a red, pointy hat and raises the money to send him to school.
Trouble starts when Pinocchio, driven by a mischievous desire for breaking bad, hurts Geppetto by leaving school to follow a traveling circus. Bad idea. After the ringmaster, Mangiafuoco (Gigi Proietti), treats him cruelly, Pinocchio embarks on a series of increasingly darker adventures. The effect is alternately cute and creepy. Without Jiminy Cricket from the Disney version around to comfort Pinocchio by warbling “When You Wish Upon a Star,” the boy falls prey to a villainous Cat (Rocco Papaleo) and Fox (Massimo Ceccherini).
Help arrives in the form of a non-singing cricket (Davide Marotta), a fairy with turquoise hair (Marine Vacth) and a gorilla judge (Teco Celio) whose assistance requires Pinocchio to pretend he’s a criminal. Don’t ask. Just marvel at the creature effects from a crack team of designers led by British prosthetics guru Mark Coulier. Plus, it’s not really surprising that Garonne, the director of 2008’s mob epic “Gomorrah,” would revert to his roots in crime drama.
It’s all in fun — until it’s not. One near-death scene, in which bad guys hang Pinocchio upside down from a tree, is pretty scary, as is another when his legs are burned to stumps, and still others when Pinocchio is changed into a donkey and swallowed by a whale. It’s all in the book, of course. Only once does Pinocchio’s nose grow when he lies, but birds obligingly peck it off. It’s a cruel world out there, and this “Pinocchio” doesn’t shrink from it.
Nearly a century and a half after Collodi’s book was published, “Pinocchio” continues to attract top filmmakers. “The Shape of Water” Oscar winner Guillermo del Toro has a stop-motion animated rendering coming to Netflix and “Forrest Gump” Oscar winner Robert Zemeckis is working on another live-action account for Disney. Benigni directed his own take on the tale in 2002 and misguidedly played the boy puppet when he was pushing 50. Don’t mistake that fiasco for this freshly inventive new version. Benigni and company have wished on the right star this time, and for holiday audiences they really do make dreams come true.
The controversy surrounding the original release of this dark exploration of sexy car accidents now seems quaintly outdated – but the film holds up well
In 1996, David Cronenberg’s movie Crash, now rereleased in 4K digital, became the subject of the last great “banning” controversy for a new film in Britain. His vision of the erotic car crash got brimstone denunciations from the Evening Standard and the Daily Mail. This delayed its BBFC certificate, and Westminster council issued a solemn edict forbidding it in West End cinemas.
But in the 21st century, the press appetite for denouncing shocking films just seemed to vanish, overnight becoming the quaint tradition of a bygone age, perhaps because of a belated realisation that these campaigns were destined to fail and didn’t sell papers, and that, increasingly, nothing sold papers in any case as newsprint lost ground to the internet’s oceanic swell, in which all these films could easily be found. Even The Human Centipede sequel’s brief failure to get a certificate was a formality, laughed or shrugged at. The urge to censor or cancel – as with, say, Maïmouna Dourcouré’s Cuties – has migrated to social media, but even this seems to have no bearing on seeing controversial films if you want.
The controversy has aged badly, but Crash itself holds up well. It isn’t Cronenberg’s best work and can’t reproduce the icily macabre chill of JG Ballard’s prose in the original 1973 novel. There is no walk-on role for Elizabeth Taylor as there is in the book and it’s a shame the soundtrack couldn’t have used the great pop single, inspired by Crash – Warm Leatherette, recorded by the Normal in 1978 (“Hear the crashing steel / Feel the steering wheel”). But it is still deeply strange and risky; particularly, it risks being laughed at, and there is a definite, tiny grain of Razzie absurdity that is a part of its weirdly hypnotic high-porn torpor.
James Spader plays the drolly named James Ballard, a film director in a jaded open relationship with his partner Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger). After a near-fatal car crash close to the airport, Ballard meets the beautiful survivor from the other car in hospital: Helen, played by Holly Hunter. He also encounters a man called Vaughan (Elias Koteas) who is photographing their grisly wounds. Vaughan introduces them to his cult, which celebrates the eroticism of car crashes, and for a crowd of devotees he stages pornified drag-race events on quiet roads: secret Hollywood-Babylon-type re-enactments of famous car wrecks that killed people such as James Dean and Jayne Mansfield. Vaughan presides over a sexual black mass that fetishises the victims’ wounds, their calipers, bandages and surgical stitches and imagines them as part of the crushed metal of the doomed cars. Ballard, Helen and Catherine become increasingly obsessed with the sexual thrill of the car crash.
Being in that initial wreck is for Ballard the equivalent of being bitten by a radioactive spider. Now he (like others) is granted the perv superpower of seeing the sensuality of technology, and especially the dark ecstasy of seeing sleek technology go haywire, seeing how the human form fuses with this futurist world of glass and metal and gasoline in the act of crashing. (I found myself thinking of the Hammer House of Horror TV episode called The Thirteenth Reunion from 1980, about people whose behaviour is shaped by having been passengers together in a plane crash.)
Crash is still creepy, still menacing, still hypnotic, and it is still dedicated, in its freaky way, to the ideal of eroticism, to just drifting from erotic scene to erotic scene without much need for story. But Crash is no longer so contemporary. Even in the late 90s, it didn’t quite have the zeitgeisty charge of the book, which had come out 20 years previously. Cars themselves (and certainly airports) aren’t really as sexy and urgent as they could plausibly be presented by Ballard, as part of his eerily disquieting atrocity exhibition of modern life. Cars themselves have become far more boring and reliable and safe in our culture. Nowadays, the airbag of banality is deployed.
Interestingly, Ben Wheatley’s movie version of Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise, about the psychopathology of living in a tall building (a cousin to Crash), sees it more as a period piece, a surreal twist on 70s design that is very strange, very Sanderson. Maybe that is how any new adaptation of Crash would have to work. But Cronenberg’s film still has a metal-crunching impact.
Crash is available in 4K digital and UHD Blu-ray from 30 November.
The Disney film Pinocchio, originally released in 1940, made its mark on American culture, winning Oscars for its score and its classic song, “When You Wish Upon a Star.” Carlo Collodi’s 1883 novel The Adventures of Pinocchio has been adapted numerous times, including another on the way from Guillermo Del Toro. In 2002, Roberto Benigni tried his hand at bringing the story to life as writer, director, and star of a film that earned almost universally negative reviews. Now, Benigni returns, this time to play Geppetto, in a far more well-received effort that was a financial success in Italy and was brought to American audiences by Roadside Attractions this past Christmas. This film is in the spotlight at the moment thanks to its recent placement on the Oscar shortlist for Best Makeup and Hairstyling. Awards Radar had the chance to pose questions about this incredible undertaking to prosthetic makeup designer Mark Coulier, makeup artist Dalia Colli, and hair designer Francesco Pegoretti. For context, Coulier is British, while Colli and Pegoretti are Italian.
Q: What’s your earliest memory of Pinocchio and encountering this story?
Mark Coulier: Oh, wow, that’s going back to when I read it, probably when I was about eleven or twelve years old. That’s my earliest recollection of it. I was a big fan – I still am – of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales, and other dark fairy tales. I love those stories. Pinocchio falls into that bracket of morality tales wrapped up in a fairy tale wrapper.
Dalia Colli: This novel is typical of Italian culture, so everyone reads this book. I read it around age six or seven at school. You never forget this story. Your memory records the original images of the book which were stylized ink images. I love the story, but when I was a kid I thought it was terrifying. They show very poor people, magic chop wood, ghost Fairies, a snail woman, an orc who takes prisoners, unarmed puppets, and Pinocchio too. I remember the feelings of anxiety when there were the night assassins and they hanged the puppet at a tree to steal his coins! This was very scary to me as a kid! And what about Geppetto who ends up in the belly of a whale? I also wondered why Pinocchio didn’t perceive evil in the two strange and anthropomorphic figures of Cat and Fox.
Francesco Pegoretti: My first memory about Pinocchio is definitely when my father would read me the book as a kid to put me to sleep. I also remember having a rubber Pinocchio in my toy box, which I used to love a lot. It was also my favorite fairy tale. I can’t recall when I watched the cartoon though or when I heard the story for the first time. I must have been very little. But I remember I’ve always loved that fantastic world where animals and humans live together. Pinocchio was also the story of the rules: don’t lie or your nose will grow, be a good boy, do your homework…and this was the part I liked less.
Q: Based on other cinematic versions of this story, were there certain elements of the look that you wanted to make sure to replicate or to specifically do differently?
Mark: We were guided by Matteo, the director, on that. We’re working for him, trying to achieve his vision, which was most definitely wanting to go back to the source material of the book. He had his memory of it as a child. He storyboarded parts of it when he was about eight years or something, he’s got a little storyboard in his office. Mateo was keen to avoid any of the other adaptions of Pinocchio and do his own version of what he remembered of the story, faithful to the Collodi story. For us, talking with Matteo and using the illustrations of Carlo Chiostri and Enrico Mazzanti specifically in the novel, they have all those characters, so we drew a lot of inspiration from those drawings. Also, the book Pinocchio is second to the Bible in terms of how many copies there are lying around in people’s houses. It’s a project that’s very close to the Italian heart. It is for me, because I love fairy tales. For most people outside Italy, it doesn’t mean quite as much.
Dalia: Certainly, I was honored to be a part of this big project which many important Italian directors have dealt with in the past. In 1972, Luigi Comencini directed a very famous Italian TV series which has left an impression on the hearts of the Italian people. In Italy, there is no one who didn’t see the series, and no one who doesn’t remember the soundtrack, Geppetto’s wig, or the special effects make up on the character of Cat and Fox. Not to mention Gina Lollobrigida, who played the fairy and her unforgettable look! In this TV series, the dark side of the story was attenuated by comedy and by the famous and loved actors who played the characters such as Nino Manfredi (Geppetto) and the little Andrea Balestri (Pinocchio). Matteo Garrone’s vision of the tale respects the dark and light sides of the story, and for this he asked us to realize the characters as realistically as possible whether they be human, animal, or a magical creature. When I finally watched the movie in theaters with my daughter’s class, I looked to the children and saw the surprise in their faces and their silence spoke for them. I was very happy about our work – the magic and the reality was well mixed.
Francesco: It’s true, Pinocchio is part of the Italian culture, and being so well known to kids as well as to adults it made me feel responsible to do the characters justice. It wasn’t easy to recreate the look of the characters of such a famous story. You must be careful not to be too academic or obvious, but at the same time you can’t go far from the characterization described in the book which made it so popular. But overall, I think we were able to achieve that balance well.
Q: Matteo mailed you a piece of wood as an inspiration. Can you talk more about that?
Mark: This was well into the making of the Pinocchio character himself. We were trying to find out from Matteo what color of wood he wanted. In the book, he’s described as being made out of cherry wood, I believe. We were talking to Matteo about whether it was cherry or oak and what color it is, and I had a color chart with all different types of wood that I had in my office. I was showing Matteo these wood samples, and told him just to choose a piece of wood and send it to us so that we could replicate the color of that wood, and the grain and all the texture of it.
Q: Was there anything that proved especially difficult or surprising in this process?
Mark: There were several aspects of Pinocchio that were difficult to pin down. You’re trying to create something the director wants to see, but also you’re doing stuff that you want. I definitely wanted Pinocchio to look like wood even though he was made out of silicone. I wanted the audience to buy it as a wooden sculpture. If we had a head in the workshop painted, we wouldn’t be able to tell if it was wood or silicone. That was my barometer. I had three or four painters all painting wood. Some of it looked like wood painted on silicone and some of it didn’t. We just got to one point where it was like, wow, that really does look like wood. You touched it and you thought you were going to touch wood, but you didn’t. You touched silicone. That’s what I wanted.
Dalia: I think that the biggest challenge of Pinocchio was to achieve a result where the children and teens of today, who are used to seeing the impossible thanks to the visual effects, would appreciate the look of the handmade prosthetics, practical effects, and special effects makeup.
What excited you most about working on this project?
Dalia: Every time I work with director Matteo Garrone, I know I’m sure to start an adventure that is introspective and physical. I love his poetry and the way he talks about facts without judgment above all. He lets me be free to express my ideas and to always work with passion, with the fire in the eyes. Thanks to Matteo, I had the possibility to work with Mark Coulier and his lovely staff. I learned a lot from them, and they were so passionate about their work that you can’t stop watching them. Unfortunately, too few beers together! We were always very tired at the end of the day! I was also excited because I go to work with Roberto Benigni, who I loved especially for his work in Life is Beautiful, which won Oscars for Best Foreign Film, Best Actor, and its score in 1998. With Roberto I always had fun because he used to play games with me during the makeup preparation. He would ask me geographic questions such as “what is the capital of Kazakhstan?” or we would play some guessing games. They were very difficult especially while doing difficult jobs and using dangerous tools. Often I didn’t answer right and he would laugh!
Francesco: Being able to construct a fantastic world as well as being part of it is what I was most excited about. I am deeply grateful to the director Matteo Garrone for wanting me on the project and for giving me space for creativity and imagination. We all worked together as a department in great harmony. We were always aware we were making something special. Going to the set and seeing the characters come to life was kind of magical.
Q: Can you explain more about the prosthetic process and where the actors come in, especially in this case, with all these different wooden characters and other fantastical creatures?
Mark: We had a concept designer, Pietro Scola Di Mambro, who was working directly with Matteo. He would send over these lovely drawings that had been done, and we were interpolating them. Once you get your actor, you have to redesign your makeup to suit the actor and use the actor’s features. The Snail takes on the attributes of Maria Pia Timo, who played the Snail. The Cat and the Fox take on their characteristics, they have these great faces that suit the makeup. You’re always trying to tailor your prosthetics to suit the performance and the actor. We did that with all the characters. They all have a hint of what’s underneath. You can’t get away from your canvas too much. The central face of the little cricket looks like actor Davide Marotta, and the rest of it grows out into this head and becomes a mix of the performer and the character. We had some drawings of the cricket that were totally CG at the beginning. Matteo’s original vision was to have Pinocchio as a makeup – and even then with VFX legs and VFX hands – so he was going to look more like a wooden puppet with face makeup, and the cricket was going to be totally digital. I think Matteo started to veer towards doing all these characters, fortunately for us, practically.
For me, it was great, it takes us back to that land of creating outlandish, over-the-top, well, not over-the-top but realistic, animal characters on humans. Half-human, half-animal. And then we had the whole puppet theater to do. We did ten puppet characters. Each one is technically complicated, just breaking them down into their pieces. Let’s say the wooden grain goes vertically down the head, and you’ve got to cut horizontally across to separate the face piece out from the forehead. You have to find a way of going around the wood grain to make the two merge back together so that you can’t see where the joins are. There were all kinds of challenges presented with every single makeup. There wasn’t one makeup on the whole show that wasn’t very complicated.
Q: It sounds like you enjoy those challenges, Mark, unlike in The Iron Lady, where it’s much more about getting one character. Here, it’s like The Grand Budapest Hotel, an ensemble makeup piece.
Mark: I’m always looking for something a bit different than I’ve done before. After The Iron Lady, I got a lot of aging makeup. We tended to be doing that. We aged Idris Elba throughout the years in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Great projects, but it was nice to do something else. I’ve done a few character makeups. Stan and Ollie, Bohemian Rhapsody, Suspiria, a nice horror movie. All this variety, and then suddenly I got a telephone call about this Pinocchio film. As soon as I saw Pietro’s drawings and had a chat to Matteo about the vision for it, that it was based in reality and these characters were going to be real and earthy and believable, from this poor area of Tuscany, I thought that was something different that we hadn’t done before recently. It slotted in at the perfect time.
Q: Dalia, what was most challenging in the makeup process and what approach did you use?
Dalia: Working on Pinocchio was challenging because I never had worked on a project like this before. From the beginning, the choice of characters’ looks was difficult. We had to make people forget for a moment their memory of the famous and loved Pinocchio TV series from 1972. With the help of Mark Coulier, it was definitely possible. He created a perfect silicon muzzle and ears for both Cat and Fox. After the prosthetics were applied, I started to increase the fake facial hair, blending the hairline to the eyebrow and lengthening the beard with white and black hair for Cat, and different shades of red and brown for the Fox. For Cat and Fox, I personally made a cast of the actors’ hands in order to create special nail tips in a transparent resin. That made the characters even more despicable, ugly, dirty and bad. For the young and adult fairy, I used a cold color palette, based on the shades of Prussian blue, ivory, porcelain, and ice white. The two fairies had to be ethereal and bright, without a living heart and blood in their veins, but alive and tangible. The beautiful wig needed to have the same color as the eyebrows and eyelashes. The lips were livened just a bit, to keep sweetness and amiability. Every centimeter of uncovered skin was airbrushed with iridescent silicon color, and the nails had a light film of blue. In order to create the long beard of Mangiafuoco’s character, I asked for help from Alessandro Iacoponi, master in wigs creations. The beard was so long that it had to be sewn in three different pieces: cheeks, sub chin and extension of the sub chin. Mangiafuoco had a showy scar under the right eye, as a tear from an old and wet orc’s eye.
Q: Francesco, the hairstyling is very specific and memorable. What and who did you enjoy styling the most?
Francesco: The creation of the character of the Blue Fairy. It was the most difficult, at least for me. The director wanted a unique monochromatic color combined with costume and set design. So the achievement of the blue color was a challenging visual process. For the young fairy, described in the story as “dead,” Victorian age photographs were analyzed, especially the “post mortem” ones. The flower crown was also custom designed along with the hair. It was made with withered flowers as well as vintage fabric flowers, and the wig was designed with center parting and tight curls. The adult fairy instead had to reveal an ethereal figure, so keeping the same color but her hair is very long and loose and the texture is natural and soft in order to make a clear distinction between the old and the young fairy. I am very satisfied by the result of the characters. Being able to achieve an equilibrium with makeup and prosthetics, and helping the director transform the actors into characters was the best accomplishment for me.
Q: Where do you see the role of evolving technology in this?
Mark: It always comes up. It used to be VFX versus practical effects, because some people champion one kind of technique and some champion the other. In the early days, it was a battle, really. People were protective of their environment. Nowadays, it’s evened out a little. Directors and performers and writers and everybody are much more savvy about what the best way to achieve something. It’s become more about what is the best technique that serves the story, not this newfangled technique that is better than anything else. Look at some of the older movies, like The Hunchback of Notre Dame or The Elephant Man. There are so many makeup movies that are just groundbreaking and amazing. They’re real. If you’re creating films where you need that kind of reality and performance-driven makeup, practically is the way to go. Unless you need to use visual effects. A good combination for me is the better way to do it. Use visual effects when it’s needed, and practical effects when that’s needed. It’s a really simple answer, but that’s what works best, in my opinion. And that’s why we had the antenna of the snail done digitally, because we couldn’t replicate the shrinking and the cricket twitching. We just can’t do that as well as visual effects can do it. And visual effects create the big sea monster dog fish and the donkey spinning and Pinocchio’s burnt legs. We couldn’t begin to do that nearly as well as can be done with visual effects.
Q: What was it like to watch the finished product – did everything look like you expected it to?
Dalia: From the first images I saw on the screen, I was so gratified watching what we all did together, Italy and England, two different styles unified to tell the beauty and magic of our Pinocchio. I’ll never forget the people who helped me to cure all the details of the many extras, and always with a smile and passion for the work. Thanks a lot!
Francesco: It was a great and emotional moment. I was just touched at the end. I knew it was going to be a beautiful film, having worked on the set, but the first time I watched it, it felt magical and spectacular.
I will own up to the fact that I thought the majority of Pinocchio was visual effects. We have so many different ways to escape to other worlds that we sometimes take for granted when the crafts of a film are made by the two hands of artists. Matteo Garrone’s new vision of the classic story is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. Prosthetic makeup designer Mark Coulier, hair designer Francesco Pegoretti, and makeup artist Dalia Colli have created a stunning and impressive amount of work that shouldn’t be ignored by The Academy.
When was the last time that you really looked at the lines and grains of the inside of a piece of wood? When we get closeups of Pinocchio, the lines look like Garrone cracked open the stump of a tree and transferred it over to Federico Ielapi’s face. I discovered that Coulier’s main goal was to make the prosthetic not look like painted wood at all in fear of losing the weight and realism of it. Pinocchio, Coulier’s favorite design of the film, went through several stages of deterioration throughout the film and it required a lot of patience from the young actor playing him.
Apart from Pinocchio, practically every other character we see has a prosthetic design that allowed Coulier to flex his muscles. The Cat and The Fox have prosthetics to enhance the actors’ expressive faces and there is a tuna fish towards the end that is a seamless combination of prosthetics and visual trickery. It is mind-boggling how many prosthetics were made for this film.
Awards Daily: There are 25 characters that you made prosthetics for.
Mark Coulier: Yes.
AD: Do you know around how many pieces you had to make?
MC: Oh, gosh. For Pinocchio himself–not including the tests and everything–we did 50 days of makeup on him. Every set was destroyed when we took them off because they were so fine. It’s a new set of wooden, painted pieces every day, so did around 70 sets for just Pinocchio. The snail had ten or twelve pieces for her and the puppet theater had a three day shoot. Some of the other characters, we only did about three sets.
AD: Did you have to decide on what type of wood he came from?
MC: That’s an interesting question. There were three main difficulties in creating the character. We were doing it on a small boy, so we had to make it so we could get it on Federico [Ielapi]’s face quickly. It’s got to look appealing and nice and the feel of the sculpture to make this character look good. He’s mischievous but appealing at the same time. We spent months changing the size and the pitch of the nose. The other was shaping the wood texture and painting it to look like wood. I really didn’t want it to look like painted wood. With one particular sculpture of the texture of the wood, we went too strong, and it looked too painted. We refined the texture and we did use a piece of wood that the director sent over. In the story, he’s made out of cherry wood, but Matteo [Garrone] found a piece of oak that he had. He sent that over and we copied that as much as we could.
AD: It looks like you took a piece of wood and you put it on his face.
MC: Sebastian Lochmann is a fantastic sculptor and he went to town. We were working on the cracks and the splits. The way that the grain crosses the splits. There was a lot of mimicking of real wood. You can sculpt a spiral pattern around a knob. You can draw it on a paper and draw around it. When you look at the texture of wood, that’s what we were trying to capture.
AD: I kept looking at his ears. In one of the earlier shorts, there’s a chunky earlobe that kept grabbing my attention. How did you go about aging Pinocchio?
MC: We did four stages of deterioration. When you’re watching the movie, you may not see it right away, but if you compare the first stage to the last stage, you can see it. At the beginning, he looks smooth and he seems himself in the mirror. That’s very different from the end of the film when he has chips and scratches and there’s a bit taken out of his ear. Matteo just wanted a nice progression so it wasn’t too noticeable and the aging supporting the character. We took a clay press out of each piece which is basically refilling the mold with clay and we adjusted the original sculptures and remolded those each time. We had three stages in sculpture and then the last stage we reduced the paint for the final stage.
AD: I was so worried that the wood was getting wet during the whale scenes. I had to keep reminding myself that it’s makeup and not wood.
MC: That’s the reaction we wanted. We wanted people to believe it.
AD: Every time a new character walked on screen I was blown away. How did you want to differentiate the theater puppets from Pinocchio?
MC: With Pinocchio, we wanted a really nice finish on him. There’s a wood sculptor named Bruno Walpoth and he does these realistic, beautiful faces and when you get to the ear it gets more textural. We used that as a reference and inspiration. With the puppet theater, they have been around longer. We cracked them up and gave them more wood grain and they are bit more gritty and earthy and they have more color. That portray that they have been around with the puppet master for a while and Pinocchio is fresh.
AD: They’ve seen some things then?
MC: (laughs) Yes, they’ve been around. They were taken from real puppets that we had references for.
AD: I love The Fox and The Cat because I could see some human elements while the animal elements come through. I love how desperate they look.
MC: Matteo cast these two fantastic actors. Initially, we did do a stronger, heavier prosthetic look for them but Matteo thought we could use more of their actual faces. He wanted them to be really gringy and grimey. The Cat has a nose and top lip prosthetic and The Fox has a got a little top lip and nose piece and then it’s all Dalia [Colli]’s hair laying and Francesco [Pegoretti]’s wigs and hair. Francesco brought the hair down on The Cat and used yak and human hair. He brought it low on his forehead. The combination of all that and the dirt create the poverty and desperation. I think it was better than creating it with the prosthetic.
AD: We have to talk about The Snail because that prosthetic piece is massive. Was that always going to be a prosthetic? Were there any other ideas?
MC: It was from the drawings initially. You saw the belly more in earlier versions–we made the whole thing. The whole front curvature of the belly into the tail. Matteo wanted to not feature that too much and it ended up with the costume covering it. You still get the feeling of all that belly. It’s a foam latex suit. The shell is made of fiberglass and it sits on a trolley. Our fabricator, Joe Glover, made a lovely connection. We knew what the costume was covering and we could take the back half off and Maria [Pia Timo], who plays her, had a harness on that has two metal bars that pull the trolley. At one point, Matteo wanted Pinocchio and The Blue Fairy sitting on it so it’s good that we make it unbreakable (laughs).
AD: I liked the weight of that whole creation.
MC: She has a whole silicon face and head makeup. We covered her forehead and back of her head. She has a costume cape that softens the look of it.
AD: I don’t typically like to ask people what their “favorite thing” about a project is but there is so much in this film that you had to create. The monkey judge, the tuna fish, the birds are really fun. Did you have favorite design in here?
MC: Wow, that is tricky. I am really fond of the puppet theater. I’m really proud of Pinocchio and the tuna fish. There’s no character that we neglected. I’m so proud of the birds too The feather work is something that we worked on very hard. You don’t see them much since they are only in one scene. We didn’t have to do ten repeats for it, but we spent a lot of time on the feathers and hair work. Ultimately, though, I have to go with Pinocchio.
AD: I wanted to talk about the relationship between visual effects artists and makeup. I’ve brought this up a few times, but I wanted to know your opinion since a lot of people seem to mistake the makeup for visual effects. It’s just that good, and I think we just assume that it’s done that way.
MC: I think my opinion is that whatever tool is the best for the job. I was talking about this at length. It’s really complicated. You have the actor in there as well. I was talking with an actor about how he was playing a heavy character and he didn’t like sitting in the makeup chair for three hours. But after he has on the makeup and the face, he said he felt like the character. It’s the same when you age an actor. They want to see them as a ninety year old. It’s an acting aid really. If we lose that, we lose for the performers to act a bit. There’s stuff in The Irishman where prosthetics can’t age people. You can do some with lifts and things like that. It’s got to be believable.
In addition to the remarkable prosthetic work, the makeup team had to effortlessly incorporate wigs and makeup. Francesco Pegoretti didn’t want any actors to use their original hair, and he and Dalia Colli had to incorporate poverty into their designs. This isn’t a technicolor version of Pinocchio, so the drained color quality of the cinematography and production design marries with the teamwork from Pegoretti and Colli.
Colli had to create an elegance in a dead fairy to not scare the younger audience but it never looks like makeup. The pale, blue palette actually looks like her skin. We sometimes associate wigs with prestige and honor, but Pegoretti had to style and create wigs for the other animal characters to bring them to life.
AD: How did you want to incorporate the theme of poverty into the makeup and hair designs? This Pinocchio is so different from every other version we’ve seen before. Gepetto’s design really stood out to me.
Dalia Colli: At the end of the 19th century, Italy was a country where most people lived in conditions of poverty. Farmers, cattle breeders, artisans, were all people who often didn’t have enough food, were homeless, or unable to have a shower every day.
In order to incorporate poverty into the makeup, I used specific water based pigments to recreate the effect that prolonged contact with the ground, the fatigue of work and poverty have on the skin. The kids were actually very happy to be covered by dirt without their mothers getting mad at them.
Francesco Pegoretti: Poverty is probably one of the main characters of the book. From the beginning, the director, Matteo Garrone, wanted its presence to show throughout the look of each actor.
I tried to recreate the most natural looks possible, using products that would help me give a raw feel, or in the case of the cat and the fox a dirty look. I feel satisfied having not shown the touch of a hairdresser in the images of these characters because, of course, my fear was that they could look fake. Also, for the character of Geppetto, he has many wigs of different lengths to tell the passage of time. My intention was to show a man who does not bother to even comb his hair.
AD: Did you pull any color palette inspirations or designs from the original story or any other versions of Pinocchio? How did you want to make something original while staying true to the material?
DC: Surely reading the book at age six or seven when we barely had TV, printed the creepy images depicted in the book, in your head. These drawings were ink drawn. They were stylized but effective! I tried to remember that feeling of anxiety and fear and materialize it in the characters. We had to unhinge the memory that everyone had about the different projects made on Pinocchio. I hope that the union of ideas, the passion and the fantasy of this England/Italy team, created something new, almost entirely handcrafted.
FP: As a department we, along with the director, tried to create a brand new color palette for this project. We started from the original colors told by the writer Collodi in his book. But we gave them new shades in order to get that feeling of reality, and at the same time looking for nuances that would give that sense of magic. For instance, in the book, the color of the blue fairy is told to be a very dark blue, almost black. Thinking it would harden the character too much, I finally chose a light blue, mixing white blue and gray in order to lighten the fairy so that she would be a sort of apparition to Pinocchio.
A: Francesco, some of the theater puppets have a worn, banged up quality to their prosthetics. How did you complement the wig to go with each character?
FP: Mainly by using wigs made from poor material and having them be completely handmade. The tint used was fabric matt color, adopting the same techniques used in the 1800s, ageing them in order to get that vintage look. My main inspiration was the Italian “commedia dell’arte”, an Italian theatre genre.
AD: The adult fairy has a haunting quality to her makeup but she is also very beautiful. How do you balance that?
DC: This was the challenge! To be able to represent death in the most elegant, aesthetic and reassuring way, but sticking to reality. It’s a little bit of a paradox. I sought inspiration from art history; I have carefully observed the ruddiness of the Pre-Raphaelite images and the one that Klimt used to realize the skin. Those are very precious sources for me.
AD: So how did you want to create a connection between the youthful version of the fairy to the older version?
DC: The two lovely fairies helped me, with their beauty, to realize what I had in mind: a cold color palette to increase the ethereal aspect, a film of Prussian blue as a shadow, a light blue eyebrow and eyelashes and iridescent airbrush on the light zone. I increased the gloomy aspect, just for the adult fairy, because of the drama of the scene at the circus.
AD: Tell me about the advantages of using only wigs for all of the characters. For characters like The Fox and The Cat is it more difficult to incorporate that into the other fur?
FP: Wigs, half wigs, and toupees help the actor transform into the character. Especially in a movie like Pinocchio, where transformation is the bottom line of the whole story. The best example could be the cat and the fox. I used half wigs with animal hair for the top and left their own hair at the bottom in order to show the union between the animal and human worlds.
If nominated, Pinocchio could be the first foreign language film to win since La Vie en Rose and Pan’s Labyrinth. No film from Italy has ever won this award.
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