'Suspiria' Director Luca Guadagnino Hopes Horror Remake "Comes Across as Relentless"

Fresh off the success of 'Call Me by Your Name,' the Italian auteur does an about-face with his bloody take on a classic: "I want the movie to perform as the most disturbing experience you can have."
Courtesy of Amazon Studios; Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Dakota Johnson (right) is a gifted dancer in 'Suspiria' (inset: Guadagnino).

At age 14, Luca Guadagnino became so obsessed with Dario Argento’s Suspiria that he drew posters for his own version of the horror classic in his school notebook. Three decades later, Guadagnino, a hot property after the success of last year’s Oscar-winning Call Me by Your Name, has fulfilled his childhood dream of remaking the cult film.

World-premiering in Venice on Sept. 1, Guadagnino’s Suspiria is set in 1977 — the year the original came out — and tells the story of a gifted dancer (Dakota Johnson) who joins a dance school run by a coven of witches whose leader is a very sinister Tilda Swinton. Guadagnino, 47, talked to THR about his relationship to the original film, why he hopes his version plunges viewers into “uncompromising darkness” and how he convinced Radiohead’s Thom Yorke to try his hand at film composing. 

What was your reaction like to the original Suspiria?

I was so terrified, but as always with something that terrifies you, I was completely pulled in. I think the process of how that movie influenced my psyche probably has yet to stop, which is something that happens often when you bump into a serious work of art like Suspiria. I think the movie I made, in a way, [represents] some of the layers of [my] upbringing, watching the movie for the first time and thinking of it and being obsessed by it. So it is the result of many, many strata of fantasies, fascinations and reflections. I like to think that it’s my most personal movie, because of the way that everything started with it. With Suspiria, I really made my first horror movie, which is basically probably also my first feature, my debut.

What was it about the story that really pulled you in?

In a way Suspiria is about how you behave in the relationship between mother and daughter and what happens when the balance of power is swapped. Those are things that have always been part of my upbringing. I think that in every movie you try to find metaphors or take narrative devices to communicate the things that are most close to you.

What does motherhood mean in the context of a coven of witches?

I think a coven of witches comes with the concept of solidarity. If we take the historical sense of the term witchcraft, from the inquisition until the enlightenment, it was about a scandal of the bond between women in a moment in time when society couldn’t accept that. So, historically, witchcraft came with the idea of coming back to the power of women, the power of the woman as a goddess, and it has been perverted by the official history and the official religions as making a bargain with the devil. The witchcraft that I’m interested in also has a lot to do with what, psychoanalytically, is called the concept of the terrible mother, which you can see also in some religions, particularly in the Kali goddess.

Suspiria also shows as women being gaslit. What’s the relevance of this film in 2018?

Well this is a complex question and deserves a more thoughtful person to answer than a humble filmmaker. What I can say is that we believe in the power of the witches [and] the capacity of women to find the strength of being united in one sort of theoretical position and completely refusing to be victimized.

How did you choose the visual look of the film, which is so different from the original film?

I don’t think we tried to make something opposite to that. I think Suspiria by me is extremely rich in colors, except that we went for a different take. Dario Argento and let’s face it, Luciano Tovoli, his wonderful D.P., they decided to go for an extremely expressionistic way of decoding horror, which started from the work of Mario Bava. The way in which they made those colors — not just simple gels in front of lights, they were using velvet and they were really sculpting the light — [that] has influenced filmmakers for so long. I think everything that could have been said through that style has been said.

What kind of research did your team do to determine the visual look?

For me, I always think of the setting of the story before I decide anything about the light and the color of my films. And this is a movie about Berlin, 1977, a country that is almost on the verge of civil war, where there is a great generational divide, where the horrors of the past are confronted by the urgency and the violence of the present, a period that was called the German Autumn. We started to see the pictures of the time, and in particular the wonderful lesson of [cinematographer] Michael Ballhaus in the films of Rainer Fassbinder. And we started to think of how a great painter like Balthus created such uncanny eeriness and fear in his amazing paintings. And that led me, my production designer Inbal Weinberg, my costume designer Giulia Piersanti and the director of photography Sayombhu Mukdeeprom to go for browns and blacks and blues and greens, all muted and juxtaposed, so that we could in a way encompass this idea of a German Autumn. That’s why the colors are not primary. They do not pop at you. I hope that they infiltrate you and they go deep into you.

The preview footage has been notably disturbing. Do you think audiences will be shocked?

I hope that the movie comes across as a relentless experience that’s going to go deep into your skin all the way down into your spine. I want the movie to perform as the most disturbing experience you can have. The movie is about being immersed in a world of turmoil and uncompromising darkness.

Did you consult with Argento at all about the film?

I am friends with Dario [now 77] and I have had the privilege of knowing him for a long time. We had a dinner in which he said to me, “You don’t need any blessing. You need to just go and do your movie.” He was very generous. He has seen the movie, but it’s not for me to relay his reaction. I can only say to you that after he saw it he called me, and it was a great call.

Set conditions were quite rough. What was that like for the actors?

I believe the way we shot this film was a blessing in disguise because I found this hotel at the top of a mountain overlooking the city of Varese in Italy. And this was a very large, large space, completely abandoned and decadent with a roof that has been transformed in the last 25 years into a horrible forest of cellphone antennas. But I would say that the fact that the place was so difficult — it took like 40 minutes of a car ride up into the mountain, it was very cold, it was not very comfortable. There was this constant signal coming from the antennas that made all of us very weak and tired. All of that in a way gave the movie a possible texture in terms of the heightened mood and intensity that everybody went through that you could see onscreen. So was it nice to shoot there? No, it wasn’t. Was it good for the movie? It was, completely.

There’s been some questions about a character in the film named Dr. Jozef Klemperer. Is this Tilda Swinton or someone else in makeup playing him?

Well the performance by Lutz Ebersdorf is amazing. Isn’t it?

Is there actually an uknown 82-year-old German man playing one of the leads?

I always like to cast people that are not necessarily actors. If you think of Call Me by Your Name, I asked this lady that I saw bicycling in the countryside, Vanda Capriolo, to play Mafalda, and now she plays a role in Suspiria. I like to think out of the box.

There might be a surprise announcement still yet to come around this character?

No, no. It’s Lutz Ebersdorf. There was all this talk about Tilda playing the role and it came out of nowhere and I don’t know why.

How did you convince Thom Yorke to compose the music for the film?

I’m a bit of a dreamer. I tried to dare myself to think of the impossible, so I dared myself to dream of him doing the soundtrack, even though he has never done one before. After a couple of times trying, I pushed him to see me, and we met and he said yes. It was a very profound collaboration. We started working on the soundtrack even before we started shooting.

There was already a hint dropped in the teaser about the “Three Mothers” mythology, the ancient sisters who created witchcraft, the Mother of Sighs, the Mother of Darkness and the Mother of Tears. Could this be the first film in a new trilogy?

Well, haha, that’s a good one. I don’t know, it depends. There are many things that we left out. And if everybody would be happy to join back in the movie, I don’t know. Let’s see how it goes. Let’s start from this, and then we’ll see.

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.