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Vittorio Storaro is considered a legend in the cinematography world. The three-time Oscar winner, known for his lush visual style in classics like Apocalypse Now, Reds and The Last Emperor, has been a longtime collaborator of 76-year-old Italian auteur Bernardo Bertolucci’s, beginning in 1970 with the groundbreaking Italian drama The Conformist, which is considered one of the most strikingly cinematic films of all time.
Storaro worked with Bertolucci two years later on Last Tango in Paris. Starring Marlon Brando, who was then basking in the acclaim of his unlikely comeback in Francis Coppola’s The Godfather, the film is a provocative meditation on love and sex that finds Brando’s depressed, recently widowed American become sexually involved with a young Parisian woman portrayed by then-newcomer Maria Schneider. Lauded for its adventurousness by critics and honored with two Academy Award nominations for Brando and Bertolucci, the film nevertheless instantly stirred controversy — it was banned or censored in multiple countries and was initially given an X-rating by the MPAA. The most controversial moment in the film remains the infamous “butter” scene, in which Brando, then 48, employs the substance as a lubricant for anal sex with Schneider, who was 19 at the time.
Now, 44 years after its initial release, Tango is once again generating outrage after a 2013 video interview on Dutch television resurfaced in which Bertolucci discusses how some aspects of that infamous scene were sprung on Schneider at the last minute. According to Bertolucci, he and Brando came up with the idea of using butter just before the scene was shot on the set of the Parisian apartment where much of the film takes place. The video interview, which includes Bertolucci expressing regret over how he handled the situation, led to an Internet firestorm, with headlines claiming the director and Brando conspired together to shoot what many felt was a nonconsensual sex scene.
The backlash in Hollywood was immediate, with stars like Jessica Chastain, Chris Evans and Evan Rachel Wood taking to Twitter to condemn both Bertolucci and Brando. Wrote Chastain: “To all the people that love this film — you’re watching a 19yr old get raped by a 48yr old man. The director planned her attack. I feel sick.”
The Office’s Jenna Fischer called on all copies of the film to be destroyed, claiming it contained an “actual rape.”
On Dec. 5, Bertolucci, released a new statement in which he defended the simulated scene, adding that the only thing unknown to Schneider, who, he said, read and agreed to the explicit nature of the script before signing onto the role, was “the idea of the butter.”
Storaro, who was on set throughout the shoot, says he had not been following the renewed controversy, but was sent a story from a friend about the resurfaced interview and was shocked that a three-year-old discussion about a film released in 1972 was being turned into a “ridiculous” scandal.
Speaking exclusively to THR about the new controversy, Storaro maintains that nothing malicious occurred on set during the shooting of the film, and that the surprise nature of the scene was simply part of Bertolucci’s filmmaking process. Moreover, he claims that Schneider was nothing but thrilled to be a part of the film.
THR spoke with Storaro in Rome about the media firestorm, what the actual process was like on set and why he believes Last Tango in Paris still hits a nerve with viewers after 44 years.
What was your reaction to the media response to the resurfaced interview with Bertolucci?
It’s something that some ignorant journalist put together. I was really disgusted by what was written, which is not true at all. I think the journalists are making an issue that is not really an issue. I read that there was a kind of violence made on her but that’s not true. That’s not true at all. That’s terrible. I was there. We were doing a movie. You don’t do it for real. I was there with two cameras and nothing happened.… Nobody was raping anybody. That was something made up by a journalist.
Don’t make a big issue over this story, because it’s ridiculous. The problem is someone made up a major headline to create a scandal. If I remember the interview correctly, probably Bernardo felt that maybe he didn’t explain it completely to Maria from the beginning and that’s why he felt a little guilty and nothing more than that. What Bernardo said later was he would like to apologize to Maria, only because he probably didn’t explain to her at the beginning what was discussed with Brando. Nothing happened during the shooting.
Was it normal for last-minute story details to be changed on set?
Every morning we would arrive in the apartment and Bernardo had a meeting with Brando to discuss how they would do the scene. Brando wanted to add his own opinion. And after, Bernardo would come to me and explain how he wanted to do the scene, in agreement with Brando. We put together the sequence in any normal way we would do a movie. There is a possibility that Bernardo didn’t mention a specific detail to her…. [Maria] knew perfectly well what she was doing. She knew pretty well what was happening in every scene. She was an actress and had no problems with this. It was an acting job, not something else.
What happened on set the day you shot the butter scene?
I only know that Maria was there like every normal scene and knew we were doing a love scene even if it was a quite unusual film scene.… Everything was written down, but every morning Bernardo loved to add something. They added something with Brando in every scene, but that was quite normal. They loved to do this. We knew the script and we knew what we wanted to do, but every morning you come up with different ideas, so you are specifically discussing that scene in that moment.
What do you remember about the atmosphere of the set?
It was a fantastic period, from the very first day. Brando was a very intelligent person, so he knew very well the way that Bernardo and I wanted to visualize the story. It was a wonderful atmosphere. Brando was so nice, so generous. In the apartment there was a great energy. When you came into the apartment every morning you could feel that it was a wonderful way to make a movie. We were a very small crew and we had a wonderful time in doing the movie together.
In fact, Maria in the beginning she was kind of snobbish in a French way. [As if] to say, “I don’t care about Brando, a big American movie star and Bertolucci, a great Italian director,” and so on. But as we went on in the film, she was crying that the film was ending, that this fantastic experience was coming to an end too soon. That’s something I remember very well. Like everybody in this wonderful atmosphere, she was so sorry that the movie was ending.
We had a great wonderful time with Brando and Bernardo. I worked with Bernardo on The Conformist and The Last Emperor, but Tango was a very special one. It was a really magical moment. You could feel the creative energy coming together, the fantastic way to work together in a very small crew. We stayed in that apartment for seven weeks, because we had very few exteriors. It is one of greatest memories of my life.
Were you surprised at the reaction to the film at the time?
The movie was at that time attacked, particularly in Italy. In Italy they banned the movie. They wanted to burn it. In this time period they were doing so many movies that were much more erotic or violent than Last Tango but Last Tango was touching some principle in connection with a character that is upset with the structure of the family, the structure of the government, the structure of the country. As a principle, when he was making love to her it was like making love to the rest of the world.
That’s why Tango was seen as a movie that should be censored. That’s why it is a great movie. It’s not only erotic, but it touched a difficult moment that one person can have. And [Brando’s character] putting his own life in relation to the world around him, starting from his wife who betrayed him to the moral issues of the world and so on. That’s something written from the very first dialogue. That’s why Brando loved to do the movie, because he loved to put himself in that kind of role.
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