History-Making Director Lina Wertmüller on Working With Fellini

Everett Collection; Samir Hussein/WireImage
Lina Wertmüller with actor Nino Bignamini on the set of 'All Screwed Up' in 1973. (Inset: Wertmüller at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.)

Ahead of accepting an honorary Oscar at Sunday's Governors Awards, the 91-year-old Italian filmmaker reflects on her career and why she doesn't think of herself as a feminist.

It's hard to believe that Lina Wertmüller is 91 years old, the last member of a storied group of Italian filmmakers — from Rossellini to Visconti to Fellini, her mentor — whose impact has been felt around the world. If Wertmüller, the first woman ever nominated for a directing Oscar, leaned more in the direction of the absurd than they did in her greatest films (1972's The Seduction of Mimi, 1974's Swept Away and 1975's Seven Beauties), she nonetheless acknowledges a debt to them — particularly Fellini, for whom she worked as an assistant director on 1963's 8 1/2. Prior to accepting an honorary Oscar on Oct. 27, the feisty filmmaker — the black sheep of an aristocratic family, who ran away from school 15 times before finding a career in the arts and still tilts at the establishment — spoke with THR (via translator) about him and her career.

You started out working with an avant-garde puppet group. How did that lead to film?

It happened by chance. I had just finished drama school and this lady had a puppet company. I started working with her and then became an assistant to several directors in theater.

You were Fellini's assistant, too. Tell me about working on.

Fellini asked me to find the "faces" — faces of people to be extras. But he didn't want them to come from casting places; he wanted to find them in the street. He once saw a face he liked get into a taxi and told me, "Follow that face!" So I jumped in a taxi to find her. Did I find her? Yes.

What did Fellini change in your thinking about film?

He had a very profound impact on me because he was a creator of situations. More than anything else, he gave me a sense of freedom in my method of work — creating a situation on a set, in the moment, as opposed to [something fixed] in a studio. That artistic freedom I learned from him. He also gave me a special suggestion: He told me, "Tell the story as if you were in a bar telling it to friends. And if you have a talent to tell stories, you will be able to tell them well. Don't worry about the technical aspects."

When you began, was it extra difficult being a woman?

No. If you have strength of character, there is no problem.

Do you think of yourself as a feminist?

No. It's not part of my principles. The choice between man and woman has no importance. What's important are the character and the qualities each one has.

There was one brief moment when you came to Hollywood to make films. Why didn't it last?

Hollywood is very structured, just like America. In Italy, we have great freedom and I can feel that in my work. Here in Italy, we can change a scene on the day of the shoot, but in America you can't do that, and I felt it.

Was coming to America your hardest moment?

Obviously, it hasn't always been easy and there have been some projects that didn't come through. But my strength was that I never let it get to me. If one project closed down, I wouldn't look behind, I would look forward.

You're still directing theater. Have you stopped directing film?

I still do theater but I haven't stopped making films. I have a lot of ideas and projects in the drawer and if a production company comes through, I would love to do one.

I believe your full name is Arcangela Felice Assunta Wertmüller von Elgg Spañol von Braueich. Is that true?

It's true! That's my real name. And from Arcangela came Lina.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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A TRIO OF LEGENDS ON THE GOVERNOR'S AWARDS STAGE

GEENA DAVIS

The 63-year-old actress who is known for The Accidental Tourist (for which she won an Oscar), Beetlejuice, Thelma & Louise and A League of Their Own now splits her time between acting and advocating for gender equality in media.

DAVID LYNCH

One of American cinema's most original and eccentric voices, Lynch, 73, helmed Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive. The four-time Oscar nominee most recently revived his Twin Peaks series on Showtime in 2017.

WES STUDI

The Cherokee actor, 71, has appeared in more than 30 films, including Dances With Wolves, The Last of the Mohicans, Geronimo: An American Legend and The New World. He'll become the second Native American to receive an Oscar.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.