Horror Master Dario Argento on Fear and Happiness (Q&A)

Dario Argento Headshot - P 2014
AP Images

Dario Argento Headshot - P 2014

The director, set to visit the Locarno festival, discusses what scares him, working with Bernardo Bertolucci, why he is popular in Japan and why he thinks South Korea makes the best horror films these days

To walk into Dario Argento’s apartment in Rome, one would never suspect to be inside the home of one of the world’s most renowned horror directors. The man behind Deep RedSuspiria and Phenomena, the man who launched Italy’s "giallo" (mystery, crime) genre to international audiences, lives alone inside of a spacious tidy flat in northern Rome.

Indeed most of the memorabilia he’s saved from his films are stored at the Museum of Horrors in the basement of his fan shop, Profondo Rosso, in Prati. Various awards are scattered among the dozens of bookshelves inside his apartment, and film posters line the hallways, the only hint of the Italian director’s career.

Argento, 73, takes a seat in a tall, stiff chair to protect his back, still in pain from a recent fall down slippery steps in his building. But the injury isn’t holding him back from attending the Locarno Film Festival where he’ll be a guest of honor at the Titanus Retrospective.

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The Titanus studio represents Italy’s golden age of cinema, producing some of its most important films in the post-war era. With Argento, Titanus took a gamble on a first-time director who would turn out to be one of the world’s most iconic masters of horror. Locarno will screen Argento’s first film, The Bird with the Crystal Plummage, as well as a series of short scary films the director had made for Rai TV, which have never been shown outside of Italy.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke to the upbeat director about launching his career with Titanus, the moment he became a global name and what truly scares him. 

THR: How does it feel to be part of the Titanus retrospective at Locarno Film Festival?

Argento: Very nice. It’s a beautiful place with a big, marvelous square to watch movies in the night. The other European film festivals are too formal. Locarno is a very happy festival. It’s one of my favorites.

My first film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, was possible because [Titanus chief] Goffredo Lombardo had a great deal of trust in me and financed this film. My whole career started from there.

Was your first film difficult to do?

It was not difficult because before that I was a screenwriter, and before that a film critic. I knew movies very well. My father was a producer. I knew film people. And then I wrote the screenplay and I did the storyboard, everything. The film was very much in my mind. I shot it in six weeks. It was a great first experience.

You started as a film critic in an industry that has changed a lot since you began. What do you think is missing from film criticism today?

Today the critics are too short, too simple. They have a possibility to examine films, to analyze films from many different aspects. Now the critics just tell us the story, the names of the actors, good, bad, finished.

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At what point in your career did you know you had become an international phenomenon?

I think when I shot Suspiria. It was so spread out into the world then. There was a call from every country, from Japan, France, England, everywhere. And then I started to see my career have an upward curve.

The attention surprised me. Many books were written in so many countries. There was a very important moment when I was in Japan. We had such a big crowd; I was really stunned. Also, I remember the premiere in Paris. There was a huge theater that was full, and people were screaming and laughing, all the things you’d want.

Why has Japan in particular received you so well?

Japanese people think my films are inspired by Manga. The Manga was inspired by some of my films. I’m a part of Japanese culture. I’m a big friend of Banana Yoshimoto, a very important writer. She’s a big fan of mine. And all the Manga writers are big friends and admirers of mine.

I remember I was in Japan many times for my films. For Phenomena, Sony was the distributor, and we decided to try an experiment. It was a big theater and every chair had headphones. The film was played without sound, only through the headphones. It was very funny to see a silent film and watch people scream and laugh.

When in your career were you most happy?

Many times I was happy, and many times I was sad. It’s a sequence of your life. I had many very happy moments. But for me to shoot a film, there’s no happy moment, because it’s very tough. I’m not a happy, joyous director, no, no. A film is a tough thing. To think, to prepare, to invent every day, it’s not such a happy experience.

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You’ve influenced so many directors globally. Did you ever see it as plagiarism?

No. I was happy to have followers, many directors who appreciate my films. Yes, and after this they usually became great friends of mine, like George Romero, John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper. I was also to influence the new generation of French and Spanish directors, and directors in South Korea, such as Park Chan-Wook, and in Japan and Hong Kong.

What’s your theory for using music in films?

I discovered how important music is, because it becomes one of the protagonists of the film. It helps not only to follow the story, but it becomes an expression of the film.

Each movie uses music and sound differently. I chose different musicians because I was a big fan of music before I became a director. So I knew a lot about music.

What was your favorite film score?

Of mine? Maybe Suspiria and Deep Red.

For you, what is the key element of horror?

Psychology is the most important element. It’s a shame because the latest horror films forget psychology and put the focus just on the special effects and the bloody scenes. Psychology doesn’t exist anymore in movies. This is not good because psychology is very important. For this reason, I say that the films of South Korea are the best today, because they’re horror films with a strong psychology.

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When writing your scripts, do you put yourself inside the mind of your protagonist?

Yes. When I write a film, I try to become very young, like a child, to have a completely pure impression, not filtered by culture. And I write a film in this condition, from this viewpoint.

What’s your writing process?

I start with a small idea and I stay alone. Nobody lives with me, because I like to be alone and think about the idea. And then the idea grows and grows until it becomes a story. When I write a film, there are no distractions at all. I write all day long until I get tired and stop.

What was the writing process like with Bernardo Bertolucci on "Once Upon a Time in the West"?

Yes. When Sergio Leone chose me and Bernado to write a treatment of Once Upon a Time in the West, we worked together for months. We knew each other already as we are the same generation. I remember it was marvelous to work together. We went to see films together, American Westerns like John Ford. Then we’d go to a restaurant or walk around the city and get inspired to write it.

Is there anything you wouldn’t make a movie about?

I don’t have a taboo. Nothing’s off limits.

What scares you?

In my life? First of all, I’m scared of everybody, people on the street, yes. Everybody is scary.

But then I am scared by something profound, something impossible to explain, some sentiment that comes from deep within me. I wake up in the night very scared. Some parts of my films come from my nightmares.

I am lucky to have a possibility to speak with my dark side. This is important. I have a dialogue with my dark side, and in this dialogue I discover my films.

What are you working on now?

Now I just started writing the treatment for a new project. I don’t know when I’ll start the film. It’s a long time from the start of the idea to the film, a minimum of two years. Sorry, but I can’t tell you what it’s about yet.

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