Bernardo Bertolucci, Through Trials and Travails, Maintains That Cinema 'Is Life'

The legendary Italian filmmaker, now 73, spoke with THR while in Hollywood to attend the AFI Fest's screening of his Oscar-winning film "The Last Emperor" in 3D.
Bernardo Bertolucci (photo by Fabrizio Maltese)

Earlier this month, I met, in the lobby of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, with one of the most revered filmmakers of all time, Bernardo Bertolucci. The 73-year-old Italian master, who is now wheelchair-bound as a result of several botched back surgeries, was in town to attend the AFI Fest for the second year in a row; in 2012 he was a guest artistic director at the fest and in 2013 he was a special guest of it, proudly attending the fest's screening of his 1987 Oscar-winning classic The Last Emperor in 3D -- at the TCL Chinese Theatre, appropriately enough -- the night before our conversation. A few days later, on Nov. 14, he would also collect the Cinema Italian Style Award at the Cinema Italia Style film festival at the Egyptian Theatre. During our time together, I, too, asked him to look back at his remarkable life and career.

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Growing up, Bertolucci was enamored with French and American cinema -- "I started to feel more French than Italian because I loved French cinema," he says with a laugh. But filmmaking was not on his radar as he enrolled at the University of Rome, hoping to become a poet like his father. Throughout his studies he still lived at home, and one day Pier Paolo Pasolini, a writer whom Bertolucci's father had helped with the publication of poems and novels, made young Bertolucci an offer he couldn't refuse: "I met him at the gate of the house and he said, 'You know, I'm going to direct a movie. You'll be my assistant [director].'" Bertolucci dropped out of school to work on Pasolini's Accattone (1961), which kicked off two of the greatest careers in the history of Italian -- and international -- cinema.

Less than a year later, at the age of just 21, Bertolucci began work on his own first feature, The Grim Reaper (1962). He says today, "I was lucky. I was arrogant. I was naive. And I wanted to have an identity as a film director different from Pasolini." Pasolini, however, was nothing but helpful, providing Bertolucci with 20 pages of notes about his script. As production got underway, Bertolucci enjoyed a strange existence: "I was still like a student, living with my family, sleeping with my brother in the room. In the morning, we were all having breakfast at 10 o'clock. And then it was off to the set, where I was a film director with 50 people taking directions from me. It was a kind of class for what I wanted to do."

He followed that film with Before the Revolution (1964), which won acclaim at Cannes, helping to put the director on the international map. And, with the world's attention, he began to make political films, most notably his big screen adaptations of the books The Spider's Stratagem and The Conformist (both 1970), the latter of which is about a man who becomes a conformist -- or, in Bertolucci's view, "a hyper-fascist," just about the worst thing one can be -- because he fears he is different. "Politics was part of our life," he recalls. "It's extraordinary how today politics is distant from the people. People don't seem involved or passionate anymore; politics is something distant."

Those films also marked his first collaborations with the great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, whose moving camera shots would become synonymous with Bertolucci's films. The director, who calls the lenser "enormously talented" and their relationship "a great collaboration," says, "I remember Francis Ford Coppola telling me, 'I've seen The Conformist. I show it to my cinematographer. And I even bought a print!' And I told him, 'Instead of imitating The Conformist, why don't you take Vittorio?' That was how Storaro came to be "loaned out" to Coppola for Apocalypse Now (1979).

Bertolucci's next film, Last Tango in Paris (1972), would be his most controversial and, up to that point, widely seen. An unvarnished look at a strange relationship between a middle-aged man (Marlon Brando) and a young woman (Maria Schneider), the film marked Bertolucci's first time working outside of Italy and with an American movie star. Bertolucci reached out to Brando, who was in his late forties and had not yet experienced a career revival from The Godfather (1972), after two French actors turned down the film's leading part; the actor only agreed to take it on after seeing The Conformist and convincing Bertolucci to come to California for a month to discuss the script with him. As the director recalls, "We never talked about the script. We talked about life."

But after the X-rated film, which was shot in France, came out, Brando refused to speak with Bertolucci for a decade -- because, the director thinks, Brando felt that he was seduced into "exposing himself so much." Also furious was Schneider, more justifiably, because of her experience during the film's most infamous scene. "We had to film a kind of rape scene," Bertolucci recalls, "and we" -- meaning he and Brando -- "decided to go with sodomy and butter -- but I decided not to tell Maria." Why? "Because I was interested in her reaction." As it turned out, "She was very humiliated. And she was right -- but not because of using the most common thing in the kitchen, but because I didn't tell her." He adds, "She never forgave me for that." (Schneider died of cancer in 2011 at the age of 58.)

Regardless of the acrimonious relationship between its makers, audiences around the world flocked to Last Tango because, Bertolucci says, "It was like being part of a major transgression." Although censors hounded him and he faced threats of criminal prosecution because of the film, the reality was that he was now the most famous director in the world. As he puts it, "After that film, really, I could do what I wanted."

Interestingly enough, what he most wanted was to make a 1900 (1976), an epic portrait of two Italian families in the first half of the 20th century. The film was supposed to be dream project, but it became a nightmare when its distributor forced him to cut down its runtime from five-and-a-half hours to four hours and then gave it only a very limited release. It took him years to recover from the pain of that experience.

By the time of the late eighties and early nineties, Bertolucci had grown disillusioned with his homeland. "It was a moment when I felt very uncomfortable in Italy, he says. "I didn't like the country." Consequently, with the support of his new producer Jeremy Thomas -- with whom he has worked closely ever since -- he made a series of films abroad that have come to be described by some as his "far away films": The Last Emperor (1987), The Sheltering Sky (1990) and Little Buddha (1993).

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While all three films are worthwhile, the first proved to be the most ambitious and successful undertaking of his career. The Last Emperor, a lush $25 million look at the rollercoaster life of China's last emperor, was the first Western film that the Chinese authorities ever allowed to be shot in The Forbidden City. It received rave reviews, grossed a then-impressive $44 million and wound up going nine-for-nine at the Academy Awards, with Oscars for Thomas, Storaro and Bertolucci among them. It came towards the tale end of an era in which a production had to be truly epic for a film to look truly epic. "When I went [to work] the morning of the coronation of the baby emperor, there were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of extras and costumes. I was scared. I almost run away," Bertolucci recalls. He adds with a laugh, "There was no CGI, no cell phones and no emails."

In recent years, particularly after his back troubles began about a decade ago, Bertolucci has focused on smaller-scale projects. Additionally, as he has gotten older, he has frequently made films about young people, such as Stealing Beauty (1996), with a young Liv Tyler; The Dreamers (2003), which introduced the world to Michael Pitt and Eva Green, largely in the nude; and Me and You (2012), which some have called his most sensitive and touching work. "I love the energy in young people," he says. "I love to see young people grow up in front of the camera." All of which leads to the reason he continues to make movies: "The camera, it films life... cinema, it is life."

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg