Originally published in Japanese in A Picture Book of The Last Emperor
On October 27, 1987, at Bertolucci’s home
Interviewer: Ryuichi Sakamoto
English Translation by Stella Hsieh
An Epic Film?
Ryuichi Sakamoto: There must be some people who come to see The Last Emperor expecting it to be a great epic film shot on location in China. On the contrary, I think it’s an extremely refined and delicate piece. Can you tell me your opinion of that?
Bernardo Bertolucci: Sure. Maybe some of the audiences are expecting something huge, a blockbuster. But they might be surprised to find out that this film is about metamorphosis, about a dragon becoming a human, like a larva transforming into a butterfly. Yes, the film has aspects more akin to the Chinese painting rather than an American blockbuster. But I love cinema as well as the epic films being its origin, which also existed in Italy, such as the grand spectacle of D.W. Griffith’s films. In short, this film has two sides. On the one hand, it’s a very delicate, pessimistic story; and on the other hand, it’s a great epic with 9500 costumes.
RS: I see. That’s exactly how I feel.
BB: It might stray a little from what we’re talking about now, but I once heard [Jean-Luc] Godard saying that, “The screen is an encounter between the filmmakers, the creators behind the screen; and the audience, the people on the other side of the screen.” Screen is the meeting point.
RS: So, screen is the media?
RS: Are those Godard’s own words?
BB: Yes. But he may have said that more precisely, “Screen is propaganda.”
The Evolution of Music
RS: I’d like to ask you about music, like how music has changed since your childhood…
BB: I started directing when I was still very young, but I was a poet even before that. It was simply because my father was a poet. Children like to imitate their fathers, you know. Then, I published a collection of my poems at 20. Looking at these poems that had taken their shapes, I felt like I was stealing something from my father, and I thought that poetry was not my realm. To tell the truth, I had always loved cinema so deeply that you could even call me a cinema fanatic. I made my first film The Grim Reaper at 21 in 1962, whence I realized that I wanted to use the camera in the same way as I used the pen. I believe that, compared to theatre, cinema is more like poetry or music. Theatre is simply made up of words.
Back to your question, now let’s talk about the evolution of music in my films first. Music has always been very vital to me. To an extent, it is musical films that I always wanted to make. In other words, my dream was to direct a musical without actual music, a musical where the image itself is the music. Maybe that’s why my camera moves so much- there is a musical approach in it. All the movements I love are organized and calculated like a rhythm- scherzo, adagio, andante, presto…
My second film [Before the Revolution] features Gino Paoli, an Italian cantautore from the 60s. He was writing really good songs at that time. He asked someone to do the arrangements, a young man I didn’t know then, a novice film composer whose name was Ennio Morricone. So the ’64 film was scored by these two, and Morricone by then was already the Morricone we know today. Yes, that was my first collaboration with Morricone. I worked with him before anyone else, even earlier than Sergio Leone.
Morricone and I continued to work together on the following films [Partner and Once Upon a Time in the West] I made in 1968. Then I made The Conformist and The Spider’s Stratagem, in which I used real film scores as well as Schönberg’s music, which I felt was very cinematic. I think that Hollywood film composers in the 30s and 40s listened to Schönberg a lot. We couldn’t commission a Hollywood composer, so we used the original, which was more interesting.
The Conformist is about the 1930s, so I appointed the French composer Georges Delerue, who is slightly elder than Morricone. The next film was Last Tango in Paris. The music was composed by Gato Barbieri, an Argentinean avant-garde tango composer. His music was, in fact, the only real tango element in that film. Because “Tango” was a kind of metaphorical title – the title came to me before the film. I wanted something that was connected to the real thing. So I asked Gato to do it.
Next is 1900. This is an Italian saga, an epic. At that time I really wanted a composer with an Italian touch. I wanted someone who could take the Italian musical tradition – folk songs, military songs, Verdi – and rework it into something new. Speaking of that, some of your songs remind me of the scores of 1900.
RS: Yes, I love the music of 1900, too. It could be similar.
BB: Do you remember the music accompanying the scene where the soldiers are marching through the streets? Ta, tan, ta, tan… That sounds very much like your music.
The next one was La Luna featuring the music of Verdi. It’s a story about a singer, so naturally there’s a lot of opera in it. I once asked Morricone to do a different score to Verdi’s, which was a very interesting idea. He prepared a lot of sounds and tried to mix them while watching the screen. In the end he decided that it would be better if Verdi was the only musician in the film, however, so he stopped. The music was too much…
RS: What’s that piano piece at the beginning of La Luna?
BB: I can’t quite remember that one… Maybe it was Morricone. There was also a 60s Italian twist in that film, I suppose. [The soundtrack of] Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man was all composed by Morricone.
For this film on China, the first idea came to my mind was to use someone who has nothing to do with cinema. Then, after a while, I started to think the other way round. I just wanted to have an Eastern sound anyway and went through various stages. And finally I came up with the idea of a dialogue between Eastern and Western composers through a computer.
Actually, I don’t think the audience of this film will be able to tell which song is by whom. In other words, there is an ideal joint force of the musicians. I think it’s really fascinating.
RS: If you could tell me a bit more about your personal taste in music…
BB: Yes. Music is with me all the time and sometimes it’s a great inspiration. Of course everyone does, but I just love it- music makes me dream and gives me ideas. I would say it’s one of the sources that give me the best ideas.
RS: What about poetry?
BB: After I published my first and last poetry collection at 20 years old, I no longer wrote poems.
RS: Do you ever read other people’s work?
BB: I do read them. Poetry is also an inspiration. But my choice of “drug” is nevertheless music. Music is the kind of drug that stimulates the unconscious, like Verdi and jazz…
RS: What about John Lennon?
BB: I’m not sure. I don’t have much interest in contemporary music. I still listened to jazz in the era of rock ’n’ roll. I was too old to enjoy it like teenagers do.
RS: My generation was very much influenced by Woodstock and rock in our teens, but in your case it was jazz, wasn’t it?
BB: I think it’s because jazz was much more thorough than rock. Or maybe jazz was a safer bet for me. If I had listened to rock when I was 18 or 19, I think I’d have been confronted with my real identity. In that sense, jazz was safer. I remember going to a friend’s party and everyone was dancing to rock music, but I didn’t know how to dance. I thought if I danced I would stand out, but I was the only one there not dancing, standing leaning against the wall with a glass of scotch in my hand. So I had to leave and stand “out.” I was the most self assertive person there, but self-assertion can sometimes be seen as shyness.
RS: What year were you born in 1940?
BB: I was born in 1941. And you?
RS: I was born in ’52. You didn’t see fascism with your own eyes, but you seem to be very obsessed with it. Why?
BB: Because during my self-formation period, that is to say, in the late 40s and 50s, Italy was just getting out of fascism, which was still very influential then. Fascism is something that always has a presence in our lives, even if it’s not called by the name. That’s why we sometimes apply the term fascism to completely wrong situations. I was particularly fascinated by the world of my parents, who were young, radical fascists. You could say it was an Oedipal ploy- I always wanted to see the love scene of my mother and father, so I had the feeling that they were surrounded by a barricade of fascism. I think there’re oftentimes fascist moments in a couple’s relationship.
The other thing about fascism is, for example, fascist buildings, which in the 50s I thought were ugly and nauseating. But now I have a house in the village of Savazia, in the suburb of Rome, which was built in 1934 by a fascist architect. I think it’s really lovely. This is one of the most interesting changes, because when [Alberto] Moravia, my father and I went to Savazia in 1958- Moravia was looking for a house- the building there seemed ugly, disgusting and unacceptable, but now it looks beautiful. My tastes have changed. I’m sure someone out there can explain this change.
RS: The postwar era in Japan began with the complete annihilation of pre-war fascism. What happened in Italy?
BB: Briefly speaking, it was a constant battle, a dialectic between those who really wanted to change the world and those who wanted to bring the old one back. It’s interesting that cinema under the fascist Italy was generally not very good, though there were a few exceptions. So when neorealism emerged around ’44 or ’45, with [Roberto] Rossellini, [Luchino] Visconti, and [Vittorio] De Sica starting to move, it was an eye-opener. To see the world and reality, they took the camera out of the studio and onto the streets, whereas during the fascist era a lot of filming was done in the studio. They also began to talk about the modest and unassuming things that were part of the daily life. I think this is a good example to answer your question of post-war Italy, with neorealism as the case of how cinema reacted to it.
On New Wave
RS: Please tell me about your relationship with the New Wave.
BB: When I was started making films in 1962, it was just the golden times of the New Wave. Godard had started it… I felt like I was the spouse of the New Wave. It was amazing to know that somewhere in the world, there were people who were asking themselves about cinema, at that time France in particular, and also in Canada, Brazil and Japan. Because in my films, too, apart from the story and the psychology of the characters, there has always been the question: “What is cinema?” This question maintains a presence in the films I liked. It was from film that I began to examine myself, and also for the filmmakers, start to introspect. That’s why the early New Wave was so close to me. I even did all the interviews in French for my first film, although I’m Italian, because French is the language of cinema. The Italian journalists were angry, of course. I’m a bit of an extremist myself… (laughs)
But I think it’s important. Cinema is a kind of cosmic interrelationship, and cinema is a kind of language of inter-classics and international interactions. The French director Godard’s innovation has changed the old Hollywood fogeys, who were influenced down to the last word. It’s amazing how one film can influence the films that follow it. It’s as if the whole history of cinema is one film, and each film is an individual scene in it.
RS: I think Godard and his comrades made very political films. Can you tell me about the differences between your own films and theirs in this respect?
BB: There was a kind of political fever all over the world in 1968. I was just starting to sense the dissonance between myself and Godard and the other New Wave artists. I felt that it was a huge illusion, a lie painted in bright red, to project cinema as a machine gun for revolution. It was a small force in the large-scale class struggle. And I began to think, how can a film be political if no one wants to see it? It’s a very aristocratic way of looking at things. At that time, I looked back at my films and thought that all the films of my generation, not just my films, tended to be beautiful yet very personal monologues. I had a lot of trouble getting myself to the pursuit of having a dialogue. All my films had been monologues up to that point. What I discovered was that this ideology of making films that dared to play to the audience’s tastes was born out of a fear of speaking to an audience that couldn’t be spoken to. So I wanted to make a kind of challenge. I wanted to talk to someone face to face, and that’s how I’ve been doing it ever since.
I think the same things can be said about Godard. He was a genius who invented so many things that even created the notion of “pre-Godard” and “post-Godard.” He’s a kind of sadomasochist-sadistic because no one in the audience can really understand his films, and masochist because… Well, that’s a different story. (laughs)
What is important is the concept of pleasure, the “pleasure of the text”. In the 60s when we were still political, pleasure was regarded negatively by the left as a right-wing thing. So I said, “I want pleasure in my films. I want my films to be pleasurable, and I want to be pleasant, too.” I want my films to speak to the audience in this way, “I want you; I’m right here; I want you to accept me; I want you to want me, because I want you, too.”
RS: Finally, please tell me about casting. Do you have a unique way of doing it?
BB: Casting is, in a way, same as falling in love. The performers I use, especially the leading ones, have to be attractive to me. My camera will be cold if they don’t captivate me. It’s a strategy of pleasure and sensuality.
Most of the time, within a minute after meeting a person, I will know if I want him or her in my film. I seldom do the audition except when I’m very confused. I know well by just talking to them. Sometimes I also notice a performer I’ve seen in a film by other directors. Just the fact that you’ve seen them is enough to make you want them. The same goes for you, Mr. Sakamoto.
RS: It’s wonderful to see so many lively child actors in The Last Emperor. You don’t have any children, so how do you feel about directing them?
BB: I think it’s because I don’t have children that I get to be interested in them. There’s the fact that I’m still a child myself. (laughs) Everything they do surprises me.
RS: Do you feel like a father when you’re directing?
BB: No, I feel more like I’m one of the children. I’ve never lived with a camel, but the camels in my film have given a great performance. (laughs)
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