In a somber conversation with Anna Muzzarelli, Federico Fellini spoke about his love for caricature, popular film art and his perceptions about film making, neorealist cinema and more. The interview was taken few months before the demise of the great film maker and this excerpt is a part of the original interview published in the “Sight and Sound” magazine (4/93).
Anna Muzzarelli: In your list of films for the “Sight and Sound” top ten, you commented that you had selected ‘popular’ films; because that is the culture you belong to.
Federico Fellini: Cinema doesn’t belong only to the great directors; it has other participants who are equally emblematic. I can’t help but think of those films from the 20’s onwards that had as their primary symbol an actress or actor – in those days, cinema for me was the faces of actors. This company of faces that represented the cinema included Garbo, then Chaplin, or the two together – Garbo the sorceress, the Pythia, and Charlie the tramp, the young rebel, the two of them representing the most contrasting psychologies and desires. Then there was Stan and Ollie – how grateful we were for the carefree laughter with no purpose behind it, none of the emotional or ideological blackmail f Chaplin. And to conclude, there were Marx Brothers.
Anna Muzzarelli: Tell us about your taste for caricature, the cartoon-like character that is so present in your work.
Federico Fellini: If Italy survived the gloom of bourgeois education under the twin castrating authorities – fascism and the Catholic Church – it was thanks to American Cinema. The later was great nourishment, it was another life. But even before their cinema, Americans had gained great popularity through their comic strips. An Italian magazine, the ‘Corriere dei Piccoli’, carried the work of these cartoonists – great artists not only in a graphic sense, but in a literary one as well, because American literature is represented not only by the works of Steinbeck or Faulkner, but by Jiggs and Maggie, Hans and Fritz Katzenjammer, characters who became very popular in Italy. They give us a feeling of gratitude towards America that helped us to bear the cultural blackmail of the times.
Anna Muzzarelli: Was this what led you to become a cartoonist?
Federico Fellini: As a boy I used to spend hours trying to copy those drawings. I always had a tendency to scribble on any white surface – it’s a habit I maintained when I prepare a film, and since I don’t have cinema-technique memories of the great classics, a film that first appears to me through the sketches I make. These enable me to grasp a perspective, the spaces of a setting or the costumes, what face a character should have – indeed when I start to prepare a new film the first approach is graphic. It’s also a way of telling me that I’m working, that the whole shebang is on the rails. During my first years in Rome I also worked as a caricaturist to make ends meet; I would go into restaurants and cheekily ask if anyone wanted a caricature.
Anna Muzzarelli: ‘8 ½’ – (Otto e Mezzo), is a product of expressive crisis; almost as if it was the only film you could make. What gave you the idea of making a film about making films?
Federico Fellini: For some time, I had in mind of making a portrait of a man in its many layers: his memories, fantasies, dreams, his everyday life, a character who as yet had no professional or personal identity (at the beginning it was not a film director). I wanted to recount the multi-dimensionality of a day, a conscious life unfolding like a spiral, without defining boundaries, abandoning any idea of plot in favour of a free narration, a chat. The idea was to restore the sense of a time where past, present and future, dreams, memories and desires were blended together.
But I didn’t know my character. I had thought of a writer, a lawyer, a journalist: I couldn’t make up my mind, everything was fading into nothing. Perhaps this was the great lesson on 8½: at some point I told myself, “get the engine started, get everybody onboard, somebody will provide, force other people to make you do something.” So I did. I started the construction of the set, put the actors under contract, and the film took off. In the beginning I didn’t have a script, only some notes, a scene or two written with Tullio Pinellii and Ennio Flaniano, and my inexhaustible, endless chattering about what I wanted to do. We started to build the scenery of the farmhouse, and after two months of intense work I realized that I didn’t know what I wanted. I would go everyday to the studios and spend all day in my office drawing, making calls, but the film was no longer there. I thought, “I’m a director who doesn’t remember what he wanted to do” and in that moment the film was made: “That’s what I do, the story of a director who doesn’t remember his own film.”
A few days later the film laboratories went on strike. I shot for four months without ever seeing what I’ve done. When shooting was over, I spent three days in the projection room to see the work of four months; it was a historical undertaking, that of someone who shoots a film without knowing what he’s doing.
The film was born in a spirit of abandonment, of spontaneity, of trust and defiance, a fortunate film that was later so successful as to become a genre – alongside the Western and the detective film, there is the 8½ genre. If there’s a lesson I learnt from this experience it’s that everything that happens during the production of a film, be it contradictory, adverse, interruptions, strikes, can all become nourishment for the film.
Anna Muzzarelli: Would you say you have roots in neo-realism – and I’m thinking of your collaboration with Rossellini as a screenwriter for “Paisa” and “Roma citta apera”?
Federico Fellini: Rossellini stands out from the rest of the so-called neo-realists for his eye, his intervention as a strong and compassionate witness who knew how to photograph the air around things and for his disregard of cinema a spectacle. I took part as a spectator in ‘Paisa’ and ‘Roma citta aperta’ and I may have learnt my way of approaching cinema from Rossellini, who worked in the most incredible confusion: expiring bills, romantic complications, conflicts and the war. I remember in Naples, during the shooting of ‘Paisa’, in the middle of the street with the allies’ tanks parading behind our backs, and there he was, with his beret and the megaphone: the casualness of a God who’s creating an earthquake only to be able to photograph it. This is the true lesson that neo-realism taught me.
Anna Muzzarelli: ‘La dolce vita’ was an enormous success not just in Italy, but in Europe and the US. Did you think at the time that you were making films for an international audience?
Federico Fellini: No. I don’t think so – if I had planned my films in those terms how could I have made ‘Amarcord’? I believe that if one has a sincere, authentic and non speculative vocation to express oneself through painting, literature, music or cinema, one cannot have other concerns than those sincerity and expressiveness. I always made the films I wanted to make.