Federico Fellini’s Fare un film (1980) is the most comprehensive collection of the idiosyncratic Italian director’s writings available in any language. The contents were culled from a variety of sources long out of print, including interviews, autobiographical pieces, and materials that initially appeared as supplements to published screenplays. The German publisher Diogenes Verlag AG released the first version of the text as Aufsätze und Notizen in 1974, and an English translation with the title of Fellini on Fellini followed in 1976. While Fellini was not directly involved with the German or English publications, friends and colleagues convinced the director to edit the contents of the compilation considerably before it was published in Italian by the Einaudi press as Fare un film (Making a Film) in 1980. The new translation from Contra Mundum Press will make this authoritative collection, expanded, reworked and approved by Federico Fellini, available to readers of English for the first time.
What follows is an excerpt from the book in advance of its forthcoming publication in late 2014 in which Fellini discusses his fondness for art as a child, his first memories of cinema, and Roberto Rossellini’s influence on his decision to become a film director.
–Christopher B. White
Before high school I’d never asked myself what I’d do with my life; I couldn’t envision my future. I used to think of a profession as something unavoidable, like Sunday mass. I never said, “When I grow up I’ll…!” It didn’t seem like I’d ever grow up, and deep down I was right.
From the day I was born to the first time I set foot in Cinecittà, it seems as if my life was lived by somebody else; by someone who, only in brief moments and when I least expected it, suddenly decided to allow me to participate in a few fragments of his memory. Therefore I must admit that my films composed of memories tell completely invented tales. In the end, what difference does it make?
You see, as a child I made puppets all by myself. First I drew them on cardboard, then I cut them out, and last I put the heads together with clay or cotton balls soaked in glue. A big young man with a red beard used to live across the street from our house. He was a sculptor and he often poked around my father’s food warehouse and raved about the big, black, bulging wheels of Parmesan cheese. He considered them “pieces of pure art,” and he tried to convince my father to lend him a few of them, for inspiration, but my dad always changed the subject. One day he saw me seated in a secluded spot somewhere making a mess and he taught me how to use liquid plaster and plasticine. I also made pigments by crushing bricks and reducing them to powder. I used to pass by Amedeo, a toothless little man who hummed to himself and made exquisite leatherworks, in an alleyway while on my way to private tutoring (I had to go to tutoring sessions all year because I never learned anything in school). Amedeo took a liking to me and would give me the scraps of leather that accumulated under his workbench. Further along, there were two twin brothers, carpenters (you could tell them apart because one was deaf and the other whistled); I also enjoyed spending time in their shop and from there I would take home panels of soft wood. Looking back on it now, it seems I always associated artisanal work with creativity.
I was never interested in any games other than making puppets, colours, and cardboard objects, the sort of drawings and plans I cut out and pasted together. I didn’t care about anything else: I never kicked a ball, not even once. I also used to enjoy locking myself in the bathroom for hours on end, putting powdered makeup on my face and creating disguises with mustaches made out of yarn, beards, Mephistophelian eyebrows, and long sideburns drawn with burned cork.
I didn’t go to the movies very often as a child. Most of the time I didn’t have the money since my parents didn’t give me any. Plus, you took a beating at the local cinema, the Fulgor in Rimini. In the “working-class” seats, the ones right in front of the screen made up of loose benches, the war and adventure scenes gave rise to imitations that were even wilder, with yelling, thrown shoes, people rolling around under the seats, and finally the “Mad Usher’s” intervention. He was a violent beast of a man: ex-boxer, ex-lifeguard, ex-market worker, and now with a red fez on his head and a celluloid visor, he was the theater’s usher, and he dealt savage blows.
I think the first film I remember was Maciste all’inferno (Maciste in Hell, 1925). I was in my father’s arms, the theatre was hot and crowded, and they were spraying an antiseptic that irritated my throat and made me lightheaded. In that mildly drugged atmosphere I recall yellowish images with lots of big, pretty women. I also remember seeing the priest’s transparencies, black and white images of churches in Assisi and Orvieto, in a room with wooden benches. But most of all, I remember the movie posters. They fascinated me. One evening, with a friend, I used a Gillette razor to cut out pictures of an actress I thought was beautiful, Ellen Meis. She was in a film with Maurizio d’Ancora, Venere I think it was called. He was lying on the train tracks, looking at Emma Grammatica’s big noggin telling him no while he shook his head. They communicated just like that, telepathically.
I’m not familiar with the film classics: Murnau, Dreyer, Eisenstein. Shamefully I’ve never seen them.
When I got to Rome I started going to the movies more often, once every week or two. I went when I didn’t have anything better to do or when the films were paired with variety theatre. The Volturno, Fenice, Alcione, and Brancaccio were my local venues. The avanspettacolo (1) has always enthralled me, just like the circus. For me, cinema is a big room teeming with voices, sweat, ushers, roasted chestnuts, and children’s urine: the air of the end of the world, disaster, a raid. The bustle before the variety show, the musicians getting the orchestra in order, the agreements, the voice of the lead comic, and the girls walking behind the curtain. Or the people leaving through the emergency exits in the winter, in an alley, a bit dazed by the cold, someone humming the film’s theme song, another pissing.
The cinema therefore had something to do with my decision to go to Rome: I’d seen lots of films in which journalists were fascinating characters. I don’t remember the titles, so many years have passed, but it’s true that I was so struck by how those journalists lived I decided to become one too. I liked their coats, the way they wore their hats tipped backwards.
What year was it? ’38? ’39? I was a journalist and the editor of the publication, who was also a tailor, always kept a needle between his teeth when he talked. Among a tangled mess of thread, ribbons and pins, he said he wanted an interview with Osvaldo Valenti. And so that morning was the first time I set foot in Cinecittà. I feigned self-confidence, like Fred MacMurray in the film where he played a journalist, but really I was quite intimidated, and I stayed out in the sun, drop-jawed, to watch the towers, bleachers, horses, surly men in robes, iron clad horsemen and airplane propellers kicking up clouds of dust everywhere; calling, yelling, whistle blows, the deafening sound of enormous wheels turning, clanging swords and lances, Osvaldo Valenti standing on a sort of chariot with blades sticking out of the wheels, and the terrified screams of a great mass of extras, a gloomy, suffocating chaos… but, above all that confusion, there was a powerful, metallic voice, thundering orders that seemed like verdicts: “Red light group A attack on the left! White light barbarian group move back and retreat! Green light horseman and elephants rear up and charge! Group E and group F fall to the ground! IM-ME-DI-ATE-LY!”
The tone of the voice from the megaphone and the sort of announcements it delivered could also suggest the idea of being at the train station or the airport in the middle of a great catastrophe. But I couldn’t understand where the voice was coming from. I was a little alarmed and my heart was racing. Then all of a sudden, in unexpected silence, the very long arm of a crane began to rise into the air and move upward, higher and higher, past all the sets, beyond the studios, above the treetops, beyond the towers, towards the clouds, up, always further upward, until it stopped, suspended in the incandescent reverberation of the sunset with millions of rays of light. Someone loaned me a telescope and up there, more than a thousand meters away, a man was seated on a Frau armchair tightly screwed to the platform of the crane, with shiny leather boots, an Indian silk scarf around his neck, a helmet on his head, and three or four megaphones with twenty or so whistles around his neck: it was him, it was the director, it was [Alessandro] Blasetti.
Then I thought I wasn’t cut out for directing. I didn’t have a taste for tyrannical oppression, consistency, fastidiousness, capacity for hard work, and so many other things, but above all the authority. They’re all missing aspects of my temperament. As a child I was introverted, solitary, an easy target, extremely vulnerable to the point of fainting. And I’m still timid, despite what people think. How could you combine all of that with the boots, the megaphone, the yelling: traditional cinematographic weapons? Directing a film is always like taking charge of Christopher Columbus’ crew wanting to turn back. You have the technician’s faces all around you, with their silent questioning: “Boss, so we’re gonna have to stay late tonight too?” Without a bit of authority they’d politely push you out of the studio.
I was already a screenwriter, and I used to go on set to modify lines and scenarios. I was amazed that a director could maintain professional relationships with the actresses. It was difficult for me to write dialogue with all that confusion; I suffered terribly from the discomfort of collaborative work, everybody together to do one thing, talking loudly. And yet I discovered that I only work well in the midst of the confusion, like when I was a journalist and I wrote articles at the last minute in the chaos of the editorial office.
I found myself more at ease with films shot outdoors, in the open air. Rossellini was really the reason for this. My experience with Rossellini, the voyage during the filming of Paisà (Paisan, 1946), was the discovery of Italy. Before then I hadn’t seen much at all: Rimini, Florence, Rome, and a few little cities in the South I caught a glimpse of while I was travelling with a variety theatre troupe, villages and hamlets enveloped in medieval darkness like those I learned about as a child, only with different dialects. I liked Rossellini’s way of filmmaking, like a pleasant journey, an outing among friends. It seems to me that was how it all started.
Following Rossellini while he was shooting Paisan, I had a joyous revelation. I came to realize that you could make films with the same freedom, the same ease with which you draw or write, making a film while enjoying it and enduring it day by day, hour by hour, without worrying too much about the final result; the same secret, anxious, ennobling, exciting relationship one has with his own neuroses; and that the impediments, doubts, reconsiderations, crises, efforts, are not so different from those a painter experiences while looking for a shade on canvas and the writer who deletes and rewrites, edits and begins again, searching for an expressive mode that, impalpable and elusive, lives hidden among thousands of possibilities. Rossellini sought and followed his film in the middle of the street, with the allied tanks passing by a metre from our backs, people yelling and singing from the windows, hundreds of people around trying to sell or steal something from us, in that incandescent circle of hell, that swarming lazaretto of Naples, and then in Florence and Rome and the boundless marshes of the Po, with all kinds of problems, permits revoked at the last minute, plans skipped over, mysterious disappearance of funds, in the bewildering merry-go-round of makeshift producers becoming more and more greedy, infantile, dishonest, reckless.
…And so, I believe I learned from Rossellini — a lesson never conveyed in words, never expressed, never transformed into an agenda — the possibility of calmly confronting the most adverse, conflicting conditions, and at the same time the natural capacity to turn to my advantage these adversities and contrasts, transform them into a sentiment, into emotional values, into a point of view. Rossellini did this: he lived the life of a film like a marvelous adventure to live and tell simultaneously. He withdrew when confronted with reality, always attentive, limpid, fervid, situating himself naturally in an impalpable, unmistakable point between the indifference of detachment and the awkwardness of adhesion, which allowed him to capture, to observe every part of reality, to look at things inside and outside at the same time, to film the aura around things, to reveal that which is elusive, arcane, magical, and possesses life. Isn’t neorealism all of these things? For this reason, when you talk about neorealism you can only be referring to Rossellini. The others made realist films, verismo (2), and they attempted to convert a skill, a vocation into a formula, a recipe.
Even in his later films, the films made because he was paid in advance or because he liked an idea he later forgot about, awkward at times, made unenthusiastically, even in these there’s always a moment in which you find his point of view, his take on reality, always held by a fixed inevitability, in an all-encompassing tragic nature, almost sacred, precisely because it’s concealed by the agonizing familiarity of the most banal gestures, the most mundane habits, the most widely known things. It was as if Rossellini’s light, almost casual gaze on the most tremendous of situations allowed him to preserve their dreadful force uncontaminated, and the dismay seemed to feed on that same transparent unawareness of the eye that was watching it. This gaze, this way of looking at things then coincided with a period in which what was taking place was already becoming history on its own. It was already narration, character, and dialectics. As long as it was that painful, disconnected, tragic, elusive postwar reality, there was a miraculous overlap between this reality and the dry point of view of Rossellini observing it.
Afterwards, when things changed and this style, this way of looking at things should have required further investigation because reality was becoming more complex, more hidden, less exterior and less dramatized externally, Rossellini, who loved life deeply and enjoyed living it adventurously, totally, without renouncing anything and without restraint, probably thought it cost too much to remain outside of life to observe it, meditate on it and think about it, then reintroduce it with a way of looking that always had that purity and intensity. Perhaps he thought life was worth the pain of living rather than remaining detached to perfect or keep whole and intact this instrument of perception, to save it from tarnishing, shortsightedness of passions, desires, and greed. Not having done that, he began to argue with this part of himself, distancing it, denying it, maintaining that it’s an immature, infantile, aristocratic aspect there’s no need for.
But in this eagerness to affirm his disdain for everything that’s not plainly pedagogical, since he’d expressed his disapproval for a number of years, I seem to discern the nostalgia, resentment, and embarrassment of somebody who knows he disowned and betrayed something. This may just be my personal interpretation, a faulty projection of the embarrassment and nostalgia of someone who didn’t know how or couldn’t be different.
Rossellini was like a traffic cop who helped me cross the street. I don’t think he profoundly influenced me in the sense that’s usually attributed to that word. I recognize in him, as far as I’m concerned, a paternity like that of Adam: a sort of progenitor from whom we’re all descended. Determining what exactly I inherited from him isn’t easy. Rossellini assisted my passage from a nebulous, irresolute, circular period to the cinematographic phase. It was an important encounter and the films I made with him were important, but in the manner of destiny, without any will or clearness of purpose on my part. I was ready for some sort of undertaking and he was there.
If after that I had any doubts, any qualms about agreeing to direct my first film, I looked back on those fond memories for strength.
- Avanspettacolo was a form of variety theatre. Short musical numbers, comic acts, and carnivalesque feats were performed live on stage between film screenings.
- Verismo, literally meaning “truthism” or “realism,” was an Italian literary movement (associated with Giovanni Verga, among others) from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A number of neorealist directors, such as Luchino Visconti and Giuseppe De Santis, looked to these novels for inspiration, and Visconti’s La terra trema (The Earth Trembles, 1948) is based on Verga’s I malavoglia (The House by the Medlar Tree).