Don’t try to understand it – just feel it: Matteo Garrone on 'Tale of Tales'
Italian director Matteo Garrone made his name with realist mob movie Gomorrah, but for his new film he turned to 17th century fairytales.
RYAN GILBEY – THE GUARDIAN – 11th June 2016
An ogre snaps the necks of his victims and casts them aside like empty clam shells. A queen chomps messily on the scarlet heart of a sea monster. A sexually insatiable king finds an elderly woman in his bed and has her thrown out of the window and into the treetops without a second thought. As these vignettes suggest, the Italian phantasmagoria Tale of Tales is as different from a Hollywood fairy story like Snow White and the Huntsman as a snuff movie is from a perfume commercial. Fairytales in cinema have been earthy and sexual before, but they have never been rendered with quite the level of realism found in this sumptuous, grotesque adaptation of the 17th-century yarns of Neapolitan poet Giambattista Basile.
Admired by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, but nastier than they ever dared to be, Basile is the godfather of the modern fairytale. Talking of godfathers, it is Matteo Garrone, director of the mould-breaking 2008 mafia thriller Gomorrah, who is responsible for bringing Basile’s world to the screen. It seems unlikely that the maker of a mob movie, which made audiences look at a familiar topic with fresh eyes thanks to its unflinching grittiness, should end up in this land of monsters, giants and enchanted forests.
But then Garrone’s films (which also include The Embalmer, a love story set in the world of taxidermy; and Reality, about a family man who becomes obsessed with appearing on Big Brother) tend to be unrecognisable initially as the work of the same man. Look beneath the surface, though, and there are recurring themes, not least the price we pay for being ruled by our passions. For instance, a mysterious cloaked figure in Tale of Tales observes that “violent desires can only be satisfied by violence”, but the line could have come from any of Garrone’s previous films.
There is a particular overlap between the new movie and Gomorrah. Both draw their interlinked stories about vanity, desire and greed from blood-spattered Neapolitan source material while offering a commentary on human nature that extends far beyond their immediate settings.
“Tale of Tales is not about the 17th century,” Garrone says knowingly when we meet in the dimly lit library of a London hotel. “It’s about today.”
Working for the first time in English, as well as with special effects, green-screen and international stars (Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel, John C Reilly, Shirley Henderson, Toby Jones), Garrone was forced to abandon the freewheeling, improvisatory approach of Gomorrah and Reality. “I like to wait for the unexpected to happen,” he says. “With this film, everything had to be decided in advance.” But the film establishes the 47-year-old as a master of the indelible image. Though he dismisses with a wave of the hand my suggestion that US cinema often favours story over visuals in contrast to Europe, he is one of the finest examples we have of a film-maker who expresses meaning through aesthetics.
“My other movies start from realism,” he says. “But then I bring in a fairytale dimension. I’m not interested in an imitation of reality, only an interpretation of it. Gomorrah is like a dark fairytale. The things that happen in it are heightened, but I shot it like a documentary so that the audience was not aware of the artifice. Tale of Tales is the exact opposite. We don’t hide the artifice. You can see we shot in the studio – the battle with the sea monster at the start of the film is an homage to Georges Méliès. I wanted to create a movie this time that was externally theatrical but internally very real.”
To this end, he cites Fellini’s similarly studio-bound Casanova and the giallo of Mario Bava as cinematic influences. But the film’s visual flavour was most strongly dictated by Los Caprichos, Goya’s series of satirical prints about 18th-century Spain; among the 80 prints are a woman being menaced by a giant owl, donkeys clambering over two noblemen and Goya himself being haunted by bats and birds as he dozes.
“I kept them with me throughout the film,” Garrone says. “In those drawings I found all I was looking for.”
The director began his career as a painter, but hasn’t picked up a brush since he started making films 20 years ago. “I’ve saved six or seven of my paintings. The ones where you can feel the emotion. The others were not so good because in those the narrative was more important.”
There is a connection here, he says, with Tale of Tales.
“Like my best paintings, it comes from the gut, not the intellect. When I introduce the film, I tell the audience: ‘Don’t try to understand it. Just feel it, like when you are standing in front of a painting. Follow the characters, take the journey, feel the emotion.’”
This might explain why Garrone has so far resisted the temptation to work in Hollywood. His need for spontaneity would be impossible to reconcile, he suspects, with the micro-management of studio executives. He puts it rather beautifully: “On set, I let the movie tell me what I have to do while I’m doing it – it speaks to me, so I am always listening and ready to change. The soul of the movie is clear in my mind but there are many different possibilities to express it. My approach is exactly the opposite of the American system. It would be a nightmare for me – and for them.” A sense of history and duty also keeps him in Italy. “I like the idea of making good movies in Italy and helping the country. I’m trying to rediscover the place in cinema that we had in the past.”
That said, he admires US cinema and Pixar in particular (he calls Reality “my Pixar movie – the big faces, the cartoon-ness”). Certainly, he has more in common with that animation studio’s rapturous, humane style than the cold art cinema of his countryman Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty, Youth). In Sorrentino’s work, you can always feel the director in the frame. But what’s striking about Garrone is that he surrenders himself to the needs of the film rather than imposing his personality on it. “When we talk about Pixar, we rarely mention the individual directors,” he points out. “We just say ‘Pixar’.”
He won’t be drawn on his opinion of Sorrentino’s work, but that’s understandable – the two directors have only recently started speaking again. “Paolo and I have a good relationship, finally. For a period, we didn’t. We don’t know why. But we didn’t say hello – and we’ve lived in the same building for the last five years! There was a time we would see each other on the stairs and we would have this face.”
He pulls an expression like an alley cat spoiling for a scrap.
“I think it was the media. They tried to paint us as rivals and for a time they succeeded.”
For his next project, Garrone is staying in Italy, and the world of fairytales, with a version of Pinocchio that will go back to its origins. “The only way to be original is to be faithful,” he says. “Everyone knows the Disney version but this will be more like Poe or Hoffmann.” I point out that a flop 2002 version of Pinocchio almost killed the career of Robert Benigni, while Francis Ford Coppola sued Warner Bros for thwarting his own attempt to film the story, but Garrone just smiles. “They say it is cursed. That it brings bad luck, like Don Quixote. But me, I like to run after a challenge. The more difficult it is, the more I am excited.”