top of page

Filmmaking Lessons: Fellini

The following interview with Fellini by Bert Cardullo took place in the lobby of the Grand Hotel in Milan, Italy, during the summer of 1986, not long after the release of ‘Ginger and Fred’.

BERT CARDULLO: Signor Fellini, tell me a little about your background and your first film job.

FEDERICO FELLINI: I reached the cinema through screenplays, and these through my collaboration on humorous publications – Marc’ Aurelio especially – for which I wrote stories and columns in addition to drawing cartoons. If, one day in 1944, Roberto Rossellini hadn’t invited me to collaborate on the screenplay of Rome, Open City, I would never even have considered the cinema as a profession. Rossellini helped me go from a foggy, apathetic period in my life to the stage of cinema. It was an important encounter but more in the sense of my future destiny than in the sense of influence. As far as I’m concerned, Rossellini’s was an Adam-like paternity; he is a kind of forefather from whom many of my generation descend. Let’s just say I was open to this particular endeavour, and he appeared at the right time to guide me into it. But I wasn’t thinking of becoming a director at this juncture. I felt I lacked the director’s propensity to be tyrannically overpowering, coherent and fussy, hardworking, and – most important – authoritative on every subject: all endowments missing from my temperament. The conviction that I could direct a film came later, when I was directly involved on one and could no longer pull out.

After having written a number of screenplays for Rossellini, Pietro Germi, and Alberto Lattuada, I wrote a story called Variety Lights. It contained my recollections of when I toured Italy with a variety troupe. Some of those memories were true, others invented. Two of us directed the film: Lattuada and myself. He said ‘camera,’ ‘action,’ ‘cut,’ ‘everyone out,’ ‘silence,’ etc. And I stood by his side in a rather comfortable yet irresponsible position. The same year, 1950, I wrote a story called The White Sheik together with Tullio Pinelli. Michelangelo Antonioni was supposed to direct the film, but he didn’t like the screenplay, so Luigi Rovere – the producer – told me to film it. I can therefore unequivocally state that I never decided to be a director. Rovere’s rather reckless faith induced me to become one.

The vocation itself was altogether rather mysterious to me. As I said, my temperament led me elsewhere. Even today, when a film is finished, I find myself wondering how the devil I could have been so active, gotten so many people into motion, made a thousand decisions a day, said ‘yes’ to this and ‘no’ to that, and at the same time not have fallen madly in love with all those beautiful women that actresses are.

La Strada (Directed by Federico Fellini)BC: Apart from women, how do you find inspiration in our mediocre times? Or perhaps you don’t find that we are constantly surrounded by mediocrity.

FF: No, it’s a barbaric era all right. People say this is an era of transition, but that’s true of every period. Certainly we have no more myths left. The Christian myth doesn’t seem to be able to help humanity anymore. So, we’re waiting for a new myth to comfort us. But which one? Nonetheless, it’s very interesting to live at a time like this. We must accept the time in which we live. We have no choice. Having said that, I feel that my mission in life, my vocation if you will, is to be a witness; and if your life consists of such testimony, you have to accept what you witness. Sure, you can be nostalgic about the past and how great it was, and you can lament the erosion of values, but there’s no point in doing that. From a generational point of view, I’m aware that there’s a certain regret about things past, but I personally try to live with the confidence that the future will assimilate the past. The past will transform itself into the future, so in a sense it will be relived—not in regret, but as part and parcel of the world to come.

BC: Does this vision of yours have to do with your looking into an interior reality rather than an exterior one? Are the dreams and fantasies of which an interior reality consists the basis of your inspiration?

FF: I don’t dwell too much on what it is that inspires me. Instead I have to be in touch with my delusions, my discomforts, and my fears; they provide me the material with which I work. I make a bundle of all these, along with my disasters, my voids, and my chasms, and I try to observe them with sanity, in a conciliatory manner.

BC: What are you afraid of, if I may ask?

FF: I’m afraid of solitude, of the gap between action and observation in which solitude dwells. That’s a reflection on my existence, in which I attempt to act without being swept away by the action, so as to be able to bear witness at the same time. I fear losing my spontaneity precisely because of such testimony or witnessing, because of my habit of constantly analysing and commenting. I also fear old age, madness, decline. I fear not being able to make love ten times a day...

BC: Do you make films because solitude ranks high among your fears?

FF: Making films for me is not just a creative outlet but an existential expression. I also write and paint in isolation, in an ascetic manner. Perhaps my character is too hard, too severe. The cinema itself is a miracle, though, because you can live life just as you tell it. It’s very stimulating. For my temperament and sensibility, this correlation between daily life and the life I create on screen is fantastic. Creative people live in a very vague territory, where what we call ‘reality’ and ‘fantasy’ are disjointed – where one interferes with the other. They both become one and the same thing. In sum, I enjoy telling stories with an inextricable mixture of sincerity and invention, as well as a desire to astound, to shamelessly confess and absolve myself, to be liked, to interest, to moralize, to be a prophet, witness, clown... to make people laugh and to move them. Are any other motives necessary?

BC: Not really! Let’s talk now about the description of your early films as socially realistic, while your later ones are described as more hallucinatory.

FF: You could call hallucination a ‘deeper reality.’ Critics have a need to categorize and classify. I don’t see it that way. I detest the world of labels, the world that confuses the label with the thing labeled. I just do what I have to do. Realism is a bad word, in any event. In a sense, everything is realistic. I see no line between the imaginary and the real; I see much reality in the imaginary.

BC: Critics also have termed your characters ‘grotesque’ and ‘exaggerated.’ How do you react to such accusations?

FF: To answer this question, I must see my films, which I never do. People say that I’m a bit too much, that I exaggerate. Maybe they’re right. But even if it’s true, it’s not intentional on my part. I’m delighted when I come across an expressive face, however bizarre. I am, after all, a caricaturist, and I have to accept the limitation this imposes on me. A creative person has something childish about him: He both loves to be surprised and wants to do the surprising. So, I choose to show whatever is too big or too small or simply unfamiliar. I try to express the feeling of surprise in the way I myself felt it. The world of Picasso, for example, could be described as strange and monstrous, but not for him. I, too, don’t see my characters as strange. I simply try to go beyond appearances, to unveil what lies behind what we call ‘normality.’ Maybe I overdo it. People ask me, ‘Signor Fellini, where do you find such strange characters?’ So I respond, ‘That’s what I see in the mirror every day... a monstrous face indeed!’

Look, I’m not cruel. It’s not true what some critics say, that I hate humanity. For me, curiosity and amusement are proof of my affection for what I depict. When I choose a certain face and have it made up in a certain way, it’s not because I want to ridicule, but because I want to convey in an immediate manner something that isn’t psychological. My characters never undergo psychological development. My films are a bit more innocent than that, and the characters have to be themselves as soon as they appear. So the need to be expressive is immediate.

BC: You show beauty – of women like Claudia Cardinale and Anita Ekberg – alongside the grotesque: for example, a huge woman like Saraghina in ‘8 1/2’. Isn’t there a dichotomy here after all?

FF: Beauty is not limited to beauty in the classical sense. It can be everywhere. I must admit that I don’t recognize the category of the grotesque; to me even the grotesque is beautiful. You mention La Saraghina. In Rimini, near the seminary for priests, there was in fact a big prostitute like that who used to expose herself. When I show something like that, it’s usually through the eyes of a boy, and sometimes I exaggerate just to show the astonishment or fear or ecstasy of that boy. Also, if I use a big or fat woman, it’s because I’m telling a story about an Italian boy who is hungry for women and wants a lot of woman, so to speak. Just because the Catholic Church has described women as something to put out of your mind, Italian males of a certain generation developed an appetite for them and not just for food. So the big women indicate the big appetite of these men – or boys.

BC: How do you feel about the relations between the sexes today, when a certain role reversal seems to be at work?

FF: Man has always been unsure of women. A woman for a man is the part that he doesn’t know about himself, so he’s always afraid of her. He feels weak and vulnerable with her, because she may cause him to lose his identity. Just by projecting the part of himself that he doesn’t know on a woman, he loses a lot of himself. So he knows he can be destroyed, devoured... That’s a natural law.

He also probably remembers the very ancient matriarchal society in which man was nothing and women thought they became pregnant just because the wind blew some seed into their vagina, or the seed came from the ocean or from the moon. A thousand years passed before man and woman had a relationship and discovered orgasm. Suddenly someone started thinking, ‘Wait a minute, why does it take nine months? Which kind of wind is it? What ocean started it all nine months ago?’ In those matriarchal societies, if men were to assert themselves, they had to put on false breasts and dress like women, complete with wigs. Men, as men, didn’t exist at all – worse than rats. When the queen decided to take a companion, he would last a year, after which he was killed, cut to pieces like an animal, and eaten.

BC: What society was that, Signor Fellini?

FF: Now. It’s today... And then, for centuries, man took advantage of women to avenge himself for what he had suffered for thousands of years. Now women want to be considered as persons, not as mere projections, and their attempt to escape the image to which man has confined them frightens man. But finally he understands that he won’t be free until women are free as well. I tried to show all that in City of Women.

BC: Do you see yourself as a romantic?

FF: I don’t think I have a romantic view of the world, because I don’t recognize a particular view of the world. I probably have a romantic conception of the artist and art, but of life, no. I like to probe behind appearances and discover what’s really there, like a naughty boy. In this I recognize the skeptic, who tries not to put too much faith in façades, who tries to unmask falsehood. I think that’s the most important thing: I have no ideology, but if I had to identify myself with one, it would be that the beauty of art is in its unmasking of falsehood; in educating; in planting in people’s minds the suspicion that reality is something more complex than it appears to be; in giving people the pleasure of suspicion, not just the burden of doubt; in keeping them from feeling too protected by taboos, concepts, ideologies. Life is more complex than all that. If, in my pictures, I were asked to recognize a motif – a thread that runs through them – I’d say that this is the only one. It’s an attempt to create emancipation from conventional schemes, liberation from moral rules: that is to say, an attempt to retrieve life’s authentic rhythm or mode, its vital cadence, as opposed to all the inauthentic forms life is forced to take. That, I believe, is the central idea to be found in all the films I have made.

BC: Does this mean that you avoid judgment?

FF: That’s not really possible. We are slaves of our culture, prisoners of our emotions. We always have a subjective point of view. Subjectivity means that we’ve had a certain education, that we read certain books, that we have cultivated certain emotions. All these mysterious and contradictory things serve as the basis for our judgment. Even when you can pretend to be just a witness, you can’t ignore this subjective element. I try to be open and not to be schematic, but always in terms of what is commensurate with my background.

BC: Is that partly why you don’t make films in other countries? Because you’re so very Italian?

FF: Yes, in the same way that you’re so very American despite your Sicilian last name... When I go to a foreign country, everything is a mystery to me. I see images, colours, lines, but they don’t add up to anything. I could make a picture about New York, but in Cinecittà, not in America. I’d have to remember what I saw in New York and what emotions it triggered in me, and then I would try to recreate them here in Italy with the same colours and lights. I was so presumptuous as to say several times to American producers that I wanted to make such a film about America in Italy, where I would be protected by an atmosphere in which I could move without being unsettled or even mortified by laws I don’t know and a language I can’t speak.

Your question, by the way, is evidence of a reductive attitude toward the movies. No one ever asks writers why they don’t write in other languages. The equivocal birth of the cinema was indeed technical – the camera, the lens, the lights, and then you develop the film — but that’s purely a mechanical point of view. If I want to try to express what’s going on here during this interview, however, I can’t just put a camera in front of us. I would have to recreate the feeling of our meeting: what I feel about the fact that you are an Italian-American, about the fact that Fiammetta is trying to create a bridge between us by helping you with your Italian and me with my English, about the décor of this hotel lobby, the colour of the sofa on which we sit... To think that the camera can take all that in by itself is highly reductive, just as it is to think that an Italian like me could make a picture in New York simply by turning on a camera and filming what’s in front of me.

People ask me, ‘Signor Fellini, why do you recreate Venice in a studio instead of using the real one?’ And I’m always a bit surprised by such questions. I have to recreate Venice, because that’s the way I put myself in it.

BC: The décor becomes expressive of your vision, then.

FF: Of course. In America, I’d have to depend on information culled from others – such as the kind of tails a Chicago lawyer wears. Maybe I’m just trying to look for pretexts – the real reason for not filming in other countries being that I’m too old and lazy – but I think it’s more sincere to say that I can’t create from life that I am seeing more or less for the first time. I need a period of long and immersed reflection. I could do a wholly impressionistic report on a place like New York, seen from a newspaperman’s eye as it were, but that would mean absolutely nothing.

BC: Do you feel transformed when you’re on the set, or are you always the same?

FF: I’m always the same confused man. There’s no difference. When I work, I am perhaps healthier because the pressure to do, to escape, to be alive gives me added neurotic energy. When I’m in between pictures, I’m a bit weaker. But I’m always in the same situation of not knowing what I’m doing.

BC: How does such confusion evolve into a unified, focused vision?

FF: That’s a very difficult question to answer. I don’t want to appear too mystical or too mysterious, but there’s a part of me that sometimes comes out at the last moment. The more confused I am, the more I’m ready for this new tenant that inhabits my imagination to take possession of me. This is what makes everything fall into place. The more I feel lost, the more I believe I can be helped by this unknown source of knowledge or understanding. It’s magic. Perhaps I’m being a bit superstitious with this trust of mine in the unknown. Of course, what I really mean by saying that I don’t know what I’m doing is that my knowledge comes after I have tried everything. For example, I look at a hundred faces to choose one that will just inhabit a dark corner of the screen, and only for a very short period of time. That’s the kind of effort I’m talking about.

BC: You’re saying, then, that this knowledge of yours goes beyond reason.

FF: That’s right. You can get lost by being too rational. But if you work with faith, and you know your limits – at the same time as you are modest, humble, and also arrogant, like a real man — you can arrive at the truth. If you’re as true to yourself as you possibly can be, you will be helped, and you’ll come closer to artistic truth. Still, I don’t claim to know all the secrets.

BC: Does any one of your films represent you more completely than the others? Is any one of them more key than the others – a film to preserve, as they say?

FF: Two of them: La Strada and 8 1/2. La Strada is really the complete catalog of my entire mythical or shadow world, a dangerous representation of my identity undertaken without precaution. The point of departure of that film, apart from the spectacle of nature and the fascination with gypsy-like travels, was the story of an enlightenment, a shaking of conscience, through the sacrifice of another human creature. 8 1/2 is meant to be an attempt to reach an agreement with life, an attempt and not a result or conclusion. I think the film may suggest a solution: to make friends with yourself completely, without hesitation, without false modesty, without fears but also without hopes.

BC: Critics have often complained that you end your films in a vague, general way: the appeal to hope in ‘Nights of Cabiria’, the reminder of the little girl’s purity in ‘La Dolce Vita’. Your thoughts on this subject?

FF: This is one of the criticisms that I’ve never understood, for as far as I’m concerned the public writes the ending. The storyteller shouldn’t say, ‘Here the story ends,’ if he doesn’t want his story to be reduced to the level of an anecdote or a joke. If the story has moved you, the ending is up to you – the viewer who has seen it.

BC: How does a project of yours come into being in the first place?

FF: The real ideas come to me when I sign a contract and get an advance that I don’t want to give back, when I’m obliged to make a picture. I’m kidding, naturally. I don’t want to appear brutal, like Groucho Marx, but I’m the kind of creator who needs to have a higher authority – a grand duke, the pope, an emperor, a producer, a bank – to push me. Such a vulgar condition puts me on the right track. It’s only then that I start thinking about what I can, and want to, do.

BC: Why do you think you decided to start using colour – first for the episode in ‘Boccaccio ’70’ and then for ‘Juliet of the Spirits’? Was there an external factor, such as an offer from a producer, the sheer possibility of doing a film in colour, or was this your own aesthetic choice?

FF: The two cases are different. For the episode in Boccaccio ’70, the choice wasn’t mine. It was an episodic or anthology film, and the producers decided that it was to be in colour. I didn’t object at all. The playful air of the whole undertaking and the brief form of the episode seemed just right for an experiment with colour without too great a commitment on my part. I didn’t think about the problem very seriously; I didn’t go into it deeply. In Juliet of the Spirits, on the other hand, colour is an essential part of the film; it was born in colour in my imagination. I don’t think I would have done it in black and white. It is a type of fantasy that is developed through coloured illuminations. As you know, colour is a part not only of the language of dreams but also of the idea and feeling behind them. colours in a dream are concepts, not mere approximations or memories.

That said, I certainly prefer a good black-and-white picture to a bad one in colour. All the more so because in some cases so-called ‘natural colour’ impoverishes the imagination. The more you mimic reality, the more you lose in the imitation. Black and white, in this sense, offers wider margins for the imagination. I know that after having seen a good black-and-white film, many spectators, when asked about its chromatic aspect, will say, ‘The colours were beautiful,’ because each viewer lends to the otherwise black-and-white images the colours he has within himself.

BC: You seem to be saying that you prefer black-and-white to colour cinematography, period.

FF: Well, making films in colour is, I believe, an impossible operation, for cinema is movement, colour immobility; to try to blend these two artistic expressions is a desperate ambition, like wanting to breathe under water. Let me explain. In order to truly express the chromatic values of a face, a landscape, some scene or other, it is necessary to light it according to certain criteria that are functions of both personal taste and technical exigency. And all goes well so long as the camera doesn’t move. But as soon as the camera moves in on the faces or objects to be lighted, the intensity of the light is heightened or lessened, and all the chromatic values are intensified or lessened as a result. In short: The camera moves, the light changes.

There is also an infinitude of contingencies that condition the colour, aside from the grave errors that can occur at the laboratory, where the negative can be totally transformed by its development and printing. These contingencies are the innumerable and continual traps that have to be dealt with every day when you shoot in colour. For instance, colours interfere or clash, set up ‘echoes,’ are conditioned by one another. Once lighted, colour runs over the outline that holds it, emanating a sort of luminous aureola around neighbouring objects. Thus there is an incessant game of tennis, let us say, between the various colours. Sometimes it even happens that the result of these changes is agreeable, better than what one had imagined; but this is always a somewhat chancy, uncontrollable occurrence.

Finally, the human eye selects and in this way already does an artist’s work, because the human eye, the eye of man, sees chromatic reality through the prisms of nostalgia, of memory, of presentiment or imagination. This is not the case with the lens, and it happens that you believe you are bringing out certain values in a face, a set, a costume, while the lens brings out others. In this way, writing with a camera – or caméra stylo, as Astruc put it – becomes very difficult. It is as if, while writing, a modifying word escapes your pen in capital letters, or, still worse, one adjective shows up instead of another, or some form of punctuation appears that completely changes the sense of a line.

BC: Tell me about something not unrelated to the subject of colour: the relationship between your films and television in Italy. I saw ‘Nights of Cabiria’ on television here a few nights ago, and I’m glad I saw it first in a movie theatre some years ago.

FF: Ginger and Fred, my latest picture, was made for television, but it was shown in theatres first. Not many such theatres remain in Italy, however. They’ve just closed 2,117 of them, and there are now many cities, like Perugia – which is the size of Boston – which had three or four theatres but now have none. In Italy, we have over two hundred private television stations. You could watch two hundred pictures on two hundred TV sets at the same time, but that’s not all that’s wrong.

The movies have suffered not only because of the direct competition of television, but also because television has created a different relationship between audiences and images. For example, they can switch off the image whenever they want. Moreover, you watch TV in a small room, in the light, where you can talk. Thus all the ritualistic attention that movies used to command gets canceled. And the fact that you can change channels by remote control every thirty seconds – or less – has created an impatient audience, even a very arrogant and superficial one. Anything it finds annoying, it eliminates. Add to this the fact that television is available twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year, and that images are deployed electronically – they’re doubled and squeezed onto the small screen – and you’ll see that the image as we once knew it has been destroyed.

We are no longer used to being seduced by a pure image. We have no interest in following a story from an author’s point of view. And since telling stories is what I like to do, I must admit I feel frustrated. The man with the remote control has become director and exhibitor. The audience has gained power at the expense of the movies, such that the cinema has become a tainted old lady teetering on the verge of extinction. I would very much like to please the audience, but in the end, I find, I must be faithful to the picture.

– ‘An Interview with Federico Fellini’ in Bert Cardullo: Soundings on Cinema – Speaking to Film and Film Artists (2008, State University of New York). © 2008 State University of New York


bottom of page