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Federico Fellini:
Preserving the Core

 


This text previews and expands a chapter from my forthcoming book Filmmakers Thinking (Elías Querejeta Zine Eskola, 2021).

 

How can you explain the way an idea for a film is born? When and where does it come from? What bumpy and mysterious route does it travel?

– Federico Fellini, 1980

 

Federico Fellini’s remarkable book Making a Film has an intriguing publication history that is helpfully laid out by Christopher Burton White in the introduction to his superb English translation. Its origin is a 1974 German collection of “papers and notes” culled from the director’s collection that mixes interviews, autobiographical essays, statements accompanying screenplay books, and other diverse material – sourced and retranslated from diverse languages. This compilation appeared in an English edition of 1976 as Fellini on Fellini. It has served readers and scholars down the years, but is – to put it politely – something of a hodgepodge, both stylistically and structurally, and offers only a selection from the original text.

 

Some years later, Fellini was encouraged by his associates to pull this material together more cohesively for an Italian edition of the book, Fare un film, which appeared in 1980; Italo Calvino’s brilliant essay “A Spectator’s Autobiography” was added at the front, and a final reflection by Liliana Betti at the back. Now it had become, substantively, a book by Fellini. It took until 2015, however, for a new English edition of this fully reworked version to replace the tattered memory of Fellini on Fellini – and this happened thanks to the visionary work of Rainer J. Hanshe and his associates at Contra Mundum Press (which has also published books by and about Godard, Duras, Pasolini and Carmelo Bene). Less happily, this edition appears to been scarcely noticed (judging, at least, by published reviews) since its appearance five years ago. It is a book I cannot recommend highly enough in this centenary year of one of cinema’s very greatest artists.

 

# #

 

In 1954, the great German-born director Max Ophüls (1902-1957) wrote an elegant, musing essay titled “The Pleasure of Seeing: Thoughts on the Subject Matter of Film”.

 

A film story only exists for me when I can visualise a succession of images. What prompts me to do so can be almost anything: a novel, perhaps a play, or even a poem. It can start with something that happened to me, or an event that someone recounts to me; it can start as a daydream, or it can come from a piece of music, or from looking at a picture. The inception of a vision is everywhere and nowhere at all. (1)

 

In any event, a film story must come to be, in the course of its development, “unalterably fixed in a succession of images” within the mind of its director.

 

Italian cinema’s maestro Federico Fellini (1920-1993) believed something very similar. In Making a Film, he takes us through (in chapter XIII) what he calls the “mechanisms” or stages whereby an initial idea eventually becomes a finished film.

 

Fellini regards the film in process as both his (belonging to him) and not his – in the sense that it detaches itself from him and becomes its own entity in the making, sometimes coaxing him, at other moments rejecting him. He enters into an ever-shifting and complicated game with it: a relationship constituted, at different phases, by seduction, aggression, indifference, surprise.

 

“What is a film in the beginning?”, Fellini asks.

 

A suspicion, a conjecture about a story, shadows of ideas, vague feelings. And yet in that first intangible contact the film already seems to be fully itself, complete, vital, and extremely pure. The temptation to leave it like that, in this immaculate dimension, is extremely strong: it would all be simpler, perhaps more just. But you can’t …

 

Next comes, for Fellini, the fairly disagreeable phase of “agreements and contractual conditions” – the putting together of the finance for the production. But also for the director himself, who needs to go on making a living. Meetings are held; deals are struck. “Like a pimp, the film reveals its sinister character more and more: but it’s captivating. It makes you pocket some money, and this provides some comfort”.

 

The third phase is the screenplay – and Fellini is rightly suspicious of every process that threatens to reduce the richness of cinematic images and sounds (whether those already made, or those yet to be made) to a fixed, literary sequence of words. Yet there needs to be at least a basic map drawn up of the narrative possibilities inherent in the original idea. “It’s the moment in which the film draws closer and pulls away”, Fellini observes. “It’s like the film is being pulled by its hair in this third phase, and it resists. You have to coax it somehow”. He and his writing collaborators play a sort of hide-and-seek game with the task at hand: avoiding too-serious work, dividing up the scenes for the different hands to script. (Another chapter in his book takes the monologue-form of a freewheeling script “summary” addressed to Brunello Rondi, a co-writer on 8½ [1963].)

 

Fellini well knows that, in the end, a screenplay “has a literary rhythm anyway and a literary rhythm is different, incomparable to the cinematographic one”. As John Boorman also cautions in his memoir Conclusions (2020): “Don’t make the script too good”. A filmmaker must not be too tempted by its literary quality on the page; the goal, eventually, is to find one’s way back to what Fellini calls “those first images, not triggered by anything in particular”, images that are “confused, contradictory, scornfully clear”. Fellini concludes this part of the process: “I need a flexible screenplay, faint and at the same time very precise, where the ideas have finally become clear”.

 

In the next phase, “I open an office” (a crucial, even magical moment for many filmmakers – Australia’s Paul Cox [1940-2016] once advised young directors that, if you want to make a film, hire a room and put the project’s title in large letters on the door: it will materialise!). For Fellini, opening an office means to begin lengthy pre-production; this is a joyous time for him, perhaps his favourite part, and he spends an entire four pages of his book evoking it. “Then film opens up to all possibilities, it confronts all the unknown factors”. He looks for striking faces, details of costumes, mannerisms of behaviour in the hundreds of people he observes in casting (which involves no ordinary auditions or script-readings); what he encounters at this phase may well end up changing certain characters or altering the course of the screenplay. It is a period in which Fellini feels free – indulging in the incessant drawing that he describes elsewhere in his book, his “graphic notes”.

 

It’s a way of looking the film in the face, to see what kind of movie it is, the attempt to focus on something, however miniscule, bordering on insignificant, that nonetheless has something to do with the film and speaks to me about it in a mysterious way.

 

Eventually, this playful work, which could go on infinitely, meets a cold, hard, principle of reality: the looming production schedule. Now his visual ideas must find their preliminary, manifest, material form: the sets must be built, colours must be chosen, dimensions and perspectives must be fixed. It is a disturbing moment for Fellini. “Everything is losing its allusiveness …”; he loses faith in the film and (as he puts it) the film loses faith in him. Fellini stresses the importance of holding onto the initial idea: “I quixotically continue to defend the ambiguity, the blurred outlines, the temptations, the assumptions that controlled it, its vital right to be kept in a dimension of ideal accessibility”.

 

It is most likely in this phase bridging pre-production and the very start of the shoot that many filmmakers generate the tool known, variously, as a work book, image book, “lookbook” or ideas book. It tends to be a collage of written notes, quotations, and images: something that will communicate the director’s “ideal projection” – impossible to fully express in a conventionally “literary” or verbal way – to his key collaborators in cinematography, production design, sound, and costume design. Bertrand Bonello has recently explained his own process in this regard.

 

What I do, and while I’m writing [the screenplay], is that I keep a separate document that holds my notes. It’s not a shot list. It’s different. It’s where I write questions – or answers – about a scene. For example, do I need one shot for the scene, or several shots? Am I close to the scene? Or am I far? Music, or not music? What kind of colour works for the scene? What is the heart of the sequence? What is the thing that I shouldn’t miss when shooting? Is there something I am overlooking in order to understand the scene? So, I have this big, big document, like – I don’t know – sixty pages that I give to my DP, continuity person, and assistants. And then we have all the questions we need to prepare the scene before shooting, including, how do we deal with the space, the tempo, and stuff like that. I’m quite precise about all this … I do several drafts of this document. (2)

 

Let us return to Fellini to round off his account of the entire filmmaking cycle. The first two weeks of shooting prolong the experience of Hell for him; “I endure them with a bitter taste of self destruction, a suicidal thrill”. But, “one fine day”, the filming becomes relaxed, familiar, enjoyable.  “From that point on the film is a friend; the movie takes it upon itself to direct you who are directing it”. The film must “invent itself step by step”. During shooting Fellini refuses to watch the dailies, because he does not want to be haunted by any sense of discrepancy between the ideal image he holds within, and the external results coming out of the camera. “Having this continuous point of comparison to the movie you’re really making, the film you wanted to make risks changing, fading, and might disappear altogether”.

 

Fellini admits: “This cancellation of the movie you intended to make has to occur, sure, but only at the end of shooting, when in the projection room you’ll accept the film you made and the fact that it’s the only film possible”. The gradual bringing to a close of the shoot has a ceremonial atmosphere, a ritual of slowly bidding adieu to his dream, and putting it aside forever. Fellini’s appointed time to deal with the real, material film then happens in the editing room, the “moviola phase” as he calls it. “The relationship with the film becomes private, personal: I have to be alone with it and the editor”. Not without one, delightful regret: he sometimes wishes he could preserve the fully raw soundtrack, with the actors babbling nonsense, the sound of the crew at work, the whole “life on set” (think of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s fond ode to this sort of processual chaos in his 43 minute video Worldly Desires [2005]). Fellini also enjoys watching the film-assemblage completely silent.

 

But then another happy phase, collaborating with music score composer Nino Rota, begins; the final farewell to the finished product is not far away. “Now the film is complete”, concludes Fellini. “I abandon it in irritation. I’ve never watched a film of mine again in a public movie theatre”. In this, he is the opposite of Éric Rohmer who, his biographers tell us, liked to constantly re-watch all his films on videocassette, and enjoyed sharing that experience repeatedly with his closest friends.

 

Fellini is openly wary of most intellectual theorising about cinema, but he betrays a fine theoretical mind of his own in the following reflection.

 

The translation of a fantasy (in the precise sense of a “phantasm”, in other words something very precise but in a completely different dimension, light and impalpable) in plastic, solid, or physical terms is a delicate operation. Now the greatest appeal of these fantasies lies in the fact that they’re undefined. By defining them you inevitably lose the dreamlike dimension, the air of mystery. You must plan on preserving it at all costs because the success of the operation, the proof of its viability, originality, its poetic outcome, lies precisely in managing to preserve as much as possible of that evocative, sincere, cropped, floating, blurred aspect there was in the imagined (fantastic) image.

 

The message to filmmakers – indeed, to any artist who must work in a collective team – could not be clearer: preserve the core idea. Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986) certainly believed so: “The problem has always been to keep the initial inspiration

intact and unadulterated as the stimulus for work, and as a symbol of the finished picture” – he referred to this as the process of keeping a film firm to the “axle of its own idea”. (3) Even George Cukor (1899-1983), in his far more classical Hollywood context of the 1930s, held to this principle: the director is the person in the crew who maintains “the central line and integrity of purpose without which no work of art, nor even of efficient story-telling and entertainment-making, is possible”. (4)

 

MORE Fellini: Amarcord, Juliet of the Spirits, La Strada, Orchestra Rehearsal, La Dolce Vita

 

 

NOTES


1. Max Ophüls,  “The Pleasure of Seeing”, in Paul Willemen (ed.), Ophüls (British Film Institute, 1978), pp. 31-32. back

 

2. Bertrand Bonello interviewed by Joe McElhaney & David Gerstner, Zombi Child and the Spaces of Cinema”, Cineaste magazine online exclusive. back

 

3. Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time (University of Texas Press, 1989). back

 

4. George Cukor, “The Director” (1939), reprinted in Richard Kozarski (ed.), Hollywood Directors 1914-1940 (Galaxy, 1976), pp. 322-331. back

 

 

© Adrian Martin December 2020


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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