SMB – How did you first become involved with this project?
LM – It was really a situation of people knowing people. Originally the part was going to be played by James Woods, but for whatever reason he couldn’t. The head of production at 20th Century-Fox liked my work very much – so when James fell out it was suggested that I see Dario.
SMB – Although some of the film takes place in New York how much was really shot there?
LM - For me one scene. That’s when I’ shown looking out of an apartment widow.
SMB – That’s when you awake from being drugged.
LM – Yes, that’s right. Then the rest was shot in Rome.
SMB – What was it like filming in Rome?
LM – Speaking of Hell, or this ise of Purgatory – it was HOT! We shot in August at a time when those indigenous to the area leave. We didn’t have air conditioning.
SMB- How long was the shoot?
LM - Oh, three months.
SMB – With all that natural heat you still had to endure the fire in the climax.
LM – Oh yes. Probably the only place I can think of that’s hotter is Dallas.
SMB – Was there a language barrier?
LM - There really wasn’t because most of the European cast spoke perfect English, or at least passable English. Then there was Alida Valli who was an American. Elnora Giorgi spoke very good English. Probably more a mimic. (Laughs) So, communication was really no problem.
SMB – How about with Dario?
LM – Well, with Dario it’s very interesting. He’s quiet and rather introverted. But his brother Claudio, who was producer, was there. He spoke better English and would clarify what Dario wanted.
SMB – Had you seen INFERNO’S prequel, SUSPIRIA?
LM- At the tie I was unfamiliar with Dario’s work. I remember running into Bill Murry in Central Park (NY) who remembered me from the film. He said, “Oh you worked with Dario Argento! Great!” So he obviously knew of Dario’s work and I thought, “Maybe I should look into Dario’s work!” (Laughs) I had just not come across it.
SMB – So you caught up after making the film?
LM – Yes, and I loved his work. I realized also that I had seen some of his work but just didn’t put the two and two together. I knew his name and where he made films I just didn’t connect what I had seen He and I got along very well. We’re both artists. We have a very great meeting of the minds and vision. I ran into him a few years ago during a retrospective. He stilled looked pretty much the same. He was a very gracious.
SMB – As a director how did he convey what he wanted tin a particular scene? Especially some of the stranger moments.
LM - He… (thinking) …would describe the scene and the feeling. We would walk the set. He would show me the lighting, the harshness of the lighting. He would ty to explain the idea of what he wanted, show me what would happen. I think he’s a very visual director. He would leave the window open as to how the audience would perceive the performance. He would also want something from the actors. That would be very different as to how a person would normally react to a given situation. I think his purpose was to throw the audience off. That’s why if you notice in some of his films, there’s almost an oddness in the character’s reactions. I think it a very interesting directorial position to have the audience in. Though it’s very disconcerting for the person on screen in understanding how it’s going to fit in what’s happening or, “What is the person thinking about?”
SMB – Was any of this conveyed through the script?
LM – When I first read the script I just did not understand it. I told Dario that it didn’t have a traditional narrative. So Dario and I sat down and in talking with it started to make more sense. Once I appreciated the nightmarish frame work that some the story was situated in I was able to enter the world he had created. His visual jumps, which seemingly, are not connected with the narrative are really different points of views connected with what’s happening in the minds of different characters. This is something not approached in a traditional script.
SMB – But was it all there is the written word. Sometimes scripts change during the production.
LM – Dario writes more of an outline. He has an idea of what he wants to shoot. The vision – the script has a number of different qualities. When I did show up on the set and saw what was planned there was no way I could have predicted their vision of the art director. He and Dario worked together in keeping the lighting scheme in very few colors. It’s aggressive intensity and the closed psychological quality of the set themselves, the claustrophobic atmosphere he was able to evoke, you really just don’t read that on paper. You just had to wait till you were on the set.
SMB – So it was always surprised when you did walk on the set.
LM – Oh yes.
SMB- Was the ending in the script? Or did he leave it open until filming?
LM- I believe it ended with the character looking up watching the house burning. So there was always a fire at the end. If I remember it correctly, there’s just a strange look across my character’s face. That was one of those “odd” reactions I had mentioned he wanted. It’s just an oddness that creeps over the character’s face I still don’t know what that means, but that was Dario’s choice it’s almost as of something is caching the character’s eye.
SMB - Well, that’s is part of what makes his films unique. The audience never knows what to expect, or trust.
LM – Yes, exactly. It’s his way of keeping the audience guessing, instead of constantly just getting something to jump out and catch them off guard. Like the scene where he had me looking down at the ants crawling on my hand. Which at the time I couldn’t understand what it had to do with the story? He intentionally puts things in layers to evoke “a feeling” where nothing is predictable. Then whenever people do get lulled into a sense of predictability, then something happens that is completely outlandish. (Laughs).
SMB – Are you a fan of the genre?
LM – I know more of the classic horror films, DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN. I always enjoyed the HITCHOCK, type of horror. Where more is left to suggestion and the terror takes place more in the mind. I also enjoyed people like POLANSKY like in THE TENANT where it’s a horror film because you really don’t know if it’s happening inside the character’s head or as an actual occurrence. Or even ROSEMARY’S BABY where you question the reality of what’s transpiring. There are other films in the genre which I don’t care for. In my opinion they’re just cruel without any artistry. That’s my opinion anyway. Unlike Dario’s films which are done with a lot of artistry. The vision is akin to the artist Geiger which one may like, or not, but which still retains archetypal reality. Dario really does have the ability to draw people in. His forte is that of having the seemingly random become connected. Like the nightmare that doesn’t make sense but on another level they do have a truth or reality. That’s what the best horror movies have – the ability to affect your subconscious. The part of the mind your waking state doesn’t want to deal with.
SMB – Because you said you didn’t know what to expect when you walked onto the set – how was something like, oh the scene where you’re in the crawl space of the building and see the cat eating the mouse. Was that taking place in front of you or not?
LM – No. That was edited in later. That’s the “set-up”. The old “cat eating the mouse”. (Laughs) It can be a body floating by you too. But that leads me to another thing. The art direction. It was not a good idea to have a good hearty lunch before shooting. They looked real is all I can say.
SMB – Did he surprise you at any time to elicit a response?
LM - For the most part I was aware of what was happening but at times I was also aware of the fact that he had an ideal, as an artist has an idea, that wasn’t completely formed. He was shooting it in such a way that you wouldn’t see it full realized until it went to editing. That was he could make different choices. He shot certain thing different ways, different angles. The way it seemed to me, and I apologized to Dario if I’m wrong… but, he left his storytelling opened. That’s why I wasn’t always certain why I was doing something. Like with the ants on my had. I didn’t know why, but I just trusted that he had his need for that particular action. But you know, when I saw the film FLATLINERS I wondered if the director, had seen any of Dario’s films because that film, I thing, really did the same things in ters of lighting. There are only certain colors in Dario’s films which keeps everything in a sort of universe of its own.
SMB- John Boorman does that too. He makes color keys for his films. As in THE HERETIC where there is no blue or green. He felt theses colors, so important in depicting nature in balance, ones taken away would leave a subliminal massage of a world out of balance.
LM – Yeah, that’s what I really like about directors who are artists. True visionaries. They realized the true power of film. They know how to suggest and move into areas such as terror. Areas which have to do with very primal codes. Because of our cultural sophistication it might not be recognized as missing, and yet because they are missing the body reacts and that’s what make it a terrifying viewing experience.
SMB – So after the shooting and the editing what was your reaction to seengit all come together?
LM – I thought it was a beautifully shot film. The opening with Keith Emerson’s music – the direction was very strong. I could see why he was so very popular. There was so much more alchemic themes.
SMB – Much of which was cut for American release.
LM – Yes. Like, remember the boiling cauldron in the beginning?
SMB – Yes.
LM – Along with the Three others and the three principles of salt, sulfur and mercury. Even the idea of "degrado putrefaction”, which are all chemical demons, of darkness, black mass, putrefaction needed for the re-birth. Even his choices of color for certain places.
SMB – His choices of classic music is also interesting.
LM – Oh yes, his uses of opera. Remember the image of the Lady with the cat?
SMB – Yes.
LM - … and the music playing while the window blows open? I just thought some of those moments were really breath taking. They were remarkable representations of the cinematic, of the visual merging with music.
SMB – Well, he does direct almost a ballet when he films a murder. As strange as that sounds.
LM – Yes, almost poetic. However, I personally feel it’s a lot better not to follow through on showing the violent act. But, that’s just a personal stylist thing. However, Dario feels it’s necessary for what he wants to do. Like Sam Peckinpah said, “you don’t look away”. But what you’re saying is true. His work has a poetic feel. That’s why almost twenty years later I would like to see the film again. Untouched and complete. I thin I would understand it more now than I did then. You know from time to time I run into Argento fans and I must say, without a doubt, they are the most intelligent and best fans. Once at an audition I had gone on someone was quoting line to me from INFERNO. I kept thinking. “Is that from a movie I should know?” I didn’t know what he was doing it. I just kept smiling politely. Kind of wearing that half stupid look you get when you’re trying not to seem like you haven’t a clue as to what somebody said. Then once when we had a get together with Dario, there was a panel discussion with a group of tremendously intelligent people. Did you know that Joe Dante was a big Agrento fan?
SMB – Really!
LM – Yes. I’ve got to say I’ve been very impressed by the caliber of people who approached me about the film. In a whole they’re very articulate – and, as you mentioned, the murders had a balletic element to them, they also talk about the lighting and whole visual element.
SMB – It’s a different kind of element of fans that most would typically expect from a type of film that could be labeled “exploitive.”
LM – Yes – because badly done, there can be nothing worse. But Dario must be onto something.
SMB – Dario’s film’s always come to the states edited. Sometime with a title change, as with TENEBRE which was re-entitled UNSANE, or PHENOMENA which became CREEPERS.
LM – Oh that sound intelligent. I can just see it, “I know, why don’t’ we just call it CREEPERS! Now that’s exactly on the line of what we were talking about. They probably just thought of it less of a genre film and cut it simply as a “horror” film… Leaving out the sub textures and symbolism. You certainly don’t name a thing with a Latin title when you can call it something like CREEPERS or UNSANE when you’re driving it towards a completely different audience.
SMB – With the subject matter of the film being so serious did anything happen to lighten the tone?
LM – Well, (Laughs). We had finished principal photography and Claudio, Dairo’s brother, called me and said, “Leigh, your stunt man broke his leg and we have to shoot the rest of the stunts, and uh… do you think you could do it? It’ll be absolutely safe.” So I said sure! So then I show up on the set the next day, and I kid you not, there are three rows of sand bags, and Plexiglas in front of everything, and everyone is wearing hard hats – and I’m the only guy standing on the other side of all this. (Laughs) … and then they tell me that timbers are going to be set on fire, then they’re going to roll down, then they’re going to crash down behind you. So you’re going to have to run as fast as you can. Then when you get to these glass doors they’re going to blow out, then the floor is going to buckle… Needless to say I did it all on instinct. But I like the way they waited till we finished principal photography. You know, go for the old, “the stuntman broke his leg routine -and you know, on that day the studio caught on fire! …and what showed up – you know those old pumper wagons, like the Keystone Cops. Well that’s what showed up - four of the oldest Italians I’ve ever seen with gray mustaches who had to be eighty years old start pumping these wagons, to put out the fire. They finally got it under control.
SMB – So the ending as seen on screen with you running through the flames is real!
LM – Oh year, that’s real. I still feel that blast of the door blowing by me. When they tell you in words it’s one thing, but then you feel that glass go flying past you with a sound alikened to a Harrier jet you ever forget it.
SMB – So Dario is into method acting I guess.
LM – Oh yeah! I learned that stunt work is a lot of instinct – which is just trying not to dies! …and another thing… In the scene where I have the ants on my hands… After I did the scene a guy came over to me (whispering) “… as, so, the ants. So I guess they didn’t bite you!” And I said, “What?!” Then he said, “OH GOD ARE YOU LUCKY! If they had bitten you! Oh, it hurts! It’s like a fire in your hand!” So I said to him, “You mean you just put a whole bunch of FIRE ANTS IN MY HAD!?” …and he say just says, “Yes.” I mean this ant wrangler just says, “Yes” It’s things like that where you just have to laugh.
SMB – Fans of “The Three Mother” films have been waiting for Dario to finish the trilogy.
LM – Now twenty years later I’d love to him to finish the trilogy and see where he would bring it and what it would evolve into after all these years.
SMB - … and where the third house would be.
SMB – It would be nice if he would bring you and Jessica Harper, the heroine from SUSPIRIA, to help out whomever would be in the third film. To combat the final evil force together and some up everything (hint to Dario)
LM – that would be great. It would. I’d love to work with Dairo again.
NOTE: This interview was conducted previous to the third installment, MOTHER OF TEARS