Interview with JESSICA HARPER - SUSPIRIA
An introduction to a Dario Argento film…
When we enter the ream of a Dario Argento film, the laws of the possible and probable are challenged. Like a master architect a new framework of realities has been constructed concealing the audience in a house with many doors, even more rooms, and numerous windows.
There is only one entrance, which we enter with free will and exist only when allowed. We are guided through darkness, from hall to hall, always whispering question and there is light only when we’ve entered a room. It startles us in a blinding flash, only for an instant, embedding in our minds, unspeakable and startling sights.
During the tour, our senses will be assaulted both by what we see and hear. Music that is at times repetitious in melody or loud in volume, and will serve a double purpose – the first to almost hypnotize, a lulling of or will, the latter to confound and confuse – together creating an atmosphere of uneasiness and apprehension. We will see much water and falling rain – lacrimatio the tears of the world. Much glass will shatter – displaying how delicate our preconceived notion of reality is. There are times we will travel “Out of Body” as helpless voyeurs perceiving hostile intentions and acting out the cruelness of others. Even when witnessing the most abhorrent atrocities on the human body there is no release. Instead, each act prolongs in it a hellish punishment of eternal torment, of unending suffer, supporting the supposition of dying but no death.
These images are painted with blood, yet unsettlingly portrayed with the lyricism of a ballet. This realm is not of Hades, but of Earth. Not corporeality, but imaginary. It is a world born with closed eyes lids and rapid eye movements. It’s all in the world of the sub-conscience where fear are the political structure of the land called nightmares. Our form of transportation to the place is celluloid in it various states, our guide is Dario Argento.
SMB – SUSPIRIA has grown into a film of a measurable cult status.
JH – People come up to me on the street and sa, “that is my favorite movie of all time.”
SMB – It has a life of its own.
JH – Yes, it really does. It’s one of those movies that people really respond to. People I’ve met, who don’t realize I’m in it, and say, “oh my God, you’re in that movie!”, they go on to say, “That is a great, scary movie!” But it does have a life of its won and it’s a great cult movie. It’s got a lot of fans.
SMB – Back in 77’ I guess you never would have thought that, I suppose.
JH – Well… I guess I just didn’t think about that much back them. It was so long ago I don’t know what I thought. (Laughs) But I knew he (Argento) was a very, very, talented and a popular director in Italy. But I didn’t know if it would work in the States – but HERE IT IS!
SMB – Actor Leigh McCloskey who was in INFERNO the sequel, noted that working with Argento was very unique – even the script – it was a very different experience from working with other directors.
JH – Yeah, it was very different. Mostly because of the Italian Production system. It’s a very different way of shooting. Basically you’re shooting without sound.
SMB – Really?
JH – Oh, yeah. They don’t even bother to concern themselves with a good soundtrack, because they know that they’ll be dubbing everything. Actually, in SUSPIRIA there were only a couple of scenes where they used live sound. All the rest of it was dubbed. It was really strange because I’d be doing a scene and there would be hammering in the background because they were building a set over somewhere. In the States of course, that would never be tolerated. Over there, it was a very (with a laugh), different thing. But remember they know they’re going to be dubbing languages for all around the world. It’s a tradition I guess.
SMB - I guess it’s a marketing thing. Knowing especially that it will have to go to the States.
JH – Yes, and several of the actors didn’t speak English. So sometimes I’d be doing a scene where I’d be speaking English and the actor I’d be working with would be speaking in either Italian or German. Ultimately no, meaning the audience, wouldn’t now that because in the end everything was dubbed.
SMB – Did you speak any other language other than English?
JH – I did, Italian.
SMB – So then you were able to communicate with Dario?
JH – We actually communicated mostly in English, but by the time I was done I was pretty fluent in Italian. So with the crew I was actually able to communicate pretty well.
SMB – So then there were times when a single scene would be done with different actors speaking different languages! That must have made it difficult to play out a scene.
JH – Yeah, it was … unusual. I had to know exactly what was going on in that scene, obviously, or else I’d be lost. It is an unusual way of working.
SMB – Because of this arrangement was the script more descriptive or informative?
JH – I can’t remember that but from what I do remember the film was pretty faithful to the script. But in terms of delivering a performance, the script was very explicit there.
SMB – The film isn’t supported by its dialog – it’s visual narrative…
JH – Yes, that’s true.
SMB - …so how was that conveyed, and did that make things difficult, or complicated, for you as an actress? Argento is an extremely visual director.
JH – Well, it’s true that what’s important in that movie is going on visually. In fact that’s also true what is important in the performances as well. I had to act more through expressions, more that words.
SMB – So it was akin to a “silent screen” type of acting.
JH – Yes, it was related to that because, as you stated, the impact of that film is visual impact rather a verbal one.
SMB – Do you remember if the violence was represented in the script?
JH – No not really. In fact, I don’t really like to be scared. That’s not an emotion I consider pleasurable. (Laughs)
SMB – Then you must have found filming it unsettling?
JH – Yeah. Oh, there was one scene in particular that was unsettling…
SMB – Was it the bat scene?
JH – The bat wasn’t so bad. I mean, I knew it was fake. But there was a scene where I had to run through a corridor and things were exploding, and glass was breaking. I really was scared! I mean it was conceivable I was in a little bit of danger in the shooting of that scene. That situation, that possibility can happen a lot in making a film.
SMB – Where you prepared as to what would happen prior to filming? Or is Dario a method director?
JH – Oh no, he explained to me everything that was going to happen. I was also very well protected against injury – but none the less, it was still a little scary. Another scene that concerned me involved me stabbing an old witch in the neck, with a knife. I was concerned because she, the actress, happened to be a very old woman. I think in fact, she was actually a prostitute they had found. She was like a hundred years old or something… (Both laugh). I don’t know, but she was very old and they made her up to look even older. I had to go at her with this knife at her neck – that made me very uncomfortable. But I guess that helped the performance – I guess.
SMB – Have you seen INFERNO, the sequel?
JH – No, I haven’t actually.
SMB – The actor of that film has “fond” memories of the destruction for the house in that film, just as you do. He voiced the same concerns.
JH – Oh, my God. That’s interesting. Well it was the scariest scene in the film because I conceivably could have gotten hurt. But there were lots of difficult scenes. Doing the scene with the bat wasn’t because it was mechanical. Then there was the scene with the worms.
SMB – Oh, yes the worms!
JH – You know when they filmed it they actually used rice. But for close-ups they used the real ones. I’ll never forget Dario Argento waking up me on the set and opening up this little paper bag and inside was this mound of wiggling … ugh, whatever they were. I just about vomited. (Both laugh) It was really disgusting. But sustaining any kind of terror, or horror, on your face, and keeping the realism for any extended amount of time is really draining. But that’s what you have to do.
SMB – Did Dario use any tactics to take you off guard – to surprise you?
JH – Not while the camera was rolling.
SMB – Oh but off camera?
JH – I didn’t mean for that to sound like something happened. Dario is just an interesting person. So he would surprise you in simply the way an interesting person does. He never did anything during shooting that was weird.
SMB – With all the horror and mayhem going on in front of the cameras what positive memories do you have of the film.
JH – In terms of enjoyable, I’d have to say hanging out with Joan Bennett who was such a real movie star in the tradition of the 40’s. It was very interesting to hang out with her. It was like being “back then”, because of the way she behaved. I mean that in the best sense. She was a beautiful, dignified woman. At the time I was a smoker and she was constant smoker. So I’d pull out a cigarette and she’d say, “don’t let them photograph you smoking my dear.” She said it in that sort of publicity conscious way that was prevalent from the 40’s which today is just not the sort of way you think as an actress. Then of course she had some great stories about the old days in Hollywood.
SMB – how about Alida Valli?
JH – She was very, very professional. Truthfully, I don’t think she was feeling very well at that time. He had some sort of blood sugar imbalance so she would, at times, drink a tall glass of water filled with sugar – which I’m sure wasn’t the best possible medicine for whatever it was she had. But I enjoyed hanging with her crew. They were a really great group of people.
SMB – The film takes place in Germany – how much was filmed there?
JH – Well, the bulk of it was filmed in Rome. We did exteriors in Germany.
SMB – Was the exterior of the school in Germany?
JH – Yes, I think so.
SMB - …and the beginning at the airport?
JH – Yes and that incredibly beautiful interior of that swimming pool. That was in Munich. That was very, very beautiful. I think there was probably some street exteriors as well. Oh, and we also went into the forest – you know when the cab drives by the forest? That was just outside Munich.
SMB – How was it filming in Germany?
JH – Well ... ah, it was a little unpleasant because the Germans are very anti-Italian. There really was a very noticeable prejudice against Italians. Of course, everyone in the crew was Italian. The experience was much better in Italy. The conditions were of course different than doing a film out in the States, but not all pleasant.
SMB – in the film you do a little ballet. Had you any experience with dancing?
JH – Yes.
SMB – So the part was second nature to you?
JH – Well only the dancing.
SMB – How was the project first approached to you?
JH – Through my agent, but I know Dario had seen me in Phantom of the Paradise. He (Dario) sent my agent the script so I was sort of thought the usual channels.
SMB – Did you have any apprehensions doing a hard-core horror film at he time?
JH – Yeah, I did have some thought about it. But at that time, at that age, I also didn’t think about making really careful career decisions. My agent thought it was a really good idea and I knew Dario was really good director so I knew he was bound to make something interesting. I remember thinking it could turn out to be something really cool. You know, I was offered a part in Annie Hall at the same time.
SMB – But SUSPIRIA turned out to be more of a “International” role.
JH – Yeah, true, and the part in Annie Hall wasn’t hat big either.
SMB – Did the subject matter of occult and black magic concern you?
JH – No. It didn’t concern me. In fact, I thought it was kind of intriguing. Plus, the film doesn’t go into it in any great depth. The witchcraft element is more of a device to provide an atmosphere. The really does have an amazing overall atmosphere.
SMB – Did Dario do anything on the set to aid you in creating a mood?
JH – He had played to me music by that group …
SMB – Goblin!
JH – Yes. Remember, I wasn’t informed with his work really so I couldn’t put the pieces together in my mind. He’s the kind of director, like a lot of the best directors. It’s all on the page, of the script. But it’s only a skeleton compared to what is later seen on screen. With Dario the final product is made up more of what he shoots, not what’s on the page. It’s such a great leap forward from the page to the final product. He so good at putting together all the seemingly, unrelated elements and making them work.
SMB – But that must make your job as an actress that much more difficult?
JH – But with a good director it’s always that way. The best director should enhance the script to the point to where it’s beyond your imagination. That’s what it’s all about – it’s funny and charming and all that, and it stays that way even after you see it. But you get someone like Dario or Bordon Willis and it becomes something you’ve never imagined. They do something magical that is only in their minds. Brian De Palma is another one. It’s just the way they shoot, it lifts the material to another level, and that’s the way it should be.