Monday, 21 December 2020

Antonioni Discusses The Passenger

The Passenger (Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni)
Originally released in 1975, Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger is, on one level, a thriller about a man trying to escape his past. This poignant film is a profile of an exhausted journalist, played by Jack Nicholson, whose means of escape is to take over the identity of a dead man. However, Antonioni is less interested in the suspense inherent in Nicholson’s situation, rather the plot is the starting point for a portrait of a man in spiritual and psychological crisis. 

Based on an original story by Mark Peploe and filmed from a screenplay by Peploe, Peter Wollen and Antonioni, The Passenger begins with Nicholson in remote Africa completing work on a documentary about rebels in Chad attempting to overthrow a tyrannical government. In a bar, he meets a stranger named Robertson (Charles Mulvehill) who unexpectedly dies in an adjoining hotel room (and who, unknown to Locke, is an in-demand arms dealer). Upon discovering the body, Locke — unhappily married and  sickened by the compromises of his work – assumes the dead man’s identity. 

Antonioni further suggests that Locke’s desire to identify with and absorb an alien personality is synonymous with the movie audience’s desire to identify with, and therefore live vicariously through, the experiences of fictional cinematic characters.

As Locke takes on Robertson’s life and commitments, it turns out that Locke has merely assumed one bleak prison for another. His odyssey takes him from Africa to Spain, Germany and England in a doomed flight from the past. In The Passenger, the only motif more prevalent than doubles is the image of spirals (from swirling sand, tyre marks in the dust, a rotating fan, or Antonioni’s spiralling camera movements) – a looped pattern which resolves to the idea that the cycle of life ends where it begins: in nothingness.

The famous climax of the film – a final sequence lasting seven minutes and taking eleven days to shoot – is a synthesis of the movie’s themes and a tribute to Antonioni’s virtuosity as a director. 

Antonioni considered The Passenger his most stylistically mature film. He also considered it a political film due to its topicality and the fact that it ‘fits with the dramatic rapport of the individual in today’s society.’

In the following interview with Larry Sturhahn and Betty Jeffries Demby, originally published in 1975, Antonioni discusses the making of The Passenger and analyses its place in the context of his work.

BETTY JEFFRlES DEMBY: Did you do the screenplay for ‘The Passenger’? 

MICHELANGELO ANTONIONI: I have always written my own scripts, even if what I wrote was the result of discussions with my collaborators. The Passenger, however, was written by someone else. Naturally I made changes to adapt it to my way of thinking and shooting. I like to impro­vise  – in fact, I can’t do otherwise. It is only in this phase – that is, when I actually see it –  that the film becomes clear to me. Lucidity and clear­ness are not among my qualities, if I have any.

LARRY STURHAHN: In this case, were there any major changes in the screenplay? 

MA: The whole idea, the way the film is done, is different. The mood is changed – there is more of a spy feeling, it’s more political.

LS: Do you always adapt a piece of material to suit your particular needs? 

MA: Always, I got the idea for Blow-Up from a short story by Cortazar, but even there I changed a lot. And The Girlfriends was based on a story by Pavese. But I work on the scripts by myself with some collaboration, and as far as the act of writing is concerned, I always do that myself

LS: I have often felt that the short story is a better medium to adapt to film because it’s compact and about the same length as a film.

MA: I agree. The Girlfriends was based on a short novel, Among Women Only. And the most difficult pages to translate into images were the best pages as far as the novel and the writing were concerned. I mean the best of the pages – the pages I liked the most – were the most difficult. When you have just an idea it’s easier. Putting something into a differ­ent medium is difficult because the first medium was there first. In a novel there’s usually too much dialogue – and getting rid of the dialogue is difficult.

LS: Do you change the dialogue even further when you’re on the set?

MA: Yes, I change it a lot. I need to hear a line pronounced by the actors.

LS: How much do you see of a film when you’re looking at the script? Do you see the locations? Do you see where you’re going to work with the film?

MA: Yes, more or less. But I never try to copy what I see because this is impossible. I will never find the exact counterpart of my imagination.

LS: So you wipe the slate clean when you’re looking for your location?

MA: Yes. I just go and look. I know what I need, of course. Actually, it’s very simple.

BJD: Then you don’t leave the selection of location up to your assistants?

MA: The location is the very substance of which the shot is made. Those colors, that light, those trees, those objects, those faces. How could I leave the choice of all this to my assistants? Their choices would be entirely dif­ferent from mine. Who knows the film I am making better than me?

BJD: Was ‘The Passenger’ shot entirely on location? 

MA: Yes.

BJD: I believe most of your other films were too. Why do you have such a strong preference for location shooting?

MA: Because reality is unpredictable. In the studio everything has been foreseen.

BJD: One of the most interesting scenes in the film is the one which takes place on the roof of the Gaudi cathedral in Barcelona. Why did you choose this loca­tion?

MA: The Gaudi towers reveal, perhaps, the oddity of an encounter between a man who has the name of a dead man and a girl who doesn’t have any name. (She doesn’t need it in the film.)

BJD: I understand that in ‘Red Desert’ you actually painted the grass and col­ored the sea to get the effects you wanted Did you do anything similar in ‘The Passenger’?

MA: No. In The Passenger I have not tampered with reality. I looked at it with the same eye with which the hero, a reporter, looks at the events he is reporting on. Objectivity is one of the themes of the film. If you look closely, there are two documentaries in the film, Locke’s documentary on Africa and mine on him.

BJD: What about the sequence where Nicholson is isolated in the desert? The desert is especially striking, and the color is unusually intense and burning. Did you use any special filters or forced processing to create this effect?

MA: The color is the color of the desert. We used a filter, but not to alter it; on the contrary, in order not to alter it. The exact warmness of the color was obtained in the laboratory by the usual processes.

BJD: Did shooting in the desert with its high temperatures and blowing sand create any special problems for you?

MA: Not especially. We brought along a refrigerator in which to keep the film, and we tried to protect the camera from the blowing sand by cov­ering it in any possible way.

BJD: How do you cast your actors?

MA: I know the actors, I know the characters of the film. It is a question of juxtaposition.

LS: Specifically, why did you choose Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider?

MA: Jack Nicholson and I wanted to make a film together, and I thought he would be very good, very right for this part. The same for Maria Schneider. She was my understanding of the girl. And I think she was perfect for the role. I may have changed it a bit for her, but that is a real­ity I must face: you can’t invent an abstract feeling. Being a ‘star’ is irrel­evant – if the actor is different from the part, if the feeling doesn’t work, even Jack Nicholson won’t get the part.

LS: Are you saying that Nicholson acts like a star, that he’s hard to work with? 

MA: No. He’s very competent and a very, very good actor, so it’s easy to work with him. He’s intense, yet he doesn’t create any problems – you can cut his hair (I didn’t), he’s not concerned about his ‘good’ side or whether the camera is too high or too low; you can do whatever you want.

BJD: You once said that you see actors as part of the composition; that you don’t want to explain the characters’ motivations to them but want them to be pas­sive. Do you still handle actors this way?

MA: I never said that I want the actors to be passive. I said that sometimes if you explain too much, you run the risk that the actors become their own directors, and this doesn’t help the film. Nor the actor. I prefer work­ing with the actors not on an intellectual but on a sensorial level. To stim­ulate rather than teach.

First of all, I am not very good at talking to them because it is difficult for me to find the right words. Also, I am not the kind of director who wants ‘messages’ on each line. So I don’t have anything more to say about the scene than how to do it. What I try to do is provoke them, put them in the right mood. And then I watch them through the camera and at that moment tell them to do this or that. But not before. I have to have my shot, and they are an element of the image – and not always the most important element.

Also, I see the film in its unity whereas an actor sees the film through his character. It was difficult working with Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider at the same time because they are such completely different actors. They are natural in opposite ways: Nicholson knows where the camera is and acts accordingly. But Maria doesn’t know where the cam­era is – she doesn’t know anything; she just lives the scene. Which is great. Sometimes she just moves and no one knows how to follow her. She has a gift for improvising, and I like that – I like to improvise.

LS: Then you don’t preplan what you are going to do on the set? You don’t sit down the evening before or in the morning and say, ‘I’m going to do this and this’? 

MA: No. Never, never.

LS: You just let it happen as you’re on the set? 

MA: Yes.

LS: Do you at least let your actors rehearse a scene first, or do you just go right into it?

MA: I rehearse very little – maybe twice, but not more. I want the actors to be fresh, not tired.

BJD: What about camera angles and camera movement? Do you carefully pre­plan in this area?

MA: Very carefully.

LS: Are you able to make decisions about print takes very soon, or do you –? 

MA: Immediately.

LS: Then you don’t shoot a lot of takes?

MA: No. Three. Maybe five or six. Sometimes we may do fifteen, but that is very rare.

LS: Would you be able to estimate how much footage you shoot per day? 

MA: No.

LS: Just whatever you can accomplish?

MA: In China I made as many as eighty shots in one day, but that was very different work; I had to rush.

LS: How long did it take to do the final scene of ‘The Passenger’?

MA: Eleven days. But that was not because of me but because of the wind. It was very windy weather and so difficult to keep the camera steady.

BJD: One critic has said that the final seven-minute sequence is destined to become a classic of film history. Can you explain how you conceived it?

MA: I had the idea for the final sequence as soon as I started shooting. I knew, naturally, that my protagonist must die, but the idea of seeing him die bored me. So I thought of a window and what was outside, the afternoon sun. For a second, just for a fraction – Hemingway crossed my mind: ‘Death in the Afternoon.’ And the arena. We found the arena and immediately realized this was the place. But I didn’t yet know how to realize such a long shot. I had heard about the Canadian camera, but I had no first–hand knowledge of its possibilities. In London, I saw some film tests. I met with the English technicians responsible for the camera and we decided to try. There were many problems to solve. The biggest was that the camera was 16mm and I needed 35mm. To modify it would have involved modifying its whole equilibrium since the camera is mounted on a series of gyroscopes. However. I succeeded in doing it.

LS: Did you use a zoom lens or a very slow dolly?

MA: A zoom was mounted on the camera. But it was only used when the camera was about to pass through the gate.

LS: It’s interesting how the camera moves toward the man in the center against the wall but we never get to see him, the camera never focuses on him.

MA: Well, he is part of the landscape, that’s all. And everything is in focus – everything. But not specifically on him. I didn’t want to go closer to anybody. The surprise is the use of this long shot. You see the girl out­side and you see her movements and you understand very well without going closer to her what she’s doing, maybe what her thoughts are. You see, I am using this very long shot like closeups, the shot actually takes the place of closeups.

LS: Did you cover that shot in any other way or was this your sole commitment? 

MA: I had this idea of doing it in one take at the beginning of the shoot­ing and I kept working on it all during the shooting.

LS: How closely do you work with your cinematographer?

MA: Who is the cinematographer? We don’t have this character in Italy.

LS: How big a crew do you work with?

MA: I prefer a small crew. On this one I had a big crew – forty people­ but we had union problems so it couldn’t be smaller.

LS: How important is your continuity girl to your work?

MA: Very important. Because we have to change in the middle, we can’t go chronologically.

BJD: How closely do you work with your editor?

MA: We always work together. However, I edited Blow-Up myself and the first version of The Passenger as well. But it was too long and so I redid it with Franco Arcalli, my editor. Then it was still too long, so I cut it by myself again.

BJD: How closely does the edited version reflect what you had in mind when you were shooting?

MA: Unfortunately, as soon as I finish shooting a film I don’t like it. And then little by little I look at it and start to find something. But when I finish shooting it’s like I haven’t shot anything. Then when I have my material – when it’s been shot in my head and on the actual film – it’s like it’s been shot by someone else. So I look at it with great detachment and then I start to cut. And I like this phase.

But on this one I had to change a lot because the first cut was very long. I shot much more than I needed because I had very little time to prepare the film – Nicholson had some engagements and I had to shoot very quickly.

LS: So you didn’t have time before the shooting to cut your screenplay down to size. 

MA: Right. I shot much more than was necessary because I didn’t know what I would need. So the first cut was very long – four hours. Then I had another that ran two hours and twenty minutes. And now it’s two hours.

LS: Do you shoot lip sync – record the sound on location? 


LS: What about dubbing?

MA: A little – when the noise is too much.

BJD: The soundtrack is an enormously important part of your films. For ‘L’avventura’ you recorded every possible shading of the sound if the sea. Did you do anything similar for ‘The Passenger’?

MA: My rule is always the same: For each scene, I record a soundtrack without actors.

BJD: Sometimes you make critical plot points by using sound alone. For instance, in the last sequence we have only the sound of the opening door and what might be a gunshot to let us know the protagonist has been killed. Would you comment on this?

MA: A film is both image and sound. Which is the most important? I put them both on the same plane. Here I used sound because I could not avoid looking at my hero – I could not avoid hearing the sounds con­nected with the actual killing since Locke, the killer, and the camera were in the same room.

BJD: You use music only rarely in the film, but with great effectiveness. Can you explain how you choose which moments will be scored?

MA: I can’t explain it. It is something I feel. When the film is finished, I watch it a couple of times thinking only about the music. In the places where I feel it is missing, I put it in – not as score music but as source music.

LS: Who do you admire among American directors?

MA: I like Coppola; I think The Conversation was a very good film. I like Scorsese; I saw Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and liked it very much­ it was a very simple but very sincere film. And you have Altman and California Split – he’s a very good observer of California society. And Steven Spielberg is also very good.

LS: I have the impression from your films that your people tend to just appear full-blown in a particular situation, that there’s not much  of a past to your characters. For instance, we find Nicholson in an alienated place with no roots behind him. And the same for the girl; she’s just there. It’s as though people are just immediately in an immediate present. There’s no background to them, as it were.

MA: I think it’s a different way of looking at the world. The other way is the older way. This is the modern way of looking at people. Today everyone has less background than in the past. We’re freer. A girl today can go anywhere, just like the one in the film, with just one bag and no thoughts for her family or past. She doesn’t have to carry any baggage with her.

BJD: You mean moral baggage?

MA: Precisely. Moral, psychological luggage. But in the older movies peo­ple have homes and we see these homes and the people in them. You see Nicholson’s home, but he’s not tied down, he’s used to going all over the world.

BJD: Yet you seem to find the struggle for identity interesting.

MA: Personally, I mean to get away from my historical self and find a new one. I need to renew myself this way. Maybe this is an illusion, but I think it is a way to reach something new.

RJD: I was thinking of the television journalist like Mr. Locke getting bored with life. Then there’s no hope for anything because that’s one of the more interesting careers.

MA: Yes, in a way. But it’s also a very cynical career. Also, his problem is that he is a journalist – he can’t get involved in everything he reports because he’s a filter. His job is always to talk about and show something or someone else, but he himself is not involved. He’s a witness not a protagonist  And that’s the problem.

LS: Do you see any similarity between your role as a film director and the role of Locke in the film?

MA: In this film it may be yes; it’s part of the film. But it’s different in a way. In The Passenger I tried to look at Locke the way Locke looks at real­ity. After all, everything I do is absorbed in a kind of collision between myself and reality.

LS: Some people think of film as being the most real of the arts and some think it’s purely illusion, a fake, because everything in a movie is still pictures. Can you speak a bit about this in relation to ‘The Passenger’?

MA: I don’t know if I could speak about it – if I could do the same thing with words I would be a writer and not a film director. I don’t have any­ thing to say but perhaps something to show. There’s a difference.

That’s why it’s very difficult for me to talk about my films. What I want to do is make the film. I know what I have to do. Not what I mean. I never think the meaning because I can’t.

LS: You’re a film director and you make images, yet I find that in your films the key people have a problem with seeing – they’re trying to find things or they’ve lost something. Like the photographer in ‘Blow-Up’ trying to find reality in his own work. Are you, as a director working in this medium, frustrated at not being able to find reality?

MA: Yes and no. In some ways I capture reality in making a film – at least I have a film in my hands, which is something concrete. What I am fac­ing may not be the reality I was looking for, but I’ve found someone or something every time. I have added something more to myself in making the film.

LS: Then it’s a challenge each time?

MA: Yes! I fight for it. Can you imagine? I lost my male character in the desert before the ending of the film because Richard Harris went away without telling me. The ending was supposed to be all three of them – the wife, the husband, and the third man. So I didn’t know how to finish the film. I didn’t stop working during the day, but at night I would walk around the harbor thinking until I finally came up with the idea for the ending I have now. Which I think was better than the previous one – for­tunately.

BJD: Have you ever wanted to make an autobiographical film?

MA: No. And I’ll tell you why: Because I don’t like to look back; I always look forward. Like everyone, I have a certain number of years to live, so this year I want to look forward and not back – I don’t want to think about the past years, I want to make this year the best year of my life. That is why I don’t like to make films that are statements.

BJD: It’s been said that in a certain sense a director makes the same film all his life – that is, explores the different aspects of a given theme in a variety of ways throughout his pictures. Do you agree with this? Do you feel it’s true for your work?

MA: Dostoevsky said that an artist only says one thing in his work all through his life. If he is very good, perhaps two. The liberty of the para­doxical nature of that quotation allows me to add that it doesn’t com­pletely apply to me. But it’s not for me to say.

– ‘Antonioni Discusses The Passenger’ in The Architecture of Vision: Writings and Interviews on Cinema. University Of Chicago Press (2007).


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