Hace poco, nuestro colaborador Álvaro Díez tuvo la oportunidad de charlar en Milán con Luciano Tovoli, director de fotografía de Suspiria: tal vez el ‘giallo’ más icónico del maestro italiano Dario Argento.
Este artículo recoge las reflexiones que le dejó sobre la luz en el cine, la evolución de su oficio y sus anécdotas de rodaje con Jack Nicholson. El texto, eso sí, está en inglés.
Two years ago was the 40th anniversary of Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977), perhaps the most iconic Italian Horror Giallo film. All around Italy the film was being showed again in cinemas. Photography is one the main features of this work of art, and last December Suspiria’s photography director Luciano Tovoli (1936) released a beautiful book on how he created the imagery of the film, all the tricks, ideas, techniques and inventions used during the shooting.
The book, Suspiria e Dintorni. Conversazione con Luciano Tovoli, is illustrated and full of details, anecdotes and new information about the filming of Suspiria. Hot Corn organized an event at the Space Cinema Odeon of Milan, where the Tovoli restored version of Suspiria was shown, and Tovoli himself talked about his role in the movie.
A lot of things have been said about Suspiria and its photography, so I want to offer a less known perspective about Tovoli. After the film finished, a group of cinephiles remained with Tovoli asking him questions, and then we went to take a drink. It was one the most interesting conversations we could ever hope. We asked him a lot of questions, and I would like to share his thoughts on a number of subjects. He ordered a glass of wine and started talking.
Tovoli was funnily angry at how light is being used in contemporary cinema. He recalled the home-made techniques he used during the filming, and compared them to the current advanced but cold and unoriginal way of using light. He was especially proud about a machine he invented for the initial scene of Suspiria, where a car is illuminated by almost supernatural lights.
The machine was a kind of spinning vertical cylinder with gelatins of different colors, and light went through these gelatins, changing the colors of the scene very fast. Also, to create the lightning bolt, they used big cables and made great bursts of light and sparks, to the point that the manager of a nearby power substation went to the set to stop them. They had been provoking voltage fluctuations in the electrical grid of the city!
He explained with nostalgia that he had used cameras of about 100 ISO, while now directors make him use 800 ISO cameras that are unnecessarily powerful and too sensitive. For Tovoli the camera itself is not that important. What is important is how do you use the light, how do you create it and transform it. How do you put the light around.
And according to him, every camera in the current market is powerful enough to make a good movie, even the weakest ones. And after seeing the quality of some cellphones cameras we can easily think about filming a whole movie with them. Therefore, the real challenge for present and future cinema photographers is to discover new ways of using the light, not trying to usebetter cameras. His advice is precisely to try filming using less light, now that capturing it is not a problem. Back in the good old days, the real issue was to create light.
In this sense, he really was against digital cinema, and he explained that this technology was born in Italy, and that ironically he was there during these first steps. He and Michelangelo Antonioni made a film together, Il Mistero di Oberwald (1980), where they pioneered using the primitive digital technology. For example, they experimented creating a colorful wind, which you can only develop through digital technologies.
The problem is that then, progressively, the cinema industry abandoned traditional photography and editing, and digital engulfed everything. It went from an opportunity to enrich the art, to a crude way of saving money and time. E.G., from a staff of maybe thirty people responsible of the photography, now you only need around five people. And the consequence was also a depreciating of the quality and ingenuity of photography. Now all movies look the same.
The craft is being lost. «Digital killed cinema, without the use of light, the cinema is dead» Tovoli said. He explained that a good photographer should use film and lens for the shooting and then digital technology only for the scanning. But he also saw some good photography works, for example among Mexican cinematographers such as Emmanuel Lubezki.
He also explained us other interesting anecdotes. During the filming of The Passenger (1975) they had to create an ingenious system that combined cameras, stabilizers, and a crane -among others- to create a long take in a square. He explained that he accidentally burnt Jack Nicholson during a scene with a spotlight. Nicholson still bears the mark on his neck.
I then asked him about the “crisis” of Italian cinema. That is, the sensation that a lot of great movies were made in Italy just after the Second World War, but that since the 90’s Italian productions have become scarcer both in numbers, diversity and quality. For Tovoli it was clear: there is talent shortage. As simple as that. As with everything, there are periods when certain countries or groups are at the vanguard, and then fall into mediocrity.
During the Golden Age of Italian cinema, even the now powerful France was far behind Italy. With the death or retirement of her greatest artists, Italy is not the center of European cinema anymore. Also the lack of investment by the government has influenced this outcome.
I remember a press conference during the Sitges Film Festival 2017, precisely with Dario Argento, Sergio Martino, Lamberto Bava and Guillermo del Toro. The cause of the crisis of Italian cinema, they reflected, was more related with this lack of investment, lack of modernization and scarce internationalization, than to the lack of talent. A structural problem, not only a creative problem. Also the impact of commercial TV had negatively impacted on cinema.
By the end of the conversation, after near two hours, Luciano’s glass was still full. He had been answering so many questions that he couldn’t even drink. But it was absolutely worth it, at least for those who were listening, delighted. As long as the old masters live we’ll have a model to follow, and we’ll have hope.