An Oscar-winning liar: Dante Ferretti

An Oscar-winning liar: Dante Ferretti

The Italian set designer responsible for the sets of the greatest movies produced at Cinecittà and in Hollywood celebrates his 70th birthday with an exhibition at the MoMa in New York

February 26 will be the 70th birthday of that little kid who, eyes wide with excitement and curiosity, used to spend his afternoons sitting in the darkness of a movie theater in Macerata. Hypnotized by the scenes that flitted across the big screens of the Sferisterio or the Cairoli. Outside, his classmates played ball in the schoolyard, but he sat on in silence in the audience. Years later, he would build the sets for Pier Paolo Pasolini, Federico Fellini, Tim Burton, Martin Scorsese and many others. The inspiration for the sets of Hugo Cabret came directly from the clock tower of his hometown, imprinted on his boyish imagination.

Let's start from when you were a little boy: is it true you used to steal the change out of your dad's pocket to go to the movies? 

Now who told you that?

Professional secret... So did you?

I was born in Macerata, a town so small that the only nice thing was that there were four movie theaters and four parish halls. I saw my first movie when I was 6. It was I ragazzi della via Paal (The Paul Street Boys),in the sacristy of a church near my house. From that moment I was lost, all I wanted to do was go to the movies.

And so?

In the afternoon, after school, I used to tell my dad I was going to study at a friend's house. Actually I stole... let's say I took some change from his pocket and went to the movies. If I liked one, I'd watch it two or three times, or else I'd go to the early show at one theater and then see the second feature at another.

What were your favorite kinds? 

Westerns, movies in costume and, of course, everything by Totò.

Would you say you'd already decided then that you would be a set designer?

I was studying at the art institute and one day I decided I wanted to go into the movie business. My father was shocked and asked me with a chuckle if I wanted to become an actor, but I loved the constructions and the sets, although at the time I didn't even know what the job was called. I remember one day a rather well-known sculptor from Macerata, Umberto Peschi, told me that he had originally meant to become a set designer. I thought to myself: that's what I want to be when I grow up.

How did your father react to the news? 

I told him I wanted to attend the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome to study set design. He thought I was crazy, also because his dream was to have me carry on his little furniture factory. However, considering that I kept flunking my classes in high school he made a deal with me: «If you graduate from high school in June without flunking anything, I'll send you to Rome». He was sure I'd never manage it. I buckled down and studied hard for the last month and a half and passed the finals with the best grades in the school. I actually won a scholarship from one of the local church groups. Nobody could believe it, they thought the professors had made a mistake.

Tell us how you turned the port of Ancona into the set for a pirate movie. 

The funny thing was that the first movies I made in 1961 were in my own region, after I had struggled so hard to leave it. My first job was on two B movies directed by Domenico Paolella, who had decided to reconstruct the Caribbean in the Conero: Le prigioniere dell'isola del diavolo (The Prisoners of Devil's Island)and Gli avventurieri dell'oceano (Adventurers of the Ocean)

Did you do a good job?

Evidently... The producer introduced me to Luigi Scaccianoce, who was an important set designer, and I became his assistant. I worked with him for eight years, from La parmigiana (The Girl from Parma) by Antonio Pietrangeli to II Vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St. Matthew), Uccellacci e uccellini (The Hawks and the Sparrows) and Edipo re (Oedipus Rex) by Pier Paolo Pasolini. The last movie I made as an assistant set designer was Satyricon by Federico Fellini, in 1969.

What happened after that? 

I had just finished Satyricon in Ponza, and the phone rang, it was Pasolini: «Ferretti, we're making a movie in Turkey but you have to leave for Cappadocia right now. I've already got your ticket». And so, with Medea I was promoted from assistant to set designer.

Then came your meeting with Fellini. 

Not right away. I remember I met him at Cinecittà. He asked me to make a movie with him, but I would have had to work in partnership with Danilo Donati, who won the Oscar with Fellini for Casanova. I thanked him but I said: «No, because Donati will take the credit for anything well done and anything done badly will be my fault». Then I said: «Call me in 10 years».

And did he?

Yes, I was making Todo modo with Elio Petri and we ran into each other under a street light in Cinecittà. That time, oddly, he was alone and he said: «Dantino, hi! It's been 10 years and you have to work for me now». After a few months we started with La città delle donne (City of Women), Prova d'orchestra (Orchestra Rehearsal) and then four more movies until La voce della luna (The Voice of the Moon).

Hold on a minute. Tell me what it feels like to be 70.

What are you talking about? I'm going to be 50. Who did you think you were talking to?

I'm talking to Dante Ferretti, born in Macerata on 26 February 1943, winner of three Oscars. 

I still feel like a kid. I feel Fellinian, in the sense that I love everything that is fake, I adore lies. Fellini used to ask me every day: «Dante, what did you dream last night?». As first I answered: «Nothing». Then the fourth or fifth time I started making up dreams, telling him things I knew he liked and that I saw in his movies. I knew I was feeding him a bunch of baloney but he enjoyed it immensely. Then one day he stopped me: «Dante, you're getting to be a worse liar than me, and I can't have that». His wife, Giulietta Masina, used to say that he only blushed when he was telling the truth.

What is set design? 

The first answer that comes to my mind is that I materialize the dreams and visions of directors.

Let's play a little game: I'll say the name of a director and you tell me what you think. Pasolini? 

I made eight movies with Pasolini. His frames always start with a wide-angle. He was like Chaplin in a painter version: for IlVangelo secondo Matteo, Mantegna; for I racconti di Canterbury (The Canterbury Tales), the English and French masters and Paolo Uccello; for Le mille e una notte (The Thousand and One Nights), the Arabian and Persian miniaturists. He didn't like interiors, he didn't like to shoot in the theater. I rebuilt outside and did a lot to make the setting true to the period chosen. He directed with refined simplicity, eliminating all the trimmings.

What do you remember about November 2, 1975, the day he was murdered? 

I heard about it from Petri, and went to the mortuary with him. Afterwards, Sergio Citti called me and, by agreement with the lawyer Nino Marazzita, asked me to visit the scene of the crime in Ostia and draw a layout of the place and make measurements.

Is painting a source of inspiration for you? 

The paintings of the 20th century. Especially the errors: making mistakes makes the things you reconstruct truer, perfection conveys a sense of falsity. Never copy reality, you have to reinvent it to make it more credible and vivid.

Let's go on with the game. Fellini? 

A great master, my teacher and mentor. There isn't much to add, or rather, there would be too much: he, Pasolini and Martin Scorsese are the three who gave me the most.

Franco Zeffirelli?

I only did Amleto (Hamlet)with him.We got along fine, but when I talk about the directors I've worked with I always forget to mention his name. Maybe we just have different personalities.

Terry Gilliam?

Thanks to him and to The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, I was called to the United States. A sort of Fellini from Minnesota, although everyone thinks he's British, a mad, visionary genius and a good friend. The sets for that movie were a triumph of unbridled imagination.

Tim Burton?

When he told me that he wanted to recreate Victorian London on the computer for Sweeney Todd, I persuaded him to give me some of the money he would have used for the technology to build a set, sort of a homemade thing, you might say. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter came to thank me for that.

What do the actors expect of a set designer?

In certain cases the set is a player as much as the actors. American actors have the problem of having to enter totally into the spirit of the movie they are making and always need to feel sure they are in the right place. Daniel Day-Lewis wrote to me after Gangs of New York: he thanked me for being able to reproduce whole neighborhoods and a part of the harbor with the ships. All in Cinecittà.

How do you get along with computers and all the technological gadgetry? 

What matters is not to go overboard with the technology, especially in case of digital sets. You have to look ahead without forgetting what's behind you.

Jean-Jacques Annaud? 

We rebuilt the abbey for Der Name der Rose (The name of the Rose) on a hill at Prima Porta in Rome for him. When we finished making that movie, I got a phonecall from an office in charge of the preservation of the cultural heritage asking me where that convent was, because they couldn't locate it. I told them if they hurried to via Tiberina they'd be in time to see it before it was taken down.

Is it true that, before making eight movies together, you said no twice to Martin Scorsese? 

He had called me for The Last Temptation of Christ, but I was busy, then he contacted me again but I was preparing in Los Angeles for a movie that never actually got made. The third time I understood that if I refused this time I'd never get another chance: we made The Age of Innocence in 1993.

What sort of man is Scorsese? 

He always gives me a free hand. For a couple of days he shows me a lot of movies, almost one for every scene, and explains what he wants. Then he leaves me absolutely alone. Martin is an encyclopedia of show business, he knows everything: to develop the sets for Shutter Island we watched 12 movies together. Scorsese is unrivaled as an image-builder.

Is it true you convinced him to make the movie in Rome thanks to Italian food? 

I took him to a restaurant in Rome. First I called the chef in person to recommend that he serve an unforgettable meal. While we were eating I kept repeating: «Isn't this delicious, where else could you get anything this good?». He agreed.

You say you have a «maximalist megalomania»...

I like to make big things and great things, when I work I'm worse than a megalomaniac. When I drew the sketches for the sets of Gangs of New York, they were so big Scorsese had to empty two offices to fit them. But in my life I would say that I'm someone who prefers to keep a very low profile.

What was the hardest movie for you to finish? 

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen: there wasn't much money and there was a lot to build, so much that I had to keep everything going myself for weeks after the producer disappeared. I lied to everyone in Cinecittà, but we made it.

In your work you always have an accomplice, your wife Francesca Lo Schiavo. 

She's won three Oscars herself, in our family we have six of those little statues plus another fifty or so awards. We've been working together for thirty years. It was her idea to work together on the set.

Were you dubious? 

I had all the doubts you can imagine. But it was the only way to stay together without having to separate for long periods. Now the results speak for themselves, all the success belongs to her too.

Do your children follow in your footsteps? 

Melissa doesn't, she's involved in marketing. Edoardo for now is an assistant director, he studied directing at the New York University.

Any regrets?

I've always admired Ridley Scott and we came close to doing a moving together once.

Hollywood has given you international fame. Would you like to come back to work in Italian movies? 

I can assure you that it would be difficult, and even wrong, to resist the opportunities offered by directors like Scorsese, with all the possibilities that American cinema makes available. That doesn't mean I don't love my country.

Do you think you'll work again in Italy? 

In Italy there are hardly any movies being produced. Cinecittà is practically empty, how could I work? However I'm doing other things here, like the theme park Cinecittà World in Rome; in Turin, with the architect Aimaro Oreglia d'Isola, we are rebuilding the Egyptian Museum. And then there's Expo 2015: I have to «dress» the Cardo and Decumano, the two main avenues of the Exposition, in significance and turn them into a road that will fascinate and involve the visitor. It's like working on several Colossals at the same time.

You're going to hold a personal exhibition at the MoMa in New York...

It opens on September 23: there will be sketches, sets, the clock from Hugo Cabret, the horse's head from The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, a piece of the plane from The Aviator. I'm thinking these days, about what to show. If you happen to be in New York, come to see it: you might like it.


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Carlo Piano