More than half a century ago Bernardo Bertolucci began making his name as an Italian film director. With such classics as The Conformist, The Last Emperor and Last Tango in Paris under his belt, he was awarded an honorary Palme d’Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival for his life’s work. Bertolucci’s latest film, Me and You, is his first in nearly a decade. Playboy Contributing Editor James Franco spoke with the director about the controversial Last Tango, his start in filmmaking and how he creates his striking work.
FRANCO: How did you become a director?
BERTOLUCCI: Pier Paolo Pasolini was close with my father and knew I loved movies. He asked me to be his assistant director on Accattone. “But Pier Paolo,” I said, “I’ve never been an assistant director.” He told me, “Bello, I’ve never directed.” This was 1960, when the first New Wave films were emerging, and I skipped the Louvre and went to Cinémathèque Française every day with my parents’ money. Working with Pasolini was like seeing a genius in action, seeing him invent his own kind of cinema. He didn’t have a culture of film like I did, always going to the movies. It was fantastic, this director being born in front of me, and it wasn’t just anyone, it was Pasolini.
FRANCO: Accattone used nonactors, no?
BERTOLUCCI: All nonactors. He knew exactly what he wanted. Pasolini didn’t know cinema, but he had his own knowledge and art. His inspiration was the Carl Dreyer film The Passion of Joan of Arc—its epicness, in a way. Accattone used movement in cinematography. It was very successful. He then had a script called The Grim Reaper but wanted to work on Mamma Roma, so the producer asked, “If you can’t do The Grim Reaper, who can?” He chose Sergio Citti, his former assistant, and myself. We wrote the script in a month. They asked me to direct, and three months later I did my first film. I wrote it like Pasolini, but the style was completely mine. I wanted it to be different. That’s why my films have a lot of movement but not like Pasolini’s.
FRANCO: Were you nervous?
BERTOLUCCI: Very. I was 21—the youngest on set—and I’d skipped school. I said, “School is shit. Learn the reality of directing. Be a director.”
FRANCO: You told Marlon Brando on Last Tango in Paris that you would get something very personal out of him.
BERTOLUCCI: Yes. He was skeptical, then a bit sad after he realized he’d given me his most intimate thoughts. As in all my movies, it was mostly improvisation, arguing and discussing dialogue changes. The dialogue was written a few hours before shooting. It’s improvisation in that actors cannot prepare three months beforehand.
FRANCO: With that film, was it especially difficult getting actors to feel safe with the heavy subject matter?
BERTOLUCCI: You know, it’s my job. Every actor is different. Maria Schneider, for example, hadn’t done anything like it before. Marlon and I decided over breakfast one morning to use butter in their sodomy scene, which wasn’t in the script. I decided not to tell her—it was asking for too much discussion. You can see how humiliated she is in that scene. It was somewhat…strong. She was very upset with both of us afterward. But if she didn’t know about it beforehand, she’d react as she felt: mortified.
FRANCO: Do you feel bad about that?
BERTOLUCCI: I did. She died two years ago and I wanted to apologize. It was a great performance, and I know you need to use any method possible to get a good shot, but maybe it was bad manners. Actors naturally feel deeply about their characters, because they’re bringing life to something that’s black-and-white, and I believe actors are writers in their films, in a way. But that film shocked Maria her entire life.
FRANCO: Luna, The Dreamers and Me and You, your latest film, all deal with youth. Is that coincidental?
BERTOLUCCI: It’s because I’m 14 at heart. My brain didn’t develop correctly. I like seeing young people change before my eyes. The lead in Me and You was 14 when we began, and I watched him grow up as we filmed. Now he’s taller, with big shoulders and a new hairstyle. You can’t recognize him.
FRANCO: How did the movie come about?
BERTOLUCCI: It’s based on a famous Italian novel, and I wanted to work in Italian after 25 years of filming in English. Italian dialogue is tricky. The weakest part of Italian filmmaking is the dialogue; it’s too literary. English can be dry; it’s fantastic. So I wanted to approach this difficult language again.
FRANCO: It’s a small space for a film, but there’s a lot of movement with the camera. How did you figure that out?
BERTOLUCCI: It’s an evolution. My wife says I could make a cup of tea sensual. I don’t diagram my shots or plan anything. I have to invent in the moment, or at least pretend to, so every shot you see happens around the movement of the actors.
FRANCO: What would you say to young filmmakers about subjects they should use?
BERTOLUCCI: There are no rules to this game. Every film is unique; you have to be faithful to yourself. When I see films, I’m with a huge family of directors I love. I’m made of them. You see the connection between your work and a scene you loved 20 years ago. I skipped school, but the best school is the feeling you have on set.