Matteo Garrone first came to prominence internationally upon the release of his striking mafia epic Gomorrah – it might be hard to imagine just a few short years later he’s off into the woods for a lavish cavort in a land of fairy tales. That is the case in Tale of Tales, though, a deliciously macabre fantasy and the director’s first film in the English language and starring famous names like Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel and Toby Jones. Matteo sat down with CineVue’s Ben Nicholson to discuss the origins of the project and his inspirations in bringing the world to life.
BN: Where did Tale of Tales start for you?
MG: It started when I read the book for the first time, not such a long time ago, five or six years. I didn’t know this author or this masterpiece of Italian literature. It’s [Giambattista] Basile and the first book of fairytales, written in Europe in the 17th century. It’s quite unknown even in Italy so it’s a great opportunity for me to work on this kid of material. I found Basile to be very close to my way of making cinema – it’s very visionary. His characters jump from moments that are comic to moments that are tragic and there is this grotesque humour. So it’s an author that I felt immediately very close to me. I was a painter before a director so its a project that is close to my background.
BN: Where there always specific stories from the collection that you felt fit your vision?
MG: Well, there were fifty [stories in the book] and it was not easy to choose. There were many other great ones but in the end we chose three, following the point of view of women of three different ages. Then, the theme of these stories are different, but they’re all very modern. Fairy tales talk about feelings pushed to the extreme and about human archetypes, so they’re always modern, in a way. Basile is quite amazing because he talks about themes that are completely modern. For example, when the old lady tried this kind of ‘lifting’, to become beautiful and young, its like talking about aesthetic surgery but in the 17th century.
BN: And was that modernity what drew you to this particular stories?
MG: When I decide to tell a story it’s because I create a relationship with the character. I love the character and I understand their conflict. I also have inspiration that gives me the story visually but more the relation with the character. When I told this story, I told it as if was happening to me or a friend of mine. For me it’s always important, don’t tell short from the top, judging, but try to be beside my character – with them. I’m with them. I wanted to be modern with the visuals, though. When I shot this movie it was the 17th century, but I shot as if it was modern.
BN: Your films are always very striking, visually and this one is no exception. Did you have specific influences?
MG: The first inspirations came from the drawings of Goya – Los caprichos. These drawings, to me, have the soul of the tales of Basile. This grotesque aspect, this humanity deformed in a way; the irony and tragedy. So when I saw these drawings, I said to myself that there was everything there. Of course there were other painters that influenced me, like Caravaggio and many others, on other movies, but from this movie Los caprichos was fundamental.
BN: And you were keen to use practical effects?
MG: Yes, for me it was very important to have an approach like art craft. Not just digital, but real. I want to see the creature on the set. It was just closer to my taste.
BN: Going back to you characters, these are really complex female characters with an agency that we might not expect from modern retellings of traditional fairytales with damsels in distress. Was this a conscious subversion of those stereotypes?
MG: They are all characters that are very strong, yes, and follow their desires and obsessions. We wanted that, and I wanted to be faithful to the soul of the stories that Basile wrote. These stories come from aural traditions that Basile encountered – from poor people mostly. We are talking about 17th century, a period where there was no literature for kids, so Basile wrote these stories to create pure entertainment for an audience of all different ages. These stories are also very dark, like horror in a way, because they come from a medieval period. There is also a link, because its also the period of Shakespeare, and Italo Calvino used to say that Basile was Neapolitan Shakespeare. Basile wrote these just for pleasure and entertainment, not for publishing. Then his sister, who was a famous singer, published them. So he wrote without any purpose to publish – he lived in the court, so he’d give pleasure to entertain the people in the court. This part of entertainment helped me a lot because these stories are full of action, many things happen, so the stories are very cinematographic.
BN: The first shot of the film is from behind the head of a court entertainer, was that a reference to Basile?
MG: No, sadly not. That was by coincidence.
BN: I thought I’d spotted something there!
MG: *Laughs* Sorry. You want you can put that down, if you like. We’ll keep it between me and you.