Vittorio Storaro, like fellow Apocalypse Now veteran Walter Murch, knows more about his field than nearly anybody. And, as with Murch, the cinematographer’s reasons for being at this year’s Camerimage International Film Festival were almost irrelevant — for me, at least, when the opportunity to interview such a master of the craft is offered. But he was present for a project that means a good deal to him: Muhammad: The Messenger of God, an Iranian religious epic, the first in a prospective trilogy, and, to honor Storaro and director Majid Majidi, recipient of the festival’s Outstanding Cinematic Duo Award.
I don’t know if you could necessarily talk about anything with Storaro, but the man can take any topic that interests him and run with it — for a good, long time, as the following discussion will illustrate. This is not a complaint. Those who are so well-versed in their field — be it his cinematography or the history of Italian art, two things that really aren’t so separate — mixing history and personal philosophy into a single answer is always to be valued. I think a good deal of that is contained herein.
The Film Stage: From whom did the decision to shoot this on 35mm stem?
Vittorio Storaro: Well, usually I’m selecting the format. If I don’t agree with any other choice, I don’t do the picture. I’ve done 59 films until Muhammad, and I did only one before in digital; 58 were done on film. But my decision also comes along with the history of cinema. My first film was done in black-and-white, because, in 1968, it was the will of many directors, producers, whatever, to do dramatic films in black-and-white, because they were scared to film in color in a dramatic area. At the time, people thought that maybe color was not recorded well in the shadows. A dramatic story needs conflict, so needs contrast between light and shadows. But, after the first film, I started to investigate color. At the time, I was too young to be conscious about the decision; the industrial journey took me into this color decision. But, pretty soon, it became my own decision. After the third film, I said, “No. I really need to express myself in color.” And I rejected some projects that they proposed to me that were all in black-and-white, because I was missing the emotion of color.
Not necessarily I don’t want to experiment; not necessarily I don’t want to know. So, in 1983, Sony presented to the international television company the chance to record television images in high definition, because they felt normal, standard definition could be a problem for that kind of size of television. Human beings used to watch on big screens, and, on big screens, humans are acting not only with the brain, but also physically: with the eyes; with the body. On a television screen, you are totally fixed. It’s a kind of hypnotic feeling in your body. So only if you enlarge the screen are you able to use, physically, the body. In order to have a larger screen, they need much better definition, so they said, “We need higher definition.” I did this little film for the person to know this new system; it was called Arlecchino. I realized the potential of the electronic image. Since then, I’ve had in mind how in can look, this image, with my knowledge and study — I studied photography for nine years — and professional learning doing several films.
But I need to wait for an answer from the laboratory to see, onscreen, an image. Now, suddenly, the same time I was putting the camera, I am able to see the image right away. So, practically, I was able to see what I was doing at the same time. Not only that: I was able to see my own thought. I say, “Oh, no, I don’t like this image. Maybe it’s better. That’s better.” To me, it was a kind of great revelation. Looking at your own thought, you’re able to realize what you really think. So, practically, you see dailies at the same time you are realizing that. For the first day, I went back home without any question marking my mind of how it would look. I knew already. That was an incredible shock. But the technology was not ready to have an image on a very big screen.
Francis Coppola proposed to me to do One from the Heart using electronic technology. I said, “Francis, let’s use every electronic technology for pre-production and post-production, but keep the film to record the master of the film, because this is the best technology to screen the film all around the world.” And he said, “Vittorio, I think you’re right. But you will say, in the near future, I was right.” He was right. Not necessarily in the near-future, because the time took twenty years to really change the photochemical-electronic relationship. At the same time, Sony proposed to me, when they prepared the first camera in CineAlta, to test this camera. I was teaching at the Academy of Image in Italy. I said, “Okay, send me this camera.” While I’m doing the test, I’m using for the student to do their own short film with the new technology.
So practically I’m doing, at the same time, two main things: one, I know myself; second, I have the new student already being taught through new technology. And I learned something else, but I said the technology was much better than the previous one, but was not really ready to take the place of film itself. Later, in 2009, Carlos Saura, who I already did five movies with on film, said, “Vittorio, I would like to have the image perfectly in high definition, clear, while we’re shooting.” Now we do Flamenco, Flamenco, the second part of the original Flamenco that we did 15 years before. But this one will be presented on television and DVD, so we don’t need so much definition, and I think it’s proper for investigating these new tools. Everything was done in a studio. In a studio, I can control the general kind of lighting; we are not outside, with a bright sun or the contrast of different temperatures. So I said, “Okay.” We did that film, and it was very interesting for me to use this new technology, but under control.
After I did Muhammad, I said to myself, “I don’t think video and digital is appropriate for this film.” First of all, it requires what kind of image we need to blow up on a very big screen. Second, we are going to shoot in a different environment: in the desert, where we maybe have sandstorms, wind, 50 degrees. After we go in Tehran in the winter, maybe we have zero degrees, rain, blah blah. So I said, “Do we need some technical element where we can support those drastic movements?” So we used film: Kodak negatives, different films according to different needs in the Tehran studio. I used an ARRI camera. I have six of them to perform in such a specific environment. I used this composition system that I like very much, called Univisium. A relationship between the vertical area, one time, for the result area, two times. Leonardo da Vinci gave me inspiration through his own paintings, particularly The Last Supper. I found a perfect balance between those to perform.
I was tired of using so many different numbers in composition. If you remember, the silent cinema was 1.33; with sound, it was 1.37; French Panoramic, it was 1.66; English Panoramic, it was 1.85; new, modern television was 1.79; 75mm was 2.21; Anamorphic is 2.40. It’s a chaos of numbers. Leonardo said something very simple: the most balance between composition areas is 1:2 — like two square parts for the eyes. So I was able to use all technology knowing I liked it. We used the Technicolor lab in Rome. After we did the digital intermediate in Munich, it was the best that I could do. But, during the time of pre-production, one year, production, one year, post-production, another year, the film industry changed it completely, made a major revelation. They were not using anymore print films; they were using DCPs to distribute the film. Much more simple, much smaller, very simple to send this.
So when I approached, recently, Woody Allen to do his new movie, I said to myself, “I have to realize that progress is one word — that you cannot stop it. You can push it or you can slow it down, but you cannot stop it. So it’s much better to be conscious now of this kind of evolution. It’s better to be part of this evolution in order for you to know this new system, to do whatever you can to make it better.” So I did my film with Woody Allen. It finished one week ago in digital, using the camera that I think was more appropriate for me, which is the Sony F65, because it has the major chance to record a digital image. It has 4K information, digitally. It has 16-bit color depth, which means millions of colors.
You’ve expressed a wish that frame rates in the U.S. advance to 25 frames per second. I can only assume Muhammad was shot at 25fps.
Absolutely. The first film done in sound was an American film, The Jazz Singer. They used, for mysterious reasons, 60 cycle — 30 periods of positive and negative. In Europe, what was done was to use the current wave: 50 cycle. So practically they choose a kind of number, some kind of multiplication according to the 60 cycle; they chose 24 frames per second. If that movie was done in Europe, very easily we could choose 25 because we have a different period of positive and negative — we have 25, 25, arriving at 50 cycle. Practically, for many, many, many years, America was doing it at 24 and we were doing it at 25. Even if we pretend to be at 24. We used an industrial motor using 50 cycle. It was, of course, 25 periods of 25 frames. In fact, every company was manufacturing a single motor for a film camera or a film projector set at 24 frames plus, minus one frame, because they cannot do 24. They have to do 25. We always watch a film at 25. We pretend to be at 24; it’s not true. Only recently, when every engine was at crystal control, you could have the chance to choose 23, 24, 25, 26 — whatever number you desired. But, originally, we were always moving at 25 frames, no doubt. [Laughs]
So my decision with the Univisium system was, “Well, it’s better to stay at 25 frames for multiple reasons. First of all, we are totally in sync with every European country, plus New Zealand and Australia. Every country uses 50 cycle.” So if I record a television image [points to TV in restaurant] I don’t have any movement of the image. I can record, perfectly, an image on a screen. Any lights, fluorescent lights or not, everything is in sync. If I shoot at 24, I have something that makes an interpretation of this 24, 25. So, not only for this reason, but if you notice the technology, any kind of transfer of images from European to American, they find a kind of algorithm in order to be as possibly in sync. When we were using film capture, they had to use the system at three-plus-one, but they never reach perfectly, from 24 frames, the 60 cycle. It always was 29-something. If they are tracking the other side, they never reach 24; they reach 23.96. In every movement you do with the camera, because every three frames they have to copy one frame, you can see that the image was not fluid.
In using 25, it’s a perfect algorithm to transfer on 30, because, every five periods, you have a little addition nearby, which is much more uniform. So the algorithm in relation between 25 and 30 is much better than 24-30. That’s why I decided 25. But, Americans, when they start something, they never want to change. They still use 110 volts, which means having cables that big [makes circle with hand], instead of using 210 volts. It’s making the lamp filament much more noisy. Technology is not cultural. I love that each one of us is speaking its own language; I love that each one of us has a language that can be international. You don’t have to be English or French or Italian, or whatever. The idea, a long time ago, was called Esperanto; Esperanto was a new language. You are Polish? I’m Italian. So we speak a foreign language for each one of them. Why have to speak English with an accent? He is speaking perfectly; I cannot speak perfectly. You can speak perfectly.
I’m American, actually.
Oh, you are American? Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you were Polish. But you understand what I mean?
If you can have something international, why is it international for everybody? We use our own language in our own country, and we use an extended language for everyone else. It could be much better. So I did Muhammad in 25 frames. But today, with digital, it’s much more simple: a DCP can work in 24, 25, 26.
And shooting digitally on the Woody Allen film was a good experience?
Yeah. No, no, very, very good, because technology today is much better than technology of five years ago. Second, the movie was mainly, basically in New York, mainly morning interior — particularly in October, where, most of the time, it’s under control. I’m not happy about the fact that digital capture today is different than video cameras; it has so high a sensitivity sensor. It maybe can be used for night, it maybe can be used for different interiors, but it’s totally against the capture of image under the sunlight. So practically you have to use an incredible number of filters in order to record an image outside. That’s something that the modern technology should provide to us, what we had before. Before we had four different films: two for artificial light; two for natural light. And two different eye sensitivities. So you can choose the best, according to your location, in order to capture the maximum number of information. There’s larger range of images, according to the place where you are. Here, you have only one. This doesn’t work.
Did a lot of frustrations come from shooting in the desert, what with those sandstorms, winds, and temperatures?
No. If you’re shooting The Last Emperor, you have to shoot in China. If you’re doing Peter the Great, you have to shoot in Russia. If you do Muhammad, you have to shoot in a place that is according to the time and geographic place. The story was appropriate, and so it was not hard at all; it was the appropriate one. So it was much more complex. If I was going to shoot in Alaska, with a movie called Muhammad! You have to deal with completely different environments. When it is appropriate for the story, it’s perfect.
The movie deals with sensitive subject matter that’s sacred to many people; you can’t even show the protagonist. Was it immediately obvious where Majidi was coming from?
Well, the script was very clear. Even, of course, like any movie, the script can evolve and change every day according to the progression that you do in sequences. The main thing was the concern at the beginning. When we met in 2010, he came to my house in Rome with some producer to convince me to do the picture. I said, “Majid, you don’t have to convince me, because I would love to do a movie about the Prophet Muhammad, like I love to do a movie about the little Buddha.” It was a fantastic experience to prepare, with Dean Wright, a movie called Kingdom Come; unfortunately, it was not completed, and I hope one day it will be. This is what I expect to do with my life now: try to visualize the lives of great spiritual leaders. That’s what I really would like to do.
“But, Majid, you have to tell me two things. Is this movie made in order to emphasize a single religion, or do we try to unify the religions? Because I’m not Muslim, but I am not Buddhist. I try to see whatever possible chance that we have to understand. Practically we have only one single God. Even if we talk in a different language — even if we form our religion with different ritual elements — practically we have a single element all together.” He said to me, “No, Vittorio. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I’m searching for international creative people: I want to do an international movie, not only for Muslim people. Because our goal is to make a movie that presents to an international world what we think can be an appropriate reading of the Quran, and what will be an appropriate message of the Quran — which is, in my opinion, the strong concept to respect the dignity of man.” And I said, “Perfect. Let’s go.”
You have a reputation for being well-dressed on set. There’s that Francis Ford Coppola quote —
This is what Francis Coppola says!
How you can fall off a ladder, into mud, and not get dirty. What, to you, is important about looking good on a set?
Honestly, I dress in the way that I’m used to in Italy; I don’t make something specific about it. I was educated, since young, to hold a tie, and I was holding a tie on the set, all the time. Now, recently, I feel that to be much more easy to have these kinds of things [points out current attire], than to have a shirt with a tie, and I use this one. Whatever I think is appropriate for whatever I’m doing. Italians, usually, are dressing well. I’m not particularly fond to be “á la mode,” but we have a great fashion — Versace, Valentino. So, for us, it’s very normal to buy pants or a scarf for something that can be done in a nice style. But there’s something very natural. There are some people I know who are searching to be “á la mode” — whatever is important at this specific moment. Not necessarily me. But, of course, I have my own tests and my own feelings.
I’ll give you an example: a few years ago, the Guggenheim Museum in New York decided to do an exhibition about Italian cinematography. So they put together a range of sixteen cinematographers, and asked them to select two titles for each one. I select Conformist to respect my Italian culture, and to represent my international culture was Apocalypse Now. Bernardo Bertolucci, Francis Coppola. I went to the opening exhibition. It was fantastic that the museum practically presents the work of art in cinematography. Of course we represented our work through movies, so they were screening all 32 pictures — but particularly from the angle of cinematography. Like this festival. The festival was born in order to underline the work, the art of cinematography. Even if they are very intelligent, they realized that our work does not exist if you don’t have a story, if you don’t have a director.
They like to underline the fact that there is an incredible relationship between the director and the cinematography; they give the duo award for two collaborators who have made several movies together in several years. This is the first time they give this award to myself, to Majid, that they collaborate together in separate years. It took five years — 2010 to today — but on one single project: Muhammad! Journalists, like you, soon after I did the seminar presenting the international project — particularly presenting my journey — they ask me, “I think it’s wonderful that the museum takes care to the art of cinematography. Why Italian when we have such a wonderful history of cinema, such a wonderful history of cinematography?” And I said, “Well, that’s something to ask the curator, but what I can imagine…”
In Italy, when we are born, and we are going to a church to be baptized, we are totally innocent. When we go in, in front of us is the baptismal fountain. Maybe there is a painting. The church has a gothic, Romanesque style. Maybe the moment they made the service, there is a musical back. Maybe there is a statue made by a great sculptor. Of course you don’t know when you are born, but step-by-step you are going to church every weekend, every Sunday, in your mother’s hand. You witness these kinds of… you work in Rome, and you see the work made by the architects of Rome. Recently, I lit, with my daughter — she’s a lighting designer — the Roman Imperial Fora, permanently. If you go in Rome… have you ever been in Rome?
You know the Colosseum?
You know the Piazza Venezia? All this street is called the Imperial Fora. The street was built by Mussolini, because he wanted to do the parade at that time, to see how great Italy was — my God — in the world. It’s more or less one kilometer. We lit, permanently… let me show you. [Pulls out iPhone] This is the photo. Lit permanently. Every night you go there, you see it lit. So even when you’re passing by, you’re making a journey: you see the architecture. There is an incredible column. At that time, more than 2,000 years ago, they sculpted the entire history of Trieste, like a film.
You have to go to Rome now to watch it at night. When we prepared the concert, my daughter did the project, I spent two months to put together the concert — how to light, why we use light in a specific way to present, symbolically, this. My daughter spent more than three months afterwards to draw a big map of where the lights are supposed to be. And after they spent two months to put the lights on the floor, the day that we presented it to the city, with the mayor of Rome, the minister of culture, they came — 35,000, 40,000 people. Just to watch those kinds of archaeological site that people left dark at night. Suddenly, they were lit. It’s the kind of example that we have in front of us every day. When you go to elementary school, they give you paperwork, and on the front page is Giotto. You go in a class, you make a journey into the museum. You go from Giotto to Piero della Francesca to Leonardo to Michelangelo… so probably we have so many years of history of art.
Even if you don’t pay attention, it’s in front of you, the images. So probably they start this exhibition from a country that has those kinds of backgrounds. I remember working with the director who did Ladyhawke, Richard Donner, in Italy. We were selecting the place to film in. Ladyhawke was based in Renaissance time — 15th century, something like that. And I was showing him several things, and we enter into a church that was done in the 12th century. He said, “Oh, my God, this was built before the discovery of America.” And I said, “…yes.” [Laughs] That’s part of the history. So, practically, we are very lucky that we were born in a place where you are surrounded by the history of art. That’s all.