Damian Pettigrew’s Unique Portrait of Fellini, From Lies to Landscapes
by Wendy Mitchell
It takes a brave filmmaker to tackle the world of il Maestro, Federico Fellini: how do you make a film that does justice to one of the greatest filmmakers in the canon? Canada-born, Paris-based documentarian Damian Pettigrew had a few unique ideas for his new film, “Fellini: I’m a Born Liar” (rolling out in theaters now through late May from First Look Pictures). Pettigrew happened to meet Fellini in Rome in 1983, over a plate of spaghetti cooked by Fellini himself. Pettigrew later convinced Fellini to sit for hours of interviews about his life, his work, and his creative process. Years later, after Fellini’s death in 1993, Pettigrew found the funding necessary to continue the project.
This atypical biopic does Fellini proud — “Born Liar” doesn’t try to present a boring timeline of the man’s life, instead opting for keen observations from people who knew and worked with him, film clips, highlights of those marathon interviews before his death, and some unexpectedly sumptuous shots of landscapes that figured prominently in Fellini’s life and work. This documentary shows the genius at work but doesn’t sugarcoat his difficult personality; actors Donald Sutherland and Terence Stamp have some particularly vivid memories of working with him. Whether a Fellini fanatic or newbie, any film lover can appreciate this documentary. indieWIRE’s Wendy Mitchell conducted a recent email interview with Pettigrew from his office in Paris.
indieWIRE: Let’s start at the very beginning. Have you been a long-time admirer of Fellini? And how did you get access to him before he died in 1993?
Pettigrew: Fellini has interested me for as long as I can remember. I was a child when his “Satyricon” came out in 1969 and the photographs published in various magazines had me spellbound.
One day in Rome in 1983, while filming a portrait of Italian novelist Italo Calvino for Canadian television, the writer invited me to join him on the set of “And the Ship Sails On,” which, at that time, was winding up production. Calvino introduced me to Fellini and together we had lunch at his apartment above the sound stages at Cinecitta. The meal was spaghetti cooked by Fellini himself and I don’t recall ever having eaten pasta that good.
I began the project independently in the summer of 1991 when Fellini agreed to be filmed in a suite of marathon conversations focused almost exclusively on the creative process. He agreed to be filmed again in 1992 and these sessions went so well that, two weeks after the film shoot, he sent me a wonderful letter stating that our conversations were “the longest and most detailed ever recorded.” But it wasn’t until years later, after meeting my French producer, Olivier Gal, that I could obtain the budget necessary to achieve my goal: a feature documentary on Fellini using extremely rare footage of il Maestro directing, and not just another television program. In 2000, we began setting up interviews with Roberto Benigni, Terence Stamp, scriptwriter Tullio Pinelli, and the painter Rinaldo Geleng, Fellini’s oldest and dearest friend. We showed the best of this material along with selections from the marathon Fellini interviews to Thierry Garrel at ARTE France and the financing rapidly fell into place.
iW: This strikes me as an atypical biography … with the landscape shots especially. Did you set out to make the film this way, or did that evolve as it progressed? Also, if Fellini was known for working so much at Cinecitta, why were the landscapes important? How did you choose which areas to film?
Pettigrew: The idea of filming landscapes came to me over lunch with Fellini and Calvino: the latter had carefully steered the conversation first around food (in particular, the merits of French cheeses) and then opened a freewheeling discussion about constructing fake landscapes at Cinecitta, which led to the real ones in Fellini’s films of the ’50s. At some point, I mentioned the volcano in Rossellini’s “Stromboli” as a sublime example of how the neorealist landscape mirrored the protagonist’s psyche and Fellini explained that “landscape is character, whether it’s real or invented.” Martin Scorsese observed that landscape in Fellini’s early work miraculously incarnates the kind of gritty physicality that we associate with individuals. It struck me that a portrait of Fellini — beyond the frequently filmed Cinecitta — exploiting the real landscapes he’d filmed in such classics as “La Strada,” held fascinating visual and metaphoric possibilities.
The real sea, for example, would be juxtaposed with the fake ones of his later films to obtain a series of visual contraries constantly playing off each other. If you look closely at “Amarcord,” for example, Fellini masterfully combines the real sea of Ostia with the plastic one he created with Dante Ferretti at Cinecitta. This combination of the real and the fake is what Milan Kundera considered as the highpoint of Fellini’s complex modernist art, on a par with Stravinsky and Picasso. After all, a filmmaker who reinvented the sea clearly has something to contribute to our knowledge of mimesis. We discussed these ideas in detail and Fellini even came out with me on a nostalgic drive to Ostia to point out the abandoned lighthouse and beaches where he’d shot his absolute masterpiece, “8 1/2.” In fact, the areas we filmed were first pointed out by Fellini himself, which meant we had to crisscross Italy from Rimini to Tuscany and the thermal spa of Chianciano for “8 1/2” then down to Bagno Reggio and Ovindoli for “La Strada” and on to Rome, Ostia, and the beach of Passo Oscuro where he’d shot the ending of “La Dolce Vita.” It’s hard to believe but no one had ever gone to Gambettola just outside of Rimini to film the farmhouse of Fellini’s grandparents: the direct inspiration for the unforgettable farm sequence in “8 1/2.”
iW: With a historical film like this, access to some of the archival material is crucial. I especially loved that fat baby photo of him, and I also thought that footage of him shouting directions at actors was priceless. How did you get access to that kind of material?
Pettigrew: Yes, that fat baby photo is a knock-out and has never been published before. We discovered it quite by chance while visiting Fellini’s first cousins in Gambettola who brought out the photo over cake and coffee. To obtain footage, I first drew up a list of the material I knew existed and gave it to our documentalist, Serge Garcin, who then contacted the various broadcasters and independent archive holders. Soon, with the contacts we established, the list grew — there’s the inevitable domino effect where rights owners put you in touch with others you’ve never heard of. Fortunately, we had the budget to order footage from around the world: we must have screened every frame of archive ever shot on Fellini — we even screened hilarious NBC footage of Fellini being interviewed by Dick Cavett — what a pity we couldn’t use it!
But our colleagues Gian Luca Farinelli and Tatti Sanguinetti of the Cineteca di Bologna discovered priceless 8mm footage of a youthful Fellini and Mastroianni on the set of “La Dolce Vita,” which had lain in a drawer for over 40 years. For me, that particular sequence in the film is among the most moving.
iW: For younger folks who may not be as familiar with Fellini’s canon of work, why would you say his films are still so important today?
Pettigrew: Without once compromising his artistic integrity, Fellini imagined a body of work — as opposed to a suite of spin-offs, remakes, potboilers and so on — where each production can be ranked as among the finest of “experimental” films ever to reach and influence an international public. There is a breathtaking scope to that achievement and great courage in the process: surmounting unbelievable resistance from producers, enemies of all kinds and jealous colleagues, career reversals, and poor health, Fellini held true to his own vision of cinema forged in the smithy of his soul. His psychiatrist friend and guide, Dr. Ernst Bernhard, described Fellini as possessed of genuine humility despite the planetary fame. Well, as the poet said, humility is endless.
iW: What would Fellini say about your film?
Pettigrew: From the shadows where he’s presently directing his new film, I think Federico would be proud of the portrait, warts and all, and delighted that the editing doesn’t conform to the standard, spoon-fed, boob tube pap designed for morons and self-inflated hack reviewers. He would have loathed a hagiography: he was all too aware of his own failings.
iW: How did your perception of him change as you worked on the doc?
Pettigrew: Well, Fellini was a man of many selves and contradictions: he quoted Dante with genuine emotion while executing pornographic doodles on the table napkin then balked at paying the lunch bill while handing out millions of lire to the beggars of Rome. Although he boasted he was heterosexual, he nonetheless directed one of the greatest bisexual films of all time [“Satyricon”]. He was Mr. Cool as well as the Nutty Professor. He contains multitudes and the journey to his center never ceases. Quite simply, you end up cherishing an Onion Man with no center. Federico really had a rough time of it but pretended otherwise and had the grace never to expose his personal problems in public. And then there are the films that continuously generate new meanings. For example, “8 1/2” contains alembicated allusions to Hamlet of tremendous power and beauty that resonate in the mind long after the film is over.
iW: What is your next project?
Pettigrew: Our next project is on the work of Ingmar Bergman. Recently, we saw fantastic 8mm footage of Bergman at work on “The Seventh Seal” as well as home movies shot by the master himself where he’s unrecognizable: Bergman looks like a matinee idol with a high clear forehead, large surprisingly tender baby blue eyes, an Elizabethan goatee and a wicked, sensuous smile. He’s another Onion Man I’m looking forward to never completely understanding.