Girl Talk is a weekly look at women in film — past, present, and future.
Dakota Johnson hadn’t even seen Dario Argento’s 1977 giallo classic “Suspiria” when she agreed to star in its bloody, bruising remake about a Berlin ballet school overrun by witches and plenty of female aggression. Director Luca Guadagnino first mentioned the project to Johnson when the pair was filming “A Bigger Splash” in Italy during the summer of 2014, the first film in what’s shaping up to be quite the ongoing collaboration.
Johnson had not yet seen the original, but the filmmaker was intent on her playing the lead role of seemingly wide-eyed dancer Susie Bannion. As the actress recalls, the answer was easy enough, and Johnson issued some variant on “okay, great, let’s do it.” Eventually, she watched Argento’s film, though she promises that viewing didn’t distort her experience when it came time to play a very different Susie. “The two films are so very different that I didn’t feel like it sort of clouded my performance or influenced me in a way where I couldn’t get away from it,” she said.
Of course, there’s also the influence of Guadagnino, who Johnson clearly adores. While the film is bursting with feminine energy and some complex interpersonal relationships among a primarily female cast, the actress had zero concerns about it being directed by a man. (That man, though, could really only be Guadagnino.) “I think that only Luca would make this movie the way it was made,” she said with a laugh. “I just wanna be with him all the time, so it’s very convenient for me.”
Not much else about her years-long preparation process was convenient. Johnson started to work on Susie two years before the project even started production, steeping herself in other cultural touchstones. “The two years leading up to filming, when I was sort of preparing and working on other projects and slowly getting ready for this, I watched a lot of Fassbinder’s films to get the essential vibe of Berlin at that time,” Johnson said. “There were other references that sort of painted the colors of the time for me, like ‘The Red Shoes’ and the choreography of Pina Bausch and Mary Wigman and that sort of flavor.”
Then there were the physical demands. Susie arrives at Markos Dance Academy without any formal training, though her raw talent and boundless enthusiasm is laid bare during a heart-pounding audition scene early in the film. Soon enough, she becomes the school’s star dancer, and Johnson takes center stage in a number of sequences that would be hard to fake. Johnson wasn’t a total neophyte to dancing — she said she took a few classes when she was a kid, “a couple ballet classes, some jazz classes, that sort of thing” — but a year before filming began, she started working with Mary Helen Bowers, who also trained Natalie Portman for her demanding dance role in “Black Swan.”
While filming the third “Fifty Shades of Grey” film in Vancouver, Johnson would cap off a full day of filming her final entry in the blockbuster franchise with two hours in the dance studio. She admitted it was “kind of a tricky time.” Two months before “Suspiria” began filming, Johnson decamped for Varese, Italy to work with choreographer Damien Jalet for six to eight hours of work every day. It wasn’t just the physical effort that transformed Johnson.
“When you pay attention to your body and you really move more, things feel differently,” Johnson said. “It’s like you open yourself and you really feel like you’re alive in your body. I don’t know how to explain it. It was just so enlightening. I learned so much on this project and it doesn’t feel like just another movie that I made. It feels like a huge, important part of my life, like a landmark moment and it’s the most important thing to me, so far in my career.”
The film wrapped in March of 2017, but Johnson is still able to conjure up the feelings of both joy and bewilderment that accompanied the production. “It was important to me to get some clarity after filming,” she said. “Not that it was hard to shake her off, but more that, once it was over, looking back on it, it was just like a blur. Like, what just happened? What did we just do? Was that even real? Because it really felt like we were just out of time, completely. And I don’t really struggle with shaking off characters.”
Part of that might be due to the actress’ busy schedule, which will soon see her taking on something else pretty big: producing. The actress is set to executive produce a pair of films — both of which have long been in the works and that Johnson says are out now to potential directors — in the coming months, thanks to her Silhouette Productions shingle.
“I am so excited about making the films. That’s what I care about,” Johnson said. “Producing is very difficult and it takes such a long time. I feel like my production company falls apart whenever I have to go make a movie, because then everything just kind of slows down to a halt almost. But, things are happening now, which is very exciting after a few years of really working on these projects.”
Johnson will star in both films, including a big screen adaptation of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s “Forever, Interrupted: A Novel” first announced in 2014 and the Amazon-financed historical drama “Unfit,” based on Adam Cohen’s fact-based book “Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck.”
“I like the idea of making my own content,” she said. “I like the idea of starting something from the ground up and, like I’ve learned from ‘Suspiria,’ being involved from the beginning of the writing of the script, even through the edit. …It’s difficult to be just waiting around for someone to hire me as an actress, so if I can spend time making other movies, even if it’s one day at a time, like reading a draft of a script or waiting three months for a draft of a script, then that’s what I wanna do.”
“Suspiria” is in select theaters today, care of Amazon Studios.