Italian director Luca Guadagnino's previous films, most notably I Am Love (2009), A Bigger Splash (2015), and Call Me By Your Name (2017), are exquisite glimpses into upscale (and certainly dramatic) European lives. His newest project, Suspiria, seems at first a little unlikely. Based on Dario Argento's lurid, gory (and somewhat incomprehensible) horror film from 1977, it may surprise filmgoers expecting another serving of Guadagnino's high thread count weltschmertz.
While the supernatural elements are still intact, there is a level of craft on display that elevates this from a typical slasher. The film stars Dakota Johnson as a young American who joins a renown dance academy in Berlin, run by Tilda Swinton. (Swinton shows up in additional roles, too, most noticeably as an old, male German psychiatrist.)
Most of the movie was shot at one location, an abandoned hotel atop a hill in the Italian town of Varese. Guadagnino tends to work with the same department heads, and re-teamed with costume designer Giulia Piersanti (a stylist for Céline whose only film credits are with Guadagnino) and Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. Making her debut with the company is Israeli-born, New York-based production designer Inbal Weinberg.
Weinberg's previous work includes last year's midwestern dark comedy Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (yes, she designed the titular billboards), African-set Beasts of No Nation, and the Ryan Gosling/Michelle Williams doomed love story Blue Valentine. Nothing she'd yet done had the range of the gravely, pale-blue Berlin winter to the phantasmagoric hallucinations of a possessed young dancer like Suspiria.
We had the good fortune to speak with Weinberg about her work, an edited transcript of which is below.
This movie is a visual feast. How would you describe its look?
"There's two layers, there's the layer of, let's call it the realism of what is really happening, and there is the layer of the Underworld. Our film is in contrast with the original. It's not camp. Well, there's maybe a few moments of camp because you're selling the genre, but it is pretty somber and rooted in the architecture of that period."
The original is all bright, primary colors and Art Nouveau. This is quite different.
"I realize that people will compare this with the original, but we didn't discuss it that much. We really wanted to start from a fresh place. We just looked at “what did Berlin look like in 1977 and how did it get there?” We referenced something called Germany in Autumn, which mixes documentary footage and shorts by a number of the New German Cinema directors of the time like Volker Schlöndorff, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and others. Also what you'd call “non-traditional” horror films of the period, like Andrzej Zulawski's Possession, which basically takes place in the same area as our film."
The wall is very present in the film.
"We really wanted it to be as authentic as possible. Of course, we didn't build it from concrete, but we had an amazing painter that made it very similar. We had to build it not just in Italy, up in a forest on our mountain, but also had to build it in Berlin for our second location.
Researching the wall was fascinating, there is so much amazing photography surrounding it. What kind of graffiti was on it, etc. It's so relevant now, there's talk of a wall in America, there's a wall in Israel where I am from. Architecture can change your emotions when you are in the space."
One of the spaces that felt really real to me was the psychiatrist's office. The tactile nature of the props, and the specificity.
"We needed a high level of authenticity because of the contrast with the Underworld. We went so far as to have a props person fly in from Germany with a suitcase full of bread, jams and other breakfast elements for a scene."
Wait, is that normal?
"A level of this happens on every film. I just shot something in Puerto Rico that was supposed to look like Washington D.C., so things like this happen. But to this extent, having someone fly in with fresh bread? I find that deep research is very helpful. We had Germans on the crew who made sure everything that was written out was legitimate. The Professor's apartment was modeled on Freud's actual apartment."
So many little things look great, like the hearing aid, or the notebook with the small insignia on it with old looking leather. It didn't look like something that was newly made for the production.
"The entire library in the Professor's apartment was sent from Germany; we found a collection of old psychology textbooks. It was a Jewish-German psychologist's library, a team boxed it up and drove it down, it was an ordeal. I realize you can barely tell in the film, that's usually the case with detailed design, but still, it was spot on. As far as the insignia, we did have it made, locally in Italy. The craft level of artisans is so high there, so we could make things like that."
Okay, the main location, the Dance Academy, this was an abandoned hotel?
"It hadn't been operational for forty years or so. It is a dilapidated mega-structure, built like a 19th-century grand hotel. We scouted other options because we knew this would be a challenge since it didn't have much electricity or running water, but nothing else was close in terms of the flow of action—the atrium lobby and the ability to see into other rooms. But a lot of the old decorative elements were flowery mosaics, so we had to figure out how to work around that up to make it look more modernist. We had to cover the round columns with rectangular, marble-looking columns.
We were very inspired by architect Adolf Loos, one of the forefathers of Modernism. Clean lines, not a lot of adornment, so we had to repaint a lot. We also looked at Josef Hoffmann, another Austrian like Loos."
A big star of this movie is the wooden floor of the main dance room. The design pattern almost puts you in a trance.
"That was the original design, only the floor was in very bad shape. Layers of lacquer and years of neglect. We wanted to restore it but it was a huge project. Three companies came by and refused to do it. It also had to be safe for the dancers. We almost gave up and would have covered it with a modern dance floor, which would have been a tragedy. But one of our crew members had a friend who was a wood restorer, part of a family business. They took over for a week and with hard labor scraped it and fixed the damage. We were so grateful, because it looks so graphic."
So now this abandoned hotel has this amazing floor that looks like a million bucks.
"Yeah, I'm not sure what's happening there now. We all wondered if they'll open it up to local events and such. We were all living there for months, in this abandoned place. Our offices, the green room for the actors, rehearsal spaces, art department, costumes, we were all running up and down the stairs of this crazy hotel with no heat through the winter."
Okay, last question about that area: the chandeliers. They looked like the ones in the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.
"Good eye! Luca's sense of taste is “beyond,” and there are a few companies he really admires with a high craft level. One is called Lobmeyr, also Austrian, which does lighting. They have a classical line, but also a more modern line and in the 1960s they made objects specifically for the Metropolitan Opera House. We are very grateful to them because these fixtures are insanely expensive. They sent a team with the chandeliers from Austria and they personally installed them, then they came back to uninstall. Whenever we were lighting that space everyone was very much on edge. Nothing was too close to those chandeliers. It's a testament to Luca's reputation among the design community in Europe that they would do this."
With Luca being so well-known for design, does that make it a bit intimidating for you as the production designer? For example, you worked on Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and the director, Martin McDonagh, is a playwright from Ireland. Whatever you say, he'll accept as gospel. Luca maybe might give a little push-back.
"There's a little truth to that. I did those two projects back to back and it was an interesting switch, with one director so focused on the word and the other on the look. Thankfully Luca and I were on the same page from day one in terms of design elements. We had challenges and tough times, but we always saw the same thing. He draws a lot from art history; I don't think he ever had a bad idea visually."
A lot of creepy things happen downstairs in the rehearsal room with the mirrored walls.
"We wanted to feel layers of the dance group's existence throughout the Academy. So there are posters up that look like they are from the 1920s, early Martha Graham style. Other posters are from different eras. The kitchen is Modernist, 1930s and 40s, the girls' bedrooms are institutional. The mirror room was current, 1970s, as it was something of a transitional space, a door to the Underworld. At first we brought a lot of elements in there, then we kept taking them out and just lighting it as it would be lit naturally."
Okay, finally we get to the basement, the Underworld, the big horror movie finish, and … what the hell was that all about?
"It's sort of a mix of all sorts of references. It's fantasy. But we looked at research to be inspired. We looked at a lot of contemporary art installations for the “final ritual.” We had this giant open space at the side of the hotel. Picture an enormous open gazebo. I had this reference material to the Holocaust, which is relevant to other parts of the film, and so much of this is about hidden German society of the time. One of the things that most struck me when I visited the Camps, and this is a little tough to talk about, but it's the mountains of glasses and human hair. So, we figured, what do witches do with their victims? So the walls are actually made of hair."
"And the costumes are made of hair. It was very eerie to be there with the actors and three stories of human hair. On film it just reads like a textured wall, but I believe like the feeling that the actors and crew have in the space permeated the film, even if it is unnoticeable to audiences."
What's next for you?
"Well, I was in Puerto Rico with Dee Rees [director of Mudbound] for The Last Thing He Wanted. I worked on her earlier film Pariah. This one is a political thriller set in the 1980s based on a Joan Didion book. I've got something planned soon but it hasn't been announced yet and I am not allowed to tell you, but it will be in New York where I live so it'll be nice to be home for a change."