The great Italian director Federico Fellini was in the midst of production on Satyricon—his self-described “sci-fi” film that looked back at the pre-Christian Romans as if they were Martians—when he shot Fellini: A Director’s Notebook, a light-hearted quasi-documentary “introducing” himself to Americans for NBC.
It’s a testament to the times that such a thing could have been broadcast on an American network television. And it’s “a Fellini” in every way, so the project was, shall we say, already quite extraordinary to begin with. That it burst into millions of American homes for one night in 1969, as easily accessed as running water… well, wow. That takes it to a whole other level.
Fellini: A Director’s Notebook features his wife Giulietta Masina, actress Caterina Boratto, composer Nino Rota and Marcello Mastroianni (we even get a look at Mastroianni’s home). We seeing him working on the set. There are also appearances by Genius the Medium, some very Fellini-esque hippies and a variety of whimsical and eccentric characters who come into the director’s office wanting to audition for him. Fellini descends into the subways, goes to a slaughterhouse and visits the Appian Way, all the while discussing his creative search for atmosphere and the bizarre.
As with all of Fellini’s films, this boasts some of the most extraordinary faces—the faces, as he says of “real Romans”—that you’ll ever see. The master’s eye was so attuned to the smallest detail in his films, but it’s Fellini’s faces that are unique in all of cinema. Every face in this film is a work of art.
Donald Sutherland’s big break came in Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen, when co-star Clint Walker refused to play a scene—as Sutherland explained to the Daily Telegraph:
‘...Clint Walker sticks up his hand and says, ‘Mr Aldrich, as a representative of the Native American people, I don’t think it’s appropriate to do this stupid scene where I have to pretend to be a general.’ Aldrich turns and points to me and says, ‘You — with the big ears. You do it’....It changed my life.’
“Big Ears” was born Donald McNichol Sutherland in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, in July 1935. He moved to England in the late 1950s, where he briefly studied at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, leaving after 9 months to start his professional career as an actor. Sutherland was soon acting in various BBC plays, and guest starring in episodes of such cult TV series as The Saint and The Avengers. Sutherland also co-starred with Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Michael Gough in the classic Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, where he played a newly-wed doctor who suspects his wife is a vampire. After a stint in repertory theater, including 2 disastrous productions, Sutherland’s career seemed stalled. The Dirty Dozen changed that.
During the 1970s, Sutherland made some of the most iconic and seminal films of the decade, including M*A*S*H (a film he originally hated), Kelly’s Heroes (which nearly cost him his life), Klute, Little Murders (a cameo), the unforgettable Don’t Look Now, The Day of the Locust (as the original Homer Simpson), 1900, Casanova, The Eagle Has Landed and National Lampoon’s Animal House.
When asked on the set of Bear Island, in 1979, if he considered himself a star, Sutherland replied that Peter O’Toole is a star, as he has that certain something, while he just makes a lot of movies. Personally, I’d beg to differ. Sutherland gives a brief history of his career, discussing the highlights M*A*S*H, working with Fellini on Casanova and the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Making a movie is a very mathematical operation, Federico Fellini explains in this interview from 1972. It is like firing a missile into space—everything has to be prepared.
This control over film-making is neatly contrasted with the often random nature of documentary-making, when moments later a telephone rings and the interview is stopped. Fittingly, the sequence is kept in, as if it had been scripted.
There is also a great interplay between Fellini and interviewer Philip Jenkinson, where the director responds to the questions about his films—Roma, Amacord, Satyricon, his techniques, and his life, but rarely giving a definitive answer. There is a drama going on here between the two, of nuance and mood, with Fellini cleverly avoiding his being tied to one thought, one explanation, one answer. That is for the critics, he says.
Ultimately, Fellini defines movie-making, or artistic creation, as a form of autobiography.
Everything is autobiographical. How is it possible to live outside of yourself? Anything we do is also a testifying of yourself. If a creator makes something that pretends to be very objective, it is the autobiography of a man who is very objective…
He ends in a similar form:
...How is it possible to do something outside of your myth, of your world, of your character, of your history, of yourself?
It brings the interview almost full-circle, but Fellini’s answers throughout only leave the viewer wanting to know more. This is a classic and rare TV interview and demands to be seen.
Federico Fellini had been working on his 12th feature film Casanova. It had been a difficult experience. Filming had taken over a year to complete, and Fellini had spent in excess of $10m, using up 3 producers. He claimed he hated his leading star, Donald Sutherland. There had been union disputes, and the negative had been “kidnapped” and returned. Then the Vatican declared one of Fellini’s previous films “obscene”. But the great master was unfazed by all of this.
‘I’m sorry if I disappoint you by not describing the tears in my eyes, my role as the victim, the artist forced to sacrifice his own integrity and purity,’ Fellini explained in an interview with the BBC in 1976.
‘I’ve never compromised. But then I’ve always been lucky.
‘On the occasions that I could be reproached for compromising, was directly attributable to my own laziness, because I was in love, or I wanted to finish the film. Or, simply because I was fed-up by it.
‘I don’t think absolute liberty is necessarily a good thing for people creatively. As far as I, or people like me are concerned.
‘Being Italian, I have a particular type of psychology: I am an artist who is conditioned to the idea of delivering his work to All.
‘The Popes in the 14th and the 15th century, or the great Lords of days gone by, they always used to commission painters or writers to create a madrigal or a crucifixion for them. It’s this necessity of an obligation - a contract - it’s an authority that forces you to work.’
For Casanova that authority was the American film company. Fellini may have had control over the designs, the sets, the costumes, the cast, the script, and the direction, but ultimately Fellini was answerable to his producers. This was partly why he had chosen to work with Donald Sutherland.
‘Well, in Casanova,’ said Fellini, ‘There was a precise plan for a certain type of character. Because the film is an American film - made by an Italian crew for a major American company. My contractual position is that the producer made me make the film in English.’
Fellini made Sutherland have his head partially shaved, his eyebrows removed and his teeth “cut” by 2mm. A false nose, chin and eyebrows were then added. Sutherland had to rethink how best to interpret Casanova’s experience in terms of 18th century expression.
Fellini wanted authenticity, and he knew his film would cause outrage from the prudes and hypocrites of his homeland, who had already burnt copies of The Last Tango in Paris on the streets of Rome.
‘You’ve got a real moralistic tyranny in Italy,’ Fellini said. ‘It is fast coming to the point where people are being told how to make love, how to dress, how to shave, how to look at a woman. I feel completely bewildered and confused. Clearly what’s going on in our country is a real mess. I cannot honestly see how we are going to extricate ourselves.
‘The Italians are like confused children. They’ve had a thousand years of Catholic up-bringing which has left us uncertain in our context of life. We are incapable, apparently, of making personal judgments because we have always asked other people. We ask our fathers, the teacher, police, the ministry, priests, the Pope. We have always asked others to give their opinion for us, without ever having to judge for ourselves individually.’