Oscar-winning production designer Dante Ferretti works with some of cinema’s most illustrious directors. A spectacular talent who loves to work with his hands, we met him at Cinecittà, Rome’s famous film studios, to discuss his work, his life and his thoughts on the perfection of Ferrari
Estimated reading time: 12 minutes
Anyone who has not been to Cinecittà cannot know what true cinema is. Not so much because of what you find there (let’s be clear, this isn’t Hollywood) but because of who you find. In the theatres by the side of the roads, which seem more like unpredictable toboggan tracks, because of the continuous bumps caused by the roots of the maritime pines that are planted alongside, as well as in the large open-air spaces, you can see vignettes that transport you to places and times far beyond the reality that surrounds them.
A ship, New York in the 1930s, a Nepalese temple, and, in the warm June sunlight, also Ancient Rome, seemingly torn between splendour and decadence. All around, you will find a dissonant and unlikely world of electricians, fitters, hairdressers, make-up artists, aspiring actors and extras, all disinterested in what the others are doing, in a mixture of activity and idleness, following the pace of situations that are each different from the next.
‘L’architetto Ferretti? Yes, of course, he’s here, go straight ahead, his office is in the corner at the back,’ the security man at the impenetrable gate of the Roman studios tells me. I go along the bumpy road and arrive at the corner of what appears to be the main avenue. The doors on to the street are all different. I try knocking on the first; no answer. I open it, but inside are just dozens of large set lights. I try the second, which is opened by a craftsman working on an object midway between a robot and a prehistoric animal. ‘Ferretti? He’s not here, head to the left, the first door.’
Keep walking. On the left is a large shutter-style door, similar to a garage’s. Go through that and it’s immediately obvious I’m in the right place. There are models of buildings and large plastic items, drawings and sketches on the walls, and three or four people working to complete a pavilion for the next Universal Exposition in Milan.
Dante Ferretti, the production designer who has been nominated for 10 Oscars, winning three, in addition to receiving an endless number of Nastro d’Argento awards, David di Donatello awards, Baftas, and more besides, is standing there, in untucked shirt, checking that a detail of his new project is exactly the way he had imagined it.
This is Cinecittà: anyone who thought that the famous art director, adored by Federico Fellini and Martin Scorsese, sought after by great directors the world over, would be in an office protected as if in cotton wool by secretaries and assistants, could not be more wrong. Ferretti is there working with his hands, as well as with his extraordinary talent, just like all those involved in cinema do, in that world of make-believe that lies beyond the gates of movie studios across the globe.
‘What difference is there between working in Rome and in Hollywood?’ he replies. ‘None. The language of cinema is unique. The difference lies in how cinema is considered. In the United States it’s important, a major part of the economy. Here it is considered little more than a hobby. Here we are called cinematografari, almost like we are secondor third-rate people.’ He laughs.
Then, instead of actually inviting me in, he asks to see the Ferrari California, here for him to try. He examines it with the eye of someone who possesses a professionally acute attention to detail. ‘Ferraris are so perfect you’d need to make some mistakes to render them human,’ he notes.
‘Yes, the Ferrari is perfect. In Los Angeles, on Sunset Boulevard, there is an Italian restaurant. You recognise it, when you arrive, from the blue Ferrari belonging to Sylvester Stallone, who goes to eat there. He is proud of his Ferraris; he keeps them in his garage protected by large red cloths. Once he took me to see them and he went out, turned on the ignition and “vroom, vroom”, accelerated with great satisfaction…’
Suddenly Ferretti has escaped the Roman dimensions of a summery Cinecittà and become the man who moves confidently among personalities that stir the imaginations of audiences the world over. Yet, he has lost none of the spontaneity and curiosity typical of Italians drawn to the capital city’s sense of opportunity.
‘The first time I came to Rome, I arrived by bus, from Macerata, where I was born,’ he says fondly. ‘I wanted to do set design; I loved cinema and spent my time watching films, even in three or four different cinemas on the same day, first at the Italia, then at the Corso and the Cairoli, finally, at the Sferisterio. My father asked me where I’d been. “Studying” I answered him. But at school I was a disaster. “I want to go to Rome,” I told him. And he resigned himself to this, but with the caveat that I had to pass my exams at the art school I attended. That promise turned me from the dunce I was, who had to repeat the year in six subjects, to top of the class with the top marks!’
The town of Macerata is not far removed, both geographically and in terms of the mentality of those who live there, from Rimini, the city of Fellini. And Fellini was a key point of reference for the young Ferretti. He arrived in Rome with a precise idea (suggested by the sculptor Umberto Peschi, who had encouraged him to think big) of working with the director and writer Pier Paolo Pasolini, who made his first film, Medea, in 1970, when he was not yet 30 years old. He continued with The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales, two highly significant works by the Italian director.
In the meantime, Ferretti met Fellini and they spent time together. However, the opportunity to work together had not yet emerged. ‘When Fellini began to prepare Roma, he asked me to do the set design, together with Danilo Donati, but I turned him down. Maestro, if the two of us do it, everything that’s right will be thanks to him and everything that’s wrong will be my fault,” I told him!’
Despite turning that opportunity down, Ferretti’s career was unstoppable, and his set designs provided the backdrop for the films by the most famous Italian directors of the period. Time passed. ‘One evening, with Fellini, we were strolling and chatting here at Cinecittà. It was dark and, when we stood under a lamp post, almost as though he wanted to look at me clearly in the face, he said to me: “Ten years have gone by and it’s time for you to start working with me.”’ Even today, you can still sense the emotion Ferretti
felt at the time. ‘We did Orchestra Rehearsal. Then City of Women, And the Ship Sails On…’ Five films in all, up to and including The Voice of the Moon.
And the United States? Yes, because a brilliant career in Italy would have satisfied many people, but not him; ever since the days of those films seen in Macerata, he had cherished the myth of that Hollywood sign standing on a Californian hill. ‘I had met Scorsese here at Cinecittà, when we were filming City of Women with Fellini. We had lunch together and from that moment on he started to call me to ask me to make films with him.
‘More than once I was forced to say no, because of other commitments. Then I understood that I would no longer be able to turn down one of his offers, or he wouldn’t call me again… It was 1992 and he asked me to work on The Age of Innocence. To go to see him I had flown on the MGM private jet, which was incredibly luxurious, and sleeping next to me, with the blanket over her head, was a woman. All that was visible was one of her fingers… on arriving I realised it was Naomi Campbell. I can say I’ve slept with her!’ he says with a chuckle, half jokey, half ironic, recurrent in the way he engages with people.
You could spend all day listening to him. As he talks, he draws. He is imagining a large neo-Gothic construction. ‘In this work the magic comes from mistakes. Pasolini taught me that. Filming The Decameron, which was set in the Middle Ages, we found a beautiful Renaissance stairway. Pasolini asked to film a scene there too. When I objected over the temporal inconsistency, he told me that it is precisely that kind of error that makes reality believable. That’s the way things always are, the world is wrong, so it’s the wrong things that are right.’
If this were so, what would a film about Ferrari be like? ‘That’s the point: at Ferrari everything is so perfect! I would make a car out of wood, like a sculpture, like Howard Hughes did in The Aviator[Hughes, the subject of Scorsese’s film, with art direction by Ferretti, created an enormous hydroplane with eight engines out of wood, the Hughes H-4 Hercules, known as the “Spruce
Goose”, on view at the Evergreen Aviation Museum in Long Beach].
‘I would think of it as a sailing boat, studied down to the smallest detail to reach the maximum of its potential, with just one person on board and nothing to prevent the wind from gliding across it to obtain the maximum speed.’
Where does this idea come from? ‘I was at the Cannes Film Festival, together with Liza Minnelli and some other actors, and we went to Monte Carlo to see the Grand Prix from the terrace of the Hotel de Paris. There was an unbelievable excitement there, they all wanted Ferrari to win. The same in Canada, when I was filming The Aviatorand I went to see the Grand Prix, marvellous.’
How do directors work with their production designer and what are the differences between Fellini, Pasolini and Scorsese, to take just three greats who Ferretti knows well as an example? ‘Every day Fellini asked what I had dreamt about. I answered nothing or said I couldn’t remember. Then I understood that he would continue doing this, so I started to invent dreams. He undoubtedly
knew that I was inventing them, but he wanted to understand what kind of imagination I had. And so I invented stories that were similar to the ones he told in his cinema.
‘We were from the same area and we spoke the same language. I had told him that I dreamed of being a little boy and hiding under the seamstress’ skirt…’ Funnily enough, you’ll find that very scene in a film by the great Fellini.
‘Pasolini loved everything that was true; he did not like the bourgeoisie. There was no intimacy between us. He would give me the screenplay and suggest the books to read and to study to interpret it to me, from The Canterbury Tales to The Kama Sutra, and to look at the paintings of those stories and those periods.
‘Really, he worked as a painter in his films. He kept the camera in a fixed position and with a descending shot [that is, progressively narrowing the view]. In The Decameron we reinterpreted Giotto’s painting. Then, as I said, he was the one who taught me the value of mistakes.’
An intriguing insight. And with Scorsese it was different again: ‘He loves Italian cinema; he has a special admiration in particular for Luchino Visconti. He knows everything about the movies, just everything; he really is unbelievable. He knows all the shots in all the films.
‘With him you work like this: he gives you the screenplay and suggests watching a whole series of films, which often have nothing to do with the script. But in this way he makes you understand the mood he is looking for. Then you bring him some ideas and he allows you a lot of freedom; he says “great!, great!” and so we work very well together.’
Framed on the wall are many of the awards that Ferretti has received along with his wife, Francesca LoSchiavo, a set decorator. ‘We have six Oscar figurines, three each. The Oscar is a dream, a symbol; it’s what it’s all about. My first nomination was for The Adventures of Baron Munchausen by Terry Gilliam. But no Oscars. Then Zeffirelli’s Hamlet. Nothing. After those, five other
nominations. And on each occasion nothing arrived. I no longer wanted to go. Then, in 2005, Francesca persuaded me to accept Martin’s [Scorsese] invitation to go in his plane. And it finally arrived for The Aviator. From that moment they didn’t stop: Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, in 2008, and this year Hugo.’
What could this “boy from Cinecittà”, who has conquered the world, still want? Judging by the work he is doing, in the theatre, in the movies, and even for architecture, he doesn’t set himself any limits. But with the light-hearted tone of someone who finds in fantasy the joy of creating, he adds: ‘What would I still like to win? The SuperEnalotto [the Italian national lottery]!’ He laughs; he knows that he has made everybody win the lottery with his work, particularly the audiences who love what he does, even if, as often happens, they don’t pay too much attention to the closing credits. A mistake.
Published on The Official Ferrari Magazine 18 issue September 2012