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Dakota Johnson in Suspiria
Dakota Johnson in SuspiriaCourtesy of Amazon Studios

Luca Guadagnino on his visceral, ‘slow burn’ take on Suspiria

The director talks working with Tilda Swinton and Thom Yorke, making a Call Me By Your Name sequel, and his dream of working with Frank Ocean

In May and June of 2016, Luca Guadagnino shot Call Me By Your Name around his hometown of Crema. Only four months later, in October, the Italian director started orchestrating dark magic on the set of Suspiria, his superb, sadistic remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 giallo landmark. Gone are the clashing primary colours and frenetic rhythms of Argento’s original. Instead, the new Suspiria presents a slow-burn, grey-tinted mystery, in a Berlin environment that’s completely alien from the peach-perfect paradise of Crema. Put it this way: you know which one of the two neighbourhoods Guadagnino chose to buy a flat in. 

However, it’s Suspiria, not Call Me By Your Name, that’s been a lifetime obsession for Guadagnino. So much so that his 2018 incarnation bleeds with so many lurid, lucid ideas that you sense the decades of dreaming that fuelled it. The director first fell in love with Argento’s film as a 13-year-old in 1984, and then, after countless viewings, he purchased the remake rights in 2007. 

Now that it’s actually out in the world, Guadagnino’s Suspiria is divisive – and comes across as the inverse to Call Me By Your Name. There’s still a preoccupation with bodily fluids, except now it’s the piss, puke and blood of disembowelled students. There’s an intimate scene involving a sliced pear in bed, but it’s purely for eating purposes. And even though legendary DP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (Uncle BoonmeeBlissfully Yours) returns for cinematography duties, Suspiria certainly won’t inspire romantic cycling tours around the bleak streets of Berlin.

For Guadagnino, it’s been a long time coming. “I’ve always wanted to make horror films, since I was young,” he feverishly tells me. It’s the day before Suspiria will split crowds at the London Film Festival, and we’re hidden away in a lavish, I Am Love-esque corner of Claridge’s Hotel. “In my bedroom, when I was a kid, every wall was lined with Dario Argento’s posters. Fifteen of them. Horror is a genre that deals with very tough, very powerful emotions. Cinema is about emotions to me.”

His adolescent passion for Argento’s Suspiria, he explains, was immediate. “After I saw it, I was like, ‘Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.’ I didn’t have a VCR. So because I couldn’t see it again, I started to think of it, and I started to draw things, and I started to have images in my mind, coming from that film. And I started to draw posters for ‘Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria’.”

The general premise, to some extent, remains the same: Susie Bannion, now played by Dakota Johnson, auditions at a dance school covertly run by witches. This time, though, Susie is a repressed Mennonite from Ohio, whose arrival at Berlin’s Markos Dance Academy sparks all kinds of self-discovery. The troupe’s choreographer, Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton, in one of her three roles), challenges the newcomer to execute some intricate routines. And Susie pulls them off. “It felt like what it must feel like to fuck,” Susie reflects, post-dance. “Do you mean to fuck a man?” asks Blanc. “No,” Susie responds, “I was thinking of an animal.” There’s a lot to unpack.

The female-heavy ensemble also features Mia Goth, Chloë Grace Moretz, the original Suspiria’s Jessica Harper, and Vanda Capriolo, a non-actor who Guadagnino spotted in a field one day and asked to play Mafalda in Call Me By Your Name. Three men appear onscreen: two detectives who are stripped nude and sexually humiliated by witches, and the third is Dr Klemperer, a wrinkly psychiatrist played by 82-year-old Lutz Ebersdorf. Except Ebersdorf is really Swinton, under several layers of make-up.

“The bottom-line decision is that in a movie about witches and women in a sorority,” Guadagnino reasons, “maybe there was not the possibility for any men to be in it – just a community of women.” He adds, “Tilda is such an incredible filmmaker. She brings passion, intelligence, commitment. We spend time together. Life is life, and we are together.” Ebersdorf’s backstory didn’t really fool anyone, though. Was it worth pretending it wasn’t Swinton? He chuckles. “I regret nothing.” 

What hooks the viewer into Suspiria , perversely, is the absence of a flashy, giallo-style death to kick things off. It’s a trope for the haunted house genre in general: you go big and you go home, in that order. So whereas Argento delivers a gorgeous, gruesome bloodbath every 15 minutes or so, Guadagnino subverts expectations: aside from some Cronenbergian body-horror half an hour in, the film generally operates as a patient, gore-free build-up to a climactic crescendo of pure insanity. Watching the ending felt like an out-of-body experience – and not just because of the 155-minute running time.

“Dario’s movie, when he came up with this aggressive BOOM! at the beginning, it was quite new,” Guadagnino explains. “But how many movies you saw afterwards that started with a big scene? Basically all of them. I like what they call ‘slow burn’ – it’s very intertwined with what I like. I’m a classicist, I would say.”

“Always, the space for me, is a character in itself” – Luca Guadagnino

The opening text prepares viewers for “six acts and an epilogue set in divided Berlin”. It’s evident that Guadagnino, unlike Argento, wants his Suspiria to make narrative sense, and to ground itself in the real world. So it unfolds in 1977, not only because it’s the year of the original film’s release, but for the political context: the “German Autumn” is in full swing, protesters flood the streets, and radio bulletins report on the infamous hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181. “Me and David Kajganich, the writer, made sure that history was part of the story,” the director says. “We had to do it as accurately as possible.”

Guadagnino has juxtaposed genre thrills with fraught realities in previous movies, too. For instance, A Bigger Splash, also scripted by Kajganich, documents the refugee crisis in the background, which in turn acts as a not-so-subtle indictment on the hedonism of its main characters. But Suspiria actually weaves conversations about World War 2 and the Holocaust into its plot. Without giving too much away, the themes of guilt and memory are very much at play. Was he afraid it might seem exploitative? 

“I hope that I don’t come across as exploitative,” Guadagnino answers. “But really, this is a question for you. Do you find it exploitative?” No, I say, but I mention The Protagonists, the 1999 docu-drama he made with Swinton, in which they re-enact a real-life murder. In a BAFTA talk in September, Guadagnino expressed regrets over the “ethical decision” to make The Protagonists. “There are many reasons I regret part of The Protagonists,” he tells me, “but mostly it’s that I put my ambitions in front of the story I was telling. I hope that in growing up, I became wiser.”

As for Suspiria’s central building, the architecture is certifiably creepy: the walls appear to be moving, witches often eavesdrop from afar, and any person you encounter could be Tilda Swinton in disguise. But as with the houses of Call Me By Your NameI Am Love and A Bigger Splash, it demands that you familiarise with every nook and cranny. “Always, the space for me, is a character in itself,” Guadagnino says. “If you think about the Markos Dance Company, you think of the place itself. It’s not only a group of people. And that body of the building is the organism of the company. We needed a place that could encompass the depth of the body within.”

It’s true. At one point, Susie unwittingly transforms herself into a puppeteer; she swings her limbs in a studio, and each thrust magically pushes and pulls the helpless body of Olga, a student on a separate floor. The building, as Guadagnino says, really is an organism, and Susie’s killer moves literally rip Olga to shreds. When the scene was previewed in April at CinemaCon, numerous audience members reportedly walked out.

These sequences are, of course, haunted by Thom Yorke’s moody score. It’s the Radiohead frontman’s first original non-exit music for a film, and it’s decidedly chillier than Goblin’s in-your-face-and-in-your-ears rock explosion. “The conversations between me and Thom were so fruitful, so intense, so interconnected,” Guadagnino recalls. “We really delved deep into the world of this movie, and he started feeding me pieces of the soundtrack. He created the theme before we started shooting.”

For Guadagnino, Suspiria’s music signals a key change. Sufjan Stevens’ angsty lyrics speak for Elio, the Rolling Stones embody Ralph Fiennes’s inner youth, and I Am Love’s wordless finale conveys Swinton’s heartache via John Adams’ strings. But Yorke’s ghostly compositions roam through corridors of Suspiria like an evil spirit. The textures of his voice and instrumentals recalibrate themselves to the rooms, not the people inside, and they transport viewers to a violent time in history. “Me and Thom spoke about the idea that the music had to come from a place in terms of sound and instruments that were the same as the period in which the movie was done, of ’77. We discussed a lot about electronic music, synthetic music and non-synthetic music.”

Did those discussions include David Bowie, who recorded Low and “Heroes” in Berlin during that era? “We had a scene in the movie where the girls go to a David Bowie concert, and we even shot it. But you have to be very disciplined in terms of pace, and so we cut it.” In the deleted scene, the glam rocker was played by Gala Moody, an actress who also depicts one of Susie’s classmates. 

“(The CMBYN sequel) is a delicate flower that is blooming very slowly. And so I think it’s not the time to collect it and put it into a vase” – Luca Guadagnino

With all this talk of Bowie, it’s funny to think how little Guadagino’s Suspiria overlaps with Argento’s aesthetic. If anything, the movie owes more to Fassbinder, Tarkovsky and Robbie Williams’ music video for “Rock DJ”. Compare that to David Gordon Green’s attempt to resurrect Suspiria 10 years ago: it was to star Natalie Portman and Isabelle Huppert, reuse Goblin’s soundtrack, and, crucially, remain faithful to the original. Tellingly, Green’s Halloween reboot, which actually did materialise, is a copycat of its source material, and John Carpenter responded by supporting Green on press tours and contributing to the score. All Argento had to say about Suspiria in 2016 was: “I do think it would be better if it wasn’t remade.”

After capturing Sufjan Stevens and Thom Yorke, does Guadagnino have any other dream musicians to work with? “I’m a big fan of Frank Ocean,” the director says. “I think he’s great.” Could Ocean do a soundtrack to one of his films? After all, the singer publicly praised Call Me By Your Name on his Tumblr. “I don’t know. I’m a big fan. You’re asking me for a dream artist, and I told you.” I say I’ll try to pass on a message. “If you meet him, yes.” 

Before our interview wraps up, I want to know a few things about Call Me By Your Name, including when we’ll see the unreleased four-hour cut (he loves it, but it will “stay with me and my editor”) and confirmation that James Ivory, who he hasn’t spoken to in a long time, will likely not be involved with the sequel. (Shortly after winning the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, Ivory criticised Guadagnino’s depiction of the sex in the film.) “I’m talking a lot with (novelist) André Aciman, anyway,” says Guadagnino.

Along with brainstorming Elio and Oliver’s next adventure, Guadagnino is also finishing a documentary on Salvatore Ferragamo, and is preparing a movie version of Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. I rattle through some other films he’s rumoured to be tackling, including a James Baldwin adaptation (“we tried to do it”) and a realisation of Stanley Kubrick’s treatment for The Aryan Papers (“there is no update”). He admits, though, that the working title for Suspiria was Suspiria: Part One.

“Maybe Suspiria will be so well-received that we’ll feel engaged to think of another story we can tell,” he says. As for Call Me By Your Name: Part Two, or whatever it’ll be titled, don’t expect it anytime soon. “It’s a delicate flower that is blooming very slowly. And so I think it’s not the time to collect it and put it into a vase. I hope I don’t disappoint you.” Now that Suspiria is done, is there anything else on Guadagnino’s bucket list? “I have plenty of dream projects,” he grins. “But the dream project I have now is to have a holiday.”

Suspiria opens in UK cinemas on 16 November