‘Suspiria’ Director Luca Guadagnino on His ‘Tetralogy of Desire’

In a conversation with screenwriter David Kajganich and choreographer Damien Jalet, the ‘Suspiria’ director discusses bringing new terror to the scariest dance movie ever made.

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Oct 18 2018, 8:13pm

Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic Suspiria, about a Berlin-based dance company that is in fact a coven of witches in hiding, is a far cry from his earlier films: I Am Love, A Bigger Splash, and Call Me By Your Name, known collectively as the Desire trilogy. The beloved director, in conversation with Suspiria screenwriter David Kajganich, choreographer Damien Jalet, and GARAGE editor-in-chief Mark Guiducci, breaks down how he crafted an exquisitely shocking experience, and why Suspiria might be the fourth installation of the Desire tetralogy.

Mark Guiducci: Luca, this film is going to surprise a lot of people. How did you get from Call Me by Your Name to Suspiria?

Luca Guadagnino: I have to admit, I believe that there is not a full comprehension of the kind of eclecticism I am drawn to. Truthfully, I love cinema and I love the way in which we can explore different depths of our emotions through cinema. To do a horror movie has always been my goal, since I was very young—like eight years old and starting my little film career on Super 8. I’ve always been infatuated with the genre, and especially with Dario Argento [who directed the original 1977 Suspiria]. The idea to make Suspiria actually preceded Call Me by Your Name. I had already planned to shoot Suspiria in 2016, the year in which I eventually shot both films.

MG: I Am Love , A Bigger Splash, and Call Me by Your Name, have been called your Desire trilogy. Dario Argento, of course, had his own trilogy of horror films he called the Three Mothers. Is Suspiria the first of another trilogy for you?

LG: I don’t consider those films of mine a trilogy, and somehow Suspiria is also about desire. So probably we have a tetralogy of desire, including Suspiria! Or maybe Suspiria is the first chapter of a trilogy on terrorism, which I think probably is more accurate to say.

MG: Having seen the movie, I think that sounds very accurate. Damien, how did you come to work with Luca?

Damien Jalet: It’s quite spooky, actually. Luca had seen this thing I did at the Louvre Museum in 2013 [a performance called Les Médusés] and thought it was almost literally the dance described in the script for the film. [Suspiria features a dance based on the Gorgons, of which Medusa was one.] The really spooky thing is that when I brought the three female dancers together to make that dance, I told them, “Listen, there is this film I want to show you. We are not going to pull anything from it directly, but there’s something in its spirit that I would like you to capture.” That film was [the original 1977] Suspiria.

MG: That’s an incredible coincidence. David, did you have Damien’s work in mind when writing the script?

David Kajganich: At the point I wrote the dance sequences for the script, I hadn’t yet seen Damien’s work, as I had only been looking at female choreographers in my research; I wanted only movements made by women in my head while writing the film. But after Luca told me Damien would be our choreographer, I watched everything of his I could find. One of the first things I saw was a video of the Louvre performance of Les Médusés and while watching it I had an experience of a kind of queasy, accelerating déjà vu. I don’t actually like trying to describe it. It was odd. I will say that the number of strange coincidences and parallels like this that have happened around this film has been unnerving.

MG: The original film does not feature much actual dance, though it’s about ballet, whereas the choreography is integral to the new Suspiria. Was that a decision made early on?

LG: Yes. In Argento’s Suspiria, we have an inaugural two or three minutes of actual ballet onscreen, [whereas my film] is powerfully shaped by Damien’s work.

DJ: The first thing Luca told me was, “I would like dance to be central in the film, to be the secret language of the witches and the expression of their power.” That was a very inspiring departure point as a choreographer. I think it’s brilliant to connect witchcraft and dance—they have so much in common.

MG: In the initial dance sequence for Dakota Johnson’s character, Susie, her performance casts a spell that unwittingly but brutally assaults another dancer, leaving her disfigured and mangled. It’s like a twisted pas de deux incantation. David, when did you have the idea to connect the performance of choreography with the casting of spells?

DK: Having the coven do spell work through movement was an idea I asked Luca to think about very early in our conversations. We knew we wanted the dances to have real narrative purpose, rather than just using them to decorate the film. So I thought if the company’s performances contained actual spell-casting that could be done in public, with no one in the audience knowing it was happening, then it would make enormous practical sense that a coven would hide inside of a dance company. Imagine the influence they could exert without anyone being the wiser. But in executing this concept, I couldn’t just write in the script, “Dance sequence here”; I had to use dance as a central line of narrative.

MG: Luca, do you think there is a reading of Suspiria as a metaphor for the death of ballet at the hand of contemporary dance? How much did the great female choreographers of the twentieth century influence the film?

LG: Well, I like that idea, but I think it’s more about the avant-garde foreseeing the future, rather than being in conflict with the present or the past. I believe that Mary Wigman, Martha Graham, Isadora Duncan, and all those radical thinkers who forged a new language were motivated by an almost interior need for new expression. In the film, we try to quote all of these artists without reproducing anything of their work. They’re inspiration. But I don’t think it necessarily goes in conflict with the idea of ballet.

DK: In terms of the specifics of my research, I started with the great Mary Wigman and her break from classical ballet into expressionist dance in the 1920s, with all the iconoclasm that implies, none of which was well received by the strongmen in power at the time. This was Germany in the 1920s and ’30s. It’s not unrelated to the film to mention that Wigman was one of the choreographers to whom Joseph Goebbels was reacting with his 1937 proclamation that dance “must be cheerful and show beautiful female bodies and have nothing to do with philosophy.” Watch Wigman’s Hexentanz for a taste of what must have triggered Goebbels. I would argue that the moment the dancer in Hexentanz opens her legs is more tense than anything I’ve seen in a modern horror film. From Wigman, I charted a course through the century, stopping to spend the most time with the work and writing of Martha Graham (just fascinating), Pina Bausch, and Sasha Waltz.

MG: There is an Isadora Duncan quote I found that made me think of Suspiria. Writing about the “dancer of the future,” Duncan says, “She will dance, the body emerging again from centuries of civilized forgetfulness, emerging not in the nudity of primitive man, but in a new nakedness, no longer at war with spirituality and intelligence, but joining with them in a glorious harmony.” I’m not sure most people think of dance in terms of spirituality anymore. What do you think?

DJ: If not, that’s really a pit, because I think spirituality is the real root of dance. I do a lot of research about the roots of dance and animism. I’ve been witnessing and filming a lot of rituals that are still happening in Indonesia or the volcanic islands of Japan. I really wanted the dancing [in Suspiria] to be visceral, to be somehow ancient, to have a rawness to it. Not just being about sophistication and shape, but also have this kind of center that comes from the belly and the gut. I think when you go to the ballet, dance is really a spiritual act; it’s part of a rite. But we’ve lost so much of that primal connection, in the West, at least.

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Photo by Alessio Bolzoni courtesy of Amazon Studios