"Go to take a reading, Luciano Tovoli!"

Luciano Tovoli: "I arrived to the love of cinema trough photography. Mostly did I photograph lights. At home. Lights that come from the window, shadows. I do always the same thing. I have a great collection of this stuff. Sometimes it helps me, when I am inside a studio, shooting a movie, if I need the atmosphere of a dawn or dusk I go to my archives and I see. One great passion at that moment was real photography. And one photographer, most of all, of the group of photographers I like, was Cartier Bresson."

Above: Shooting with the Wescam system for 'The Passenger'. Director of photography Luciano Tovoli: "He was a funny guy, Antonioni, you don't imagine: so serious. No, no. He was all the time saying things for laughing. Playing cards. Dancing all the time. The nearest nightclub: he was there! But he didn't want to speak about the movie!" (image courtesy of Sony Picture Classics)

"Cartier Bresson has formed me a lot. I have been in Paris just to meet Cartier Bresson. I had no money, I moved to Paris, I knew the restaurants where he was going every day. I stayed outside the restaurant. Waiting. Some day I saw Cartier Bresson entering. I thought: Now I wait, he is going to eat. When he comes back I go to him to speak to him. I don’t want to disturb him. He entered, he stayed three hours inside. Waiting there, waiting. And then he came trough the exit, alone. So it was a great occasion.I didn’t say one word. And I looked at him, walking to him, maybe 100 meters. And I realized: I don’t have the courage to speak to Henri Cartier Bresson. He is a myth . He has to stay for me a myth, far from me . This is an experience that remain in me very strongly of course. Until today . When I speak of that I am moved in a certain way."

Above: Director of photography Luciano Tovoli, A.I.C., A.S.C. in Rome (photo: Bart van Broekhoven)

The reason I took the opportunity to meet Luciano Tovoli was to hear him talk about composition. His work for Barbet Schroeder's Reversal of Fortune expressed, almost perfectly, how intelligent, well executed visual language adds to the understanding of the story. You could turn off the sound -- which I did, over and over again -- and experience the film's deepest intentions. On a different level: the strength of visual language goes beyond words. The position of Glen Close and Jeremy Irons in the frames, the movement of the camera to accentuate, anticipate their complicated relationship, et cetera, et cetera. I watched the film many, many times. Others study Hitchcock, Wong Kar Wai, Gordon Willis or Michael Mann; here I found material to learn from.

Above: Glen Close and Jeremy Irons in 'Reversal of fortune' (directed by Barbet Schroeder, photographed by Luciano Tovoli)

Finally there came a chance to meet the man, in Rome. And I had my questions prepared, based upon the thought that the Italians have a special eye for composition. Are they specially educated in composition at the filmschool? Is it that many Italian films where shot without direct sound, allowing to concentrate more on the visual language? How does the collaboration with the director lead to the choice of camera-angles, camera-movement? Where does it come from?

When I arrived in Rome, Luciano Tovoli stood in front of a studio set, a few weeks before starting to shoot a new American film there. He was surrounded by 50 European cinematographers. As the host of the IMAGO General Assembly, he conducted a tour over the Cinecittà studio lot, prior to the meeting, the next day. As one of the NSC delegates I was to attend. During the tour I expressed my admiration for his work to him and asked:

How did you do that, how did you collaborate with Barbet Schroeder, how did you succeed in this effective use of the camera to reveal the story purely visual?

It is all intuïtion.

Luciano Tovoli smiled and walked away.

Two days later, after the meeting and several excursions, we met again, in the AIC room at the Cinecittà studio lot. The subject of composition we left untouched: everything he had to say about that, he had already done. We talked about identity; the formation of his identity as a Cinematographer, trough education and experience.

You shot “Professione: reporter” for Antonioni!

When I was a young boy.

How old where you when you shot the movie?

I was 34

What was your background at that time?

I studied in the beginning at the university language and literature, not film. Then I discovered there was a beautiful school Centro Sperimentale di Cinema in front of Cinecittà. That has been built in the same year as Cinecittà, in 1937 And I applied; I am someone who goes to school to understand, to learn something. So I discovered there is a school to become a cinematographer! I made my work to be admitted. Only four students [are admitted, ed.], four Italians and four strangers. But the strangers where just auditor, listeners. They where there just to listen: no diploma then. But they came a lot. [The study takes] two years and I met the guy who became my close friend for many years: Nestor Almendros . When we where there we figured out we didn't like the school , the teachers. The way they teach at all . So we spoke , we exchanged between our selves, in terms of lighting , in terms of cinema in general. Then at the exit of the film-school they didn’t give me the diploma immediately. They said:

- No Luciano we don’t think it is your work, the cinematography. Let’s do something else in life.

Then I said:

- Okay.

I didn’t care. I stepped away. And one month later they send me the diploma. Then someone said:

- Okay, now you have to search for a DP who needs a 4th assistant camera. Then you will be 4th assistant camera for three years, than 3th, than 2nd assistant camera for 5 years and then maybe camera-operator for another 10 , then maybe you have a chance to become a cinematographer.

For television?

For television, exactly, absolutely.

I said:

- Really: that is not my plan. I plan it in a different way . I have a paper here [from]a very serious state school, [a] very legitimate school. See; it says I am a cinematographer. I just have to find someone who believes in diplomas. If I find a director who believes in diplomas, I have to show the diploma, I have the diploma, so I have to start working in Rome in a certain way, searching for a director who believes in diplomas.

A fiend of mine said to me :

- Maybe I know one director s who believes in diplomas.

And he introduced me to this gentleman [Vittorio De Seta, ed.] who was here very famous at that moment , a director of documentaries. never shot a feature film but: two Palme d’ors in Cannes. He made magnificent documentaries without comments, just for the first time in Italy; all Italian documentaries have commentary on top. [He made documentaries[ just [with] sounds, images, and he made everything himself. He was an autodidact. But magnificat. He made two films in scope . He was a giant to see, with hands like that , steady, even in scope , in color, absolutely extraordinary. And he said to me:

- I have to go to Sardinia.

I am speaking of 1960, my diploma was in 1958, when I exited the school. Then I made military service , then I came back and start searching with the diplomas. He said:

- You come, and you do everything, we are with four persons, you will drive the car , do the sound [Speaking of the film: Banditi a Orgosolo, ed.].

It was perfect, it was my university. And he said:

- We stay 15 days.

We have been in a little village in the mountains, full of bandits , very new traditional Sardinian bandits. Also the sardinian people they stay in a bigger city down the hill. They say:

- WHAT?! Do you sleep up there? Impossible! No! Danger!

It was the opposite: we became the friends of these guys. It was a full village: women, girls, children , old men. We came and remained 8 months.

8 months?

8 months! Instead of 15 days. The director developed and funded the documentary film. Developed a story, with as actors the people from the village. And then the film became a full film. Black and white, Kodak . It was my first black and white film . It was my first film at all. The combination, my work was that the director was a cinematographer also . So he was at the camera . And he gave me, I remember, a Weston master 5, the exposure meter, and said:

- Go to take a reading.

I start take a reading . He was always operating the camera :

- Take a read, take a reading, take a reading.

I was the cinematographer with him .

The film was completely lit by the sun?

By the sun. And little reflectors . But the we have some interior scenes, night . And then we made the light ourselves, together. Electricians, director of photography, camera-operator, all 4 persons. And then we have exterior night, we have two lights . Two bulbs of 500 W each, one for backlight. We have tri-x, we push tri-x one stop more. We made this light. So I collaborated a lot on this movie. Then the film [Banditi a Orgosolo, ed.] was released at the Venice film festival in 1961, one year later. With Passolinis Accattone [ and ] Il Posto  [Ermanno Olmi]. These where the three arrivals, the three movies . Like that, with the three great directors. When we made the title credits for the film , I said:

- Oh my god now you have to write what you have done! If put co-photography with De Seta as director of photography...

At that moment the DoP has to be 50 years old. My problem was to work , not to have titles; was to gain some money to survive. I said:

- Camera-operator.

Not knowing that at that moment camera-operator ; nobody calls you because camera operator also has to be known in the field. Who calls a camera-operator nobody knows? Nobody. So finally I signed camera-operator of the film . Never operated the camera! Because all the time De Seta was operating the camera. Then the film got to Venice, it gained the price for photography [laughs, ed.]. So De Seta took the award. Not me, because he signed the photography, director of photography I signed camera-operator – nobody cared who I was . So I didn’t find any work after that . De Seta was generous, he said to everybody:

- If you have never heard of him, why don’t you read [the credits] of the film?

So this was my beginning. Catastrophic in a way, exceptional, I was 20 years old at that moment. Exceptional in a sense because of this award. But nobody recognized me because of this award. But years later, when I had the same kind of award for The Passenger , they gave me the other too. They recognized the other later.

Since then I started to do documentaries , after this film, this Vittorio de Seta film. And then I had the chance to make another three or four films – feature films, with friends, who knew the history of [the De Seta film]:

- We give you the chance, because we know the history too. So we want to work with you.

And then I met one director, Franco Brusati, I made one film with him, Pane e cioccolata, a small film, a film that we shot in Belgium.

I was at home. My wife said:

- I don’t know but, there is a guy Michelangelo Antonia-io-a-ni for you calling, a guy I don’t know, his name maybe is Michelangelo, Anti-ta-dita-do-tio-nio...

- Fuck: Michelangelo Antonioni? Michelangelo Antonioni, calling me? Michelangelo calling me at home?

- Yes, he said he call back in ten minutes.

- Ahh! Ten minutes! Impossible to stay there. Michelangelo Antonioni!

At that moment I didn’t think at all that Michelangelo Antonioni did know that I existed, or heaven know why he want to speak to me, why for what reason: maybe he need something, I don’t know what. But certainly not send for me as a cinematographer, it ll be to much, to much! In life that happens. Every five years I have this kind [of thing] happening in my career, every 5- 7 years . There has been a huge change, someone coming to me.

Antonioni called:

- Hey, Michelangelo Antonioni, Luciano Tovoli here, si?

- I am leaving for China in a week, will you come with me?

I said:

- Eh, ah, yes? What to do?

- For what? Make a film, make a movie: of course! Is a movie, a documentary movie . We stay for two, three months, then we shoot 5 hours for television, a reportage, handheld, I saw...

Before I have made [also] with Vittorio de Seta one [film] I consider my best movie ever [Diario di un maestro, ed.]. It was a kind of reconstruction reportage: not completely true. That we made in a classroom on the periphery, a very depressive periphery of Rome, not far from here I have to say. Where the director searched all the guys, who where excluded from the school. They where no good. To bad: so out of the school. The schools do that. Finito, out!

They where put all together, and formed [into] a class. With a committee of new masters , of a new generation of-course. That had another idea about the didactic, that we where to apply. And then they made all the thinking of this movie and they brought, with the accord of the Ministry of Instruction, they put [them] back in the same school where they where excluded; they created one class, just for them. There was an actor , who was dressed as a teacher, but the class was real. They believed this was not an actor, but a real teacher. They guy became so good, he became a real teacher in a way. In four months we destroyed completely the system of teaching that they where making in the other classes. The moral is in the signification: at the end of four months, they where by far getting higher results than all the other children at school. Then they made an examination, with the others, all together, mixed. Even the last was way up, the best of all the others. For that I say this is my preferred film. From all the films. But for another reason too.

At the moment that De Seta was starting the project, I was making another movie. De Seta started with another cinematographer. This cinematographer didn’t understand well – this happens , this happened to me too in another project, is normal: -- , he didn’t understand well the way to work with De Seta . I knew this very curious stranger, very intelligent, and complicated man, the director. So you have to search your strategy to be able to cooperate . If you react immediately to what he says you cut the first day of the film, this is what happens. This DP, that is a very good DP, decided to fight with him on the first day, and it was impossible to work .

The reason, the debate was: they put two tracks in the classroom, with two cameras! The boys in the school they where looking at the moving camera all the time. They where constantly reacting to the camera:

- Where is the camera?

- Oh, over there!

So it was a disaster. This resulted into a fight, and the project stopped after three days. In the mean time I ended the other project. And De Seta called me, almost crying:

- I am desperate, I give back the money to the RAI, the producer. All the work I have done for four years to put that project together, it seems impossible to shoot. So come please, come please Luciano.

When I made this movie in ’72 with De Seta in the school, [I thought] this is an occasion to give homage to Cartier Bresson. Handheld like it was a still picture camera, a Leica, it was just an Eclair and freedom total.

Above: Diario di un meastro (directed by Vittorio de Seta, photographed by Luciano Tovoli)

So the teachers enters with a theme. For example the French revolution . And just to understand what the guys, the children, between 10 and 13 have spoken about before concerning the French revolution. So what stayed in their minds about these previous teachings? They started to speak in Romanesk accent. They say just fantastic things. Imagination. There came out the French revolution completely the opposite of the reality. At the same time very real. Very true. It was very true to the essential. They gave their opinion. Their way, not knowing they where giving their opinion. But for someone who analyzed what they where saying, they where not completely wrong. Several of them touched the essential problem, without being historians.

How to film all that?

I shot for four months handheld – not steady cam, didn't exist. I made something to secure the camera [on the shoulders] . Then I had a geography, a topography almost of the classroom. I know that this is a child that never reacted. Always thinking. At the other side there was one guy, every time he jumped up start screaming. I was filming alone, the director was out of the room. Left me. The first day day:

- Please, you stay out of the room, I shoot...

You said that to the director?

Si, si:

- If you stay close to me, it will be as before. The guys will start looking at you. They will be distracted. You don’t obtain nothing.

We where old friends. We had been trapped by bandits together! They where to kill us, or pay the money! We had experiences together, that where not the normal relationship between a director and a cinematographer. This was the only way. There was a guy for the sound, my assistant, like that, finish. All the others outside. The master and the theme of the lesson. And I shot what I wanted.

We shot the first day, one day later we went to the lab to watch dailies. I saw De Seta crying:

- Its, its possible Luciano! You made it possible! This is the direction we go for, or I close the film.

He said that to the producers. So, for that it is one of the great experiences of my life. Because this film has been a huge success in television. It was broadcasted on 5 Sundays. The last Sunday was the world championchip football. Italians! Nobody looks at our film! No! 12 millions, instead to see the match , they continued to see the entire Diario Di Un Maestro. They stayed there. They didn’t abandon the program, They abandoned the football. We made a demonstration that you can make something for television, something good. It is not necessarily bad, it is the way they make television that is shit. Television can be very interesting. We didn’t have famous actors. We didn’t have anything, just children, speaking in Roman language.

Antonioni saw Diario Di Un Maestro. All the five hours. And then he called me.

Carlo di Palma, his cinematographer, was not happy to do it. He was more classical. He did not shoot hand held. He bring lights. In his mind I was up to do this movie. [Technically] I applied the same camera. Handheld. All the five hours are hand-held [for Antonioni's Chung Kuo - China, ed.]

Above: Luciano Tovoli (left) and director Michelangelo Antonioni shooting 'Chung Kuo - China' with an Eclair NPR, in China

There in China too I felt a little Cartier Bresson. Bresson had made a little book on China. I had this image in my mind, a Tai Chi photo. I made the same thing. I arrived in Peking one morning. I saw 2.000 people making Tai Chi. I choose the situation, I choose the men also to look the same as on the Cartier Bresson photograph. Not true of course. Antonioni was quit impressed of my work. We travelled night time. They attached a wagon for us to a train, a normal train. We spoke a lot. We where in China alone. He was no more for me the myth, also friend, thanks to this travel.

Above: Chung Kuo - China (directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, photographed by Luciano Tovoli)

Then one day, he said:

- Luciano what do you think one day we do a real feature film together?

- No, no,

I said:

- There is Di Palma!

I said:

- No.

With Antonioni I worked on three films. One for television, The Passenger, and we made one other thing. But we prepared four. But the producer disappeared at a certain moment of the film during the preparation of the film. No more producer, no more money. I made the scouting in Africa, in the forest, everywhere, in Brazil. Carlo Ponti the producer decided not to do the movie,. Antonioni said:

- We have a contract, you have to do a movie with me.

- Okay, bring another movie.

Antonio had read the screenplay already, The Passenger, that was written by a friend of him [Mark People]. The brother of Antonioni’s women at that moment. Mark was there all the time. And Mark -- who worked with Bertolucci a lot – said:

- Michelangelo, you have read my little script. If you want I give it to you. Antonioni said:

- No,no. But let me read it again.

And he brought the production the script .

I left in Italy to do Bread and chocolate [Pane e cioccolata, ed.] with Brusati. When I was in Switzerland, Antonioni called me:

- What are you doing there? We have to start a movie here, come!

I left my camera operator for the last week and when I arrived I said:

- What is the film?

I arrived Saturday from Bern in Switzerland, to Munich in Germany. And on Monday we start shooting. And I said:

- What is the film?

- You will know when you arrive!

- I don’t know anything. Scouting?

- What scouting? I don’t want scouting, no scouting.

- I can not make a movie without scouting! No preparation?

- No, It has to be like that. No scouting, no preparation. You do, or you don’t do!

- What do I have to say? I am coming! And the crew?

- I don’t want you to have your crew!

- Oh! Shit.

He put me in a very bad situation. No scouting, not my crew, not knowing what kind of film.

- Can I read the script?

- No, no no: no reading of the script! I don’t give you the script.

- Ok let’s see what happens.

So I arrived on Sunday from Bern. And the production manager said to me:

- Tomorrow morning 7 o’clock, in the hotel.

I go there, 7 o’clock, brought my bag.

And Antonioni said:

- What do you have inside there?

- Oh I have my filters...

- I don’t want any filters!

- Oh may! But I do the photography Michelangelo, do it your self!

- No, no! You have to be the photographer, but I don’t want any filtration in this film.

- Ok. No filters. Who is the assistant camera, who is the grip?

- You will see, you have not to speak, be silent!

And then arrived Jack Nicholson. I didn’t know: what was the film, what was the story, what was the crew, who was the camera-operator.

Above: Michelangelo Antonioni and Jack Nicholson (image courtesy of Sony Picture Classics)

Antonioni said:

- I want to do this: a pan from there to there.

He was magnificat. Just looking.

I said:

- One hour.

- Ok perfect.

He disappeared.

Ok now I had to know who is who.

- Are you the camera operator? Are you the assistant? Ok let’s start. You do this, you do that, you want to do that?

- Hello I am the gaffer!

- Ah, you are the gaffer. Please write something here....

Crazy! I put the names of all the people [on a list] Then after one hour precisely, he comes. He said:

- You are ready? [after one hour precisely, at the minute]

- Yes maestro, I am ready.

- Perfect, shoot!

And we started like that. All the time like that.

Above: Director Michelangelo Antonioni with actors Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider (image courtesy of Sony Picture Classics)

Above: Jack Nicholson in 'The Passenger' (directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, photographed by Luciano Tovoli)

I said:

- Next Sunday can we go for scouting?

- Sunday is for rest!

- But during the lunch time we can speak a little bit?

- Lunch time is for eat!

- OK. But maybe at nighttime we can make a little....

- Night time is for eating and dancing.

Because he was a funny guy! Antonioni, you don’t imagine: so serious. No, no. He was all the time saying things for laughing. Playing cards. Dancing all the time. The nearest nightclub: he was there! He didn’t want to speak of the movie!

But Antonioni then explained the end of the movie.

- We do a very long pan during the movie, very long. This will introduce a final shot , that is very long, that is the conclusion of the film.

This is what he said about the lighting. Just once. We where in a hotel in Spain, outside, it was like a castle. Big entrance, huge. And then he said:

- We do that.

And I ask:

- What says the script?

- No I don’t want you to read the dialogue. This is interior day.

- This is the information that I can have ?! Just that!?

- Yes

Ok Interior day. I made interior day, without knowing the scene. He came. The only time that he said one word on the lighting, I have to say. He said:

- Somebody gave the script, the scene to Luciano?

- No, no, no, no.

- Ok perfect.

- You said Interior day, and I made interior day.

- But when I was thinking about the script, I was thinking: can it be a little bit more in the shadow?

- Maestro, five minutes, it will be in the shadow!

This was the tone of our relations ship.

- Ok. How long?

- Five minutes, I said.

- Ok, I sit down here, I stay.

I go: cut, cut, cut, cut [the lights]. Then I look at him: perfect.

- Ok shoot!

Above: Director Michelangelo Antonioni and crew shooting 'The Passenger' (image courtesy of Sony Picture Classics)

And we shot. We were getting closer to the end of the film, to the final sequence. We arrived to the final shot. The atmosphere was very good. We stayed in this little place. He said:

- I will tell the end of the movie, I can not say now, you will understand later. If I say now, we break something that I don’t want. Please stay like this. I am happy. You are happy?

- Oh, I am more than happy. I don’t know what I do, but I am happy of-course.

Then we arrived to the final scene. He explained:

- I want to do a scene that starts inside, go out of the window. It's a kind of a total change of the POV of the film in one shot. I mean: during the movie we are with all the actors, with the protagonist. Once we are the POV of one, (then) the other, we are very close, sometimes subjective, completely in. I want to do a scene in which we are close to the actors, certainly abandon them and become objective from outside. Abandon them in one situation, in the time we change our POV, the situation goes totally wrong; is the end of the film.

So how do we do that? This he explained very well to me, the meaning of this scene et cetera. The only scene that he explained in all the film. I said:

- Okay.

I was making a lot of commercials in Paris and London at that moment, then I said stop to that. I was young, in disposition for money. Its has been very useful. I shot for one documentary on a sailing race from a helicopter with a new system: Wescam, was for the first time. The Wescam in a helicopter.

I started thinking. Maybe, there is a sphere. I was thinking, I know something, maybe we could – of-course we cannot put the helicopter inside of the room first of all – so, we abandoned the helicopter. Second we can not go trough the bars with the sphere. We contacted the [Wescam] guys. We where shooting in Almaria at the moment. We built the little hotel of the end, a construction, a set, in front of the arena, that we built in function of the last scene, the last sequence. They [the Wescam guys] came, and they said immediately:

- Not possible! First of all we shoot 16 mm . You shoot with a Mitchell. Our system can not effort this way.

But Antonioni knows how to combine his people, he! He said;

- You take your time!

We could not loose the sphere. When we are inside the room, all will work well without the sphere. But when we are outside, when a little wind comes, and the mag is like a sail, and pushes: forcing the gyroscope to compensate. And the gyroscope, instead of going 6000 tours a minute or seconds, I don’t know, will do 15, and then in 3 seconds will be broken.

- No, no, no, we don’t believe that. We do it like that.

The production said:

- We pay, we have to transform.

- We will be back.

They came back.

Let’s try it on another scene, just to see if the function [is what] we like.

Above: Maria Schneider in 'The Passenger' (directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, photographed by Luciano Tovoli)

We made one shot in front of a car, with Nicholson driving, Maria Schneider on the back seat against trees, sitting a little behind. The camera is low. All the trees go behind the back, beautiful long sequence, cut to short for my taste. Because photographically [it] was very beautiful. So we put an arm on a little truck, to the arm attached the sphere, the Wescam system, and we go. Things we don’t do anymore, because to dangerous: you have to lock the streets. Anyway, no connection between the camera-car and the car. Nickolson came one centimeter from the car. But at that moment we made those crazy things. It was very stabilized. The street was not so good, it was perfectly stabilized. So, I got it in function

Then we arrived at the final sequence, with Antonioni. I had to think how to technically make it possible. So we lost the sphere of course. I thought to attach on the ceiling a rail, instead of on the ground. Because the problem was: in the room we can put it on the ground, we can open the wall, not only the window, but outside was 700 meters the difference. And then, all the square in front was completely bumpy, with dust. So how to put pieces of platform, stabilize it: was impossible. We prepared also this solution, but didn’t work well of-course.

Then I thought the other situation was better: to attach to the ceiling, with a little truck that go outside the window one meter, that in the wider position of the beginning of the shot is just out of the frame on top. Then we have cables that go to a little truck that was on the left, with a joystick. The guys of Wescam where pilots of the Canadian air-force, they have the permission to bring it in commercially. It was an invention from the Canadian army. They maneuvered on a screen. Antonioni said:

- Right, up.

I have the command over diaphragm and obturation. This camera has a variable obturation. Coming from inside: I put a lot of light, it was almost burning the actor, you see. But outside the light can change in a seven minute shot. So I was ready to adjust a little bit.

We started the first day. The camera operator just pushing, without making the frame, just pushing. A camera-operator has a sensibility for that, so we gave him the responsibility for that. To push the camera, go slow, slow, slow with that. Then we built the bars.

When the camera reached the bars, the bars opened. And then goes outside. Two grips where standing on the roof, they saw the camera coming outside. Outside the window there was another camera-operator, who was raising up, once the camera came trough, raised the camera on the back and started pushing. Because the operator that was inside could not go out, so there where two [operators]. One for the interior, one pusher for the exterior. Took the camera, continued the movement, but the camera suddenly goes out of the track. Because the track was finished. Two grips where on top with a huge crane on the back, with a cable, a steel cable. The camera made a little bump, but the system absorbed perfectly. You don't see anything. And then the guy pushed just like that. Antonioni was guiding:

- Push, tilt a little bit. Pick up, go down, left, right...

When we are outside, we wait for two guards, we go with them , to the room, see the room from outside: outside the bars. At that moment we are objective. A change of the POV. We find the protagonist and the other people entering the room.

This was the final scene, but to arrive to that, [there where many troubles].... We took a week to do the shot!


The production in Rome was Carlo Ponti, the husband of Sophia Loren, great producer. He said:

- Ok, ok, do what you want. Next Saturday I don’t pay anymore. No more salary, no more hotel, no more transportation. So you stay there on your own, I’ll pick out all the lights away. All the instrument go away. So you do without anything, without camera, without crew.

He said that to Antonioni:

- You can’t stay here one month more to do this fucking shot!

We where desperate. The [end] day arrived. Sunday was the day to go. All the tickets for the plane to go...

Above: Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider in 'The Passenger' (directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, photographed by Luciano Tovoli)

To Antonioni I brought a brilliant general manager to the film, he is dead now. He liked very much under water chasing the fish. Snorkeling. On the first day he said:

- Can I go? Everything is Ok, you shoot today he?

- Si, everything Ok, no problem.

- I saw some interesting fish in a little place, I go, and come back.

- Oh certainly, go, no problem.

He came back, and said:

- You didn’t shoot today. Something wrong?

- ...

- Ok don’t explain! You shoot or you don’t shoot.

And this continued, this joke for all the days.

And then one day he came back and said:

- You didn’t shoot?

- No, no, not yet. Tomorrow.

But Ponti from Rome was calling him all the time. Him, not us. And then the secretary received the phone call, saying:

- This fucking man, where is he, I have to speak to him. He is my general manager. Where is he, I’ll fire him!

At that moment the film was almost done, so firing him...

And then when he came back he said:

- Did mister Ponti call by any chance for me?

- Oh yes, ten times.

- Ok, tomorrow I’l stay more deep in the water!

Ponti did want to speak with Antonioni. [But] Antonioni was simple:

- I am doing this movie. We speak after...

- But we have to speak now!

- No after the movie. Now I am the director, it is my film, we signed, you are the producer, all this is my competence, not your competence as a producer. You accepted that I shoot this sequence. I am shooting this sequence. It takes longer. Complications can happen. Please don’t disturb me. I am the director of the film. After the film, we’ll discus. You go to lawyers, you demonstrate that I sabotaged your film, and I will pay. So: how are you? If you want to come, come! Visit us.

As the trick he made once in London...

Antonioni was the king, the great director, could do what he wanted. There are few. He was one. I remember:

A simple shot in London. Camera [on a tripod]. Simple entrance, the door opens, Jack Nicholson enters and goes out of frame. Finito. But when he opened the door, not completely, you see a beautiful line of threes. 10 o’clock in the morning in London was night. Suddenly clouds, black, so black: night. And they opened the door... also when I didn’t put any lights inside, it was too much, it seemed night outside. So I say to Antonioni:

- It is not going to work, it won’t shoot.

- And why?

I have all time with me two arcs, two brutes. I brought everywhere in the dessert.

- Didn’t you say to me that with your arcs you can do anything?

- Yes I can do. But this is 1 kilometer of threes. What can I do?

- You are the technician, you are the cinematographer, take 10 arcs in instead of two.

And he left away.

Above: Director of photography Luciano Tovoli, A.I.C., A.S.C. in Rome (photo: Bart van Broekhoven)

I went to the general manager, who already understood a little bit, and said:

- Sorry, but the maestro asked himself, not me, asked for ten... if you can find 12 that will be better!

- What are you?! You are crazy! In London each arc is one truck! Two electricians, they will arrive at 8 o’clock in the night!!

- I don’t go! You can go and speak with the maestro. I give you my recipes.

After two hours the trucks arrive. I spent another hour, we prepare. And I lit. And if you open completely the door, you see this nice light down there: day. But by the fact that Jack Nickolson didn’t want to open the door completely... I had a question at a certain moment [to Jack Nicholson, ed.]:

- Can you open the door more?

- What the fuck is this? I don’t open the door more, I am the actor, you don’t tell me how to act with a door. You can not just open to see more: that is absurd!

- Yes! You do what you want.

He didn’t open the door. We didn’t see anything outside. The guy, the production manager took me aside, and said:

- Fuck you!

I said:

- Don’t say fuck you. I brought you here to this movie. Say thank you now, than fuck you!

- Okay: I say: thank you very much. But fuck you! Fuck you! I am general manager. You see tomorrow what happens.

- The police will come and take me away? I don’t know what happens.

- You will see!

Ok we shot. Antonioni is laughing, Zen. Looking very, very amused. He didn’t say one word, but he was on the back listening to everything. He was amused to see me fighting this way. Because I was his man in a certain way. He thought:

- Ok, he defends himself right away, I don’t need to make a reservation.

Because he knew he had to make another intervention on the producer, Ponti.

We were in a restaurant, nighttime. With Antonioni we where always in the best places. A guy from the restaurant came:

- A telephone call sir.

And he brought the telephone to me at the table. I thought: my wife?

- Hello?

- Fuck you hello! I am Carlo Ponti.

Antonioni was there. This guy was screaming. Antonioni was listening, starts laughing.

- Eh, yes mister Ponti, what is the problem, say it to me?

- I have nothing to say to you. You are fired! Simply fired!

- But why, what did I make?

- 12 Arcs in London. Last minute! It cost me a fortune. You will pay. I don’t pay you anymore. You are finished!

Antonioni was laughing. I was thinking: I am ruined.

I said:

- Ok, yes, we will see...

- Tomorrow I come in London.

- Ok sir.


- Who was speaking?

- That was Carlo Ponti.

- He looks quit angry?

- Yes a little bit. He said he come to London tomorrow.

A day later we are shooting in the same place. The arcs where no more there, we didn't need them. Around was a big crew, 150 people, doing nothing. But they saw Carlo Ponti arrive. And then suddenly:

- Carlo Ponti is arriving. Carlo Ponti is arriving.

The news arrived to the centre of the power.

Antonioni was preparing. He took himself a lot of time. He put himself to the camera, and searched with the key-grip, the dolly man, in search for the frame, himself. And took quit long. With the actor, Jack Nickolson, the camera-operator, the assistant and myself sitting aside, for hours, searching. Marking the points. We had two shots a day. One in the morning, one in the afternoon. No more than two.

Above: Jack Nicholson in 'The Passenger' (directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, photographed by Luciano Tovoli)

And then Carlo Ponti enters. He opened the door. Antonioni was at the camera. Ponti:

- Ah, good morning Michelangelo!

- With you I will speak later! [to Luciano, ed.]

- Ok bonjorno!

I was sitting in my chair like that [Luciano shakes his hands, ed.]

And Antonioni said:

- Ah ciao Carlo sorry, can you sit in the chair there? I just finish my research for the plan.

- Oh yes no problem, no problem. After that we can speak hè?

- Oh yes, we can speak all the time that you want. Sit down there, please.

He starts. He didn’t abandon the viewfinder, for two hours. After two hours Ponti said:

- I have another appointment...

- Yes but I didn't really find the shot, you see. Other-way, I cannot be distracted, I can not find it anymore, sorry, sorry.

Finally Ponti said:

- Okay, I have to go, because I have another appointment. Ciao, ciao.

I learned a lot from these guys. He didn't say anything about the arcs. I looked very triumphed to the general manager:

- Ponti has gone!

Antonioni took my question:

- Why did you take me to make this movie, why didn’t you give me the script, why did you make me ignorant to anything?

And he said:

- You are vicious, the cinematographers. Each cinematographer made many movies. You want to do in all the movies a little the same. I need errors, I need a photography underexposed, overexposed; because it is a reportage . Although we have Jack Nickolson. [But] if you are impressed by Jack Nickolson? If I start speaking about the photography, start giving the scene, start elaborating scenes. I want to put you in the condition to do the best photography for this movie. In another movie, you do what you want, knowing everything, making scouting. Like this you are surprised, every set you are surprised and preoccupied because you don’t know how to solve the problem; like a reporter. Who arrives at the last minute. Who does what he is.

Above: Director of photography Luciano Tovoli, A.I.C., A.S.C. in Rome (photo: Bart van Broekhoven)


See also: Conversation with Robby Müller (2007)