“Dantino, what did you dream last night?”
Dante Ferretti is an Italian production designer, art director and costume designer. Throughout his career he has worked with many great directors, both American and Italian, including Pier Paolo Pasolini, Federico Fellini, Terry Gilliam, Franco Zeffirelli, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Anthony Minghella, and Tim Burton. He frequently collaborates with his wife, set decorator Francesca Lo Schiavo. Ferretti has won three Academy Awards for Best Art Direction; for “The Aviator”, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” and “Hugo”. He had seven previous nominations. In addition, he was nominated for Best Costume Design for “Kundun”. He has also won three BAFTA Awards.
On December 13th you will be awarded an Honorary Degree in Architecture at Rome’s Università la Sapienza, in the Architecture Department’s magna aula in the Villa Borghese. How does it feel to receive this Degree?
It is a great pleasure, because it is not easy to be awarded such an important Degree. The fact that a set designer who works in the cinema, the theatre, and the opera is given an Honorary Degree as an architect in appreciation for all the work he’s done up to now is a great honour. Without a doubt architecture is an important part of my work, because every time I have to make a film that is set in a certain historical period I have to consider what I can do to avoid making a copy. Because when one copies it looks like a film set, and I am a bit like the actors that study at the Actors Studio. I put myself into the role as if I myself were the architect from the historical period in which the film is set. If I make a mistake, it isn’t important. Actually, it would seem more realistic. Moreover, the actual architecture would have been tweaked and reworked many times in the years since that period.
Unlike an architect, who builds bridges, buildings, and places of worship that then remain as symbols of their era, is your work a bit like the Buddhist mandala which is destroyed once it is finished?
Yes. Once a film is done shooting the set is taken down and space is made to shoot new films. This happens at Cinecittà as well as at Pinewood in London and in the film studios in Los Angeles, where everything is taken down and destroyed. Sometimes at Cinecittà they leave sets that can be reused for other films, even once the film is completed and shown in cinemas, but this happens rarely.
What are the most memorable sets that you have created during your career?
Federico Fellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini were my teachers. With Fellini I had to build the entire set. He had a very particular vision. You had to understand what he wanted, what he had in mind. We did six films together. I should mention that lies were very important with Fellini. He’d ask me, “Dantino, what did you dream last night?” I’d make dreams up. He knew I was inventing them, but he wanted to see how far my imagination went.
What was your experience when working with Pasolini?
I did eight films when I was an assistant, from “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” to “The Hawks and the Sparrows”. Until one day Pasolini called me to do “Medea”, and from that time on we worked together, until his last film “The 120 Days of Sodom”. We understood each other very well. We always used the formal “Lei” form when speaking to each other in Italian. He would give me the scarcest outline of something, and I would understand what he wanted and go and create it. Sometimes I did things all my own way, and he would look and say, “Good, good.”
Was it after Franco Zeffirelli’s film of “Hamlet” that you began working in the United States?
Yes, I met Martin Scorsese in America, and have done nine films with him. The most recent one, “Silence,” comes out in the U.S. on 23rd December. I’ve done nine films with him, including “The Age of Innocence”, “Kundun”, “The Gangs of New York”, “The Aviator” and “Hugo”.
You won two Academy Awards with “The Aviator” and “Hugo”. Then you won a third with Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd”?
Yes. I have won three Oscars, and my wife Francesca Lo Schiavo has won three Oscars as a set designer. I have had ten nominations and Francesca has had around eight.
Which of these films specially stands out in your own mind?
I think “Hugo” was the most thrilling. I had such a good time making that film. In any case, once I’ve chosen a film – and I always choose the films I work on – then I’m happy to have had the opportunity to work with great directors. I have to say that this is a huge privilege.
Can you tell us about some of the new projects you are now working on?
Yes. I’m doing “Diabolik”, which based on a very famous Italian comic book of the same name. At Cinecittà I’m reconstructing the city in “Diabolik”, which is called Claireville. It’s a TV series produced by Sky and Cattleya, and there are ten episodes. Once I’m done preparing everything, I’m doing a new Martin Scorsese film called “The Irish Man” which will be shot in New York.
Do you think that television series, which are increasingly better and ever more sophisticated, will replace the cinema?
People are talking more and more about television series and are now used to the “serial” genre. The quality isn’t always there, but it is usually quite good. Naturally this isn’t only in Italy, but in the United States and England as well, where they shoot these series with important actors. Netflix produces really long stories. Yes, these series can be interesting, but it is unfortunate if people are going to the cinema less and less.
You have also worked for the opera and the theatre, do you continue to do so?
Yes. Now I’m working on a musical called “Divo Nerone”, and then I’m doing the set design for Rossini’s “Othello” which is being put on at the San Carlo Theatre in Naples, and directed by Amos Gitai.
You also played a very important role in the new layout and reconstruction of the Egyptian Museum in Turin?
Yes, it’s true. The first part was building out the statue gallery, which is still there today, and the second part was the new design with the Alessandro Isola architectural firm.
I have heard that you are increasingly focusing on painting in these last few years and months. Has painting become your new line of work?
No, but I have always loved to paint. I’ve always made sketches for my work, but if I have two hours of time I will paint. I can even finish a large painting in two hours. When I go on holiday I leave home with my canvases, and I often paint when I return from the beach or when everyone else is at the beach. It’s something I really enjoy doing.
Do you think of yourself as a painter or as a set designer?
I consider myself to be a worker, and it is for others to classify what it is I do. I do my work to the best of my abilities.
Then I will ask you: What is your occupation?
I am a set designer. It is what I have wanted to do since I was thirteen years old. I like to create historical periods and change them. I like to tell stories by creating the scenes in a certain way.
You are close to the architect Renzo Piano. What kind of relationship do you have with him?
We have a great deal of respect for one another, and we frequently send messages back and forth. When he sends me a message he signs off with “The Draftsman”.
You must really be very pleased to be going to receive an Honorary Degree as an Architect in Rome, the city where you began your long career?
Yes. It is a great honour, one that goes along with other types of nominations like the Oscars, or the Honorary Degree that I received from the Accademia delle Belle Arti. I am also very grateful to President Napolitano, who nominated me as a Grand Officer of the State of the Italian Republic.
November 26th, 2016
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With great thanks to Dante Ferretti for selecting the photographs.