6 Filmmaking Tips from Federico Fellini

By  · Published on February 12th, 2014

Lynchian. Hitchcockian. The Lubitsch touch. Transforming a filmmaker’s name into a qualitative term has been a common practice in tracking the style and influence of those who have contributed to the art form. But few proper nouns-turned-adjectives carry a greater reserve of meaning than Felliniesque.

Felliniesque can refer to a carnival style, one that bends and toys with supposed distinctions between reality and fantasy. The Felliniesque acknowledges the potential for life to reach orgiastic highs and desperate lows in one fell swoop, and finds adults constantly haunted by the memories, trials, and joys of childhood. The Felliniesque can see beauty in the mundane, and abject horror in the most fantastic of experiences. There are few filmmakers whose style has remained so distinctive through an array of transitions, from social realism to fantastic spectacles. He is a filmmaker of enormous influence – yet, as Paolo Sorrentino demonstrated with The Great Beauty, it is better to tip our hat and pay homage than to imitate the unparalleled.

So here is some free advice (for fans and filmmakers alike) from no doubt the most Felliniesque director.

Freedom Scares People

In this presentation for the 1969 Academy Awards, an international coalition of directors discuss film censorship and the changing mores of filmmaking that they began to witness as views on sex widely shifted (stick around for Sergei Bondarchuk’s declaration that “nudity leads us into the arms of evil”). Fellini’s films have never shied away from the topic of sex (and, more specifically, a chauvinistic demand for it), but here the director speaks rather insightfully to an underlying truth behind censorship: that for all the guffawing about freedom during the Cold War era, society is actually more comfortable when culture doesn’t practice freedom – when it remains within a set of regimented, carefully controlled expectations, like children playing within a designated area.

Fellini’s late career had witnessed a thorough embrace of bizarre and unrestrained subject matter by this point (he had recently released his Satyricon), so it was abundantly clear that Fellini used his cultivated directorial power to thoroughly explore what cinematic freedom really means. Ever a raconteur, Fellini’s career demonstrates the importance of confronting audiences with what they won’t admit truly scares them. Yet even in this respect Fellini perhaps saw himself as exercising restraint. In the edited collection “I’m a Born Liar,” Fellini is quoted as saying about artistic freedom:

“I don’t believe in total freedom for the artist. Left on his own, free to do anything he likes, the artist ends up doing nothing at all. If there’s one thing that’s dangerous for an artist, it’s precisely this question of total freedom, waiting for inspiration and the rest of it.”

All Filmmaking is Autobiographical

“Even if I set out to make a film about a filet of sole, it would be about me.” (told to The Atlantic, 1965)

Use whatever received platitude you like (“write from experience,” “know your characters,” etc.), but Fellini’s films take the writer/director as film subject to a whole new level, using the intricate, detailed experiences and affects of one’s daily life and biography as the palette on which to paint the cinematic imagination. Might this be the moving image equivalent of gazing at one’s navel, as Scott Beggs suggested in our discussion of 8½ ? Perhaps, but there’s no need to fear the narcissist when living in their head produces such incredible filmmaking. Fellini’s films are a transparent, fully devoted embrace of the filmmaker’s life – from his youth in I Vitelloni to the sweet life of La Dolce Vita to the bittersweet nostalgia of Amarcord – as a deep well of subject matter for films.

“Making a Picture is Mathematical”

In this interview conducted for the promotion of Amarcord, Fellini pushes back against the myth of improvisation, informing the reporter that even the most happenstance moments on set can only occur under a meticulously planned approach to the craft. The life of imagination can only be realized on Fellini’s scale through precise means. Thus, the mania of some of Fellini’s late films are not evidence of an auteur with the uninhibited freedom to make decisions as he goes, but rather exhibits the filmmaking equivalent of a ballet dancer: someone who gives the impression of grace and adaptable movement through exhaustive behind-the-scenes planning and preparation.

Movies are Made Up of Dream Logic

“Talking about dreams is like talking about movies, since the cinema uses the language of dreams; years can pass in a second and you can hop from one place to another. It’s a language made of image. And in the real cinema, every object and every light means something, as in a dream.” (as told to Rolling Stone, 1984)

“The public has lost the habit of movie-going because the cinema no longer possesses the charm, the hypnotic charisma, the authority it once commanded. The image it once held for us all – that of a dream we dreamt with our eyes open – has disappeared. Is it still possible that one thousand people might group together in the dark and experience the dream that a single individual has directed?” (“I’m a Born Liar”)

The potential of cinema as a concrete manifestation of dream logic is not only an apt description of Fellini’s directirial approach but, as he suggests in the second quote, the lifeblood of realizing cinema’s potential as a unique art form.

Don’t Look for Life Experience; Have It, Then Reflect

“Experience is what you get while looking for something else.” (“I’m a Born Liar”)

Fellini’s output especially beginning with the early 1960s, can be accused of plotlessness by the most conservative type of moviegoer. But it’s the formlessness – or rather, the open approach to form and structure – that make his filmmaking unmatched. Whether exploring the decadence of ancient Rome, studying the rough daily life of a prostitute, or living the high life in the most hip city in postwar Europe, Fellini’s films are really about the quotidian, ephemeral moments of life that movies often leave out: the moments that are experienced but don’t seem to add up to something, if they can be evaluated at all. It’s in the plotlessness of life – the meandering, disorienting, or in-between moments – that the filmmaker can mine for the most valuable, overlooked experiences.

Moralism Isn’t Compatible with Aesthetics

French filmmaker and film theorist Jean Epstein discussed “photogenie” as a means of making sense of that which seems garish or unremarkable in reality but is magnetic onscreen. Why are we drawn to the monstrous, the heinous, and the unconventionally beautiful in cinema, when we might dismiss, reject, and avoid such things in reality? This isn’t exactly what Fellini is talking about here, but the director’s distinction between conventional moral value and aesthetic value is quite insightful, and it speaks deeply to the agnostic responsibility of the filmmaker in terms of judging of his/her characters and scenarios. Conventional morality misses a great deal of aesthetic value.

What We’ve Learned: Watch Fellini’s Movies in Order

In the first part of this interview, Martin Scorsese discusses the necessarily lengthy process of introducing his daughter to by way of Fellini’s career around arguably his most renowned title: by working through Fellini’s diverse output and numerous changes before and after 1963. You cannot understand Fellini as a filmmaker with just one film. You do yourself a disservice, missing out on a rewarding journey by not taking the adventure in full. That’s because the story of Fellini’s own life can be evinced in depth by the things he made for the screen, perhaps more evidently than with any other filmmaker.

With the vibrant, exaggerated, fantastical style he became known for, it may seem that Fellini’s films abstract the viewer from his life – instead, they are records of his subjectivity, deep investigations of his emotional and psychological states of being. And what’s most important about Fellini’s life onscreen is that it changes, evolves, adapts, and shifts in priorities while remaining distinctive, unique, and honest. His is not a static identity, but one that grew and altered in many ways as his life did. Fellini may have been an evident narcissist, but he was also incredibly self-aware – a combination that makes for thoroughly autobiographical filmmaking. How Felliniesque.

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