Killing the Mother: Luca Guadagnino Discusses "Suspiria"

The director discusses his controversial follow-up to "Call Me By Your Name," a new version of Dario Argento's classic horror film.
Alan Jones

Luca Guadagnino Suspiria

Luca Guadagnino. Image courtesy of MUBI.

Born in Palermo, Sicily, to Italian/Algerian parents, Luca Guadagnino reckons if he hadn’t become a critically acclaimed, award-winning director/producer/screenwriter, his career would probably have revolved around fashion, interior design or historical research. In fact, all of the obsessions that have clearly added to the artistic textures and detailed truths perceived in his eclectic work to date that have made them so remarkable. From his debut crime thriller The Protagonists (1999), the first of five films to star Tilda Swinton, who many call his "muse," to the incisive paean Bertolucci on Bertolucci, Guadagnino has dug deep into the human emotional and identity landscapes while never forfeiting the lush style or delicate sensuality each of his subjects, both real and imaginary, bring to the aesthetic table.

After working diligently in both the feature film and documentary arenas Guadagnino’s big-time breakout came with I Am Love (2009), his sumptuous haute bourgeois, haute couture feast for the eyes that finally announced his arrival on the spaghetti scene. Next came A Bigger Splash (2015), a loose remake of the French classic La piscine (1969), which cast its beady eye on a love quadrangle. But it was with his much-lauded gay coming-of-age drama Call Me By Your Name (2017), the last of his "Desire trilogy," that he cemented his status as a world-class director with his own individual and distinctive touch.

Now he tackles a “cover version” of another classic, only this time one of the masterpieces of the Italian horror genre. Guadagino fell in awestruck love with the bloodied ballerina poster for Dario Argento’s supernatural fever dream Suspiria (1977) when he was a child. And since that wide-eyed epiphany as a 10 year-old boy he has lived for the moment he could realize his mad ambition of bringing the witch-grooming story back to the screen. At Mayfair’s Claridge’s Hotel, where he was staying to introduce the London Film Festival’s premiere of Suspira, which stars Swinton, Dakota Johnson, Mia Goth and Chloë Grace Moretz, we asked him why.

NOTEBOOK:  You bought the remake rights to Suspiria in 2007, well before your rise to global prominence as a director? 

LUCA GUADAGNINO: It was because I launched a production company called First Sun that same year with five like-minded friends including [producer/editor/cinematographer] Marco Morabito and [actor/producer] Massimiliano Violante. We put together a slate of possible projects we’d like to tackle and one was Suspiria because the film held such a special place in each of our hearts. In truth in means a great deal to many Italians too. I’ve never understood the separation between what people call "good" cinema and the B-movie. Art is art no matter what. A great film festival is one that puts in their competition a film by Argento and one by Miklós Jancsó. To me, Argento’s Suspiria is as important to Italian cinema as Fellini’s 8 ½ [1963]. Anyway, it took me seven months to strike a deal with Dario and his producer [younger] brother Claudio Argento, but we finally convinced them we would have nothing but the property’s integrity in our sights at all times.

NOTEBOOK: Your first idea was to produce the recalibration with David Gordon Green directing. What happened to that project?

GUADAGNINO: I’d met David at the Turin Film Festival in 2008 when we were both on the jury. I had a few movies behind me but nothing that put me in any position to tackle such a daunting project as Suspiria. Nobody would give me the money for a start. I had admired David’s work for years and he was just coming off the enormous success of Pineapple Express [2008]. He too was a massive fan of the original film, so I asked him if he might consider the possibility of directing. He very eagerly said yes, as long as his sound mixer/screenwriter Christof Gebert could work on the script with him. So the package came together with First Sun producing, but it floundered because of the usual problems and life getting in the way. Then David was offered the chance to direct Your Highness [2011] and he jumped at the chance. I find it extraordinary that his reboot of Halloween is being released at exactly the same time as my Suspiria; two fans of two iconic 1970s classics that influenced us both joined together by fate at last! Sometime you can’t ignore the fact that destiny makes the best decisions.

NOTEBOOK: So when did Suspiria finally become a definite reality for you?

GUADAGNINO: I suppose I could have made it earlier than this but looking back in hindsight I think I did need to gain more artistic experience. I needed the industry attention too that’s for sure. When I Am Love became this art-house hit things did start to change for me perception-wise, but I had better cards to play than dive straight into Suspiria. So I decided to make another remake with A Bigger Splash! And that’s when I met screenwriter David Kajganich, which was such a beautiful gift to the project. After forging such a great relationship with David on A Bigger Splash, I asked him if he would be interested in adapting it with me. David was genre-literate, having written The Invasion [2007] and Blood Creek [2011]—and recently wrote The Terror TV series for AMC and the new Pet Sematary—and of course he loved Suspiria too. We started a Suspiria conversation in 2015 and we never stopped talking about it until we went before the cameras in Germany on Halloween 2016. 

NOTEBOOK: The Argento version is more about sensation and shock than anything else. Subtext was arbitrary or minimal. Your version deals with the complex trauma of grief, generational guilt, moral codes, social context, and the rise of feminism. When did those ideas enter the screenplay?

GUADAGNINO: The model of the narrative Dario invented for himself made him the committed master of the superficial, the surface. That was his take, his angle, his craft and it was never going to be appropriate for me to imitate his idea of cinema or style. What Dario triggered in me was a freedom of thinking, an empathy of emotion that impassioned my approach to the material. I’m an avid reader of German history and I love the New German Cinema wave that produced Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Volker Schlöndorff and Wim Wenders. So deciding to set my Suspiria in 1977, the year Dario’s original was released, meant I could broach the style of that artistically ambitious and socially critical period and include such historically headlining events as the Lufthansa plane-hijacking by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Baader-Meinhof Group. I wanted to channel the power of that German generation of filmmakers who were really trying to bring their country to its own moral, ethical and historic responsibilities through the weapon of cinema. The combo of Dario, the Neuer Deutscher Film, the late 1970s era and my growing interest in events of the last century all impacted on the screenplay undertones.

NOTEBOOK: Your concept of witches deviates from the norm, too.

GUADAGNINO: The focus of Dario’s movie was the idea of older women recruiting young women. The relationship between the girls and the matrons of my dance academy is quite different as they are terrible mothers aside from casting their magic spells. I deal in the concept of the uncompromising force of motherhood. A mother is supposed to be caring, nurturing, unbiased and devoted, but what if that is all our own pre-judgment? Even if you are the most radical person, you think of motherhood adhering to accepted norms. But real danger lies in that presumption as motherhood comes with deep conflict, the banality of postpartum depression, the refusal to bond with the child and the complexity of the relationship between mother and daughter that can often turn into a competition. If you make a movie about witches, basically a group of women bound to a pact of solidarity and sorority with power within themselves, you have to be open to the possibility that they aren’t just simple evil characters. They are very complex ones and it’s not all about nature and nurture. In my opinion, the 1960s was all about "Killing the Father." That changed in the 1970s to "Killing the Mother," and that’s my slant and what I reflect on in my Suspiria.

NOTEBOOK: Suspiria literally overflows with implication and nuance. Are there any other major influences you can draw attention to? 

GUADAGNINO: The two most important books which played their part in my overall scheme of Suspiria are Language of the Third Reich [1957] by Victor Klemperer—yes, the same surname as my Dr. Josef Klemperer character—and Mine-Haha, or On the Bodily Education of Young Girls [1903], a novella by German dramatist Frank Wedekind. The former focuses on a German laborer/journalist who lived through four successive periods of tumultuous German political history and deals in both oppression and hope. And the latter I learned of because Daria Nicolodi (who co-wrote the original with her then lover, Argento, and is clearly the poetic personality in that relationship) apparently used the text to embellish her interpretation of womanhood. It depicts the bizarre education of a young girl in boarding school that turns into a nightmare world of rigid control and a grotesque satire on coming-of-age.

NOTEBOOK: The original Suspiria is noteworthy for its vivid color scheme and its lurid psychedelic look. How did you decide on your concept?

GUADAGNINO: Well, it’s not pre-unification shabby chic as some have commented, that’s for sure! Dario was trying to surpass himself after four huge box office hits in the giallo genre, so he went for a level of poetic imagery that has remained unrivaled even after four decades. Together with cinematographer Luciano Tovoli, Dario used the lighting traditions of 1950/60s horror masters Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava and achieved the ultimate horror atmosphere. Now, what is the purpose of me copying what thousands of homages and music videos have tried to emulate? The only Argento aspect I took hold of with my director of photography Sayombhu Mukdeeprom was to stay anchored to one staple inspiration and in this case that was coupling the work of Fassbinder’s go-to cinematographer Michael Balhaus with the paintings of Polish artist Balthus. Balhaus was brilliant at lighting interiors, the Theatre of Cruelty being his métier, and Balthus brought a refined, dreamlike imagery to his portraits of pubescent girls. Browns, rusts, blues and greens were the palette of my Suspiria so there would be no antagonism with Dario’s vision. 

NOTEBOOK: The dances are crucial to your visualization. They were of absolutely no importance to Argento.

GUADAGNINO: Interesting, that. You know Miramax tried to option the Suspiria rights before me, but I heard they ultimately didn’t because they just didn’t get the correlation between a coven of witches and a dance company? For me, dance is a language, it’s a spell the dancers weave and Volk [the title of the signature tribal dance in the movie] was the perfect vehicle to connect to the overall story. The dancing in my Suspiria is key and had to be a character in itself, rooted in flesh and blood, and choreographer Daniel Jalet did a brilliant job realizing that. And so did Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, with his first-ever film score.  I had to push him into doing it, but I feel it was a profound collaboration.

NOTEBOOK: Jessica Harper never expected the original Suspiria to be a success, but it will be the one movie she will always be remembered for. Is that why you wanted her in a cameo role? 

GUADAGNINO: Like Dario, I loved her in Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise [1974] and she proved herself to be an incredible actress in Stardust Memories [1980] and Pennies from Heaven [1981]. I thought it would be a nice gesture to connect her to my Suspiria as a sort of completing the circle. I called her up to suggest she might like to play the role of Anke and I was fully expecting her to say "get lost." But after a few weeks she agreed and when she turned up on the set to do her entire monologue in German, the local crew thought she was a native. Her accent was perfect throughout the entire sequence, which I wanted done in a long-shot without a cut. Incredible. 

NOTEBOOK: Okay, the word is out: By now everyone knows that Tilda Swinton not only plays Madame Blanc but also Dr. Josef Klemperer under a mountain of prosthetics. Did you really think you could keep this a secret?

GUADAGNINO: This is a really tough and depressing question for me to answer. The whole purpose of Suspiria is about the feminine point of view. Apart from three men, the cast is entirely made up of women. And my basis for the subterfuge was to give audiences the unconscious feeling that everything in the movie is indeed female. Including the main man! I never wanted the truth behind the actor Lutz Ebersdorf listed as playing Klemperer to become part of the narrative. I just wanted to impart a questioning feminine sensation. When we shot the movie in Germany it seems we had a mole in the crew who took pictures of Tilda coming out of the make-up van in character and called the paparazzi. So my creative aim was shattered. I still believe that Ebersdorf gives one of the finest performances I’ve ever seen though. Don’t you agree?

NOTEBOOK: Argento of course continued the story of the Three Mothers in the sequels Inferno [1980] and Mother of Tears [2007]. Have you any such ambition?

GUADAGNINO: I adore Inferno, but neither sequels were planned for as it was never really supposed to be a trilogy. I haven’t given this much thought in truth as we have to see how the movie performs and what power it exerts over an audience. But you know something, one of my favorite moments in the movie is when Patricia [Moretz] says to Sara [Goth], “She shows me things.” Perhaps I would like to explore what they would be in which environment and where Patricia actually is in her undead condition. So you never know….

Don't miss our latest features and interviews.

Sign up for the Notebook Weekly Edit newsletter.


InterviewsDario ArgentoLuca Guadagnino
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.