The Storytellers — Interview with Suso Cecchi d’Amico

Interviewed at her home in Rome, 1999

Suso Cecchi d’Amico — by Mikael Colville-Andersen. 1999

Suso Cecchi d’Amico is one of the most prolific writers in European film history. She has written over 100 screenplays since 1947 including The Bicycle Thief, most of Visconti’s films, as well as films for Antonioni, Fellini and the other great Italians. Not to mention collaborating with Scorcese. At the regal age of 85, she is at ease behind her desk in her Rome flat. The shelves are filled with books about music, the legacy of her late composer husband and her ancient typewriter commands respect at the centre of the desk radiating authority with it’s pristine condition. Suso speaks softly and warmly about her illustrious life and her inspirations for writing for cinema.

The very name Suso Cecchi d’Amico is whispered in hushed tones by any screenwriter worth his salt. And now I sit across from her in this library cum office and cannot help feeling like a schoolboy in her presence. Throughout the first half of the interview, whenever she mentions a film she has written, she adds “but you haven’t seen that…” I have to assure her that I have indeed seen every film she refers to. Perhaps she is used to teaching students and being interviewed by journalists who have only seen the top five films on her cv. Young filmmakers have a perilously short memory.

MCA: It’s safe to say that you’ve had an illustrious career writing for a great number of Italian directors. How did it all start?

SCA: Actually, it was someone else’s idea. It was not my plan at all. It was because I knew all the cinema people in Rome since my father was a very well-known writer. I can remember being given a screenplay to read because they wanted a young woman’s reaction. I have done the same thing with my own children throughout the years. Given them a comedy to read to see if they thought it was funny or not.

Then one day someone asked me the question. Why don’t you write a screenplay? I said I would give it a try but it had never occurred to me before that. At that point I had done many translations of literary works, so I merely approached it as another job. They were pleased with what I did and asked me to stay on.

MCA: Did that first effort become a film?

SCA: No, but not because it was a bad script. It was because of a reaction. Let me explain. Ponti wanted to produce a film “inspired” by the big hit at the moment, Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde. So we were working on a story based on a particular novel. I had a very important team: the director Castellani and two other writers: Alberto Moravia and Ennio Flaiano.

We were sitting around the table discussing the story when we heard on the radio that the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. It was quite a shock. We looked at each other and said, “what on earth are we doing?” We stopped working and went over to Ponti and said, “Look. We are not interested in this story. Let us do something alive. Something that deals with life”. So we never finished that story á la Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde.

MCA: So the atom bomb dropped and…

SCA: Yes. That story about a professor and a girl suddenly seemed so… Well, we just knew we had to do something different.

MCA: What film came of that fateful experience?

SCA: To Live in Peace (Vivere in pace 1947). It was directed by Luigi Zampa and based on a little story I had written.

MCA: That was your first film.

SCA: Yes, but I still only regarded it as a job. Screenwriting is the work of an artisan, not a poet. Let us be clear about that. I am not a poet, I am an artisan.

At this point the telephone rings and she answers, explaining to me that the housekeeper hasn’t arrived yet to answer the calls. But just then the housekeeper comes through the door, along with a carpenter and the house is suddenly filled with orderly chaos. It is clear that we are in the midst of La vita italiana and I keep the cameras rolling. Most importantly, coffee is ordered and calm once again fills the office. She smiles and focuses her attention once again on the interview.

SCA: Excuse me.

MCA: So screenwriting is not an art, it is a craft.

SCA: In my opinion. But then cinema is not art either.

MCA: Never has been?

SCA: It may be that it gives you that impression but it is reality. Art must be created by one person alone. Cinema is the work of a team and on a team there are unexpected elements. The sun going behind the clouds, the actor coming down with a cold. But true creating, true art is the work of one person. (she shrugs one of many Italian shrugs) I’m sorry to disappoint you about the work of the screenwriter. It can be very useful, very beautiful work. Work that can carry the same weight as a written story but it cannot live on its own.

MCA: A lot of screenwriters have found their inspiration in literature. Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, etc. So many screenwriters want to be writers and believe they are writers. The act of writing a screenplay, inventing characters and writing dialogue. Isn’t that still writing?

SCA: Yes, but a screenwriter writes with his eyes. That’s very important. A writer must find the words to describe things. A screenwriter must invent the images. It’s quite different. All the discussions comparing the two are useless. They are two different things. Two different forms of expression. You can’t compare a word with an image.

MCA: Literature’s influence on cinema is obvious. But has cinema influenced literature?

SCA: Oh yes. A great influence. Especially since the war. The young people today are much more accustomed to literature that has been influenced by cinema. So often you read new novels which resemble film treatments but it is not great literature. In Italy we have never had a narrative tradition in literature like they have had in England or America. There has only been one big novel, I Promessi Sposi, by Alessandro Manzoni, that’s all. A very poor narrative tradition. Now we have thousands. Not very important, not very talented, all very young. And there is no doubt that it all descends from cinema.

MCA: A great deal of literary tradition has been lost then?

SCA: Without a doubt.

MCA: But you have been greatly influenced by literature.

SCA: Yes. I’ve stolen a lot.

MCA: You’ve stolen?

SCA: Yes. I’ve always said that stealing from literature is important. Take Dostoyevsky for example. We have stolen so much from him. Characters, situations, what have you. Look at Rocco and his Brothers (Rocco e i suoi fratelli 1960). It’s clear. Rocco is the Prince. Of course it’s different but it comes from Dostoyevsky.

MCA: Is the future of cinema in danger?

SCA: Yes, because all we have now are mediocre films.

MCA: Is it necessary to go back to the old masters?

SCA: You can still return to them for inspiration. There is still a lot of material there. But the young people don’t read the classics. Maybe those small condensed books you can buy. Just imagine Tolstoy. Imagine how many characters you can steal from War and Peace alone. (she smiles) Marvellous, rich characters.

MCA: Who is your greatest inspiration?

SCA: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky — I’m confessing my theft here (laughs) — but those two and there are so many more.

MCA: How is it to have spent so many years as a screenwriter? Especially since you began rather reluctantly.

SCA: I still really enjoy it and I am still working. Unfortunately we are not living in a good time for cinema. The disaster is that films cost too much to produce. You become too careful. And there are no more producers. There doesn’t exist a producer who wants to produce films with these budgets. It has become business, an industry. If I have thought that cinema is not art before, then now… (she shrugs) It has become an industry of bad taste in part because television has dragged the level of intelligence down, down, down. We no longer need to use our brains.

And people are content with television. I never watch it — I don’t even own one — but in Italy people watch a lot of television. Producers don’t need to think too much because the audiences are content. The level of quality is constantly being diminished. It’s a pity.

When I began making films it was very inexpensive to produce them. In Italy, back then, the cinemas were obliged to show Italian films for a minimum of 18 days in the peak seasons. That meant that nobody killed themselves if they made a disaster. You could make some money but you could never lose a lot. That gave the producers and writers the courage to make the films they wanted to make. Because that is what is important, to make films for yourself and not to think about profits. If you are pleased with what you have done, that is enough. Nowadays you have to write films that can be understood by the Japanese. I have no idea what the Japanese like. You must make films that travel all over the world. It is not enough to make films for yourself and your friends.

At last, the housekeeper comes in with coffee for us. Elaborate cups and ornate spoons.

SCA: Would you like to have a coffee? To take a little break?

It is not a question. It is a given. Morning coffee a part of her daily ritual. She sips her espresso and opens her post while I make myself busy checking my notes and conferring with my photographer. After a little break we continue.

MCA: Your work with Visconti had a great influence on your career. What about the other directors you have worked with?

SCA: The first director I worked with was a very modest man, Luigi Zampa. He worked with a passion and did as he pleased. He was a very popular director and it was a great experience to work with him. I am very grateful to him. It was much more simpler then. It was for him that I wrote the best screenplay I have ever written in my life — in my opinion. It wasn’t the best film, The City Stands Trial (Processo alla città 1952), but it was the best screenplay.

MCA: What about De Sica?

SCA: Working with De Sica was a great experience. He was an actor and it was different to work with him because it was like seeing your work on a stage. It is absolutely necessary to work closely with a director. To understand what he likes, how he feels, what he wants. I think it’s useless to write something that doesn’t feel right for the director. For example, comedy. It is impossible to teach comedy to someone. If the director doesn’t understand comedy it is pointless.

The first film I wrote for Antonioni — Camille Without Camelias (La Signora senza Camelie 1953) — we thought it was a comedy. I wrote it together with Antonioni. He was a very amusing man, believe it or not. Full of humour. We wrote it as a comedy and when we started shooting and I saw the first dailies I thought it was a disaster. And it was. It was impossible for him to make a comedy. He didn’t have the rhythm for it. After you’ve seen his later work and you could never imagine that he would make a comedy.

The second was with a young man, very nice, very clever. He had been Monicelli’s assistant for years and was directing his first film. It was a kind of a sequel to Monicelli’s Big Deal on Madonna Street (Soliti ignoti, I 1958), a very funny, popular film. It was a disaster. He didn’t have the rhythm either. You can’t teach it. There was never a moment of doubt that he didn’t have a talent for comedy. He was Monicelli’s assistant and was an amusing fellow.

MCA: Is it difficult to collaborate with a director?

SCA: Sometimes. You have to figure out what the director wants. You can impose your point of view on him but he doesn’t think it’s right for him it’s better not to insist.

MCA: You’ve written many comedies in your career.

SCA: I’ve written many comedies and enjoy writing them very much. It is my favourite genre. Writing comedy is best when you are a team. Not drama. Writing drama is best done alone. But comedy is best written in a team. You must laugh when you’re writing and you can hear immediately if the lines are funny or not when you say them to each other.

MCA: What do you think about the anonymity of the screenwriter? Is it enough to be the lady who wrote for Visconti or the guy who wrote for Polanski? What is the writer’s role in the process? Is it a good thing that the writer is anonymous?

As though interrupting my question a car horn starts bleating incessantly on the street. Perhaps an angry screenwriter wishing to shake off anonymity but it turns out to be an angry motorist trapped by a double-parked car. He is insistent. Suso shrugs. “This is Rome”. We sip our coffee and wait for the noise to stop. She continues to casually open her post. When the honking fades away, we continue. She doesn’t need me to repeat the question and just begins to answer, as though there has been no five minute pause.

SCA: The writer is very important. The screenplay is the reason that there is a film to make. He is one of the most important people in the process and the only one who deserves to be called author. However, as the director can’t do without the writer, the writer can’t do without the director. That brings you to the conclusion that the film is a common work created by many indispensable people.

MCA: But the director gets all the credit.

SCA: Yes, but that is even silly. When I started, the director was not that important. The only names you knew where that of the actors. All those American comedies we loved so much in the 30’s, we knew all the actors and actresses names, not the director.

MCA: Looking at the credits of your earlier films, it appears that there were many writers involved in the screenplay.

SCA: When I was young I had a group of friends and we made films together. We were all on the set, even the writers, all the time. For the films we did during neo-realism — or what they call neo-realism — we had no money so we just shot on the streets or in houses. We couldn’t afford actors and there weren’t many actors around because the standard of theatre was very poor. Besides, all the theatres were bombed. So, we just found people on the streets. You would meet a person on who was right for the role and ask them to play it. That was it.

MCA: What do you mean by “what they call neo-realism”?

SCA: It was only afterwards that someone else, somewhere else in the world decided to call it “neo-realism” and write many books about it. Despite the fact that it was only a little group of friends who just wanted to make films and went out into the streets to do so. If we had as many newspapers and magazines back then as we do now, maybe many of us would have become journalists instead of making films. But there weren’t many papers and making film was inexpensive and we merely wanted to tell our stories about our experiences of that era.

For example, Roma, Open City (Roma, città aperta 1946) was made by Rossellini without a producer. All the friends who involved went out rounding up raw film for Rossellini to shoot his film. Bicycle Thief (Ladri di biciclette 1948) was more expensive because De Sica was such a well-known actor in Italy. He got the most important lawyer in the country to finance the film, a clever man who understood that something may come out of this venture.

We worked on the screenplay for months. Going around Rome and collecting stories to tell. The beginning of the film was loosely inspired by a short story written by a painter about a bicycle. Apart from that, we just wandered around Rome together. We wanted to make a portrait of Rome at that time, so soon after the war.

MCA: On the full credits of the Bicycle Thief there are 7 or 8 different writers credited. That seems strange today when writers fight tooth and nail for the credit.

SCA: Yes, because it wasn’t important who got the credit. We were friends who wanted to make films. That was the only important thing. One of the writers credited was dead when we made the film. He was a friend of De Sica who had wanted to work on the next film but he died before we started shooting. De Sica put his name on as a kind of tribute.

All the films at that time had many writers credited. Often we put our friends names on just so they could get paid and then told the producer we had consulted them. We did that for Fellini when he was young and had no money. So there are films out there for which Fellini is credited as the screenwriter, but he never wrote them. I saw an old film a few days ago and there were nine screenwriters. I know exactly who the writers were and there were certainly not nine of them.(laughs)

MCA: Your name is most often associated with Luchino Visconti. Did that collaboration have a big influence on your career?

SCA: I had already made several films before working with Luchino. We were very good friends when I first worked with him. He was a perfectionist. He wanted to know everything about the film process and he could have done every job on the film set, from the lighting to the camera to the screenwriting.

On the first screenplay we wrote together, which wasn’t made, we both wrote equally. He was more than a sparring partner. However, as we made more films together, I wrote most of the screenplays. On the Proust project, I hardly spoke with him during the writing process because we knew each other so well. That was the easiest screenplay I ever wrote.

MCA: You used to make Visconti tell you the story, verbally, so that you could understand what he wanted to do.

SCA: Yes. That was very important. And then we would discuss the story. We were talking about literature before and I recall that Visconti and I, even though he didn’t live very far from here, wrote many, many letters to each other. If someone were to read those letters they wouldn’t understand them because we had so many names, so many references to literary characters that it would seem like some kind of code. We had the same passion and knowledge for literature.

MCA: You mentioned that you are still active as a screenwriter.

SCA: Yes, I have been writing on various things. Among others, I have written for Martin Scorcese on his documentary Il Dolce Cinema. Years ago he was here with Fellini and told us the story about how Italian cinema influenced him growing up in New York. Fellini suggested that he make a film about it and we have worked together on that. But now that film has become much bigger than he expected. It went from one hour to three hours. Also, I am writing various screenplays. I still enjoy it very much.

MCA: You were often on the set as the screenwriter. That is rare these days.

SCA: Yes, in the old days it was very important. Especially in the neo-realism period. We always had to change the dialogue. If a scene was written for the sunshine and it rained, we would have to change it on the spot. And Visconti wanted me there. He was very faithful to what I had written but I was always on the set.

MCA: They were glamorous times. Do you miss those golden days of Italian cinema?

SCA: Very much so. Mostly because it was done with passion. Because you were making the films you wanted to make.

MCA: Haven’t you ever considered directing?

SCA: No. They’ve asked me so many times but I know that I don’t have the character for it. It would be a disaster. I always use one example. If the producer of a Fellini or a Visconti film went to them and asked if the 30 horses they wanted in such and such a scene could be cut down to 10, Visconti and Fellini would both shout, “No, no, no. I’ve changed my mind. Now I want 50 horses and I won’t continue until I get them”. I couldn’t do that. I would probably settle for 5 horses. No, I’m very bad at being in command. You need to have a very particular character to be a good director.

MCA: After over 100 films you must have developed some personal rules which you use when you write.

SCA: I’ve been working for so long that I have developed some laws, some rules that I work with but I never tell them to my pupils when I’m teaching. They would think I’m crazy. But I do remember a booklet I read many years ago. It was written by an assistant to Cecil B. DeMille. She wrote that every scene should contain three elements: the crucial moment of a situation, the beginning of new one and the end of the first one. I thought that was amusing. I have kept that in my head for many years.

MCA: What are your views on the so-called “Hollywood” structure?

SCA: I don’t think it is so important. I have my own rules and don’t like that something simply MUST happen in the 12th minute or what have you. One must write with instinct. But the three act structure has worked for centuries, so it must be a good thing. Whenever I am asked to write about the screenplay I always read books written by my colleagues as inspiration. Jean Claude Carriere’s book, The Secret Language of Film is really one of the few that has made a lasting impression.

I have also studied Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons for many years in order to learn from the structure and try to use it in my own work. I have seen that film countless times. But again, that is my own way of working.

MCA: Finally, is there any film in the history of cinema that you wish you had written?

SCA: (thinks for a long moment) I would have to say Slave of Love by Nikita Mikhalkov.

Urban playmaker, designer, host of The Life-Sized City tv series about urbanism. Author of “Copenhagenize”. Impatient Idealist.

Urban playmaker, designer, host of The Life-Sized City tv series about urbanism. Author of “Copenhagenize”. Impatient Idealist.