Why 'Nico, 1988' Used 50-Year-Old 8mm Footage from Jonas Mekas in a Fictionalized Biopic
This spirited retelling of the famous Warhol superstar's final years is no sentimental biopic.
Though her given name was Christa Päffgen, the singer and former Warhol superstar/creative partner of The Velvet Underground went by the singular "Nico" throughout her long-lasting legacy as a dynamic talent in the age of rock-and-roll. As a young girl in World War II Germany near the bombings of Berlin, Nico grew fascinated with sound of war, sometimes harsh and unpleasant, and made it a life mission to recapture that aural destruction wherever she could locate it. With a sound recorder, microphone, and headphones in hand, Nico was determined to emulate the haunting sound and experiences of her past.
Taking place over a brief period from 1986-1988 (the year Nico suddenly passed away at the age of 49), Susanna Nicchiarelli's Nico, 1988 is by no means a traditional biopic. As she goes on tour to promote her latest album, Nico (played hauntingly by Trine Dyrholm, who performed her own singing for the role) grows frustrated with journalists who would rather focus on her Velvet Underground years than her current solo work. Lead by her defacto manager/publicist Richard (played subserviently by John Gordon Sinclair), Nico tours Europe with less experienced bandmates, unsanctioned concerts, a police shutdown, an unrelenting heroine addiction, and a desire to reconnect with her troubled son.
"[The Mekas films] are very rapid, and the quality is very poor. Everything about them makes them look like memories."
Including flashbacks (shot by Nicchiarelli) and archival footage (shot decades earlier by avant-garde pioneer Jonas Mekas), the narrative, although gloomy via its head-on confrontations with drug abuse and suicide, paints a picture of a woman who is ready to accept her past. Her performances on-stage are mesmerizing, and there's a morose sadness to the way Dyrholm recreates them that's equally transformative and painful.
As the film opens this week, No Film School recently spoke with Nicchiarelli (coincidentally, on the 30th anniversary of Nico's passing) about shooting in the 1:33:1 aspect ratio, archival footage, film grain, and the filmmaker's own background and interests.
No Film School: While your background is in philosophy, you went on to graduate from Rome's Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia with a degree in filmmaking in 2004. What led to you choosing this different career path, if you will, and did you know that it would turn into a career at all?
Susanna Nicchiarelli: I've always had a passion for movies. I watched a lot of movies with my philosophy colleagues, especially when I was at University, and [that's where] I discovered European cinema. Of course, in Europe, we all grow up with American cinema because that's the main cinema we get, but there also exists European cinema and independent films and I started watching a lot of that stuff when I was in University with my philosophy colleagues. We started watching Pasolini and Truffaut and all that. It isn't because I wasn't studying film in my 20s that cinema wasn't very present in my life at that point.
I even went for my PhD in Philosophy, but at some point realized that I needed to do something, something that could get to more people. I was doing something too difficult and wanted to be able to say certain things (or transmit certain emotions) to more people. I wanted to do something more practical that communicated with a wider range of people. That was basically my desire, to be more in the real world, which of course is not to say that cinema is the real world..probably the real world doesn't exist! It just felt much more real than studying philosophy because I got tired of philosophy at some point. I still love it and think it's extremely important and would love to teach it, because I think one of the most fascinating things about philosophy is teaching people to think.
I went to Los Angeles first because I had a friend who ran a production company. I went there and worked as an intern, making photocopies and getting coffee for people. When I wasn't working, I went to UCLA Extension in the evenings and that's when I made my first short. I then came back to Europe and made another short.
Thanks to that second short, I got into the most important film school that we have in Italy, the Centro Sperimentale in Cinecittà. It's a very important state film school where they take only six people every year, so it was huge. That's when I started studying cinema, and, of course, my philosophy background was always present. I like the idea that there was something which was probably linked with my philosophical information.
What I like about movies is that movies make you think. I like movies that don't give you all the answers. As a spectator, I like going to the movies with a friend and then coming out of the movie and discussing it. The discussion you have after having seen a movie is so important. It's one of the best things in life. I mean, discussing a movie, fighting about a movie, agreeing about a movie...it's something very strong. It's also a way of thinking and of communicating, which is very precious. It even happens on very important political and personal issues. I mean, a movie can move things in your mind, in the way you talk with people, and I had the feeling that this was more real than what I could do as a philosopher.
NFS: We're speaking on July 18th, 2018, the 30th anniversary of Nico's death. What was it about her lasting legacy that made you want to make this film?
Nicchiarelli: Well, there are a few things that this film has in common with my first two films. First of all, there is a historical element. Each of the films I've done are set in the past and share this theme of dealing with the past (and also of the way history changes you). History can influence your childhood and make you who you are, the way you grow up, and the way we deal with others. Certain historical events participate in certain moments in the history of humanity.
I've always been dealing with this. My first movie, which was called Cosmonauta, was about two kids in Italy who, in the 1960s, were communists during the Space Race. They worked for the Soviet Union and, of course, when the Soviet Union sent the first dog in space and the first man in space, the United States were left behind until they got to the moon. The United States got to the moon before everybody else, and that changed everything, and the United States basically won the space race at that point.
My first film dealt with the past [through the eyes of] two kids, and they were living this conflict. It was a way of living the Cold War. Again, the theme of the Cold War is very present in Nico's life because she was born just before the Second World War. She grows up in a divided and defeated Germany and she dies in 1988 when Europe fought the fall of the Berlin Wall, one year before everything changed.
I'm always fascinated by the lives of people and the way these lives interact with the big picture, with history. That's also, I think, a very interesting way to make people think about the way our lives are never as private as we think. Even our most private moments are somehow a part of something larger and collective. This is what fascinated me about Nico.
Another thing that fascinated me about Nico right away was the woman, the person. I saw her in interviews and [used] the irony of the humor with which she put away people trying to drag her back into the past, because, of course, the past/the present is the theme of this movie. We're talking about a woman whose present people knew very little about, and everybody deals with her talking about her past, which is 20 years before the time in which the movie is set.
She is always dealing with that, and she's always trying to take out the myths of the past. I also think that nostalgia and the myth of the past is an excuse for not living in the present. Nico felt that very strongly because when people asked her about the 1960s and they said, "That must have been the best period of your life," Nico answered, "We took all this LSD." She had a funny way of taking away the myths, which also is a theme that I like very much and that comes back in all of my work.
"I wouldn't have found it at all interesting to make a movie about young Nico in the 1960s. The whole point of the film for me was Nico in the 1980s."
NFS: When writing the screenplay, was it always your intention to feature a specific period in Nico's life rather than craft a traditional, birth-to-death biopic?
Nicchiarelli: Always, always, always. I wouldn't have found it at all interesting to make a movie about young Nico in the 1960s. The whole point of the film for me was Nico in the 1980s. The music and art she made at the time were great, but she was forced, by others, to deal with her past.
I find that much more interesting, and I find the 1980s a very interesting age in which to tell a story. That was the idea from the beginning.
NFS: Where did the choice to shoot the film in the 4:3 aspect ratio come from? Did you have conversations with your cinematographer, Crystel Fournier, about what the "box-shaped" composition could bring to this story?
Nicchiarelli: We realized upon sitting down that we had to make one big choice that would show [the film to an] the audience on a completely different level, visually, even though I'm not sure that everybody actually notices that the image is square and not rectangular. Of course, we do because we work with movies.
What is interesting is that when you make a movie, you also make it for people who don't know anything about the aspect ratios and things like that. At the same time, the square image does give you a feeling that something's different, very different, and it brings you back in time. A familiar image is not square anymore (even television is rectangular now) so it's over, that thing is over. It's very interesting that cinema can try and be something different again, and bring you back to the past, to a time when TV was square.
"The square image does give you a feeling that something's different, very different, and it brings you back in time."
Nicchiarelli: What was interesting about working with the square image is that we're not used to it at all. Actors aren't used to it. They would walk off frame without realizing, and, of course, the boom operator wasn't used to it. The image is taller and it's tighter. You stay on the characters because you can't do a two shot; you have to show one character at a time.
Even so, you can't do very big close-ups if you have a huge head. You can't cut the chin and then cut the forehead like you can with a rectangular image. It's interesting because you are on the characters, but you're never too close. It's also a very interesting tone, one that's ironic and very funny. You're distant, but you're on the person. I found it so interesting that honestly, I would find it hard to go back to the rectangular image for my next movie because, while it's a challenge to shoot square, the results are interesting.
NFS: The film incorporates archival footage of Andy Warhol, his superstars, and the nightclub/gallery environments they inhabited on a nightly basis? How did you sort through this footage and what was your plan regarding when to incorporate it into your film?
Nicchiarelli: That footage comes from two movies by Jonas Mekas, Scenes from the Life of Andy Warhol and Walden. Jonas Mekas has been one of my favorite directors ever since I was a film student. He was part of Warhol's Factory entourage.
NFS: I assume that footage was shot with his personal Bolex camera that he took everywhere with him?
Nicchiarelli: Yes, of course, he had an 8mm Bolex that he would use to keep a [visual] diary. Walden is one of my favorite movies. It's four hours long and it's a diary of Nico's life. Mekas would make home movies, of course, that was the principal, to make home movies, and they were incredibly beautiful and he would watch them forever. Not only did Mekas film famous people, like Warhol and Nico, but the films were also about his friends and his everyday life.
When I decided to use archives of his material, I knew I had voluntarily chosen an actress who doesn't look particularly like Nico, but at the same time, I wanted the real image of the Nico icon to be present in the movie because I didn't want to betray the audience. I didn't want to pretend that Trine Dyrholm was Nico and hire a young Trine to play young Nico. I didn't want to do that fake thing because the icon of Nico was a real icon, and the icon of Nico belongs to the real world.
I thought I owed the audience images of the real Nico of 1966, the years in which she was an icon. At the beginning, I thought I had a lot of options because there is a lot of archival material of Nico out there. But then I thought that the most interesting option was the Jonas Mekas' films because they are films about the past (they're home movies) and they're structured like memories. They're very rapid, they're very fast, and the quality is very poor. Everything about the films, their style, everything, makes them look like memories.
I found it interesting to show them in my film as memories that somehow annoy Nico. They are present only in the first part of the film and they always have somewhat of an annoying presence. They're there, but she doesn't want them to be there, but there they are. She can't help it. That was the choice I made.
It was interesting because I wrote Jonas an email—he has a personal website and he's 95 years old now—and he answered me like 10 minutes later! It must have been 11pm in New York [where he lives] when I emailed him, and he answered 10 minutes later. "Oh, yes, of course, I remember Christa," he told me and it was so incredible.
NFS: The film also features several flashbacks, most notably of Nico's son (and Nico herself as a young girl in war-ravaged Germany). Those flashbacks also incorporate some filmic grain apparent on the image. Were there other ways you were hoping to have those sequences stand out, visually?
Nicchiarelli: Wow, nobody noticed that.
NFS: Oh, no?
Nicchiarelli: No, you're the first person asking me this. We filmed the flashbacks on film, actually, and then we put them back on digital. That's why we have more grain.
NFS: Was the goal to have those flashback sequences blend into the archival footage shot by Mekas?
Nicchiarelli: Well, I'm not sure they do, as the shooting style is completely different. They're not handheld, and while all of Mekas' material was handheld, there is actually no handheld in our whole film. They're more like captures or pictures, so they wouldn't be confused with the archive material and they wouldn't blend in due to the way we shot them.
However, we did shoot them at 18 frames-per-second. They are a little faster and that makes them look a little bit like more Mekas' material. We didn't want them to blend in, to be mixed up with Mekas' material. That was not my intention. I just wanted to do something else, and distinguish them from normal reality and the present in the film.