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‘Nico, 1988’ Director Susanna Nicchiarelli on What Drew Her to Velvet Underground Film

Italian director Susanna Nicchiarelli made a splash in Venice with her 2009 debut “Cosmonauta,” set during the space race between the Soviet Union and the U.S. She’s back on the Lido with “Nico, 1988,” about Velvet Underground lead singer Christa Paffgen, better known as Nico, who was among Andy Warhol’s muses. It’s a biopic of sorts, which focuses on the years 1987 and 1988, the last two years of Nico’s life, and stars Danish star Trine Dyrholm. Nicchiarelli spoke to Variety about her film, which opens the Venice Horizons section.

What drew you to the project?

Nico’s music, more than anything else: so bravely uncompromising, so painfully uncommon, yet so fascinating and important for all the music that followed, for the style and atmosphere it initiated… what I find surprising is how little this second part of Nico’s musical production is known, and how little everybody knows of her life in the seventies and eighties. And, most of all, how little she cared. How little she worried about being less known, less famous than before. She had no nostalgia, no sentimental longing for the first part of her musical career as opposed to the second. Maybe that’s the main reason why I fell in love with the way Nico had become in the eighties: this 40-year-old woman I saw in the interviews, so ironic and strong, didn’t care at all about the superstar she once had been, about the legendary beauty she had stopped being. Like her son once told me, she seemed indestructible. So far from the cliche of the fallen star, or the fragile forty-something missing her youth. I loved that she was so different from the cliche.

What sources did you draw on and how did you adapt that material into your screenplay which, as I understand it, is a re-imagining?

I based the film on a very long interview I recorded in Paris with Ari, Nico’s son. I also interviewed and met Alan Wise, Nico’s manager at the time, and some promoters of her concerts, Italian and Czech, who gave me a lot of details about the tours. Also, I met and interviewed and then discussed the screenplay with Domenico Petrosino, an Italian singer who was a good friend of Nico at the time and who appears in the film as the character of Domenico. All these direct sources gave me material to work on, and, together with Nico’s music and interviews, I built my own Nico, the way I imagined she could have been. I also imagined and invented the characters around her, some of which are completely fictitious. The rest came with Trine; once she got on the project we worked together on creating our own Nico, maybe giving up at times the real facts and adding stuff so that we could make this character not only historical but also universal. I wanted first of all to tell the story of the woman and the mother behind the star.

Nico’s relationship with her son and her last tour seem to be key elements in the narrative. Why did you focus on those?

I focused on her last tour because I believe that one of the problems of biopics is wanting to tell the whole story from the beginning to the end. The whole story is often boring and predictable. I like films that tell a part of the story, and through the part they can tell the whole. So the last two years of Nico’s life were for me revealing enough to give the complete picture of what kind of person she was and she had been. Also, in the final years Nico re-created a relationship with her son and I believe that it was such a big part of her life… Alan Wise once told me that there wasn’t a moment in which she didn’t think about her son. It was her constant thought, her constant regret. And this was the controlling idea of the script for me: the thought of Ari, of his absence and of his presence.

How did you approach Jonas Mekas for the material pertaining to Nico and the golden age of the Factory, which fills out her iconic aspect?

I chose to show the flashbacks of the sixties and of iconic Nico only with Mekas’ material because it is shot and structured already as a memory. It is confused, rapid, and it represents perfectly the home-movie language of the time. I think Mekas’ material is the most meaningful material we have of the entire Factory experience, or at least it is to me, because I have a feeling that it shows in its style also the brevity, the fleeting nature of that single moment in time when everything happened at the right moment. I love Mekas’ movies, especially “Walden.” Nico appears very little in them and that also fascinated me: a shadow, a face that appears for a few frames. One of the images I put in the film I found with the editor by pure chance and it was so brief… like a memory or rather like something that has already been forgotten. It was a great way for me to represent the icon, or rather the memories she had of herself, as something that was disappearing but kept on coming back, out of the black, unwanted and unasked.

Can you talk to me about your casting choices — Trine Dyrholm in particular?

Trine was my best choice, and I was thrilled when she accepted. She is a wonderful actress but there is no need to say this, she won the Silver Bear in Berlin for her role in the last Vinterberg movie where she was awesome, but I really liked her also in the Susanne Bier movies, the one that won the Oscar and also the one after that, “Love Is All You Need,” in which she starred with Pierce Brosnan. In “Love Is All You Need” she played a woman recovering from breast cancer: she shaved her head for the film and wore a wig, and one of the best scenes is the one where she swims naked. She is the kind of female actress that will never hesitate to show her fragilities; who doesn’t care about appearing older than what she really is, who will give anything to her character without worrying about her looks and be ready to change herself completely if needed. So Trine was perfect for her skill but also for her temper, she’s a very strong and positive woman, very energetic and creative, I needed her help in building my own Nico. And she is a great singer, so we worked on the singing together as part of the process of building the character. Our main concern was not to imitate the original, but to reinvent. Imitations in biopics are never empathic, and characters result always mechanical and cold when the main focus of actors and directors is imitation. We knew that was the main thing to avoid: we had to reinvent instead of imitating.

How did you handle and weave in the musical aspect?

Nico’s music was adapted by a very well known Italian progressive rock music group called Gatto Ciliegia contro il Grande Freddo, with whom I had worked with for the soundtracks of my previous films. I chose to readapt the music with them because I thought of course that it would have been horrible to use the original Nico music with Trine mouthing the lyrics. We also worked musically a lot on the eighties atmosphere: on the more commercial music of the time, using it in some kind of ironic opposition with Nico’s music. I am pretty happy about how the whole thing came out.

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