Tavis: Pleased and honored to welcome Tilda Swinton to this program. The Oscar-winning actress has starred in numerous notable films, including “Michael Clayton,” which earned her an Academy Award.
Her latest film is called “I Am Love.” The project opens here in New York and L.A. and eight other cities this weekend. Here now, a scene from “I Am Love.”
Tavis: So often when these conversations commence, I don’t know where I’m going to start, and I’m a bit tripped up with you because there’s so many things to talk about with regard to just that one scene that I don’t know where to really begin.
Let me start with this, I think. This, I think, would qualify, if ever there was a passion project for an actor, this is for you a passion project. Eleven years you’ve been working on this?
Tilda Swinton: Mm-hmm.
Tavis: Why so long?
Swinton: The strange thing is, Tavis, so many films I’ve made have taken 11 years.
Tavis: Eleven years exactly?
Swinton: Well, or maybe 15. (Laughter) We kind of moved it on this one. I think so many original films do take that length of time. What would be great is if you were paid all that time. That would be really good, if you didn’t have to find other ways of eating during that 11 years. It would be great to be Kubrick, to take, like 25 years and sit back.
Tavis: But that’s what makes it a passion project, that for you to stay committed and dedicated to this project means there must be something about this that you really want us to see.
Swinton: Well, it’s the fruit of a relationship, a very important friendship in my life with Luca Guadagnino, the director, and it’s sort of the way I started working in relationship with filmmakers. I started making films with one director, Derek Jarman, who I worked with for nine years on seven different films, and when you know someone that well and you’re making a film every year or every second year, you know that the conversation is the most important thing.
That’s the thing – the relationship is the thing. The films are just like symptom. Like you go to school every day and then occasionally you do a school project. It’s like that. But the classmate relationship is the really important thing.
Tavis: I could argue, as I will now, just for the sake of argument –
Swinton: Go on, go for it.
Tavis: I can see the up side to working with the same director for nine years and doing seven projects. I can see the up side to that. To your point, you know each other well, et cetera, et cetera.
But I can also see the down side, which is that how do we know we’re seeing the full range of your gift, your talent? Every director has a different way of bringing something different out in you. Talk to me.
Swinton: Well, I suppose if that was the only person you ever worked with you might get into some kind of rut or you might get up some kind of gum tree, but – and I’ve only stopped working with Derek Jarman because sadly he kind of left the building in 1994, so he’s not around anymore.
But I have to say the up sides of a long working relationship are really – I’m all for them. I think that you work out a kind of – well, you talk about passion and there being a passion project. If the passion is really for this dialogue, for this relationship and for this – you’re like a pair of kids. You’re kind of egging each other on all the time, as Luca and I did with this film.
It was a good five years of us kind of sitting around a big bottle of wine, egging each other on to our fantasies about what kind of film we’d want to make, and then we got a bit more serious and more practical and started thinking of a story and some collaborators, and maybe even raising some money or getting a script.
But I think that feeling of shorthand and a feeling of a friendship taking you into a sort of fantasy space is really useful, and as I felt in working relationships that have gone from project to project, you just up the ante every time, and usually you’ll go 180 degrees in the other direction with the next project.
So I don’t know; it depends on the nature of the friendship. It’s a nice, rich friendship and you might make some different moves. If it’s not then you might sing the same song every time.
Tavis: You mentioned the word “dialogue” a moment ago, and to my eye at least – you tell me, but to my eye this particular project, “I Am Love,” I don’t want to say is less about but certainly is as much about the imagery as it is about the dialogue. The clip that we showed a moment ago, nothing was really said until the last two seconds there but the imagery. Talk to me about this kind of concept.
Swinton: One of the pleasures I’m having this week in bringing this film to the United States and talking to people about the release and noticing that almost nobody talks about the fact that this film, which a lot of people are really looking forward to seeing, is in Italian and Russian. I think –
Tavis: Even better than that, you’re speaking Italian with a Russian accent and you’re in real life Scottish, so you really are an Academy Award-winning – you really are a very good actor. (Laughter)
Swinton: No, no, no, you know what I am? I’m a silent film performer. That’s what I am. It is like a silent film in many ways. The language is really not the point. We thought a lot about what Hitchcock said about the camera telling the story and the dialogue just giving you a bit of atmosphere at best.
Nobody really says anything of much importance in this film. It’s not really about what people say, it’s about the space they occupy and their behavior and yeah, it doesn’t matter.
Tavis: What’s the connection that the audience can make to that in today’s movie world? It’s obviously a very different style of filmmaking. How are people going to relate to this, you think?
Swinton: Well, I believe that – and I know Luca feels the same – that the greatest use we can make of cinema is to see that it can do this very simple, humanistic thing, which is to put somebody, any of us, in somebody else’s shoes, whether it’s the person in front of the camera or if it’s the filmmaker themselves.
To put them into the shoes of somebody else seeing something, choosing a frame that you may not choose yourself, or somebody else thinking about stuff that you may never have thought yourself. So that in itself is not culturally specific, it’s got nothing to do with language; it’s got nothing to do with class or race or anything. It’s completely intergalactic.
The language of cinema is a language of its own, and that’s partly why this project took us 11 years, because we had this very – I say modestly – grandiose idea of trying to find a modern film that reminded us of all the great, classic films that we love, from Visconti, from Hitchcock, from John Huston, from Douglas Sirk, that touch people on a kind of sensory level far beyond language, far beyond decade, far beyond where these people come from or what their lives are like.
So that thing of just trying to catch people up in a film. I have these 12-year-old twins, Tavis, and they’re serious cinephiles, I have to say. They’re crazy for cinema, and I’ve recently been showing them some Hitchcock – judiciously chosen. Not all Hitchcock, I hasten to add.
Tavis: Yeah, you’d better be very careful about that. (Laughter)
Swinton: But my son, who’s very attuned to cinema, was talking to me about a series of films I was showing him recently, and he kept saying, “I’m really in this film, Mama, I’m in this film.” He’s really expressing something, I think, that Hitchcock would be very proud of, quite correctly proud of – that to take a whatever, 10-year-old, nine-year-old, 11-year-old child and put them in a film that’s about grownups is really what we’re looking for.
Tavis: We’ve kind of nibbled around the edges of this cake. Let me go right to the center of it. We’ve talked about what your process is here. How would you describe what “I Am Love” is? What’s the storyline here?
Swinton: It’s a story of a family in a very particular milieu. They are very, very rich – haute bourgeois Milanese, so they live in Milan. They’re industrial barons and they’re a particular kind of rich person, because they are not – this is not the sort of feudal aristocracy of Visconti. These are people who made their really quite sizeable wealth during the fascist era in Italy, so they’ve got a lot to be very discreet about.
These are people who live a very particularly circumscribed sort of life. They live in a sort of code of denial, and into this family – we go into this family and we find Emma, who’s the character who I play, who’s the mother of three children, married for the last 25 years to Tancredi, who’s the patriarch, and she’s a Russian, but not only a Russian.
The film is actually set 10 years ago, so if you pre-date it she’s someone who came from Soviet Russia. So she comes from one circumscribed environment into another which may even be more circumscribed. I think of her as an avatar – she’s learned to fake it. She’s learned to walk the walk and talk the talk and dress correctly and to kind of pass as a proper lady.
But she’s something else – she’s a foreigner. She comes to that point that lots of women do from all walks of life who have children at that age, young, that children start to leave home and she starts to kind of look at her own life and make friends with herself again, and believe it or not there’s a sort of revolution of love that occurs in her life and there’s something in the family that can’t take it, but I won’t spoil the story.
Tavis: No. I was going to say stop, stop, don’t give it away. (Laughter) Right quick before I let you go, though, you, as I read your career, as I have watched your work over the years, seem to bounce between these – I can put it this way – these art house projects and these blockbusters, and I assume that you’re comfortable in that space, that back-and-forth.
Swinton: I thought for a second you were going to give me a clue, some method in the madness, and I was sort of waiting for it.
Tavis: No, no, I’m not. (Laughter)
Swinton: Because I don’t know what it is.
Tavis: I’m just asking questions. I don’t know anything. (Laughter)
Swinton: There’s no design. There’s really no design. The truth is I’m a European and I live in Europe. I spend most of my time as a filmmaker growing projects like these, which are seeds in the ground for a long, long time. Meanwhile, they’re growing and I get invited to be in a film with George Clooney by Tony Gilroy, or I get invited by the Cohn brothers to come and play with them, or David Fincher or Francis Lawrence, and I’m happy to do that.
But I live in Europe. These European films take a long time to grow, and I’m a farmer there.
Tavis: The project is called “I Am Love -” great name for a film – starting one Tilda Swinton, Academy Award winner. Tilda, good to have you on the program.
Swinton: Thanks, Tavis. Very nice to see you.
Tavis: Congrats on the project.
Swinton: Thank you.
[Walmart – Save money. Live better.]
Announcer: Nationwide Insurance proudly supports Tavis Smiley. Tavis and Nationwide Insurance — working to improve financial literacy and the economic empowerment that comes with it. Nationwide is on your side.
And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.