Dante Ferretti - three-time Academy-awarded and seven times nominated for Art Direction (including a nomination for Costume Design) - is no doubt one of the most sought after production designers in the world history of cinema. Francesca Lo Schiavo, extremely talented set decorator as well as Ferretti’s wife, has earned the same reputation, and the two has been working no-stop as a team, since 1981.
From Macerata – county seat of the province with the same name in the Marche region – Dante has ascended to the heavens of production design in Hollywood, passing through collaborations with Italy’s excellences, the likes of Pasolini and Fellini, and other European filmmakers, such as Terry Gilliam and Jean-Jacques Annaud (not exactly the Inferno and Purgatory, experienced by his namesake Italian poet).
Federico Fellini, upon having a taste of Ferretti’s talent during the shooting of his Satyricon (1969), patiently waited ten years, in which Dante perfected his skills, before being finally able to employ him for his whimsical settings.
Martin Scorsese reached out to Dante twice in vain, before having him free from other work commitments and eager to work in his The Age of Innocence (1993).
Thereby, I consider myself extremely lucky for having been able to talk with this living legend, Dante Ferretti, at my first attempt.
Please tell us more about your beginnings in production design. How did you grow fascinated by it?
At 13, I got enthralled by cinema and decided to work in the movie business. Upon attending the art school in my home town, Macerata (in the Marche region), I moved to Rome to study set design at the Accademia di Belle Arti.
After my first year as a student there, I was lucky enough to find a production designer who took me as his assistant.
From 1964 to 1975, you worked with Pier Paolo Pasolini. What impact did these early experiences have on your professional career?
In the mid-1960s, I worked as assistant production designer for P.P. Pasolini’s, The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) and The Hawks and the Sparrows (1966). Those two experiences represented fundamental steps towards my professional growth.
What happened was that the main production designer worked simultaneously at two-three films, so he used to let me work on my own, putting me in charge of the whole film. Despite, back then, I was just a teenager, I was quickly able to earn the trust from the director and the producers.
Starting with Fellini’s Satyricon (1969), you began a prolific collaboration with the maestro. Could you share with us some anecdotes, that may give us a sense of Federico Fellini as a person and as an artist?
My seven years as assistant concluded with Fellini’s Satyricon. Fellini was in disagreement with his main production designer (who was my supervisor) and dismissed him, leaving the rest of his film to me. At first I didn’t feel up to such a responsibility, but Federico insisted, urging me to uphold the profession’s “pride.”
Immediately after the completion of Satyricon, they called me from Pasolini’s set in Turkey, asking me to join them right away for my first role as production designer in his Medea (1969).
Once I got back to Cinecittà Studios, where we had to realize the interiors for Medea, Fellini approached me, addressing me with a term of endearment: “Dantino.” He offered me to work for him at his next film, and I replied I would have been available in ten years. He was baffled and asked me why. I feared his dissatisfaction with my work and I didn’t feel up to the task. So, I wanted to build up my working experience, before starting my collaboration with the maestro.
Years later, after having collaborated with directors, the likes of Mario Camerini and Marco Bellocchio, I was working in Cinecittà at Elio Petri’s, Todo Modo (1976), while Federico was shooting Fellini’s Casanova. One evening, I was heading towards the stage painters’ department, while the maestro exited the stage number 5. We stopped under a lamppost, and he reminded me of my commitment to start my collaboration with him upon the ten years’ hiatus. I then fulfilled it, working in Fellini’s next five movies, from Orchestra Rehearsal (1978) to The Voice of the Moon (1990).
Around mid-80s, you started partnering with international filmmakers. How did you get to know and work with Italian-American prime filmmaker, Martin Scorsese?
With J.-J. Annaud’s The Name of the Rose (1986) first, and Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) later, I worked in international productions.
The second one earned me the first Academy Awards nomination. After that outstanding recognition, I received calls to work in Hollywood. However, the first two movies I worked on, never came to fruition.
A key figure in my successful career was Martin Scorsese, whom I had met in Rome, as he came to marry Isabella Rossellini, and, on that occasion, stopped by to Fellini’s set in Cinecittà.
Scorsese called me a first time to work on The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), however I was busy at that time and I had to turn down the offer. Then, the movie was postponed, so he rang me up a second time, but again I was working for another project in Los Angeles.
The third time, Martin offered me to work on The Age of Innocence (1993), and I took the first flight to NYC, eager to finally begin my long-standing professional collaboration with the filmmaker.
From then on, I worked in eight out of his following ten feature films. In a nutshell, here are the steps I usually follow. After reading the screenplay, I draw some sketches and, then, realize the small-scale models to give a three-dimensional idea of the final work. At that point, Martin always tells me: “Welcome aboard, Dante!”
Every time I voiced some concerns that my vision of the scenes might not meet his, Scorsese reassured me not to worry at all. He has always given me complete creative freedom and trust.
Out of my eleven Oscar nominations, four came thanks to my work in Scorsese’s films, and, more importantly, two out of my three statuettes came for Scorsese’s, The Aviator (2004) and Hugo (2011). Also, out of my four BAFTA Awards’ nominations, and four wins, two came for the same Scorsese’s movies.
Since 1981, you’ve been working together with set decorator (as well as your wife) Francesca Lo Schiavo, and, with her, after a long series of nominations, won your first Academy Award for Martin Scorsese’s, The Aviator (2004). Could you share with us something on this outstanding artistic and romantic relationship?
At first, Francesca used to work as interior design for private residences. She wanted to embark into the movie business, but I was skeptical about a husband-wife partnership.
At the end she prevailed and, since Liliana Cavani’s La pelle (1981), she has been putting her strong talent at the service of the seventh art. We’ve always been working side by side and, along the way, our work has received outstanding recognition.
Why, in your opinion, Silence, on which you both worked, didn’t receive the deserved reception from the audience?
I traveled extensively between Canada, New Zealand, North California and Taiwan, to find the perfect location to shoot the movie. At the end, we opted to recreate 17th century Japan, entirely in Taipei, Taiwan. After designing one thousand and eight hundred costumes for Scorsese’s Kundun (1997), I again realized about two thousand costumes for Silence.
Despite Silence generally got positive reviews, some of them even excellent, it wasn’t well received by the audience, partly because of the extreme film’s duration and its challenging themes.
It’s a pity, because it surely deserved a greater appreciation. However, although Scorsese and I are not working together on his upcoming movie, The Irishman, we’re going to collaborate on the next.
What are you working on right now?
Luckily, I’ve never lacked job opportunities. I’m currently working on a musical, as well as a mise-en-scène of W. A. Mozart’s Don Giovanni for the upcoming Spoleto’s Festival of the Two Worlds.