Tetro – BEHIND THE SCENES
BEHIND THE SCENES
The movie “Tetro” is the first original screenplay from Francis Ford Coppola in more than 30 years. The film is a poetic drama about a family torn apart by deep rivalries, secrets, and betrayals.
The bohemian Buenos Aires neighborhood of La Boca is the backdrop for Tetro. One of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, La Boca was inhabited early on largely by Italian immigrants, and is the birthplace of many important singers, musicians, poets, and painters.
Coppola conducted a lengthy search for the film’s protagonist that eventually led him to the intense and imaginative U.S. actor and director, Vincent Gallo (Arizona Dream, Buffalo ’66, The Brown Bunny). Tetro is a writer who returns to Buenos Aires after fleeing from an unbearable family history tied specifically to his domineering father, Carlo Tetrocini, a famed orchestra director, played by Klaus Maria Brandauer (Mephisto, Out of Africa).
Tetro opens with Bennie’s arrival in Buenos Aires from New York City hoping to reunite with his older brother, Tetro, whom he last saw at age 7. Now, just before his 18th birthday, Bennie refuses to leave Buenos Aires without discovering why his brother left and never returned for him as promised. Arriving at his brother’s modest apartment, he meets Miranda, Tetro’s girlfriend, played by Spanish actress Maribel Verdú (Y Tu Mamá También, Pan’s Labyrinth) but doesn’t get the warm welcome he expected from his brother.
Bennie’s story represents a step toward maturity. He finds himself struggling with the romantic, idealized image of his brother as a successful artist, and the reality of the aggressive and tormented person that he encounters in Buenos Aires. Tetro is a melancholic poet, possessed with great talent but also with great sadness. He seems to have lived always in the shadow of someone stronger, someone who has thwarted his development. This story about the competitions and rivalries between men in a family combines classic elements of Greek tragedy, particularly with regards to the vicissitudes of everyday life. It also speaks of the necessity of "destroying" the father figure, who represents cruelty and oppression, and leaving the past behind in order to fulfill one’s own destiny.
Bennie is played by Alden Ehrenreich, a debut actor who, after attracting the attention of Fred Roos, the film’s executive producer, had to temporarily abandon his high school studies in Los Angeles to participate in the shoot.
The international cast also includes the renowned Carmen Maura (Volver, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), known worldwide as being one of the muses of Pedro Almodóvar; and the Italian actress, Francesca De Sapio, who had worked with the director before on The Godfather: Part II.
For supporting roles, Coppola selected some of the most notable Argentine stars of cinema, theater, and television, such as Rodrigo De la Serna, Leticia Bredice, Mike Amigorena, Sofía Castiglione, and Erica Rivas.
For the making of Tetro, Coppola reunited with his collaborators on his previous film, Youth Without Youth: cinematographer Mihai Malamaire, Jr.; Argentine composer, Osvaldo Golijov; editor Walter Murch, and executive producers Anahid Nazarian and Fred Roos.
FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA – In His Own Words
“Ever since I was young, I wanted to write stories. Initially, I imagined myself as a playwright, and at 17 won a playwriting scholarship to college, and became a drama major. But I think at that age your critical abilities are better developed than your creativity, and so I was forlorn over my lack of talent. I became the ‘tech guy’ for my college productions and as I worked with the crew up in the grid, hanging lights, I’d watch the director below working with actors, and thought that ‘I can do that’. My switch to directing was a success and before I knew it I was the most sought-after director at Hofstra. But that success didn’t relieve the ache over what I perceived as my lack of talent as a writer. Later on, after seeing the Sergei Eisenstein silent film OCTOBER, I changed directions, applied to the UCLA film school, and began my Master’s program as a film major.
I found that after years of trying to be a writer, of spending hours working on stories, plays and screenplays, the effort was paying off and I was getting better at it. A little better. This gave me an advantage over some of the students, as did my theatrical experience. Finally, at age 27, when I won the award for my script Pilma, Pilma, I started to really feel like a writer and I knew what my career would be. In my late 20s, I was working on screenplays like THE RAIN PEOPLE, and THE CONVERSATION, somewhat based on experiences I either had or witnessed in my life and thought I’d be a writer-director like some of the great auteurs. LA DOLCE VITA came out in 1960, and then the more mysterious work of Antonioni, and I was sure that I wanted to follow in their footsteps, working on original screenplays. That’s how I envisioned my life. Just write stories, make screenplays and then direct them. In particular, I wanted to write a drama similar to the ones that I had enjoyed in my youth, something emotional and personal along the lines of Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, or anything by Tennessee Williams. THE GODFATHER changed all that, and before I knew it I was far more successful than I could ever have imagined, and yes — I was writing the screenplays as well as directing (and producing) the films, but it wasn’t what I had really intended. What I wanted was to write ‘original’ screenplays.
As I grew older, whether I changed or the ‘film industry’ changed, I questioned my desire to continue and did not make a movie for many years. Of course I realized that films had to be entertaining, as did plays in theater — but I was repelled by the ‘sameness’ of movies, the lack of adventure and the overwhelming succession of remakes and sequels — from old films, comic books, even television programs. Or in publishing, it seemed that there weren’t new novels, only new ‘bestsellers.’ So clearly, things had changed, and I really couldn’t find a place for myself. Nor did I have a hint of how I’d finance and distribute the kinds of films I did want to make, even if I could muster the resources necessary to keep on writing. I finally decided that Youth Without Youth, a more personal film, but based on an existing novella, would be a way to get the ball rolling again. I knew that the experience would prepare me to write an original story and produce a film with the same style and production budget as Youth Without Youth.
I already had a fragment of an idea of what eventually became TETRO. It was really only a page or two of notes that I had written a long time ago. It was about a younger brother searching for an older brother who had left the family in a huff, claiming he never wanted to see them again. I wanted to set the film in a foreign city, and chose Buenos Aires because I thought that I would enjoy living and working there. I liked the music, the food, and the culture. So I took this little fragment of a story, set it in Argentina, and began to write the screenplay while we were editing Youth Without Youth. By the time we had finished, I was ready to go with a new film.
We began filming on March 28th and shot for thirteen weeks with a predominantly Argentine cast and crew. There were two Americans actors, Vincent Gallo and Alden Ehrenreich; two fine Spanish actresses, Maribel Verdú and Carmen Maura; an Italian actress, Francesca De Sapio; and the well-known Austrian actor, Klaus Maria Brandauer. The remainder of the large supporting cast was Argentine.
I felt comfortable with our crew because, like many people in the world, they spoke English, and those who didn’t spoke Italian or Spanish. The language of cinema and theater is universal–whether one works in the Chinese or Italian film industries–there’s a certain language that everyone speaks that transcends one’s native language. At first, many of the roles that I had written for Argentine actors were minor ones, but I admired the actors so much that I made their parts bigger.
I decided to collaborate with the same team that I had worked with on Youth Without Youth: the young cinematographer, Mihai Malamaire, Jr.; the Argentine composer, Osvaldo Golijov; editor Walter Murch; and executive producers Anahid Nazarian and Fred Roos.
An original screenplay has themes drawn from your own life and for any filmmaker, through the process of making a movie you arrive at a better understanding of those issues, even if you still might not have all the answers. In TETRO, the principal theme involves the rivalry between the men of an artistic family — the father, brothers, uncles, and nephews who are all, in their own way, trying to express their talents and personalities. The fact that it is rivalry within a family — that is, between people who love each other — makes it complicated and dramatic.
Even though the story of TETRO has little to do with the story of my own life, the characters all embody parts of me. I wrote a completely fictitious story that nonetheless drew on memories from my family. It was heavily influenced by those films and plays that I had admired as a theater student and aspiring playwright. As in the theatrical tradition of Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, or even in Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms, the father figure in Tetro is, in a sense, a "Biblical" father, cruel and domineering , someone who must be ultimately destroyed if his sons are to survive. Since the beginning of time and even within the animal kingdom, we all have been in competition with the most powerful men of the family. My own father wasn’t like that, he was kind and inspiring, but because he was brilliant and somewhat vain, it was just a few more steps to turn into a monster.
From the moment I conceived this film, I imagined it in black and white. As the story took shape, I decided scenes set in the past should be filmed in color. I wanted it filmed that way because one rarely sees black and white in contemporary films anymore, and I’ve always thought there was something unique in the black and white image, certainly the lighting. I remember Akira Kurosawa films in Cinemascope black and white, as well as the films of Elia Kazan and Robert Bresson. In my mind I associate black and white with a certain kind of poetic drama.
While one could look to my own family to shed light on the film’s themes, these themes will most likely be of interest to any family, since such rivalries exist in all families. I’ve always believed that if you’re going to go through all the work it takes to make a film, it should be a film that is somewhat revealing about your thoughts and emotions, which are truly who you are.”
VISUAL STYLE OF THE FILM
“I don’t often get the opportunity to do films in black and white," Coppola said. "They require a very different lighting philosophy, since you don’t have color to separate the differing layers in the frame. Having worked with Mihai Malamaire before in color, I thought that we would both enjoy this new challenge.”
Coppola had made only one other film in black and white: Rumble Fish (1983). Based on the novel by Susie Hinton, Rumble Fish tells the story of two brothers. Rusty James (Matt Dillon) is a teenager whose street credibility rises thanks to the legendary reputation of his brother, the enigmatic and charismatic “Motorcycle Boy” (Mickey Rourke). Rusty James dreams about being like his brother and returning to the days when gangs meant everything. After some family secrets about their mother are revealed, the brothers decide to change their lives forever. “I like the fact that Rumble Fish has, in a way, a spiritual connection to Tetro. So I thought it would be ideal if they were both shot in black and white,” Coppola stated.
Coppola decided to base the movie’s black and white visual style on the masterworks that he had admired during his student years. "Mihai and I watched many beautiful films together, studying the styles of La Notte (1961) by Michelangelo Antonioni, Baby Doll (1956) and On the Waterfront (1954) by Elia Kazan. From these films, we settled on a very vivid and contrasted black and white look."
Scene from On the Waterfront
Elia Kazan (Istanbul 1909 – New York 2003) is remembered as one of the most influential directors of the 1950s and 1960s. His first films were expertly staged theatrical works that were firmly rooted in the director’s own theatrical background. Starting with Panic in the Streets (1950) and On the Waterfront, Kazan adopted a new visual sensibility based on a realism that was defined
by carefully studied compositions, the arrangement of the masses, angularity, and the use of chiaroscuro.
Similar to Rumble Fish, Tetro also contains parts in color. In the movie, the flashbacks were filmed in a sort of “washed-out color, like the color in home movies,” Coppola said. “There’s also the fact that the movie was shot in wide screen. Kurosawa used both black and white and wide screen in his films. All those great and creative filmmakers loved black and white. Mihai and I also picked up with an idea that we experimented with in Youth Without Youth: a camera that rarely moves. In ninety percent of Tetro, the camera is stationary. I think that the combination of wide screen and a very contrasted and classic black and white style with occasional bursts of color give the film added impact.”
A FILM ABOUT CONTRASTS
One of the biggest challenges for Mihai Malaimare, Jr. was filming in black and white. At first, it was surprising for him to see the traditional Buenos Aires neighborhood of La Boca — famous for its eye-popping mixture of primary colors — bathed in shades of white, gray, and black. “I thought it was great because nobody had shown it like that. Before I arrived here, I was searching the internet, and when I saw those colors, I got really excited,” the director of photography explained. “In black and white, you have to be careful with the framing, with the light and shadow. Even if you’re not conscious of those things, viewers will be more conscious of what they see in terms of composition. With color it’s easier to trick viewers. So at first you might think it’s easier to shoot in black and white, but it’s actually more difficult because you have to do more with composition and light and shadow to make up for the things that you can’t express with color.”
Coppola sought to achieve a very contrasted black and white style, similar to the movies that he’d watched during his youth. “We were looking for a certain high contrast,” Malaimare explained. “The negative in the 1960s was very specific. In modern cinema there are plenty of directors of photography that use soft light. But from the beginning we aimed for high contrast. We had a very powerful backlight that allowed us to have a very high contrast in black and white.”
Malaimare worked with Cecilia Monti, the costume designer, to determine how the colors and textures of the clothing would look in black and white. Monti said, “It was great when Mihai told me that we were going to use pure shades of black and white, which is unusual in a color film. We achieved an interesting effect that opened up many possibilities. The fabrics with more texture and luster printed better than others, which is to say, the effect was different. The color tests were arduous. Depending on the degree of saturation, there were some colors that looked very similar in black and white. We had to assemble a diverse palette of grays in order to determine which shade to use for each character.” Monti wanted the clothing styles for Bennie and Tetro to reflect certain aspects of their personalities. Bennie, the idealistic, enthusiastic, curious, and slightly naïve younger brother, wears clear, bright colors on-screen. In contrast, the moodier Tetro dresses in dark clothes with rich textures, such as leather and chamois leather.
This play of contrasts — between light and dark, between the brothers’ distinctive lifestyles, between opposing worlds — is also reflected in the music. While coming up with the film score for Tetro, the Argentine musician Osvaldo Golijov, who had collaborated with Coppola on his previous film, Youth Without Youth, initially worked in the United States during the filming process before then traveling to Buenos Aires to work with the director once the shoot had concluded.
In his correspondences with Golijov, Coppola insisted on using symphonic jazz, similar to the soundtrack for A Streetcar Named Desire. In Golijov’s words: “After working for several weeks in the U.S. on that kind of music, I came to Buenos Aires and watched the film four times with Francis. During our discussions, we came up with the idea of capturing what our sound engineer called ‘nostalgic optimism.'”
When it came time to compose the principal sections of the film score, Golijov took into account, on the one hand, Tetro’s dark personality and his wounds from the past; and, on the other hand, the start of a journey that will change Benny’s life. The resulting score mixes nostalgia with pain, while maintaining a tinge of optimism. In addition, according to Golijov: “We had to capture the city’s unique vitality. There’s this beautiful group of characters, all played by Argentine actors. They’re like the champagne of the movie, what propels it forward.”
The film’s soundtrack ultimately fused classical music with the milonga and rhythms from the Argentine countryside, such as the chamamé. In general, Golijov tried to avoid using tango in the Astor Piazzola style, “which is amazing but too specific.” The cheeriness of the milonga and the chamamé contrasts with the seriousness of the symphonic music that accompanies Carlo Tetroccini, Tetro’s father. The intensity of this music definitively takes over the film during the final twenty minutes.
“The score of Youth Without Youth was almost like a symphonic rhythm. That movie was at once very musical and very fluid. In contrast, Tetro has much greater fluctuations in tempo. Everything has more contour, so to speak,” Golijov explained. “Youth Without Youth was more… not so much impressionist but diffuse because sometimes you couldn’t tell what was happening or if what was happening was a dream or a memory. In Tetro, there’s no mist, everything is clear. It’s almost as if you could sketch it. So, in a sense, I feel that the movie gives birth to the music.”