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I Am Love - Tilda Swinton interview

Tilda Swinton in I Am Love

Interview by Rob Carnevale

TILDA Swinton talks about starring in and producing I Am Love, an Italian film about a Russian mother at the centre of a wealthy Italian family who starts to have an affair with the best friend of one of her sons, only to find her life unravelling.

She also talks about creating ‘sensational cinema’, and why she feels she has a very elastic view of movies in general…

Q. In all the time it took for this movie to come together [almost seven years] did winning a Best Actress Oscar for Michael Clayton help with the financing of it?
Tilda Swinton: Well, we’ll never know, but if it did help us then it would be good use for an Oscar in my view. We were always going to make this film, we were working on it for seven years practically, on this story, and we were going to make it the month after I went to the Academy Awards. So I don’t know. Nobody withdrew money afterwards, at least.

Q. How was your Italian going into the project?
Tilda Swinton: It was interior, shall we say. I was always, and I still am to a certain extent, one of those lazy people who spends a lot of time with Italian friends and yet constantly says I don’t speak Italian. Things slow down when I start speaking Italian.

Q. How’s your Russian then?
Tilda Swinton: Better, I have to say, much better than my Italian [smiles].

Q. This is a very sensual film – you can sometimes feel the heat and taste the food… how easy was that to achieve as a performer?
Tilda Swinton: I would say it was very much a part of the project from the beginning… one of the things that Luca and I had been talking about for so long was this idea of a sort of ‘sensational cinema’, cinema that occupies a sensational space not only in terms of the camera but also in terms of its narrative being not driven by dialogue, not narrative or spoken but as I was saying a kind of interior life of the characters’ behaviour, their relationship with temperature, their relationship with texture, all of that being such a cinematic landscape.

And, of course, we think of great masters, like Hitchcock, for example, who works absolutely within this sensational realm. You feel like you can always tell what temperature a room is in a Hitchcock film because the people feel alive, they don’t feel like they’re just being filmed on a stage.

Q. Emma is a woman trapped by her position as a wealthy wife in an Italian dynasty… is there a parallel with a modern actor or actress, who can become trapped in their position of celebrity – something you have done so well to avoid?
Tilda Swinton: What an interesting question! My first response is that I don’t feel that Emma is trapped, particularly. I certainly don’t think that she thinks she’s trapped… this is not the story of a desperate housewife, this is not someone who’s aware that she’s unfulfilled or has any growing up to do. At the beginning of the film I think she’s someone who’s pretty content doing the deal that she set out to do 25 years ago, really to the best of her ability and with a sense of satisfaction. About actors’ lives… I’m not the person to ask. I don’t live an actor’s life and I really don’t know. I probably read less about actors’ lives than you all do. So, I’m in the dark about all of that, sorry.

Q. But you did say some years ago you thought it unlikely you’d ever end up on a celebrity panel show…
Tilda Swinton: You never know, just when it seems like the most unlikely thing it will be irresistible, no doubt.

Q. You spend some scenes in the film naked… was that nerve wracking and did you do anything to prepare for these scenes?
Tilda Swinton: No. It was just me, naked as underneath my clothes right now, as all of you are.

Q. Is there any moral message to the story, or is it more a reflection on the human condition?
Tilda Swinton: I suppose the short answer would be no, I think that both Luca and I have a kind of resistance to the idea of a film holding a moral message because that would exclude so many people from feeling that it was their film and it’s important for a piece of work to feel owned by every member of the audience. But I would say that I think the film is absolutely about nature, it recommends human nature. You don’t need to recommend change, that’s inevitable, it’s the only reliable thing we have.

Tilda Swinton in I Am Love

Q. Were you a very hands on producer and did that change your role on the project?
Tilda Swinton: Honestly, on this film I’m quite out there as a producer, but to be honest the work that a producer does is work that I’ve done for most of my working life. It’s work that I started to do, for example, when I worked with Sally Potter on Orlando. We developed it together over five years. I was not, and am not, officially a producer of that film but the work of what a producer does I learned at that stage and to a certain extent I’ve been a producer ever since. Obviously, with slight ‘holiday’ breaks such as working with Disney or George Clooney!

But there’s no need there to sit with the filmmaker for 11 years to develop the script, or go round the world raising money. But generally speaking that’s the work I’ve always done. It’s more exotic for me to be given a script that’s already written, and be given a pay cheque, and asked to dress up and play, and that’s all. The whole thing of working in collaboration with filmmakers is the thing that I love the most, and possibly the thing I do the best.

Q. Is such a process of collaboration very different on a big budget movie?
Tilda Swinton: I’ve only ever gone into studio films with people I really like… they may not be people I’ve known for 20 years but they’ve always been people I really like and people I like having a conversation with. So, as I say, the work is different in the sense that I haven’t had to travel round the world raising money, or work from the genesis of the project. But the collaboration feels clear always, it’s sort of my drug, I’m in it for the conversation. The conversation’s the most important part of it.

Q. It’s been such a long process bringing this to the screen, does the finished thing meet your expectations?
Tilda Swinton: [Smiles] I would say, and this sounds like a rather immodest thing to say, but the truth is it’s probably the most amazing thing of all, it’s pretty much exactly what I thought we were going to make, what I hoped we’d make. Which isn’t always easy… particularly when you set out to do something as ambitious as this, because we set out to do something with such an overreach of what we were being told we could achieve. It’s pretty much exactly what I’d hoped we were going to make. Sorry, it’s not very interesting to say that.

Q. Will you be working together with [director] Luca Guadagnino again in the future?
Tilda Swinton: We are working together again now. And when I say that it’s taken us 11 years to make this film, what I mean is that it was 11 years ago that we started to talk about a kind of cinema that we wanted to make together. It’s seven years since we talked about this story, but we have a slate of films that we’re interested in making.

I Am Love

Q. Of the sensational cinema type?
Tilda Swinton: That are as good as this… that don’t take as long we hope – although we actually loved the length of time. Eleven years is a great length of time to prepare a movie, it would be wonderful to have 11 years of funded preparation… Eleven years of slightly difficult, not knowing whether it’s going to be another 15, not knowing where you’re going to get the money from, that’s quite tortuous. But if one had 20 years to prepare a movie, funded, wouldn’t that be amazing?

Q. Are you still a patron of the Edinburgh Film Festival, and does that help bring diverse films you admire to the attention of festival audiences?
Tilda Swinton: I don’t think I have a very singular taste, I think I have a very elastic taste but then I think that most proper film fans do. I think that film festivals, we’re very often given to understand, are about filmmakers and about films and about the industry of filmmaking. I don’t believe that they are, I believe that film festivals are about film audiences, and about giving an audience the encouragement to feel really empowered and to stretch the elastic of their taste.

There’s a thing I really mind hearing, when someone says: “That’s not my kind of film, I don’t want to go and see that…” I don’t believe that, I don’t believe that it’s possible to write off a whole genre of filmmaking – “oh I don’t like subtitled films”, or “I don’t like black and white films”, or I don’t like films made before or after, a certain date” – I don’t believe that. I think that a real film fan experience is about a kind of omnivorous experience. And I think the Edinburgh Film Festival – which is a great, August institution and I’m very proud to be associated with it, but I’m associated with it as a fan.

Q. This film being a case in point, we might not identify with the detail but we can empathise with the emotional story can’t we?
Tilda Swinton: I think that’s true of all cinema, that’s why cinema is the great humanistic art form. Whatever the film is, it doesn’t matter what the film is about, or even whether it’s a narrative or figurative film at all, it’s an invitation to step into somebody else’s shoes. Even if it’s the filmmaker’s shoes filming a landscape, you go into somebody else’s shoes and you look out of their lens, you look out of their eyes and their imagination. That’s what going to the pictures is all about.

So yes, you go into the mind, and that’s why I think we wanted to shoot a film in such an exotic milieu, this milieu of this haute bourgeois Milanese society in the way in which we did, to take people really into the personal experience of the characters. What very often happens when people make films about rich people, the camera is quite mesmerised by the opulence and quite theatrical in fact. We wanted to make some kind of intervention with the world and keep it human.

Read our review of I Am Love

Read our interview with Luca Guadagnino