Joe Bob Chats Up Asia Argento
Argento punctuates her sentences with the word "yeah," but she does it in infinite ways. She has a soft thoughtful "yeeeaaah," a sharp energetic "yeah!," an inquisitive "yeah" when she's not so sure about something, and a stentorian "yeah" when she absolutely agrees.
The daughter of Dario Argento, the legendary Italian horror director, Asia (pronounced "AH-see-a") is the writer/director/star of "Scarlet Diva," a trilingual film (Italian/French/English) that's her own coming-of-age story. It's about an actress named Anna Battista who, like Asia, grows up in movies, lives a wild international life, falls into an impossible love affair with a lying musician, and sees the darkest side of the film industry. Anna Battista, like Asia, has one goal: to become a director and escape from a life that is making her more and more like her self-involved drug-addicted actress mother. When her agent implores her to meet with sleazy American producers and get more film roles, she screams, "I don't want to be an actress! Actresses in Italy are bitches!" Guess what?
Asia is living in El Lay now, appearing in the number one box office hit "XXX" opposite Vin Diesel, while "Scarlet Diva" languishes in a handful of art houses across the country. I was worried about her. Surely the scarlet diva hadn't become the tinsel diva. I called her up and we chatted.
JBB: Asia, you're cool.
JBB: And more important, your movie is cool.
JBB: One of the best of the year.
AA: Wait. Which movie?
JBB: "Scarlet Diva"! Your movie! You think I would ask you about Vin Diesel's movie?
AA: Oh, good.
JBB: We're gonna do an interview. I never do interviews. And I notice that your character in your movie, Anna Battista, doesn't even like interviews. Are you okay with it?
AA: Yes, it depends on the person. I think what I was saying there is that interviews are tricky, because you always try to make yourself look good with your words. And my perception of "good" is a bit strange--I don't know what's good!--so I don't know if what I say makes me look good or just crazy.
JBB: Crazy is probably good here. But you have that sequence at the beginning of the movie where Anna Battista gets hit with so many media questions it seems almost assaultive--
JBB: --and so I wondered whether you'd gone through that.
AA: No, it's just the repetition of impossible questions about life, questions that don't make much sense, and I wanted to make fun of that, to exorcise that.
JBB: We'll stay away from all impossible questions about life. So are all actresses in Italy bitches?
AA: Yeah, well, just look around. It's not that they're bitches, but they have to be--and I do that, too--to sell their products, their beauty products. While they have it. And then when they lose that, what's there to show?
JBB: All famous actresses tend to be beautiful, not just in Italy. Is there something about Italy that's more cheesecakey?
AA: I think so. I think in the U.S. there are different movies with women who are beautiful but don't need to use only that. And there are roles that are written for girls that are beautiful in different ways than only on-the-surface beauty.
JBB: Here you were, writing and directing and starring in a movie about a woman in a man's world. In the Italian film industry--
JBB: --which has got to be so macho--
AA: Totally like that.
JBB: So as a director, do you kick ass? Are you a tough girl with all those guys working for you?
AA: Yeah, I had to be. Sometimes I would go home, and I was like 23 when I did the movie, or 24, I turned 24 during the shooting, and I'd go home all alone and like sleep in this big bed and felt really like a little girl and then know that the next day I had to be the tough girl again all day long. Because I would work with guys, some older guys, 60-year-old guys, and in order to respect me, I had to be a mean masculine figure. And you know, sometimes treat them roughly, and sometimes be nice--but mostly roughly. And I really didn't enjoy that. But that worked! Anything that would have them work as fast as possible, since we didn't have much money to do the film. An Italian crew tends to be a little lazy. It's true. So I had to whip them a little bit to get them going. So sometimes I felt that I had to use my male energy a bit too much.
JBB: Where did you find these very distinctive actors?
AA: All the casting I did out of complete instinct. I was in tune with a stronger energy that was telling me this person was right for this, even though maybe they had never worked in movies before.
JBB: So these weren't people you'd known before? I thought they were probably your friends.
AA: No. All the people I had worked with before betrayed me on this. All the friends. So-called friends. They betrayed me when I was going to shoot, because they wanted money, they wanted other things. So all of them didn't do my movie. All my friends. All the friends I asked to be in the movie.
JBB: That's terrible!
AA: Yeah, I know, that's really good. It's a good lesson.
JBB: Was everyone working for deferred salaries?
JBB: Did you have open auditions for this?
AA: No, I didn't audition anybody, since in my life I had had to go through that weird process of auditioning. And I went with my instincts, and knowing that everybody can be a great actor. If you believe, they'll believe. And I believed in these people. And these people were not actors, most of them.
AA: Yeah! None of them, almost. The ones that were, were not ONLY actors, like my mother. So for me, yes, it was important, the face and their energy--like the guy who plays Kirk, he had never acted before. He was a musician. I didn't test him. But I knew that his energy was so vain, like the character, that I knew he was right. When I saw his picture, I had this tingle and I knew he was the one.
JBB: So how did you put this movie together? How did you start?
AA: It was very difficult. I started by writing it. My father was really encouraging when I was writing. He was the only person who was encouraging me and believed in the movie. I was writing a different movie before this which I researched for a year. A war movie set during the First World War. But it was too ambitious. And then the story of "Scarlet Diva" came to me one night. It was taken from a book I had written called "I Love You, Kirk." And the structure, or the non-structure, of the book, inspired me to write "Scarlet Diva." And then, like, I wrote it very quickly, because I couldn't live. I was really depressed. I couldn't go out of my apartment. So for like two months and a half I wrote the movie and I never went out. I was always in my pajamas. My father would bring me food, because I couldn't go out of my apartment. And then when I wrote it, I thought, because people knew me, it would have been easier to find the little finance I needed for the movie. But everybody in Italy turned it down, all the major companies. And then finally we found this company called Minerva, that it was like the first movie they ever produced--so after many months of waiting and desperation and knowing that if I didn't do this movie I would never act again--
JBB: Whoa! Never act again?
AA: I don't know, it was like I didn't want to act anymore. And actually this movie made me appreciate the acting thing again, since acting is much easier and much quicker. I don't know if it's more rewarding. Actually I don't think it is. It's just easier.
JBB: Did you show your father the script while you were writing it?
AA: Yeah, he was the only person I showed the script to. And he would never say like "Cut this" or "Add that." He was just, "Yeah, this is good, go ahead, I like this a lot." Then when the movie was finished, since he was the producer, he didn't agree with the ending, but then I kept it the way I wanted it to be.
JBB: How did he think it should end?
AA: He wanted like some happy ending, that you saw her and the baby.
JBB: I don't think it's UNhappy, do you?
AA: No! I think it's totally open, and I like the fact that everybody can see whatever they want. It's really an interactive ending. If you want to see her with a guy, or with God, or with her baby, or losing the baby, or maybe she's dead--everybody can make a romantic ending.
JBB: You ARE your father's daughter. Did your father teach you anything about writing or directing?
AA: Yeah, I think so. But it's not like he taught me, but maybe it's in the genetic code. And the way he concentrates. I do that, the same thing. We stare at a white wall. And he doesn't need many things to get his inspiration. It's all inside. I do the same. I don't need to look into the world to find my inspiration.
JBB: When you were growing up, did he ever put restrictions on what you were allowed to see?
AA: No, never. And not even on what I was allowed to DO. I had a lot of freedom growing up.
JBB: So how old would you have been when "Demons" came out, for example?
AA: The one I was in?
AA: Uh, I was ten years old.
JBB: And he had no problem with you seeing that?
AA: No no. But I was watching movies, these movies when I was five or six. And I was fascinated by them. So I wanted to be part of them. And when I was doing "Demons," I wasn't scared. I was scared, but not in an unhealthy way.
JBB: In the movie, why does Anna have a mother but no father?
AA: Yeah, that too. For many reasons. First of all, in my childhood, my father was not very present. And I like the fact that the father is not even mentioned. Also maybe because my father was one of the only good things in my life, one of the only good people, one of the only people who never betrayed me. And he's a guy, too. And I wanted to save him by not putting him in the movie.
JBB: Because all the guys in the movie are baaaaaad.
AA: Right. Except for my gay friend in LA.
JBB: How much of it is autobiographical?
AA: The percentage?
AA: One hundred per cent.
JBB: One hundred per cent?
AA: Sure, but things that you see are not how they happened. Every character is like ten different people that I know. And everythng is like a mixture of a million different thngs, and not necessarily things that I have lived--maybe things that people around me have lived and that I fantasized about and made my story of it. But I would say one hundred per cent. It had to be like that.
JBB: At the time of this movie, how famous were you in Italy? Do guys chase you for autographs, like the guys in the diner scene?
AA: Yeah. I think as famous as can be.
JBB: And so was that oppressive to you or did you love it?
AA: It was kind of oppressive because I was not happy. So I lived in this state. I see many people around me who are famous-- also out here, wherever--it's just a very paranoid state, when you're a fragile person, and most actors, artists are fragile, and so I see people getting really really paranoid because they're not free and everybody's looking. But I'm better now. I'm not paranoid. I sort of enjoy it. I can look at people in the eyes, and I'm not scared.
JBB: So maybe you wouldn't run away from the guys in the diner now?
AA: Well, I wouldn't wanna spend the day with them.
JBB: What is an oblique personality?
AA: It's something that's not straightforward. It gets to the point, but never straightforward, always around it.
JBB: And that's you.
AA: Yeah. Everything about me is very oblique and crooked.
JBB: Because you don't know what you want?
AA: No, I know what I want. It's just that it's very hard for me to relate with other people.
JBB: For your first movie, and for not having much money, you went to a LOT of locations. Did you GO to all these places?
JBB: Rome and Milan and Paris and Amsterdam and London and LA, plus one little scene in Locarno? Did you go to Locarno, too?
AA: Yeah. But the thing is, the funny thing is, we shot all the interiors in Rome, and the exteriors only are shot all over the world. It was beautiful. We found places that would match, and then like at the end when we finished the shooting, me and the DP travelled all over the world stealing shots. Because, of course, we didn't have the money for, for example, the shot on the plane. Who would have the money to do that? So we shot it in digital. We stole it.
JBB: Did you feel it was important to spread the story all over the planet like that?
AA: Yeah, it was the way the story was conceived. And I couldn't see it any other way. The story wouldn't work without that. I think that's the most powerful thing in the movie, the travelling, the fact that it's real places, and the different languages. But, like, in Italy, they DUBBED the movie. They forced me to dub the movie completely in Italian, which was really painful for me.
JBB: What is it, like an Italian law or something?
AA: Well, Italians are just lazy. They don't want to read the subtitles.
JBB: The movie is VERY fast. The camera is fast. Your cutting is very fast. It makes me NERVOUS.
AA: Yeah! Impatient!
JBB: So you like that?
AA: Yeah, that's me. I'm very impatient. My life is very scattered. It's all over the place. And my mind is, too. My concentration span is very very fast. So the stories that I write reflect this state of mind.
JBB: The "love book" that Anna writes in--
JBB: Did you keep a book like that?
AA: Yeah! It was called "The Book of Sorrow." And it was something that I really loved that I did over the course of a year while writing the book and then writing the script and then while shooting the movie. And it's filled with my poetry and my art and my hair and my blood and everything.
JBB: And is that the actual book we see in the closing credits?
AA: Yeah, it's the book that I did for the real "Kirk" guy. Obviously his name is not Kirk. He's a New York-based musician. And he was like the big love of my life, my big obsession. And at the time I shot the movie, we were still on and off together. And then when the movie was over, after I finished shooting "The Book of Sorrow," I gave it to him, but I think he threw it away. Because then he left me. So this book doesn't exist anymore.
JBB: Did you send "Kirk" the movie?
AA: No, I never saw him again. I tried to invite him when we had the premiere in New York, but he didn't wanna come, he didn't wanna see me. Maybe he's seen it now, I don't know, but it was really for him that I did this movie, so I'll always be grateful. I'll always love him for that, just for that.
JBB: Everybody in your movie has sex, or wants to have sex, but there's always something wrong with it. It's forced, or violent, or somebody's trying to buy somebody else. And then the only nice sex scene turns bitter later on. Are you fairly cynical in this area?
AA: Yeah, fairly cynical. To tell you the truth, I'm not even very interested in sex. If I do it, I think I do it well and I enjoy it. But I don't do it very much. It's a negative in the movie because I used to use sex to get a quick and fake intimacy, something that was so quick to get and it wasn't real. So now I don't do that anymore.
JBB: So you went through the same transformation that Anna went through?
JBB: All the women in the movie are a little crazy--like Veronica, and Quelou, and Anna's agent, and Anna's mother. Would you agree that the women are kind of "off"?
AA: Well, maybe the women that I like.
JBB: You like their craziness.
AA: Yeah. I do. I do. But remember that all the characters in the movie are me. It's like a dream. In a dream all the people you meet are only a refraction of yourself, and what this person represents in you. So I'm all the crazy women!
JBB: Even Veronica?
AA: No, I never liked violence. I don't know why, but some guys I have been with thought that I was like that--because they think I'm so tough. But I really don't like violence. As a matter of fact, I find it quite disgusting. No, that was actually, that story, the girl tied to the bed, happened to a friend of mine. A friend of me and Vera, who plays Veronica.
JBB: Really, tied up for two days?
AA: Three, as a matter of fact.
JBB: Three days she was like that?
AA: Yeah, but she wasn't like that. She was chained like on one wrist, with long chains in this house, so she could go to the bathroom and she could eat, but she couldn't reach the phone or the door.
JBB: Wow. And all the men in the movie are little boys--like Barry, and the guy in London, and the director in Amsterdam. Would you agree?
AA: Yeeeeeaaaah. I don't think that I know many men, real guys. I think guys become interesting mentally after they're 40, around 45, guys I can have a conversation with, be fun with it. Before, there are always little tricks, little games, children's games that guys play that aren't very interesting to me.
JBB: Drugs--lots of drugs in this movie. With bad results. People warped by drugs. Do you feel strongly about that?
AA: Yeah, I don't like drugs. And people think that I'm this debauched girl. But I really don't like it, I think it's really a loss of time, and a loss of soul. So I tend not to do that.
JBB: In this key phone conversation that Anna has with Kirk, why does Kirk say "I don't care what happens to me, Anna"?
JBB: Because it seems to come out of nowhere and doesn't seem to relate to anything you'd said.
AA: Yeah, because it was something that Kirk used to tell me. He was very dramatic. I mean the real Kirk. He was very dramatic, and always this possibility of death. A romantic hero would say something like this, where death is always a possibility. So "Even if I die tomorrow!" All this childish romantic code for lovers. "If I die, I'll love you the more."
JBB: So you were using real things he had said?
AA: Yeah, he hated that. He didn't want me to do that.
JBB: He didn't want you to use that?
JBB: So you talked to him about this?
AA: Yeah, I did. He was really uncomfortable with it, but knew that it was necessary for me.
JBB: Okay, I want to ask you about two specific scenes. One is where you're standing in front of the makeup mirror and you apply all your makeup and then destroy it.
JBB: I felt the truth of that moment, but I want to know what you think about it, or what you felt when you were doing it.
AA: That's like everything that's there. Everything is shown there, where my character really stands. Because it's a very intimate moment. Something that I don't share with people. I don't have ANYBODY see me putting makeup on--naked, ugly. Ugly. There's nothing flattering about that moment. And the only moment in which I'm pretty, all made up, it lasts one second and then I destroy it. And so it tells you very clearly where I stand. All the loneliness and the mask. Girls, but also guys who love girls, would understand this moment--when you're alone in front of the mirror and you don't even recognize yourself. There's nothing more desperate than that.
JBB: So you don't know who you are.
AA: Not really. I can recognize something, but it's too sad to look.
JBB: Do you feel better now?
AA: Yeah, much better.
JBB: The other scene is the ending. First of all, great job of running in heels. I've never seen someone run that fast in heels. Second, I felt Anna was going to be okay at the end.
AA: Good. Me, too.
JBB: But it was a strangely religious ending.
JBB: It didn't seem to relate to anything previous in the movie. Can you tell me what you feel she understands at that moment about love?
AA: Yeah, well, that life goes beyond her, and life goes on, and seeing the Virgin Mary, who was not a saint, she's a woman, and she carries life and gives birth, and that child who is sucking her milk and looking at her reminds her that she's human, and she's going upstairs, up toward many things. So she's ascending, toward pure things. I don't know if it's God or whatever, but she sees something bigger than herself. All the movie is about herself. Her her her. And her self-obsession. Then she comes out of herself for once, and she's saved.
JBB: Would it be accurate to say that she goes through three stages--at the beginning, mindless sex for the thrill of it, then a true love that becomes an impossible love, and then at the end another kind of love?
AA: Yeah! Yeah! At the first, it's not really even about sex. It's really just like a way for her to feel something. And then at the end she sees something better than Kirk.
JBB: But it's so traditional, and religious, and Italian. And we're not ready for that, because of the first hour and a half.
AA: Yeah, well, I've always liked the Virgin Mary iconography, yeah, what the Virgin Mary represents. I always liked the Christian symbolism, but just as an aesthetic. But for me the Virgin Mary . . . I love her. Giving birth, that life continues.
JBB: Are you going to make more movies?
AA: Yeah! I have to! If I give up and be just an actress, I will not be able to survive. Yeah. I'm much happier directing, it's something that makes me feel alive.
JBB: I'm glad to hear that, because when I heard you lived in El Lay now, I assumed that meant you have a big greedy Hollywood agent who is telling you to make a bunch of American blockbusters.
AA: I don't think so. I don't think it would be possible for me. I already have, I am writing now my new script, I have a story which I am going to do in America, but it's a very, how shall I put it, controversial story. And I'm lucky enough to have found people who are crazy enough to finance this movie. It's actually a J.T. Leroy book called "The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things," and I can't wait to do that. But maybe I'll have to do another movie as an actress before I do that.
JBB: You're acting in order to have more money?
AA: Yeah, not to put my money in the movie, but to have enough money so that I can spend one year off of the acting jobs.
JBB: And is your father still helping you with your filmmaking?
AA: No. I think it's time to cut the umbilical cord. Very painful, but I really feel it's necessary.
JBB: Sounds like your relationship is different now.
AA: Yeah. I think he's a bit angry with me because I'm not going to do his movie as an actress. It's heartbreaking, but I think it's necessary.
So now I'm still worried. I don't know which would be more interesting, a movie written by Asia Argento and directed by Dario Argento, or vice versa, but I hope the family somehow hangs together, because THAT I would pay to see.