When 19-year-old actress Maria Schneider agreed to perform the leading role in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1972 film, “Last Tango in Paris”, there was no rape scene in the original script. The actress told The Daily Mail in 2007 that the particularly brutal scene was added last-minute during filming, when Bertolucci and Maria’s co-star Marlon Brando (thirty years her senior) decided that it was integral to the story. Bertolucci and Brando infamously colluded in pressuring and manipulating Maria into performing a scene that she was uncomfortable with and had not agreed to. In 2013, during a workshop with filmmaking students, Bertolucci admitted to lying to Maria and said that he was intentionally trying to humiliate her on set; he said that he felt guilty about it, but that he didn’t regret his actions.
When “Last Tango in Paris” premiered at the New York Film Festival in 1972, it was broadly proclaimed “the greatest erotic masterpiece of all time,” garnering Oscar nominations for Bertolucci and Brando. Today, in the wake of #MeToo, the narrative surrounding the film is much more nuanced. Filmmaker Elisabeth Subrin (“Shulie”, “The Caretakers”) is dedicated to making sure that the world recognizes and understands Maria Schneider as an artist, not just a teenage victim of misogyny.
In early 2020, Subrin was in Paris conducting research on Maria Schneider for a feature-length film when she discovered a 1983 interview the French actress gave for TV show Cinéma Cinémas. The conversation took an unexpected turn when Maria challenged film industry practices. The subtleties of the interview stuck out to Subrin; the tension and aggression the interviewer directed at Maria contrasts with the dignity and unflinching composure she maintained, inspiring Subrin to create an experimental short film based on the interview.
The short, titled “MARIA SCHNEIDER, 1983”, made its World Premiere at the 2022 Cannes Quinzaine des réalisateurs. Actresses Manal Issa, Aïssa Maïga and Isabel Sandoval all take a turn at recreating the interview by playing Maria Schneider. Together, they not only perform Maria’s words and gestures, but inhabit Maria through their own identities. Each performance is distinct and varied, and reflects the ways in which many women have been silenced by the film industry. CinemaFemme spoke to Subrin over the phone to discuss her experience making the film.
The short film “MARIA SCHNEIDER, 1983” by acclaimed New York filmmaker Elisabeth Subrin (“A Woman, A Part”) had its North American Premiere at NYFF 2022. The film previously had its World Premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.
In your press notes, you mention that the more you researched Maria, the more complexities and contradictions you found, ones “rarely addressed in the repetitive, reductive narrative that’s been spun around her.” For viewers who are unfamiliar with Maria’s legacy, can you give an explanation of that repetitive narrative as opposed to what you discovered about her yourself?
Well, I think the most repetitive thing is that in every single obituary, everyone, even people who love Maria, said that her life was ruined by [“Last Tango in Paris”]. So we’re talking about a 19-year-old, who lived until she was 58, and people literally said to her face and in front-page obituaries, that this woman spent the next 40 years of her life ruined.
Which is… the level of sadism in that… I mean, I’ve watched interviews where she was in her late forties to early fifties, where the journalist literally said, ‘So Tango ruined your life.’ Said that to her face. Which, to me, is just jaw-droopingly cruel. But I would say beyond cruelty, that it’s simply not true.
This woman made films her entire life, she was in a long-term relationship with a woman for 31 years, she had friends, she traveled, she loved many things – her life was not ruined by the film. Did it have a profound impact on her understanding of the world, on the choices that she made? Did it scar her? Yes, of course it did, but it didn’t ruin her life. [There was a] lack of interest in understanding, or in considering who she was, and a kind of outrageous presumption that someone could be described like that.
What inspired you to choose a short film format for this project, and specifically one with an experimental structure?
I hadn’t planned on making a short about Maria, this was a pandemic detour that became a lot bigger than I thought it was gonna be. I went to Paris on a Fulbright [fellowship] to immerse myself for eight months in archival research interviews, to do research for a feature on Maria – that started in January, 2020, in Paris, and by the end of March I was back in the U.S., the Fulbright Fellowship had been canceled. But I met a producer while I was there and pitched a short, because I had seen this interview in an archives and got obsessed with it, in a way that I hadn’t really experienced since the footage that my film “Shulie” is based on, where I was like, ‘Why am I watching this interview over and over?’ The more I watched it, the more I saw in it. I hadn’t had that visceral of an experience with archival footage in 20 years, where my impulse was just like, ‘There are other layers of this that I want to work with.’ So, anyway, I didn’t know I was making the film that I made, the research was actually for what I’m working on now, which is a feature.
I guess with any film I make, the form or the length – whether it’s going to be a theatrically-released feature or something that’s in a gallery – is really dependent on what I’m trying to talk about. So whatever the conceptual ideas behind it, I use a form that feels appropriate for that.
In this film I was really interested in how this conversation has continued over time, and how we’re having a different relationship to the words that Maria is speaking. The portraiture and biography of a person’s life gets transmitted through that person – or the biography of a person’s life is kind of a living text, where it keeps getting rewritten depending on the different historical contexts it’s in. So for example, a biography of Thomas Jefferson in the 19th century versus the 20th century versus the 21st century would probably be written in very different ways, that reflect the cultural climate we’re in, the different types of research we’ve acquired and different perspectives.
People’s biographies keep changing, and we’re bringing to them different things. Just like, you know, Tango was considered the greatest erotic masterpiece of all time when it premiered literally fifty years ago this week at the New York Film Festival. And now – some people still feel that way, but there’s a very different conversation about that film. So having it interpreted by multiple actresses was not just about addressing different issues regarding identity and representation in 1983 versus 2003 or 2023, but was also intended to [raise the issue of] how identity is shaped through the world around us, and therefore how biography is shaped from forces outside ourselves as well. So the repetition was really critical to talk about that. The repetition and the variation.
I was struck by what she said about how producers hold the ultimate power in casting – we understand what that means now, with #MeToo and the Harvey Weinstein case, our society has a better understanding of what’s going on behind the scenes, but it must have been so isolating for her to say these things in 1983.
Oh yeah – no actress [back then] would say that. Her courage and her critique of the industry, which she was doing even in the ‘70s, when she was basically a teenager after Tango. She was taking huge risks with her career and professional life.
One of the things that stands out to me about the way Bertolucci manipulated Maria, is that he’s basically admitting that he didn’t believe himself capable of directing her into an honest performance. He had to rely on lies and manipulation to direct her. As a director yourself, what is your approach to working with actors? What tools do you use, and what would you have done in Bertolucci’s place, assuming you had to ask an actor to perform an uncomfortable scene (and assuming that they had agreed to the scene in the first place).
I came from an avant garde background, so when I started making narrative films, directing actors was something I was nervous about, something I had not been trained to do in art school. So I studied with a few different teachers, really great ones – Judith Weston and Joan Scheckel in L.A., and then Adrienne Weiss in New York, Adrienne in particular, I learned immensely from her workshops. I think that of all the legendary Western acting coaches/theorists I would say that Sanford Meisner is what Adrienne is pulling from the most in terms of how to work with actors. To be really reductive, I would say that Adrienne and Meisner’s approach is relational, that everything is in relationship to your scene partner.
In the case of [“MARIA SCHNEIDER, 1983”] we had talked about not even casting an actress to play the interviewer, but instead just having someone stand in, and looking back I can’t even believe that we considered that route for a minute. It became really clear very quickly that not having an interviewer was utterly impossible, and even if we were gonna under-budget it, we had to have a really good actress [play the interviewer]. For me, one of the ways to adjust a person’s performance is through the person they’re performing with.
All of the three actresses, Menal Issa, Aïssa Maïga and Isabel Sandoval, said they couldn’t have done it without Amélie Prevot , who was playing the journalist, and who understood the complexity of her part. The original journalist/interviewer was both engaged and interested in Maria, but also knew Maria personally, which I found out through further research. There was a level of micro-aggression that was going on in her relationship to Maria and in the kind of questions she was asking that was incredibly subtle. So, to have a really excellent actress be able to perform that off-camera, was giving Menal, Aïssa and Isabel so much to work with. I could adjust Amélie, rather than [Menal, Aïssa, or Isabel], if I wanted to not interrupt their performance.
My answer for [how to direct] for this film is different for other films, where the actors might be responding to an original text. When I was talking to [the actresses in MARIA] one of the questions I had was, ‘Do you feel like you’re responding as Maria, as yourself in the industry, are you bringing your own feelings about the industry to this, or are you bringing your feelings about Maria’s experience?’ And because those are really three dimensions they could be working from, they were shifting all the time, which was really beautiful.
For example, with Aïssa Maïga, she is so deeply soulful and feels so intensely, and her feelings for Maria are so strong, that one of the few adjustments that I made was that I wanted more of Aïssa in the performance. Between takes, I talked to her about her own power in the industry, and things she had told me about her experience fighting racism in the film industry. To help her access the part of the performance that is about Aïssa rather than about Maria. Because the performance was feeling so empathetic that it was channelling a level of devastation, and I was looking for more of Aïssa in certain takes. I think the final edit is a braiding of each of them, between these different modulations or relationships to the original text.
In broad strokes, the way I work with actors starts by asking them how they like to be directed. Different actors like different types of direction. I also work from what Adrienne [Weiss] calls ‘compelling given circumstances,’ where you remind an actor of the backstory they’ve created. I never tell an actor to do anything. I mean, maybe if we’re on the fifth take and we’re running out of time, we may have shorthand together. Judith Weston would call it, ‘result-oriented directing’, if you tell someone to be something. “Be more angry! Be sexier.” Those words don’t really mean anything. It’s kind of just telling an actor to be more, or telling them they’re not doing a good job, rather than getting them to think about why they’re doing something.
What new lessons did you learn while making this short, that you would like to share with emerging women and non-binary filmmakers?
For young women directors, I would say that the problem with being a filmmaker is the time you spend not being a filmmaker, because you spend most of your time trying to raise money.
I think the most important lesson I could share is a lesson I have to keep relearning and cultivating myself – trust your instinct. Because when you’re on set and everything is moving really quickly, and you’re exhausted, and you’re running out of time, you have to make decisions really, really quickly. And they’re deep decisions – and in a film like this, one that seems so simple, it’s because the parameters have been narrowed so much that any micro change will speak very loudly on the set.
You’re navigating a lot of other people’s opinions and perspectives as well, and every department has their own thoughts about how they want things done. At certain points you might think, ‘Ok, they really want to do a certain thing this way so why don’t I just let them get it done.’ And you can’t. It’s your film and you cannot capitulate to someone else’s perspective, you have to trust your instinct.
There was a last shot in [MARIA], the shot with the pan, where I had told my producer and the DP that I wanted room to play. We knew it would be a pan, we knew certain things would happen, but there were other things we didn’t know would happen. I was getting pressure from the DP and the production designer to place an extra in a certain location, and they had all these aesthetic reasons why, and there were reasons for me, politically, that I didn’t want that. And I almost capitulated because I was tired. At the last second I really just had to shut it down and say, ‘No, that’s not happening.’ And I thank god that I listened to myself. Because if I hadn’t, I’d be looking at that shot for the rest of my life and thinking, ‘Oh, that’s the moment where I surrendered to somebody else’s perspective.’ That’s one thing that girls in general need to learn more, is to trust their instincts.
What are some specific resources that have helped you as a filmmaker, that you want emerging women and nonbinary filmmakers to know about?
There’s an incredible film journal called Another Gaze which is for women/female identifying/non-binary filmmakers, it’s based out of England but it’s internationally published and they have a streaming platform too.
I would recommend that they get themselves access to streaming platforms like Criterion or Third World News Reel, places outside of Netflix. That they start young learning how to find films outside of what I would call corporate cinema. That’s not easy, but that is what really made me the filmmaker that I am. It’s a lot easier now for [younger generations] than it was for us, with the internet. Watching films outside of market-driven filmmaking is how they’re going to learn to be great filmmakers.
I also think that reading and turning to other sources is really important too, because there’s still the question of what you’re going to make a film about. Often people are drawn to the medium before they know what they want to make, so always re-centering the question of, ‘What am I trying to say? Why am I here? What am I trying to say that hasn’t been said before?’ Or, ‘How can I say it in a way that hasn’t been said before?’
By that I don’t mean messages, I’m talking about really making meaning, communicating ideas, expressing feelings, perspectives, formal explorations, that is the crucial question. ‘Why am I doing this and what am I trying to say?’ Reading, music, art, humanities, news, are all as important as studying filmmaking.
If you could spend a day hanging out with Maria Schneider, what would you do?
Hmm… I mean, I would probably do whatever she wanted to do! I would imagine we would be smoking cigarettes…well, I don’t smoke, but what I imagine Maria would want to do with the day, would be to just hang out. Drink coffee, drink wine. Walk. Go see a movie. Be with her friends. I think that her relationships with her close friends, the people she trusted – they were the most important relationships for her, and I think that if I spent a day with Maria, I would have so many questions, that I’d basically be sitting on my hands the whole time trying just to be with her! I’d do whatever she wanted, I would just want to experience life as she wanted to.