As popular as the biopic genre may be, overcoming the roadblocks to making an effective film are hard for some filmmakers to avoid. This especially true when telling the story of a celebrity whose life audiences have seen play out already. Italian director Susanna Nicchiarelli was well aware of these difficulties when making her new film Nico, 1988, about rock singer Nico. While audiences probably best known her as the singer for the Velvet Underground or her the film work she did for Andy Warhol, Nichiarelli told not to focus on the stories people know but tell of the last years of Nico’s life, focusing on her relationship with her son and perpetual artistic pursuits.
Lesley Coffin: What were your personal feelings about Nico that motivated you to take this film on and start researching and writing the film?
Susanna Nicchiarelli: I was fascinated by Nico as an artist, her voice and musicianship. I was fascinated by the woman I saw in interviews, seeing someone I felt was very funny and ironic. And I liked the way she dealt with journalists who kept trying to bring her back to the past she’d had with the Velvet Underground and took away all the myths from the past. I loved when she’d respond to someone saying, “Those must have been the best years of your life and saying, “Yeah, we took a lot of LSD." That combination of irony and sincerity made me fall in love with Nico. She was living in the present and doing her own artistic research. All those aspects inspired me, and I realized it would be most interesting to make a movie about the last years of her life because everyone knew so little about that time. And yet, it was the best period of her life, which is not the cliché of the rock star. That gave me the opportunity to show how different lives can be. When you see most biopics, it often seems that the main issue in their lives is being famous. But the main issues in Nico’s life were other things. Her relationship with her son was huge, as was her creativity, but she didn’t really care about not being young anymore.
Lesley Coffin: Compared to a lot of other biopics about rock stars, you aren’t staging famous concerts or casting a lot of actors to play other famous figures that were on the outskirts. Did you find that to be liberating to avoid the recreation aspect typical in a lot of those films?
Susanna Nicchiarelli: Of course. That was one of the main things for me. In that part of her life, she wasn’t dealing with a lot of very famous people, so we didn’t have to worry about finding a lot of actors that were look-alikes. What was interesting was about Nico’s life was at this point, she was primarily dealing with normal people. The members of her band and her managers were all very average people. And that’s more interesting for an audience, because they can relate to those people relating to Nico. So I liked the idea of approaching the film that way. I think that’s a way to bring us closer to the character.
Lesley Coffin: The film essentially starts and ends with her relationship with her manager. What was it about that relationship with interested you?
Susanna Nicchiarelli: Alan Wise is the real man John Gordon Sinclair’s character is based on and I went to Manchester to meet him and spend time. We talked for a long time. But he passed away before I started shooting the film, but he didn’t have an opportunity to read the script and gave me the contact with Nico’s son, who got me in contact with other people. I knew that I’d change a lot of things for artistic and dramatic purposes. The band is completely invented. And Alan’s character is different as well, I exaggerated a few things. That’s the reason I changed his name, in agreement with him. But he was just this very interesting character, although the major meeting I had was with Nico’s son, I believe that was her deepest relationship and the center of her pain. That is the center of the movie, even if he isn’t as present throughout the film, he is the center of the story.
Lesley Coffin: What was it about that secret concert in Prague, an event based on a real event, that made you feel it should be such a central event in the film?
Susanna Nicchiarelli: Well, the film is called Nico, 1988 not only because those later years is the time in her life I was most interested in, but that is also when Europe was on the verge of a major change. In 1989 the iron curtain fell and the Berlin Wall came down. She died in 1988, a year before all that happened, and didn’t have the opportunity to see her country reunited. I found it very interesting that she was spending her time traveling to places that were on the verge of changing completely. I knew she had done illegal concerts in Eastern Europe and interviewed the promoter of the Prague concert. And that was so interesting because she found an audience in Prague that had an energy she really appreciated because they weren’t allowed to listen to her. And that audience had an energy she wasn’t finding in Western Europe. They were traveling around Western Europe, feeling like they were in a world they didn’t belong in, and they crossed into Eastern Europe and found their audience. And according to everyone who saw that concert, it was a great concert. The other things that interested me was that she was unable to bring drugs over and did that concert in withdrawals, and it was the beginning of her liberation from heroine. The film pretty much retold that story as it happened, with the police coming and everything.
Lesley Coffin: She certainly has a big cult following who will be interested in seeing the film. But if someone’s considering seeing the film who isn’t familiar with her music, what do you feel their experience be like?
Susanna Nicchiarelli: I didn’t make the film absolutely for fans and I took a lot of liberties. Trine Dyrholm doesn’t look or sing like Nico, but she is my Nico. And I did that because I think, if you don’t take those liberties and try to stick too hard to reality and imitate too much, the film becomes too rigid. And those are movies just made for fans, who won’t be happy anyway because you took too many liberties. So I wanted to make a film free from that and make something much more universal.
(C) Lesley Coffin (8/1/18) FF2 Media
Photo credits: Big-L/Magnolia Pictures