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Writer/Director Susanna Nicchiarelli on Telling the Story of the Woman Behind the Music in 'Nico, 1988'

August 22, 2018Ben MK

As Andy Warhol once said, "Everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes." Yet, it's how one leaves their mark on popular culture in those 15 minutes that creates a legacy that lasts far longer.

In the case of Christa Päffgen, Warhol's one-time muse and former lead singer of the seminal band The Velvet Underground, fame is something that appeared to come and go. But while Päffgen, who also went by the stage name Nico, largely dropped out of the public eye, by no means did it mean that she stopped pursuing her musical career — not to mention her vices — as writer/director Susanna Nicchiarelli's new film, Nico, 1988, shows.

I caught up with Nicchiarelli to find out how she captured the essence — both musical and otherwise — of Nico for this biopic.

What was it that drew you to Nico's story and when did you decide you wanted to make this film?

Nicchiarelli: Nico's voice in the album Velvet Underground and Nico is fascinating, and the first time I listened to it I was attracted by the character of this woman. When I learned that she was German, that she had grown up in postwar Berlin, that her life had been so interesting and rich, and when I learned about her solo career... and most of all when I listened to the kind of music she made I had no doubt that she deserved her own biopic. But I knew that it had to be a different biopic, something most people would not expect!

How did you go about researching the various aspects of Nico's personal and professional life?

Nicchiarelli: I loved the German documentary Nico, Icon and I also researched a lot reading biographies and books. Then I tracked down a few characters that were important in the last years of her life and I interviewed them. My script is based on these interviews, especially on the one I did with Ari, her son.

Can you shed some light on your collaboration with Trine Dyrholm, who plays Nico in the movie? How did you work together to bring to the screen such an authentic and haunting portrayal, both in terms of the drama and in terms of the music?

Nicchiarelli: Probably our collaboration went so well because we started with the music: we started working at the film in the studio, recording Nico's songs with the musicians before the shooting because we needed to have the songs in order to organize the live performances on set. So with Trine we found Nico's character, her voice and attitude, or rather the attitude and voice of Nico we wanted to represent in the film, (because we didn't want to imitate the original Nico, we wanted to find our own representation of her character) by working on the lyrics of her songs and by working on the music, and I think this experience was emotionally very strong for us and it helped us a lot.

Speaking of the music, what was your process like in deciding on the songs to be featured in the film? And did you have specific songs in mind while you were writing the script?

Nicchiarelli: Of course: the songs were already in the script, and I put them in the film exactly how I had planned when I was writing it. I tried to structure the film just like a record: every chapter had a song, most of them live performances. I picked the songs I thought were right to represent certain aspects of Nico's life, both for the lyrics and for the mood.

Did making this movie perhaps reframe the way you hear or interpret Nico's music? Did it put her lyrics in a different context for you, personally?

Nicchiarelli: The inspiration to make the film came to me also by listening to Nico's songs. Putting those songs in the context of her life was one of the things I wanted to do with the script. So this kind of insight was more a cause than an effect of the film for me.

Last but not least, as a female filmmaker, how do you hope Nico, 1988 will serve as inspiration for other female filmmakers, especially those first-time filmmakers who are still working for the opportunity to be able to bring the stories they want to tell to the screen?

Nicchiarelli: I think the more women filmmakers there are, the more young women will want to become filmmakers. Then each woman will make her own movies, in her own style... maybe looking for characters and points-of-view that are often absent in the male imagery... but I also think Nico's story Is interesting not only because it's the story of a woman, but because it's the story of a human being and artist.

I think Nico's story teaches us how complex and full of surprises life can be, and that there is no point in living in the myth of the past, but it is much more important to have the courage to live one's present, like Nico did, and to try to get the most of it. Because life, real life, does not come through success or failure: there is a lot going on between these two extremes which is much more interesting.

Nico, 1988 is now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.

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