Fantastic Fest: Actress Jessica Harper and Screenwriter David Kajganich on Giving Purpose to ‘Suspiria’

We chat with two artists who had no trouble in rekindling a horror classic.

Jessica Harper And David Kajganich
Fantastic Fest/Jack Plunkett

Some films are holy, worshiped for decades, risen to iconic and untouchable status. For fans of Suspiria, the very idea of a remake is sinful. Blasphemous. Sorry, movie maniacs, self-flagellate all you want, there is no stopping this dance; it’s in full swing.

Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria had its North American premiere at Fantastic Fest, and it sent the crowd into various states of reflection. Love it, hate it, they just watched something. Given a shovel and a trowel, you can dig the original’s bones from its script, but this new film is a creature writhing to its own tune.

I spoke to actress Jessica Harper and screenwriter David Kajganich the morning after the screening. The audience was stunned and not prepared for the usual Q&A banter. Harper and Kajganich seemed equally surprised by the reaction. Wasn’t Fantastic Fest where you went for deep-dive genre cinema? They should have been basking in adulation, but they faced a gobsmacked crowd.

Harper has the unique perspective of carrying Argento’s original vision on her shoulders and blessing Guadagnino’s take with her presence. While she recognizes the impact, and the rare treasure of Suspiria ‘77, Harper was not at all precious towards the concept of a remake. A job is a job. So, get over yourselves, folks.

Kajganich had a little anxiety tackling this particular reimagining but put his faith in his and Guadagnino’s adoration for the first film. He fell into research, and in that research, he found new meat to hang on Suspiria’s frame: fascism, feminism, covens, and dance.

We discussed what it was like to rekindle Suspiria for a new audience. The conversation never ventures too far into spoiler territory, but those looking to remain absolutely pure going in should be warned. Talking to Harper regarding her role reveals a little bit about the film’s emotional revelation.

Harper details the surreal experience of stepping on that particular set, and what it was like to work with newcomer Lutz Ebersdorf…yeah…an actor long rumored to be Tilda Swinton in makeup, but now officially credited as such on IMDb. Harper obviously did not want to give up that little game of play with me. I tried to knead the truth and failed.

Here is our conversation in full:

Jessica, you get the phone call, “Let’s do Suspiria again.” Are you, “Yes, that’s obvious, or “that sounds like a terrible idea”?

Jessica: He had me at hello, and then he said, “Are you comfortable speaking German?”

David: We had talked about finding a great place for Jessica to come in, and when I proposed this scene with Anke, I said, “The only problem is the dialogue’s going to be in German. Can Jessica speak German?” And he said, “I will find out.” So he called you, and your response to that was …

Jessica: Oh, no problem.

David: So he texted me really fast and he said, “Jessica speaks German. She speaks German.”

Jessica: And I was on my phone going, “Is this the Berlitz school? Because I need to learn German right now. Can I come over?”

Yeah, can you ride a horse? Sure, I can ride a horse.

Jessica: Yeah, exactly. What are you gonna say, no?

Going back to your original experience with Argento, could you have possibly imagined that in 2018 we’d be revisiting …?

Jessica: Absolutely not. You couldn’t imagine anything. I knew I was doing a horror movie in Italy, and it was a wonderful experience. Who can ever anticipate such a thing, 40 years later, walking on the set again. Everybody’s going, “Jessica, cara mia.”

And no trepidation?

Jessica: Well, I had trepidation about doing the part because I had to speak German and walk backward at the same time. That was my only fear. Otherwise, I was thrilled.

And on set, was it a surreal experience, or was it another job?

Jessica: It was certainly not another job, and also, I got to hang out with Lutz Ebersdorg, who is … I don’t know if you’ve ever met him?

Uh…Lutz? No, I have not met him.

Jessica: He is so much fun.

David: He’s a German.

Jessica: So much fun to hang out with.

How so?

Jessica: Just really so smart and so generous. He was very helpful with me when I had to walk backward and speak German. Just like, “Take as many takes as you want. I’m fine with it.” You know? Whatever. Just couldn’t have been nicer and more engaging. Really fun to talk to.

And the two of your characters are really the emotional crux of the entire film.

Jessica: Right.

It’s a crucial relationship. So, there was enough time on set, or before, to work out your characters together?

Jessica: Well, we did actually. We had a really great rapport. And so, that was very helpful. And again, he was very generous in terms of … just like, “You’re doing so great. Just keep going… Yeah. No, that’s all right. We’ll do another take.” Just whatever I needed.

It definitely seems like coming out of the movie, his performance as an actor…well, there’s a lot of conversation around him. Where he came from?

Jessica: Yes, there is. I know there is, yeah.

Okay…so, from your point of view David, “All right, I need a screenplay for Suspiria.” It’s a holy movie, and-

David: It is, it absolutely is.

Like what’s next, Casablanca?

Jessica: Yeah, right.

David: Well, I think the thing that made it more unnerving is I was pretty sure it was also gonna get made. I’ve done lots of scripts that never get made. Stephen King adaptations and things like that, and you think, “Well, maybe this will never happen, and we won’t have to cross this bridge with the millions of people who love the original.” But this one, I was pretty sure it was actually gonna get made.

I think you shut off the part of your brain that might cripple you with doubt, or with concern. I knew we were gonna be rigorous about it. I knew we were gonna be respectful, and I knew we were gonna be doing completely new things. And that felt like a protection to me, that you couldn’t see this film and think we had been cynical about it.

Can you take me through the process of adapting Suspiria? Do you go back and watch the film a couple hundred times? When do you put that to bed, and create your own thing?

David: I’ve only seen it twice.

Really?

David: I saw it once as a teenager, and then when Luca proposed this remake, I watched it again, so that I could have it firmly in my head. But because I knew stylistically, it wasn’t going to mimic the original, studying that film would be studying the idiom of the way that it’s designed and shot. And I knew that wasn’t going to help me very much.

I thought what I would rather spend the time I had doing was just hard research into Germany in ’77, into the feminist movement, into feminist art, into actual ways that covens might operate, instead of the moody way. You only have so much time, and so rather to be slavish to the original, I watched it enough, so that I was very conversant about it, and remembered everything I loved and respected about it, and then had to put it aside.

I think the biggest surprise that I had last night while I was watching it was just how political it was, and how much that you brought to the film, the conversation. Not just the politics of what’s going on outside the coven, but what’s going on inside the coven, and how they mirror each other. Where did that come from?

David: It comes from two places. One is, if you’re really gonna take this story seriously, it’s about a group of women who have been denied public access to power for so long that they’ve decided to cultivate it in private ways, in cult ways. The secondary meaning of that word is hidden. You know what I mean? So that’s the nature of, I think, why witchcraft has always been around, is its ways that women try to find empowerment that they’re not given by the system.

And so, if you’re really gonna examine that, you have to examine the politics of what makes them necessary, how it can be both empowering and corrupting because I think the worst kind of female quote-unquote female empowerment you could produce today is one that has a halo on it. Do you know what I mean? We didn’t want to the male gaze between us and the subject matter, as much as possible, to limit that. I think the politics sprung out of, well, what would this coven be responding to? What political unrest could it be drafting off of, and how might that set the stage for the transference of power that happens between the old guard of the coven and the new guard that you find at the end of it? So it was all of a piece. It feels separate in the beginning of the film, but hopefully, those things come closer and closer together by the end.

So, what’s interesting about that, and I don’t want to spoil anything, but we’ve already talked about how the plot hinges on Anke’s relationship with Lutz’s character, Dr. Klemperer. That’s surprising, given that you’re trying to go for a feminist statement, and it sort of falls on what this man has committed.

David: Yeah, but if you think about his story, it’s absolutely the story of disempowerment. This is a man who presumably did have a voice when these events were happening in the ’40s. Do you know what I mean? Who could have used his power as an educated man to some end, but didn’t? Suffered a great loss, was rendered passive by it, and then this comes around again, and he has evidence in front of him.

The new form of evil, or fascism or whatever you want to call this coven, is rising. And he can’t step into it in the same way. And so, I think his story is important only in so far as it shines a light on how the empowerment is happening inside of the coven, and how it’s rendering, the male characters in this film, it’s rendering them passive. The only other two male characters in the film are hypnotized and objectified within minutes of you meeting them.

The film ends, and it was fascinating to be in that theater because it was just … Normally, it’s like, “Oh, here are the Q’s and here are the A’s.” But I don’t think this audience was ready with their questions because they’re so-

David: I know.

There’s a lot to process there.

David: It seems cruel to have a Q & A right after a movie like that.

Jessica: You might want everybody to go have a martini so they’ll process.

Yeah, it did feel cruel. That’s the word. But that was one of the things that I appreciated about the film. So, watching it now with a crowd, what is that experience? Putting it out there and that immediate reaction coming back?

Jessica: Well, it’s fascinating. When we saw it in Venice, for example, you notice the rapt attention of people. Nobody’s going out for popcorn.

Not a lot of bathroom breaks.

Jessica: No, not a lot of bathroom breaks. That’s my impression anyway, is that people are really … Whoa. Which is you say, at the end of movie is quite evident.

It’s a lot.

David: It’s a lot. One difference for me between Venice and Fantastic Fest – and these are the only times I’ve seen it with an audience. Venice, I think, there might be some preconceived notions about what are the boundaries of a horror film? By which I mean, I think there might be inadvertently more limits placed on the genre with an audience at a film festival like Venice. I just think people didn’t know quite what to expect.

Here, I think, it was the perfect audience, because people want anything you want to put in the horror film, whether it’s from the most well-loved tropes to the most out there flare-ups of intellect. Like, anything in-between is ready to be embraced. So, we couldn’t have been more excited last night to get in that room and feel that people had really watched it closely, and really wanted to talk about it as soon as they knew how.

Jessica: Right. Yeah, very different.

David: This is the perfect audience for this film.


Suspiria opens in theaters on October, 26th.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.