AFI 2013 Roundtable: Bernardo Bertolucci on The Last Emperor 3D

The Last Emperor

For the second year in a row, AFI Fest hosted filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci. Last year Bertolucci was a guest artistic director for the festival. This year, AFI Fest screened the new 3D edition of his Oscar winner The Last Emperor as one of their gala screenings. The epic film tells the life story of Pu Yi (John Lone), the last emperor of China. While Bertolucci was in Los Angeles, we got to join a roundtable with the legendary filmmaker. It was an intimate gathering with only two other reporters at the table, so we were able to get in several questions about Emperor and his classic films.

CraveOnline: The 3D for The Last Emperor is very subtle, but some audiences don’t care for 3D at all. Would you consider just re-releasing the film in regular theaters?

Bernardo Bertolucci: I think that even if some audiences don’t care [for it], it’s the third time I’ve seen it in 3D and I find it magic. Why not do it? Because the movie has not been conceived in 3D, I wasn’t thinking at all of the 3D when I did it, so there aren’t all these temptations of throwing things in the eyes of the viewers, like arrows or whatever which is very banal. So it’s an innocent 3D. It’s a 3D which is not taking advantage of the viewer with simple nonsense.

I think that it makes it more hyper-realistic which was something that was welcome for me. Also, they do this restoration of movies all the time and I think that 3D, cinema has been so many technical adventures during its life because it was silent, then it became sound, then it became color. Every time, there were people who weren’t accepting the change. I remember 10 years ago some cinematographers couldn’t accept digital. They would feel impoverished without a certain kind of chiaroscuro that you could have with film. I think it’s nonsense. I like to ride the technological discoveries.

Then I found out with The Last Emperor that you could do 3D after the movie is done. I think Gravity has been done after, during post-production and is one of the best 3D [films].

Did you train a real cricket in The Last Emperor?

No, but there is something else, when I saw it again. When the old teacher tells the little emperor, the baby emperor, “You see, this cricket came with me a long way and kept me company,” they were keeping the cricket inside the cricket box under the arm, in the armpit so it would be warm in the long walk, etc. And the cricket would sing. It was like a radio in a car. That was very poetic. I found it so nice and it was there at the beginning and was there at the end.

Did you ever consider making The Last Emperor in Chinese with subtitles?

No way. Also because there is a kind of habit that Chinese, Russians, old ancient Romans, they all speak English in the movies. I couldn’t have done it because I don’t understand Chinese. I don’t speak Chinese. There’s a convention that in a movie, in an epic like that one, everybody speaks English.

I don’t see my movies much. I went back and watched The Last Emperor finished in 3D. At the end I told my wife, “Look, the 3D looks great” and she said, “The movie looks great.” I forgot how the movie was. I forgot, for example, that you learn a lot about history, the history of China and the Japanese. It’s something that don’t know well. You learn a lot of history.

I went to China with two projects. It was ’84, but I had two projects. One was Man’s Fate by Malraux, a fantastic novel, La Condition Humaine. Andre Malraux wrote it about the riots in Shanghai in ’27 when the communists were beaten by Chaing Kai-shek. They said, “No, we don’t know this book.” I knew of this very famous book. I know that there were at least 10 [attempted] projects to do a film, one by [Fred] Zinnemann. They prepared all the production in London for Shangai. A week before the beginning of the shoot, they stopped and the Chinese would say, “We don’t know the book.” How don’t you know the book? It’s the first time that foreigners write about a communist march in Shanghai. It’s impossible you don’t know it.

Finally, I had another project, The Last Emperor, and they said, “Yeah, that can be done.” So I was happy to be able to shoot in China because it was like going to an unknown, forbidden country.

You got an X rating for Last Tango in Paris and The Dreamers an NC-17. Now Hollywood is trying to make a movie out of Fifty Shades of Grey that they’ll try to get an R-rating for. Do you feel the ratings have gotten more conservative or more open?

It depends on the country, but I think we all agree that censorship shouldn’t exist apart from protecting very, very young children. Otherwise, I think everyone is a grown up and everyone has the right, like in life, to watch it on the screen.

Blue is the Warmest Color got released with NC-17 in the States.

The movie that won Cannes. I haven’t seen it. I want to see it and I will see it soon. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, I couldn’t help being transgressive but I wasn’t alone in that. There are generations of people who had to be transgressive. It was part of the joy of life, even transgressive in cinema style. 

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and Shelf Space Weekly. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.