The gender director, has worked with the greatest names in Spaghetti Western cinema but has never enjoyed the fame that would be rightfully his.
By Niccolò Berretta
I met Tonino Valerii because we lived in the same neighborhood, in Piazza Vescovio in Rome. Tonino was a customer of my parent's clothing store and when I tried to access the Experimental Center of Cinematography my father sent me home to take direct lessons. I was 18 and I went to his home every week. We were both weighted by the lunch and sat facing each other in his living room we talked for about an hour. Every once in a while we watched movies, but mostly we talked about life, women, and sometimes movie theaters.
Tonino once told me: "When television was not yet invented, cinema was the only way to see films. The theater halls were like a ritual, and as it happens in church, so many people gather in the same place for the same reasons. It is at the basis of a Mass that at the base of a film we have the beginning of a story, the development of history, and the death of Jesus, or the death of the tale. Then there is the rebirth and resurrection that are identified in triumph."
Tonino died on October 13, 2016 in Teramo after living for a lifetime in Rome. He had done several western genre films-including “A Taste of Killing”, “Day of Anger”, “The Price of Power”, “My Name is Nobody”, “A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die” and several television series.
Today, May 20, 2017, he would have been 83 years-old. To recall, I interviewed three people who worked with him in their careers. Backstage pictures I have been kindly provided by my wife Rita, and they have been carefully scanned by my father Andrea Berretta, great admirer of Tonino.
ERNESTO GASTALDI, WORKED WITH VALERI AS ASSISTANT DIRECTOR ON, “A REASON TO LIVE A REASON TO DIE” AND “MY NAME IS NOBODY”
Q: How did you and Tonino Valerii meet? What was he like on the set?
Ernesto Gastaldi: We met at the Experimental Center of Cinematography in Rome in 1955. The set was authoritative, very authoritative. There was some shyness when he found himself in charge of a holy monster like Henry Fonda, but we reassured him that he was supposed to treat him no better than the least of the extras.
Q: Tonino argued that a good film should be followed by three rules: 1) a good screenplay 2) a good screenplay 3) a good screenplay. With these assumptions I suppose your collaboration has been very challenging. How was Tonino doing during his movies?
EG: We used to say, we writers and directors, were SHAKESPEARE and we’re staging people. Beyond the joke Tonino did little thinking about it. It's easy to make a bad movie from a good screenplay, but it's hard to make a good movie from a bad screenplay.
Q: Many times I read that Tonino lived in the shadow of Sergio Leone. Seeing his filmmaking I think he made it through for him but that he has never really felt left in the shadows. What do you think about the relationship between Sergio Leone and Tonino Valerii?
EG: Tonino was not the shadow of anyone. With Sergio he had help in “For a Few Dollars More” and when Sergio wanted Michele Lupo, who was supposed to be the director of “My Name is Nobody, and I remembered Tonino, immediately adhered to the suggestion with enthusiasm.
Q: I wonder why an author like Tonino is not remembered virtually by anyone? Is cinema being changed, the taste of the Italian public or the fact that Valerii did not compromise?
EG: Tonino did not come to any compromise, what then? Even when Tonino and others such as Bava, Freda, Margheriti, Lenzi, Sergio Martino, Luciano Ercoli, Duccio Tessari, Lucio Fulci produced gems of world-famous genres, our critics sniffed them. They did it even after they died. In Italy this is the case, we just must resign ourselves.
Q: Why should we wait for Tarantino's "nothingness" to appreciate the golden age of Italian cinema?
EG: For the reason mentioned above: even in the golden years criticism did not care much about our own, our yellow, our police. Myopia.
Q: What was Valerii's idea of today's cinema?
EG: The films are advertising, disco music, often the movies do not start from the beginning and then are remade with flashbacks: you have the impression that if you tell the story in the logical sequence of facts you would get bored.
Q: What did Tonino Valerii represent for Italian cinema?
EG: The work of a valentine artisan, who often touched the peaks of art.
CLAUDIO CININI, HAS WORKED WITH VALERI AS AN ASSISTANT SCENOGRAPHER
Q: How did you meet Tonino?
Claudio Cinini: I was helping a set designer named Piero Filippone. Filippone was a friend of Sergio Leone and Tonino was an assistant director to Sergio Leone, so when he made his film, “Days of Hell” he turned to Filippone because he was the greatest set designer on the square, and thus helping He knew Tonino. It was 1967.
Q: Why is Tonino not remembered with any dignity?
CC: He was an exquisite-peculiar person who perhaps did not give himself a glimpse into the movie world. Maybe you ask him if he does not know him at twenty, but those in the band of forty years have seen all the films of Tonino Valerii. In my opinion the fact that he did not have this enormous outlook had been somewhat of his character as a real Abruzzo cricket, with all respect for the Abruzzi. The square cannot become round.
Q: How was it out of the set?
CC: He was an amicable, a quiet person, but you did not get rid of him. It's as good as a sin at the same time. If he did not have that character, he would not have come from where he came. You know how cinema is done, a fiction that becomes reality or reality that overcomes the fiction, and he never experienced that trap. But for what I remember, I worked there was a person who for the job looked like a crew of Chinese people doing Apple.
At the time of “My Dear Assassin” I was doing Vado, I got it and went back [directed by Enzo Castellari] when he called my boss, the set designer, and told me that we had to go back because they were running behind a lot and they needed help to prepare everyone on the set. From that day I slept two or three hours a night because Tonino was driven. He had fallen in love with his work, but he would never take a break, he just wanted to continue to work. He had this craving to work because he had a duty towards the producers to deliver the job. “My Dear Assassin” was a complex movie, in a pre-Fallen Spain of Franco, as a result a somewhat strange, but fascinating Spain.
Q: How is cinema today seen from a former workman and spectator?
CC: As a spectator there are two directors who like me: Sorrentino and Garrone. Others do not like and why they do not do the cinema, they do the job they gave the teacher. When I was doing the movie there were genres, as if you were subscribing to ideas and see comedies, the cartoons, the police ...
Producers, with the money they made from the "movies", produced Fellini, Visconti, and Rosi films, those more committed films that would bring less money, but also a reward, a medal, a cup, do you understand?
In the days of Valerii we made 350 films a year, today we make less than Turkey. The level of cinema today is a crap, those who know this are like Valerii. I told you, for me there are two movies that are being made today, so much so that the Americans have invested.
Q: Would you like to make the same career as a set designer?
CC: Surely, besides working, I enjoyed it. The thing that fascinated me most was to be able to use my imagination. I was lucky enough to work with Filippone, we made four or five movies together and made work for us. We were fascinated by this person, it was not just another movie.
Q: Can you tell me an anecdote with Tonino?
CC: It's about the last movie I had to do with Tonino, with Van Johnson and Giuliano Gemma, the “Price of Power”. Tonino had told me why we had made “My Dear Assassin”. In short, let's talk about the producer and as we enter the office, after he explained he begins to do: "I'm recommending here is not a lira!"
Since there were no digital effects in the western movies you had to break a wall you had to build a wall that was broken, something built of lumber you had to buy it! The producer goes on so, while Tonino proposes scenes that he systematically looked at me and said to me, "Oh spend a little!"
There is a saying about the Tuscans: they prefer to say a joke and miss a friend who does not say it. So I did not do it anymore and I said, "Excuse me but for a bundle of cash can we buy it?" Then he invites me to leave the office, I leave the room and look. Then Tonino came out-he was sorry, demoralized, because the producer had said, "He took me for an ass, I do not want him on the movie!"
GEORGE HILTON, HAS WORKED WITH VALERI AS ATTORNEY OF I AM ASSASSINO
Q: How did you and Tonino Valerii meet?
George Hilton: He called me to meet me in person. He was not very convinced that I was the ideal actor to play the part of the normal and loser commissioner suggested by Manolo Bolognini and Jumbo Distribution.
Q: In the end how did you create the role of Inspector Peretti of “My Dear Assassin”?
GH: He wanted me to have a mustache, and he widened my nostrils with my wrist to make me more normal and credible. He was convinced that the audience saw me as thehansomel and damn hero of so many movies.
The shooting of the film, all in English, was pleasant and hard at the same time because Tonino was very strict and knew exactly what he wanted.
Q: How did Tonino relate to the actors?
GH: He demanded the most from the actors, but always with great cordiality.
Q: Can you tell me an anecdote with Tonino?
GH: An episode I was impressed with when I was to recite a monologue during the final scene by discovering the killer.Tonino thought about it, rewrote almost all the text and said, "Take thirty minutes to study it and turn it around."
I with a memory of iron (at the time) and in English, which is not my language, I recited it with a final applause of the crew. I think Tonino Valerii was a great director who deserved more recognition in the Italian cinema.