“It’s Rare to See a Woman Over 40 Be the Main Character”: Talking Ageism and Nico With Director Susanna Nicchiarelli

We spoke to the filmmaker behind 'Nico, 1988' about choosing to portray the final years of the tragic icon's life as a symbolic move.

Susanna Nicchiarelli.

“First of all, everyone around Nico seemed to think that once her modelling career and relationship with the Velvet Underground were over, her life ended,” says Susanna Nicchiarelli. “But in fact, that’s when it really started.”

The Italian director is sitting down with us a few hours before the Danish premiere of her new film, Nico, 1988. Set during the last years of the German musician and icon’s life, the film has garnered exclusively rave reviews and picked up the prestigious Orizzonti Award for Best Film at the Venice Film Festival. Whether critics are citing revered Danish actress Trine Dyrholm’s bulletproof performance as Nico or Nicchiarelli’s meticulously researched storyline – she talked to everyone from Nico’s son to her manager in preparation for the film – their praises have established Nico, 1988 as more than just a well-executed biopic.

Because Nicchiarelli wasn’t going for that, anyway; if she was, she would have focused on Nico’s sexily-portrayed days as a model in New York, her ‘moment’ as one of Andy Warhol’s factory girls and muses, her many love affairs with stars like Jim Morrison or her stint with the Velvet Underground. Instead, Nicchiarelli made a film about the final phase of Nico’s life—when Nico was finally able to overcome her heroin addiction and reconnect with her son, only to die just shy of fifty by falling off a bicycle. And according to the director, zooming in on her life way past the days of the Velvet Underground fame didn’t just come from the fact that she found that era of Nico’s life the most interesting: it was also a pointed response to how women are portrayed in film and the expectations placed upon women in general. “I had read an interview discussing the love affair between Nico and Iggy Pop – Nico was eight years older than him and she was like 34 at the time – and in the interview some guy said, ‘Nico was a finished woman.’”, says Nicchiarelli. “I was also 34 when I read that and I was like, “but I’m just starting out!” They were saying she was finished at the same age as I was, so I wanted to make a movie about that.”

Indeed, Nicchiarelli is just starting out, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t sure in her vision. In fact, she already has a lot to say about the creative process, her “love affair” with Trine Dyrholm, sexism in film and what we can learn from Nico. Read below.

GIRLS ARE AWESOME: Hi, Susanna. What compelled you to make a film about Nico in the first place?

Susanna Nicchiarelli: First of all, everyone around Nico seemed to think that once her modelling career and relationship with the Velvet Underground were over, her life ended. But in fact, that’s when it really started.

During the Velvet Underground era, Nico wasn’t writing her own music. But one of Nico’s most important love stories was with Jim Morrison, and at some point he said to her, “You write down your dreams, and you will start writing down the lyrics for your songs.” And the lyrics she wrote after that are beautiful. The music she made is very experimental, courageous, brave. She wasn’t at all trying to follow the taste of the times, and she actually influenced a lot of the music that was made afterwards. The quality of her musical production is the first thing that made me want to approach Nico’s story.

Also, Nico survived. She didn’t die at 27 like everyone else. She didn’t die like Jim Morrison. She survived, and what came afterwards was the most interesting phase of her life.

Why focus on the very last part of Nico’s life, though—the few years before she died?

I had read these interviews about the 70s in New York. Some piece was discussing the love affair between Nico and Iggy Pop – Nico was eight years older than him and she was like 34 at the time – and in the interview some guy said, ‘Nico was a finished woman.’ I was also 34 when I read that and I was like, “but I’m just starting out!” They were saying she was finished at the same age as I was, so I wanted to make a movie about that. Then when I looked into into Nico’s story, I realised the last years were the most interesting parts of her life.

Still from ‘Nico, 1988’.

Interesting but volatile, to some extent. As you show in the film, Nico dealt with addiction issues and had a difficult relationship with her son. She went through a lot. What was it like to address sensitive and painful parts of her story?

It’s very hard when you’re dealing with something you don’t approve of morally, or something that scares you. You ask yourself, “where do I put the camera?” But of course, Trine Dyrholm (who plays Nico) helped me a lot. It was really important for us to not be in any way sentimental or nostalgic. We didn’t want to put any drama in it, because that’s not the way Nico was, either. She always kept a distance from things, and that gives you the possibility to tell your story with irony and measure. For example, in the movie, there are very few close ups; I tried to take a step back.

Also, the movie doesn’t only talk about her addiction: I actually chose to portray the period when she quits with heroin. In the 80s, Nico had some sort of rebirth, largely to do with her new manager Alan Wise (he opened her first bank account, found her a house, helped her rebuild a relationship with her son, helped her stop using.) After Nico turned 40, she learned to love herself more. So the story I told is also one of liberation from her addictions, from the memories of the past. I knew that when I was dealing with the hard stuff I was going somewhere with it.

What was more important to you—to tell Nico’s story as accurately as possible or project a certain message?

From the beginning I knew I wasn’t going to imitate reality. I think it kills biopics if you choose the actor because they look like the original and you start copying exactly what happened. Then reality becomes a prison, and the spectator is never free to just let go and identify with the character. They never forget that they are looking at a film based on a true story, whereas I wanted the opposite to happen.

That’s basically why I chose Trine to play her. Trine doesn’t look like Nico, but she’s my favourite actress and has always been. She had the right age to play the role and the right energy. And she was a singer when she was young, which is important because I didn’t want to keep the original music and have the actress lip sync to it with Nico’s voice coming out. I wanted to absolutely redo the music, so I needed a singer and a great actress. It was very hard, even from a physical standpoint; Nico’s a very difficult character to deal with.

Trine Dyrholm at the premiere of ‘Nico, 1988’ at CPH PIX. 

You talk about Trine with so much respect and energy. It’s clear you had a huge connection.

Yeah, it was practically a love story! You know, they called Nico “the priestess of darkness” but Trine’s completely the opposite. She’s sunshine, she’s happiness, she’s always smiling. She was very positive on set, and it was a very difficult film: there were the concerts, she had to sing, we went to many countries, and once the stage broke and she fell. But she had so much energy, we thought she’d done it on purpose! And I needed a person that would have the energy to take on this film from every point of view.

Now that you’ve experienced this kind of connection between actor and director, do you feel that’s what’s necessary to make a great film?

Yeah. I haven’t experienced a connection like this in the past, not to this level. I mean, Trine is the film. In the past I’ve worked with great actors and actresses and had a lot of fun, but what happened here was different. The character also required that, though.

It’s a big responsibility to play an icon like that, as well! Did you or Trine ever feel intimidated portraying her?

That’s why I wanted Trine to be totally free. For example, we decided that she was not going to visit Ari, Nico’s son, who I had interviewed as part of my research process. Nico’s story with her son is so painful that you risk not doing the film at all if you get too close to it. Of course, Trine and I looked at Nico’s exhibitions and read her interviews, and Trine did pull some of her sentences or quotes to put in the dialogue. But at some point we decided to just forget Nico, so Trine went in a studio with the musicians and started working on the songs. And Trine found her voice and her way of moving. She found her own Nico there. So we really started by working with the music, because it’s the only direct message that Nico left us.

How did you approach recreating Nico’s music for the film?

We found the tonality for Trine and we worked a bit on the guitars and electronics and stuff like that. There’s only two songs that we did that Nico never sung. One is “Big in Japan” by Alphaville, and the other is “Nature Boy” because there’s a moment which really happened where Nico played in a hotel to pay for the rooms. The owner of the hotel had a jazz band so she improvised a track, and I had to choose a song for that scene. I chose “Nature Boy” because of the lyrics. “The only thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” That’s what you feel when you have a child, and Nico did have one; though it was messy, she still had that experience.

Throughout your film, you show how Nico struggled to assert herself in a male-dominated industry, which is still the case for women today. Did you consciously try to make parallels between Nico’s struggles and the challenges facing women now, especially as they grow older?

Yes, of course! It’s what made the film so urgent. If you’re a woman, it seems like people think you’re ‘done’ after a certain age… while men start their lives when they turn 40! Their professional lives start and they do ‘important things.’ Of course, that difference isn’t actually true: we women also do our most important things at that age, because we’ve been working all our lives and are affirmed enough to be free to do what we want. We grow up, and maturity often results in an artist’s best work. That’s the same for men and women, artists and everyone else. But what happens with actresses and women who work with their images is that it seems like at some point, they’re done.

This also happens with characters in films. It’s like if you’re over 40 in a film, you’re somebody’s mother or wife, but you’re never the main character. So Nico is a great choice to portray: it’s very rare to see a woman over 40 on screen as the main character.

Photo via Variety.

Yes, and in the film you seem to emphasise that she’s sick of being asked about the Velvet Underground and is almost reluctant to look to the past. Why was that an important point to make?

I think there was a lot of misogyny with Nico. There’s even a quote from Andy Warhol where he says, “she became a fat junkie.” It’s full of so much cruelty, even if it was meant ironically. Nico became famous because she was pretty, and she wanted to get rid of that. She herself said that with the Velvet Underground, she was there for her image: as soon as they could, they started touring without her. She felt unwanted and unrecognized.

It was only when she got rid of that beauty thing that she built her own identity. And she didn’t at all try to look like how she looked when she was 25. I mean, usually when you find characters over 40, they’re always regretting that they’re no longer ‘young’. What is great about Nico is that she was a woman who lived in her present. A woman over 40 living her present with great awareness… that’s what I fo”und and that’s the story I wanted to tell. For somebody like Nico who had been the most beautiful woman in the world, not being beautiful in that way anymore gave her an incredible freedom.

Did you learn anything from Nico that you apply to your own life?

Yes, but it’s important to note that she had a terrible life. She had a child very early but didn’t live with him, and she had a huge heroin problem. It’s true that she died falling from a bicycle, but that’s probably because she had a stroke. All of that likely came from all the dependencies she had. She is not a model for me, but at the same time she taught me that you have to be free and do your own thing. Nico never tried to please others, which is very brave from an artistic point of view, and that’s what I tried to do with this movie. We persevered even if we had people saying, ‘who cares about Nico in the 80s?’ Or women who said, ‘as a mother, I don’t want to see this story.’ If you believe in something artistically, it’s important to be free from trying to change what your heart is telling you.

The point is understanding who you are, and what Nico’s story taught me is that she became who she was in her 40s. What is life if not building your own identity? The process of becoming who you are, both artistically and from a human point of view, is what this story has taught me.

Thanks a lot, Susanna.

Catch ‘Nico, 1988’ at CPH PIX tonight at Gloria theatre at 21.15. For more screenings, check out their program