The typical midlife crisis, to which we all fall victim in some major or minor degree, came to Fellini with a slight delay. On the twentieth of January, 1960, the day of his fortieth birthday, he was, in fact, too deeply engaged in the completion of La dolce vita to worry about anything else.
Only a few months later, the maestro was confronted by a dilemma he never expected to face: what to do next. Until then, Fellini had always nurtured new ideas that would naturally take over his time once the project under way had been completed; he had never experienced a real break between these two moments of the creative process. But for the movie about Via Veneto, the effort and emotions he had invested were such that, once the great clamor of critical acclaim and polemics had quieted, Fellini felt the horror of an inspirational void.
He had been telling himself for a while, almost superstitiously, that a director’s artistic life lasted ten years, after which one ended up repeating oneself; he would quote such cases as René Clair, G. W. Pabst, Jean Renoir, Fritz Lang, and others. The ghost of creative barrenness appeared to him, almost poisoning the pleasure of a moment that could have otherwise been magic, and became a sort of obsession, so much so that he considered making it the theme of his new movie.
He started working with his usual team of screenwriters: Tullio Pinelli, Ennio Flaiano, and Brunello Rondi. Federico handed me a script to read. I can’t recall if the first draft of what was to become 8¹⁄2 had a title. I know that Flaiano had proposed La bella confusione. Meanwhile, the director, perhaps in order to dispel a certain air of pessimism lingering about the project, insisted upon defining the movie as “comic.” Needless to say, on set he only sporadically remembered his own definition, and even then turned this so-called comicality into irony or the grotesque. Personally, I found very little solace reading those pages recounting, in a rather tormented fashion, the crisis of a writer unable to complete his novel and caught in an embarrassing sentimental web between wife and mistress. The many autobiographical implications, even though hidden between the lines, were evident, as they had been previously in La dolce vita. This time, however, the amalgamation of fantasy and reality didn’t feel as accomplished. The problem was that Fellini had decided to make his protagonist a writer, a character he could not clearly picture emotionally.
Until the time when he was consecrated as a great director, Fellini didn’t have an easy relationship with writers, his contemporaries who used to gather in the evening in Via Veneto’s many cafés. In those circles, the filmmaker was merely tolerated as one of the friends of the writer, columnist, great one-liner satirist, and pivotal point of that milieu Ennio Flaiano. At the time, Federico didn’t read much—he became a keen reader only when he developed insomnia in later years—and he wasn’t particularly attracted to writers. On the contrary, he actually displayed all the symptoms of being quite bored by them. He immediately spotted their ridiculous side, what made them intolerable. He had kept, in relation to the representatives of the so-called mainstream culture, the iconoclastic attitude of Marc’Aurelio’s small-time journalist. Why he had determined to explore and narrate a writer’s dilemmas baffles me, even to this day. It was probably an idea floating around those circles. Just think of the protagonist of Michelangelo Antonioni’s La notte. The movie, shot in the summer of 1960, featured a writer played by Marcello Mastroianni. When he heard about this, the director from Rimini was deeply shaken. “What am I going to do now?” he kept repeating. “How am I going to ask Marcello to play a writer again? He’ll end up believing he’s one, and he’ll write a novel.” All this while, troubled by such thoughts, he toyed with the idea of finding a different protagonist for his movie and would come out with such names as Laurence Olivier, to frighten Mastroianni away from his thoughts.
The gestation of the project went on for so long that Fellini wrote and directed one of the four episodes of Boccaccio ’70 in the meantime. The 8¹⁄2 script was stagnating, and the director started feeling desperate, until one day he announced he had made an important resolution: the main character was no longer a writer but a movie director. It was obvious, even though he never actually spelled it out, that what he wanted to say was “I am the protagonist.” In the light of this transformation, all the elements of the project started coming together. Reassured by his discovery, Federico regained his happy disposition, thinking he would be able to talk about himself and his environment without having to make up too much—and without having to take too many risks.
Little by little, the production’s atmosphere started emerging around the figure of the director Guido Anselmi, who was now definitely to be played by Mastroianni. We, as part of Federico’s circle of friends, started having fun making up names for the various people we knew were becoming characters in the movie. Also making the rounds among his innermost circle were malicious identifications for some of the female figures in the harem. Fellini recounted on-screen exactly what his feelings were then, in that moment: his fear of not being able to make his movie, his expedients for perpetually postponing the shoot, the inevitable final collapse. This way, while confessing his inability to create it, he paradoxically realized his masterpiece. When it came time to choose a title, he picked the cabalistic 8¹⁄2, which should have corresponded to the number of movies he had shot, although this isn’t even accurate.
Fellini’s fantasies were often prophetic, considering he ended up really living his story of a director unable to finish the film he had been hired to shoot. In 1967, during the preproduction of Il viaggio di G. Mastorna, and after an expensive replica of the Cologne Cathedral and other huge sets had been built at Cinecittà, he wrote a letter to producer Dino De Laurentiis, telling him he was quitting the project. The producer, wild with anger, demanded the judiciary repossession of the Fellinis’ villa in Fregene.
Fellini, by recounting through 8¹⁄2 the impossibility of making a movie, ended up creating a masterpiece that almost fell into his lap; ironically, although he worked on it until the end of his life, Il viaggio di G. Mastorna was never accomplished.