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Jessica Harper on returning to Suspiria 40 years later

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Sep 26, 2018

In 1977, Jessica Harper starred in director Dario Argento's horror classic Suspiria as Suzy Bannion, an American student who joins a dance troupe in Germany that's revealed to be a cover for a coven of witches. Now, 40 years later, she returns to the world that Argento created, this time in Luca Guadagnino's highly anticipated homage.

Guadagnino's Suspiria premiered at the Venice Film Festival earlier this month and, last weekend, was revealed as the secret screening at this year's Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. The day after the surprise screening left audiences in stunned silence, SYFY WIRE sat down with Harper and screenwriter David Kajganich to talk about how Harper was brought on board, and how she had to cram some German lessons in after agreeing to the role.

Just a heads-up: Some plot points of Suspiria end up being discussed ahead, so consider this a spoiler warning.

Jessica, how far along was the project before you were brought into the fold?

Harper: The project was pretty much good to go when I was called on. [To Kajganich:] I feel you were about to start shooting, maybe?

Kajganich: It was a bit before that. We had done final revisions on the script, and Luca and I had known from the very beginning we wanted to find a really special place for Jessica to be a part of it if she wanted to.

When we realized we were going to have this kind of a turn with Anke coming back for [the character of] Klemperer — which seems so beautiful and hopeful when it happens, and you realize it's just a trick and it kind of curdles into in front of your eyes — we thought, "Oh, that's kind of the perfect thing, but it's in German." So I said to Luca, "Will Jessica do it if it's in German?" He said, "I'll call and find out."

Harper: He said, "We'd love for you to do this cameo in this movie." Of course, I've been waiting for this one. So I said, "Of course, I'd love to." And then he said, "Would you be comfortable doing it in German?" I said, "Oh, no problem."

Kajganich: Luca texted me and said, "Jessica speaks German, it's fine, it's great. She's on board."

Harper: Then I called the Berlitz School of Languages and said, "I need to learn German this afternoon. Can I come over?" And the rest is history.

Luckily my scene wasn't all that long, so I managed to polish up at least that amount of German.

So you were obviously behind the idea of the remake even before you got the call.

Harper: Oh, yeah. I've been hearing rumors about a possible remake for years. Then when I saw that Luca was gonna direct it, that this was really going to happen, I thought, "Oh my God, this is going to be so interesting and fabulous. I hope he calls me."

David, was the part of Anke rewritten in any way once you knew Jessica was on board?

Kajganich: When we realized... we could make that turn in the plot, it just felt like the perfect moment for her to appear in the film. It's kind of as [if] the ghost of things past — but in such a vital way.

I think what's great is, and I was saying this to [Jessica] earlier, it's not just that you're kind of a souvenir from the original film in this film. I mean, your performance is spectacular, and even when you get to the final scene where they're talking about what really happened, it's moving because it's [her] in our heads when we're hearing about it, and it's crushing. We were just so happy, not only that she would want to join the remake, but that she turned in such a beautiful performance.

Suspiria remake - Dakota Johnson in the dance studio

Photo credit: Sandro Kopp

I want to be as vague as possible here, but that final scene does bring back a sense of hopefulness. Was that the intent?

Kajganich: We knew we wanted to see [what happens] after this big turn when you realize that Susie isn't exactly what you think she is. Certainly not what she was in the original. We knew two things: One, we wanted the audience to have some sense of what her leadership of the coven would be like. Would it be compassionate? Would it be fascistic? Would it be both of those things?

We also knew that an audience was probably going to be quite attached to Klemperer, and what he goes through in the third act of the film, it seemed like it might be cruel to just leave it unclear what that experience had done to him. So we realized we could actually give an audience closure to both of those stories in this, in the same scene.

When we realized structurally we could do that, I was so excited to write that scene and so excited to see how it would come off and what audiences would think about it, because it's not really clear what you're meant to feel from that scene. I mean, I think one feels a lot after having been through what the film is about, but it's not clear whether that's a gift or whether that's a curse or whether that's robbery. What exactly do you think is happening in that scene? It's really an interesting way to leave an audience.

Obviously, this is a much different approach than the original Suspiria, with a new cast, new crew, but did you have any kind of deja vu while you were working on set, Jessica?

Harper: Sort of, yeah. It was more of a sense of this kind of incredible continuity. This thing had begun so long ago, and now here I was walking onto another set 40 years older, with a new Susie, and they all welcomed me. They were all so happy I was there, like a piece of the history that gave birth to this new movie was in the room. It just felt really cool and really right. It was great.

It seems that simply having you in the film could help win over skeptics and purists.

Harper: It is like an endorsement. Of course, Dario really likes the movie, so that helps. He put his stamp of approval on it.

Having seen the film with audiences at both Venice Film Festival and now at Fantastic Fest, what are you hoping for once the movie goes wide later this year?

Kajganich: I'm kind of hoping someone will program both of them together so that people who don't know either film can see them on the same night. I mean, to me that would be a wonderful, wonderful way to spend an evening.

Harper: Oh, that would be amazing. See the first one, go have a snack. Come back.

Suspiria opens nationwide on October 26. In the meantime, be sure to check out all of SYFY WIRE's Fantastic Fest coverage.

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