Shooting in 100% Humidity: Michelangelo Frammartino on Il Buco
In 2007, Michelangelo Frammartino was scouting locations for Le Quattro Volte in Alessandria del Carretto, whose mayor took him to the Bifurto Abyss, one of the world’s deepest caves. That, along with a follow-up expedition in 2016, planted the seed for Il Buco, Frammartino’s third feature.
In the time since, Frammartino has become an avid speleologist, and Il Buco is ostensibly a recreation of the initial exploration of Bifurto in 1961, at the outset of Italy’s “economic miracle.” Frammartino juxtaposes it with the day-to-day life of an aging shepherd, giving the film an elegiac tone as it mixes pastoral myth and quasi-ethnography within the same dialogue-free form of “slow cinema” that characterized Le Quattro Volte.
Like many of its aesthetic counterparts, Il Buco buries a critique of industrialization within a metaphor for the human condition (or perhaps vice versa), but it is most remarkable for stunning footage shot several hundred meters underground, where the only light comes from bulbs on the helmets of spelunkers. It is difficult to overstate the magnificence of this material; it is conceivable someone else might have eventually taken cameras into the abyss to capture whatever amateur footage they could, and one can perhaps imagine another film director skilled enough to make such images worthwhile, Frammartino’s mix of speleological expertise and filmmaking chops makes this a project with few analogues (James Cameron’s The Abyss is one).
With the help of translator Lilia Pino Blouin, Frammartino discussed the numerous challenges posed by shooting inside the cave, the sanctity of the theatrical experience and the comfort he feels when he doesn’t have control. Il Buco begins its release tomorrow from Grasshopper Film.
Filmmaker: At what point did you decide you wanted to take a camera into the Bifurto Abyss, and were you ever worried that it just wasn’t possible to actually film anything?
Frammartino: It was the moment that I discovered, thanks to some friends, that the Pollino Mountain Range–which is a mountain very dear to my heart, and I thought I knew it well–has an entire second landscape underground which I knew nothing about, because I had never been interested in cave exploration. I was thinking of what you see on the surface and completely ignored that there was a whole other layer underground. This sort of off-frame [space], which is extremely important in cinema, piqued my curiosity, and I started to consider the possibility of using a camera down there.
The problem was finding the right camera to be able to respect that blackness. Down there you have an experience of darkness very difficult to replicate anywhere else. When you’re sleeping, you wake up and, even if you slept for an entire night, you don’t know what time it is and how long you slept. When you open your eyes nothing changes, so you try to open them further. It’s an experience of absolute blackness and darkness, and I wondered if there was a device that would correctly replicate this tonality.
[Cinematographer] Renato Berta tested several cameras. There’s 100% humidity in the cave, very challenging for the equipment. There were all kinds of logistical issues. It’s a cave you can only go down with a rope, and we had very complex professional equipment that we needed to handle. Therefore, there were several occasions on which we were really concerned and thought that maybe this wouldn’t be feasible after all. We struggled to find an insurance company that would cover the risks of the set, for example.
Filmmaker: What kind of camera did you use?
Frammartino: We tested several cameras and their sensors. At first we ruled out using film and old-style cameras that would have been very challenged under the conditions. We quickly eliminated any analog device, moved on to digital and tried a number of cameras until Renato became convinced that the Sony sensor was the most respectful of the black tonalities. In the end we opted for the Sony Venice, which at the time was not very widely used for films.
Filmmaker: Did the cold and humidity limit how long you could stay underground with the equipment? How did you work around these issues?
Frammartino: We actually left the equipment down there for six whole weeks. The equipment was never taken to the surface, specifically so that it wouldn’t be subject to temperature and humidity changes. We had a team of cave explorers who, at the end of each shooting day, would bring them to the next location where we would shoot the following day. They would be stored in waterproof containers. This would guarantee they would be kept at the same temperature and humidity.
The data, obviously, would come to the surface with me everyday. I would put the memory cards in a watertight container and bring them up with me. We were connected with the outside when we were shooting all the time, and we were shooting at a depth of 400 meters, so we needed a fiber optic cable that was almost one kilometer long to be connected to the surface, where Renato was following the shoot with a high definition monitor.
I did not have a high-definition monitor. I had a small monitor, the only thing I could handle in those extreme conditions. There were only seven of us who would go down there, because only seven of us had the certifications and licenses that allowed us to work down there. We were constantly connected with headphones and would talk via the fiber optic connection, because of course phones don’t work down there and radios can’t be used in those conditions. But the fiber optic connection allowed Renato to manage the aperture in real-time. He was able to handle that remotely.
This was very important under those conditions because–and this is something that is very fascinating to me–in this film even a very tiny movement of someone’s head, since they had their headlights on, changed the lighting of the entire cave. It was fundamental for Renato to be able to modify the aperture in response to unpredictable tiny movements.
Filmmaker: What kind of lighting did you use and was it difficult to find something that would illuminate the caves and also look good on camera?
Frammartino: We didn’t shoot in a cave that is, so to speak, “beautiful.” In the collective imagination, caves are beautiful when there are stalactites and stalagmites, but caves that look like that are destined to become tourist attractions and die as caves when lights and walkways are installed. The Bifurto is a naked cave, so we could say it’s not “beautiful”—even though, to me, it’s extremely beautiful for that reason.
Renato Berta, the great eye of the 20th century, who designed the lighting for this film, thought about it, and after discussions we agreed not to use any additional lighting and just use the lights on the helmets of the explorers. When we made that decision, he chose the lights and gelled them according to various needs. They are his own lights, and then the camera, as I mentioned, was the most sensitive camera so the light could be sufficient.
Filmmaker: How long is a filming day? I imagine it might take hours just to get several hundred meters down before you start to film.
Frammartino: Yes, it took a very long time. When we worked at great depth, for some of us it would take four to five hours to get down to our location for the day. Of course we had two teams–the surface team and the cave team–and the cave team would take off a lot earlier. We needed hours to get down there and even more time to install the cables in the cave and install the microphones—we recorded sound with the Dolby Atmos system, which was quite complex—so we had situations when we would take off at 7 am and be ready to shoot at 4 pm. The ground crew would show up at 3 pm so they wouldn’t have to wait all day. In certain circumstances we ended up just shooting one hour, because after all that we had to climb up for five more hours. It was extremely challenging and tiring. On many occasions the ground crew had already left when we resurfaced. So, there were weeks in which we never saw each other; we would just get together on Sunday at the cafe.
Filmmaker: How many descents did you make? How long did it take to shoot just the cave scenes?
Frammartino: I can’t say exactly–it was over six weeks, but we had rest days. I want to say 30 or 35 times.
Filmmaker: Did you have any idea what your footage would look like? Did you have any indication as to whether or not you had captured anything good?
Frammartino: Sometimes I didn’t. It’s funny, the very first day of shooting I went up and was desperate because I thought I didn’t have anything, and when I got out I saw Renato [and producer] Marco [Serrecchia], and they had such smiles on their faces. They were so happy, and I thought we had accomplished nothing. The second day, the opposite happened. I came up, I was very happy, and they looked at me all disappointed and said, “It wasn’t a good day today.” So, there was really a big disconnect.
Over the entire six-week shoot there was a very interesting lack of understanding between the above-ground and below-ground crew. It lasted for quite some time, including when we dealt with the project on the outside, probably because we hadn’t been together that whole time.
Filmmaker: When the only lighting is from the helmet and you are working with nonprofessional actors, how did you direct a scene? Or did you even try to?
Frammartino: Making a period piece is something in previous years I didn’t think I would be able to do, because I am interested in making cinema with a significant component of non-control. A period piece clearly requires you to have the right outfit and handle everything in a certain way to bring the film and audience to that diegetic time. Having to keep everything under control is something that scared me when I, on the contrary, wanted to set control aside.
Working with nonprofessional actors, with animals, in climate conditions you can’t control, is something that, for me, is reassuring. It seems funny or weird to say that, but I am reassured by not having control. In terms of the nonprofessional actors, who are expert cave explorers, I was asking them a number of things, but I completely trusted them and their deep, profound knowledge of the underground world. They had a lot of experience—a way of moving and walking and resting their feet and looking around—which came before any instruction on my part. This was very important for me.
What is also very important to me is that the image of this film was closer to “presence” than to “representation.” I didn’t want this group to “represent” the 1961 group that made the mission, even though I dressed them the same way; I wanted this group to behave the way cave explorers do when faced by a cave. This difference–between an image that represents and an image that presents–is very important to me. What we did was actually go on our own mision, ourselves, to shoot this film. It wasn’t about telling another story. It was our story.
Often they would tell me, “When you discover a new well, you celebrate. Will we celebrate?” I would say “No, because you know it’s there.” We are not replicating what the explorers of that time were doing. We are still exploring the cave, but we are ourselves. We are not pretending to be the 1961 explorers.
Filmmaker: What about the experience in the cave necessitated this film be mixed in Dolby Atmos?
Frammartino: A cave is a very fascinating place where one has a very forceful feeling of being out of place, something that had never happened to me before in that way. Sound is a very important component of that feeling.
One can experience “sound mirages.” People on the outside will laugh when you try to tell them, but the experience is very powerful. Sometimes you climb up an entire cave and you’re convinced you have someone climbing up behind you, and you keep shouting “free,” a command you use to note that the rope is free. You keep saying “free, free, free” to your partner, then when you’re out you realize you were actually the last one. There was nobody behind you. For hours and hours you continued to shout “free” to nobody and you’re convinced there was somebody. I know that doesn’t sound credible, but sound in a cave plays incredible tricks on you. It doesn’t happen to me alone. I have three or four years of experience with cave exploration–I’m not an expert–but there are explorers with 40 or 50 years of experience, and the stories they tell about the sound are incredible.
Dolby Atmos was important for the immersive component of this experience. I wanted it to be an experience, not a storytelling episode. Just like I didn’t want this group to pretend to be the group from 1961, it was important for me that the spectator of the film be within the experience of darkness and feel the sound of the cave and really experience being in that incredible spot. This is an experience the audience shares with the explorers at a personal level. They aren’t identifying with somebody else’s story; it’s their own story. They are having the same emotions the explorers are. They create a collective experience. At home, it makes no sense. It needs to be viewed in a movie theater where the audience is immersed in darkness together with the explorer’s team and they advance, little by little. The sound announces what will happen, just like it does for speleologists. They drop a stone, then listen and start to imagine what the cave will be like. The sound starts conveying information about this blackness, about the depths.
Something that I found very impressive was that the 1961 group performed a very significant exploration mission, a sort of upside down K2—at the time it was the second- or third-deepest cave in the world—and they decided not to talk about it. They didn’t tell anyone. All there is is a bunch of photos and two printed pages telling the story, but only for their internal use. An incredible accomplishment: they succeeded, but decided to just live it and not talk about it. How beautiful! This is something that in our generation would be unimaginable. For us, if we don’t publish what we do, it’s as if we hadn’t done it at all. Their having not told the story of this extraordinary accomplishment does not authorize me to do it now. Why would I tell a story that they did not want to tell? I hope to build a cinema experience, which will be a different thing than a cinema of storytelling.
Filmmaker: Were you particularly deliberate about making a theatrical film at a time when streaming is becoming more common and theatrical is losing ground?
Frammartino: This movie [began shooting] in 2019, and we finished just a couple weeks before the pandemic. This caused significant changes that we of course couldn’t predict. Having said that, it’s not as if I didn’t already know that viewing films in cinemas was losing ground pre-pandemic. The collective experience of being in a dark room, in front of a screen where you truly feel the work other people are doing when watching a film—and you share it and you perceive other people working alongside you, the way your team members would during an exploration mission—is an experience I consider fundamental. I don’t want that to be lost. This is the reason that I thought I would make a movie that would be a celebration of the theater experience and this way of enjoying cinema. I was well aware that the film would lose a lot on our devices, but for me it was an act of love for movie theater enjoyment.
Filmmaker: There’s a magazine photograph of Richard Nixon that we see prominently in the film. How deliberate was the choice of Nixon?
Frammartino: There is a photo in an Italian magazine—Epoca, very widely read at the time—that shows Kennedy and Nixon facing each other. Kennedy had become President of the United States just a couple of weeks before the exploration. While we were shooting, they were announcing the new presidential elections, and that had an effect on my choice of material.
However, I also want to say that Kennedy, for us—and not just for us—was truly an announcement of a new era. Having a young man as the new president meant, for the whole world, that there would be a change and, for this film, there was a component of the ‘60s. The ‘60s were considered the era of the economic boom. All things considered, I don’t know how many truly experienced this boom, and this movie wants to play with this a little and create a counter-tale showing the other side of the coin. Specifically, this decision to go toward the bottom when the entire world looked upward: to go toward the darkness when finally light has reached every place, choosing darkness when everyone now has television.
Filmmaker: To this day Calabria is among the poorest regions of Italy–the “economic miracle” never blessed the region. Were the political elements of the present day also a major component of this film?
Frammartino: Yes. It is clear that there is still a great disparity between north and south, and I’m not embarrassed to say it. I still feel I’m a Calabrian even though I was born in Milan, and there is still a deep inequality. People still leave Calabria today the way they did back then, to work and study, but also just to find medical treatment—the disparity persists. It is also a story connected to my own life, my own personal history. The television that illuminates the faces in the scene in the piazza “digs” and shines a light on new desires the way cave explorers “dig” in the cave with their own light, but they dig into emptiness. Television digs into new needs that will push these people to leave their region and go toward new attractions in the north.