The Curator of Willem Dafoe’s Movie ‘Inside’ Takes Art on Film to a New Level

The new movie Inside, starring Willem Dafoe as an art thief, is both a psychological thriller and an art collector’s nightmare. For Italian curator Leonardo Bigazzi, it was also an unprecedented logistical challenge to stage the exhibition within the film.

The movie may be entirely a work of fiction, but its portrayal of an art thief trapped inside a Pritzker-winning architect’s home incorporates real and replica works from some of the world’s most famous living artists far beyond standard set design.

“At this scale, this has never been done before,” said Bigazzi, whose film and art career include work as curator of the Lo schermo dell’arte – Contemporary Art and Cinema Festival, curator at Fondazione In Between Art Film as well as commissioning and producing over 20 artist’s films.

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A banana duct-taped to a wall.

The most shocking thing Bigazzi told ARTnews was the large risk artists took if they loaned original items to ‘Inside’. “The artists had to accept that if it was a real artwork, it would not be insured,” he said with a laugh. “I had to gain their trust.”

In addition to the unusual insurance arrangement, the process of getting the valuable art collection to set involved long conversations about the role of specific artworks to the movie’s plot, complicated licensing agreements, as well as questions about what makes something a prop, a replica, or an artist’s original creation.

Bigazzi chatted with ARTnews about these issues, and more.

A stand-in for an invisible antagonist

In conceptualizing the unseen owner’s art collection, Bigazzi proposed a sophisticated selection for Inside through abstract pieces, strong design elements, political themes, as well as representations of elitism and wealth.

A range of mediums and artists would illustrate the character of its absent owner and the plight of Dafoe’s character, an art thief named Nemo.

As a result, the film’s luxury apartment includes paintings, sculptures, photography, drawings, installations, video, as well as conceptual works. The artists featured include Maxwell Alexandre, John Armleder, Maurizio Cattelan, Joanna Piotrowska, Egon Schiele, and Alvaro Urbano.

“It represents his passions, his loves, his encounters in life, but also, of course, his obsessions, and [the] obscure, let’s say, aspects of his personality,” Bigazzi told ARTnews.

Willem Dafoe stars as Nemo in director Vasilis Katsoupis' INSIDE, a Focus Features release. Credit: Wolfgang Ennenbach / Focus Features

Willem Dafoe walks in front of Maurizio Cattelan’s photography print “Untitled” during the movie INSIDE. Credit: Wolfgang Ennenbach / Focus Features

Wolfgang Ennenbach / Focus Featu

There’s a simple reason why Bigazzi only worked with living artists. The Italian curator learned fairly early that the foundations of artists, like American sculptor Alexander Calder or Argentine painter Lucio Fontana, prohibited replicas.

“When I started facing all these questions, I understood that the way to go but also the most fascinating way was to really work with living artists who would be interested in taking part in this film and this narrative,” he said.

Direct integration into the script

The movie’s relatively little dialogue also meant the chosen art works needed to help drive the emotional narrative of the film and reinforce Nemo’s psychological disruption after his unexpected entrapment.

Several times, Bigazzi was asked by director Vasilis Katsoupis, producer Giorgos Karnavas, and production designer Thorsten Sabel for art works that would serve specific scenes. Seven gelatin prints by Joanna Piotrowska were chosen for this reason. They show photographs of Piotrowska’s friends that she had asked to build shelters inside their apartments. Piotrowska’s idea of building a safe space within someone’s home mirrors what happens later on during Inside, when Nemo has to construct his own shelter.

“This beautiful series of works really shows what is our relationship with our domestic environments and the objects that relate to that,” Bigazzi said.

Art curator Leonardo Bigazzi (left) places Johanna Piotrowska's 'Untitled', 2014, with director Vasilis Katsoupis (right) on the set of INSIDE, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features

Art curator Leonardo Bigazzi (left) places Johanna Piotrowska’s ‘Untitled’, 2014, with director Vasilis Katsoupis (right) on set. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features

Courtesy of Focus Features

During one long scene in the film, a long shot focuses on a 2007 still photograph by Albanian artist Adrian Paci. “Centro di permanenza temporanea” shows refugees waiting on a staircase for a plane that will never arrive. The title is a reference to centers where immigrants are placed after arriving in Italy. “They’re stuck in this limbo between not being in their own, within the place where they’re coming from, but they haven’t yet arrived where they wanted to go,” Bigazzi said. While it’s a completely different political situation than Dafoe’s character of Nemo, it’s similar to his physical condition. “He’s not able to go where he wanted to be,” Bigazzi said.

Paci’s photograph also gave the film’s director the idea for Inside‘s dream sequence in which the staircase materializes in the video installation room.

An opportunity for commissions

In addition to loans and replicas, Bigazzi also commissioned original works from artists. A version of Rayyane Tabet‘s 2013 work Steel Rings was requested for a scene in the film when Nemo attempts to smash a window.

Willem Dafoe stars as Nemo in director Vasilis Katsoupis' INSIDE, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features

Willem Dafoe lies down next to Rayyane Tabet’s ‘Steel Rings’ during the film. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features

Courtesy of Focus Features

A version of Alvaro Urbano’s 2020 sculpture Noches en los Jardines de España embodied the film’s concept of time and served as a contradiction to the idea of organic decay. The sculpture — five realistic navel oranges made out of concrete with three painted to appear severely moldy — also served as a tool Nemo could try to use to escape. “Those oranges are almost there representing the impossibility of organic matter,” Bigazzi said, “which is obviously part of surviving.”

Meta-questions about authenticity

The question of what was a prop, a replica, and an original artwork blurred. An acrylic on canvas work by Maurizio Cattelan was a replica in theory. But it was made by Cattelan, travelled in a professional art crate to the set, and it went back to the artist’s studio. “If he signs it, it’s a work,” Bigazzi said. “But the moment it was on set, it was a prop, legally speaking.”

In Bigazzi’s mind, the same logic applies to the replica photographs Piotrowska made for the film, since they were produced in the same dark room in London as her original images.

In the case of Tabet’s Steel Rings, the film’s version was made exactly as the artist would have done, and then Bigazzi sent the sculpture back to the artist to use. “Why would I produce something that then is wasted by being thrown away?,” he said. “You might as well do it in a way in which what you’re doing has a reason to exist also after the film.”

Managing a new level of risk

Since original works on set could not be insured due to the risk of fire and water damage, Bigazzi chose items that could either be replaced, such as David Horvitz’s neon sign All the time that will come after this moment (2019) or the damage would become part of the work. In the case of The Moth Costume by Petrit Halilaj, which was originally developed for the Venice Biennale in 2017, stains and rips are signs of its use throughout the life of the Kosovan installation artist. “When he wears it in a performance, if its gets dirty, it’s okay,” Bigazzi said. “It’s part of the life of a work as much as the skin of an animal or our clothes.”

Bigazzi said there was a simple explanation for how Dafoe’s character treated the artwork in the film. “Since the very beginning, the conversation with Vasilis was if an artwork gets destroyed, it has to be for a purpose,” he said. “It’s either for physical survival, or for psychological survival.”

Despite the craft and caliber of the artists’ contributions to the collection in the film, Bigazzi has no hard feelings for how many of them were treated. “Anything that gets destroyed, it’s a replica, it’s not a real work, so it’s okay,” he said.

A legacy past the closing credits

Even with all of that, Bigazzi said the artists featured in Inside were excited about the possibility of their work reaching a much wider audience that normally isn’t exposed to contemporary art. “Maybe through this movie they’re going to ask themselves some further questions about some of the works,” he said.

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