Days went by, and still the Widow refused us entry. At first it seemed merely a question of scheduling, but gradually it became apparent there was a problem. The problem was us, explained our contact, Carole. A former actress, Carole had blond hair in a bun and a perfect American accent, tinged with a languor that suggests she had been to many fabulous parties and seen much craziness. She is the head of global PR at Cinecittà; she was big-picture. She had let it drop that the studio might soon be acquiring that symbol of the big-time Hollywood back lot: golf carts.
"Someone told him a writer and director from America wanted to see him."
"And that's a problem?" I asked.
"He thinks that you are here to steal the idea for his movie," she said. Apparently, there had been temper tan-trums, denunciations, and refusals.
Tom Dey is the director of two Hollywood movies—Showtime, with Eddie Murphy and Robert De Niro, and Shanghai Noon, with Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson. I suppose this fact had been advertised to the Widow.
"Won't someone explain to him that we're just journalists?We're not going to steal anything. We're here to report," I said. "Giornalista!"
The word rang out in the press office, and immediately the notion that this word would be reassuring to someone who spent years working with the man who made La Dolce Vita seemed absurd.
La Dolce Vita is remembered for its iconic image of Anita Ekberg standing in the Trevi Fountain—that, and the wild partying of Rome's café society. But the movie is actually about the rabid, mercenary, attack-dog mentality of the paparazzi and the soulless journalists they work with.
There are many other celluloid journalists on the make in Rome, and none of them are terribly encouraging. In Roman Holiday, Audrey Hepburn plays a princess and Gregory Peck a reporter who, in desperate need of a scoop, strings her along in a romance while his photographer friend trails them, snapping away.
Perhaps the word giornalista was not going to be the key to getting into the Fellini Museum.
The American Hour
Cinecittà's fortunes waxed and waned, and in the late nineties it was privatized. Now it has a new management team and a new momentum. Scorsese shot Gangs of New York there, rhapsodizing about the skills of the in-house craftsmen. When we arrived Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ had recently wrapped, as had, in a curious bit of symmetry, Exorcist: The Beginning. Steven Soderbergh, George Clooney, and Julia Roberts were due in a couple of months to start shooting Ocean's Twelve.
Why was Wes Anderson, director of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, shooting his movie in Rome?
"I knew it would be beautiful and exotic and yet contained," he explained. "And I loved Cinecittà. Their traditions are completely out of sync with the way American movies are made. At Cinecittà you go in and you say what you want to do. Then they tell you what you can do."
Most of the Life Aquatic cast was installed in a concentrated area: Bill Murray had an apartment on Via Giulia, more or less next door to Wilson's place on the Piazza Farnese. Cate Blanchett was on the Campo de' Fiori, Anjelica Huston was at the Grand Hotel Parco dei Principi, and Willem Dafoe was staying near the Pantheon. Anderson, characteristically, had secluded himself, in a villa in the Trastevere section. It was an unusual spot.
"Right next to a prison," he said. "It's in a three-hundred-fifty-year-old building. It's beautiful but it's also, you know, a prison.Whenever there's a soccer match on TV, it's as if the match is actually in the prison! You have three hundred guys all screaming at the same time."
Rome does not appear in The Life Aquatic as a location, but it permeates in other ways.
The walls of art director Mark Friedberg's sprawling and chaotic office at Cinecittà look like a collage made by a cineastobsessed with a peculiar meld of early-sixties Mediterranean glamour. There are pictures of yachts, white dresses, and tuxedo-clad men at casinos. Perhaps it's the mood of Rome's golden age as much as any particular location that brought the production here.
Outside Friedberg's office was a large room where a group of Italian and American draftsmen worked. I asked how he liked working with the Italians.
"Top-quality, totally great," he said. "Although there is the American Hour. Two to three in the afternoon, because there are only Americans working here then. For the Italians, one to two is lunch, but from two to three is coffee, talking to your friends. Who am I to judge?They've been living like this for two thousand years. Maybe they know something we don't."