CASANOVA - Q&A with director Lasse Hallstrom
Amidst the all-star cast assembled for Lasse Hallström's CASANOVA, there's one character that lends the film a unique and undeniably beautiful quality - the city of Venice itself.
The production had to negotiate layers of tricky red tape before permission to film its beguilingly enchanting waterways was granted and once it was, shooting itself was often fraught with difficulty. But it was worth it, says the director.
"The way Venice is reflected on screen comes across in the performances and has been a source of inspiration to us," says Hallström. "It's all shot in Venice and it affects the film, it's more for real with real locations.
"We are the first film that has had permission to shoot a carnival scene at San Marco and I'm honoured. They have been very kind to us and there was a lot to go through to get permission, which I haven't been part of as a director, but I am very grateful.
"It's actually gone very smoothly and I guess it is good publicity for Venice, too. We have been all over the place, working at night, fireworks, and the city has been quite generous."
The logistics of shooting in Venice would be a challenge to any filmmaker and any production. For a start, everything has to be transported by boat via the canals which is time consuming and tricky.
And the water itself is unpredictable. The day after this interview with Hallström was conducted on set, a high tide was predicted which would again challenge the cast and crew. "It's very difficult, but you just have to adapt," says the director. "And get on with it."
Indeed, Hallström was remarkably relaxed and clearly enjoying directing Heath Ledger in the title role, Sienna Miller as the strong willed Francesca, his wife, the actress Lena Olin as Francesca's long suffering mother and Jeremy Irons as Bishop Pucci who is sent to Venice by the Church concerned by reports of moral decline.
"Casanova hopefully has a range of the dramatic and the romantic, but it's mostly a romp," says Hallström. "I started out with a filmmaker for television doing these kinds of things, so in a way you could say I'm going back to where I started."
Hallström, 59, was born in Stockholm and cut his professional teeth working in Swedish television, including working with the phenomenally successful pop group Abba during the 1970s. In 1985 he won worldwide acclaim for his acutely observed bittersweet film MY LIFE AS A DOG - which also earned him two Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.
His American breakthrough came with WHAT'S EATING GILBERT GRAPE, starring Johnny Depp and a young Leonardo DiCaprio. He has consolidated his position as one of the best directors working today thanks to films like CHOCOLAT, CIDER HOUSE RULES, THE SHIPPING NEWS and, more recently, AN UNFINISHED LIFE with Jennifer Lopez and Robert Redford.
Hallström lives near New York with his wife, the actress Lena Olin, and their two children.
Has the weather here in Venice affected the filming?
Not so far, but I hear tomorrow is going to be the highest tide ever (laughs). So that's going to be interesting. Really, it hasn't affected us so far. When the tide is high they can't go under the bridges with the equipment but they have been clever with that, they check the tides, but a Venetian crew knows all about that. You need to know what particular equipment you need to bring on any particular day because there is limited docking space for these barges and transportation itself is slower than it is on land. And we are still on schedule (laughs)
Why did you decide to shoot the movie on location?
I think it is one of the few American movies that has been shot entirely on location in Venice and I was eager to shoot it all here because it's entirely different when you have to piece things together - with interiors in Prague or whatever the other plans were. The way Venice is reflected on screen comes across in the performances and has been a source of inspiration to us - it's all shot in Venice and it affects the film, it's more for real with real locations. We are the first film that has had permission to shoot a carnival scene at San Marco and I'm honoured. They have been very kind to us and there was a lot to go through to get permission, which I haven't been part of as a director, but I am very grateful. It's actually gone very smoothly and I guess it is good publicity for Venice, too. We have been all over the place, working at night, fireworks, and the city has been quite generous.
How would you describe the film?
It's a romp, it's a comedy, it's got hopefully, a range of the dramatic and the romantic, but it's mostly a romp. I started out with a filmmaker for television doing these kinds of things, so in a way you could say I'm going back to where I started. I started doing comedy for TV in the sixties and so I'm so I'm back to what I did early on.
Is there a comparison, to say, CHOCOLAT?
Well the film aspires to be comedic and CHOCOLAT had a little bit of that but this is going even further towards farce and comedy. But it still wants to be rooted in reality and be dramatic and romantic so it has a wider range. If I compare it to my other films this is going much broader with comedy than anything that I've done.
Let's talk about the genesis of the film. How did it start for you?
It was an idea, a script from Disney and they asked me if I wanted to be involved. The script needed a lot of work but the premise was there and we went to Jeff Hatcher, who is a writer who really made the story work. So it was just a year ago we decided to go ahead with this - so I've been involved for one and a half years which is a short time, really. Jeff Hatcher elevated the project and he is the one who really made the story work. But it was a good premise and I jumped on to it as a premise. It's about Casanova wanting to get away, start a new life, really and being tired of his life and wanting to start again - that's the premise.
Tell us about Heath Ledger in the leading role.
Heath Ledger certainly has the chops for the range of a part like Casanova; he was a multi skilled, multi talented man and Heath Ledger is a wonderful choice. He has great comedic timing, he is really smart and he has the charm and the looks. Maybe he hasn't made it yet as a lead, he has been in films that have been as successful, maybe, but I think this one will be good for him.
What sort of audience do you see for this film?
It's a romp, a comedy, it's not going to be sexually explicit. I would define it as a romantic comedy and it's not sexually challenging or provocative. Maybe if there's any comparison, it's SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE - but I shouldn't even go there (laughs). It's a romantic comedy and we want to be a little clever and a little elegant with it of course. So I grew up with broad comedy throughout my life. I grew up admiring Chaplin and as I said I started in television with comedy but with features I tried to avoid it, because I wanted to tell true stories and I cringe with broad comedy that doesn't work. So I'm getting into things that I've been avoiding, especially before CHOCOLAT. So this is a bit of a departure.
How is it working with your wife on CASANOVA?
As lovely as it was on CHOCOLAT. I would love to find something where she is the actual lead and I'm still looking. Having had some bad luck with two projects which were cancelled at the last minute where she was the lead. I still want to do that badly. I wanted to focus on her story. But this has been as lovely as it was with CHOLOLAT. We are having the time of our lives again (laughs).
Do you have any spare time together?
We are all having a blast, as they say. It's a perfect way of exploring a city and really getting to know a place, to work in it. To get to know Venice through making a film here is wonderful.
What certificate do you think the film will have?
It doesn't have any explicit sex so maybe PG-13.
How has Sienna Miller been to work with?
She is a movie star and she's like from the period. I'm really happy that I picked her. Going with a British girl with this, she has great taste and she is going a great job, that's all I can say.
She was unknown at the time. Why not choose a more established actress?
I auditioned a lot of actresses and it's really based on performance. She is up and coming and she has been in ALFIE and I think she is very good in that. Sienna is an excellent actress.
Benny and Bjorn (from Abba) have been talking about making a movie of the musical Mama Mia and your name has been mentioned as a director. How would you feel about that?
That would be lovely. We've already talked about the possibility of that. I would let to get back and work for them, which would be a dream. Having done their videos and worked with them I would love to.
The following interview with Lasse Hallstrom took place during the Venice Film Festival in September 2005 where Casanova played out of competition.
You must be pleased with the reaction the film has had here in Venice?
Yes, I am. I still want to see it with a paying audience that know it's a comedy from the start and would pick up on the English stuff. But it has been great.
Casanova has been portrayed many times on television and in film. How was your approach different?
Well, the fact that we weren't dealing with the real Casanova was comforting to me. We had taken the legend and were spinning off in strange directions from there. So for fun I did some research on the real Casanova and what an interesting character - that would be a very interesting film, but that's not what we wanted to make. He was a scientist, a composer, a gambler, all these different things. But that would be another film. We wanted to play with the myth of Casanova the seducer.
Do you think that myth stands the test of time?
Well, apparently he was great at understanding women, being intuitive about what women really needed. He was a great listener and allowed them to be themselves. And I think that was very seductive and the key reason why he was successful with women was that he respected them and listened to them.
What attracted you to the story?
Geoff Hatcher did a re-write of the script which was so funny, so cleverly plotted, and I liked the idea of trying something very different. Not that it's entirely different, because I did television in Sweden when I started in the sixties. So the tone is not totally foreign to me. You always want to find a challenge and the challenge was to see if I could get away with silly and still have story that is emotionally involved and have an observation or two on human behaviour the way I have the ambition to do when I do drama comedies. So it's that wide range of elements.
When did Heath Ledger come on board?
I think it was January last year. We needed a sexy guy and the list is short. If you want a male lead that has some kind of draw and the experience with him was great. He is a filmmaker himself and he was a great contributor.
Jeremy Irons proves that he has a nice comedic touch in this...
Yes and he hasn't done much comedy at all. But he has great command of the English language; so dry and droll and if listen to him in the LION KING - which I did - and you sensed what he could do with this character (laughs). So I pretty much cast him from THE LION KING. The character is pompous and self important and a bit scary.
When you cast Sienna she hadn't done a great deal of film work. What was it about her that you liked so much?
She did a really good audition in London. I wanted it to be a British accent throughout and I auditioned a lot of English girls. And she has class, elegance and good taste and these are very important things for any actress and specifically in this part.
Did you enjoy working with your wife? Lena Olin?
Very much and I always do. We should have done more (films) together and I want to do something where she is the lead and I'm planning on doing that next year. We hope to make a small budget film based on a Swedish play called LOVE BOMBING. We have great fun working together and I want to do more of it. And we have our secret Swedish language that we can use on set (laughs) and no one can understand us! She is such a wonderful presence on screen and I want to work more with her.
So you fall in love with her all over again each time you make a film...
That would suggest falling out of love and that hasn't happened (smiles).
How do you look back on filming in Venice?
We shot it all for real using real locations in Venice, apart from the balloon sequence at the end which was against green screen. I think that really gave the actors an inspiration and that is reflected in the fun they are having and you can see that on screen. I felt it would have been a very different movie if we had shot it on stage somewhere, which is what they usually do - they shoot the canals and then shoot the rest in a studio. There were some restrictions, some bureaucracy and at one point we worried that it might not happen but all the permissions we needed came in at the last minute.
And you know, they were very generous and they allowed us into San Marco where no one has probably had a carnival since it happened for real in the 1800s. So we are the first to shoo there and I don't think anyone has ever been up on that balcony. So we had permission to do even more than we ever expected to do.
Logistically it must have been a challenge...
Yes, but with an Italian crew they are used to working here and it was very interesting to watch, how they managed to keep up the speed of any other crew. They were fantastic.
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