Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Followup on Eli and Federico

Tullio Pinelli, left, who co-wrote the film "La Strada" with Federico Fellini, far right, is seen in 1957 with the film's co-producer, Dino de Laurentiis, and star, Guilietta Masina. "La Strada" won the first ever Academy Award for best foreign-language film. (Los Angeles Times)

From: DINO The Life and Films of Dino De Laurentiis
by Tullio Kezich and Alessandra Levantesi,
translated from the Italian by James Marcus
(In an excerpt from Eli Wallach's autobiography, the American actor talked about meeting Federico Fellini and being offered a role in a movie to be produced by Dino De Laurentiis. Federico backed out of making the movie, which led to lawsuits by De Laurentiis because of the amount of pre-production money already spent. Here's what is said about that project in the official De Laurentiis' biography.)
Then, in January 1964, as Fellini was preparing to shoot JULIET OF THE SPIRITS, Dino learned that his old friend was squabbling with his erstwhile patron, producer Angelo Rizzoli. Could it be time for a rapproachement? After some amiable discussions, Dino and Fellini signed an unusual contract, dated February 13. According to this document, they would make JULIET OF THE SPIRITS together is Rizzoli declined it, or as an alternative, a film "of a modern kind, i.e. without any costumes." There was also an option for a second film. Alerted to the situation, Rizzoli grew alarmed and accused Federico of wanting to betray him "with that Neapolitan down there."
In the end, JULIET was the last project Fellini would direct for the elderly Angelo. That left the second film. The contract between the old friends had specified an appropriate title, WHAT MAD UNIVERSE, a science-fiction novel Fellini had asked Dino to option. By now, however, the director had something quite different in mind, which he didn't initially share with his partner. This was a short novel by Dino Buzzati called LO STRANO VIAGGIO (THE STRANGE VOYAGE), which he'd read in a magazine eighteen years before: the story of a young man who mysteriously finds himself in the afterworld.
Traveling up to Milan, Federico invited Buzzati to knock out the screenplay with him. And so IL VIAGGIO DI G. MASTORNA (THE VOYAGE OF G. MASTORNA) came into being - amidst many doubts on Dino's part. The producer was less than enthusiastic about filming the other-worldly travels of a dead man. Throughout 1965, while Buzzati moved forward with the script, Fellini and Dino's brothers, Luigi and Alfredo, scouted locations in Naples, Milan, and Cologne. In the new studio at Dinocitta - where the director felt uncomfortable from the very first day, calling it "a space station, in inaccessible outpost" - various sets began to tape shape. These included a scale model of the Cologne cathedral and the airplane in which the cellist Giuseppe Mastorna believes himself to be landing safely. (Instead, the plane crashes, and the protagonist crosses over to the kingdom of the dead.)
Other pieces of scenery were hammered together, among them a Neapolitan set at Vasca Navale, and Dino procured hundreds of costumes. But now Fellini revealed an alarming listlessness. The maestro was in fact experiencing the crsis that he'd depicted earlier in 8 1/2; he was a director about to embark on a film he no longer wanted to make. He had come to believe that MASTORNA was bringing him bad luck - that messing around with the afterlife was not a smart thing to do. On September 14, 1966, Fellini had the following message delivered to his producer: "I must tell you that I've been debating within myself for some time, and that I've finally come to a conclusion... I can't begin the film because, despite everything that's happened, I wouldn't be able to complete it.... I'm so sorry, caro Dino, to have arrived at this decision, but it's the only thing I can do."
A war between the two friends exploded, with the newspapers fanning the flames. Dino filed a claim for 1 billion lira in damages; the court granted him 350 million and a bailiff showed up at the villa Federico shared with Giulietta Masina to begin the seizure of property. Since the attached goods added up to a smaller sum than the grant by the court, Dino also asked for the seizure of any funds still owed to Fellini by Rizzoli.
The skirmish was interrupted by the official premiere of THE BIBLE at San Carlo di Napoli. Meanwhile Luigi and Alfredo De Laurentiis did everything they could do to broker a truce between the director and producer. Fellini had made the situation worse by declaring that he was ready to make the film for a different producer. In fact, he may already have been in the midst of secret negotiations, but the intermediaries kept trying to cobble something together.
Finally Dino and Federico agreed to meet one evening in January 1967, in the park surrounding the Villa Borghese in Rome. When the appointed time arrived, the producer joined the director and his lawyer in their car. The trio circled the park slowly, over and over, with Dino's car and driver following. After an hour, the first car came to a halt, the occupants climbed out, and the two enemies exchanged a peacemaking embrace. All around them, meanwhile, retainers from both sides, who had been squatting on the grass, leaped forward in jubilation.
Since Fellini no longer wanted to work at Dinocitta, preparations for the film recommenced in the old studios at Vasca Navale. There was some thought of signing up Mastroianni for the lead role, but he was unavailable in April or May, when the shoot was scheduled to begin. It was also too late to hire an American star, so Fellini settled on Ugo Tognazzi. On March 13 he sent Dino a cheerleading note: "I've decided to use Tognazzi. Godspeed and good luck to us all" The actor, who hadn't yet made his break into real stardom, was overjoyed at the news and ran off to telephone his father. But on the evening of April 10, at a decisively unfavorable juncture, the director was rushed to the hospital with severe chest pains.
Dino couldn't believe it. Suspecting Fellini of faking illness to get out of making the film, he sent down his own team of doctors to the Salvator Mundi Clinic. But when the physicians returned with a catastrophic diagnosis - possible cancer - De Laurentiis was unable to hold back his tears. Luckily the next day examinations put these fears to rest. Federico was suffering from pleurisy, an infalmmation of the membrane separating the lungs from the abdomen, with complications from anaphylactic shock. The doctors prescribed a long convalescence, which had just begun when Dino himself had to be rushed to the hospital after an attack of appendicitis.
Did all this put MASTORNA on hold? Of course not. The recuperating director soon received a visit from Paul Newman. He'd been sent by Dino, who hoped that the maestro would cast him as Mastorna in place of Tognazzi - who, unjustly dropped from the project, ended up suing everybody.
In May the convalescent Fellini told one interviewer regarding Dino, "There's no longer any acrimony between us. On the contrary, I believe that Dino has a great deal of regard for me." It wasn't clear, however,whether the director still wanted to make the film of if he intended to make it with somebody else. As pragmatic as ever - and perhaps equally disenchanted by a project that had brought him such grief - Dino ended the suspense by relieving the director of his obligations. In return, on August 21, Fellini signed a contract to make three films with De Laurentiis over the next five years. He would never make a single one.
By now, the padrone of Dinocitta had lost all hope of breaking even on the project. Another Neapolitan producer, Alberto Grimaldi, nonetheless expressed interest in acquiring the rights to MASTORNA and reimbursing all of Dino's expenses. On September 25 Grimaldi presented Dino with a check and brought the entire dispute to an end. Fellini recounts the grand finale in this way: "Dino fell to his knees, shouting, 'San Gennaro exists, he's right here in front of me, his name is Alberto Grimaldi!" Today Dino dismisses this little scene as more fruit of the director's imagination, but he does say, "Not even this new San Gennaro could pull off what would have been a real miracle: convincing Fellini to make the film."
(Fellini would make SATRYICON and CASANOVA for Grimaldi instead.)

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