Directing Dangerous Beauty

An Interview with Marshall Herskovitz

Interviewers: Anne Aubert-Santelli and Shannon McHugh
Date: Summer 2006
Location: Bedford Falls Productions, Santa Monica, CA
Length: Approximately 1 hour

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Q: Why has there been so much interest in the story of Veronica Franco?
A: The story has a message that is rare in American society that has to do with sexual politics. We, as a society, have moved a great deal in the past 25 years. The message in this movie is a little bit less necessary than it was 25 years ago. But there are issues that we still don’t understand as a society – issues that we put on women from the time they are two years old that separate them from themselves and force them to put the different parts of their personalities into different boxes. The movie is radical because it says, “No, you don’t have to do that!” I think a lot of people respond personally to that. I do. I have two daughters…

Q: Why did you have to make this film?
A: I first heard about the story from Sarah [Sarah Kaplan, Co-Prouder]. She had just read the book. She walks into my office and says, “Here’s a story: prostitute, brilliant poet, put on trial by the Inquisition and is acquitted.” I said, “I’m making that movie!” It’s amazing to think that Veronica Franco lived the life she did and confounded everyone’s expectations even then. And, while we don’t really know what happened at the end of her life, at least, in that moment, she had a remarkable triumph. We think of the Inquisition as a death sentence. The fact that Franco beat it has a poetic meaning that is very powerful even today.

Q: How did you feel about making a film set in the Renaissance?
A: I was honestly intimidated by the Renaissance. It’s not a period I ever had great interest in. I am an early Medieval freak. In fact, I first became a director because I wanted to do Beowulf and Sir Gowan and the Green Night. I didn’t really feel a personal connection to this time; I felt a personal connection to Veronica Franco’s story. But when I educated myself as to what was going on in Venice during the time, I began to see that there was this incredible, sumptuous, luxurious, and beautiful quality that would lend itself to having a sensual experience.

Q: Did you encounter any challenges in translating the Renaissance period?
A: Here’s what’s interesting: I learned that what we define as luxurious is not what people living during the Renaissance defined as luxurious. And I realized very early on that we would have to use a bit of a slight of hand. I remember sitting with my department heads and saying that we have to give a modern audience the experience of what it would have been like to live then. If we showed the audience exactly what it was like to live then, they wouldn’t have that experience. If you look at the actual furniture people sat on, the rooms they lived in, or the clothes they wore, you wouldn’t think that they are sumptuous or comfortable. A lot of the discussions we had in planning the film were about how you tweak historical specifics so that it makes sense for a more modern audience.

Q: What was the process of designing the costumes?
A: Gabriella [Gabriella Pescucci, Costume Designer] and I debated extensively about the costumes. When I first saw the designs for the courtesan’s outfits, they were utterly boring and unsexy. In fact, they looked just liked the wives’ outfits, but in red instead of black. They were heavy wool dresses that came up to here [the neck]. I thought back to all these paintings from the Renaissance with half-naked courtesans in Grecian dresses. So, I said to Gabriella, “what about the Grecian dresses?” and she said, “Oh, no, those are mythological; they didn’t exist; the women never wore them in public.” Eventually, I had to force her to create a hybrid between what was in the paintings and what they actually would have worn. What she came up with was not historically accurate but was brilliant and beautiful.

Q: What were some other obstacles you faced in creating a historical film?
A: There were so many. A period piece is inherently expensive. And, a period piece has inherent limitations on the audience it will reach. As a result, we had to find an economical way to make the movie. One thing that became clear very quickly was that we couldn’t shoot very much in Venice. At the time, there was a limit as to what you could do with computer graphics. You could not stop the traffic of modern boats on the Venice canals. And it was too expensive to digitally remove the modern boats from the shots later. So we made the very difficult decision to shoot on the back lot at Cinecittà in Rome.

Q: How was the experience of shooting at Cinecittà?
A: We had heard a lot of bad stories about shooting in Italy. I had heard horror stories about crews in Italy not working hard and being lazy. We had an unbelievably fantastic and committed crew. The studio itself was kind of a run down place; it was not glamorous at all.

Q: What was the process of creating the set?
A: We spent weeks and weeks designing and building the set. It was exciting to design it and lay out the models. We built two lagoons. We had to make this little space look like four different areas.

Q: What is one specific challenge you faced with the set?
A: I had an ongoing fit with the studio because of a tiny scene in the film where there’s a sea battle. I was holding on to the notion that we had to have the shot; I thought it was essential that we see Marco [Marco Venier] in battle. So, I had to find the cheapest way to do the scene. This meant I couldn’t bring in any outside special effects people. We ended up going to the special effects guys at Cinecittà…They turned out to be great.

All movies are artifice, but this one shot was artifice beyond artifice. We built a quarter of a boat with a ten-foot-wide deck and fake sails. Then, I had them build miniature sails, only ten feet wide, on wheels. It was all done on asphalt and the camera was way back so that we could have a long lens and make everything look very compressed. I’m on a platform and 100 yards away from me is this little deck with 30 extras on it. Behind that, another 100 yards away, are the sails. We also had water cannons and all this stuff is shooting through the air. If you just looked through the camera, it looked like a sea battle. If you just looked at it from a different point of view, it looked ridiculous. In the end, we pulled it off.

Q: How did you decide on Jeannine Dominy to write the screenplay?
A: We chose Jeannine because, again, Sarah Kaplan had read a script that Jeannine had written several years before about Pope Joan from the ninth century. It was a brilliant, brilliant screenplay… It was easy.

Q: How did you decide on Catherine McCormack in the role of Veronica Franco? What did you imagine physically?
A: We tested 120 women for the role. Catherine is such an amazing woman. I didn’t ask any actresses to read; I just wanted to meet them – to just sit in the room them and feel what they were like. I knew that we had to find someone of great size, beauty, sexuality, intelligence, and bravery. You can’t fake those qualities; they have to inherently be in the person. I felt a little bit like a doctor who was probing and asking questions to get them to reveal themselves a little bit.

I tested a lot of actresses. Many of them didn’t look right for the period. Some were too old and some were too young. Remember, this was a woman who needed to age from a teenager to someone in her thirties. She needed to be vaguely ageless. It was very hard. The studio then agreed to an unknown, which was amazing. This meant I could cast the net wider.

I met Catherine in Paris. She was shooting a film in Denmark and flew down to see me. We met just for an hour. My first thought was that she was very young and a great girl; I wasn’t entirely sure she had the agelessness of this woman. But, I really liked her and I loved her in Braveheart. So, we had her back. She read and was amazing. And, then, we tested her. Something occurred to me while we were testing her. The thing about her is that she has this gravity on film, even if she’s charming and lovely in person.

Q: Did you have anyone else in mind for the part of Veronica Franco?
A: I initially wanted Uma [Uma Thurman] but she didn’t want to do it because she was very concerned about the sexuality. You can’t do this story and shy away from the fact that it’s about sexuality… Uma probably would have played it straighter. I tested Drew Barrymore. I never thought she was right for it and Drew never thought she was right for it.

Q: How did you decide on Rufus Sewell in the role of Marco Venier?
A: Marco has to work as a leading man. Men in those days were very empowered. He also had to have size. I had to find a guy who – and by the way, Marco isn’t the star of the movie so we weren’t going to get a star of the highest order – was on the rise. The interesting thing about Rufus is that he did not like the idea of a leading man; he liked the idea of playing heroin-addicts and criminals. It was hard for him to just be the guy; it wasn’t comfortable for him. Ed [Ed Zwick, Producer] had wanted to cast Rufus in another film two years before. He was definitely on our radar from the beginning.

Q: How did you decide on Jacqueline Bisset in the role of Paola Franco?
A: That was really a dream come true. That was a no brainer. There could not have been anybody better than her. That was just a happy turn of events.

Q: There are some facts about Veronica Franco that are left out in the movie. More specifically, why did you decide to omit the fact that she was a mother?
A: We decided pretty early on just to keep the kids out of it because it just confused the issue. I can’t defend that; it is the inevitable collision between movies and history. Movies are just bad history. In fact, I’m really proud of the film. It stays as close as possible to actual events. We left some things out, but we didn’t falsify very much. But, again, I was telling what I felt to be a thematic story, a poetic story, a story about the human spirit. I wasn’t necessarily telling the true history of Veronica Franco. I just didn’t want to insult the true history of Veronica Franco. The minute you bring the kinds into it, it’s like a whole other level of story telling that becomes very unwieldy. There were a lot of things we had to leave out anyways, that we had to cut from Jeannine’s script and from our shots, because the movie was too long. Movies tell you how long they can be, because you get tired watching a movie if it’s too long. There’s a lot more I wanted to get in there, but it’s pretty much there in the grand scheme of things.

Q: Do you have any regrets about some of the changes or omissions you made to the story?
A: I made a big mistake at the end of the movie, because of my own… I wrote at the end of the movie that she and Marco were loves for the rest of their lives because that’s what I believed to be true. It turns out there was no evidence of that. So, that turned out to be a mistake. And, I suppose I could have taken it out because I found out it was a mistake before the movie was released. But, I couldn’t think of a better line there and so we left it. I kind of feel bad about that because it’s not supported by the facts.

Q: Can a historical film ever be considered true?
A: I’m not sure even a textbook or biography can be considered true, okay. I’ve learned over the years that there are so many interpretations to everything. The strict answer to that is no; nothing can ever be considered true. I think we look to movies for something else. It’s a problem in our culture that people get so much of their knowledge from movies and TV and not from books because, at least, books make a greater effort to be real. By the way, we dealt with this on the Last Samurai and a lot of things we’ve done. But, what is our responsibility? Is it our responsibility to be historians or to be artists? Then, you think back and you realize that Shakespeare was the worst historian ever. But, we love the plays. And they tell us something about what it’s like to be human beings. Mostly, this is a story about sexual politics and what it means to be a brave human being with integrity.

Q: Besides the fact that she was a courtesan, are there any other parts of Veronica that you specifically wanted to convey?
Conveying the poet part was very important to me. We worked very hard at it; it was very important to us that you understand that she was a brilliant woman. That was it. It was this dynamic tension between the fact that she was a sexualized person and she was so brilliant and that people couldn’t deal with that. So, the fact that we had a poetry contest in a film… that was a pretty out there thing to do. I love that aspect of her.

Q: How did you decide upon the title Dangerous Beauty?
The title was a problem from the beginning. I did not think the Honest Courtesan was a good movie title because it actually needs to be explained. Honest had a different meaning then than it has now. We tried a lot of different things, including Venice. We then settled on The Courtesan. Weeks before the film’s release, one of the executives then said that we weren’t going to call it The Courtesan because people didn’t know what the word Courtesan meant. I said nobody knew what Mash meant or what the full Monty meant. A lot of people don’t know what something means but then a movie gives the word meaning.

Unfortunately, this was all happening just around the time when the press started being very negative about movies in production. Movies in production were completely under the radar before then. So, you could re-cast, re-shoot, delay and it didn’t affect the public perception of the film. Around the mid-90s, it all changed. And, we were terrible victims of it. The fact that we changed our name at the last minute and changed it to a name that was less than serious really hurt us. Critics went into it looking for trouble, in some way. We weren’t in trouble; we were just changing the title. It was deeply upsetting to me and I think the movie never recovered.

Finally, I came up with the title Dangerous Beauty under duress. I thought it, at least, thematically expressed something true about the movie. The danger was that it was lurid and sort of unserious.

Q: Did you have a specific audience in mind for Dangerous Beauty?
We knew it was more female oriented. But, there was an argument at the time and I lost the argument. We’ll never know what would have happened had I won the argument. I said we should do what Harvey Weinstein used to do. Harvey Weinstein would take a film like Elizabeth, which, in some way, fits in the same part of the marketplace as this film; he would market that to the intelligentsia, the opinion makers. He wouldn’t try to market it to the lowest common denominator. He would hope that word of mouth and the way people talked about the movie would then make it generally popular. A film like that is never going to make $100 million, but if it makes $15 million, you’re in great shape. But, our distribution people kept saying we have to go wide, we have to go wide, we have to go wide. And I kept saying I think it’s a mistake to go wide because I don’t think people know how to take this in; it has to be learned; it has to be part of a buzz in the culture. But, as I said, I lost that argument. So, we went wide and, you know, we just never opened, except in Los Angeles. We did well in Los Angeles but nowhere else. It was poorly marketed. Between the name, the material, who they were targeting, all of that, people kept saying they thought it was like one of those Harlequin romances. It seemed like a silly thing, basically.

Q: Do you have any regrets about the film? Would you change anything?
The main change I would make would have been in how it was marketed. I think the film could have been marketed in such a way that people could have discovered it… Making movies is a very imperfect activity. Every day you’re presiding over compromises you have to make in order to get it done. So, in the end, you sort of have to forgive yourself and say this is the best I could have done with this. I love the movie.

Q: What are you proudest of? What best came across about Veronica?
There are a couple things that came across the best. One was what I call her rise to fame, which was her training and the great parts of what it was like to live that life. And the other part was the whole trial scene. And, you can’t imagine how difficult that was. It’s a fourteen-page scene that took us seven days to shoot… To pull it off, gave me incredible satisfaction.

Q: In closing, what’s your favorite scene of the movie?
One of my favorite moments in the movie – just because it’s so subversive – is when all of Venice is waiting outside her apartment to hear about how it went with the king of France. I love the total acceptance of sexuality.