Dino DeLaurentiis (1909-2010)
I first met Dino sometime in 1985. I knew his name, of course, from the credits of a staggering number of Italian films, the first of which he’d produced in 1940. As a student in Australia I frequently made the journey into Sydney and its (then) one art house, the “Paris”, where Dino’s name was prominently displayed on the titles of the kind of movies that made me want to become a director …..”Bitter Rice” (1948), “La Strada” (1954) “The Nights of Cabiria” (1957), “The Stranger” (1967) etc Later, associated with Carlo Ponti, he became the pioneer of Italian/American epics of the “War and Peace” variety.
In 1985, having directed a few films in America (beginning with “Tender Mercies” in 1981) I saw Beth Henley’s play “Crimes of the Heart” on Broadway & was determined to make it into a movie. Despite initial enthusiasm from various studios, apathy soon set in as the usual anonymous “readers reports”- by definition invariably written by the scantily educated & deeply insensitive( a notably formidable combination) – branded the script as worthless.
Undaunted, or only slightly daunted, I discussed the matter with the producer, Freddie Fields, who suggested we take the project along to Dino. By this time, Dino had given up on his Italian/American epics and moved his entire operation , at an age when many men are thinking of retiring, to Los Angeles. He’d already confounded cynics – convinced he’d never be able to function out of Italy – with films as diverse as “The Shootist” (1976), “Flash Gordon” (1980), “Ragtime” (1981) and “Conan the Destroyer” (1984). I was wary about approaching him with a story about three sisters in the deep south; one which relied to a large extent on the writers acute observation of Mississippi speech patterns – something I was certain would be lost on Dino, who , I was told, spoke only a smattering of English and an incomprehensible smattering at that.
I feared the worst at our first meeting when I was ushered into a vast office somewhere on Wilshire Boulevard and saw a small man with penetrating eyes and a determined jaw behind a huge desk. He left the desk immediately, greeted me warmly, signalled to someone to bring expresso and launched, with no small talk, into an enthusiastic analysis of “Crimes of the Heart”. His command of English was terrible at that time, but it hardly mattered as his dynamism made his points perfectly clear. Although he’d only had the script a couple of days he’d had it translated into Italian & seemed to have a total grasp of it’s characters & situations plus an ability to recall the most minute details. Over the years that I’ve known Dino (15 now!) perhaps the aspect of him that impresses me the most is firstly the fact that he actually reads all the scripts himself (surprisingly rare among producers) and secondly that he is able to analyse their strengths and weaknesses remarkably succinctly and, in my opinion, accurately. He relies on his instincts (another plus in my book – films should be made because of passion not an analysis of market trends) and frequently bewilders his colleagues with snap judgements , often involving huge expenditure and the hiring or non-hiring of major actors and directors.
Some months after completion of “Crimes of the Heart” Dino asked me to come into his office as he had a few questions about Australia. With no preamble, he threw a fairly basic map of the Australian continent onto the desk and asked me where they make films. I pointed to Sydney & Melbourne. He then asked where people go for their holidays. With a slight hesitation I indicated an area called the Gold Coast, about 450 miles north of Sydney – an area of splendid beaches and horrible urban development. Australia’s Miami. “That’s it!” Dino informed the various people dotted around the room, “that’s where we build a film studio”. A few people look slightly startled, but most of them, no doubt familiar with Dino’s abrupt decisions, just nodded. “But “ , I said, “there are no facilities up there. No technicians live there. There are no actors. You’d have to import everyone”. “No problem”, Dino rejoined “ you said it’s a holiday place. Then they all like to go there!” This seemed an unlikely proposition to me. Hundreds of people would have to relocate their lives away from major cities to a remote part of the country. I left the room & called some producer friends in Australia, all of whom echoed my feeling that a studio at the Gold Coast would be a fiasco. Dino went ahead all the same, with Byzantine financial arrangements that I think only he understood – and now – in the year 2000 – the Gold Coast Studios have been operating successfully for over 10 years. Technicians did happily re-locate and producers from all over the world make numerous films & TV shows on the north coast of New South Wales.
Dino is no intellectual in the conventional sense. I cannot imagine him spending much (any?) time reading novels or poetry (unless there was a possible film involved) & I’ve never heard him talk about painting or music. But he has innate good taste & is as shrewd a judge of directors, designers, cameramen, composers , actors etc etc as he is of scripts. He insisted I use an Italian cameraman, Dante Spinotti, on “Crimes of the Heart” as he’d seen a low-budget sword and sandal epic Dante had photographed and thought he had immense talent. He was right. Spinotti came to America went on from “Crimes” to such remarkable looking films as “Last of the Mohicans” and “The Insider”. I am not implying that Dino is infallible. Far from it. Rather, he has the ability of all really successful producers to be able to bounce back from failure and move onto the next project. I remember the opening of “Tai-Pan”, an adventure film with Bryan Brown that was slaughtered by the critics and ignored by the public. Dino spent a disconsolate morning after the premiere and everyone moved around the office as if a loved one had just died. I hated seeing Dino glum& didn’t know what to say. But after lunch the fire was back in his eyes and he enthused to me, in fractured but forceful English, about a new project he had that was going to be wonderful.
As a producer on “Crimes of the Heart” he was attentive and encouraging. He rolled up to the rushes every night in a vast car, greeted everyone from the stars to the grips with equal courtesy and watched the previous days work. Like Richard Zanuck and Placido Domingo (& perhaps no one else with whom I’ve worked) he had the knack of spreading goodwill, a feeling of unity, that brought out the best in everyone; actors and crew alike. He seems to be free of malice or bitterness & I can’t actually recall him saying anything nasty about anyone (with the exception of a few lawyers) – largely, I suppose, because he thinks more about the future than the past. I’ve been told , though, that he is quite capable of instinctive dislikes. One acclaimed Antipodean director, I heard, was collected at the airport by Dino, who decided straightaway that he didn’t like him, then dumped him in a hotel for a night & returned him – no doubt mightily bewildered – to the antipodes the next morning.
I’m pleased to say this treatment eluded me. I have been the recipient of the friendship of a remarkable man. “How did you produce your first film?”, I asked him once at one of his fabled dinner parties, “ I was 17”, he told me ,”I saw this Swedish film, in Italy. I thought it was a good story. I went into the cinema and watched it over and over again, writing down the dialogue in the dark. I then re-worked it as a story set in Italy and persuaded someone to make it”. That was in 1939. Now, in the year 2000, a dynamic 80 year old man has recently produced the hit films “Breakdown” and “U-571” and is currently producing “Hannibal” with the great director, Ridley Scott.
Los Angeles, 15th August, 2000