The apartment opened onto a view of Rome’s storied Via Veneto. As I stood staring down at the street, the Italian producer said, “Where you are standing now, this is the very spot where my friend Fellini stood when he decided to make a movie about the Via Veneto called La Dolce Vita.”
If the Italian producer was trying to impress me, he succeeded. He was a tiny gnome who had been making movies in Italy since the 1960s. He must have been in his seventies at this point, but he was not giving in to age. He dyed his hair jet black, and whenever he appeared in public, he always had a beautiful young woman on his arm.
The producer was courteous, but he made sure I had no doubts as to his experience and importance. I, on the other hand, was merely another writer in a long line that had been marched in to try to fashion a script from Marguerite Yourcenar’s classic novel of the Roman emperor Hadrian, Memoirs of Hadrian.
Hadrian was the guy who gave the world Hadrian’s Wall in Britain and the Pantheon in Rome. Unfortunately–and this was a continuing bone of contention writing the screenplay–he also drove the Jews out of Jerusalem, thus setting into motion the problems that beset the Middle East to this day.
The film was to be directed by the great John Boorman who had done two of my favorite films, Point Blank and Deliverance. Boorman at that point had spent seven years trying to get Memoirs off the ground.
Lately, he had hooked up with a couple of Italian producers who fought with each other constantly. One of them wanted me in Rome, the other–Fellini’s pal with the apartment overlooking Via Veneto–didn’t.
I had run into this sort of conflict before. When there are a number of producers–and there are always lots of producers–the writer will have his allies and his enemies. The challenge is to figure out who is playing what part. In this case, it wasn’t difficult to identify my nemesis.
I was to spend the next four months in Rome working on the script. The production company put me up in a lovely apartment at 135 Via Sanzeno in a northern suburb that reminded me of Beverly Hills. During the week, I was provided with a car and a driver, Gianni, who, seeing that I ate an apple each morning, taught me how to say, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” in Italian.
Five days a week, Gianni would drive me to work through Rome’s rush hour traffic, me eating an apple, him yelling “Traffico!” The film company occupied pleasant offices with high ceilings at 197 Via Antonio Bertoloni. There I worked away until one o’clock. Promptly at that hour everything shut down, and we all went to lunch at one of the luncheon bars that had grown up around the city in the wake of the government’s decree that all employees be provided with vouchers for what amounted to a subsidized lunch. The lunch places were crowded, the food fresh and delicious.
On the weekends, the producer who was my ally announced, I was on my own. No car would be available. I imagined myself alone, not knowing anyone, trapped in an apartment seemingly in the middle of suburban nowhere for the next four months. I yelled and screamed. The producer acquiesced. I was allowed to use the car on weekends. Thus I learned that when it comes to negotiating with Italian movie producers, a little yelling and screaming is sometimes necessary.
Left to my own devices with a car, I promptly got lost. Outside the Old City where all the tourists are, English-speaking Romans are hard to come by. The street light and the street sign, if they exist, are extraordinarily well hidden.
A newcomer who doesn’t speak Italian, whose wife often accuses him of lacking any sense of direction, driving around a city he doesn’t know late at night, can find himself in big trouble–which is exactly where I found myself. I got seriously lost any number of times. Only by the divine providence of the Roman gods, not to mention blind luck, did I manage to find my way back to Via Sanzeno.
Even during daylight hours, I became lost with breath-taking ease. One Sunday afternoon after driving aimlessly around for several hours with no clue as to where I was, I stumbled across Via Veneto, a street I at least recognized. Since it was a tourist area, there was bound to be an English-speaking Italian.
I got out of my car and approached a parked taxi. The driver spoke English. “Look, I said, “I want to go to Via Sanzeno, but I want to follow you in my car.” The driver never even blinked. “Follow me,” he said, and with a good Roman taxi driver leading the way, I got safely home.
After that, the film company bought me a TomTom GPS device. It saved my life. With it attached to the dashboard, I never again got lost. That is not to say, however, I didn’t get into more trouble.
Armed with my new GPS, I merrily drove into the center of Rome, amazed that I could find a parking spot at the bottom of the Spanish Steps. There was good reason for my ability to find a parking spot–you’re not supposed to park there; I was not even permitted to drive my car into the center of town as it turned out. The tickets flowed.
Rome really does empty out in August. The Old City is flooded with tourists, but the area around Via Bertoloni became a ghost town. The shops and restaurants all closed. The streets were empty. I continued to come into the office every day and work on the script.
John Boorman would fly in from Ireland every other week to review our progress. Mostly he pronounced himself satisfied. The Italian producer who was my ally liked the script., too. Fellini’s pal, predictably, did not. Unfortunately, the producer who liked the script had a problem: he could not read English.
Toward the end of the summer the producer with the Via Veneto apartment attended the Venice Film Festival and met George Clooney. He immediately decided that Clooney would be perfect to play Hadrian. Never mind that Hadrian was gay and obsessed with the beautiful, underage Antinous, a love affair that practically destroyed him after the boy drowned. Boorman reacted with head-shaking disbelief when he heard the Clooney idea. So did I.
But who was listening to the director, let alone the lowly screenwriter? Producers, distributors, and financiers all hopped on a plane and flew to Lake Como where Clooney had a villa. The one person they did not take, curiously enough, the guy who might actually have been able to persuade the actor, was John Boorman.
Nonetheless, the Get George Gang returned convinced Clooney would do it. Boorman just shook his head some more.
Eventually, the word came back: George Clooney would not be wearing a toga. No surprise there.
The summer drifted into fall. Everyone came back to work. Our one o’clock lunches resumed. I successfully navigated around Rome. Boorman continued to fly in and out. Everyone said they liked the script. Everyone that is but the producer with the apartment overlooking Via Veneto.
The screenwriter and novelist Richard Price once said that as soon as they tell you they love the script, get your hat because you are about to be replaced. One day they said they loved the script. It was time to leave Rome.
Sure enough, shortly after I got home, another writer was hired to do a rewrite. The work on The Memoirs of Hadrian would continue. And continue.
There never was a Hadrian movie, and I long ago spent the money they paid me. What’s left is what counts: the memory of that summer lost in Rome.