Updated: Feb 3
By Ken Gord:
We shoot movies on soundstages and on actual locations. Across the River and into the Trees—the Ernest Hemingway novel we just wrapped filming in Venice, Italy—was all shot on location. You can cheat Chicago in Toronto and Hotel New Hampshire in Quebec, but it’s near impossible to cheat Venice due to its uniqueness. In this city, even interiors, which are normally easy to cheat, have distinctive Venetian Gothic architecture that you can’t find anywhere else. But since our movie takes place in post–WWII 1947, and since Venice hasn’t changed much in a century, the city works perfectly well for our purposes as is.
One of the first activities you engage in when prepping a movie is scouting locations. Sometimes this involves traveling to different countries, or different locales within a country, to find the best creative look for the story.
Scouting involves sending out location scouts to source out options; they photograph the possibilities and show pictures to the director, producers, and production designer, who then decide if they’re worthy of a physical look-see.
Many boxes have to be checked off in order to warrant a visit: Does the location creatively tell the story? Is it large enough to actually film in (it’s not just the actors you see on-screen—behind them are an entire working crew and vast amounts of equipment)? Does it have support areas close by for makeup and hair stations, wardrobe racks, catering, craft service tables, toilets, etc.? Does it have green rooms? Is it accessible to equipment barges or trucks? Is it affordable? Can the cast and crew get there in a reasonable amount of time (travel time is down time)? Does it get sunlight from the right direction? Is it near adjacent areas or buildings where lights can be set up? Is it under an airport flight path (no good for sound)? Since moving time is down time, can it be built into the day’s shooting schedule without having to move the entire circus (slang for the huge infrastructure on wheels—or barges—that support the filming)? Does it involve major redressing, construction, or painting? Does it have high ceilings? Is it in a restricted area, such as a military base? Does it have elevators to carry the equipment to a higher floor (try carrying up a dolly)? Is it available on a weekday (most offices only let you film on weekends)? Etc . . .
Taking part in Across the River’s first scouts were: Paula Ortiz, director; Robert MacLean, producer; Andrea Biscaro, Co-Producer; Javier Aguirresarobe, Director of Photography; Javier Garcia Arredondo, Camera Operator; Marta Loza Alonso, Art Director; Stefano Imperi, Locations Manager; Costanza Asta, Locations Scout; and me.
One of the most important locations in the script is a grand palazzo, home to the female lead and her mother. They are from an important aristocratic Venetian family, and so the location must be suitably opulent but somewhat run-down since they have fallen on hard times due to the war. The location must have a den, bedroom, courtyard, stairway, living room, and a Grand Canal water door from which the story characters come and go by boat (the walk-in entrance in those days was only for servants, delivery men, plumbers, and movie producers).
We scouted many palazzi—the city is full of these grand old dames where aristocrats and nobility once lived (many now are either museums or hotels or split into tourist flats). The Contarinis were one of the noble founding families of Venice. There are still many Contarini palazzi in the city, and we found one that was perfect for the heroine’s home. We are also checking out another to “cheat” our hero’s hotel room (more often than not, when an actor walks through a door, the room they enter is miles away or on a soundstage and often shot weeks or even months later; this is called “cheating” a location).
We’re also cheating the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo as if it was part of the heroine’s palazzo. Look at this staircase, and you can see why Paula is in love with it.
We need to find a marsh where our protagonist, Colonel Cantwell (partially based on Hemingway himself), goes duck hunting. We went to this beautiful place belonging to a friend of Costanza’s, but it didn’t work creatively, so we need to keep looking.
The story starts in Trieste, Italy, where the U.S. Army has set up Allied headquarters. Colonel Cantwell and his driver, Jackson, depart for a weekend road trip to Venice. On the way, they pass a bombed-out church. Incredibly, there is actually a real bombed-out church just outside Venice. What are the chances! And the owner, an Italian-Canadian, is only too happy for us to film there. We’re lucky, because this is a location you cannot cheat and would be too expensive to build.
Another tough script location is the U.S. Army Headquarters in Trieste, both exterior and interior. We found great options in Padova, a charming city about 45 minutes’ drive outside Venice.
But Paula had this notion to find an estate, some kind of villa that the army would have commandeered. Costanza found a wonderful place about an hour away. Coincidentally, Ernest Hemingway actually lived there for a while. This is just one location where we seem to follow in the great man’s footprints—more to come . . .
This villa worked great!
The river in the title is an extremely important location; it’s where Cantwell leads his company of men in a frontal attack on a German-held town. The river has to be wide enough so the soldiers will be trapped halfway across, but not as wide as the Mississippi. It also has to be deep enough to come up to a man’s waist, but not his chin. And we’re going to be shooting in winter, so we’ll need wet suits for the extras and stuntmen, not to mention our lead actor. It needs to have trees on the opposite shore, but close to a road to base the circus.
We did find one beautiful river, but it’s too open for Paula—she wants it more enclosed to be able to use smoke effects (if it’s too open, the smoke will just blow away).
Paula loved another river, but when I went with the safety guy to check out if an actor could walk across, he sank about a foot into the muddy floor and fell over. Luckily, another man was holding onto him with a safety rope.
We found another place on the Piave, which had too strong of a current but, amazingly, we discovered upon rounding a bend that this was the actual spot where Ernest Hemingway was wounded during World War One! He had volunteered for the Red Cross and, on the night of July 8, 1918, was struck by an Austrian mortar shell while handing out chocolate to Italian soldiers. The blow knocked him unconscious, injuring him badly. Two Italian soldiers standing between Hemingway and the shell’s point of impact were both killed. A third Italian was badly wounded, and Ernest, after regaining consciousness, picked the soldier up on his back and carried him to the first aid dugout. Hemingway reportedly said he did not remember rescuing the man or even how he got to the hospital. He was awarded an Italian medal of valor, the Croce di Guerra, for his service.
So, all of a sudden, we are in this exact spot! What are the chances?! Another Hemingway coincidence or some kind of destiny? In any event, this river is too deep. We don’t want to drown our cast.
Eventually, just in the nick of time, about three days before shooting, we found a river that ticked all the boxes. It looks terrific—and nobody drowned!
The Gritti Palace Hotel is a major location in the novel, and we have received permission to shoot there. Here again, another Hemingway connection—in the Hemingway Suite of the hotel, you will find the book, signed by Ernest himself. We are filming the movie, based on the screenplay, based on the novel, where he actually wrote it.
There’s something about scouting you won’t read in any film-production guide. I have traveled in hundreds of scouting vans, and it’s very difficult, if not impossible, not to take a nap after lunch. The day’s been long, the van’s rolling, rolling, rolling, sun shining, lunch digesting . . . Some unscrupulous people have stolen shots of me, head lolling, mouth open, drool dripping . . . it’s blackmail material! They say offense is the best defense, so here is a preemptive strike from the scouting van.
Here’s Javi—hah, I’m bad, too.
And here’s Costanza; but she insists she wasn’t sleeping, just resting her eyes for a second.
Finally, we cast Danny Huston as a U.S. Army medical doctor. Read this press release for the final Hemingway connection.
Stories within stories . . .
Ken Gord has been producing international film and television for over forty years. Among his features are CRIMINAL LAW, starring Gary Oldman, and STUCK, starring Stephen Rea. He has produced over twenty television movies, mini-series, and series, including the syndicated cult hit HIGHLANDER: THE SERIES.