YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Midsummer's Dream Team

The stars come out to shoot a Shakespearean comedy in Italy, even if it means a smaller paycheck and tight scheduling.

May 09, 1999|DAVID GRITTEN | David Gritten is a frequent contributor to Calendar

CAPRAROLA, Italy — "You can just point the camera in any direction on locations like this," said actor David Strathairn, with a small sigh of pleasure. "It's always going to look good."

Hard to argue with that. Strathairn, in the costume of a Victorian-era aristocrat, sits in a garden chair on the grounds of the Palazzo Farnese, a huge, imposing 17th century palace some 60 miles north of Rome. He's at the foot of a long, steep flight of grassy steps overlooked by a fountain nestled between two huge recumbent male statues. It's a spectacular setting on one of those perfect Italian summer days--sunny and bright, the heat tempered by a light breeze carrying the fragrance of a dozen various blossoms.

Around Strathairn a cluster of crew members, roughly half Italian and half British, scurry around, setting up the next scene for the new film production of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which opens Friday. It is being financed by Fox Searchlight for a modest $13 million to $14 million, yet features a large, stellar cast including Michelle Pfeiffer, Kevin Kline, Rupert Everett, Stanley Tucci, Calista Flockhart, Roger Rees and Strathairn.

The forest in which much of the action in Shakespeare's comedy takes place was re-created at the legendary Cinecitta Studios in Rome. Apart from Caprarola, the film's other major location was Montepulciano, a ravishingly beautiful hill village further north in Tuscany. Without doubt, the film's settings encouraged many of the cast to participate, for fees far below what they can normally command.

As Flockhart (TV's "Ally McBeal") puts it: "When someone says to you, 'So, do you want to do some Shakespeare in Italy?' you don't spend a lot of time saying, 'Hmmm, I'll have to think about it, let me get back to you.' "

The logistics of filming "A Midsummer Night's Dream" are daunting, for the work requires 18 principals. And the budget confined director Michael Hoffman (who worked with Pfeiffer on "One Fine Day" and with Kline on the 1991 comic farce "Soapdish") to a nine-week schedule last summer.

Yet Hoffman is philosophical about the pressure. "With 'One Fine Day' I had almost three times more money to make something far simpler," he said. "The way this movie is conceived, it's too large for the budget and certainly too large for the schedule. But I didn't know what the budget would be. And besides, who's going to give you more than $14 million to make a Shakespeare movie?"

Make no mistake, this is Shakespeare's Shakespeare. It's not "Midsummer Night's Dream" reset in high school; Shakespeare isn't a character in it, he's just the screenwriter.

There is another problem. "A Midsummer Night's Dream" weaves four subplots into its narrative, each of them set in a separate world with its own major characters. First is the world of the court, where Duke Theseus (Strathairn) is about to marry Hippolyta (Sophie Marceau). To celebrate their marriage, a group of tradesmen, including the vain weaver Bottom (Kline), is rehearsing a performance of a play.

Then there's the young lovers who escape into the woods: Hermia and Lysander (played by emerging British actors Anna Friel and Dominic West), Helena and Demetrius (Flockhart and Christian Bale). Unknown to these lovers, a fairy kingdom resides in the woods, including Oberon (Everett), King of the Fairies; Titania (Pfeiffer), the Queen of the Fairies; and Oberon's servant, the mischievous sprite Puck (Tucci).

Add to all this the fact that the schedule had to be worked around Pfeiffer (she had a narrow window of availability and completed her scenes in eight days) and Kline. Consider too that working with foreign crews always slows down a working day: "You have to say everything twice on set," producer Leslie Urdang said with a sigh.

It puts the idyllic nature of the setting into perspective. Yet the film was conceived and agreed upon with remarkable speed. Urdang, who runs a New York-based theater company that specializes in presenting the work of new writers, had already collaborated with Hoffman; they started discussing in 1996 a film of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" starring Pfeiffer and Kline.

"In April [1997], Michael finally said he was ready," said Urdang. "He talked to Kevin, Fox Searchlight thought it was a great idea, then Michael asked Michelle. He sat down in September to start the adaptation, finished it in October, and by Christmas we were casting in London."

She and Hoffman hit upon an eclectic cast, American and British, from film and TV. Yet the common bond is theater. Flockhart, for instance, became a star with "Ally," but she has also been a theater actress for years.

"They're all theater lovers, which is how they're able to do Shakespeare," Urdang said. "Roger, David and Calista have all worked at my theater company."


This version of "Dream" follows a spate of some 15 filmed Shakespeare plays in the last few years. "I'm glad we're not coming at the tail end of them all, and there's some separation," Hoffman said.

Los Angeles Times Articles