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'Tuscan' as she lived it

When a director spices up the poetic tale of her Italian adventure, Frances Mayes happily says gratzie.

September 07, 2003|Kelly Carter | Special to The Times

Cortona, Italy — In the Hollywood version of Frances Mayes' 1996 bestselling memoir "Under the Tuscan Sun," there are no car chases. No murders or ghosts, either, though some of the filmmakers who vied for the project suggested them to spice up the tale of an American academic renovating a dilapidated villa in the Italian countryside.

There is, however, a dashing Italian lover -- something missing from the story as Mayes actually lived it. Her thin brown eyebrows rise practically to her hairline when that comes up. Then she drawls out the quip she's fond of offering her husband these days: "Too bad I missed out with Raoul Bova. He's gorgeous."

In the big-screen version of "Under the Tuscan Sun," opening Sept. 26, Bova plays a sexy antiques dealer who has a fling with Mayes' character (Diane Lane). But the real romance in this comedy-infused drama is between an American woman and Italy -- its people, its food, its wine, its land and its beauty. Lane portrays Mayes as a recently divorced, depressed San Francisco writer who, during a vacation to Italy, impulsively buys an old villa in the Tuscan countryside and proceeds to restore it. As the house is revived, so is her life.

In reality, Mayes, a poet and then a creative writing instructor at San Francisco State University, spent some time looking before she bought the abandoned 18th century farmhouse called Bramasole in 1990 and spent the next several years resurrecting it. She vividly and poetically detailed her experiences in a journal turned book, which sold 1.5 million copies and was recently re-released with Lane on its cover.

Mayes' book did for Tuscany what Peter Mayle's "A Year in Provence" did for the south of France. And it has spawned its own cottage industry.

Mayes followed up with two more bestsellers, "Bella Tuscany" and "In Tuscany." There's the upcoming Disney release. Last month Cortona hosted the inaugural Tuscan Sun Festival, created by Mayes and other residents. The 10-day festival featured classical music concerts, literature, art lectures, cooking lessons, food and wine tastings, spa experiences and tours of Cortona. And later this month her custom furniture collection, called "Frances Mayes at Home in Tuscany," debuts via Drexel Heritage. The collection includes reproductions of furniture at Bramasole and has led to linen, lamps and dinnerware.

In the midst of all that, who's to object to a few creative liberties in turning the book into a movie? Mayes says she took no offense when Audrey Wells, who directed and wrote the screenplay, added Bova's character, as if Mayes' life on its own couldn't seduce moviegoers.

"Audrey really got it," says Mayes, 63, dressed in a soft yellow linen pantsuit. She sips a Diet Coke while she tries to keep cool in the lobby of Teatro Signorelli in Cortona, an hour's drive east of Florence.

Mayes had only an informal say in the script. In July 2001, Wells and her family spent a few days at Bramasole with Mayes and her husband, discussing how to turn what Mayes calls a "quiet book" into a movie. The two connected immediately and Mayes says Wells seems like she could be her daughter. When Wells read the book, in her mind she was working on another screenplay about a woman overcoming heartbreak. She realized she could fold that plot and its characters into "Under the Tuscan Sun," thus creating the central idea of starting over in Italy. Wells eventually began writing and 10 months later produced the script, her first book adaptation.

"Under the Tuscan Sun" marks Wells' second directorial effort. She wrote and directed the 1999 independent "Guinevere," and wrote "The Truth About Cats & Dogs," "Disney's The Kid" and the U.S. remake of the Japanese film "Shall We Dance?," filming now and starring Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez.

"I was nervous!" Wells says in an e-mail exchange. "I wanted them to be happy and I knew they were in for a lot of surprises."

Instead of focusing on things such as furniture to restore the villa, Wells refurnished Mayes' life with new friendships and new people, such as Bova. Ed Kleinschmidt Mayes, 51, who married Frances in 1998 and took her last name, doesn't really come into the picture until the end of the movie. In the book, he's there from the start although their relationship is somewhat vague.

"Although the script has so many new elements not contained in the book, there is an essential similarity between the two -- they are both internal adventure stories," Wells says.

When the script arrived, Ed, a former creative writing professor at Santa Clara University, was so anxious that he started reading it while driving home from town, where they pick up their mail. The couple laughed and cried as they read it together. Not all authors are as pleased when their carefully crafted pages are turned into scripts.

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