VENICE — Theo Angelopoulos sits on the terrace of the Hotel des Bains, sipping a cappuccino and checking his arm for blotches. “I have psychosomatic problems,” he tells Variety, in perfect French. “Between films I become sick, I break out. But when I’m doing a film, it’s different. I don’t even feel the heat or the cold.”
Angelopoulos is not actually between films. In fact, he’s smack in the middle of creating an ambitious trilogy that recounts nothing less than the history of the 20th century. The tale is told through the eyes of a woman, who is three years old when the epic opens in 1919 as foreign inhabitants flee the Russian port city of Odessa at the start of the Bolshevik Revolution.
Angelopoulos began shooting the first installment, “The Weeping Meadow,” co-scripted with Tonino Guerra, in Jan. 2002, after building an entire city at the bottom of a dry lake in northern Greece.
After enduring a shoot delayed by snowstorms and ice and, later, by incongrously green trees, Angelopoulos moved his crew to Salonika, where they created a slum of two hundred wooden houses cascading down a hillside. “The Weeping Meadow,” which ends in 1949 after the Greek Civil War, will be ready for Cannes 2003, where he hopes it will follow in the footsteps of “Eternity and a Day,” which won the Palme d’Or in 1998.
“The first film is structured like a Greek Tragedy — the Lavdakides Family — which consists of Oedipus, the Theban Cycle myths and Antigone. So actually it’s a trilogy within a trilogy.”
Angelopoulos describes the second film as a “road movie.” It begins in Uzbekistan in 1953 on the day of Stalin’s death and crosses Russia to Siberia and Moscow. Then the action shifts to Hungary, the Austrian border and Italy before ending in New York in 1974. Angelopoulos calls the final film in the trio, which will be shot entirely in New York, “cinema fantastique.”
“It’s a spiritual film that ends with a miracle,” explains Angelopoulos. The director, a self-proclaimed agnostic, was at the Venice Film Festival to receive a prize, ironically enough, from a Catholic Film magazine. The budget for the trilogy is set at $15 million, and Angelopoulos is also producing.
The Greek cultural ministry shelled out 70% of the budget for the first film, and his co-production partners include Classic Films (Italy), BAC (France), Canal Plus and ARTE, the Franco-German TV channel. Angelopoulos will cast international stars for the last two installments — “known actors who can bring in money” — though the first film stars two unknown Greek actors just out of acting school.
Angelopoulos switches easily between left and right brain, creating images with words as fluently as he discusses film financing or casting. “I’m part of the middle race that combines the creative and the producer,” he laughs. The filmmaker, who stopped smoking and drinking a year ago, looks much younger than his 67 years. Maybe part of it has to do with never having had to struggle to mount his productions. “I’m not a professional,” he says modestly. “I’m an amateur. I do what pleases me with very small means.
“Very early in my career one of my private cinema students married a guy in the armament business who wanted to become a producer,” he explains. “Since then, I’ve always had the freedom to do whatever came into my head.”
Some of what came into his head turned into films such as “Ulysses’s Gaze,” starring Harvey Keitel, and “The Suspended Step of the Stork,” starring Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau.
“I even made three films during the Greek military dictatorship,” he says. Angelopoulos leans back in his chair, looks out over the lagoon and smiles. “Now all I want,” he whispers, “is to make the films I have left to make in the best conditions possible.”