Belgrade doubles for Rome in Parker's take on postwar Orson Welles

BELGRADE — Five years after the NATO bombings of the Serbian capital Belgrade, the scars of war are still highly visible. Bombed-out buildings gape like open wounds everywhere. Yet, as the country struggles to rebuild, an independent film production has arrived in the shape of Oliver Parker’s film noir “Fade to Black.”

The pic’s cast — Danny Huston, Diego Luna, Paz Vega and Christopher Walken — and crew have been gracing the infamous Belgrade Intercontinental Hotel, where in January 2000 Serbian warlord Zeljko Raznatovic (AKA Arkan) was gunned down in the lobby.

Yet, the very fact that Belgrade offers not only Eastern European prices but also genuine bomb craters and soot-covered period buildings is why the production came here.

“The story is set in 1948 Rome, but it would have been impossible to create that kind of post-WWII scenario on an independent budget in Rome,” says producer Barnaby Thompson, of U.K. outfit Fragile Films, as he sips a drink in the hotel’s heavily carpeted piano bar.

The next day, on set in the still state-owned Avala Studios, helmer Parker adds, “You don’t want to be enjoying people’s unhappiness but the intensity and the pain you see here on people’s faces offers something more to the film. The extras are astonishing and there’s a unique atmosphere that seeps into you.”

Based on Italian Davide Ferrario’s novel and initially adapted as a screenplay by John Sayles, “Fade to Black” fictionalizes Orson Welles’ visit to Rome after the breakup of his marriage to Rita Hayworth. While in Rome, he acted in “Black Magic” and tried to raise money for his next film, “Othello.”

Sayles and later Parker himself used these real-life facts to weave a plot that’s part murder mystery, part love triangle and part political conspiracy.

“There are hints of ‘The Third Man’ but really the story feels like it’s Orson Welles stuck in a film of his own creation. I’m fascinated by the theme of truth vs. illusion and it’s the perfect material to have Orson as a character. So many of his films are nearly all about ‘Is it fact or fiction?’” explains Parker who, like Welles, has adapted “Othello” for the bigscreen.

Parker cast real refugees from a nearby shanty town for the opening scene in which Welles walks through Cinecitta Studio and mistakes a groups of refugees for film extras.

Reality and fiction blend further when we check in with Huston, who plays Welles. Sitting in the middle of a set that’s supposed to be Cinecitta’s commissary, Huston remembers how his father, legendary helmer John Huston, took him when he was a teen to have lunch with Welles at what is now Ago restaurant in L.A. “He and my father loved each other. (Welles) was eating a tremendous amount, which I guess was a symptom of his desire for affection but also of self-loathing.”

Huston says the character he’s creating in this film is an amalgamation of the Welles he knew, but also of his father and parts of himself. “And anyone who knows the desperation of trying to get your film financed. In this scene right now I have to say hello to potential financiers and do a bit of ass-licking, even though I’d like to have a quiet meal. I know that world, it’s the world I grew up in.”

Getting “Fade to Black” financed was “tough,” Parker admits. He’s been working on the script since 1999 and almost shot the film in Rome for three times the budget, but the financing fell through. The typical indie drama of “nearly but never quite” continued when Thompson came onboard two years ago. “I had this film financed three times, but each time the U.K. tax laws changed.”

Eventually, Thompson raised the $13.6 million budget by creating a three-country co-production with Italian company Movieweb and Serbian production service-provider Film 87. Instead of using U.K. sale-and-lease-back money, he brought in the Isle of Man, which is where the production moved to in August, halfway through the seven-week shoot.

With production traveling to another country and some details getting lost in translation among English, Italian and Serbian, a certain degree of chaos is inevitable. Yet, spirits on set are high and everybody from the cast to the British and Italian execs are enjoying their Serbian adventure.

Says Academy Award-winning production designer Luciana Arrighi, “There’s an element of the Marx brothers here — a wonderful lunacy. Nothing happens until the last minute. But if you go along with Groucho and enjoy it, you get carried along on this wave. And in the end everything does happen.”

Or as Huston, who has directed films, puts it: “You have to use it. Welles had such a hard time making ‘Othello’ in Morocco because he had all the actors but no costumes. So he did a scene in a Turkish bath where they could be naked. When you’re making an independent film, necessity is the mother of invention.”

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