Sometimes during a film’s production, the call from the director may be “Lights! Camera! Hold the tourists! And action!”
Shooting at important sites, wrapped in history and bureaucracy, complicates location work.
Indeed, the filmmakers behind “Marie Antoinette” knew that the French queen and Versailles are forever intertwined, while audiences expected “The Da Vinci Code” to deliver authentic Parisian and British locations used in the wildly popular novel.
“There was no contingency, no plan to shoot somewhere else,” explains “Marie Antoinette” producer Ross Katz. “(The film) needed to be in France; it needed to be Versailles.”
Permission was secured from the palace’s directors and conservators after a meeting with helmer Sofia Coppola, who described her vision of the ill-fated French queen’s interior life.
However, once permission was granted, the shooting schedule had to fit into a Mondays-only time frame, except for some exteriors and nights.
As Katz explains, some pre-rigging could be done on Sunday night for Monday’s shoot, but by Tuesday morning, when Versailles opened to public, there had to be no trace of the production.
“It was very impractical, yet it was the only way it could be done,” notes “Marie Antoinette” vet production designer KK Barrett.
In addition to the chapel, where the dauphin and Marie were married, the production utilized the grand halls, the exquisite Marble Court, the gardens and the nearby Petit Trianon.
The palace’s furniture could not be used, and instead reproductions or custom pieces were brought in, and all draperies were custom-made.
Modern touches, such as iron railings or signage in the gardens, had to be removed or hidden, which required the crew’s constant diligence. Costumed actors were also shielded from curious visitors, with the aim of keeping unauthorized images off the Internet.
“In all, five other chateaux and their gardens were used in addition to our constructed sets, to add up to our version of Versailles, all the while trying to match up and compete with the original wealth of detail,” Barrett explains.
Katz contends that Versailles was “less museumed out” than other sites. The intent was to make the centuries-old palace feel very much alive, present and immediate onscreen.
Despite the challenges, the benefits are clearly onscreen, Katz says. “You’re in the place. We were driving on cobblestone steps, parking our trucks in the courtyard where the French Revolution happened.”
Meticulous pre-production seems to be key in using a famed site to best advantage.
Film London worked closely with “The Da Vinci Code” team for seven months prior to the central London shoot, initially finding locations and then securing permits and smoothing out logistics.
“We have made London more accessible, film-friendly, as well as opened up the possibilities,” Film London CEO Adrian Wootton says. “We’ve also stretched the lexicon of London’s visual imagery.”
As a public-private partnership, the 2-year-old agency is a clearinghouse for filming requests, even those that might seem outlandish.
Although the agency couldn’t secure Westminster Abbey’s interiors due to the Church of England’s theological opposition to Dan Brown’s book, it did everything else, including locking in the abbey exteriors and the 800-year-old Temple Church.
The 12th-century church was an obscure, hidden gem until the book’s publishing; now it’s a must on “The Da Vinci Code” walk and a link via visitdavincicode.com. The film has also boosted visits fivefold this year to Scotland’s Rosslyn Chapel, where a crucial scene occurs. And, somewhat ironically, Westminster Abbey has been further inundated with tourists, Wootton says.
Re-creating an ancient church on a soundstage or building a model that replicates Versailles is certainly within the skill set of industry craftspeople, but the experience of working in a history-rich locale resonates onscreen.
“It was incredible, it was daunting and overwhelming, but getting the opportunity to shoot there and having their support was extraordinary,” Katz says.