Off to 'Barcelona'

ANATOMY OF A CONTENDER: What do you do when Penelope Cruz wants to star in a film you haven't even written? Start a screenplay in longhand, as Woody Allen did with "Vicky Cristina Barcelona."

The deal was simple: There would be no script, no casting approval, no way to see dailies or a rough cut, and the price tag would be $15 million-$17 million. But when Spain's Mediapro was offered the chance to finance a movie about two young American women abroad, the answer was an immediate yes.

That's because the director was Woody Allen. And while such recent Allen ventures as 2005's "Match Point" and 2007's "Cassandra's Dream" have had only tepid results domestically, he continues to be a bankable helmer overseas.

"In Europe, in the independent film community, there's a lot of respect for the writer-director," says Allen's sister and frequent producer Letty Aronson. "I say (to investors), 'You are investing in Woody. If you would like to do that, no problem.'"

Indeed, there was no problem getting the money. But creating the story was a whole other matter. Allen had the cash -- he even had a potential cast member when Penelope Cruz heard about the project and expressed interest -- but he did not have a clue what he was going to make the film about. So while most movies start with a screenplay and then get their financing, Allen's picture was the precise reverse.

Allen knew he wasn't interested in doing a film in Spain that did not also involve Americans. "That wouldn't make sense for him," Aronson says. "Then it would be a Spanish film. And Spanish, I might add, is a language Woody doesn't speak."

But writing in longhand and then typing up the manuscript on his old manual typewriter, Allen crafted a story about two best friends on vacation in Barcelona who meet a handsome painter with a beguiling proposition: Why not all fly together to the town of Oviedo for a weekend of Spanish culture, fine wine and sex? That's what they do -- until his ex-wife shows up and chaos ensues.

In late 2005, Mediapro signed the deal to make the film and subsequently agreed to fund three more movies. Soon, other cast members came on board -- not least Allen's recent regular muse Scarlett Johansson (Cristina) and Javier Bardem (the painter, Juan Antonio).

Casting director Juliet Taylor suggested that the role of Vicky, the second American, might be suitable for Rebecca Hall, a British stage actress with three previous films, including 2006's "The Prestige." "I went in for a short meeting and Woody said, 'Can you do an American accent?'" Hall recalls. "I said yes with as much sincerity as I could muster." Once cast, the daughter of director Peter Hall and opera singer Maria Ewing perfected her accent by listening to podcasts of Chicago Public Radio's "This American Life."

Shooting commenced in July 2007. But early in the process, the call sheet was leaked to the press, and soon watching the film's every move became a spectator sport. Nearly every day during production, from July through August, Barcelonans turned out en masse to view the action. "It was like a national pastime," Hall recalls.

While filming went smoothly, at one point a media storm hit when the press reported that the city of Barcelona had invested about $1.4 million (less, according to Aronson) in the production and that the local Catalan government had kicked in roughly half that much. Although many of the cast members were Spanish and all the below-the-line crew was hired locally, some politicians and artists carped that funding should go to local filmmakers.

Mediapro's Jaume Roures, the film's executive producer, leaped to its defense, telling reporters that "Barcelona and the rest of the country should be encouraging this kind of public investment. This isn't about competing with American films; this is about showcasing Spain's production capability."

The Spanish knew this instinctively, and their support for the movie surprised even those involved with it. "So many people donated to us," Aronson says. "They let us use locations. They cut their fees or didn't charge us fees -- for cars, clothing, props. They were very generous."

Aside from the brouhaha, filming, Cruz says, was unlike anything she had experienced. "There were no rehearsals," she notes, and generally just one read-through of a scene before it was shot. "There were not a lot of takes -- two, three, four -- and not a lot of shots." The rapid pace surprised her. Four or more scenes could be shot in a single day, she explains. "I did my whole character in three weeks! I never talked to Woody about this, but I think he does it on purpose. All his characters feel this urgency. You have a feeling that they are running out of time, no matter what the situation."

Cruz admits she was nervous about the intensity Allen expected of her tempestuous character, Maria Elena. "Woody was very specific about the amount of chaos that he wanted her to bring to every moment," she says. "He wanted her to be very big and very chaotic."

Harvey Weinstein, who visited the set during filming and who would eventually pick up North American distribution rights for the Weinstein Co., recalls that Cruz had said, " 'I'm too big. I'm too big.' And Woody said, 'No, this is exactly the way I want it.' "

That judgment has been vindicated by the response of critics, who have praised the finished film as Allen's best in years. Since it debuted at the Festival de Cannes and opened domestically in August, the movie has earned more than $66 million at the worldwide boxoffice (more than $43 million of it outside the U.S.). Weinstein has taken advantage of the hype and its awards potential by delaying the DVD release from November to January.

Thrilled with his acquisition, he notes, "This film is about a clash of cultures. It makes you laugh and crack up out loud."
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