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PARIS – It’s a brisk, Fall day and Dark Knight actor Michael Caine is sitting on a park bench munching a sandwich. Jane Alexander joins him and the two eat and laugh together as they watch the passersby in the Parc Monceau in Paris’ très chic neighborhood in the North West of the city. A woman calls out in German. A man yells back at her in French. Caine and Alexander converse in English, with a bit of broken French thrown in from time to time.
Sound confusing? It is.
“It’s strange. It’s a German-American-Franco-Belgian film about an American in Paris played by an Englishman,” Caine said of his latest movie Mr. Morgan’s Last Love.
Caine stars in the comedic melodrama as a retired and lonely American widower whose life changes when he meets Clemence Poesy’s character, a naive free spirit. The film, directed by Germany’s Sandra Nettelbeck, is based on Francoise Dorner’s novel La Douceur Assassine.
Sidney Kimmel Entertainment is co-financing and co-producing with German production companies Bavaria Pictures, Kaminski Stiehm Film, Senator Film and Belgium’s Scope Pictures in association with France’s Elzevir Films. Justin Kirk, Anne Alvaro, Jane Alexander and Gillian Anderson round out the eclectic, international all-star cast.
“We have a German schedule with a French crew, so we’re always running out of time and under pressure,” Nettelbeck explained. That said, she added: “Everyone is working together surprisingly well.”
Mr. Morgan’s Last Love shot for two weeks in Paris then a week in St. Malo before moving to Brussels and then MMC Studios in Cologne. Most of the exteriors were shot in France, while the interiors reserved for the German portion of the shoot.
“It’s a very mixed crew. It’s a real, real co-production,” Elzevir Films’ Denis Carot said, adding: “It’s the best way to do a co-production – keeping the crew from beginning to end. A three-country crew doing the film from A to Z is quite rare.”
The German majority co-production with Belgium also took advantage of the TRIP tax rebate for foreign productions shooting in France. Since the film isn’t a classic Franco-German co-production, it was able to benefit from the tax rebate.
“The TRIP is there to support productions that don’t fall into the classic co-production model,” French film commission Film France’s Patrick Lamassoure explained, adding: “Directors and producers can remain faithful to the project they want to do instead of scrambling to get money and having the characters speak only French.”
“Mr Morgan is only the second time a German film is eligible for the TRIP, after The Girl on the Bicycle, which also shot with Elezevir.
“It’s a dream come true,” Nettelbeck said of the experience. “I work in Europe, but I get to make an English-language film which I prefer since I get to work with amazing actors, but I don’t have to go to the U.S. to do it.”
In Dorner’s original book, Caine’s character is French, but Nettelbeck and her producers wanted to give a more international perspective to the film. They chose to make the main character American, but kept many elements from the original novel, including its Parisian scenery.
“I fell in love with the book and realized it’s a very character-driven piece with universal appeal, but we wanted to keep the Parisian setting,” producer Ulrich Stiehm of Kaminski Stiehm Film said. Stiehm spearheaded the project before Senator came on as a co-producer and snagged the German-speaking rights to the film. Stiehm added: “We always felt that the spirit of Paris as a city is a very strong element of the story.”
Mr. Morgan shot in some of the most beautiful albeit classic locations in Paris including the Palais Royal, the Arc de Triomphe and the Luxembourg Gardens.
“We never thought of moving anywhere else,” Bavaria’s Philipp Kreuzer said, adding: “It triggers emotions that we needed for the movie.”
Nettelbeck wrote the entire second draft of the film with Caine in mind. “I wrote the second script entirely for him. I said If he turns me down, I’m really screwed. I couldn’t stop seeing him in my mind when I was writing the script.” Luckily, after a call to her casting director in L.A., Caine accepted within a few days. “He read it and said yes right away, He understood what it was about and why I wanted him to do it. It’s a match made in heaven to see Michael Caine playing Matt.”
Caine loved the story and certainly didn’t object to heading to Paris to film for weeks.
“Choosing films is like real estate. It’s all about location, location, location. I’ve filmed in Paris, but I’ve never done a movie that took place in Paris entirely,” the actor said. Caine’s scenes in Christopher Nolan’s Inception, for example, were actually shot in a studio.
“I adore Paris. It’s the greatest love of my life,” Caine said. Caine and the other love of his life, namely his wife, enjoyed their time off in between filming.
“My wife does the shopping and I get to enjoy the food in the evening,” Caine said, adding: “It’s a holiday with work.”
Caine’s favorite spots for a romantic dinner for deux include the Jules Verne restaurant in the Eiffel Tower, Ledoyen, Lasserre and Alain Ducasse, plus more casual bistros like Chez Andre or Brasserie Lipp, but only on the ground floor and “not upstairs in Siberia.”
Back on set, however, things remained serious and Nettelbeck made sure nothing was lost in translation, keeping her cast and crew in sync from start to finish.
“It’s a truly European movie and I’d like to see more of this culture of European cinema.” It is starting to happen, but it isn’t enough.
So will this trans-European production model catch on?
“I’m lucky we all came together like this on this project. It’s mindbogglingly complicated and it should be easier. Bringing together European talents has to be more free and less regionally-driven.”
Globetrotting actress Clemence Poesy too was happy to shoot in her native city: “It’s nice to be home for a bit. I’ve never thought of films as having nationalities. I think of the story before anything else.”
Nettelbeck also felt right at home on set.
“Ever since I started making films, I have felt a little bit homeless. My education is American, but my background is European.” The German-born Nettelbeck has lived in San Francisco and LA, but has spent a great deal of time in France with her family.
She said: “For me, working in France is the best experience I have ever had as a director. The French have a tradition of loving their directors that goes back many years.”
Nettelbeck took her trans-cultural sense of humor with her to the project and made sure that the film’s more funny moments weren’t lost in translation. While the story tackles heavy subjects like mourning and suicide, the director made sure to add a comedic touch. “I enjoy using the humor between the two languages. It’s very emotional, but it’s also very funny. There’s so much humor in tragedy. Comedy is tragedy plus time.”
Case in point: the scene Caine is shooting at the Parc Monceau. Alexander plays Caine’s dead wife who visits him to keep the lonely professor company while he dines and tries to teach him to speak French.
“It’s a tender scene. It explains how happy he once was in Paris and how much he’s lost,” Nettelbeck explained.
Caine will next be seen in highly anticipated The Dark Knight Rises, a far cry from sitting on a park bench eating a ham and cheese baguette in Paris.
“Batman has very good actors in it, but it’s all about the special effects. A film like this is about the people. It’s more interesting as an actor.”
Caine said that as an actor, he did relate to his character in that way. “I’ve always been philosophical about everything,” he said.
He added: “It’s not Paris in the springtime. It’s Paris in the autumn. It’s a bit cold. It’s about an older man who isn’t in his springtime – he’s in his autumn.”
From Dark Knight to Mr. Morgan, next year just may be the season of Michael Caine in every language.
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