Lee scouting Tuscany for next film


MILAN -- Sitting under a 16th century fresco of the Last Supper painted by Tuscan Renaissance Master Nicodemo de Ferruzzi, Tuscany's newest master, film director Spike Lee, spoke about the importance of place.

The setting was a press conference at the decadent Villa San Michele in Fiesole, near Florence. Lee was in town to receive the 41st Fiesole Master of Film prize, presented each year in recognition of a director's body of work.

But the 50-year-old Lee double-dipped on a two-week trip to Italy, using his visit to the boot-shaped peninsula both for functions related to the Fiesole prize and also to scout locations for "Miracle at St. Anna," his latest film project that will start shooting in Tuscany next year.

While some directors may start out to make a film in a certain location or set in a certain time period, Lee said he always starts out with a good story. But he was quick to add that without the right place, a story will flounder.

"I consider myself a storyteller above all else, so the story has to come first" Lee said in an interview. "I'd love to make a film in Rio de Janeiro or Paris, but it doesn't work like that. I need a script first."

Tuscany is a perfect example. Lee said he's made more than 20 trips to Italy over the past two decades and has thought all along that he'd like to make a film in the country. But before reading the James McBride novel the film is based on in 2004, Lee never had the story he needed.

The book tells the story of a group of four black soldiers fighting in Italy during World War II. On the run, the men get involved in a local plot to uncover a traitor in a community of Italian partisans.

"This is a story about a lot of things, about camaraderie, about that period in time, and about the heroism of black soldiers fighting for a country that treated them like second-class citizens," Lee said. "But it's also about this place, this setting. That's an essential part of the story."

Though a small part of Lee's "Malcolm X" was filmed in Egypt, this will be his first project to be shot predominantly abroad. Filming the bulk of the film in one of the most expensive parts of Italy with an Italian crew and high transportation costs will surely ramp up the costs of the project, which Lee says has a budget of about $45 million. But Lee said he never considered trying to find an alternative location for the film that might have reduced costs or made logistics easier.

"This story is set in Tuscany and so Tuscany is the only place it could be filmed," he said. "Find another place that looks like the place the film is supposed to be set? I have never filmed in Toronto and pretended it was New York, and I'm not going to go somewhere else and pretend it is Tuscany. I don't do that. The place has to be real."