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An International Affair

An International Affair

Articles - Directing

Franco Javarone with Maria Grazia Cucinotta on the Italian
set of Senza Pictures’ international co-production, Rent-A-Husband.

The world is becoming a tiny
place. The Internet and cell phones connect people all over the
free world instantly and affordably. With the lifting of tariffs,
the establishment of the European Union, the driving force of
capitalism and ever-easier world travel, we are entering the
era of the global economy—and
the global community. As with most widespread cultural changes,
this trend is manifesting itself in the business of  film.

We have seen examples of this in Canada, Australia
and Europe, as leaders there encourage homegrown moviemaking—and
lure Hollywood to their shores by enticing producers with economic
incentives. And as the business structure and opportunities continue
to evolve, so will the content and style of films in the marketplace.

From developing scripts to pulling from international resources,
the experience of an international co-production has become an
essential baptism for young producers. As the American producer
of the Italian/
American co-production currently titled Rent-A-Husband, this is the
story of how I began my journey into the world of international moviemaking.

I met writer-director Ilaria Borrelli two-and-a-half years ago,
through a mutual friend. I was shooting a commercial at the time,
and her Italian accent stopped me in my tracks just long enough
for me to hear her story.

Inspired by the Italian comedies of the 1960s, when moviemakers
found humor in real-life tragic situations and used over-the-top
physical comedy to juxtapose emotional turmoil, Borrelli told me
about her romantic comedy.

Ilaria had been living in New York for several years, hellbent
on making her directorial debut with an English-language film.
She told me the horror stories of her experience trying to attach
an Italian producer to the project. For an actress trying to make
the transition to director in a male-dominated industry, the sexual
harassment she experienced could only be compared to the stories
that came out of corporate America 20 years ago. Finally, Ilaria
found her way to Massimo Cristaldi (son of the late Franco Cristaldi,
producer of more than 60 films, including Cinema Paradisio and Armacord).
She also told me that Maria Grazia Cucinotta, who starred as Beatrice
in Il Postino, was interested in playing the lead,
and that Cristaldi was negotiating a deal with Medusa for an Italian
pre-sale. What they needed now was an American producer to help
develop and make the film in New York.

The crew films a taxi scene on the streets of New York City.

Rent-A-Husband, an “Italian comedy with an American twist,” is
the story of an Italian woman who flies to New York, only to find
the love of her life with another woman. It is the story of two
women, four children and one husband finding a way to survive—together. 

I took Ilaria’s script and told her I would
read it as soon as the commercial wrapped. The day after the
shoot was September 11th. As a New Yorker, and with my offices
located in Tribeca, all thoughts of moviemaking came to a fast
halt. On my first day back in the office, in my now tank-and
machine gun-occupied neighborhood, I got a phone call from Italy.
It was Massimo Cristaldi. 

Across the Atlantic Ocean, he had no idea where
in New York I was sitting or to what extent devastation had really
occurred, but he began his pitch anyway—and we clicked.

That afternoon, I read Rent-A-Husband and
decided that the best thing I could to do was get this international
comedy off the ground. People needed to laugh, and what better
way than to let them witness the collision of two cultures. The
story, the cast, the locations and the resources were both Italian
and American, and I began to think that working on an international
co-production was one way I could contribute to bringing people
together. The concept of creating a truly international film
was inspiring. I realized that there truly is a “world economy” in
the making and that we are living in an age where Italy was only
an e-mail away.

Rent-a-Husband Stat

Tech Stats:
Shot on Sony HD24p
(High Definition);
transferred to 35mm.

Shooting Schedule:
27 days in New York City;
4 days in Procida, Italy.

Maria Grazia Cucinotta,
Pier Francesco Favino,
Brooke Shields,
Chevy Chase.

Written and Directed by:
Ilaria Borrelli

Produced by:
Brandi Savitt
Massimo Cristaldi

Line Producer:
Franny Baldwin Benullo
Director of Photography:
Paoli Ferrari

Colleen Sharp

Production Designer:
Besty McDonald

Costume Designer:
Marie Abma

Guido Freddi

Avy Kaufman

We had a fairly narrow window to go into production before we
lost both the Medusa pre-sale and Maria. We had two choices: either
find matching funds fast or find a way to cut our budget in half.
When securing additional financing did not come through in time,
my focus in the U.S. turned to cutting the budget and securing
a solid cast.

I brought in a good friend—and extraordinary line producer—Franny
Baldwin Benullo to help me play with numbers. And with the help
of casting director Avy Kaufman, we attached Brooke Shields and
Chevy Chase. But still the numbers had to shrink. Franny and I
made deals with the unions, our amazing crew and our vendors. I
took a deep breath, made a wish, took the Italians by the hand
and started to climb. 

“The thought of
shooting a movie in two countries in five six-day work weeks
was unheard of to the Italians. But the American crew and I
were trained in the New York independent film scene, where
nothing is impossible…”

Ninety-five percent of the film would shoot in New York and the
other five percent on the island of Procida, Italy. The thought
of shooting a movie in two countries in five six-day work weeks
was unheard of to the Italians. But the American crew was trained
in the New York indie scene, where nothing is impossible.

As pre-production continued, the hurdle was how to deal with the
nationality requirements of Italy. A certain number of cast and
crew had to be Italian and a certain amount of money had to be
spent there. This was a huge concern, since most of the film was
shooting in the U.S.. And because Ilaria and I both lived here,
we wanted post in New York as well. We weren’t going to have it

When a co-production between two European countries goes into
production, there are actual trade treaties signed between the
countries. This does not happen when an American company is involved.
Moviemaking in the U.S. is a business, not an art, at least according
to the government. The government does not subsidize entertainment
companies as other governments do. And because entertainment companies
in other countries are given tax incentives, the production must
fulfill certain requirements.

The crew of Rent-A-Husband sets up
on the island of Procida, Italy for part of their four-day

For example, even though Medusa, our distributor in Italy, is
a privately-owned entity, the government subsidizes the entertainment
industry and we were required to have a certain number of Italians
involved in the production and post-production of the film. We
hired Italian DP Paolo Ferrari to shoot the film. We had Ilaria,
Massimo, Maria Grazia, Pierfrancesco Favino (who played the role
of Vincenzo) and the four-day shoot in Procida, but it was still
not enough. We decided to split up post-production between New
York and Rome.

Our editor, Colleen Sharp, was American, and
we locked picture in New York. However, we took all sound, music
and lab work to Italy. We knew that this would end up being an
extreme technical challenge when it came to compatibility, because
the two countries work on different systems—PAL versus NTSC.
Let’s just say it was a learning experience. In addition, these
technical challenges were not cheap to remedy. But splitting
up post was our saving grace in meeting the nationality requirements
and getting the film made.

The next challenge was to learn the art of negotiating and communicating
with another culture. It was not just about English and Italian.
There are very real differences in the style and method of doing
business and making a movie in Italy. With a tight schedule and
a small budget, communicating in a high-pressure situation was
an enormous challenge.

For example, the structure of crew positions
and protocol in the U.S. is more formal than in Europe. When
the dolly grip was asked to change a light and he went to get
an electrician, he was initially thought to be “uncooperative.” Another
example is that, in general, New Yorkers are more straightforward.
That is not to say Italians are not aggressive, but they have
a different approach. And trying to explain concepts like cooperating
with Teamsters was virtually impossible. Needless to say, we
all adapted. On the first day of shooting, espresso in hand,
we all gathered around the breakfast truck and when the clock
struck 7:00 a.m. we all went up to the set.

Maria Grazia Cucinotta traverses the NYC
subway in Rent-A-Husband.

No matter who you are, every project you do is different. For
me, that is one of the main reasons I became a producer. Whether
it’s learning about new technology, researching a topic for a project,
working with a different culture or just meeting new people and
hearing their perspective, the opportunity to learn and expand
my interests, my mind and my craft is why I work in film.

Although it was not always easy, learning how to communicate with
people that have different ideologies, and melding two cultures
together, made me grow immensely both personally and professionally.
In addition to my professional interest in global moviemaking,
I am personally excited to continue my adventure working with other

The lyrical roll of animated Italian voices echoed against the
walls of the New York City set. The American cast and crew bustled
through the crowded space, attempting to interpret any directions
they may have missed in the banter of the foreign tongue.

Chevy Chase arrived on set and shouted “Ciao!” across the room
to Maria Grazia. The Italian DP shouted “more, fast, possible” to
his crew of well-humored English speakers. We were off and running…
and an independent, international comedy was born.MM

Rent-A-Husband will be released in Italy in March 2004. For more
information, visit

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