Paolo and Vittorio Taviani want to make clear that their first English language film, "Good Morning, Babylon," is not about D. W. Griffith, although he is a major character.
"It's about two young men who come to America, and it's about art old and new," said Paolo through the brothers' interpreter, Oscar-winning costume designer Melina Canonero, the film's co-producer. "It could be subtitled 'Pray for the Cinema,' " added Vittorio.
Not surprisingly, considering that the brothers have been responsible for such superb, multi-layered epics as "Padre Padrone," "The Night of the Shooting Stars" and "Kaos," the story of "Good Morning, Babylon" and how it got made is not quite that simple.
When Griffith went to San Francisco to attend the Pacific Panama Exposition of 1915, he also went to see the Italian historical screen spectacle "Cabiria," which impressed him so deeply that he was inspired to expand the film he was working on, "The Mother and the Law," into his great screen fugue "Intolerance." This led to the construction of the famous, immense Babylon set with its grand staircase bordered by gigantic elephant-topped pillars.
Griffith had been impressed with the Exposition's Tower of Jewels and decided he wanted the Italian artisans who worked on it to build his Babylon set. Most of them had already returned to Italy, but the three who had stayed behind actually were employed by Griffith.
So much for the factual background of "Good Morning, Babylon."
Young screenwriter Lloyd Fonvielle saw that a fictional story could be spun about those artisans, and it was with this premise that producer Ed Pressman approached the Tavianis. They were interested but needed to be assured that they would have the complete freedom they've always enjoyed.
"We told Ed Pressman that if we do not have the same liberty we have always had, we won't be able to make a good film--and that it wouldn't be a good film for him either," said Paolo. "After three years, it's done," Vittorio said. "Like every fable, we hope it has a happy ending."
"Fable" is an apt description of "Good Morning, Babylon," judging from its script and production stills of its Fellini-like sets. It looks to be a classic saga of two brothers (played by Vincent Spano aand Portuguese-born Joaquim De Almeida), master stonecutters who come to seek their fortune in America, whose relationship has certain Cain and Abel undertones and who end up on opposite sides in World War I.
The odyssey-like film is also a love story--the brothers marry "Intolerance" extras (Greta Scacchi, Desiree Nosbush)--and a commentary on the ancient arts of the Old World and the new technological art of the movies. Charles Dance, who was Meryl Streep's diplomat husband in "Plenty," plays Griffith. Vestron budgeted the production at $6 million, and the film is scheduled for a spring release.
There is little physical resemblance between the brothers, whose involvement with films dates back to 1950 when they ran a cinema club in Pisa, which is not far from their native Tuscan village. Vittorio, 56, is bald, mustached and wears glasses while Paolo, 54, has a full head of dark hair and is clean-shaven. Both were wearing elegant Italian sport clothes while chatting recently in the lobby of their West Hollywood hotel. There's a certain aura of good-humored mischief about the Tavianis, who play off each other like a seasoned vaudeville team when they feel they're beginning to sound too serious.
Inevitably, they're asked how they manage to co-direct as well as co-write their films, and Vittorio admitted, "Many times we just say we don't know." But Paolo was willing to expand: "We're two neurotics and together we make up one neurosis. I'm a Scorpio and Vittorio is a Virgo. An astrologer told us we're totally opposite but complementary--that is, if we don't kill each other.
"We started working together by chance, and we'll continue doing so as long as it produces good results. We are following our destiny, and anyway our mother is very happy about it. Seriously, this is very difficult to explain, but it works. We direct alternate set-ups. When one directs, the other is silent and speaks only with his eyes.
"An author when working alone is always fighting with his inspiration and makes lots of corrections," Vittorio said. "The same thing applies when there are two people. We correct each other. We do disagree sometimes, but if we couldn't finally come to the same conclusions, we couldn't work together. Otherwise, we would have to start new careers, new lives." (Film making is truly a family affair for the Tavianis: Vittorio's wife Carla handles continuity while Paolo's wife Lisa designs the costumes.)
"Good Morning, Babylon's" screenplay credit includes the distinguished veteran Tonino Guerra as collaborator, and Paolo explained that while he did no writing on the script, he was their adviser. "Tonino told us, 'You have a wall, you throw the script against the wall. The wall is me, and I hope that some of its white chalk rubs off on your script.' "
Having done their homework before coming to Los Angeles for the first time to prepare for their film, the Tavianis were not expecting to find much of Old Hollywood extant. In the vicinity of the long-gone Griffith Studio at Sunset and Hollywood they did recognize from an old still one small cottage and a telephone pole, still leaning after all these decades. For the film, Hollywood in 1916 was re-created in an old studio outside Pisa, Italy.
"We researched everything we possibly could," said Vittorio, "but in the end you must kick it aside and do your own thing. All this background material gets in your blood and you don't think about it." Similarly, he explained that they did not allow themselves to be distracted by the language barrier, for "in the end a film is always images, style, sound. Let's just hope we end up with a good movie!"
The Tavianis agree that all their films are concerned with self-discovery. "To come to terms with this theme you have to have a kind of rapport with self, with nature and with others--society," Vittorio said. "And nature is very mysterious. The great questions are always Who am I? and Where am I going? I think it was Tolstoy who said 'I write to be loved by people I will never meet,' and that is why I make movies."
"When you've finished the movie and it's successful, you have this physical feeling that you have these power lines radiating out from you connecting you to others," Paolo added. "But if the film doesn't succeed, you feel strangled by them."
Win or lose, the Tavianis don't see the making of "Good Morning, Babylon" changing the kinds of films they make, but they were affected by its making. "We rediscovered how special the cinema is," Vittorio said. "It's a very precious thing. The spirit, the attitude, of the pioneers should be alive today. Life is very beautiful because it's full of surprises."