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Acclaimed creative Polish writer, small French company, major US distributor, English production company, German arthouse director and stars with Australian and Italian backgrounds: a team as disparate as this may have tuned a script with the potential for cinematic bliss into some sort of movie from hell. How did they avoid the traps? Andrew L. Urban reports.

A Polish filmmaker (now dead) wrote the original script, which was acquired by a French company, who sent it to the big dude at the American mini-major Miramax, who enlisted a German arthouse film director and an Englishman to produce; with a cast that includes Australia’s Cate Blanchett and an American-Italian, Heaven was made. In Italy. In two languages. And it took no time at all, propelled by the need to get it done while everyone was available. 

"a passion"

Until you see the result, you would be forgiven for thinking that this disparate team would turn a script with the potential for cinematic bliss into some sort of movie from hell. But the participants, however disparate, shared a passion for and understanding of the material.

Heaven (the only finished part of a planned trilogy, Heaven, Hell, Purgatory) is a screenplay left behind by Krzysztof Kieslowski after his death in 1996; he wrote it with his co-author Krzysztof Piesiewicz. Noé, the French production company which held the rights, took it to longtime Kieslowski fan, Harvey Weinstein at Miramax (yes, the same).

Weinstein then made the single most crucial choice: he turned to Englishman Anthony Minghella of The English Patient fame. Minghella’s production company didn’t hesitate to take on the production, but Minghella declined the director’s role. "Naturally, I am a great admirer of Krzysztof Kieslowski's work, as are my partners at Mirage Films, Sydney Pollack and Bill Horberg,” he says. “Harvey Weinstein offered our production company the project and suggested that I direct. I thought the screenplay was wonderful, but I really see myself less as a director than as a screenwriter who films his scripts himself. I simply would not have been the right person for the shoot and for radical material like this."

Then came another crucial choice by Weinstein: Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run was just then making an impact and Weinstein was impressed with the film’s high level of energy and originality. As Minghella remembers: "Harvey came to me and asked what I would think of Tom Tykwer to direct Heaven. It was easy for me to imagine that. But at the time I expected that in this case, the attraction of the film version would be the collision of two visions and ideas about filmmaking that are very much the opposite of one another. Not until later did it become more and more clear to me that my initial assessment of the situation was completely wrong. Kieslowski and Tom are very close to one another: their artistic world-views, their approaches are nearly identical."

Tykwer devoured the script; he, too, was a Kieslowski fan, but it was more than that. “The deciding factor was that by the time I had finished reading the third page, I had become immersed in the screenplay as if it were my own. I knew exactly what the story was getting at, not just explicitly but implicitly as well, atmospherically, beyond the moral conflicts and the narrative circumstances. I was able to see myself reflected in it. I also had a very strong feeling that the script connected with themes that I had taken up in my previous films, but in a way I had not encountered before. My feeling is definitely that this is the script I always wanted to write but never did. It completes an aspect of my themes that I've always been waiting for.”

"All of Tykwer’s own favourite themes are in there"

All of Tykwer’s own favourite themes are in there: fate, coincidence, desperation, and redemption through the belief in love. See Run Lola Run.

In brief, the film is a love story – but one that is unlike any other. Multi-lingual young teacher Philippa (Cate Blanchett) plants a bomb in the office of Vendice (Stefano Santospago) a senior company executive in Turin, whom she knows through her late husband - dead of a drug overdose. Vendice is the drug dealer she holds responsible – not only for his death but also for others, including a young girl student of hers. But the bomb accidentally kills four innocent people, and when Philippa is arrested and told, she is devastated. During questioning at the hands of the prosecutor - and surrounded by corrupt police - the young Carabineri who acts as her official interpreter (she wants to testify in her native English) is the only one who believes Philippa’s story and, deeply smitten by the young woman, decides to help her. The decision leads them both on a journey of love and deadly danger.

Tykwer articulates the film’s central issues with clarity: “There's a woman who commits an unforgivable error: she kills innocent people. But she still remains in the center of the film. As witnesses to her gradual development, we are forced to have an understanding of her and the transformation that she undergoes. This is a major challenge, because we really want to distance ourselves morally from this character. We have tried to make a film that overcomes this moral distance and opens the audience's hearts to people who appear to be lost.”

Even as Tykwer read it, he “began to participate in shaping this world, this cosmos, that opened up before me. That's never the case with other people's scripts; with those I always have the feeling, really, that I have to illustrate someone else's language. In the case of Heaven, I never had the impression that I was the illustrator of someone else' s idea, not even for a second.

“I internalized the script immediately and developed visual ideas. Also, I immediately had ideas about casting that I wanted to pursue. I thought of Cate Blanchett right away. At the time, this was nothing more than a crazy idea that turned into an obsession. Incredibly, it immediately became a reality. The script was sent to Cate, and two weeks later she had signed on. It was not just unbelievable, but also a little uncanny. The dynamism that the project took on was amazing. Everything got rolling very quickly.”

"Cate's presence is ambiguity made flesh"

But why Blanchett? Tykwer is again precise: “Cate's presence is ambiguity made flesh. Photographing her is incredibly demanding. She has a face that is always capable of changing. At the same time, there are very few people in the world who are as much in command of what they project, not just technically but also in terms of their aura, as she is.”

As for Ribisi, he basically pestered and bullied Tykwer into it. “I read the script and immediately started chasing Tom around,” says Ribisi. “I flew to Europe a few times and annoyed him quite a bit. To me, the screenplay had a simplicity that contained no apology of any kind. This is a recurring theme I see in Kieslowski’s films and especially in this script.”

Ribisi’s determination connected with Tykwer’s vision: “Giovanni was the first actor I met specifically for the role, which happened simply because he showed up on the doorstep one day when I was in Dortmund mixing The Princess and The Warrior (just prior to making Heaven). I was pretty tied up and wanted to talk to him for just 10 minutes – it turned into an intense three hours. The result was that I saw Filipo in front of me. However I wasn’t willing to believe that the first one could be the right choice so I had to make sure. I met with dozens and dozens of actors – I had to go through this to realise my very first impression was correct. Giovanni’s style of tender obsession predestined him for the part. There was a quiet determination and insistence that he absolutely had to play Filipo, so eventually I could see it too.”

(Sources: Tom Tykwer quotes from an interview with Thomas Schultze, with permission.)

Published September 12, 2002

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