- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 24, 2003

“It seemed like an unlikely book to turn into a movie,” observes Audrey Wells, director of her own fictionalized adaptation of Frances Mayes’ best-selling travel and homesteading memoir, “Under the Tuscan Sun.”

The film version, which stars Diane Lane as a mostly fanciful, very lovelorn and sometimes chuckleheaded heroine named Frances Mayes, opens tomorrow. Miss Wells, who had written and directed one previous feature — the witty and idiosyncratic romantic comedy “Guinevere” — recently talked about the pleasures and difficulties of turning “Tuscan Sun” into a movie.

Miss Wells, a first-generation American of French and Austrian extraction, grew up in San Francisco. Coincidentally, Frances Mayes was a poet and faculty member at San Francisco State University before she accompanied second husband Ed Mayes, also a poet, on the journey to Italy that led to their purchase and restoration of a villa in the Tuscan town of Cortona. That experience was recalled and amplified in “Tuscan Sun” and a pair of sequels, “Bella Tuscany” and “In Tuscany.” The name of their hillside villa, Bramasole, means “something that yearns for the sun.”

The impetus for the movie was a chance meeting in 1998 between producer Tom Sternberg and Frances and Ed Mayes. He was in Italy to watch over Anthony Minghella’s movie version of “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” He recognized the literary couple while browsing in a glassware shop. Miramax, the distributor of “Ripley,” was persuaded to invest in an adaptation of “Tuscan Sun,” which remained on the best-seller lists for two years after its publication in 1996.

Several writers turned down Mr. Sternberg before he found a taker in Audrey Wells, whose screenwriting credits included “The Kid,” “The Truth About Cats and Dogs” and numerous emergency rewrites as a trusted “script doctor,” often for Disney.

“At the time the book was sent to me,” Miss Wells recalls, “I was working on an entirely different story. Frances had written an autobiographical account of a certain time in her life … It had recipes and musings and a lot of cultural history. It did not have a plot. My project was about a woman overcoming heartbreak. It had the working title ‘The Stupidest Woman in the World.’ I realized that my story could come together with the setting of Frances’ book. It’s fair to say that we created something together that is entirely different and yet faithful to the source.”

It’s safe to assume that any elements of the movie that smack of fiction probably are fiction. Miss Wells generously catalogs a few. “There was no pregnant lesbian friend,” she begins, alluding to the role of Sandra Oh as a crony who joins Diane Lane in Cortona after being abandoned by a girlfriend. “No kindly Realtor named Signor Martini. No handsome young restaurant owner from Positano named Marcello. No story about a railway line that was built years before a train could run on it. No Fellini-esque beauty who imitates Anita Ekberg in ‘La Dolce Vita.’ Frances wasn’t driven to Italy by a traumatic divorce. That is entirely stuff I created.”

Miss Wells insists that all this trifling was done with the blessing of the original author. “[Frances] knows it could not be adapted unless somebody brought a story line to it,” she says. “I think she recognizes herself. Her book and the movie are kind of internal adventure stories. She feels I captured the spirit of the book, so she’s happy.”

Having perfected her hybrid, Miss Wells needed to find a new distributor. Miramax began to wobble, but an angel was in the wings: Nina Jacobson, president of Disney’s film arm, Buena Vista. She had become a friend and confidante of Miss Wells’ after several years of professional collaboration. Happy to acquire the project on the rebound, she staked the writer-director to a modest budget of $18.5 million and a 70-day shooting schedule in Italy, enhanced by six weeks of essential pre-production, including the construction of a movie replica of Bramasole.

Upon arriving with her husband and 2-year-old in Italy a year ago, Miss Wells encountered a certain amount of professional tribulation. “The joys were the actors,” she hastens to explain. “I loved every one of them and thought they were perfectly cast. I had 70 working days with Diane Lane, always our first choice, and we did not have a conflict any of those days. The difficulty arose from being a woman directing an all-male Italian crew. Most of them had just worked for Roberto Benigni or Martin Scorsese. I’m not famous; I was a woman; and they were bored.”

The solution? Tough it out. “You can’t sit down and cry or throw a fit,” Miss Wells reasons. “There was no time to fix the problem. I had to keep pushing for the next important thing on the day’s schedule. The studio was always very supportive. They would have sent help if a disaster was on the horizon, but in truth, not only was I making my days, we all liked the dailies.”

“Many American men have never directed an Italian crew,” Nina Jacobson says. “I’m sure that Audrey has made it easier for the next director, man or woman.”

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