Rome's Cinematic 'Dream Factory' Ramps Up Production Once Again

May 21, 2015
Originally published on May 21, 2015 8:27 pm

It's just 15 miles south of Rome, but it looks more like ancient Jerusalem.

Welcome to the vast backlot at Cinecittà, the sprawling movie metropolis where the original Ben-Hur was filmed, and a remake is currently in production.

In the 1950s and '60s, Cinecittà, or Cinema City, was known as "Hollywood on the Tiber," famed for the swords-and-sandals epics as well as spaghetti Westerns.

Later, with competition from TV and cheaper studios in Eastern Europe, Cinecittà fell on hard times.

But thanks to government efforts, Italy's studios are now luring Hollywood majors back and Cinecittà is experiencing a revival.

On a recent day, filming is underway of the famous chariot duel between Ben-Hur and his friend-turned-enemy Messala.

But unlike the Charlton Heston epic, shot at Cinecittà in 1958 and 1959 with 15,000 extras, this remake will take advantage of the latest in visual effects technology, and the 400 extras on set will look like 100,000.

Producer Sean Daniel points to the racecourse, which is as long as two football fields. The chariot sequence will involve eight chariots, eight drivers and 32 horses and will take a month to film.

Jack Huston, who had a starring role in HBO's Boardwalk Empire, plays Ben-Hur. The movie also stars Morgan Freeman.

Luigi Rocchetti, who is in charge of makeup on the Ben-Hur set, comes from a movie production dynasty that started with his wig-making grandfather.

Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini built Cinecittà, Rocchetti says, because he wanted Italy to compete with big Hollywood productions.

But the studio made its mark after World War II with neo-realism and the golden age of Italian cinema.

Rocchetti remembers first visiting Cinecittà as a teenager.

"It was just, incredible, lots of movies going on, Fellini, Rossellini, Zeffirelli, it was really alive studios," he says.

But in the 1980s, movie production plummeted, and the 22-stage facility, one of Europe's largest studios, languished.

Until last year.

That's when Italy introduced a tax rebate of up to 25 percent on expenses incurred in movie production. If it's a big-budget movie, with more than one production company, the savings can double.

In addition to Ben-Hur, the biggest production at the studio since Cleopatra was filmed in the early 1960s, a portion of the latest James Bond thriller, Spectre, was shot earlier this year in Rome.

Ben Stiller is filming Zoolander 2 on five Cinecittà soundstages, while another American movie, Christ the Lord, Out of Egypt, based on the Anne Rice novel, is also in production.

Cinecittà CEO Giuseppe Basso says the new tax incentives have put the studio back in business.

"We are called the 'dream factory' not because we dream, we stay with our feet on the ground, but because we are the factory of the dreams," he says.

For cinephiles, Cinecittà offers guided tours and a new museum. One room is dedicated exclusively to the studio's most loyal director: Federico Fellini.

The Italian auteur shot virtually all his movies at Cinecittà, including La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2. In interview footage projected on the walls of the gallery dedicated to him, Fellini explains that working there was actually therapeutic.

"One time I arrived with a high fever, but as soon as I entered the magic circle — with the projection lights on, the crew all around me and having to wear the director's uniform — all my ailments, even the fever and headache, simply disappeared," he said.

Fellini loved Cinecittà so much that he had an apartment created next to his favorite soundstage, Studio Five. Those rooms are now being used as the Ben-Hur production offices.

Daniel, the movie's producer, smiles as he walks up Fellini's stairs.

"His furniture is gone," Daniel says. "But we like to think that his spirit and his ghosts are still here."

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In the 1950s and '60s, film studios in Rome were known as a Hollywood on the Tiber, famous for swords-and-sandals epics and Spaghetti Westerns. Well, later, with competition from TV and cheaper studios in Eastern Europe, the Cinecitta fell on hard times. But, like any good film, there's a twist to this story. As NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, the Italian studios are experiencing a revival.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: This is the vast Cinecitta back lot, some 15 miles south of Rome. But what we're looking at is ancient Jerusalem and a reconstruction of the circus built there by the Romans for chariot races. Yes, this is the remake of "Ben-Hur," and today they're shooting the famous chariot duel between Ben-Hur and his friend-turned-enemy, Messala. But contrary to the Charlton Heston epic shot in 1959 at Cinecitta with 15,000 extras, this remake will take advantage of the latest in visual effects technology, and the 400 extras here today will look like 100,000. Producer Sean Daniel points to the racecourse that's two football fields long.

SEAN DANIEL: That's the starting gate down there. There are eight chariots, each pulled by four horses. So when the race starts - eight chariots, eight drivers and 32 horses. It'll take a month to film the chariot sequence.

POGGIOLI: Ben-Hur is played by Jack Huston of "Boardwalk Empire" fame, and the movie also stars Morgan Freeman. During a break in the day's shooting, Huston meets with some reporters and talks about the tough training he underwent to prepare for the chariot race.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JACK HUSTON: We had a month pre-production before this. We were intensively training. We have a lot of help. We've got such an amazing crew, like, these guys are incredible. They're taking such good care of us.

POGGIOLI: Luigi Rocchetti is in charge of make-up on the "Ben-Hur" set. He comes from a movie production dynasty that started with his wig-making grandfather. Rocchetti said Fascist dictator Mussolini built Cinecitta because he wanted Italy to compete with big Hollywood productions. But the studio made its mark after World War II with neo-realism and the golden age of Italian cinema. Rocchetti remembers first visiting Cinecitta as a teenager.

LUIGI ROCCHETTI: It was just incredible, you know? There was a lot of movies going on - Fellini's, Rossellini's, Zefirelli, all these movies, they were going on. It was a really, really alive studios.

POGGIOLI: But then in the 1980s, movie production plummeted and the 100-acre facility, one of Europe's largest studios, languished - until last year. That's when Italy introduced a tax rebate of up to 25 percent on expenses incurred in movie production. If it's a big-budget movie with more than one production company, the savings can double. In addition to "Ben-Hur," the biggest production here since "Cleopatra" - a portion of the latest James Bond thriller, "Spectre," was shot earlier this year in Rome. Ben Stiller is shooting "Zoolander 2" on five Cinecitta soundstages, and another American movie in production here is "Christ The Lord: Out Of Egypt," based on the Anne Rice novel.

Cinecitta CEO Giuseppe Basso says the new tax incentives have put the studio back in business.

GIUSEPPE BASSO: We are called a dream factory not because we dream - we stay with our feet on the ground - but because we are the factory of the dreams.

POGGIOLI: A group of French visitors are taking a guided tour of Cinecitta and its new museum. One room is dedicated exclusively to the studio's most loyal director. Federico Fellini shot virtually all his movies at Cinecitta, and in this interview he explains why for him working here was actually therapeutic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FEDERICO FELLINI: (Through interpreter) One time, I arrived with a high fever but as soon as I entered the magic circle with the projection lights on, the crew all around me and having to wear the director's uniform, all my ailments, even the fever and headache, simply disappeared.

POGGIOLI: Fellini loved Cinecitta so much, he had an apartment created next to his favorite Studio Five soundstage. Those rooms are now being used as the "Ben-Hur" production offices. Producer Sean Daniel smiles as he walks up Fellini's stairs.

DANIEL: His furniture's gone (laughter), but we like to think that his spirit and his ghosts are still here.

POGGIOLI: Do you feel him?

DANIEL: How can you not?

POGGIOLI: (Laughter).

DANIEL: It's true, it's really true.

POGGIOLI: Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Cinecitta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.