While Anton Corbijn and George Clooney chose a rarely filmed part of Italy for their locations in The American, Americans shooting in Italy has been going on for decades. More often than not, that shooting has taken place just outside Rome in Cinecittà, the city of cinema. Spreading out over 400,000 square meters, the studio hosts soundstages and numerous back lots, editing rooms and office spaces. Originally built by private interests and heavily subsidized and supported by the fascist government, Cinecittà opened with grand fanfare on April 27, 1937 with Mussolini overseeing the ceremonies. Nearly 300 films were produced there between 1937 and 1943, after which the studio was closed down due to Allied bombings. Most of the fare was light comedy intended to project a sense of calm and control in the heavily policed nation. Indeed the primary genre’s name, white telephone films, came from the knack of production designers to decorate such upper-class sitting-room fluff with such apparatus. After the war, the studio was used as a camp for refugees, before reopening in 1947.
By late 1950s, Cinecittà became known as Hollywood on the Tiber, partially for the number of big budget Hollywood fare that was made there. Indeed, Cinecittà came to life in the 50s and 60s with Italian productions by Fellini and Antonioni, as well as the Hollywood sagas like Ben Hur and Cleopatra. However, by the 1970s, changes in the Hollywood studio system, as well as a shift in Italian support, nearly bankrupted Cinecittà. Many of the soundstages were abandoned and the back lots used for Roman ruins became ruins themselves. While Cinecittà has slowly regained its financial footing, even experiencing a small renaissance in the last decade, it has never regained the glamour of its halcyon days.
That sense of a haunted world of movie making drew photographer Gregory Crewdson to photograph the studio for his current book, Sanctuary. With 40 duotone photographs and an introduction by New York Times film critic A. O. Scott, the books pays tribute to Cinecittà, albeit with a twist. Crewdson is best known for his big movie production approach to photography. Working with large crews, Crewdson rigs lighting, hires production designers, directs make up artists, all to create single image of American life. In shooting a real movie studio, Crewdson drastically shifted strategy.
Several years ago, while in Rome for a traveling exhibition of his work, Crewdson arranged a tour of the place. His friend Wes Anderson had previously filled him with stories about his experience shooting The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou there. “When I saw the place,” remembers Crewdson, “I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to do something more objective and more straight, like classical photography. I didn’t want to alter anything. I wanted the mood to be somber and atmospheric, like 19th century photos.” After a year of negotiating permissions and access, Crewdson shot the studio. It was his first work outside of the US, and some of his first work in black and white. And while many will see the look and feel as a departure, Crewdson recognizes an underlying continuity between this work and his earlier photographs. “There are,” he observes, “the same tension between beauty and sadness, between artifice and landscape.” Like with his other work there is a haunted quality to these images, but this time created much more by what isn’t there than by what is. In the empty ruined spaces, one feels that one could almost hear snatches of a conversation––a actress reading lines, a director barking orders––in the breezes that drift gently through the empty lots.