|FRAME BY FRAME: Tom Hanks, Jean Reno and Audrey Tautou|
It must be the nearest thing to a sure-fire hit that has ever come out of Hollywood. After filming on locations that included the Louvre and several English churches and cathedrals, the film version of The Da Vinci Code is now being edited in preparation for a worldwide release on May 19, when it is expected to break all box office records.
After all, author Dan Brown’s controversial, conspiracy-minded religious thriller has become a global industry ? the book has already sold 50 million hardback copies, with close to five million paperback sales in the UK so far. It has inspired reverential bus tours, spawned critical documentaries, been denounced by the Vatican and, most recently, been the subject of a high-profile court case. The publicity all this attracted has been more than any studio marketing department could have dreamt of.
The court case, brought by two historians who accused Brown of plagiarising their non-fiction book to write The Da Vinci Code, threatened for a while to put the film’s release in doubt. But a judge at the high court vindicated Brown last month, saying that, while the author may have copied parts of the 1982 book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, it did not amount to a breach of copyright.
The publicity-shy Brown testified during the month-long trial, which was peppered with abstruse debate over the Merovingian monarchy, the Knights Templar and the bloodline of Jesus Christ, all of which feature in The Da Vinci Code.
But the court case is only one of the obstacles the film has had to overcome. Huge pressure was exerted on Sony, the studio making the film, from religious groups who wanted the film to differ from the novel, particularly in its inflammatory theory that for 2,000 years the Catholic Church has been covering up the fact that Christ was married to Mary Magdalene and fathered a daughter, whose bloodline has survived into present-day Europe.
The Catholic League and Opus Dei were among the groups petitioning for changes (and the latter is continuing to press for a disclaimer on the film itself), but the director Ron Howard has made it plain the film closely follows the book.
His goal, he says, was to duplicate the experience of reading the book, despite the fact that the book unfolds in real time over a day and the movie will run for about two- and-a-half hours. Certain things have been omitted, although nothing major has been changed.
“We used the novel as the basis for our movie,” says Howard, “and it is not a reinvention of the novel. It’s a screen adaptation of The Da Vinci Code.”
Howard, himself a fan of the book, had no intention of changing the storyline. “I’m very interested in the range of themes,” he said. “It’s intriguing on a lot of levels. It’s the kind of fiction that provokes thought and conversation and debate, and it did that for me when I read it. It’s quite unusual for a story to have that many ideas working in the same plot line, and I chose to make the film because I was intrigued by those ideas.”
For inspiration, Howard watched classic thrillers with spiritual elements, such as The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby. He is once again working with his longtime producer Brian Grazer, with whom he made Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Ransom and Cinderella Man among others. Between them, their films have grossed billions of pounds and collected nine Oscars.
Although they usually develop their own projects, this time they were brought in by Sony, who had bought The Da Vinci Code as well as all future movie rights to the central Robert Langdon character, for a reported bargain price of ?4 million.
Tom Hanks, who previously worked with Howard and Grazer on Apollo 13 and the romantic comedy Splash, stars as Langdon, the Harvard “symbology” professor who becomes embroiled in a murder mystery of biblical proportions.
Howard insists that friendship had nothing to do with the casting. Much of the action is cerebral, involving solving riddles, cracking codes and carrying out a Boolean key-word search at a London library.
“Tom is an exciting actor to watch thinking,” said Howard. “We probably don’t need his status from a box-office standpoint, but he gives Langdon instant legitimacy.”
The French actress Audrey Tautou was chosen as his co-star over three Oscar-winning actresses who reportedly lobbied mightily for the role. The cast also includes Ian McKellen as Sir Leigh Teabing, the former royal historian whose life’s passion is the Holy Grail; Alfred Molina as Bishop Manuel Aringarosa, the president-general of Opus Dei; Jean Reno as the deeply religious police captain Bezu Fache; and Paul Bettany as Silas, the murderous, self-flagellating albino Opus Dei monk.
“There’s something nice about being able to leave your sense of morality at the door when you come to work in the morning and just be cruel to people all day,” says Bettany. “It’s quite fun. In a lot of my scenes I’m on my own and I’d turn up for work and there’d be me and a crew and Ron Howard and it felt like a small, intimate, personal, independent movie. But I hear that’s not what it’s going to be.”
The filmmakers were refused permission to shoot in Westminster Abbey because the novel on which the film is based was “theologically unsound”; but Lincoln and Winchester cathedrals co-operated, as did the Temple Church in London and Rosslyn Chapel in Roslin, Scotland.
As for doubts about whether the film could shoot in the Louvre, these were resolved only when French President Jacques Chirac personally gave his stamp of approval. Even so, the Mona Lisa, which plays a key role in the story’s opening, was ruled off-limits and the film had to use a replica.
Howard and his crew shot for a week of nights in July, although conditions were less than ideal. “We had to be very specific about every single shot we were going to do, both for security and for preservation reasons,” said Howard. “There were all kinds of things we couldn’t do. In the script, there is blood on the floor but we couldn’t do that, and obviously we couldn’t take paintings off the walls.” The crew was also forbidden to shine direct light on the paintings.
“I think people relate to the story for personal reasons,” says Howard. “Some are interested in the mystery, some are interested in the spirituality and some are interested in the locations. I honestly think that a lot of people get a lot of different things out of it.”