A life between Los Angeles and Rome, from Sandokan to Hollywood: Roberto Bessi. The world of cinema is full of nuances, brilliant and controversial, glamorous and obscure. Inside its labyrinth you can also meet open-minded, curious people, who enrich you with their insight. This is Roberto Bessi, executive creative producer, who grew up in a world of cinema. He has worked on dozens and dozens of films, including Richard Donner’s Ladyhawk, with Michelle Pfeiffer, and Mike Barker’s A Good Woman, with Helen Hunt, Scarlett Johansson and Tom Wilkinson. It is impossible to write a short biography of him.
I meet him drinking a cup of tea, immersing myself in the past, projected into the future.
How did you arrive in the world of cinema?
My father was De Laurentis’ production manager and a close friend was Fellini. I used to go on film sets with him. Fellini always wanted my opinion, when I was only 11.
You are known for your work on big American films, but I know you played a key role in the production of a series that marked my life as a young girl, Sandokan. Can you tell us about that experience?
They asked me if I wanted to start working on the first Sandokan, at the age of 23. I arrived in Singapore supervising this project. The organiser felt ill, I began to take charge of the adventure. A year of adventures between India, Malaysia and Thailand, it was 1975.
How did you shoot the famous tiger scene? They didn’t have the special effects of today.
We had trained a tiger – it started to be free and to jump on tripods. It became so wild that even its tamer was afraid. Working on special effects in blue back, we came up with this system: with the 35mm ad hoc camera, we made the tiger jump from one stool to another, a precise arc. Then in my studio with the blue back, we made the stunt double jump. Complex work.
The historical reconstructions seem very accurate, don’t they?
Novarese was in charge of the costumes and was the production designer. He researched the local ethnic groups. Everything was reconstructed in a precise way: Sandokan’s clothes, Yanez’s clothes, etc. The tailor’s shop was in Bombay.
After the worldwide success of the first series, the second series arrived. Was it easier to shoot?
For the second Sandokan, it was not the same. After the success, the troupe increased: 80 people, huge, they all got stuck in Singapore because they got the visas wrong. They called me because I knew the local authorities. I brought with me the reels of the original Sandokan, in 16mm.
Malaysia is made up of sultanates: I had a nice relationship with the daughter of the sultan of Jorhor Bahru. I went there and introduced myself to the royal palace in Kuala Lumpur saying, “May I speak to the king?” He had been very happy because I had been a gentleman with the daughter, he welcomed me and gave a screening to all the Malay dignitaries of the first Sandokan and then I asked him, “Do you want to unlock these 80 permissions?” In one night, he unblocked everything.
From Malaysia, you came to Hollywood. How did it go? A life between Los Angeles and Rome, from Sandokan to Hollywood: Roberto Bessi
I went to Los Angles with Richard Donner, the director of Superman, to set the first work, which was Ladyhawke. It was partly inspired by a Ladin tale, from your Dolomites. In fact, we reconstructed the script on the Ladin fable, adding the little thief. I suggested Rutget Hauer, whom I had met in India, who had just done Blade Runner. He was on a house boat. We filmed in Italy, in castles, in Abruzzo. The cathedral of the final scene was built in Cinecittà. It was the first time that Fendi organised a fashion show on the set. The leading lady was Michelle Pfeiffer, we had a long friendship.
So many films you have worked on, jumping decades to get to A Good Woman.
A Good Woman by Mike Barker, based on Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, with Scarlett Johansson and Helen Hunt. We shot it all in Ravello and Amalfi. It was set in the 1930s. The costumes were very beautiful. My son, Simone Bessi, runs a company called AnnaMode: he has 500,000 in his collection. Among the costumes you find Marie Antoinette, Hotel Budapest, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Little Women…
Any other flashes of memories of the greats of cinema you have worked with?
I did one film as a production manager, it was Cassandra Crossing, 1976 directed by George Pan Cosmatos. There was Sofia Loren who was the wife of producer Ponti, Burt Lancaster, Richard Harris, OJ Simpson, Ava Gardner, Ingrid Thulin. My job was: who should I take the flowers to first, to the actresses? If I took them to one first, the other would be offended. Sympathy and empathy were few.
In these dark times for cinema and culture, is there a message of hope?
Hope. I glimpse it remembering when Elisabetta Bruscolini called me, who was in charge of the structure of the Experimental Centre of Cinematography. She called me to be the delegated producer and select the first works of the young people from the Centre. I produced films with them, all of which went very well: 10 inverni by Valerio Mieli, with Michele Riondino, with Edoardo De Angelis Mozzarella Stories, with photography by Ferran Paredes Rubio, Il terzo tempo.
Will it return to the cinema? In a different way. There’s no middle ground. Who knows?