“I’ve got to get to a library… Fast!”
THE DA VINCI CODE
Ron Howard . 2005
A decrypted message at the end of Dan Brown’s second novel, Deception Point, revealed: “The Da Vinci Code will surface.”
Indeed it did.
Obviously, Hollywood was going to film Brown’s fourthnovel – so better thanthe others that it was reminiscent of how BryanSinger’s second feature, The Usual Suspects, was such a major improvement upon his 1993 debut, Public Access.In both cases,it was as if the works were made by different people. Well, some talent burnish that rapidly,Singer more so than Brown, alreadystuck in an aspic groove with his Bond, Bourne or Holmes: Robert Langdon, professor of religious iconology and symbology at Havard University, who usually receives a phone call in the first chapter that sets him scurrying off on some Robert Ludlumesquetreasure hunt.
some 44 languages
The Da Vinci Code was the biggest selling English language novel of the 21st Century,amillion books bought on Day One, soon enough more than 80million(his first three had sold less than 10,000), spending weeks, months, years, almost decades inthe New York Timescharts.
An ordinary enough thriller with enough digs at Roman Catholicism, the Holy Grail, the Knights Templar andOpus Dei organisations – not to mention the suggesting that Christ was wed to Mary Magdalene – to hit the headlines.Not a bit of it, said Brown, simply “an entertaining story that promotes spiritual discussion and debate.”As if Hollywood would beinterested inthat!
Having earned well beyond $250m by now, Brown was as financially secure asthe heavyweights wanting to make the movie – child star turned Oscar-winning directorRon Howard and Oscar-winning producer Brian Grazer, chiefs of the usually unimaginative Imagine. The bland leading the bland.
For the Brown movie, they were joined by the former Warner Bros head honcho, JohnCalley. And they immediately followed the David O Selznick dictumof casting the hero first, and going for A Star,A Major Star, an Important Star, an Honoured Star – Mr. Bankability andLikeability.
Dan Brown had already alerted Hollywood to his own preference by describing his hero as…
in Harris tweed.”
At first, Ron Howard danced around such A Listersas George Clooney, Hugh Jackman. And Russell Crowe, who starred in their unexplainedOscar-winner, A Beautiful Mind, in 2001.
Oh, and plus Bill Paxton, although he was no star, not even as yet of his future TV series triumph, Big Love), but known to Imagine forits finest hour, Apollo 13 – his first Howard filmafter three earlier auditions.
Ron Howard, in particular played safe. Very safe. He talked Tom Hanksinto the role. Tom, who seemed to want to growout his hair and thoughtthis was the best excuse to do so, agreed. Of course,he did. He owed his movie career to Imagine – Splash in 1984.They also made Apollo 13 together a decade later. He signed on – for $25m.
Howard, Grazerand Hanks are old friends.Hollywood and Hanks are old friends.(He won succesive Oscars for Philadelphiaand Forrest Gump). Nary a bad word is spoken, written or hurled in Hanks’ direction… with the possibleexception of his work in theexecrable 2003 Coen Brothers film, The Ladykillers.
Author Dan Brown was an English (and Spanish) teacher and ex-pop singer and songwriter (1976-Love, If You Believe in Love) with five CDalbums. One was titled Angels & Demons,as was his first book starring Langdon, filmed by Imagine and Hanks – with a better hair cut – in 2009.
Langdon is the man
Dan Brown wished to be
His hero is named after John Langdon, typographyprofessor at Drexel University, renowned for creating ambigrams – typographical words designed to look the same right-side-up or upside-down. (See the original cover of Angels & Demons). Brown’s hero has a Mickey Mouse watch (since his ninth birthday),an automatic Saab 9005 and his own website – Robert Landgon.com
With Langdon fixed (unlike his hair), the guys turnedto The Girl. Sophie Neveu isthe French cryptographer of the French Direction Centrale de la Police Judiciaire, whobecomes thecohortof the symbologist hero as they investigate themurder of her grandfather, Jacques Saunière, curator of the Louvre museum and Grand Master Of Priory of Sion. Sophie and Saunière are bothlargely basedon Browns’s father, a maths teacher and lover of codes, cyphersand treasure hunts.
Sophie had to be French. Well, British actresses, like Meryl Streep, can summon up any accent fromAlaskan to Venutian. So Kate Beckinsale was seen – andturned down. (Fouryears later,Esquire magazine named her The Sexiest Woman Alive). However, as much of the film would be shot inParis – and hopefully inside theLouvre, if they could pull that off.The Vatican hated the book’s assertion that Mary Magdalene was Christ’s pregnant wife and bannedany co-operation.
So yes, Sophie
had to beFrench
And so they were the contenders, all 15 of them. Well, Aure Atika worked in French movies, but was born inPortugal.
First auditions in Los Angeles, as early as November 2004, didn’t cost Imaginemuch. Elodie Bouchez was already there, arranging tomake a dozen episodesin the final season of Alias. July Delpy, as busy afilm-maker asan actress, lived there since 1990.Only,Linda Hardy had to be winged in from France and such movies as Immortel (Ads Vitam) and Le souffleur.
The December auditions were pricier as Howard and Grazer flew to Paris and set up shop in the Ritz Hotel.Theymetthere with six more hopefuls. Enter: Aure Atika, the Portuguesefind from thebrilliant De battre mon coeur s’est arrêté.Followed by veterans Juliette Binoche, Sandrine Bonnaire. Pretty, talented (Binochewon an Oscar for The English Patient, 1996) but actually too old for Sophie (or, more likely,for Hanks).Marion Cotillard’s day – and Oscar – would come in the next year,thanks to her Edith Piaf biopic, La môme (US: LA vie en rose).
And then there were two steady rivals in the Paris casting halls: the blonde Hélène De Fourgerolles and Johnny Depp’s lady, singer-actress Vanessa Paradis. Latest score: Vanessa 0, Hélène 2: Le raid, 2001 and Le plus beau jour de ma vie, France, 2004.
Also invited to the Paris sessions wasthe top French flavour of the hour, Audrey Tautou.She’d read the book on her summerholidayinMexico and she was back in the Mexican sun when her agent Claire Blondel called. Non,said Audrey,she was not keen on rushing home for 15 minutes with Mr Hollywood for a part she felt she too young for (Howard agreed).“And besides, it’ll go to anAmerican.”
By the start of 2005, Imagine was getting nervous.Shooting was to beginin fivemonths(it was delayed another month) andthe film still didn’t have a leading lady,which is probably why they finally shelled out for as many assix air tickets.
Linda Hardy was invited back.On herher flightto LA, she foundElsa Zylberstein whose biggest success, Mina Tannenbaum, was made in 1993. (Both theircareerswere soon headed back toTV).On a second planewere the chic Amira Casar fromthe notorious Anatomie de l’enfer, 2004;Judith Godreche, who once played Marie-Antoinette; Virginia Ledoyen, in commercials since age two andmovies fromten;andAnna Mouglalis, fromthe Franco-Greek Real Life, 2004.
Three scenes with Tom Hanks
and his flowing locks
…constituted thenew tests scheduled for January 10, 11 and 12 at a small theatre in Santa Monica, where the six contestants were ensconced in the same hotel. No, make that eight…Sophie Marceau, the movie star favourtite of all France, a previous co-star of James Bond and Mel Gibson, was already in LA, with her lover Christophe(r) Lambert.
And a certain Audrey Tautou finally decided tojoin the party.On the final day…She’d received muddling mails: Ron Howard wanted to see her, then he didn’t and then again he did.
After all that, it was down between Amira and Audrey (they would play fashion icon Coco Chanel in different films in 2008), Elsa and Linda.Not Sophie. Obviously not;Sophie Marceauwasthe only one who might have stolen the movie fromHanks… and his stupid hair.
A week later, January 19,while scouring theLouvre museum with his digital camcorder(French president Jacques Chirac hadmade sure Imagine couldshoot there – at 24,000 Euros per night),Ron Howard phoned Audrey andcalled her Sophie…The production dates were a minor hassleof as she had to begin Hors de prix in September, but shooting finally began in Paris on June 29,Sophie she was.
Four years earlier, Audrey had also beaten one of her Sophie-rivals, Vanessa Paradis, to what proved to be theTautoubreakthrough and the reason Ron Howard kept asking to see her:Le Fableux destin d’Amelie Poulain, France, 2001.
Despite the story being about whatHanks, called “ all sorts of hooey and fun kind of scavenger-hunt-type nonsense,” the movie was selected to open the 59th Cannes film festival the following Mayand, according to research by the Rotten Tomatoes websiste, itreceived165 negative reviews from the 214 examined. Indeed, it wasjudgedone of the worst films of 2006 by Chicago critics Roger Ebertand Richard Roeper.Yet also thesecond highest grossing film of the year, with a global$750m.
Brown’s next Robert Langdon thriller, The Lost Symbol,was published in 2009 with a print run offive-million. It shouldbe a third Hanks-Howard-Grazer movie in2012.Dan Brown ison record as saying he has ideas for about a dozen moreLangdon books.Be afraid, people. Be very afraid.
[This page owes much to the Da Vinci casting reportage by Thierry Cheze and Jean-Pierre Lavoignat
in the French Studio magazine, February 2006. Merci, les gars!]