Scottish director puts Modigliani on big screen

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The Independent Culture

A Scottish writer and director has achieved a long-held ambition to make a film about the tragic and short life of the bohemian Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani.

A Scottish writer and director has achieved a long-held ambition to make a film about the tragic and short life of the bohemian Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani.

Mick Davis spent 10 years to pull off the £10m art-house film, Modigliani, which received its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last night. Starring the Hollywood actor Andy Garcia, it will be released in Britain in September.

Davis, who directed his first film, The Match, in 1999, developed a passion for Modigliani when he was a child in the Gorbals, Glasgow, suffering from asthma. "When I was about 12, my father bought me a book about painters and I read about this guy called Modigliani and how he had tuberculosis as a kid and he couldn't go out, but would stay home and draw and paint. I was in the same kind of place, in my bed most of the time, getting hardly any schooling," Davis said yesterday.

Modigliani was born in Italy but settled in Paris in the early 20th century where he rivalled Picasso. The film focuses on the last year of his life, when he was living with his great love, Jeanne Hebuterne, in a turbulent relationship made worse by his alcoholism and deteriorating health. He died of tubercular meningitis in 1920 aged 36.

Davis, on the other hand, grew out of the asthma, became a fitness coach for Celtic Football Club and - through football - friends with the singer Rod Stewart. When Davis decided to leave football to write films, it was Stewart who made introductions in Los Angeles.

By now the idea for the Modigliani film had been gnawing away at Davis for years and he produced a first draft in just 10 days. After reading it, Martin Scorsese, the director, recommended Davis should be signed up by a big Hollywood agency. "Scorsese never made the movie, but it got me in the door," Davis said.

Instead, Al Pacino became involved. His love of the artist had been inspired by an off-Broadway play on Modigliani he had seen in 1969. Twentieth Century Fox had bought Pacino the rights to the play and Pacino and Fox now suggested Davis combine that script with his own. As Pacino was now in his fifties, he thought he might direct with Johnny Depp starring.

But Davis said he could not get the combined script right. "I hated the script because the play took the spirit out of the character and made him dark and depressed. I wanted to do a movie about a man who loves life. I got scared because that beautiful story was going to be taken by somebody else."

So when the studio's option on the script ran out, Davis took the bold decision not to renew but to keep control himself. "Everybody thought I was mad, but I wanted to do Modigliani my way."

Then Garcia indicated he wanted to play Modigliani - and arrived to discuss it with Davis wearing the artist's characteristic brown corduroy suit. "I was mesmerised. It looked as though he had been painting in it," Davis said. "I said: 'Andy, if you want to do it, it's yours'."

A French producer, Andre Djaoui, raised the £10m finance from France, Italy and nearly a third from the Liverpool-based film financiers Tower Film Productions. The film was finally shot in seven weeks in Romania last year, with a cast including Eva Herzigova and Miriam Margolyes.

Last night Garcia said: "I was aware there was a project about Modigliani for very many years and I knew there was a part I would like to play. The chance to portray a character like this doesn't come along very often. Budgets don't worry me as long as you have a good script."

Davis could scarcely believe he had finally pulled it off. "I spent years really struggling to climb this mountain. The project died so many times, but I never gave up," he said. "It is the story I wanted to tell."

At various times the artist had grabbed the attention of the directors Oliver Stone and Bruce Beresford and the actor Val Kilmer. If someone had told him it would take a decade to succeed, he would never have stuck with it, he said. "But it eats away at you and it's like someone you love that you can't live with but can't live without. It's a love affair with this subject."

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