Thursday, May 10, 2012

Gualtiero Jacopetti

In 1969 Baton Rouge was visited by a team of Italian film-makers (Carlo Ponti Productions) led by director Gualtiero Jacopetti (I loved saying that name: Gwal tee err doe Jock O Petty … it has such a melodic ring). He was famous for the “Mondo” series that many of you (if you’re over 50) may be familiar with (Mondo Cane, Mondo Candido, Mondo Pazzo). Anyhow only one member of this visiting team could speak English, very crude and broken English at that. His name was Giampaolo Lomi, the Production Manager.

The late Valerian Smith (Local Baton Rouge dentist), who had assisted Jacopetti on previous productions, contacted me for assistance in casting this film. A side note: the beautiful Lynn Whitfield is Valerian’s daughter. Don’t know who she is? Do you know who Josephine Baker was? No? Lynn played the title role in HBO’s “The Josephine Baker Story” in 1991, winning that year’s Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries, winning the Image Award for Best performance in a Miniseries and a Golden Globe nomination for the same category. Not bad for a homegrown success story.

OK, back to my Carlo Ponti adventure. This Euro International script was entitled “Goodbye Uncle Tom”. The Internet Movie Database described the plot as follows: “Two documentary filmmakers go back in time to the pre-Civil War American South, to film the slave trade.” Jacopetti would cast himself as one of the filmmakers along with Franco Prosperi as the other. Once filming was underway and casting was complete, my job was now concluded. I won’t name the locals that were cast because if I miss one, I’ll not hear the end of it. Unfortunately the IMDB only acknowledged the Italian cast and crew. How thoughtless of them.

Early one morning, while I was en route to Point Coupee parish on other state business, I saw this white Pontiac convertible with 4 familiar faces parked in the median at the foot of the old Mississippi River bridge. My curiousity got the best of me. I U-turned on Hwy 190 and returned to this curious gathering.
As I drove up to where they were parked, I recognized Jacopetti, Lomi and 2 others just sitting there. Two were sitting on the car’s trunk while the other 2 sat in the car. I asked “What’s happening, guys?” Lomi, the only one who could speak some English, said “Waiting for train.” If you are familiar with the “old bridge”, you are then aware that it includes a rail. They wanted a shot of a train crossing the bridge. I then said “Do you have a schedule?” Lomi didn’t understand me. I then asked “Do you know when a train is going to cross?” He shrugged and said “We just wait”. So I wished them well and continued on my way to Point Coupee.

Later that day, near 6 pm, I began my return to Baton Rouge from Point Coupee. Upon arriving at the foot of the bridge, yep, there they were. Still waiting. Again I stopped. There were fried chicken boxes and cups of sodas strewn everywhere. Lomi said “We still wait for train.” Dusk was quickly setting in. I decided not to subject them to any further translation challenges and simply wished them well and continued back to Baton Rouge.

Years later, when I had an opportunity to see this film, I was quite impressed. They had indeed gotten their train shot. It was a beautiful, shot at dusk, just before dark. They had patiently waited over 9 hours for what could have been a wasted effort.  Had this been an American product, better planning would have been the order of the day. No director would have expended an entire day awaiting that shot. An American director would have simply dispatched a second unit cameraman and small crew AFTER having checked the train schedule. But in the case of this Italian crew patience paid off.


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