He’d had an adaptation written already, but it was awful. Massimo and I started again, working with Anna Pavignano, his former girlfriend, in a beachfront hotel in Santa Monica. We made the fisherman a 40-year-old postman, played by Massimo, and Neruda’s exile was our invention, too. One moment in the book stood out. In the 1970s, Neruda had asked the fisherman to send him tape recordings of his house at Isla Negra. I saw that it could be built up as an expression of the postman’s desire to do something creative. For me, that was the key.
I called up Philippe Noiret, who looked astonishingly like Neruda. Within an hour, he called me back and said: “If you give this to anyone else, I’ll be incredibly angry.” I also needed Neapolitan actors of 70-plus who looked like fishermen in the 50s. They came in, and I recognised many of them from Fellini movies. But they were all fat, completely unsuitable. I said to the casting director: “I can’t take any of them.” He said: “Thank goodness.” He pointed to a guy sitting in the hallway with a white suit, white fedora, white shirt, white shoes and a red tie. He was smoking with a cigarette holder. The casting director said: “He’s from the Camorra. He controls all actors in Naples over the age of 70. If you take one of them, he’s going to be on the set, he’s going to have a producing credit.”
Meanwhile, Massimo, whose heart had been damaged by rheumatic fever when he was a child, had gone to Houston for a checkup. When he came back six months later, he didn’t seem like the same person.
He collapsed on the set on the third day. He was in a terrible state. He could only film for about an hour a day, so we had to work our way around it. I just shot him in closeup. Whenever there was a wide shot, we used a double. In lots of scenes, he arrives on a bicycle, but that’s not him. Every dialogue sequence was done sitting down. I made him sit on a sound stage in Cinecittà and speak his entire dialogue just in case he didn’t make it.
In the most famous sequence, the tape recordings, he was never in shot. I got the telegraph worker character to wander around with the recorder and used my own hand to double for Massimo’s with the mic in the foreground. Philippe did all his lines in French, so in the scene where they’re discussing metaphors on the beach, he and Massimo couldn’t understand what the other was saying. Yet it looks as if there’s such understanding between them.
We ran completely over schedule. After Massimo’s last day, he went to stay with his sister in Ostia. I was listening to the radio in my apartment in Rome, and suddenly it was saying he’d died. I jumped in the car straight to his sister’s. I was crying as I was driving, and suddenly realised I was being photographed by a truckload of paparazzi. At his funeral, his double walked in homage behind the coffin; all the Neapolitans, who are superstitious as hell, assumed it was his ghost.
Harvey Weinstein bought the film to distribute. I remember him saying to me: “I’m going to sell poetry to the American people.” And he did. We were nominated for pretty much every big Oscar, and it made $21m, which made it one of the highest-grossing foreign-language films of all time. It was huge in India, though I don’t think anyone purchased a legal copy. I got a letter from Haruki Murakami saying it was his favourite movie. Everybody at some point thinks about writing a piece of poetry to express the better part of themselves.
‘You’re perfect as you are’ … Massimo Troisi and Maria Grazia Cucinotta. Photograph: Ronald Grant
Maria Grazia Cucinotta, actor
After five auditions, I got the role of Beatrice, who is wooed by Massimo’s postman. It was a complete shock. I’d had a few small roles on television, but it was my first time acting in a real movie. Massimo told me: “You’re perfect as you are. I need a quintessential southern Italian girl, so just be yourself.”
I’m from Messina, Sicily, so I grew up a little bit like Beatrice, a bit wild. The most difficult thing was not to move in a modern way. Women from the 50s were more sensual. So I watched lots of Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida movies.
I was nervous among all these famous people. They were all very nice, apart from when they were shouting at me. But I deserved it. I needed to learn faster. Michael was the kind of director who needs everything perfect. I had to repeat the scene when I met the postman for the first time about 50 times. Michael said: “It has to be like you’re drunk.” I said: “I’m not drunk, I’m just in love.” He said: “Love is like wine sometimes, it makes you feel happy. But not exactly happy, more like you’re in another world.” It’s not easy to understand, especially when you’re not a professional.
The impact of the film was a shock. Before I was Maria Grazia, afterwards they started calling me “La Cucinotta”. In South America, I couldn’t walk by myself in the street. I was very young, only 24. I had my best friend crying on one side, me becoming so famous, and Massimo wasn’t there. But in a way, he’s still alive through the movie. I always say: he left his heart inside it.