Vampire of Venice

Explorer: Vampire Forensics Premieres Tuesday February 23 10P et/pt.

By Gareth Harvey

Filming in Venice, especially a historical reconstruction on the scale of ‘Vampire of Venice’, was never going to be easy. If I’d known just how difficult it would be, I think I would have gone with ‘Plan B’ – and tried to find a movie set for 16th Century Venice (it was rumoured that ‘Angels & Demons’ had constructed such a set, and it might be available for hire.)

But I went with the real thing – Venice … glorious, impossible, Venice! A city that at first glance has changed little since the Renaissance – a real-life movie set. Until you look a little closer. At the bars, the newsstands, the street-signs, the soda advertisements, the motor-boats in the canals – a thin but omnipresent 21st Century veneer to the ideal 16th Century set.

For our ‘big’ Venice scene – we chose a city square bounded on two sides by canals. Then we put our set designer, Daniele, to the task of obliterating anything post-16th Century. Daniele is sixty going on twenty-one. His catchphrase is “non ce una problema” – nothing is a problem! And so modern streetlights were surrounded with planking to become drying posts for fishing nets.

Street-signs and advertising simply ceased to exist under cardboard sheeting painted to completely blend in with the surrounding walls. Modern motor-boats were covered with hessian … even intercoms and mailboxes on houses were camouflaged. We had our 16th Century set. Now all we had to do was get about a ton of camera and lighting equipment – as well as around thirty cast and crew – to the location.

Day 1 – torrential rain. It was our one indoor shoot, but we still had to get the equipment into place. The transport boat – loaded to the gunnels with lights, leads, and other gear – fought the storm all the way from the mainland, navigating the open water then canals barely wider than the boat itself. It had to double-park at our location, which meant everything was ferried across the decks of two boats to reach terra firma. The actors, dressed in historically accurate (and very valuable) period costumes were individually shuttled from the costumer’s atelier to the location under a bevy of umbrellas. To the sound of constant near-gale force rain outside, I shot our first day trying not to think about the days to follow…all of which were exterior shoots. That night the forecast was still for days of rain to come. You don’t want know the size of the hole a lost shooting day puts in my budget.

Day 2 dawned threateningly. The clouds were low and black,  and hung over us like the Sword of Damocles as we set up for a night shoot. We were on a remote island, re-creating a mass grave scene, where victims of the Black Death were buried during Venice’s terrible 16th century plague. Two massive generators had been boated in and craned into position. Huge lights mimicked the moon. A ‘mass grave’ opened invitingly to the heavens, as if ready to shrug off its grim raison d’être and instead become a swimming pool! In short – rain was not an option. Nervously we proceeded with the shoot, at every moment expecting the dread splash on our necks. But the weather gods were with us. The only problem we faced was with the actor playing our main ‘corpse’. Swathed in a death shroud, including her head, she informed us that she had a deep fear of having her face covered. She was – as the English say – a tremendous ‘sport’. Realising everything else I was up against, she swallowed her fear and played dead for about three hours!

Day 3. The big one. My scene-setter for ‘Venice in the 16th Century’. Fifteen actors, dressed in their amazing costumes – peasants, nobles, vendors, merchants, and (of course!) a gondolier complete with authentic 16th Century gondola. The scene involved five ‘mini-scenes’: a vegetable seller arguing with a servant girl; a group of nobles in animated conversation; a peasant father playing with his son; a fisherman mending his net; and the arrival of a gondola with a princely couple who would alight and walk through the square. The sky was blue; the director of photography was waiting for just the right late-afternoon light; tourists were gathering at the periphery of the location to watch the spectacle; the actors were busily rehearsing their scenes. The Director – ah, that’s me – decided to walk through the entire scene one last time before we rolled. Past the vegetable seller, the peasant father, the group of nobles and the fishermen … to where the gondola would arrive and set down its passengers. ‘OK!’ I shouted to the gondolier. “This is where you stop, and the passengers step off heeeeeeerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrre!

The Director had fallen into the canal.

I struggled out and courageously (stupidly!) attempted to carry on regardless. The Venetians in my cast and crew weren’t having it. “Do you have any idea what is in that water?” they said. To emphasise the point, a rat swam through the patch of canal that shortly before had accommodated me. Thirty minutes later, showered and changed (my associate producer kindly bought me what seemed to be a gondolier’s outfit!) – the shoot resumed.

My low point (about six feet underwater) actually became the high-point of the shoot. According to Venetian lore, to fall into a canal and survive is a portafortuna – a lucky charm. My accident was nothing more or less than paying for the good fortune we’d had, and continued to have, in pulling off the ‘Vampire of Venice’ shoot against the odds.