After the Quake: The American and Abruzzo

Nick Dawson looks at how the presence of The American in Abruzzo made a big difference to the secluded Italian region after it was rocked by a massive earthquake.

On April 6, 2009, an earthquake measuring 5.8 on the Richter scale hit Abruzzo, with its epicenter in the region’s capital, L’Aquila. The quake, which was felt throughout the central part of Italy, killed over 300 and injured 1500. An estimated 15,000 buildings were damaged and 65,000 people were left homeless in the worst earthquake to hit Italy since 1980. Major aftershocks, some registering as high as 5.3, were then felt in the following days, as the region was thrown into chaos. 

The earthquake was global news, but it struck home particularly for Anton Corbijn, director of The American, the forthcoming George Clooney hitman movie from Focus Features. Corbijn, the famed photographer-turned-director had fallen in love with Abruzzo a few months earlier when he and Rowan Joffe, the screenwriter of The American, had visited the region on a location scouting trip. Abruzzo was the setting for A Very Private Gentleman, the novel by Martin Booth which had provided the inspiration for The American, and though Joffe’s script had departed somewhat from Booth’s novel, Corbijn felt it was the perfect place to make the movie.

What attracted Corbijn to Abruzzo was that it did not have the typical picture-postcard Italian vistas, but was rather “a raw environment, an honest landscape of a type that is rarely seen in movies.” Corbijn continued, “The terrain is rugged and rocky; it’s not generally where tourists go. But it’s a wonderful area that needs preserving; beyond even the earthquake, oil drilling is harming the landscape.”

However, the quake meant that the whole idea of shooting in Abruzzo and showcasing the area on film was now in jeopardy. Corbijn had planned to film The American in the towns of Castel Del Monte, Castelvecchio and L’Aquila, with production beginning in September, yet he quickly had to look for alternate possibilities for these three principal locations. L’Aquila, which bore the full force of the earthquake, was absolutely ruled out as somewhere to film, with the medieval town lying in ruins, and most of its 70,000 population now displaced by massive architectural damage.

Veteran Italian producer Enzo Sisti was quickly brought on board The American and immediately spearheaded a quest to find locations that could double for the sleepy, maze-like Abruzzo towns that Corbijn was so enamored with. Sisti and his crew worked tirelessly, looking at places all around Italy: Calabria, Puglia, Sicily, Marche, Campania, Lazio, Basilicata, Molise, Liguria, Piemonte.

In addition to finding new locations, Sisti also set about assessing the conditions of the original locations and the feasibility of shooting there a few months down the line. Says Sisti, “We’d read in the paper and seen on TV that all the villages were destroyed or damaged by the earthquake, so I told our location managers to go there and take photos of the actual situation in Castel Del Monte and Abruzzo. Then I went there and spoke to the mayors, who said that at the moment everything was closed in the center of the towns, but there was a good chance they could open just for us.”

Indeed, the hope of everyone working on the film was that they would find some way for The American to shoot in Abruzzo that fall. “We discussed our shared hope that filming The American would help to boost the region economically,” says Corbijn, “what with the money spent during production and the finished film encouraging tourism in the future.”

On May 22, about six weeks after the earthquake, Corbijn – along with Sisti, producer Anne Carey and Focus Features’ head of production, Jane Evans – went on a scouting trip to Castel Del Monte and Castelvecchio, both about 40 or 50 kilometers away from L’Aquila and the quake’s epicenter.

Recalling the visit, Sisti says, “There were barriers in Castel Del Monte – people were not allowed to go in the [town] center because it was dangerous, but we walked in the center, close to the [Chiesa "Matrice" di San Marco church] tower, and the mayor was with us. During the scouting, I had a conversation with the mayor, and I explained to him what we were looking for and he understood that [filming there] was very important for Abruzzo and Castel Del Monte. He promised me, ‘We’ll do our best and be sure that if you shoot in September or October, Castel Del Monte will be open and you can shoot here.’ ”

It looked increasingly likely that Corbijn and company would be able to shoot in Castel Del Monte and Castelvecchio, and it was decided that Sulmona, a town in the Southern part of Abruzzo which was the birthplace of the poet Ovid, would replace L’Aquila as the third major location in the movie.

However, just because L’Aquila was not being used in the movie did not mean that the filmmakers cast it from their minds. On the contrary, The American’s leading man, noted humanitarian George Clooney, made a special visit with friend Bill Murray to the stricken town on July 9 – ironically, the same day that First Lady Michelle Obama was also there. “The only way that people who are famous can help is by bringing attention,” Clooney told the assembled journalists and paparazzi.

He announced that The American would be shooting in Abruzzo that fall, and said, “I think this is the best way to lend a hand and boost the economy. We’re here to draw attention to this tragedy. …You have to help people get going again. The people we’ve spoken to aren’t looking for a hand out, they’re looking for a hand up, they’re looking for help, they want to go home.”

Before leaving, Clooney visited displaced L’Aquila residents in the little village of Sant'Eusanio Forconese, about 10 kilometers to the east of ravaged capital of Abruzzo, where they were now living in tents in the makeshift San Demetio Camp. While there, Clooney helped set up a cinema tent; the message was clear – film was going to bring hope to Abruzzo.

When Sulmona held its annual film festival during the filming of The American, the organizers expressed their appreciation for Clooney’s efforts in putting a spotlight on the area in its time of need by awarding him the first ever Silver Ovidius, an award named after the town’s most famous son, Ovid.

During the time The American was in production, it was clear just how much the area needed a shot in the arm. Commenting on the experience of shooting the chase sequence in Castel Del Monte, Corbijn noted in his book Inside the American that the town “is a pretty deserted place for most of the year. I reckon 75% of the houses are empty bar 2 months in the summer, so George chasing a car on his scooter didn't really wake up anyone at night."

The towns where Corbijn shot are notable for how quiet and empty they are. This was a boon for a movie director trying to create a mood – Corbijn calls Castel Del Monte “a beautiful environment that could turn dangerous,” redolent of the Venice depicted in Don’t Look Now – but not a good reality for the struggling locals who only see an influx of tourists and income during a two-month period each summer.

For Enzo Sisti, he sees The American and Abruzzo as having found an ideal partnership. “They needed us because they were very depressed, and we needed them for the locations,” says Sisti. “There was this synergy.  They told me later that we brought a small part of happiness — we helped the people to come out, to be happy.”

Though the region’s recovery from the earthquake – and, in particular, the rebuilding of L’Aquila – is progressing slower than many would have liked, the quake nevertheless put Abruzzo in the consciousness of many journalists, and there have been major newspaper articles on the region this year in The Wall Street Journal, The Times, The Guardian, The Observer and The New York Times.

The presence of The American in Abruzzo gave the area an immediate financial boost, however the long-term upside is expected to be much greater once audiences see and fall in love with the area which Corbijn says “is now my favourite region in Italy.”

More immediately, Focus Features has also partneed with Gilt on a special sale of costumes and props from The American from which all proceeds will go to the American Red Cross International Response Fund, which offers continued help to the victims of the Abruzzo earthquake.

 - - - - - You can make a direct donation to help the victims of the L’Aquila Earthquake at GlobalGiving. To plan a visit to Abruzzo, go to the website of the region’s tourist board.