"A kissed mouth never loses its freshness. Like the moon, it always rises new again".
- Giovanni Boccaccio
VIRGIN TERRITORY, a refreshing celebration of life in all its beauty, puts a modern spin on Giovanni Boccaccio's classic work of Italian literature.
In the 14th century, Florence was a city of pure delight, sumptuously prosperous; a city of art and culture where people of all ages celebrated life to its fullest. But, in 1346, life changed. The city was ravaged by a merciless plague known as 'The Black Death'.
Lorenzo de Lamberti (Hayden Christensen), an innocent and adventurous young blood, finds himself on the wrong side of wealthy Gerbino de la Ratta (Tim Roth). Murder is part of Gerbino's armoury and Lorenzo becomes his prime target. Lorenzo escapes from Florence and finds refuge working as a gardener in a convent.
Pampinea Anastagi (Mischa Barton) is the only daughter of a respected and wealthy family, who due to the Plague, suddenly finds herself alone. Gerbino de la Ratta, who has designs on both her body and her wealth, threatens to confiscate her home to pay off her father's debts - then offers to marry her as an escape route from her imminent financial ruin. Pampinea counters that she is in fact betrothed to be married to a Russian count, who is on his way to Florence from Novgorod.
Pampinea meets with friends and persuades them to travel to her family's villa in the countryside to witness her marriage to the Russian Count. The marriage will release her from Gerbino's unwanted attention and the threat of financial ruin.
As Pampinea's friends leave Florence and embark on a series of adventures of their own, Pampinea retreats to a convent to await her nuptials. From behind her nun's veil - and after a secret kiss - she falls in love with Lorenzo, who works in the gardens of her convent. Lorenzo also falls in love, but does not know who has delivered this precious kiss.
The story leads us to Pampinea's villa, where all is finally resolved in a celebration of love and life in all its glory.
Writer/director David Leland´s modern interpretation of Giovanni Boccaccio´s classic work is a stimulating and erotic story of innocence, love, sex and lasting friendships. As these friends make their way through the Tuscan landscape, they discover life through the tragedy and danger they have left behind. It is a timeless tale, full of irreverence and humour and rich with passion and sexuality - with a unique vision and dramatic style of its own.
About the story
Giovanni Boccaccio's 14th century novel The Decameron is one of Italy's classic novels, studied by generations of school children. Set during the Plague which hit Florence in 1346, it tells the story of seven young men and three young women who flee the plague to a country house outside Florence. Over ten consecutive days, each tells a story which, combined, is the basis for Boccaccio's The Decameron - one hundred stories.
Writer and director David Leland's version, VIRGIN TERRITORY, takes Boccaccio's original work, gives it a contemporary spin and turns it into a film that will enthral and captivate modern audiences.
"What was so clever about Boccaccio was the way he brought together - in a tangible form - all these disparate stories," says Leland. "The reason The Decameron is a classic and has been for six hundred years, is not because people are told to read it, but because to read it is a pleasure for them. Everything with which we relate to is in there. It's about human nature and everything that accompanies it. It's not by accident that people are attracted to the story and it is not by accident that Chaucer and Shakespeare were inspired by it and stole elements from it. Boccaccio got it completely right; essentially, inside the book, is a strong appetite for love and human nature in all its glory. It is also an understanding of the dynamic between men and women and how we make fools of each other."
It was legendary producers Dino and Martha De Laurentiis who first conceived the idea of a contemporary spin on The Decameron. Dino De Laurentiis was already well-acquainted with Boccaccio's work, having produced two versions of the novel. But, he knew that there was still potential in Boccaccio's stories for another film, one that remains true to Boccaccio's spirit but would resonate with modern audiences.
Finding a writer who was sensitive to the romanticism of Boccaccio's work and how its themes and concerns are still relevant to today's teenagers was the next challenge. British-born Leland, who made his debut with the critically-acclaimed and commercially successful WISH YOU WERE HERE, came to the attention of producers Dino and Martha De Laurentiis thanks to Steven Spielberg, who was extremely impressed with Leland's screenplay for the PENDRAGON television series, which Spielberg was developing for HBO.
"It was a fantastic break that David was available," says Dino De Laurentiis. "He immediately responded to the story and was in tune with the themes it contained. The script worked out very well - he made it modern and intriguing and it addressed the issues that young people today face - sex and adventure and love."
Martha De Laurentiis agrees: "When one thinks of period, one thinks of heavy costumes and stilted dialogue but we are subverting conventions. The dialogue is the dialogue of today. It's magical, colourful and sensual. We started looking for a European writer who could understand the sensibility of the authorship of Boccaccio. Somebody who was familiar with the formality of say, Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, which have a very similar inter-weaving of stories. I think the real challenge was finding a central story that would carry all the way through. David faced that challenge and came up with a solution that was spot on."
Leland, an accomplished screenwriter and director, was fascinated with the idea of Boccaccio and The Decameron.
"Boccaccio clearly had a lot of bete noires," he says. "He had a lot of pet hates- the rich and the wealthy, the clergy, Catholicism, nuns and stupid men with attractive wives - people who are made cuckolds by their wives and fools of by the institution of marriage. A lot of his stories are about those kinds of people and their peccadilloes and they are his targets - like any social satirist, I suppose. Boccaccio was a great collector of stories and I think some of his stories are simply like dirty jokes you would hear people tell each other in the pub. And some of them are much darker and more mysterious stories, with a kind of Grand Guignol element to them, where people will kill and murder out of passion for somebody or something. I think they are amazing!"
The biggest challenge was finding a central storyline that would unite all the various subplots: "What's problematic with The Decameron on a cinematic level is that it is made up of one hundred stories, and, although, the stories all occupy the same world, they are separate stories. Dino didn't want to make an episodic film and I absolutely agreed with him. I find movies that consist of separate stories to be unsatisfactory- it's all starters and no main course."
Leland and De Laurentiis worked closely together to find the essence of the story: "The most crucial element to writing the screenplay was the conversations between Dino and me. Dino is astute and detailed in all of his discussions about the script. He scrutinizes line-by-line, word-by-word, looking for the right feel and style. The one guiding principal that we always discussed was: is it in the spirit of Boccaccio - is it in the spirit of The Decameron? That was the guiding factor inside my head. And, so, I felt free to invent scenarios, invent stories and take elements out of all the different stories inside the book. What I did was take these young women and men and, instead of making them the storytellers, I made them the subject of the story, so they are not the object of the tales, they are the subject of the tales. Making them the subject of the story was the innovation I used to get started. After that, I freely plundered the stories."
Once the screenplay had been completed, the next task was to select a director. As Martha De Laurentiis explains: "David was very open and was always showing us the different sequences - he was concerned that what he was doing was what we wanted, which was fantastic - we had a great working relationship. And, that's how he was as a director too. He responded very well to our needs."
Leland was not immediately convinced that he was the right person to take the helm: "Dino, Martha and I started with a well established working relationship as producers and writer, which I enjoyed from the get go. When it came to directing, it was like going back to square one. So, it was more difficult. At first, I didn't want to push myself as director, but it soon became apparent that because I had written it, I should direct it."
Working with such established producers was something Leland would jump at the chance to do again. As he explains: "Dino is a very hard task master and then you have Martha who sees and appreciates elements that Dino doesn't always see. As a producing partnership, it's very successful and very clever."
He continues, "Dino is the dynamo who will ring you up at 5 o'clock in the morning and ask 'Why aren't you working?' He lives and breathes the work and he's an inspiration. There is only one Dino De Laurentiis. And, as tough as it was making this film, it's an experience I would willingly repeat. Dino is a great producer. He's there every day because it is his passion. There is nobody like him."
That respect for the producer was felt by the whole cast and crew. Says director of photography Ben Davis: "I'm full of admiration for Dino. I love him, really, I think he's great. You just have to look at him - he's a miracle. I think he's made a pact with the devil in exchange for eternal youth! His energy is incredible and I have nothing but respect for him. Everyone has so much respect for him, especially the Italian crew - it's lovely to see. I shall treasure having worked with him for the rest of my life."
Mischa Barton, who plays the role of Pampinea, concurs: "Dino is really passionate about film and I think that is so rare these days. I really felt his passion for this project and he is the reason I did the film. I think it is so nice to have somebody on set every day who doesn't have to be there, but really cares that much. He's the smartest and greatest and really loves movies - he's been a real inspiration to me."
Finding the right actors to play the two leads, Lorenzo de Lamberti and Pampinea Anastagi, was critical to the success of the film. But, as Dino De Laurentiis says: "The secret with catching the star is always the script. When you have good material you can attract any star you want."
"For Pampinea, we were looking for someone who had a patrician beauty and was right on the cusp of fame- we wanted a marvellous young actress," says Martha De Laurentiis. "Mischa Barton had just hit the big time with THE O.C. We sent her the script and she said yes. She was perfect for the role. For Lorenzo, we needed an actor who had the innocence of an angel but was also photogenic in a masculine way. That combination is rare in many young actors. Hayden Christensen loved the script and said yes immediately."
Leland was just as enthusiastic about the two leads. "I had seen Hayden's work and immediately liked him. I think he is a phenomenal actor. He's got acting in his bones. As for Mischa, it was thanks to my 16-year-old son, who suggested her. 'The OC' has a phenomenal following among young people; it's quite extraordinary. Every Thursday night when 'The OC' was on, my living room would be full with my son and his friends."
Mischa Barton on getting the role
Mischa Barton's rise to fame in the American teen series, 'The OC', was an overnight success and for Barton, the appeal of VIRGIN TERRITORY was that it was so different from the television persona: "It all started when I met Dino and we just hit it off. Then I read the script and just fell in love with it. The script was so different from anything else I had read in a long time. I think the script did a great job of making the best of Boccaccio."
On working with Leland, Barton adds: "He's an actor's director. He knows what he wants and is very specific. He has a good eye for the big picture. Because he's written the film, he's very passionate about the script and that really translated to how he dealt with us."
David Leland on Hayden, Mischa, Roth
"Hayden and Mischa make a terrific romantic couple," says Leland. "They really sparked off each other and had real chemistry on screen. But, what's so great is that I have two actors who are right for the parts. This film came at exactly the right time in both their careers".
When it came to choosing the actor who would play Gerbino de la Ratta- the wealthy villain of the piece, who is intent on seducing Pampinea- Leland cast Tim Roth. It was their first collaboration since MADE IN BRITAIN, which Leland wrote and which marked the actor's very first screen role.
"I was very happy to have Tim there because he brought the right kind of gravitas to the villain of the piece," explains Leland. "He brought a huge wealth of experience with him to the role. He's a finely crafted screen actor who knows every element of what's happening on set and knows what you need in terms of a shot. And, he invented a wonderful character. He was very good to have around, too, in terms of the other actors. He was a tremendous challenge for Hayden and I know Hayden wanted that."
DAVID LELAND - Writer and Director
David Leland's directorial film debut was WISH YOU WERE HERE for which he also wrote the screenplay and the lyrics. It won numerous awards, including the British Academy Award for Best Screenplay. He went on to direct CHECKING OUT for HandMade Films, starring Jeff Daniels; followed by THE BIG MAN (aka CROSSING THE LINE), starring Liam Neeson and Billy Connolly. He also co-wrote and directed LAND GIRLS starring Rachel Weisz, Catherine McCormack and Anna Friel.
For HBO, he directed 'Bastogne', part of the WWII series 'Band of Brothers', produced by Steven Speilberg and Tom Hanks, for which he won an Emmy for Best Director. Recently he directed for stage and screen, 'CONCERT FOR GEORGE', at the Royal Albert Hall, London; and the extended 'COMPLETE CONCERT FOR GEORGE' release on DVD. Leland won a Grammy Award for Best Feature Length Video at the 2005 award's ceremony.
Leland has written many screenplays for both the cinema and television. The feature film PERSONAL SERVICES, a wry comedy about prostitution, together with WISH YOU WERE HERE, won The Peter Sellers Award for Comedy. His ground breaking quartet of films for television 'BIRTH OF A NATION', FLYING INTO THE WIND', 'RHINO', 'MADE IN BRITAIN' won numerous prizes including the Prix Futura in Berlin and the prestigious Prix Italia. MADE IN BRITAIN was directed by Alan Clarke with whom Leland also collaborated on the films BELOVED ENEMY and PSY WARRIORS. Leland co-wrote the hugely successful and popular MONA LISA starring Bob Hoskins.
Earlier in his career, Leland worked extensively as an actor in theatre, films and television. He played the starring role in Alan Clarke's film of Solzhenitsyn's THE LOVE GIRL AND THE INNOCENT and also worked with Monty Python's Palin, Jones and Gilliam in RIPPING YARNS, THE MISSIONARY and TIME BANDITS. He was invited to help run the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield where he not only acted, but produced and directed a string of world premiere plays, introducing many new writers to the British theatre such as Ron Hutchinson and Victoria Wood. Other productions included plays by Michael Palin & Terry Jones, Dennis Potter, Howard Barker, Heathcote Williams and Joe Orton. From there he worked as an Associate Director at the Royal Court Theatre in London and also directed plays at several other London venues, always collaborating with the writers, including Tennessee Williams on the British Premiere of 'THE RED DEVIL BATTERY SIGN'.
He has directed music videos for George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Jim Keltner- in the guise of The Travelling Wilburys- most memorably, HANDLE WITH CARE. Also videos for Tom Petty (featuring Ringo Star); and a video for Paul McCartney of "BROWN EYED HANDSOME MAN.
He has written a mini-series, 'PENDRAGON', for HBO that takes a new and original perspective on the legend of King Arthur.
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