Writing the screenplay for a new film on the Italian composer was a labour of love
I had wanted to write a story about the life of Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) since I heard his music at age 11. I didn't know if the Vivaldi story I was intent on writing would be a fact-based novel, biography, theatre piece or screenplay. The more I immersed myself in Vivaldi's place and time, the more it became obvious it would have to be the basis for a film. Venice is such an inimitably exquisite, seductive visual canvas. One which could not be done justice in a book or on the stage. The music, the period costumes, the very atmosphere of Serenissima are all an indispensable part of the story.
I spent 20 years dreaming about what a Vivaldi film would look like. How it should sound. What it should feel like. What the basic story structure would be. How the orphans, the governors of the church, state and orphanage would interact with Vivaldi. What the structure and central focus of the story would be. I also read everything I could find about ‘il Prete Rosso’ – ‘The Red Priest’, as Vivaldi was known, because of his red hair – as well as screenplays about composers and other historic figures.
I started writing Vivaldi in 2004. It took a concentrated 18 months of researching historic accounts of Vivaldi and his times and talking to musicologists to finish the first draft. I focused on one year of Vivaldi's life at the Ospedale della Pietà or ‘Hospital of Pity’ where Vivaldi instructed the emotionally and physically scarred orphans of Venice's courtesans in musical composition. This seemed more dramatically prudent than trying to condense his entire 63 years into 90 minutes on screen. I wanted the story to be as dramatic and emotionally engaging, and as visually and musically exquisite as Vivaldi's life. But I was not going to do this at the expense of historic accuracy. Nor was I going to portray Vivaldi like the buffoon-like Mozart in Amadeus. He was going to resemble as much as we know about who Vivaldi was in appearance, character and behavior – which isn't much. I have, however, always operated under the premise that art is substance qua character is the foundation and nature of creative expression and art. Hence, to know Vivaldi's music is to know Vivaldi and there is no way to know Vivaldi without knowing the 'Jewel of the Adriatic,' Venice.
I visited Venice at 16 and discovered Vivaldi, musically, visually, psychically, was everywhere in Venice then as he is today, 271 years after his death. The Ospedale is still operating as a kind of music school and orphanage and many of the physical locations where Vivaldi composed and performed are still identifiable. The Venice I visited as a teenager was pretty much indistinguishable from the way ‘The Red Priest’ experienced it. The lush, seductive, darkly melancholic and almost unbearably joyful serpentine nature of his music and his city have been flowing through my veins ever since.
Vivaldi wasn't much of a priest, being more focused on the violin, like his barber-violinist father. As I have one of the governors of the orphanage remark in the story: ‘The father is skilled at uncovering the surfaces of men's heads, the son exposing the interior of men's hearts’. His asthma didn't help his productivity or concentration, either. Eventually the governors realised he'd be much more useful instructing the emotionally, physically scarred daughters of the courtesans who earned their keep by performing for the public. In fact, a seemingly miraculous, healing synergy occurred between Antonio and the ‘incurabili’. The girls' musical prowess improved and a physical and emotional healing between Vivaldi and the orphans occurred. It is such a beautiful and inspiring story. Not just about the life of a great composer but more importantly, for me, a story about the healing nature of the creative arts in general and music in particular.
Miramax loved the screenplay and was going to option it. Unfortunately, Harvey and Bob Weinstein sold the farm to Disney at the time, which put a number of properties such as my Vivaldi script on the shelf.
I started shopping it around and eventually it landed on the desk of an independent producer from Australia who told me, ‘I can't tell you how much I envy your ability to write Vivaldi.’ He seemed very passionate about the story and I agreed to let him option it. Several times. He finally purchased the property and a brilliant cast consisting of Max Irons as Vivaldi, Elle Fanning, Jacqueline Bisset, Alfred Molina, Neve Campbell, Clair Foy and Sebastian Cox are attached to the project which has been in development for about six years, about the average gestation time for large-scale biopics like this. Some take even longer – The King's Speech the editor of which, Tariq Anwar, is now attached to 'Vivaldi' as editor, took 10 years from conception to screen.
The soundtrack to the film will feature music by Vivaldi, of course - I have provided suggestions for compositions that I think would be appropriate for specific scenes in the film – and also specially composed music by Carlos Siliotto. Principal filming is scheduled for this September, but its release date depends on the distribution deals the producers have in place. Most likely this would occur in 2013 as scheduled, but the film could also show up at film festivals such as Cannes, Venice or Toronto.
I am at work in Leipzig on a biopic about Johann Sebastian Bach. This seems like a next logical project after Vivaldi. Bach is pretty much universally regarded as occupying the same place in the canon of western music as Jesus does in Christianity. Bach acknowledged his debt to Antonio and the influence his Venetian contemporary had on him in terms of the rhythmic and harmonic nature of his music which is evident in the serpentine jewels of light and life which illuminate so many of Bach and Vivaldi's compositions.
Jeffrey M Freedman has been writing professionally for over a quarter of a century for such titles as Business Week, Barron's, The National Law Journal, Asia Times, The Toronto Star, The Washington Times, The New York Observer and The Los Angeles Times. He is writer of the screenplay 'Vivaldi', soon to be released as a major motion picture starring Max Irons.