Greek painter comes to life on the big screen

Ever since he did «Kafavis» in 1996, director Yiannis Smaragdis has been obsessed with El Greco. This interest eventually turned into a big-budget (for Greek standards certainly) production, with Greek and Spanish subtitles. «El Greco,» a movie exploring the secret life of painter Domenikos Theotocopoulos as well as the special spirituality in his work, will be hitting mainstream theaters on October 16. Exactly one year ago, Smaragdis was in Crete coordinating a massive, multinational cast and crew during filming at the Iraklion Exhibition Center. While his anxiety was great, so was his optimism and his sense of calm as he ran a set ringing with the sounds of Greek, English, Spanish and French. The production then went on to Rhodes, Venice and Spain, though not to Toledo, the city in which Theotocopoulos lived the greatest (and most creative) part of his life. «We did a few scenes in monasteries,» says Smaragdis, «because we couldn’t get a license to film in Toledo. It has become a major tourist attraction and this is all locals are interested in. But, it has a debt of gratitude to El Greco because without him it would have been just another medieval town. Nevertheless, the Spanish participation was pivotal because they invested a lot of money and provided an artistic crew of very high standards – actors as well as other associates, such as Lala Huete, who also did the costumes for ‘Belle Epoque’ and ‘Pan’s Labyrinth.’» Just a year later and just a couple of weeks before the premiere, Smaragdis is feeling a bit calmer about the entire project, which began as a mere idea 20 years ago. «I am happy because my dream has finally materialized. It has body and soul. Twenty years ago I did a television series and one episode was about Kazantzakis and his ‘Report to Greco.’ I did a few scenes at the writer’s tomb and without any reason whatsoever dressed up as an El Greco figure. It seems that ever since that moment I began to cultivate the idea of making a film about this fellow countryman. Ten years later, as I was finishing ‘Kavafis,’ I was sitting with Vangelis Papathanassiou (who has composed the music for ‘El Greco’) and he asked me what my next film would be about. ‘Why don’t you make a movie about Domenikos Theotocopoulos?’ he said. I told him that I really wanted to, but it was not so easy. A few years later, out of the blue, the businessman Andreas Metaxas approached me and said that if I did a film on Theotocopoulos the seed money would be provided by a group of businessmen. This funding was very important because it was enough to make a medium-budget production,» says Smaragdis. In contrast to other artists about whom films have been made, such as Van Gogh, Picasso and Rembrandt, El Greco, for all his influence, was never seen by the public in quite the same light. «I have tried to talk about the spirit of Crete, of Greece, the spirit of the painter which has the particular Greek quality and spirituality. One of the main motivations for doing this project was that he had an especially adventurous life that translates well into dramatic action. We all know who he is, but not what he was. Another thing is that he always insisted on signing his paintings in Greek; not as El Greco, but as Domenikos Theotocopoulos and what’s more as ‘The Cretan.’ His forms were also very daring and he never joined any particular school. He defended a special kind of spirituality in his work. Add to that the element of the insubordinate Cretan and you’ll see why he is such an interesting subject for a movie.» The screenplay, written by Smaragdis and Jackie Pavlenko, is based on the book and research of Dimitris Siatopoulos, which mentions never-before-published details of the artist’s life. The author is no longer alive and, says the director, he essentially gave him the book because he wanted to see it made into a film. Englishman stars as Theotocopoulos Yiannis Smaragdis is especially warm when talking about his star, the 27-year-old Briton Nick Ashdon. With studies at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, Ashdon has stage experience but no film background. Yet Smaragdis insisted on casting him in the title role from the very onset. «Even before I saw him play, I was worried that he wouldn’t be able to join the production,» says the director. When Ashdon arrived in Greece, Smaragdis’s gut feeling was proven right. «It was almost metaphysical,» he says. «When we went to Crete, so many strange things happened. People used to come up to him and touch him, as if he were really El Greco. One local man came up to me and said, ‘It’s as if he has come from the heavens yonder!’ There was an unexpected acceptance of him, and this coming from Cretans, and you know we can be tough customers.» Sotiris Moustakas as Titian «What business do I have being Titian?» This was how the late actor Sotiris Moustakas first reacted when Yiannis Smaragdis proffered him the role. The director told him to read up on the artist to see just how much they had in common. A few days later, Moustakas called and said, «It’s true; I am a lot like him.» «The most moving thing is that Sotiris performed the role as if he knew it would be his last, as if he knew that he was dying and wouldn’t tell us,» says Smaragdis, obviously moved. «This is why he obstinately refused to get paid. There is also a phrase he insisted on adding to the script. When Titian is showing El Greco a painting he says, ‘This painting is a Greek myth.’ It was like when he asked for his coffin to be covered in a Greek flag. He wanted to make his point; to show what Greece meant to him.»