Good Year, A: Ridley Scott Directs Russell Crowe

Oscar-winner Russell Crowe reunites with Gladiator director Ridley Scott in A Good Year, a Fox 2000 Pictures presentation of a Scott Free production.

London-based investment expert Max Skinner (Crowe) moves to Provence to sell a small vineyard he has inherited from his late uncle. Max reluctantly settles into what ultimately becomes an intoxicating new chapter in his life, as he comes to realize that life is meant to be savored.

“A Good Year” is based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Peter Mayle. Mayle and Ridley Scott, who are longtime friends, together came up with the idea for the novel. Scott produces from a screenplay by Marc Klein.

The film also stars Albert Finney as Maxs late Uncle Henry, who imparts wisdom to his young nephew; Marion Cotillard (A Very Long Engagement) as a caf owner who catches Maxs eye; Abbie Cornish (Sommersault) as Maxs supposed long-lost cousin, who may hold the vineyards title rights; Tom Hollander (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Mans Chest) as his best friend; and Freddie Highmore (Finding Neverland) as the young Max.

Peter Mayle is a native Brit who abandoned a successful advertising career and reinvented himself as a best-selling author and novelist. He has been writing about the good life in the South of France for over fifteen years. Critics have praised his books, both fiction and nonfiction, calling the writer the worlds foremost literary escape artist because of his knack for setting his colorful yarns in a locale one magazine called the most enticing place this side of paradise. Mayles first book, a memoir called A Year in Provence, has sold over five million copies (in 28 languages) since its publication in 1991.

It was over a bottle of Provenal wine that Mayle (who lives full-time in the Luberon area of Provence) and filmmaker Ridley Scott (who has maintained a vacation home and vineyard there for fifteen years) came up with the idea for Mayles breezy 2004 novel A Good Year. Ridley used to work in the commercials business and I used to work in the advertising agency business in London, Mayle recounts about his early history with the filmmaker; their friendship stretches back to Londons advertising world of the 1970s. He was about the best there was, so we would always use his company for shooting commercials if we could afford him. We worked together intermittently in London, and then he went off and did movies and I went off and (wrote) books.

Almost three decades later, Scott and Mayle had a memorable lunch. Ridley arrived with a newspaper clipping which reported on new wines in Bordeaux garage wines which commanded huge prices without a chateau or pedigree. Yet, people paid a fortune for them.

I saw this piece in the newspaper business section of the Times about a vineyard in France that was selling garage wine for over 30,000 a case, Scott recounts about the 1996 clipping, which he still keeps in his files in London. I was looking for an excuse to come back to France to shoot a film, and this story idea offered the perfect opportunity.

I bounced this idea off Peter Mayle and he said, That would make a good novel, Scott remembers. And I said, You write the book, then Ill get the film rights. So, he wrote the book, which was successful.

Mayle labored at his laptop for nine months in 2003, researching the subject in both in his adopted Provence and in one of the worlds renowned wine regions, Bordeaux, on Frances Atlantic coast. Le Pin, located in the appellation called Pomerol, cultivates what many believe to be the best Merlot on the planet.

In the meantime, Scott went off to Morocco and Spain to film his epic saga, Kingdom of Heaven. A month after the author turned in his manuscript, a deal was finalized for the film rights and Scott and Mayle were back in business together.

Scott also suggested the books (and films) title. A winemaker has a difficult life. But if he gets it right, hes had a good year, says the filmmaker. Thats what a French winemaker will say: Its been a good year.

Scott chose New York native Marc Klein (Serendipity) to adapt Mayles novel for the screen. Klein admits that when he accepted Scotts offer, he knew nothing about wine or Provence. Scott advised Klein to visit the South of France to conduct research and get a flavor of the area. Klein visited Provence in 2004, met with Peter Mayle, and spent almost a year researching the region and the wines.

Adapting Mayles novel provided Klein with some formidable challenges. Peter writes books that are like travelogues, says the screenwriter. They’re more about atmosphere the kind of book one likes to read on vacation, where you want to be swept away to a certain place. We needed to provide additional narrative structure on it. At the same time, we wanted to give moviegoers the same experience they would have reading the book.

Peters book is a jolly romp, Scott adds. Its very much embedded in the lifestyle of Provence. For the movie, I found that the mechanism for the story needed to be adjusted a little bit, to turn up the volume on the character of Max, who needed to learn an important life lesson. The philosophy that Uncle Henry was trying to instill into this young Max really didnt take.

A key change from the novel was the screenplays depiction of Uncle Henry, who is only referred to in the novel. After toying with the idea of making Henry a ghostly figure, Scott and Klein decided to depict the character in flashbacks, which, says Scott, allows us to see the grooming of Max as a child, which pays off as the story unfolds.

As a story teller, a novelist, I don’t think you can ever completely divorce yourself from your main characters, says Peter Mayle. Bits of you creep in there, whether you like it or not, whether it’s intentional or not. Your characters are often reflections of what you yourself feel, and Max is representative of a very strong feeling that I had when I was his age, which is I wanted to basically get out of London and try something else. Of course, Max does it in a rather more dramatic fashion than I did.
You live with these characters by yourself all the time in your own head, Marc Klein offers about the craft of screenwriting. Then, you work with someone like Russell Crowe, who’s a genius. He came to me in between takes and gave me ideas about the character. He inhabited his character in a way that’s even deeper than I could have ever hoped.

I always thought that Russell would be perfect for the character of Max, Scott adds. Russell is like Max. Russell carries a lot of the innocence in him and manages to keep that innocence fresh, untrammeled somehow.

While the film represented the second Crowe-Scott collaboration, it was the fourth reteaming for the director and five-time Oscar-nominee Albert Finney. The stage-and-screen legend essays the role of Uncle Henry, a character that existed in name only in Mayles novel, but comes to life throughout the film.

Finney relates that he did not indulge in creating much backstory for the character, but acknowledges that a long-ago, fateful trip Henry made to the U.S. West Coast a visit that is discussed but not depicted in the film is an important part of the characters history.

Another Aussie (and, coincidentally, a Crowe acquaintance), actress Abbie Cornish won the role of the young American girl, Christie Roberts, whose unexpected appearance at the winery leads to potential complications regarding Maxs inheritance of the property and his future at the chateau. The actress is well-known Down Under but less so outside of her native country. She has been winning critical acclaim for several years for her work in such films as The Monkeys Mask and the sexual drama, Somersault, the only Australian film screened at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, where the actress won a standing ovation.

Scott also populated his movie with other popular French performers. Didier Bourdon portrays Francis Duflot, the longtime vintner who has tended to La Siroques vines for three decades and who may know the true secrets of the vineyards potential. Francis Duflot is a winemaker. Vinyo, as we say in France, Bourdon describes. He has a long history with Max. They knew each other when they were younger. Their relationship is between friendship and mistrust. When Max returns to Henrys home, after being away for years, Duflot is wondering, worried that Max will sell the chteau.

Duflots wary relationship with Max comes to a head during a tennis match between the two, which becomes more like a war than a friendly game. The tennis match scene came about because Ridley is a great lover of the sport, Crowe says. He was bemoaning to me over a glass of red wine that we didn’t have any battle sequences in the movie. That got me thinking. And we had the whole sequence set up by the tennis court, and a sequence playing tennis in flashback. And so I made the suggestion that perhaps we find a way of getting these two men to do battle on the clay court.

Shooting in Provence

I loved shooting in Provenceits just so beautiful! says Scott, who has owned a vacation home and operated a vineyard there for fifteen years, but hadnt filmed in France since his debut feature, The Duelists, almost thirty years ago. This shoot was one of my most pleasant experiences.

Provence itself dates back to 600 B.C., when Phocaean Greeks settled in Massalia, now modern-day Marseilles on the Mediterranean coast, and the regions most populous city. Its history could also be depicted through the history of the wines introduced by these Phocaeans over 2600 years ago. These ancient vines the oldest in France were later developed by the Romans and, thereafter, in the Middle Ages, by monastic communities.

Comprised of 700 villages, Provence has several regional wine growing appellations (covering an estimated 27,000 hectares, or 68,000 acres), all designated as A.O.C. (appellation dorigine controlee), the governmental system established in the 1930s that regulates production and distinguishes quality French wines from table wines. The region boasts extraordinarily favorable growing conditions, or terroir, defined as a combination of conditions in a vineyard site that comprise the vine’s total environment and give its wines what longtime wine writer Matt Kramer calls somewhereness.

The Mediterranean climate (year-round sunshine, perfect ventilation from a wind dubbed “mistral” and good rainfall), combined with the terrains siliceous soil, favors red grapes like Grenache, Syrah, Carignan, Cinsault and Mourvdre, much of which is used to produce ros, the regions specialty of the estimated 140,000,000 bottles produced annually. White grape varietals common to the terrain include Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Ugni Blanc and Rolle.

Scott based the production in the sub-appellation called Cotes du Luberon (where his own vineyard of eleven hectares is situated), an area whose vines extend over 7500 acres from Cavaillon to Apt in north-central Provence, where 70% are red grape varietals. Most of the vintners (some 80%, including Scott) grow grapes and sell them to cooperatives to produce the local table wine (vin de pays) named for the appellation. However, Scott focused his scouting efforts on several independent vineyards that bottle their own product.

I looked at almost a dozen chateaux in the area between Roussillon and Bonnieux before coming back to the first one we saw, La Canorgue, the director states about the location where his company of 125 craftsmen spent most of their nine-week shoot in the Provenal region, which coincided with the vineyards prime harvesting season for the next years vintage.

Scott chose La Canorgue due to its spectacular western view looking out over the Luberon, and the magical dusk light that bathes the main house in the late afternoon. The film company, under the watchful eye of veteran location supervisor Marco Giacalone (who worked with director Scott on Kingdom of Heaven) and French location manager Thierry Zemmour, took over the vineyard and chateau for much of the nine-week shooting schedule in the South of France.

Apart from the many weeks of filming at La Canorgue, Scott and his cinematographer, Frenchman Philippe Le Sourd captured the areas regal beauty in a series of celluloid French postcard-like images of other quaint villages scattered throughout the hills and valleys of the Luberon. Those included Gordes (four days at Cafe Renaissance, dubbed Fannys Caf in the film), Cucuron, Lacoste, Avignon and Menerbes (where author Mayle used to reside, and whose former house is still a popular stop on guided tours that frequent the village). The company also spent three days at another local vineyard, Chateau Les Eydins, which doubled for the home of the storys gruff vigneron, Duflot.

Following the two-month Provenal schedule, Scott relocated the crew to London for the productions final eight days of filming, at such recognized spots as Piccadilly Circus, the architecturally-stunning Lloyds of London building in the citys financial district, and the trendy Knightsbridge area.

Like Mayles book, the film opens in the London financial world, and Scott liked the antithesis and juxtaposition of London and Provence. One place is as attractive as the other. Londons a great place to live. Provence is a fantastic place to live. Is it better No, its different. For me, I live in Provence because I live in London. So, I need one to have the other.