The 'Code' Breakers
The most popular—and controversial—novel of our time hits the screen in May. An exclusive report on the second coming of 'The Da Vinci Code.'
By Devin Gordon
Dec. 26, 2005 - Jan 2, 2006 issue - Like so many luxuries in this life, getting permission to shoot a movie inside the Louvre is easier if you know the right people. For three months in late 2004, the Oscar-winning filmmakers behind "The Da Vinci Code," director Ron Howard and producer Brian Grazer, had pursued a permit through official channels, filling out forms, pressing the relevant flesh and reassuring anyone who needed to hear it that they would leave France's national treasure exactly as they found it. Things were going smoothly. But Howard and Grazer were still anxious. Things had also been going well with London's Westminster Abbey, another key location in their screen adaptation of Dan Brown's blockbuster novel—but in the end, they were turned away. Losing Westminster Abbey hurt. Losing the Louvre would be devastating. There are many plum locations in "The Da Vinci Code," but none more famous or romantically charged. And be honest: wouldn't you be disappointed if you heard that "The Da Vinci Code" movie had to fake the Louvre?
Then, in early December, while Howard and Grazer were in Paris auditioning actresses for the film's female lead, they got a call from the office of French President Jacques Chirac inviting them to swing by and say bonjour. "We thought it was going to be a five-minute thing, like a trip to the Oval Office—a photo and a handshake," says Grazer. But Chirac asked them to sit down and get comfortable. Coffee was poured. They ended up staying close to an hour. Chirac insisted that his guests alert him if their request to film at the Louvre hit any snags. Not only that, he offered them some ... pointers. He suggested they cast his daughter's best friend—an actress of some acclaim in France—in the role of Sophie Neveu, the elegant young cryptographer at the heart of the book's mystery. And he wondered aloud, half seriously, if they could sweeten the paycheck for actor Jean Reno, who'd already been cast as the relentless French detective Bezu Fache. "That was hilarious," says Howard. "Fortunately the deal was already closed."
If you're not one of the 25 million people worldwide who have read "The Da Vinci Code," you have six months to get caught up before the movie opens on May 19, 2006. You'll need a day or two, tops. Brown's frantic, addictive novel, about a Harvard symbology professor named Robert Langdon who gets embroiled in a murder mystery of Biblical proportions, is a combination thriller, religious manifesto and art-history lecture, with chapters about as long as a takeout menu. Since it was published in 2003, the book has become a global industry, spawning everything from critical documentaries to reverential bus tours. It has been condemned by the Vatican for disseminating falsehoods about the Roman Catholic Church and by literary critics for disseminating lame prose. The cult of "The Da Vinci Code" will reach new heights with the release of Columbia Pictures' $125 million film version, starring Tom Hanks as Langdon and an international cast led by Reno, Ian McKellen ("The Lord of the Rings"), Paul Bettany ("A Beautiful Mind") and Alfred Molina ("Spider-Man 2"). The role of Sophie ended up going to Audrey Tautou ("Amelie"), who beat out 30 other French actresses. Including Chirac's daughter's best friend.
Next year's summer movie season will feature Superman's return to the big screen, a sequel to "Pirates of the Caribbean" and the third installments of "X-Men" and "Mission: Impossible," but none will arrive with the fanfare of "The Da Vinci Code." "I wouldn't want to open another movie anywhere near this one," says Sony studio chief Amy Pascal. (Columbia Pictures is owned by Sony.) Howard is just starting to edit the film, but he and his team took a break to speak exclusively with NEWSWEEK about how they're cracking "The Da Vinci Code." For inspiration, Howard has revisited classic thrillers with spiritual elements, such as "The Exorcist" and "Rosemary's Baby," as well as movies in which action springs from conversation, as in "All the President's Men." His goal is to duplicate the experience of reading the book—no small task, considering that Brown's tale unfolds in real time over the course of 20 hours and that the movie will run less than three. Plenty will be omitted, but Howard insists nothing dear has been lost. He's made a believer out of Brown. "The novelist is always the adaptation's most skeptical audience," the press-shy author said in a statement to NEWSWEEK, "but I think this movie will blow people away. I truly believe moviegoers will come out of the theater feeling like they've just watched the novel."
That should delight fans—but might also enrage the book's vocal opponents, who were hoping that the film would depart from the novel, particularly its depiction of the Catholic Church and the life of Jesus Christ. Brown's page turner hinges upon an inflammatory, if well-traveled, conspiracy theory: that Christ was married to Mary Magdalene and fathered a daughter, whose bloodline has survived into present-day Europe—and that the Catholic Church has been covering up the "truth" for 2,000 years. Brown is a novelist, not a historian or theologian. His book, however, opens with a line-blurring foreword claiming that "all descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals ... are accurate," leaving readers to wonder where his facts end and his imagination begins. Howard, by contrast, hopes to defuse the situation by shouting "Fiction!" in crowded theaters. "I'm not opening with that [foreword], let's put it that way," he says. For people angered by the book, though, it's the only bone he's throwing. Contrary to earlier reports that Sony planned to soften the story's more controversial elements, Howard tells NEWSWEEK that there will be "no placating. It would be ludicrous to take on this subject and then try to take the edges off. We're doing this movie because we like the book."
Six months after sipping coffee in Chirac's office, Howard, Grazer and the rest of the "Da Vinci Code" team swarmed into the Louvre and set up shop for a week of night shoots. Paris in July offers, at most, seven hours of true darkness—from about 10 p.m. until 4:30 a.m.—so there was little time to stop and gape at the treasures. But everyone made sure to take a moment. "The clock's ticking, I've only got so much time to get a lot done, but even still, every once in a while, I would stop in front of, say, John the Baptist's severed head, and for just a second, I'd let myself remember where I was working," says Howard. "That was nice." Hanks's trailer was parked on a street outside the museum, requiring him to hike through countless silent galleries to reach the set. "It was a great walk to work, I'll tell you that," he says. "You're walking past 'The Coronation of the Empress Josephine,' 'Leonidas at Thermopylae'—just one masterpiece after another."
Lovely as it was, the conditions were less than ideal for a big-budget movie shoot. "We had to be very specific about every single shot we were going to do, for both security and preservation reasons," says Howard. "There were all kinds of things we couldn't do. Blood on the floor—that's in the script and we couldn't do that. We couldn't take paintings off the walls, obviously. We couldn't write coded messages on the Mona Lisa, obviously." In fact, because the crew was forbidden to shine direct light onto certain paintings, Leonardo da Vinci's actual "Mona Lisa"—which plays a key role in the story's opening set piece—was completely off-limits. The film uses a replica. Spilling this information clearly agonizes Howard, who wants to preserve as much secrecy as possible. "I sort of hate to be quoted on this," he says, "but ..." He pauses for several seconds. "It was just too priceless." Much of the footage shot in the museum takes place in the Louvre's famed Grand Gallery. Da Vinci's masterpiece is housed in a small room nearby. Since the crew members couldn't shoot the painting, they decided to use the space for something else: storage. "You turn a corner," says Hanks, "and you see this room holding all the stuff you make movies with—boxes, tools, camera stands, disassembled cranes ... and the 'Mona Lisa
Once production wrapped at the Louvre, Howard's crew moved on to some of the religious landmarks in the film—Temple Church in London and Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, among them—and braced themselves for picket lines and protesters with bullhorns. But nothing happened. The only flare-up came in Lincolnshire, where the British press reported that 200 protesters greeted the film crew. Howard insists the stories were inaccurate. "There was one lady who dressed up in a nun's habit—I'm told she wasn't even a real nun—and this other guy who drove her around. They were protesting," he says. "And then there were 198 people outside the hotel waiting for Tom to come out and sign their books."
In person, Howard, Grazer and Hanks have an easy, disarming chemistry. On the day they converge to talk to NEWSWEEK in a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria, it's been less than a month since the men—old friends who first worked together on the 1984 hit "Splash"—finished shooting. Still, they greet each other like it's been years. Hanks arrives first, wearing jeans and a button-down shirt. He slumps into a chair and begins cracking jokes about his flowing mane of hair, which he grew out for the movie. "It's getting into Davy Jones territory now," he says. "Usually my hair is just this big bush, so it's taken some getting used to. I've never actually had to dry my hair before. You know what a hair dryer is? They're great." When Howard walks in, he goes straight to Hanks, who offers him a gentlemanly handshake. Howard goes in for the hug, and the result is an awkward tangle of arms and torsos that leaves both men laughing. Grazer, the mega-producer who launched Imagine Entertainment with Howard, comes in last, looking distracted. "Brian Grazer!" Hanks announces, in a mock-serious voice. "The man with a license to kill!" "Sorry I'm late, guys," he says. "I was doing a press thing for this other movie I've got"—the Jim Carrey comedy "Fun With Dick and Jane"—"and every-one kept asking 'Da Vinci Code' questions. They just don't really wanna talk about my other movies. No matter how many times you warn them and say, 'Well, we're not really here to talk about that,' they just go, 'Right, OK, now, about "The Da Vinci Code" ' ..." The nerve of some people.
Alfred Molina as Bishop Manuel Aringarosa
"The Da Vinci Code" is a different kind of project for Grazer and Howard, whose previous films, including "Apollo 13," "The Grinch" and "A Beautiful Mind," have grossed billions around the world and collected nine Oscars. The two usually develop their own projects for Imagine and shop them to a studio; this time, Sony brought them in as hired guns. Grazer tried to buy the rights to "The Da Vinci Code" for Imagine, with the idea of using the book as a template for the third season of his company's hit TV series, "24," but he got outfoxed by another bidder. "I just didn't know the right people," he says. "I didn't know Dan's people—the book people."
John Calley knew the right people. The 75-year-old executive is a revered figure in Hollywood, a veteran studio chief three times over, including a recent stint at Sony. He and Sony chairman Howard Stringer share a fondness for mysteries, and about two years ago, Stringer told him to check out an emerging best seller. Calley loved "The Da Vinci Code" and went after the movie rights. He was late to the game, but he had a crucial advantage: a relationship with Brown's lawyer, Michael Rudell. The two men had worked together on deals for authors Patricia Cornwell and John Le Carre. "I think he thought I was an OK guy and that I wasn't crazy," says Calley, "which in this business is as good as it gets." He placed one call to Rudell, and the book, as well as all future movie rights to the Robert Langdon character, were Sony's for the reported price of $6 million—a bargain. "Everybody in Hollywood wanted that book," says Sony's Pascal. "Other producers said they could get it for us. But none of them really had a chance. It's just about John and who he is. There's nobody like him."
Howard landed "The Da Vinci Code" on the strength of his filmmaking resume, but there was another factor in his favor. "Ron is not a polarizer," says Calley. "We all knew the book was quite controversial, and we were ready for that. But we didn't want to add to it." The Catholic League was so incensed by the novel's portrayal of Christ that its president, William Donahue, says he sent Pascal a letter in March 2005 essentially demanding that she attach a disclaimer to the film—or else. "As long as you say it's purely fictional, you can say Christ had three heads. I don't give a damn. But you can't play both sides of the street," Donahue says, adding that Pascal sent back a polite, but noncommittal, response. "I didn't ask for the moon. All I asked for was a damn disclaimer."
Donahue told NEWSWEEK that he'd settle for a "clear, public statement" from Howard that the movie is fictional; perhaps the one Howard made earlier in this article will do the trick. But that doesn't mean the film is off the hook with all Catholics. There's also the matter of Opus Dei, an organization within the church that receives some of "The Da Vinci Code's" roughest treatment. The grisly murder at the Louvre that sets the plot in motion is committed by a self-flagellating Opus Dei monk named Silas at the behest of a delusional bishop named Aringarosa. In a bit of literary piling-on, Silas is also an albino, a trait that seems to have been chosen purely to make him more spooky, much to the dismay of the albino community. Howard auditioned several albino actors for the part, but went with Bettany, who is close enough. He's English.
Before shooting began, Opus Dei spokesman Brian Finnerty says, he petitioned Howard to remove the prelature's name from the film, and received no response. When asked by NEWSWEEK if the film mentions Opus Dei, Howard stops just short of saying yes. "Opus Dei is mentioned in the book," he says, "and we didn't shy away from that or any other aspect of the story." "That's news to me," Finnerty says. "I'll have to get back to you." Three days later, in an e-mail, Finnerty told NEWSWEEK: "Nobody likes to see themselves caricatured on the big screen. I hope that Sony will play by the same rules of fairness in portraying the Catholic Church as you would expect for the portrayal of any other religious or ethnic group." He added that Opus Dei will respond by "trying to turn lemons into lemonade" and use the attention to "inform people what Opus Dei is really about."
Ultimately, Sony is far more concerned with pleasing the people who love the novel than with soothing those who don't. When NEWSWEEK reported last year that Hanks would play Langdon, some "Da Vinci Code" fans felt as if they were being taken out to their favorite restaurant for the fifth night in a row. It'd be a great meal, sure, but didn't they already know what it was going to taste like? Though Brown's novel describes Langdon as "Harrison Ford in Harris tweed," the filmmakers say Hanks is a perfect fit—and, frankly, what was the last role he didn't nail? "Tom is wildly intelligent," says screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, "and you can't fake intelligence. A good actor can act anything—except the sense that he's thinking deeply if he really isn't."
Hanks will surely add to "The Da Vinci Code's" box-office appeal—as if the book's title alone weren't star power enough—but its artistic success might ride on the delicate shoulders of Audrey Tautou, the 27-year-old French ingenue. Sophie Neveu is more than just the story's emotional core; as the plot unfolds, all the crucial puzzle pieces seem to point back to her. "Sophie is very serious, like a little soldier," says Tautou in heavily accented English. "She wants to keep her eyes closed—to her past, to everything that's happening to her. And during the movie, she opens them slowly, slowly." When Howard was in Paris casting the part, though, Tautou was not initially among the actresses he auditioned. "I was just being narrow," he says. Howard knew of Tautou only from the whimsical "Amelie" and thought she was too sweet to play Sophie. "That's what I thought myself!" says Tautou. "I thought, 'I'm too young, I'm too sweet'." She takes a sip of red wine and rolls her eyes. It's Saturday night at a noisy restaurant in Manhattan's West Village. The actress got up before dawn to fly to New York for NEWSWEEK's cover shoot, and in four hours she will take a red-eye back to Paris in order to make a Sunday call time on her next film. She is disoriented and jet-lagged—and more luminous than any of us on our best days. "I assumed I was not conventional enough for them. I'm not a tall, beautiful woman." She is certainly not tall.
According to Grazer, three Oscar-winning actresses lobbied mightily for the role of Sophie—naming them would be tacky, sorry—but Howard made up his mind early on that he wanted to choose actors according to their characters' nationalities. Then his casting director showed him a tape of Tautou on "Charlie Rose" supporting a French war film called "A Very Long Engagement." "She was behaving very businesslike, and I just saw her so differently," he says. He flew Tautou to Los Angeles to read with Hanks, and the two clicked. "I think it's great that Ron cast someone who's not famous in America," says Tautou. "Someone who's not bankable, who's not on the cover of every magazine." All that will likely change. Tautou knows she's only months away from an international media frenzy, but she claims not to be worried. "Hey, I'm going to be in Paris! I'm not going to be anywhere near here!" Like that matters. Come next May, when the "Da Vinci Code" craze hits its peak, Paris won't be nearly far enough.
© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.