By Craig Leask
Under The Tuscan Sun (2003) is based upon the Frances Mayes 1996 memoir “Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy” in which she chronicled her family’s purchase and restoration of an abandoned villa in Tuscany.
After being on the New York Times bestseller list for more than two and a half years, the book was picked up by director Audrey Wells for the film. At the time of filming, Wells’ resume included authoring a number of successful screenplays, two of which she also directed. Under The Tuscan Sun (2003), is the only project in which she is credited with writing, directing and producing.
Other than a recounting of her families adventures with the trials and tribulations surrounding renovating a 200 year old building, Mayes book includes vignettes, recipes, and accounts of day trips throughout the Tuscan countryside. Basically the novel is a combination of a travelogue and a diary. Naturally Wells needed to make many alterations to the book to create a screenplay with selling power, all of which Mayes was agreeable to, so long as the underlying essence of the book was maintained.
The main change to the story is in the circumstances of central character Frances (named after the author as the book was written in the first person). In the book, Mayes bought and renovated a villa as a summer home with her husband, who were both well employed as university professors in the US. In the movie, the character had just gone through a painful divorce, is a writer crippled with writer’s block, is unhappy and well, basically homeless. This re-imagining of the lead set the stage for the villa and its renovation to become a metaphor for the character’s own redevelopment throughout the film.
The house in the book and the house Mayes still owns is called “Bramasole”, which literally means, “something that yearns for the sun.” Although the villa was called “Bramasole” in the movie, filming actually took place at a nearby house “Villa Laura”, which was built in 1504 outside the ancient town of Cortona some 100 kilometers southeast of Florence. The condition of Villa Laura did not need to be dressed up for the shoot, as, like Bramasole, it had been abandoned for some time.
In keeping with the underlying premise of the book, that being a Love affair with Tuscany, most of the filming was locational throughout Italy – Florence, Positano, Rome and Montepulciano, but mainly at the Villa Laura in Cortona.
In the movie, the initial shots of the house show a forgotten and abandoned home in a dark a ruined state, mirroring the mental state of the main character. As the film progresses, and the villa is renovated, so too is the life of the fictitious Francis as she rediscovers herself and creates a new home, a new family and a new life. In reality, the house was not actually renovated in the movie; it was more or less dressed up and refreshed to fulfill the needs of the story. According to Audrey Wells, they scrubbed and polished it up a bit, then “filmed it in warmer, prettier light,” to make it appear that the house had been refurbished.
After seeing the movie, Villa Laura, was purchased in 2006 by a wine making couple, the proprietors of Cline Cellars and Jacuzzi Family Vineyards in Sonoma, California. Unlike the movie, they more than prettied the Villa up. The couple spent four years renovating to bring the home up to today’s standards. During the process, over 200 truckloads of dirt and debris needed to be removed from the two main buildings, before the process of renovating could begin. Interestingly, this process of purging the site uncovered a stash of WWII ammunition which had been concealed on the property during the war.
The walled and now renovated property includes a 10-bedroom, 9.5-bath main house which has a private chapel original to the property. It also has a farmhouse, garden, grove of olive trees, a private lake, pool and a bocce court.
In 2012, the owners put the now renovated Villa Laura on the marker for 9.5 million euros (approximately $11.8 million USD). For those readers of Frances Mayes’ books whom became enamored with Tuscany, the villa, which can sleep 18 is, at the time of writing, also available as a weekly vacation rental.
From as far back as Craig can remember he has been passionate about architecture and the atmosphere that can be created through a well-designed building. In movies, he fulfills this passion by gravitating to films where the production infuses the location into the plot as one of the characters. Be it the long dark shadows of mysteries and haunted house films, to classics of the 40’s and 50’s set in big old houses, grand Italian plazas, or remote villages. It’s the locations Craig is drawn to, so much so that, on occasion, he has even been accused of overlooking plot failures and weak directing, having been so engrossed in the set design and location. What he hopes to accomplish with his writing is to share this passion and encourage others to see for the first time – or revisit – movies where the architecture plays as pivotal a role as a character in the plot.