Conversations With People We Value #15
Like pearls on a fine necklace, the vivid memories string together as bright as if they happened yesterday. However, it was September of 1986 and the events came courtesy of a Volvo press event led by Volvo PR guru Bob Austin.
To introduce the new Bertone designed 1987 Volvo 780 Luxury Coupe, Volvo flew a premier selection of North American Journalists to Monaco. There, cosseted with no expense spared, the journalists would sample the new Volvo luxury Coupe on the narrow corniches (a road cut into the edge of a cliff running along the coast) clinging to the mountains of southern France high above Monte Carlo. My job was to capture it all on film.
And then, Nuccio Bertone signaled for his personal Miura
Disembarking from the 747 jumbo jet, we arrived sleepy eyed in Nice on the first day that France required visas from all travelers entering the country. Terrorist bombings in Paris had spurred the French to respond with severely tightened security measures. Wearily pushing a dolly piled with luggage and camera gear we searched for customs. To this day I have no idea how, pushing our dolly piled with large black boxes, we found ourselves in the terminal with no memory of passing through security.
Tightly packed in our generic European rental, my director Jeff and I wove through the French Riviera high above a glistening Mediterranean on our way to Monte Carlo. Our arrival predated that of the journalists to allow us a few days to scout locations for filming. On our way we took a turn and pursued a long decent towards the sea in search of an old fort. Climbing the long and steep hill as we returned from our search we spotted a soccer ball hugging the curb as it accelerated down to the sea. In the passenger seat, I swung my door open. As we slowed, I scooped up the soccer ball. I knew this story would have more to tell. After continuing up the winding hill a young, I suspect, mother appeared in hot pursuit. As we approached her, I extended my arm out the window proffering the runaway ball. Her glorious smile and relieved expression lit up the street. I believe this serendipitous encounter blessed the coming days with good fortune, good will and good work.
Unlike the often spartan quarters allocated to a film crew, we would be enjoying the same luxury accommodations as the journalists. Majestically situated on muscular pillars at the water’s edge, the spectacular Lowes Hotel in Monte Carlo visually promised and totally delivered sumptuous luxury for the rich, the famous and, on this day, for Jeff and me.
Having upgraded to one of the Volvo 780 press cars, Jeff and I ventured out early the next day in search of beauty and drama on the twisting switchbacks above and beyond Monaco. Carved into mountain sides populated with single lane tunnels, these roads hugged towering cliffs on one side while featuring precipitous drop-offs on the other. Any concern for the absence of guardrails drew troubling substantiation from the still visible slide trails of vehicles lying crumpled hundreds of feet below.
Properly exploring mountain roads that make Big Sur feel absolutely urban required advanced meal planning. Planning that we did not do. Mid-day found us hungry with no place to eat. Ahead, the road followed the towering cliff wall and bowed to our right. In so doing it revealed a small and visually striking assemblage of red tile roofed stucco homes blindingly white in the baking sun. Affixed like a wasp nest to the side of a cliff, the sleepy mountainside town of Peille greeted us. Driving through, the town emoted a timeless authenticity. Then suddenly, Jeff swore we had just passed a restaurant sign. We stopped. Moseying down charming and immaculate cobble stone alleyways we found La Feniere (translation, the hay loft), a tiny charming restaurant with maybe five tables. We were saved.
Sitting in her rocker like “Whistler’s Mother” and peacefully waiting for her bread to bake, the proprietress reacted to our entry with a start. We quickly realized that she spoke no English. As for us, other than bonjour, we were at a loss for words. Somehow the international language of pointing resulted in a glorious lunch of tomatoes, Cheese, fresh bread and Perrier. We departed having made a friend.
Filming would begin before the journalists arrived allowing us to shoot running footage of the 780s on the mountain roads. My good fortune continued with the arrival of my Volvo supplied film crew from Sweden. Talented and professional, they quickly bonded with us to form a strong personal and professional attachment. That bond would soon save lives when a crew member sacrificed his body to prevent a deadly accident during shooting.
Using a Volvo 740 wagon as a camera car to shoot the hero 780 required frequent readjustments of the camera mounts. A steep cliff on one side and precipitous drop on the other left no place but the skinny corniche roadway itself to set up each shot. Walkie talkies and few automobiles made controlling traffic flow quite manageable. French motorists seemed delighted to be witnessing film production. However, not every driver felt obliged to calmly wait. For one particular shot, a blind curve separated the stopped traffic and the crew members setting up the next shot on the roadway.
Screams and blaring horns yanked my attention from my notebook to see my Swedish assistant director draped on the hood of a BMW clutching the windshield wipers as the car came to an angry halt. The impatient BMW driver who had bolted out of the waiting line had come to rest just before taking the turn and plowing into the defenseless crew.
On a lighter side while prepping a shot by another sharp turn, I was approached by a tourist who had just pulled over. ”Does anybody here speak English,” He inquired. I indicated that, yes, I did. He asked, “Is this the place where Princess Grace died?” Now, I was blessed with a crew with two Swedes, Pelle and Rune, both of whom displayed a wicked funny sense of humor. Below the curve at the bottom of the hill lay a few wrecked Renaults. They begged me to say yes just to see the guy go down and try to rip a souvenir off a car. I would have none of it. I explained our purpose for being there. He thanked me and went on his way. A few days later I learned that that specific curve possesses a bad reputation that earned it the name, the “Devil’s Curse.” And, yes, Grace Kelly’s accident occurred there. Sorry Mr. Tourist.
With the journalists having arrived, work for the crew really dialed up. With a trip to the spectacular Chateau Eza for lunch and interviews, plenty of footage to be shot with the journalists interacting with the 780 and, of course, more driving footage B-roll, it created very long days for the crew. This in turn created a very interesting interaction in the Lowes Hotel lobby. Returning from the road in the evening, the crew, looking very much the part of a grunge band, would arrive in the lobby about the same time the black tie crowd departed to enjoy their rich and famous lifestyle. Oh, when worlds collide. Basically their response resembled stepping on roadkill with a bare foot, until. Until, the glitterati spotted the 35mm Panavision film camera and trappings. Le Cinéma? Postures firmed as soft smiles filled the room.
With gear packed tightly in our 740 wagon, we departed leaving Monte Carlo in our taillights. Next stop Turin and Carrozzeria Bertone where we would meet Signore Nuccio Bertone himself.
Leading our film crew caravan to our next stop in Turin, I had the wheel of a red 780 press car. I have never been to Italy. In this pre-GPS age, I have simply pointed my 780 in the direction of Torino and hit the gas.
With an incredible stroke of luck, upon entering downtown Torino I looked to my right and saw the Hotel Jolly Ligure, our destination. Pretty beat from the day, our ragtag film crew staggered in to the hotel to get some rest for the big day tomorrow.
Broke into what? Awakened by a knock, I heard the news that our 740 wagon parked at the front door of the hotel loaded with a six figure camera kit had been broken into. Yes, in retrospect it was clearly a mistake to leave it in the car despite the desire for an early getaway.
I hustled down to discover that the crafty thieves broke in, crawled over $100,000 plus of Panavision equipment and, and stole the radio. I am not saying this in any way represented a karmic payback related to the soccer ball incident but I am not saying it did not.
Arriving at the bright and airy Carrozzeria Bertone Studio nestled against the foot hills of Torino, we were greeted by a display of iconic Bertone designed concept cars. As my crew went about setting up for interviews, I grabbed the opportunity to wander alone among this breathtaking collection of automobile artistry. As I slowly moved through the collection, an older Italian gentleman stood quietly at the far end of the semi-circle. I greeted him. I spoke no Italian. He responded genially but spoke no English. I smiled and said with a shrug, “No Miura.” With that my genial companion called out in a firm tone. His voice brought hustling workers on the run. Shortly thereafter a yard tug pulled out an immaculate orange Miura. I had just met Nuccio Bertone who would become a friend.