Case Study: Mary Magdalene in southern Italy

Much less developed than present-day Israel and complete with helpfully derelict tuna factories, southern Italy and Sicily became the perfect stand-ins for the Holy Land in Garth Davis’s Mary Magdalene.

Producer Liz Watts and director Garth Davis stood together on the rugged slopes of a mountain in San Vito Lo Capo, north-west Sicily at the beginning of 2016. The two Australian filmmakers were scouting locations for their revisionist biblical drama Mary Magdalene. Taking in the hills and rock formations and the way they swept down into the sea below, Davis realised he had found the home of his title character. “Imagine if her house was here,” he announced excitedly. Watts wasn’t entirely convinced. “Uh, yeah?” she managed.

“But we pulled it off,” Watts says now. By the time they were shooting the film nine months later, production designer Fiona Crombie and her mostly Italian construction crew had, with the invaluable assistance of unit production manager Francesca Cingolani, erected a 1st-century Galilean building on that very spot. “And it looks like part of the landscape, like it’s always been there,” Watts marvels. “It was a beautiful moment.”

Sicily and southern Italy doubled for the Holy Land throughout the entire two-month shoot. Davis and Watts had scouted a number of potential locations, including Malta, Spain and Jordan, but not before going to Israel and, as Davis puts it, “retracing Mary’s steps.”

“We spent time in the Sea of Galilee [where Mary’s home, Magdala, was recently unearthed during the construction of a hotel] and moved all the way up to Jerusalem. I did a lot of photography and spoke to a lot of people and got a real image in my mind about what it would be like,” says Davis.

Of all the locations they scouted, none matched better aesthetically than southern Italy. Unlike Israel itself, “a lot of it was so undeveloped,” Davis says. “When I work, I like to have very large worlds to work with. I want to feel that world around the characters. When we got to Sicily, there were just these gorgeous landscapes and huge worlds with no apartments or buildings or modernity. And also they had a lot of these old tuna factories that we could just gently augment, to turn into first-century villages. It was fantastic.”

As well as doubling San Vito Lo Capo for Magdala, the production shot in the olive groves of Puglia to recreate the biblical town of Cana; the ancient city of Matera in Italy’s southern Basilicata region for Cana and Jerusalem; and the huge Piazza del Plebiscito in Naples for the Second Temple on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. “It was massive in scale,” Watts emphasises of the latter location. “In a film that’s couched in naturalism, we had to achieve a journey for Mary through Jerusalem that culminated at this centre of the Jesus story, without it feeling like you’ve been thrown into a massive VFX film all of a sudden.”

Watts was brought in by UK production house See-Saw Films to set up the film as a UK-Australia co-production with shooting to take place in a third territory. The cast and crew were a mix of British, Australian and Italian, with the art department, based out of Rome’s Cinecitta studio, mostly Italian. “There was a lot of great local talent,” says Watts.

She insists the production was as straightforward as it could have been, with the crews speaking good English and the Italian film infrastructure sufficiently robust. Despite working in national parks and a world heritage site (Matera), the production faced no huge obstacles. “They make a lot of films there, a lot of television,” Watts explains of the area. “And we had great facilitators for the production in Lotus Productions and Panorama Films.”

Tax credit complications

The one thing she does wish she had known before shooting was the complexity of the Italian tax credit system. “It took a bit of time to really understand because it’s tied into the VAT,” Watt explains. “It’s applicable against VAT as well, so you have to manage that in a cashflow sense. We relied quite heavily on Panorama’s expertise and advice on how to set things up.” But the challenges were mitigated by the fact the Italian tax rebate is so generous. “It’s 25%” says Watts. “You can basically trade against existing taxes, including payroll.”

And, without access to the UK tax credit (“We didn’t have enough UK spend on the ground; all the post happened in Australia”), accessing the tax break was, says Watts, “really important to our ability to shoot there.”

A southern Italian shoot is an experience she would happily advocate. “It is such a stunning area. I was always amazed there was so little non-Italian tourism. You have to go in doing your research and having your expectations being fulfilled with a really great facilitator — but that’s the same in a lot of countries.”

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