Two decades ago, an abandoned heart found its way to Italy as part of the iconic, genre-defining film Under the Tuscan Sun. Starring Diane Lane as Frances, a San Francisco writer who leaves for Europe after discovering her soon-to-be ex-husband is cheating on her, the 2003 film cemented an early obsession with starting over. Under the Tuscan Sun is based on the real-life Frances, author Frances Mayes to be exact, whose memoir was adapted for the big screen by the late writer-director Audrey Wells.
Frances, recently abandoned and with the emotional support of her best friend Patty (Sandra Oh), escapes both midlife crises and bad American men by traveling the world for a luxury vacation. She falls in love with a Tuscan villa and decides to renovate it while bonding with the locals, including the seductive Marcello (Raoul Bova).
Under the Tuscan Sun stimulated the iconic feeling of vacation in a movie, launching an entire genre that grew to encompass Eat, Pray, Love, Last Vacation, The Vacation, Leap Year. In Rome”, “PS I Love You”, “Letters to Juliet” and a bunch of other films from the 2000s.
Under the Tuscan Sun grossed $58.9 million on an $18 million budget, making the Touchstone Pictures film acceptable proof that a rom-com with a naturally gorgeous landscape has an audience. Roger Ebert wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times that while the film was busy “seducing audiences with a shapely little villa in Italy,” its underlying message proved something deeper: “What redeems the film is its successful escape from reality and Lane’s performance,” Ebert wrote at the time.
The story of how “Under the Tuscan Sun” was made in the first place has a high-profile connection: the film owes its full credit to the production of “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” the beloved 1999 psychological thriller based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel. Producer Tom Sternberg met Under the Tuscan Sun author Mays while filming in Siena and pitched the film adaptation of her memoir in 2000.
In honor of the film’s 20th anniversary, IndieWire spoke with cinematographer Jeffrey Simpson and costume designer Nicoletta Ercole to unpack the legacy of how Under the Tuscan Sun became an ode to the ambitious life.
A twist of fate and a surprising trip around the world
Under the Tuscan Sun was originally supposed to be shot by another cinematographer before Jeffery Simpson came on board. “It was actually quite a long way down the track because [Audrey Wells] there was a cameraman whose partner had a health problem and he had to retire. So the movie was pretty much spot on,” Simpson told IndieWire. “Much of the cast was done. Tom Sternberg was one of the producers and he had worked on The Talented Mr. Ripley; many of the people he worked with in Italy were from that film. But they haven’t done any location work or anything like that, intelligence or anything like that.
So what changed? “Oh, it’s actually a pretty good story,” Simpson said. “My agent sent me the script and I read it and I loved it and all that stuff, and then they got back and said, ‘Audrey Wells, a wonderful director, would love to get a phone call.’ I talked to Audrey and I said, ‘Audrey Wells , I really feel like you won’t be able to make up your mind unless you meet me in person.” And she said, “Well, you’re very perceptive. That’s exactly what I’m thinking. So I said, “Look, I have a lot of frequent flyers. Why don’t I come to your place for dinner on Saturday night? That was after two days. And that’s what I did.”
Simpson flew from Australia to Los Angeles for a dinner with Welles, producers and select cast members, including O. And just like that, Simpson was off to Tuscany.
Costume designer Nicoletta Ercole immediately bonded with star Diane Lane on set, especially after realizing the two had known each other for decades.
“I was very happy to work with Diane Lane because we found that when I flew to LA to make the costume, she said to me, ‘I know you, I think we’ve met.’ I discovered that she was an actress in an Italian-American film that they shot in 1981 in Savannah Beach,” Ercole told IndieWire. “She said to me, ‘You dressed my mother, and I came for the fitting of the costume there.'” Has a small role in Italian director Marco Ferreri’s Tales of Ordinary Madness. And I said, “Oh, that little child, that little girl is so pretty. Why don’t we put her in the movie too?” I spoke to the director and he said, ‘Yes, Nicoletta, if you can dress her.’ So Diane was an extra in the movie.
Suddenly, Italy was crawling with Under the Tuscan Sun filmmakers: Simpson recalls that he couldn’t go anywhere without bumping into another crew member.
“We just arrived in Rome, they checked me into a hotel and I had a day wandering around Rome before flying to Cortona. I sat next to the production designer at a coffee shop over breakfast and everywhere we went it was just stunningly beautiful. It was like a working vacation,” Simpson said. “It was a dream job. And the food, oh my God, the restaurants were going because food was such a big theme in the movie that we were like, “Well, we’d better test this restaurant, see what it’s like.”
Once production began, Simpson said the cast and crew would watch the dailies together every night and walk the streets of Cortona. “I had a really, really good Italian crew,” Simpson said, adding that Sandra Oh became a “really good friend” over the course of filming.
Italy meets fashion in San Francisco
Ercole, hot on the heels of Richard Loncraine’s HBO film My House in Umbria, was key to creating the Americans in Italy aesthetic, including tying some local customs to Lane’s outfits, which Ercole made by hand.
“In the beginning she was more American than European or Italian. But after a few days, she retains something of the country women, something that is a mix between timeless style and maybe contemporary style,” Ercole said.
Ercole explained that each outfit was specifically tied to lines in the script to chart Francis’ evolution over the course of the film. It was also key to show how Frances’ clothing stood out from her other characters, much like the (almost) loveable Italian-born Marcello.
“When you start thinking and studying a script, I use my imagination to get into the character, to find the psychology of the character, and you start making sketches based on what they would look like,” Ercole said. “It’s so funny because if you remember the scene before the wedding, the scene when she goes to Positano? Raul is obviously Italian and therefore more put together than she is. An Italian knows how to be handsome and that’s very sexy to me. He is always dressed in white, lean and white. Sees a little so you can see the shape of the shoulders, back. I loved that Positano scene because it was both [in] white.”
And Ercole took the film’s title literally: Most of Francis’ looks include some sort of sunset color. “I tried to get into the American mentality, but with an Italian flavor, because for example, if an American comes to Italy. There’s something that, you know, you’re guarding from that side that comes inside of you,” Ercole said.
Ercole pointed out that Frances is learning the easy way of life in the Italian countryside, including how to cook (and eat!) the kitchen, as markers of her on-screen clothing transformation, along with a nod to the sunset of Frances’ romantic insecurities.
“Do you remember when he learned to cook Italian style?” Ercole asked. “When you know, in the real ending, the marriage, do you remember the wedding at the end with that 50s style orange top and skirt? I used orange because to me it reflected the sun shining in the countryside and like the name and everything and the color of the sunset. Everything goes together.”
The villa inspired the clothes
Ercole, who has been a costume designer for 50 years, sourced vintage pieces to make Francis’ housework look more authentic. Ercole sought to restore the crumbling villa to represent Frances not only emotionally, but also physically in terms of her style.
“I went to a flea market and found a lot of old overalls that Frances might have found in her leftover luggage when she moved in,” Ercole said, citing the character’s origins. “We don’t know exactly who lived in this house, maybe a farmer. So I mixed the jumpsuit with a farm shirt and cowboy boots. Compatriots in Italy use bandanas to sweat in the sun; it is very normal and very Italian to wear a bandana at work. So I put the bandana on her.”
“I try not to use contemporary fashion in my films, because if you keep the style of the moment in the film, it will get old very quickly,” Ercole said. “So I hope if you can see the movie now that you really like to see the timeless style that it can exist at any moment. For example, if you remember 10 years ago, all jeans were low waisted. I’ve never used it in a movie. I always wear classic jeans.”
Yet one statement in the film found a strong American appeal: Frances’s yellow dress.
“You can’t imagine how many times American women, ladies, you know, from Boston, from Texas, from Arizona, from Florida, ask me to make the same dress for their daughter’s wedding or for a party,” Ercole said. . “That’s a great compliment to me.”
The Legacy of ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’
Writer and director Welles died in 2018. Costume designer Ercole recalled working with her: “Audrey, I loved. She had a huge heart. It’s very sad because she was so young, so beautiful with a little baby.
Cameraman Simpson added: “Audrey, I really liked her as a person from that first meeting, and getting a hug and a kiss, you know, definitely sealed that bond and we just became really good friends… She was great and had a good career, continued to work almost to the last minute.’
Simpson continued with the American woman abroad rom-com genre, working on “Last Holiday” right after “Under the Tuscan Sun.” He noted that the film had a “bigger budget” than Welles’ film and included filming in locations such as New Orleans and Austria. “It was a very lavish production,” he said.
Ercole also added to the genre with Letters to Juliet, in addition to Italian projects such as Gianni Schicchi and Uno per tutti. Reflecting the rise of Italian-based American productions ranging from House of Gucci to Mafia Mamma and The White Lotus, Ercole assured that if you are in Italy, do as the Romans do…literally.
“There are a lot of American movies that have a ‘typical Italian’ cliché,” Ercole said. “So at this point it’s very convenient for productions to shoot in Italy because they get their money back, you know, the tax credit, because I have to tell you the truth: I don’t want to be better, but the Italians do it better.” In terms of art departments, we are the best. The make-up, the hair and the costume designers, so a lot of us work with Americans because ultimately we know the culture.”