Though the “hero city” is not named in García Márquez’s novel, everything about the lush post-Colonial city of Cartageña called out to the filmmakers, and a call from Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos opened the door to the idea of shooting at some of the actual locations García Márquez describes in the book. “It’s a magical city,” says executive producer Dylan Russell. “We thought about shooting in other cities, but ultimately realized that Cartageña was the only place that suits the story because everything described in the novel originated here.”
Though he now lives in Mexico, the author spent his youth in the region, writing his first short stories while working as a newspaper columnist and reporter in Cartageña and the neighboring port town of Barranquilla. Love in the Time of Cholera clearly draws inspiration from the city’s languorous plazas, massive, ornate churches and grand, crumbling estates. Producer Scott Steindorff comments, “Mike Newell and I felt it was important to film where the story takes place. And the country of Colombia and city of Cartageña opened their doors to us and gave us the keys to the city. It was fantastic to shoot there.”
“There is a certain creative integrity that could not be overlooked to shooting this movie in the place where García Márquez set the book,” says executive producer Scott LaStaiti. “The cathedral he wrote about for the wedding, funeral and masses really existed.”
Newell, Steindorff and the cast and crew of Love in the Time of Cholera relocated to the Caribbean port for a few months of intense heat and monsoon weather to recreate the region made world famous in the novel. Production designer Wolf Kroeger oversaw the transformation of the city’s numerous plazas and structures, aging them in reverse to what they must have looked like in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The filmmakers received an immeasurable boost by enlisting veteran casting director Felipe Aljure, who had worked with the film’s casting director Susie Figgis on The Mission. Aljure was able to cast 84 out of the film’s 96 actors locally in Colombia. Aljure’s production experience and familiarity with the locale also gave the filmmakers the confidence to make him second unit director of the film.
“Felipe is probably one of the most well connected people in film in Colombia,” says LaStaiti. “He did a fantastic job with casting and directed our B units. He went over and above in so many circumstances, getting us help where we needed it via his political connections and filmmaking resources. He was a real life saver.”
Filming took place in 83 locations in and around the city, from houses and castles to rivers and mountains. Some came to them perfectly situated and dressed while others needed to be aged or polished. A commercial tugboat was transformed into a 19th century paddle steamer. Telephone poles were dressed to become palm trees.
“This was like hacking civilization out of a forest,” says Newell. “You work harder. There are no cushions. You do everything yourself. But the rewards are much greater when you put this much heart and soul into a project, and everyone in this production has given nothing less.”
For the director, shooting in the actual locations described in the book was exhilarating. “There’s something about shooting here in Cartageña, in this environment,” says Newell. “It’s a place of sensuality. The air is lush and fragrant, and the atmosphere very earthy. It’s warm. It’s very human. There is a sense of life, love and passion here that you couldn’t find anywhere else in the world. Love in the Time of Cholera is a very universal story, but it’s also a Columbian story.”
Though no films had been shot in Colombia since The Mission in 1986, the country has a rich history of production led by such directors as Werner Herzog, Francesco Rosi and Roland Joffe. Production got creative to meet the requirements of a major motion picture cast and crew – using shipping containers for trailers, processing of dailies at Miami post production facilities, utilizing editing facilities in London, and employing over 650 Cartageñians in various production roles.
“We really had to reinvent the wheel with a lot of things, right down to the way we did our catering and makeup trailers, which we made out of sea containers,” says executive producer LaStaiti. “But the way Colombia and Cartageña responded to us was breathtaking. We put tremendous pressure and challenges on them. We closed down their streets, blocked traffic, made noise, yet the people continued to be warm and receptive to us.”
Like the cast, the production team was drawn from all corners of the world – including a director and design team from Great Britain, a camera team from Brazil under cinematographer Alfonso Beato, and key players from Mexico, Brazil and Colombia. In fact, over fifty percent of the crew was Colombian. “We got quite a few trained technicians out of Bogota who were very skilled and experienced, but on top of that we had a lot of local people who really had no film experience but stepped up to the challenge and did a great job for us,” says LaStaiti.
“The local crew worked hard for their love of the story and desire to be part of it,” says Newell. “The look and feel of this film are a testament to their love and hard work. They have expressed that they hope the film will be emblematic of their city and country.”
“Costume, makeup, lights, everybody did an amazing job,” comments Giovanna Mezzogiorno. “It was a really interesting experience because the Colombian, Brazilian and Mexican crews were amazing. They worked day after day without complaining, being always very respectful of our work. We could work so hard and concentrated because we had such an amazing crew.”
“We were very blessed with a fantastic crew of Colombians and people from Central and South America,” says producer Scott Steindorff. “We had people from the UK and people from America. We had an international cast, an international crew, and the lush, evocative locations of Cartageña. I want to thank the people of Colombia and Cartageña for opening their doors to us.”
Love in the Time of Cholera is one of the most famous Colombian novels and is infused with the spirit of the land. “If we have captured that, I’m hoping that the world will get an inside look at this incredible place and this warm culture which we all fell in love with,” concludes Mike Newell.