Melina Chiaverini Talks “Melina: I Was Born Greek”
In 1967, Melina Mercouri Greece’s most famous and patriotic actress, was torn between the two men in her life (husband, Jules Dassin & her brother, Spyros Mercouris) when she spoke out against her home country’s brutal junta dictatorship. She became the “voice of the people”, but is stripped of her citizenship, risking her career, marriage, and ultimately, her life.
Screenwriter/ actress Melina Chiaverini, who wrote the film spoke to Creative Screenwriting Magazine about her screenplay.
I Was Born Greek has been making waves in the international screenwriting contest circuit. Why do you think the industry has responded to it so well?
I love Melina Mercouri. I love this script. I poured my heart and soul into it. It burns, crackles and spits when you least expect it. It’s Melina. To me, she’s like a beautiful Grecian myth. She’s timeless. Thankfully, modern-day readers seem to agree. 2020 is the 100-year anniversary of Melina’s birth so it’s fitting that her story is ripe for the big screen.
Only recently completed, the script has already won/placed in over 14 international screenwriting festivals and was reviewed as “one of the best spec. scripts out there.” (Scriptapalooza Fellowship Recipient, 2020).
Who was Melina Mercouri and what aspects of her life compelled you to write about her?
Who was she? The rambunctious granddaughter of the Mayor of Athens. The Greek-Parisian stage protagonist of 60 plays. The Oscar-nominated movie star of 19 films (and 26 albums) with a lioness’ laugh and merciless appetite for men. She risked everything to fight a dictatorship, was stripped of her citizenship, exiled for 7 years, had an assassination attempt made on her life, later becoming the politician, and fearless campaigner for the return of the Parthenon marbles.
The only constant aspect of Melina’s life? She was always uncompromisingly Greek. Her phenomenal light as a symbol of the spirit of Greek democracy still shines now, perhaps, brighter than ever. In that light, Who wasn’t she? That’s what ultimately compelled me to her – her mystery.
“I hope to see the marbles return to Athens before I die. But, if they return later, I will be reborn.”
What were the most outstanding moments of Mercouri’s life?
Her entire life was a relentless succession of outstanding moments. Melina Mercouri was the consummate Athens “It” girl. The most beautiful, most popular and most ambitious. Everything she set her sights on, she achieved.
That’s the spine of my script – her outstanding efforts during the 1967-74 Greek junta dictatorship. Her fearlessness and sacrifice charmed and captivated the world, conquering people’s hearts and helped facilitate the regime’s eventual fall. No easy feat for the ordinary person. But for Melina, it came naturally. It’s been 26 years since Melina’s passing. She is deeply missed and the world is yearning to see Melina back to life, reliving her most outstanding moments, explosive and inspirational, in the forum she so loved – the big screen.
Other than sharing a name, what elements of your own life do you see in Melina Mercouri’s?
We are both strong, confidant, independent Greek women, both actresses, and we probably both talk too much! We’re also both the exact same age when the script opens, which is uncanny. I felt we embarked on her journey together in real time, in a way. I grew fiercely protective of Melina. I gave her everything. And learned much in return. Especially as an actress, as I’ve always gone straight to the bottom of a character. To the heavy lifting, so to speak.
Melina taught me the exquisite joy of the craft – to shoot for the peaks, the joie de vivre. It’s given me more range and made me a richer actress. A richer person, actually. I’m immensely grateful to her for that. Certainly, I’ve grown more like Melina in writing her biopic. They say the actress always knows more than the character, but, in this instance, I’m not so sure.
Why are you the best person to tell this story?
I always believed in my heart that I cared more about getting Melina Mercouri’s story on screen than anyone else. Then, Mr. Spyros Mercouris, Melina’s younger brother, and only sibling, graciously agreed to work with me. He called me “the chosen one”, the “torchbearer”. He christened me “Melina B”. My middle name is Bianca, so that worked. And we worked. Diligently, over the course of several weeks in Athens, Greece, then via email.
Sadly, he passed soon, thereafter (RIP). And, I remain to tell her story. It was one of his last wishes that this film be made for Melina. It’s a responsibility and honor that I cherish, and am eternally grateful to him for. I am also blessed to have the ongoing support of the Mercouris family. Today, I know I’m the right person to tell Melina’s story. I’ve championed it for over 10 years. Gone through the fire: I know her family, her story, her life. And, the random burst of audacity serves redeemingly, now and then.
I mean, this is Melina Mercouri – you need serious guts to tackle her story! Plus, my Greek grandfather died fighting for Greece as Captain of the Resistance during World War II, and my Greek uncle was jailed alongside Mikis Theodorakis during the Junta dictatorship. So, to share a secret with you, on many levels, this script is also a love letter to my Greek Mom. It doesn’t get more intimate than that.
What research have you done into Mercouri’s life?
You name it! I’ve been mesmerized by her since childhood. I’m the youngest of four children, and the only one not named after a grandparent. Instead, I was named after Melina Mercouri. Once I realized that, I’ve been chasing my name ever since. I was already working on this project long before I was officially working on this project. I just didn’t know it. I was already equipped with a broad understanding of Melina’s life. From there, I worked closely with Spyros Mercouris, perhaps, the authority on everything Melina – from her dreams to regrets, and all the tiny, granular details in between. The stuff no one wrote about. They were extremely close throughout their entire lives. So, he was a pivotal compass for me in terms of what Melina authentically would have wanted to share in her film. I christened him “The Oracle”.
I’ve also done research with Melina’s nephews, friends/people that knew her personally/professionally. I’ve visited Athens many times over the years researching Melina – Piraeus (and other film locations), paid my respects at her grave, theaters she played, homes she lived in. I’ve worked in the very room where she was born, and later rehearsed lines as a young actress. I also went to the Athens Polytechnic and the British Museum, London to see the Parthenon Marbles.
Much research on the Junta dictatorship, too, and the political climate throughout the 60s and 70s. Conversations with family who actually lived through it all. Of course, there are also all the Melina books, TV/newspaper/magazine/online articles and interviews, her films, photos, political appearances and records catalogue.
I know the perfume she wore, her favorite color, cigarettes she smoked, foods she ate, how she walked, when she developed her husky voice, her favorite actress, her dogs’ names, fidgety gestures, insecurities, illnesses, enemies and people she secretly disliked, those she loved and admired, what time she rose and slept, her favorite drink and curse words, how she changed over the years, and the true, true love of her life. Just name it, I have notes on it!
The only thing I didn’t have access to was how Melina was privately with her second husband, acclaimed American film director, Jules Dassin. Not the Cannes Film Festival super couple, just husband and wife stuff; Melina and “Julie”. Yes, many people told me how they were together, but, oh, how I wish I’d had the chance to speak with Mr. Dassin before he passed in 2008 (RIP). That’s my biggest regret of this entire project. I had to go on instinct and dramatize that, but, ironically, I must confess, those scenes are some of my favorites in this script, which brings us to…
How do you balance fact with dramatization in a biographical story?
In any script, there are competing (often equally compelling) forces luring the writer in different directions. You’d think a biopic would narrow the margins of ‘error’. It doesn’t. In fact, the terrain is arguably more perilous as the reader/audience arrives at the page/screen with facts and expectations. So, is there scope for dramatization in a biopic? Of course! It’s a biopic, not a documentary. Audiences inherently wear this, and are accommodating of modest creative license, providing, of course, the script ultimately delivers. My job, then, is to tell the story in the most dazzling and legitimate way. To serve the spirit of the story.
What is the current status of this project?
Right now, there’s interest in the script while it’s being packaged. It’s an exciting phase, where anything is possible and everything impossible, at once. I hope to attract the right Producer/s and attach the right talent in 2021 to advance to pre-production. The creative vision is to complete a Greek feature film that showcases and pays tribute to both Melina Mercouri and Greece.
A never- before told story of a woman ahead of her time: a passionate, patriotic, independent, very Greek artist who, despite reaching the heights of fame, only wanted to be grounded with, and for her people. For democracy. For Greece. A juxtaposition of character that both confounds and endears any audience. The story of a woman, a war, and the two men urging her either side of it. I believe this film will live among the best films Greece has ever made.
How do you want audiences to feel after watching the completed film?
I want to revive people’s passion for being citizens. Their passion for democracy. To know the true value and strength of their own voice. To know they will be heard. Especially individually. To never compromise on that, no matter the cost, as good must always win.
Eventually. The world needs voices. Strong, smart, brave voices. There’s so much noise out there, right now. People feel politically impotent. Can a singular voice even add value? God forbid, challenge? Yes! We must remain anchored in truth. There’s an old Greeksaying that translates to, “The voice of the people is the fury of God”. That about sums it up for me.
I also want them to feel Greece. Through Melina. Lastly, and most importantly, I want them to know, remember, and love Melina. To feel close to her. She would want that.
How do you want to be perceived in the film industry?
As an independent woman who went for it and did it. Fearless. Strong. Hard-working. Kind. With a gift for drama and dialogue, an eye for beauty, and a crooked sense of humor. Then, again, John Patrick Shanley more succinctly described me as “Sex in Technicolor.” That works, too.
Who are your heroes?
Jesus Christ. My Greek mother and ferociously Italian father (RIP), my Maltese dog, Minx (RIP), and, as a Greek actress in Hollywood, I respect and admire Rita Wilson, tremendously. I saw her perform in concert a few years back at the Geffen Playhouse, LA, and it struck me what a beautiful, versatile and talented artist she is.
In fact, she’s an accomplished actress, singer/songwriter, producer, wife, mom, philanthropist, woman of faith and proud Greek. In my eyes, she is the contemporary Greek heroine I most aspire to be like.