Something Good #58: The Lizzie McGuire Movie
At some point in the fall of 2002 I found myself wandering around the city of Rome by myself after having spent a couple of weeks shooting an experimental Super-8 short in Budapest.
In those days, when digital photography still looked like garbage, I used to go traveling with a lot of film camera stuff. Nothing fancy, just a prosumer-level Canon 35mm DSLR, a couple of lenses, and lots of rolls of film. Incredibly to me now, I used to carry the film in a lead-lined bag to prevent it from being damaged by airport security X-rays, something I’m sure never actually happened to anyone and which added many pounds to my carry-on luggage.
This was a period when I was pretty swept up in all that Italian film stuff: Fellini, neo-realism, etc. So, alone in Rome, I end up wandering the streets in search of some La Dolce Vita glamour (years before I realized that, like many films I thought portrayed some sort of unattainably romantic lifestyle, it was mostly just about being middle aged and male and depressed).
I walk around by myself and take a lot of pictures and tried to soak it all in.
I peer into the ancient archaeological site that had been claimed as a shelter for some of the city’s many stray cats. I check out the now-sleepy Via Veneto, once the center of the city’s glittering social life, and the much older main attractions: the Vatican, the Colosseum, Palatine Hill. I watch giggling nuns take snapshots of each other at the foot of the Spanish Steps.
Mostly I watch the life of the city from a tourist’s remove, like it is all happening on the other side of a shop window. I hope that something exciting happens that I can be a part of and make some lifelong, magical memory.
And then, one night, as I walk aimlessly through the neighbourhood of Trastevere, I come across a commotion. Across the piazza from where I am standing, I see a school bus. A crowd. I see lights—camera equipment—this is a movie shoot!
It is exciting to all of the sudden be right up against the action, even if at a remove. Have I stepped into the Italian film set of my dreams?
I ask an English-speaking passerby if he knows what they’re shooting and he replies: The Lizzie McGuire Movie.
This is no piece of Italian neo-neo-realist cinema in the making I have stumbled across, no Fellini-esque fantasia, but a feature spin-off of a hit Disney Channel show starring teen sensation Hilary Duff.
Standing there, I feel the ridiculousness of my filmic pretensions, and my romantic notions about The Eternal City, melt away.
Ten years go by. Totally by chance, through a mutual friend, I come to know Yani Gellman, an actor with a long resume that includes playing the character of Paolo Valisari, a roguish, Vespa-riding Italian pop star who is the romantic lead in The Lizzie McGuire Movie. When I put the pieces together, we marvel at the fact that we had been in the same place at the same time a decade before, though in vastly different circumstances—even if our friends seem a little skeptical of my claim.
Even so, the experience has the feeling of a dream. I begin to doubt myself, to wonder if it ever actually happened at all. Did I pull it out of thin air? Maybe I had unintentionally deceived Yani—a thought that troubles me.
Another ten years go by. It is now 2022 and I am revisiting my old film photos for the first time in ages, having had hundreds of my 35mm negatives scanned.
I come across a photograph that confuses me. It clearly depicts some sort of movie shoot—I can see a boom operator and a sound recordist—but it’s not of the square in Trastevere, it is not at night, and there is no school bus.
This seems to confirm my worst suspicions. I probably had run across some movie or TV shoot. But this isn’t the scene I remember; I must have conflated this memory with some random viewing of The Lizzie McGuire Movie on TV, or a trailer, or something. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d concocted a false memory out of spare parts.
But then I see a tiny detail in the frame I’d never noticed before. And, with the benefit of the high-definition scan, I’m able to zoom in on it.
A slate. An object with one job: to identify the movie being shot. One word is clearly visible:
In Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, a photographer thinks he’s found the key to a murder in tiny detail in a photograph, zooming in on it in his darkroom to uncover the truth.
I had been living in an Italian movie all along.
I need to talk to Yani.
WARNING: The following conversation contains spoilers for the The Lizzie McGuire Movie.
Mark: So tell me how you ended up in the movie in the first place, and I guess just where you were at when you made it.
Yani Gellman: I had been an actor for a few years and done a few TV shows that were shot mainly in Toronto. And then I sent off a self-tape for this film that was casting out of L.A., and it got a little traction and the producers and the director wanted to meet with me. So they flew me out to Vancouver to meet with the director, and that went well. I got booked on the movie and I don't think I really knew a ton about what the movie was going to be.
I signed up for this thing only having done a handful of very small Canadian television shows. And literally, the day I got off the plane in Rome—I’d never been to Italy before—we drove to some piazza that was filled with tourists and locals and so on. And we just started rehearsing scenes in front of basically just everyone there, like all of Rome.
One of the things about shooting on location is that you can never really fully lock it all off, but especially in Rome, you're lucky to get like corner to shoot in, but there's no way that you can clear a street or whatever, because these are huge tourist destinations.
So we started filming in Rome and it would literally be like we're filming a scene and behind us are thousands of people just watching us. It was on a scale that I had never experienced before or was really even prepared for. I was just like, Whoa, this is kind of crazy.
M: You play a pop star in it, right?
YG: I play an Italian pop star, yeah, who’s found this American girl and is manipulating her into helping him with his career.
M: So you’re like the evil love interest.
YG: Yes, spoiler, it’s been a number of years but I don’t want to give too much away…
M: I’ll put a spoiler alert at the top.
YG: …But it turns out he’s not all he makes himself out to be.
So that photo you took, I think it must have been taken before or after a take because we weren’t in the car at that moment. They might have been shooting an insert. There were thousands of people in that street, and we would have been in a building just sort of next door.
That was one of the really cool things about filming in Rome, was that they didn’t really have trailers or locked-off areas for us. When we went to lunch, it would be just at an amazing Italian restaurant. If we had a dressing room, it would be in some beautiful hotel or space that they'd secured for us. To see Rome, and Italy, for the first time like that, was just absolutely unbelievable.
M: You know, it’s funny, in my memory I had this image of running across the shoot at night, and there was a bus or something. Was there a scene in a bus?
YG: A bus? Oh yeah, Hilary’s character is on a school trip, right? So they filmed a lot of scenes on school buses.
M: So wait, in that case, I must have—my memories from that time are very vague—but I must have run into the production more than once.
YG: You did, because the picture is from the daytime.
M: I don’t know if I knew, when I took that picture, that it was you guys. It was only recently when I had it scanned that I could zoom in on it, and it blew my mind, because I didn’t even know if I had imagined the whole thing but then to have photographic proof in the form of a slate, of all things, was just insane.
YG: It’s really cool that you captured that moment. It’s funny that we didn’t know each other at that time, because when you asked me what I was doing and where I was at, I didn’t know anyone in Rome either, you know what I mean?
M: We should have hung out!
YG: We could have been totally hanging out. What's funny is we were so busy shooting that I didn’t really have any time off to explore the city myself. So I went back the next summer just to take it all in and see all these things that I gotten sort of a glimpse of, but hadn’t really had a chance to explore.
The thing that you were doing at that moment, I did the next year where I was by myself, backpacking around, feeling kind of lonely in these beautiful, amazing places, trying to meet people.
M: So it was a real-life “prince and the pauper” situation, where I was wandering around dreaming about being part of some big movie adventure while you were on the other side wishing you were just an anonymous schnook like me.
The filming was pretty challenging for me because I was just thrown into it. I was a lot younger, and less experienced, and I was kind of there all by myself. I was really, really struggling and working as hard as I could to keep up with these other professionals who had done this so many times before.
I had to go back the next summer to just process everything I’d experienced. But it’s made Italy and Rome such a special place to me and I’ll always have such a deep connection with that city.
M: One time I went to Italy on a documentary film research shoot, and there’s something about being there to work that makes you feel more real in a place you’re visiting. You don’t feel on the outside in the same way.
YG: Absolutely, because you're interacting with people who do live there and you have a purpose for being there, which immediately connects you with the place, as opposed to just sort of showing up and trying to take in the sights and sounds from behind some kind of glass door.
M: They probably put you in places you would have never walked into if you were a tourist, not even fancy places like the Coliseum, but just regular weird buildings you would never see.
YG: A hundred percent. And even some of those landmark places are hard to see or get access to at the best of times—we were there after hours and we got the run of the place and it was a tremendous gift. You don’t realize how lucky you are when you’re actually experiencing it. I was just trying to keep up, like I knew what I was doing.
It wasn’t till I went back the next summer as a total civilian, and I’m like “Hey, don’t you know who I think I am? I should be allowed to just walk into this place!” It’s like nope… back of the line!
M: What has the legacy of this film been in your life?
YG: It's kind of funny. After we did the movie, it did well in theaters and for a few years it was a well-know thing. This was before social media, though. So it dropped off for a long period of time where it really wasn't something that people would have seen and sometimes recognize me from.
But it did it feel like it was part of the zeitgeist. And then as social media has bloomed it’s had a bit of a resurgence where everyone who watched the film and the series at that time is now back online. They're very active and they're also a certain age now where it's a very nostalgic kind of thing.
So I would say in some ways I interact more with people who have seen that film now than I ever have, just because of the internet.
One of the things that’s kind of neat and interesting is that fans of the movie go back to the locations in the film and they'll throw a coin in the Trevi Fountain or whatever. They’ll caption it like, “Waiting for my Paolo to show up!” And if I see it, I’ll often reply with some lines from the film. It’s been a way that you can actually interact with people who see the film in way that you couldn’t have back then.
M: Maybe it’s the fact that it was shot on location and it actually is those places you’re seeing. It doesn't just feel like something that was shot on set. It actually has Rome in it. It has the Trevi Fountain, the Colosseum. That's got to mean something as an enduring cinematic object.
YG: Definitely. Especially to people who were being introduced to Rome and Italy for the first time. It’s a very exciting place to shoot and is almost like a separate character in the movie. There have been so many defining films made in Italy throughout the years, but it seems like for this generation, or for that moment, this was one of the films where people saw it for the first time.
M: When I was there, it was probably in no small part because I’d seen all these movies shot in Rome and I wanted to be there too. And that’s what fans of this film are experiencing. That’s just as meaningful as my connection to it.
YG: I've thought about just going to Italy one day and setting up a “Paolo’s Tour of Rome.” Just standing out there with a Vespa and being like, hop on this scooter with me and I’ll take you to all the spots.
Every couple of weeks I’ll send you Something Good. Big big thanks to Yani Gellman for letting me interview him about his life as an Italian pop star. All the photos except the two of him in the film were taken by me 20 years ago.
If you like what you read, please tell a friend or subscribe: