12 Photos That Capture the Glamour and Romance of the Venice Film Festival

TheWrap creative director Jeff Vespa walks us through 20-plus years of star-studded Lido memories

Tom Cruise, Venice Film Festival
Tom Cruise at a photo call in Venice in 2004 for "Collateral" (Photo by Jeff Vespa)

On Wednesday, the 80th Venice International Film Festival kicks off with “Comandante,” directed by Edoardo De Angelis. It will be followed in the coming days by Bradley Cooper’s “Maestro,” Sofia Coppola’s “Priscilla,” David Fincher’s “Killer” and many others. The slate of movies is chock full of A-list actors, but with the ongoing WGA and SAG strike, few will be in attendance.

TheWrap creative director Jeff Vespa counts the Venice festival as one of his favorites. “There’s something really romantic and cinematic about the way the whole place is photographed — people on docks and coming off of boats,” he said. “The other thing that’s cool is you get to actually hang out with people because it’s not like there’s an event every single second. There are only about two movies a night, so you can go to the screening of the first movie, walk outside to shoot the red carpet of the movie that’s coming in, finish that red carpet and go to the party of the first movie. When that’s over, you go to the party for the second movie.”

In honor of the start of this year’s celebration on the Lido, Vespa dug into his archives and selected 12 photographs from the past 20-plus years that he shot at the Venice festival. Included in that list is a photo of Tom Cruise (above) popping a squat with photographers during the photo call for his 2004 film directed by Michael Mann and costarring Jamie Foxx, “Collateral.”

“Tom will often come over to the photographers, grab a camera and shoot. But this time, it was really funny because he just came up and sat with us,” Vespa said, laughing. “It was kind of amazing. We’re all bunched together, we’re friendly, so him sitting there, it looks like he’s one of us. Of course everybody’s yelling, ‘Tom! Tom!’ But you wouldn’t think that looking at this. It just looks like he’s chilling out with us. And that’s what was funny for us too. Because as a photographer, you’re like, ‘Wait, do I jump up and take the picture or am I in the picture?’ I was like, ‘I gotta get this shot!’ It’s a good way to start the gallery because I was shooting and it shows Tom in the spot where I would normally be.”

Heath Ledger, Ang Lee, Jake Gyllenhaal (2005)

Heath Ledger, Ang Lee and Jake Gyllenhaal, Venice Film Festival
Photo by Jeff Vespa

This photo captures the final moments before “Brokeback Mountain” had its world premiere at the 2005 festival, where it went on to win the Golden Lion. Actors Heath Ledger (left) and Jake Gyllenhaal (right) sit in the theater alongside director Ang Lee, all three wearing smiles of giddy anticipation, as if they sensed their film was about to make a major impact. “Look at how happy they are,” Vespa said. “It was a pretty amazing moment. Being in the room that night, you really felt something incredibly special was happening.”

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s reserved seat is visible behind her brother, and two rows up, on the right, is Kirsten Dunst, who was dating Jake Gyllenhaal at the time. (“Brokeback” cast member Michelle Williams, who was pregnant with her daughter with Ledger, was not able to attend, though Vespa did photograph her a few weeks later in Toronto.)

“What’s cool about Venice that’s different from every other film festival is they have this thing where a few photographers could go in the theater and photograph people in their seats,” Vespa said. “You just don’t get this in any other film festival.” 

Vespa vividly remembers the deluge of emotions that filled the room once the screening ended: “The lights came up and Kirsten was crying, Maggie was crying. They were hugging each other. Everyone was crying and so blown away. I’ll never forget it.”

Sofia Coppola, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson (2002)

Sofia Coppola, Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, Venice Film Festival
Photo by Jeff Vespa

Vespa took this photo of “Lost in Translation” writer-director Sofia Coppola (left) standing with stars Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in the garden of the legendary Grand Hotel des Bains, which inspired Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella “Death in Venice” and has served as a location for film shoots.

Vespa was one of just two or three photographers in the garden for the press day, and he did individual portraits of the three before moving on to group shots. “Being not only a portrait photographer, but having also done events, you call out people’s names,” he said. “You’re like, ‘Hey, Bill, look here! Look at me!’ And I kept doing that, so they would look at me, and the other photographers weren’t doing that. Bill thought it was really funny. I hadn’t met him yet. I knew Scarlett and I knew Sofia, but Bill, he was, like, teasing me. He was like, ‘OK, everyone, look right here at this guy.’ And every time I saw him from then on, we were friends. Sometimes little confrontational moments can turn into friendships and it was that kind of thing. So it was just a really cool moment. I love the picture too.”

Nicole Kidman and Elizabeth Taylor (2001)

Nicole Kidman and Elizabeth Taylor, Venice Film Festival
Photo by Jeff Vespa

“This is this is the only picture I know of that was ever taken of Nicole Kidman and Elizabeth Taylor together,” Vespa said. He snapped the photo at the 2001 Cinema Against Aids Benefit given by amfAR, the AIDS research organization co-founded by Taylor in 1985. At the time, Vespa had shot other events for amfAR, including the annual gala at the Cannes film festival, and was friendly with Taylor’s assistant at the time, Tim Mendelson (who is now co-trustee of her estate).

“Elizabeth came and obviously I was going to take pictures of her, but I didn’t want to bother her,” Vespa said. “So Nicole gets there, they sit down, I take a couple of pictures of them. And then I left them alone. I didn’t realize Elizabeth was leaving early and this was the only moment that I could get them together. So I was like, ‘Thank God I got the picture!’”

The photo captures a pivotal moment in Kidman’s post-Tom Cruise career. In May 2001, she was in Cannes for the world premiere of “Moulin Rouge!” Three months later, she arrived in Venice to promote “The Others” and “Birthday Girl.”

“She was becoming the Nicole Kidman that we know of today,” Vespa said. “And so it was a pretty major deal, just to have these two women together. And it’s so hard to get, as a photographer, good candid photos. To have them both smiling and looking at me enough that it reads, it’s just unbelievable. To me this is a miracle frame. You hardly ever get anything like this. It’s a piece of history, really.”

George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones (2003)

George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Venice Film Festival
Photo by Jeff Vespa

Here, George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones have just stepped off a boat to arrive at an event for their film, “Intolerable Cruelty.” “They’re super happy and smiling. This was pretty early for George. He was already a big deal at this point, but look at him. He’s so young,” Vespa said. “This is the Venice vibe, with people stepping off a boat, that you don’t get at other film festivals. I love how romantic that is.”

Sophia Loren (2002)

Sophia Loren, Venice Film Festival
Photo by Jeff Vespa

When Vespa learned that Sophia Loren would be attending an event in her honor at the Hotel Excelsior, he knew he had to be there. “It wasn’t an official Venice screening or anything,” he said. “This was early in my career, I’m in Venice, and it’s Sophia Loren — the classic of all classics. It was just incredible.”

Though Vespa didn’t make Loren’s acquaintance at that party, he did a few days later at the Toronto film festival, which the actress attended in support of “Between Strangers,” a film directed by her son Edoardo Ponti. “I met up with them in Toronto and did portraits of her,” Vespa said. “And I actually became friends with her son and with Sophia. I’m still friends with them today. It’s pretty crazy. She’s been at my house, I’ve been at her son’s house when she’s there, and my children have met her. And she looks like this today, which is totally amazing. She’s still gorgeous. It’s the same thing with [photographing] Elizabeth Taylor. When I was growing up, this was just not something I ever imagined.”

Tilda Swinton and Luca Guadagnino (2002)

Tilda Swinton and Luca Guadagnino, Venice Film Festival
Photo by Jeff Vespa

In this shot, Tilda Swinton and Luca Guadagnino are at the party for his short film, “Tilda Swinton — The Love Factory.” It was some seven years before Guadagnino would make “I Am Love” with Swinton and another 15 before “Call Me By Your Name.”

“I picked this one just because nobody would have known who the hell Luca Guadagnino was,” Vespa said, laughing. “The only reason I have this picture is because I’m friends with Tilda and she introduced me to Luca at the festival. I remember sitting on my bike in front of the Excelsior and Luca is there, and we were talking and just hanging out. He’s like, ‘Yeah, I think I’m going to make a movie with Tilda.’ I just think it’s funny because now he’s a major director, but nobody knew this at this moment in time. So me taking this picture, it was just a friend picture, basically.”

Quentin Tarantino and John Travolta (2004)

Quentin Tarantino and John Travolta, Venice Film Festival
Photo by Jeff Vespa

“John Travolta was in Venice for a movie called ‘Love Song for Bobby Long.’ This is on the Missoni yacht, which is not like those crazy, motorized Jeff Bezos yachts. It’s a smaller sailing yacht, more quaint,” Vespa said. Quentin Tarantino was in Venice to host, with Joe Dante, “Italian Kings of the Bs,” a retrospective of genre movies. So when Vespa saw Travolta reunited with his “Pulp Fiction” director, he said to himself, “I’ve got to get this picture.” He is especially fond of the fact that both men are sans footwear. “They’re in socks, of course, because it’s a yacht,” he said. “I love that little detail, that they’re standing there in their socks. It’s a great little human touch.”

Daniel Craig (2004)

Daniel Craig, Venice Film Festival
Photo by Jeff Vespa

Long before he became James Bond, Daniel Craig was just a British actor standing on the street to promote the Roger Michell drama “Enduring Love,” costarring Rhys Ifans. “Usually we would do press at the des Bains or the Excelsior, but this was some other little villa or something on the Lido, literally out on the street, in the middle of everything,” Vespa said. “I don’t even remember going into a room and meeting anyone inside. But the light in Venice is so great, so you can pretty much shoot people anywhere.

“Daniel Craig wasn’t Daniel Craig yet and I’m not going to tell you that I took this picture and was like, ‘Oh my God, this dude is gonna be a star!’ No. Did not happen,” he said, laughing. “I love it now because obviously it’s really cool. He looks great. And it does give you like a sense of: ‘Oh, wow. That was then.’” 

Joseph Gordon-Levitt (2004)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Venice Film Festival
Photo by Jeff Vespa

Three years after the NBC sitcom “Third Rock From the Sun” ended, Joseph Gordon-Levitt went to Venice for the Greg Araki indie “Mysterious Skin.” It was the beginning of Phase 2 of Gordon-Levitt’s career.

“Joe was already a name and I was friendly with him,” Vespa said. “I think he and I did this shoot on our own. I remember us just kind of chilling out and as you can see, it’s on a beach. It was near the Hotel des Bains. His serious face tells it all because he was trying to change his persona [from sitcom actor] and this was kind of his transition. He was very serious about what he was trying to do. He knew what he was doing and his seriousness paid off. I wouldn’t say I was shocked by it because of course I knew why he was doing it. But I was like, ‘Wow, OK. This is no joke.’ And it’s an interesting shot. We were as alone as it feels on that beach. There was no one around.”

Elizabeth Berkley (2002)

Elizabeth Berkley, Venice Film Festival
Photo by Jeff Vespa

This frame shows Elizabeth Berkley on her way to an event for the indie “Roger Dodger,” in which she appeared alongside Campbell Scott and Jesse Eisenberg. Moments before, she had been at an event for Mac Cosmetics (as was Vespa) when she realized she was late for an event for the film and needed to get to the Lido molto veloce. “We were running,” Vespa said. “Then we got on the boat and of course, on the boat, there’s nothing you can do, so I was like, ‘Alright, let’s do some pictures.’ It was really fun. I’ve been friends with Greg Lauren, her husband, since the late ’90s but this was the first time she and I were actually spending some time together.

“The couple of days that she was in Venice, her publicist wasn’t there. And everybody wanted to talk to her. Press at a festival — if you’re a celebrity, people want to talk. And all the photographers wanted to do portraits of her. Of course they’re asking me, and so she said to me, half-jokingly, ‘Will you be my publicist?’ And I basically functioned as her publicist for a day or two. I was lining up photoshoots and talking to the journalists and setting up interviews. It was pretty hilarious. After that, we became crazy fast friends.

“It’s funny that there’s this picture and the Sophia [Loren] picture because it turns out that Edoardo [Ponti] and his wife, Sasha Alexander, and Elizabeth and Greg are super close friends. My wife and I have this hilarious couple relationship with them. I just love these guys so much. We like have so much fun together, and this photo is the beginning of that. It’s a life moment.”

Steven Spielberg (2004)

Steven Spielberg, Venice Film Festival
Photo by Jeff Vespa

“Every once in a while,” Vespa said, “a director will interact with us.” Yes, even when that director is Steven Spielberg. Here, at a photo call for “The Terminal,” Spielberg grabbed a camera from one of the photographers on hand (not Vespa) and pointed the lens to the podium, where the film’s star, Tom Hanks, was standing. It was an especially memorable moment because this wasn’t a case of hundreds of photographers crammed together, as happens at most festivals. “There were some 30 photographers and we’re all sitting together on these little steps,” Vespa said. “So there is way more camaraderie. It’s much more intimate.”