VENICE FILM FESTIVAL

Article

HOTEL CIPRIANI,
AS SEEN BY GREG WILLIAMS

To mark 80 years of the Venice Film Festival, we’re exploring the incredible archive of photographer Greg Williams. Taking up residence at the Hotel Cipriani each year during this packed week of screenings and parties, he’s the ultimate industry insider. Ellie Pithers – contributing editor at British Vogue – sat down with the photographer to hear the stories behind the iconic moments and famous characters...




Ellie Pithers: Tell me about this book. Where did the idea come from?

Greg Williams: Well, I’ve got a long history with the Hotel Cipriani. The first time I ever went, I was working on [the 2006 Bond movie] Casino Royale. The film ends in Venice. I had to go and meet some of the heads of department, who were staying at the Hotel Cipriani, and I was staying elsewhere with the main crew. I remember walking out of the doors by the bar and seeing the swimming pool glistening in the sunlight and thinking how magical it was before being immediately whisked away to my meeting. The next time I went was when I started shooting the Venice Film Festival in 2014. I always remember there being a mystique around the Hotel Cipriani. Occasionally, I’d go and photograph an actor there — it felt protected, deeply exclusive and you felt like you’d really arrived. As time went by and more talent became comfortable with me, I myself came a guest. In recent years, I‘ve even started bringing talent staying on the Lido, to come and spend some downtime with me, around the bar or by the pool! We’ve now built quite a body of work together.

EP: Does Venice bring out a more relaxed side to the film stars? Often, you might bump into Susan Sarandon buying an ice cream, or Timothée Chalamet having a cocktail, which doesn’t happen so much at other film festivals.

GW: Exactly. The festival is brutally busy, and yet at the Hotel Cipriani, it feels like it’s always calm. It’s an oasis, and the talent is particularly relaxed there as a result, because it’s not a place where you need to have your guard up. If you’re on the Lido, unless you’re in your suite with the door shut, at any minute, you might have to be “on”. And that just doesn’t happen in the same way when you’re at the Hotel Cipriani.

EP: Do you have a favourite room to stay in when you’re at the hotel?

GW: Well, I love the rooms that back onto the pool on the ground floor. I can get up and walk straight out of the French doors, through a gate, and dive in the pool. Swimming is very important to me, I swim about a kilometre a day when I’m there, which is 33 lengths of their 33-metre pool. It takes about 40 minutes. It’s where I get away from the phone, which is going mad all the time. I wake up, deal with emails, deal one-on-one with the talent that texts me directly, then by about 10am I’ll be swimming. It’s a lovely way to detach from it all and to have creative thoughts.

EP: Tell me about that pool. It’s huge, obviously, which is very unusual for Venice, but it’s also a place that manages to be very social and at the same time a retreat.

GW: There are days when it’s see-and-be-seen. But it’s weird, you can hide very easily at the Hotel Cipriani pool. You know the story of the pool , don’t you? That it was commissioned in feet, and built in metres, and that’s why it’s so huge? And it’s just so much bigger than you would have imagined it is. It’s such a wonderful colour – an aquamarine jewel in the middle of the island and the visibility is so extraordinary in it. I’ve actually done quite a few shoots in the pool, underwater. There’s a picture of Nick Hoult underwater pulling a pose like Muhammad Ali. I’ve shot Matt Smith in that pool, Eiza González, Lily James, Jack O’Connell, Simone Ashley.




EP: I remember a picture you took for Vogue of Lily-Rose Depp perched on the side of the pool. There’s another guest in the water in the background, reading a book.

GW: The other guests go about their day — everyone is treated equally there. And you’ve got to realise, it’s not like it’s me and an assistant and a light and a tripod, or anything like that. I’m literally just holding up this tiny little Leica camera, talking to someone, and I’ll take a picture. There’s not really much to see when I work. It’s very informal, just about chatting. Sometimes I’m in the pool, and I’ll get talking to someone, then suddenly I’m taking their picture and I’m soaking wet, trying not to get the camera wet, because that’s the moment to do it!

EP: With your pictures, there’s always that sense of a very famous person being caught off-duty. What are some of your other favourite scenarios that you like to capture?

GW: I love people eating. It’s such a big no-no in photography to shoot someone eating that I like to have a bit of fun with it. There’s a photo I took of Lily-Rose Depp sucking up a piece of spaghetti which didn’t end up in the book, but I love it. Cheers-ing me is another one – there’s a lovely shot of Dakota Johnson sitting on the side of the Hotel Cipriani pool with a glass of wine. We were just having a chat, then I took a picture of her, and we carried on talking. It’s as relaxed as it sounds.

EP: Are there other areas in the hotel that you love to photograph people in? 

GW: There’s the bar, the restaurant all the way up by the water’s edge, of course a million different beautiful rooms with fantastic balconies. I love the rose garden out the back, with the vineyard, and a pond, I’ve done lots of lovely shots back there.

EP: What are some of your favourite pictures in the book?

GW: Brad Pitt smiling, I like that picture because I was sitting in the boat opposite him, working in insanely low light — it’s just so authentic. I love the shot of Ana de Armas in the hallway of the Hotel Cipriani. That was taken in 2022 when she was promoting Blonde. I was shooting her in her room, but then I realized the hallway was a coral colour — probably a Bellini pink, knowing the Hotel Cipriani — there was something in the colours. And then something in the turn she did, the dress billowing forward. That was taken in about 25 seconds, just before she went to the red carpet. I’d been on the set of Blonde and also on the set of No Time to Die. I was with her at the Film Festival as her guest at the screening, so I was videoing as well. Then it was just me, her and her publicist in the boat afterwards. She’d just received an 14-minute standing ovation. She is ‘real talent’ by the way — really-hard-working, — very, very good at her job. I’ve shot her many times over the years. She’s very honest with her emotions, and fantastic. And I also love that photograph of Pedro Almodóvar with Penelope Cruz. He did all Penelope’s big early films, but they had never been to Venice together, so I got that shot, and they both have prints at home.

EP: 2023 marks the 80th anniversary of the Venice Film Festival. What does the future hold? 

GW: I certainly hope to continue coming to Venice, and to the Hotel Cipriani. When I’m old and decrepit, the Venice Film Festival is the last thing I’m going to want to stop doing. It’s so incredibly photogenic and beautiful. It really is a part of my life and a part of my year, and I hope to keep building this collection.


The above is an abridged version of the Belmond publication, ‘Hotel Cipriani as seen by Greg Williams.’

Sign up for exclusive news, travel inspiration and offers

I would like to be kept updated on exclusive news, travel inspiration and offers from the legendary world of Belmond, and receive tailored communications based on my interests and circumstances. To opt out, use the unsubscribe link or email unsubscribe@belmond.com.