Filmmaker Tao Ruspoli sallies forth from his live-work loft on a gritty lane in Venice, California, and strolls to a road-worn RV parked at the curb. One rear tire is flat, and the side door is unlocked. “Hello?” Ruspoli calls into the cabin, adding with the wry smile of someone who has found surprises there in the past, “You never know.”
The vehicle, a 1977 GMC Eleganza bought on eBay, was the mobile production headquarters for Fix, Ruspoli’s first feature-length drama. A day-in-the-life story, the movie stars Ruspoli and his wife, House’s Olivia Wilde, as a couple escorting a family member to rehab; the filmmaking team of 10 used the RV for hair, makeup, wardrobe, craft service, technical work and editing. “We did everything out of that RV,” recalls Ruspoli, a slim 33-year-old, saying that they piled in the vehicle yet again to drive to film festivals across the country: “We took it to Sundance. We took it to Marfa. We parked, pulled out the awning and relaxed for five days before driving back.”
The RV may have been a practical solution for a microbudget filmmaker—and a mode of group transport as old as Ken Kesey’s Magic Bus—but it’s a far cry from the director’s ancestral home, Rome’s Palazzo Ruspoli. (His family also owns the Castello Ruspoli in Vignanello, which boasts one of the most celebrated gardens in Europe.) Ruspoli is perhaps the only director who can legitimately claim the title of Hollywood royalty. He’s an Italian prince from a lineage dating to the year 800, and his father was the late Dado Ruspoli, one of the richest, most exuberant playboys of la dolce vita—a fabled era when the motto, says Ruspoli, was, “Let’s live to the maximum.”
“My father’s friends were Cocteau, Picasso, Orson Welles,” says Ruspoli, who discusses his family with the bemused fascination of an anthropologist among an eccentric but peaceable tribe. “He spent money like there was no tomorrow, throwing lavish parties.”
The younger Ruspoli, though, seems more SoCal artist than Italian aristo. His maternal grandfather was actor William Berger, and his mother, actress Debra Berger, met Dado in Italy when she was only 17. (He was nearly 50.) The unlikely—and unmarried—couple went to Thailand, where Dado frequented opium dens and palled around with the king’s cousin. The following year Tao was born under the South Asian sky, as his name denotes. Raised in Rome and California by his mother, Ruspoli got to know his Italian ancestry—and his siblings by his father’s various wives—during summertime visits to the castello, where he recalls feeling right at home. “Despite the fact that my father squandered nearly all of the family fortune and had kids all over the place, it was wonderful,” he says.
Ruspoli went on to study philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley and began his film career working for production designer Dean Tavoularis (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now) on the set of Bulworth. After nearly a decade of making mostly short documentaries on a shoestring—topics included flamenco and his father’s drug addiction—Ruspoli cobbled together Fix’s $300,000 budget with help from former investment banker Giancarlo Canavesio. “We showed it to the William Morris Agency, and they fell in love with it,” Ruspoli says. “They took me as a client, but they were shocked that the movie was made for so little. I thought it was a huge amount.”
Today Ruspoli’s Mangusta & LAFCO Productions is developing two documentaries, and he’s reading scripts for more-mainstream movies. Fix hasn’t yet found a distributor following its 35 festival screenings, but Ruspoli imagines a day when independent directors will be able to deliver films directly to consumers, much as indie bands sell their music through MySpace and iTunes.
Asked what his father, who died in 2005 at age 80, thought of the young prince’s moviemaking ambitions, Ruspoli replies that both his parents were supportive. “Many people have trouble living up to famous parents,” he adds. “I always joke I was lucky because my father was famous for not doing anything. That’s not hard to live up to.”