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Discovering Columbus

Ridley Scott, Cohiba in hand, directs Gérard Depardieu in 1492.
Paul Chutkow
From the Print Edition:
Premier Issue, Autumn 92

By the morning of December 2, 1991, Ridley Scott was ready to start shooting his new movie. He was up long before dawn, racing through final details. By first light, his big Mercedes was winding its way through the narrow streets of Cáceres, past the deserted esplanade, past the adobe huts on the edge of town, and finally out onto the cold Spanish plain leading to a 16th-century villa made to look like the ancient monastery of Santa Maria de la Rabida.

By temperament, Scott is calm, methodical and cool to the point of aloof, perhaps a vestige of his upbringing in the far north of England. No one ever accuses Ridley Scott of wearing his emotions on his sleeve. But one look at him this morning, fueled with coffee and cigarettes pacing around inside La Rabida monastery, inspecting the set, checking his cameras and lighting, commanding his crew, the celebrated director of Alien, Blade Runner and Thelma & Louise was a jangle of nerves, tightly clamped.

Etched into his face was fatigue. Dark circles ringed and puffed his eyes--so blue, so masked--and a couple of days' worth of red and gray stubble slid down his chin. Who had time to shave? Not Scott. For long months, he had been putting in marathon days and frustrating weeks, working against a terrible deadline, trying to manage a team of some 400 people, working in three different countries, on two different continents, all in an effort to plan and shoot an adventure of epic scope and grandeur, a movie that would recreate the historic voyages of Christopher Columbus.

Once inside La Rabida, Scott moved quickly and precisely. Sharpening camera angles. Fiddling with lighting. Positioning his monks at their drafting tables, plumes in hand and eyes fixed to their maps of the world, elegantly charted out on parchment and anchored in the firm conviction that the Earth was flat. In his mind, in his sketchbook, and here on the set, Scott had already worked this crucial first scene down to its finest detail, from its color and composition to its most subtle plays of light and shadow. He composed the scene the way a classical painter would compose a mammoth canvas, one he dreamed could be a masterpiece.

Throughout Scott's career, visuals have been his greatest strength; Pauline Kael has called him a "visual hypnotist." To anyone who saw Thelma & Louise, with its majestic landscapes of the American West, it may come as little surprise that Scott trained as a painter and graphics designer at the Royal College of Art in London, often in drawing classes next to David Hockney. But this morning Scott seemed intent on finding an even richer visual vocabulary: The candles flickering above the drafting tables and the embers glowing in the fireplace bathed his scene in glimmering hues of yellow and orange, just as in the warm, intimate paintings of Caravaggio and Georges de la Tour.

Finally, every detail in place, the mood as he wanted it, Scott signaled he was ready to shoot. "Silencio por favor! OK, boys, quiet down now," bellowed Terry Needham, one of Scott's assistant directors. "Shhh, shhh, shhh...OK, now, a little more atmosphere! Bring up the smoke..."

At once a hush fell over the converted stable and the 150 members of the cast and crew jammed inside. And then every eye on the set turned to the far end of the monastery and focused in on a huge wooden door reaching upward like the apse of a cathedral. "Rolling .... Action!" Slowly, creaking on its ancient hinges, the door inched open, and into the light came Christopher Columbus. A collective gasp rippled through the cast and crew. Columbus was cloaked in a long medieval robe the color of burnt orange with black trim, his dark blond hair flowed down over his collar, his blue-gray eyes burned with the haunted look of a man launched on a holy mission, beyond the reach of Prudence or Reason.

The impact on the set was stunning: This WAS Christopher Columbus, sprung to life. Before everyone's eyes, this towering, mysterious historical figure, so shrouded in myth, controversy and revisionist politics, was again a real man, flesh and blood, soul and will. And perfectly embodied by France's unique gift to the world of cinema, Gérard Depardieu.

At this stage in his life, and in the script, Columbus was an accomplished navigator and explorer, with long experience in the Mediterranean Sea and along the Atlantic coast of Spain, France and England. But he had been waiting an agonizing seven years for royal permission to mount his dream voyage into the pure unknown, to test his absolute conviction that the riches of the East could be reached by sailing to the West. In the halls of power in Spain, Columbus and his theory were objects of scorn and ridicule, and Columbus's patience had worn dangerously thin. Striding into the monastery, his frustration now wearing plain on his face, Columbus was greeted by his friend and spiritual and political adviser, Antonio de Marchena, being played by Spain's greatest actor, Fernando Rey.

"I have something for you," said Marchena, drawing from his robe a parchment bearing a royal seal. "You are going to be heard at The University of Salamanca."

Columbus studied the letter, marveling at the idea of at last presenting his case to an official commission of the Spanish royal court. He felt a rush of hope. And of panic: "God, that is in a week! " During rehearsals earlier this morning, Depardieu's English had come out haltingly and heavily Gallicized. But now, cameras rolling, his English came out clear, fluid and slightly exotic, as befits a humble mariner from Genoa who had settled in Spain.

"Cut! Good," said Scott. "Let's go again."

By the third try, Scott thought he had a printable take. He stared at the replay in one of his video monitors. The composition and the lighting looked right, and so did the chemistry between Columbus and Marchena. And this time when Depardieu delivered his lines, with a flurry of contradictory emotions playing across his face, Scott's hand flew up to his heart in joy. And relief. After nearly a year of agonized planning, scripting, casting, scouting locations, building sets, outfitting ships and leading rehearsals, Scott seemed to sense that this $45 million extravaganza just might deliver the magic for which every director dreams and works.

Ever cool, ever cautious, through, Scott was not about to call for Champagne. Still, after this successful take, on this crucial first scene , those who know Scott well detected a sure sign of his rising sprits. He put away his cigarettes and instead put a match to his favorite cigar: a long, regal Cohiba, made from the finest Cuban tobacco. A bold smoke to launch a very bold voyage.

***

On the set of every major movie, this first day of shooting is always filled with tension and excitement, but 1492 carried with it unusually high expectations and risks. For Scott's telling of the story of Columbus and his voyage to America was not just a major film, it was a colossal gamble--a $45 million gamble with implications far more daunting than budgets and global grosses.

This was to be a Hollywood-scale extravaganza, but this time financed and executed not by American studios and financiers but by Europeans, with European cultural values and European ideas about what the art of cinema should be. If 1492 succeeded, the film would be a welcome triumph for Europe and European cinema, especially at a time when more and more national film industries were feeling severely menaced by America's increasing dominance of world cinema. But if it failed, 1492 would be seen in Europe and in America as a major defeat, more proof that the Europeans, with their boutique approach to film-making, and their insistence on prizing art over commerce, just cannot make smash blockbusters with industrial scale budgets and international box-office muscle.

There were other layers of risk and ambition as well. In terms of its pan-European financing and its production team, using technicians from England, France and Spain, 1492 was designed to be a prototype venture, one that could set the standard for a range of European projects to come. Scott and Depardieu had shown they could bridge the gap between European artistic values and Hollywood commercialism; could 1492 help them lead Europe into a whole new era of major filmmaking? That was the hope. But if the film failed, if, in the typical Hollywood parlance, 1492 should "go down the toilet," well, then, Scott and Depardieu would surely face the heaviest flak.

But you would never know it watching Depardieu this morning. Between takes at La Rabida, the huge, rollicking Frenchman joked with his makeup team, pulled pranks on the sound specialists, friends of his from France, and he did his general best to keep everyone loose and to create a kind of family spirit and chemistry among the cast and crew. Unlike so many actors, Depardieu seems to be totally lacking in ego and pretense; he grew up in a peasant family in provincial France, and despite all his success, he is not about to become a supercilious Parisian. On the set, his warmth and clowning served as a sharp contrast and complement to Ridley Scott's aloof precision and preoccupation.

Like Depardieu, the origin of 1492 was purely French. In 1987, a young French journalist named Roselyne Bosch went to Spain on what was supposed to be a routine assignment for the French newsweekly Le Point. Bosch was doing an article on how Spain was going to fete the 500th anniversary of Columbus's voyage on behalf of Spain's Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand and for her research, Bosch went to Madrid and then further south to Seville to peek into the provincial archives.

In the two cities, like countless historians before her, she found some 40 million parchments, many never deciphered, and she found scores of letters handwritten by Columbus. Leafing through some of Columbus's books, she sometimes found notes and little drawings penned in the margins. The more she looked through his books and papers, the more real Columbus became to her; all the mythological haze surrounding the man started to clear.

Bosch: "I was deeply moved just by seeing his handwriting and signature. Suddenly, instead of being like Santa Claus, Columbus was a human being .... Sometimes in the margin of a book, he would draw a little hand pointing to a certain passage. It was very moving, and I thought, 'This ought to be a movie."'

Indeed it seemed a natural, especially with all the hoopla planned for the 500th anniversary of Columbus's voyage. And no one, up to then, had ever brought Columbus convincingly to the screen. In 1949, Hollywood brought out a Christopher Columbus, with Frederic March in the title role, but the general assessment was that the movie was an embarrassment and certainly not what Columbus deserved. In fact, with all the renewed interest in him, it has now become clear what a fascinating man Columbus was, no matter how disputed is the legend that he discovered America.

While historians disagree about many aspects of his life and travels, there now seems to be a consensus that while Columbus hoped to return from The New World with gold, silk and spices, he returned with something that proved to be as valuable: tobacco. Most accounts, from historians from America to Cuba, now maintain that when Columbus visited Indian villages in the Caribbean, he found the natives smoking enormous leaves fashioned into tight rolls, an aboriginal cigar. According to some Cuban accounts, two of Columbus's crew members, Rodrigo de Jerez and Luis de Torres, were sent on a mission into the interior of what Columbus thought was the Asian mainland but was probably Cuba. There, in a peaceful village, they made what was probably Europe's first sighting of tobacco.

By some historical accounts, Columbus himself was indifferent to the appeal of tobacco, so preoccupied was he by his quest for the Grand Khan and the source of Solomon's riches. But tobacco was among the curiosities and riches Columbus's ships brought back from The New World, thus introducing the pungent leaves to Europe and laying the groundwork for the tobacco industry and popular subculture that would develop over the next 500 years. In subsequent voyages, European explorers and traders bartered their silks and cinnamon and other spices for bales of tobacco, until the leaves themselves became a focal point of the growing transatlantic commerce.

Bosch came to see Columbus as an ideal subject for a film, a movie showing him not as a cartoon character but as a real man fueled by intellectual fervor and messianic zeal. She called a friend of hers in Paris, Alain Goldman, a French film distributor. He flew to Seville for a firsthand appraisal of the Columbus material and a visit to the cathedral in Seville, where Columbus is buried. (Though there are historians who doubt the remains are actually his.) Excited by what he saw, Goldman encouraged Bosch to pursue her research, and she stayed on in Spain. Soon the two of them became partners in a fledgling film venture: he as producer and Bosch plunging into research and a conversion from journalism to screenwriting.

Initially, they envisioned doing the entire film as a French project, but they found no support among French producers. It would be too big a budget for France, the producers said, try Hollywood. Rank amateurs though they were, neophytes with little idea how Hollywood worked and French to boot, Bosch and Goldman nonetheless started knocking on the doors of American studios. And they found no encouragement. And understandably so: they had no director, no star and no track record in screenwriting or movie production. You can almost hear Hollywood executives chortling: "No star, no script; kids, kids, get real."

Bosch became very disconcerted, but then for Le Point she did a profile of the American writer Tom Wolfe. He told her about how he had come to write The Right Stuff, and of his admiration for the NASA astronauts. Bosch was inspired: " 'Listen,' I told him, `the astronauts are nothing next to Columbus.' It was talking with Wolfe that I started to believe....And the more I read, the more I worked, the more convinced I became that Columbus was somebody people think they know, but really nobody knew. And so I felt I had to tell them."

Finally, Bosch knocked on the right door: Ridley Scott. He had ideal credentials for directing Columbus: he was a European with artistic merit, commercial success and excellent connections in Hollywood. He was just coming off Thelma & Louise and it would soon bring him an Oscar nomination as best director. By chance, Scott on his own had been exploring the idea of doing a film on Columbus, and when Bosch set forth her vision and a synopsis of a script, he had one immediate reaction: "Yes, if Gérard Depardieu would agree to be Columbus."

This took Bosch by complete surprise; oddly, Depardieu had not even occurred to her. With their sights set on finding U.S. financing, she and Goldman had been focusing on American stars like Kevin Costner and Michael Douglas, big names they figured would be the only way they could secure the necessary funding. But as soon as Scott said it, Bosch knew Depardieu would be perfect. The star of Cyrano de Bergerac, Danton, Jean de Florette and The Last Metro was now the biggest star in Europe, and with Peter Weir's Green Card, he had made an impressive debut in the English-language market. Distributed by Disney, Green Card grossed over $40 million in America alone. Bosch was sure he would be perfect for Columbus. "Right away I knew there would be no problem with energy; Gérard would burst the screen," she said. "And from that moment on, thinking of him in the role gave me a big push. Instead of having an abstract idea of Columbus, I knew it was Gérard. It was a liberation."

But would Depardieu agree? Bosch sent Depardieu a draft script and then set up a meeting with him in Paris, at the Hotel Raphael, a favorite rendezvous point for French film stars and executives. She and Scott arrived in the bar at the appointed hour of 7 p.m., but there was no sign of Depardieu. After a half-hour wait, Bosch telephoned Depardieu at a pied-à-terre he keeps in Paris, and he answered with a very soft, very shy voice. Had he forgotten? Or was he just nervous about taking on such a colossal role? She had no clue, but soon Depardieu was storming into the Raphael and into a torrential stream of conversation. For an hour Depardieu did most of the talking, about himself and his vision of Columbus; it left both Scott and Bosch a little dazed.

Bosch: "To my astonishment, I realized that in one or two readings he had understood all the subtleties behind the lines. When in Hollywood I had tried to discuss Columbus's relationship with Queen Isabella, I had great difficulty, because it was ambiguous, it was an unresolved sexual attraction. In sum, it was not Hollywood. Gérard got it right away, like a laser .... Ridley and I came away very excited. Gérard is larger than life. And Ridley films larger than life. It seemed a perfect match."

With Depardieu aboard, Goldman and Scott went to see Gaumont, the French film conglomerate and part of the Schlumberger family empire. They met with Nicolas Seydoux, head of Gaumont, and a close friend of Depardieu. Scott was expecting a tough Hollywood-style negotiation, but when they named a price of 43 million francs, some $8 million, one of the largest sums ever paid for French distribution rights, Seydoux simply said fine. "We shook hands," Scott recalled, "and then a moment later a waiter came out carrying a silver tray with a bottle of Champagne, from the family winery of course."

With Gaumont providing the essential start-up capital, Scott and Bosch began putting together the mammoth venture, from finding and outfitting Columbus's ships to scouting the locations needed in Spain and The New World. Goldman focused on packaging and selling world rights to their project, but soon he ran into an unexpected and terrifying hitch: Hollywood competitors.

Producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind, best known for their Superman movies, had their own Columbus film in the works, and it promised to be a real Hollywood shebang. There was talk Tom Selleck would play the lead, there were rumors Marlon Brando would have a role, and the Salkinds were busy trying to legally corner every conceivable title using the name Columbus. Both productions feared that even in the year of the 500th anniversary of his sailing, the world market just could not accommodate two Columbus extravaganzas.


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