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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

(continued from page 1)

Goldman, then not even 30 years old, was suddenly dipped into a full-scale Hollywood battle, one that would fry his nerves for months on end, right down to the first week of shooting, when he was still waiting for bank guarantees and insurance clearance. The battle quickly became nasty and was played out at several levels: with distributors and theater chains, with lawyers arguing over the rights to potential titles, and it was played out in the press, from Variety to The New York Times. The Salkinds made lavish use of Variety to announce they had signed Brando, for $5 million, to play Tomas de Torquemada, the infamous head of the Spanish Inquisition. Selleck wound up as King Ferdinand, while for Columbus the Salkinds signed George Coraface, a European whose name has yet to become a household word or a box-office draw.

From the vantage point of the Europeans, the Salkind project was going to be Hollywood as usual: a slick, highly commercial action picture, Superman meets Columbus. A cliché bearing little resemblance to the kind of historically accurate epic and human portrait Scott, Bosch and Goldman wanted. So when The New York Times did a large piece putting the two pictures on an equal footing, Scott went ballistic. To his mind, it was as if The Times was dealing with Superman and Caravaggio in the same breath. He raged about it for weeks, and he even drafted angry letters to the editor venting his spleen. Only the counsel of close friends, and Depardieu, kept him from mailing them off.

In the battle between the two Columbus movies, as in the larger rivalry between the American and European film industries, money is one of the clearest lines of demarcation. For his role as the Spanish inquisitor, involving ten days of shooting, Brando got $5 million. For playing Columbus, dominating nearly every scene in an 82-day shoot, Depardieu happily agreed to a package of $3 million, plus a hefty share of the take in France and a smaller share of other markets.

Probably no other star in Europe could command anywhere near that figure, and European producers show no inclination to get into American-style bidding wars for big-name stars and directors. For the Europeans, it is not just a question of money, it is a question of values. Depardieu, for instance, will follow Columbus by making a low-budget picture with France's Jean-Luc Godard, an artistic venture for which he will be paid practically nothing. Few American actors would do the same.

At this year's Cannes Film Festival, along with rival posters announcing the two Columbus films, these two radically different attitudes about money and the cinema were once again on vivid display. One of Cannes's most acclaimed films was the Merchant-Ivory production Howard's End, starring several of Britain's greatest actors: Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Emma Thompson and more. The film has been hailed a masterpiece by many critics, and it is doing very well commercially around the world. European film wags in Cannes were gleefully noting that the entire film was done for $8 million, just over half the $15 million Michael Douglas received up front for his lead role in Basic Instinct.

Still, all the wags in Cannes cannot change the cold logic of the money men in Hollywood: to them, $15 million for Douglas, and the record $3 million paid to Joe Eszterhas for his script, look like great investments. The film is on course to gross some $200 million. By early summer it was even the leading box office hit in France, home of the auteur and probably the most eclectic film audience in the world.

Intellectuals in France cringed and with cause: They had to swallow the opening of EuroDisney and Basic Instinct within just a few weeks. But only two French films were drawing anywhere near comparable numbers: Tous Les Matins du Monde, starring Depardieu and his son Guillaume, and Indochine, featuring Catherine Deneuve's best performance in years. Little wonder the French so often decry "the tyranny of the marketplace."

Against this backdrop, and with all that was at stake, the first day's tension on the set of 1492, inside Rabida was certainly understandable. Besides, like the Salkinds, Scott was having his own problems with casting. During the first two weeks of the shoot, he still had no Queen Isabella. Scott had wanted Anjelica Huston, but negotiations with her battery of agents turned into a nightmare, and they turned to Sigourney Weaver, the star of Scott's first Alien movie, who worked out fine. At one stage in the Huston impasse, Scott just threw up his hands: "Screw 'em all. I'll take me mum."

Scott's impatience only emphasized his frustration with the way movies are made today. The way he and his producers managed 1492 made clear that Scott has no fondness for Hollywood glitz and self-indulgence. In a world where some American actors demand to travel with their personal trainers, and where Kim Basinger demands cases and cases of Evian with which to wash her hair, Scott and Depardieu allowed themselves only a few indulgences: Scott his Cohibas and Depardieu his phone.

Depardieu hates limousines, and while he prefers wines that are light, fruity and modestly priced, Depardieu is not about to skimp on his round-the-world phoning. Depardieu makes three, four, sometimes even five films a year, meaning almost his entire life is spent on the road. His telephone is his lifeline, to his wife and two children in Paris, to his agents in Paris and Los Angeles, and to director, pals like Peter Weir in Australia, with whom he made Green Card.

Indeed, telephoning became one of Depardieu's only reliefs from what turned out to be a grueling five months of rehearsals and shooting. Scott is what Depardieu calls "a work maniac, and throughout the 82 days of shooting, the typical schedule began before 6 a.m. and rarely ended before 8 or 9 p.m. In Cáceres, a night scene of a spectacular public burning of heretics went on for some 17 hours, until the extras, recruited locally, began an angry revolt. At one stage, the production chiefs were considering shortening a Christmas leave, an idea later abandoned, and only a "mais, non" from Depardieu halted plans for one day of Sunday shooting. For the most part, though, there was little complaining about the murderous schedule. Everyone understood that Captain Scott, whom his English crew calls "Guv'nor," was up against a terrible deadline. The film had to be shot, edited, mixed and polished in time to get enough prints for the world launch date: October 9, 1992, on Columbus Day weekend. Scott did not intend to be late.

On the open sea in the tropics, the heat was murder. Upwards of 100 degrees. Aboard the Santa Maria, the cast and crew were stripped down to their shorts, the extras were sprawled out on the deck, even the usually indefatigable Ridley Scott looked as wilted and wrinkled as his cotton shirt. And with good reason: today was the 82nd day of the shoot, 82 days with Scott alone at the helm. But with any luck, this would be the last day of the shoot, and Scott was on course to wrap up his voyage not only on time and within budget, but almost a full day early.

All morning Scott and his crew shot scenes on the bow of The Santa Maria, nothing complex, mostly pans and close-ups of his principal actors. And after each of the stars finished his work, the cast and crew gave them an ovation. By now they were all part of the same family. The shoot had moved to the coast of Costa Rica in January of 1992, to film the segments of Columbus leading the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria to the shores of The New World and establishing his first base camps. In Costa Rica, not just the heat but the pace had proved to be grueling.

Scott usually had his cast and crew on the boats by 6 a.m. and would shoot until all the natural light was gone, stopping only for a break for lunch and a communal swim. In America, where crews work under tight union regulations, such a schedule would have been unthinkable, not to mention what it would have cost in overtime. But with the British film industry in shambles, the predominantly English crew was happy to have the work, especially on a venture that held out so much hope for European cinema.

Still, it had been 82 days of exhausting frenzy. Such was the rush that Scott's aides were assembling rough cuts as the shooting in Costa Rica progressed. And anyone visiting the set in Costa Rica quickly understood that the $45-million European budget was not spent on star salaries or limousines. Consider only Columbus's three majestic caravels, the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. Two of the ships came from Bristol, England, where they had been refitted from the hulls up and sailed across the Atlantic, with full crews. The third ship Scott's team found in Brazil, and it had to be reworked and sailed to the Pacific side of Costa Rica.

At one stage the Europeans considered bringing the boats home via New York and its planned regatta of sailing ships, part of the Columbus 500th anniversary festivities. The ships' presence might have generated good publicity for 1492, but in the end the price tag of the detour was judged too steep: $1 million.

A much larger sum was spent building La Isabella, a replica of the village Columbus established on the island of what was then known as Hispaniola, now the home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Near the Costa Rican coast, Scott's team built a lovely Spanish church, a villa for Columbus and a series of out-buildings. Bosch's script shows Columbus in all his faults as well as strengths, and the film shows some of the violence he used to quell the local populations, violence that on screen meant putting a torch to La Isabella, practically before the whitewash was dry. They also built a long jetty out over the sea, so that the Santa Maria could use it as a dock. At last report, there were no plans to burn it down.

On this final afternoon aboard the Santa Maria, the cast and crew were a swirl of conflicting emotions. Over the long months, they had formed themselves into an itinerant family, far away from their real families. And now, the work nearly completed, they would soon be going their separate ways, back to England, France, Spain and America. One of those who would be returning to America was Kevin Dunn, who was portraying the captain of the Santa Maria, with Depardieu above him as commanding admiral of the fleet.

During the shoot, Dunn and Depardieu had become pals, and Dunn brought a purely American eye to the entire Columbus venture. A native of Chicago, now working out of Los Angeles and finding his way into some good secondary roles, Dunn found working with Depardieu to be a dream come true. "Years ago, I vowed to work with him," Dunn said, "because, watching his movies, I couldn't keep my eyes off him. There was so much going on."

What impressed Dunn during the shoot was Depardieu's lack of pretense and his naturalism on camera; the Frenchman works like no American actors. "One day here in Costa Rica," Dunn said, "we were all going up a path through the jungle. Most of us tried to make it look easy, out of the ego of not wanting to look clumsy. Not Gérard. He just let whatever was going to happen happen, and when at one moment he staggered and nearly fell, I'm sure he looked great on camera and wholly believable."

On another scene in the jungle, trudging through a river, many of the actors were anxious about snakes, Dunn recalled. "So there we were, up over our waists in the water, and the director yells, 'Action.' And suddenly, we would feel this terrifying jab right on the thigh, just like a snake. It was Gérard poking you under water with a metal pike and shouting, 'Let's go!' I've never seen anything like his method of acting. It's just so different. I think he doesn't want to know what is going to happen emotionally. And I don't know of any other actor in the world who could have pulled this film off."

That seemed to be the general sentiment aboard the Santa Maria on the final afternoon of the shoot. And there was also a general glee emanating from rumors about the Salkind film. A few weeks later, Marlon Brando publicly attacked the Salkinds and denounced the movie, claiming that despite their promises to the contrary, the Salkinds were portraying Columbus as though he were a cartoon hero, instead of the murderous villain and plunderer Brando feels he was. Brando's attack was big news, but none of the reports indicated if he planned to give back his $5 million fee.

On this final afternoon, Roselyne Bosch and Alain Goldman were on hand to bear witness to the end of this stage in the birth of their baby, and they were both in awe of Depardieu. To Bosch's surprise, Depardieu had never suggested changes in her script or interfered in any way with Ridley Scott. "They lead, I follow," was how Depardieu described it, except for one scene in Costa Rica, which to the actor just did not feel right. He explained why, Bosch said, and everyone instantly knew he was right. "It was just as Ridley often told me," Bosch said, "for this film, Gérard was a benediction."

At 5:25 p.m. in the afternoon, the heat of the day finally subsiding, and the bow of the Santa Maria framed by the orange sun lowering on the horizon, Columbus stood with his face to the wind, the explorer now an old man completing his fifth voyage across the Atlantic. Ridley Scott, Adrian Biddle, his cinematographer, and the rest of the camera crew zoomed-in for close-ups. This was to be their last shot of Columbus, and an air of quiet settled over the ship, as the cast, crew and extras looked on in silence.

Their long, punishing voyage was drawing to a close, their multilingual, multicultural family was about to split up, and it was a solemn, moving moment. Until Depardieu pinched a cameraman on the arm and let out an hysterical cackle. Ridley Scott allowed himself a grin, and it quickly broadened into a smile, and then all his British reserve seemed to melt away in the emotion of the moment. Ahead of him were long months of editing and post-production, but Scott was bringing his boats and his crew back on schedule, with nary a mishap, and with old Columbus alone in the bow, just as Scott had sketched him many months before.

The last close-up done, Depardieu pulled off his gray wig and stood to a huge ovation from the cast and crew. An hour later, as the Santa Maria drew up next to the jetty, Champagne and a similar ovation greeted Ridley Scott, the Guv'nor, the respected captain of this exotic adventure. He was feted and toasted and hugged and kissed and endlessly congratulated, a might tough for anyone used to maintaining a stiff upper lip.

But it was a moment Scott might well cherish for a long time to come, especially on those rare moments between films when he can relax, put his feet up and enjoy a Cohiba. And if the heathen critics should fail to appreciate his painterly vision, well, he can always use his Cohiba to torch their bloody reviews.


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