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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 3)

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.

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.

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