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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)

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.

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