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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 4)

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.

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