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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 5)

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.

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