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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

By the morning of December 2, 1991, Ridley Scott was ready to start shooting his new movie. He was up long before dawn, racing through final details. By first light, his big Mercedes was winding its way through the narrow streets of Cáceres, past the deserted esplanade, past the adobe huts on the edge of town, and finally out onto the cold Spanish plain leading to a 16th-century villa made to look like the ancient monastery of Santa Maria de la Rabida.

By temperament, Scott is calm, methodical and cool to the point of aloof, perhaps a vestige of his upbringing in the far north of England. No one ever accuses Ridley Scott of wearing his emotions on his sleeve. But one look at him this morning, fueled with coffee and cigarettes pacing around inside La Rabida monastery, inspecting the set, checking his cameras and lighting, commanding his crew, the celebrated director of Alien, Blade Runner and Thelma & Louise was a jangle of nerves, tightly clamped.

Etched into his face was fatigue. Dark circles ringed and puffed his eyes--so blue, so masked--and a couple of days' worth of red and gray stubble slid down his chin. Who had time to shave? Not Scott. For long months, he had been putting in marathon days and frustrating weeks, working against a terrible deadline, trying to manage a team of some 400 people, working in three different countries, on two different continents, all in an effort to plan and shoot an adventure of epic scope and grandeur, a movie that would recreate the historic voyages of Christopher Columbus.

Once inside La Rabida, Scott moved quickly and precisely. Sharpening camera angles. Fiddling with lighting. Positioning his monks at their drafting tables, plumes in hand and eyes fixed to their maps of the world, elegantly charted out on parchment and anchored in the firm conviction that the Earth was flat. In his mind, in his sketchbook, and here on the set, Scott had already worked this crucial first scene down to its finest detail, from its color and composition to its most subtle plays of light and shadow. He composed the scene the way a classical painter would compose a mammoth canvas, one he dreamed could be a masterpiece.

Throughout Scott's career, visuals have been his greatest strength; Pauline Kael has called him a "visual hypnotist." To anyone who saw Thelma & Louise, with its majestic landscapes of the American West, it may come as little surprise that Scott trained as a painter and graphics designer at the Royal College of Art in London, often in drawing classes next to David Hockney. But this morning Scott seemed intent on finding an even richer visual vocabulary: The candles flickering above the drafting tables and the embers glowing in the fireplace bathed his scene in glimmering hues of yellow and orange, just as in the warm, intimate paintings of Caravaggio and Georges de la Tour.

Finally, every detail in place, the mood as he wanted it, Scott signaled he was ready to shoot. "Silencio por favor! OK, boys, quiet down now," bellowed Terry Needham, one of Scott's assistant directors. "Shhh, shhh, shhh...OK, now, a little more atmosphere! Bring up the smoke..."

At once a hush fell over the converted stable and the 150 members of the cast and crew jammed inside. And then every eye on the set turned to the far end of the monastery and focused in on a huge wooden door reaching upward like the apse of a cathedral. "Rolling .... Action!" Slowly, creaking on its ancient hinges, the door inched open, and into the light came Christopher Columbus. A collective gasp rippled through the cast and crew. Columbus was cloaked in a long medieval robe the color of burnt orange with black trim, his dark blond hair flowed down over his collar, his blue-gray eyes burned with the haunted look of a man launched on a holy mission, beyond the reach of Prudence or Reason.

The impact on the set was stunning: This WAS Christopher Columbus, sprung to life. Before everyone's eyes, this towering, mysterious historical figure, so shrouded in myth, controversy and revisionist politics, was again a real man, flesh and blood, soul and will. And perfectly embodied by France's unique gift to the world of cinema, Gérard Depardieu.

At this stage in his life, and in the script, Columbus was an accomplished navigator and explorer, with long experience in the Mediterranean Sea and along the Atlantic coast of Spain, France and England. But he had been waiting an agonizing seven years for royal permission to mount his dream voyage into the pure unknown, to test his absolute conviction that the riches of the East could be reached by sailing to the West. In the halls of power in Spain, Columbus and his theory were objects of scorn and ridicule, and Columbus's patience had worn dangerously thin. Striding into the monastery, his frustration now wearing plain on his face, Columbus was greeted by his friend and spiritual and political adviser, Antonio de Marchena, being played by Spain's greatest actor, Fernando Rey.

"I have something for you," said Marchena, drawing from his robe a parchment bearing a royal seal. "You are going to be heard at The University of Salamanca."

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