Gérard Depardieu with the author on the set of “1492: Conquest of Paradise”
It had been a stomach-churning flight from New York and the driver chain-smoked all the way from Madrid to Caceres. I was barely awake, but Smokey the driver refused to take me to my hotel. Instead, he ushered me into the production office and introduced me to the executive producer, Iain Smith. I told him I needed to get to my hotel pronto, as any conversation in my state of exhaustion, would be a waste of time for both of us.
“We’re doing a press conference,” he said.
“In an hour.” I was awake now.
Mr. Smith took me to the room where the conference was going to be held. It was a Spanish version of an Elks lodge, with all these stuffed animal heads festooning the walls. There were two rows of chairs set up like a wedding, and a makeshift dais set up in front. I noticed there was a side door. I told Iain to make sure that a P.A. blocked that door, so we could make all the journalists come in from the back, and avoid a pile-up when Ridley Scott and the actors came in. He said he would have everybody together in a room upstairs in an hour so I could tell them what they would have to do.
The journalists started to come in and I asked them some questions. Nobody spoke any English and I didn’t have a translator. Iain introduced me to the mayor, the first of many mayors I would meet in Spain. Everywhere we went, the locals would insist on some kind of event. I guess that’s understandable, as we were making a film about Columbus, sort of a local hero, even if he was born in Genoa, and a Frenchman, Gérard Depardieu, was playing him in our movie.
At the appointed time, Iain led me to the room where everyone was gathered. Ridley and Armand Assante seemed nice, and my hand was shaking as I shook the hand of Fernando Rey, the star of so many Bunuel masterpieces, when Depardieu came in.
I had spent a lot of time with Gérard when I handled the publicity for Maurice Pialat’s “Loulou” in New York, but he had come with his wife Elisabeth and had acted like a choirboy the whole time. The wild-eyed grin jumping off his face suggested that my limited Spanish was going to be the least of my worries on this movie. After I told them that I would lead them in the side door in such-and-such an order, the mayor would introduce Ridley, blahblahblah, Gérard came over and patted me on the shoulder. “And then the group sex?” he asked.
Of course, Gérard entered in the back of the room and created complete chaos, which would be standard operating procedure throughout the film. Gérard loved chaos and chaos loved him back.
After the conference, the press mob laid siege to the hotel, surging through the tiny lobby and lining the halls with furious demands for immediate interviews with everyone in the film for all 200 of them. Imagine being in the bleachers at Yankee stadium with two fights going on on both sides of you. And everyone’s shouting in Spanish. You’d figure that in Europe people would all be civilized and “European,” but these people were surly bruisers who could knock your block off with their tape recorders and cameras.Gérard came running out of his room with a scrawny photographer in tow. The little weasel had been hiding under his bed.
In the morning I went to the production office and many of the press were laying in wait for me there. They were even more angry. I didn’t know the exact words but I knew they wanted interviews. I went to Iain Smith’s office and told him I desperately needed a translator. He didn’t need to bring anyone or house them. It would actually better to just get me someone local, because it was a real emergency. Returning to my office I saw a stack of local newspapers that someone had collected for me. Not even knowing what the locals thought about us invading their town was unnerving.
The next day I came in early so I could get right to work with my new translator. I went to see Iain. “Catalina [not real name] is driving in from Barcelona,” he said. “Barcelona!” I said. “Whose daughter is she?” I was so screwed. These journalists had come from all over Spain and Portugal, and I was making them wait three long days before I could even communicate to them diplomatically that they weren’t going to get a damned thing. There was nothing I could do but take their abuse for one more day.
At long last, Catalina arrived. After I tried to make small talk—she was painfully shy—I handed her a stack of local newspapers. She sat down at a desk and looked them over for a few minutes. I was really curious so I was hoping she could just give me a quick thumbs or up-thumbs down.
“What do they say?”
“What kind of things”?
She pondered this.
“’Tings about the movie.”
I told her to write out a translation. Catalina nodded and pulled out a little red plastic English-Spanish dictionary from her purse, the kind tourists carry. She read the first few words and then started flipping through the dictionary. I waited patiently until she found the first word and wrote it down. That was enough for me. “Excuse me,” I said, and ran down the hallway to Smith’s office.”
“How do you like Catalina?” he asked.
“She’s delightful,” I said. “But there is a little something: she doesn’t speak English.”
Iain looked at me sorrowfully. I had been on enough movies to know what the score was:
“We can’t fire her, can we?”
He shook his head.
“Well, you’re going to have to get me a second translator.”
He explained that we were already housing one translator and he had no budget to for a second one. But he understood what a fix we were in, and said if I could find someone who was already there; a relative perhaps, then he would cover the pay. After ruling out a few possibilities, I decided to approach Natalie, the daughter of the production’s financial controller. A graduate of business school, Natalie spoke fluent Spanish and was super-smart, but I wasn’t sure how well she would work with the local journalists. I gave her a newspaper and she translated it in no time. So the plan was clear. Natalie would be my real publicity assistant and translator for the world media we were bringing to the set ; Catalina would concentrate more on local press.
The first scene in the movie was staged as a long walk-and-talk tracking shot with Depardieu. Just before “action!” was called, Depardieu gave the dolly grip’s nuts a big squeeze, and then played the scene flawlessly, unaffected by the unnerving sight of the grip’s eyes bugging out of his head. The crew adored him for pranks like this and for the constant entertainment provided by his accent. They fondly bestowed the name “Yabba-Dabba-Doo” on him, although not to his face. I remember watching him bang his hand on a table, crying out, “Fools! They think the world is a flat as this tobble,” as I watched vocal coach Louise Vincent’s head sink down to her hands. Another day I had the behind the scenes crew on the set for a scene where Gérard was riding a burro. Gérard had previously told me that he was afraid of horses, and wasn’t too excited about getting on the burro either. On the other hand, he said liked to do things that he was afraid of. I loved that, and so I suggested that the behind-the-scenes director ask Gérard how he felt about being on the burro.
“Oh, it’s not too bad,” Depardieu replied, “I have an erection. Not a beeg one….more a laaazy one.”
For me, the exuberant, larger-than-life Depardieu is a limiting and cliched way to see him. I bore witness to a host of Gérards during the shoot: poetic, brilliant, selfish, thuggish, ridiculous (I’ll never forget watching him jog down a road in Costa Rica, Buddha belly bouncing like Jello), but ultimately hidden, unknowable. I remember once seeing him sitting by himself in a hotel lobby. He seemed sad, which was his right; we all get blue now and then. But seeing him like that was so different from anything I’d ever previously witnessed that I couldn’t help wondering what he was when he wasn’t on a movie set or on a stage or being applauded. Depardieu had a very close friend on the film, the sound man, Pierre Gamet, who had worked on many of his films. Once when Gérard was being Gérard, I heard Pierre say softly, “Gérard…I know you so well.” Whatever he knew—he wasn’t sharing.
Meanwhile, my pair of translators seemed to be an ace team. Catalina spoke all day to the press. I had no idea what she was saying, but I didn’t care--I just wanted them to go away until I was ready to invite them in. It’s true that my attempts at conversation with Catalina often verged on the surreal. Lost in translation, I thought. Shortly before we left Spain for Costa Rica, I found out she was even stranger in Spanish than she was in English. Somebody had inquired if he could have a color picture of Depardieu, and she asked, “What color do you want?” Eventually I found out she had been taking acid during work hours, which explained a lot. (I’m totally serious; she was sent back to Barcelona immediately.)
Eventually, I found the perfect day for our first press junket—a massive production number with lots of extras in costumes and dozens of horses, to be shot in Seville against a gorgeous landscape. In other words, there would be lots of room to keep the journalists out of our hair, and it would be a nothing day acting-wise for Gérard. Catalina told me that the press would be very insulted if I didn’t feed them first, so we rented a big restaurant and put on a sumptuous buffet, which they made short work of-- particularly the wine.
After the repast, Natalie and Catalina corralled the journalists onto a bus, and we headed for the set, where the production had cordoned off a viewing area for them with stakes and string. I suppose the theory was they would stay within its confines, placid as gladiolas. With Natalie’s help, I asked everybody to wait for a few minutes, while I got Gérard. As I approached him, I could see Yabba-Dabba-Doo eying me gleefully. Uh oh.
“Gérard, remember I told you this would be a pr—“
“I knowwww….but I’m not really in the mood.”
“Please Gérard, I promised them you’d come right over.” I tried every trick of persuasion I knew, but he wasn’t budging; it was too much fun not to. The journalists were getting very restless and were pushing against the perimeter of their pen. One woman was already dangling her foot over the three foot high twine gate. Gérard glanced over and smiled devilishly. I had three more seconds before everything was going to bust out of control.
“Why don’t you ask Reedlee?” he said.
Ridley Scott was currently on a crane, telling a few thousand people what to do.
“I don’t exactly think this is a good--”
“YAAAAAAAH!” The Spanish journalists were on us like Katrina on New Orleans. They ran through everything, snapping pictures, spooking horses, swarming around Gérard and circling Senor Ridley on his crane with their cameras and tape recorders, firing off a million questions in Spanish.
Depardieu was in rapture, feasting on the pandemonium. He thrust his arms to his sides, twirling like Julie Andrews in “Sound of Music,” mouth agape like a crazed muppet. “Maaarvelous idée, Reid! Maaaarvelous idée!”
It must have taken an hour for the production team to put everybody back on the bus so we could get back to work. But one guy managed to elude us—the scuzzly little string bean who previously hid under Gérard’s bed.
Gérard gave him a three hour interview.