After producing Bottle Rocket and Hurricane Streets—two mid-nineties independent features by rookie filmmakers—my partner, Cynthia Hargrave, and I looked around for our third first-timer. We found him on a trip to Copenhagen in 1997. Them, actually: ex-techno star Rune Bendixen, who wanted to direct, and his co-writer, Majken Gilmartin, who wanted to produce. They spoke English as a second language, but they had cocked headfuls of American pop myths: rock and movies. And—surprise!—a funny idea. (Fact: At the moment, the indie landscape is deadly repetitive and not funny.)
The battle of moviemaking is worth fighting for the chance to film what you haven’t seen and heard yet: the Next Next Thing. And Rune and Majken’s idea was wrenchingly naive and antic. A mystic retelling of the Nativity story set at Christmastime in the year 2000 on the Texas-Mexico border? Joseph, this time a wannabe bullfighter named Jack, a self-described “pagan loser” trying to save his pregnant ex-girlfriend, Mary, who’s on the run from Western gangsters? All the while getting tangled up with angels and miracles and saving the world? Okay, kinda crazy. But why the hell not?
Working with the Danes, we got our funding from the Copenhagen movie company Scanbox International, the Danish “coolness” distributor, sometimes called the Miramax of Scandinavia. Where to shoot it? In South Texas, of course. Bull-Fighter—the title we chose—set me on fire. We look forward to setting it loose at South by Southwest and Cannes.
Here’s a diary of sorts that recounts how it worked. Or maybe it’s better to say: how it happened again. Because sometimes you don’t know exactly how to work it.
January 16, 1999 Pre-production kicks off. I’m driving a van from Austin to Dallas to pick up the jet-lagged Rune and Majken, who are just now flying in. Cynthia phoned last night from N.Y. to say that we had money in the bank. After two years the project is a go.
With the rising sun blasting the glassy Dallas skyline on the hump of the horizon ahead, it abruptly hits me: We’re really making this unreal movie! I start shouting and juking behind the steering wheel as I weave up Interstate 35. No matter how few or many times you get to make a movie, there always comes that split-second spark and pop when you know you’ve beaten the Fates—again. You’re doing it. And you go nuts in the thanksgiving. It’s primordial.
January 21 In Austin starting out for Del Rio. Like every first-timer, Rune is chewing himself up over how to shoot the movie: What are the exact shots scene by scene? He’s asking the question over and over. I can’t calm him down.
First-Timer Rule #1: Stop the first-timer from overworrying and setting himself or herself on fire.
We make a late-night emergency stop at the Austin house of writer-director-amigo Guillermo del Toro ( Mimic, Cronos). As usual, Guillermo laughs madly: “Ahhh, that’s easy!” He screens Seven for us, hooting and punching shoulders and pointing as the DVD version shows how director David Fincher shot photograph-storyboards of his actual locations to lay out the Seven shoot. This breaks Rune’s breakdown.
Days later Rune frenetically shoots hundreds of photos all over the locations with the director of photography, Rohn Schmidt, and tapes them together to visualize the movie. Partly this strategy is about Rune’s language barrier: Pictures do click clearer than words. Partly it’s about putting him in the hands of an image-worthy cinematographer, like Rohn, who will guide the choice of pictures to tell the story.
A decision: Throughout the production, Guillermo will serve as Rune’s unofficial guardian angel (how scary).
First-Timer Rule #2: Cover the first-timer by surrounding him or her with a strong team.
January 23 A few weeks before we begin shooting, Scanbox unexpectedly asks us to cast a Euro star for the male lead in the movie. (Or they’ll pull the plug? In so many words.) Cynthia races through Euro agents via phone, fax, and e-mail. This kind of battlefield rush is part of why people make movies: Every minute counts; everything always changes.
Finally we get to Olivier Martinez, an award-winning young French actor known as the Brad Pitt of Paris; he’s best known in the U.S. for the art house flick The Horseman on the Roof, which also starred Juliette Binoche. Scanbox agrees to offer Olivier the role. Through our friend Mira Sorvino, who happened to be Olivier’s girlfriend, Cynthia meets him with the script in New York. Olivier says yes two days later. Cynthia wrangles with Olivier’s so-called manager (long since dismissed) for a week. If Olivier wants to do it, why can’t we close the deal? No real answer. We withdraw the offer—a last-minute gamble, but just the usual killer casting game. And it works. Cynthia locks Olivier the next day.
As soon as Olivier Martinez gets to Del Rio, we realize he’s a joker. Not only a romantic tough guy type, like the classic French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo, but also low-key funny, like the ex-Beatle drummer Ringo Starr. A real twenty-first century combo: Belmondo meets Ringo. We decide to skew Olivier’s role even more toward Ringo.
Scanbox’s seemingly impossible request has an unanticipated payoff: This casting builds in more laughs.
February 9 At 12:34 a.m., the brightly lit Texas Eagle lurches into the Del Rio train station. A rangy man steps off the silver sleeper car with moonlight on his shoulders: Michael Parks. He was the first actor we wanted for the movie. Parks will play Cordobes, an ex-gangster driven by revenge who talks to God. Who else could pull this off? Make it real, grab you and move you?
There’s a casual cool in the way he walks: vulnerable or threatening? In the frantic final pre-production days, here’s one unchangeable good thing. This guy worked with John Huston and Orson Welles.
I mutter to Phil Schriber, our Teamster coordinator, “Now I see the movie.”
Parks glances over us: “Hey. You guys didn’t need to come pick me up at midnight. This is right first-class.” (Meaning: We did okay. But will