Set Piece

What was it like to produce a western directed by a first-timer from Copenhagen? Scenes from the making of Bull-Fighter.

January 2000By Comments

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 we keep doing okay?)

February 14 The third day of the actual shoot. The first two went hard and fast. The team works. But early this morning Majken swings up to us with tears in her eyes: “Ya gotta talk to Rune!” We surround Rune, who’s sort of crouching beside a lighting truck. He’s miserable.

Him: “I’m not having any fun.”

Me: “Okay. But why?”

Him: “It’s the actors. They ask too many questions. They have too many opinions.”

Me: “They’re actors . . . acting.”

Cynthia: “But you’re making a movie!!!!”

Him: “Yeah. But in our culture it’s not such a big deal to want to direct a movie. I can go back to Denmark. Maybe become a teacher.”

Cynthia and I take a hard look at Rune: He’s panicking, but it’s nothing serious. We shake our heads: “Nope. We’re not shutting down the show.”

Him: “Okay. I’ll keep directing as long as I don’t have to direct the actors.”

Me: “Direct what then?”

Him: “I’ll direct the action scenes. The trucks.”

Majken bursts into tears: “You can’t do this! You can’t stop! Five years I’ve been working just to make this movie! Five years!”

Can things get crazier? I volunteer to back up Rune, to do the talking with the actors. (Later, one of the actors half-jokes, “What does Rune expect actors to do? Just jump into his little storyboard photos?”) We all go back to work. Rune directs more than trucks. Nobody blinks.

First-Timer Rule #3: Nobody quits. Once a movie starts, it doesn’t belong to any one person—not even the director—and it doesn’t stop.

February 17 Just before midnight things do get crazier. Unexpectedly, the crew’s union representatives phone our motel room. We meet them at our warehouse production office at two in the morning. They threaten to organize a strike unless we make all new deals with the crew. We agree to work this out. No strike. Just keep talking.

February 18 Six and a half hours later, they strike. Before noon we sign a new deal with the unions. The strike ends. (A whole other story for a business magazine—maybe a monkey business magazine.) Then a funnier thing happens: Michael Parks counterstrikes. He won’t come out of his trailer. He’s angry at the crew for not honoring their original deals: “Can’t they keep their word? They wanted this job. You gave ’em this job. They signed their contracts. Now they’re trying to change the deal? F— ’em. I don’t wanna work with ’em.”

Cynthia and Majken persuade Michael (all of them absurdly frustrated) to go back to work.

February 27 We’re at Alamo Village in Brackettville, the famous desert location where John Wayne shot The Alamo. Two crews are working the all-night shift in two little replicas of Mexican towns. Uphill, Rune directs Donnie Wahlberg, Robert Rodriguez, Michelle Forbes, and Olivier Martinez. Downhill, we’re shooting action stuff with Guillermo. And here, at a click past halfway through the shoot . . . the movie lifts off. The exhaustion of trying to hold everything together cracks. We put the multilevel craziness behind us. We’re free.

It’s gut-instinct time; we try anything and it works. Guillermo sketches quick storyboards for shots on a cardboard box on the set. We make up and shoot new sequences on the run. Guillermo (in what I call his gunswinger costume) and Willem Dafoe (in his warrior-priest chain mail costume) challenge each other to a chest-butting contest. They leap into the air and bang into each other as they warm up for their plotted-out sequence: six-shooters versus broadsword.

Maybe it was the ghosts who worked this place: John Wayne, John Ford, Laurence Harvey, and James Stewart finally took us over.

Maybe it was too many smart people up in the middle of the night and out in the middle of nowhere under the Texas stars just making a movie. No spotlights on anybody. Nothing famous going on here.

Maybe it was that more than any movie we’ve worked on, this one was a collective effort.

Maybe it was that we all went nuts.

It was a blast.

September 9 L.A. to N.Y. on the red-eye. The first sneak screening, semi-secret, at Planet Hollywood in New York. A wet, straight-from-the-lab print of the movie for friends and cast. It’s a blind shot: in front of naked eyes who’ve seen not a single frame of the film before. And the screening reaction stuns. It more or less explodes. Chuckling at the start; surprised laughing at the right jokes; choked-up crying at the end. Johnnie Planco, the head of the motion picture department at the William Morris Agency in New York, edges around the post-screening party till it’s almost over. He keeps catching my eye and signaling: We gotta talk. It’s unlike Johnnie. Usually he shakes hands and he’s gone.

Finally he nudges me into a corner.

Me: “What? Johnnie, you’ve been waiting and you never wait. What?”

He glares, eyes slightly popping, sweating, looming closer.

Him: “I’m going to say two words to you.”

Me: “Hmm?”

Him: Pause. “Pulp.” Pause. “Fiction. Except funnier.”

Me: “That’s four words, Johnnie.”

Him: “Right! ‘Cause it’s much funnier. How’d you make it so funny?”

Good question. But sometimes, somehow, after who knows how many whacked-out days and nights, it happens again. Maybe, from that blessed craziness, funny happens.

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