The making of 'The Old Man Who Read Love Stories' was a jungle, both literally and figuratively. Hundreds of stories have been told, some barely credible but true nevertheless. Here are some of the milder stories only, as the writer wishes to avoid legal action. Other stories are available upon request.
Rolf de Heer.
An English actor of note was sent the script. The role of Antonio interested him, he knew not of my work, so he asked to see some of it. He was sent a tape of 'Bad Boy Bubby'. Shortly afterwards a terse note came back from the actor's agent..."My client does not wish to spend three months in the jungle with a madman."
Casting had dragged on for almost three years, and the name of Richard Dreyfuss was put forward once again. He was not my idea of Antonio, but by now I was ready to consider anyone, so I had myself a Richard Dreyfuss film festival, watching 24 of his films in one week, trying to make him fit into the role.
It was a difficult task, he being such a speedy, New York, slightly abrasive sort of actor, the opposite of what I thought would make the film work. In the 24 films though, I saw two moments, each of less than ten seconds, where I thought, "Hah! That little bit works..."
Less than twenty seconds in more than 40 hours of material is not a lot to go on. I ran it through my head, and the logic of casting him became apparent: irrespective of his 'type', Richard Dreyfuss is a very fine actor; I've seen two moments where he did work for this role, so therefore it's at least logically possible that he can work for a whole film; on that basis I'd back his ability as an actor and my ability as a director to make him work. I rang the producers in France and said I'd be happy to work with Dreyfuss.
Some time later a meeting was arranged, in London because Richard was appearing in a play there. We met for the first time, and he had some deep misgivings. When he'd read the script for the first time, he was certain it had been sent to the wrong person, he was clearly so wrong for the role. This I understood, having initially thought so myself. But I told him the story of my Richard Dreyfuss film festival, and the two bits of less than ten seconds each, and how together we could make it work because he was such a fine actor.
He looked at me doubtfully. "But I'm so urban," he said. I told him we'd work on that. "I'm not just urban, I'm urban urban!".
We parted on good terms, although he gave nothing away about his final thoughts. I held my breath for a few days, and before I got to the stage of passing out, the word came through...he'd do it. And now I can't imagine the film without him.
The part of Nushino, Antonio's native friend, was always going to prove almost impossible to cast. It was a substantial role, really required an actor, but he had to fit with the rest of his tribe, who I was going to cast from locals in French Guyana. I saw no option but to use a non-actor cast locally.
Then the Dutch co-producer rang. "I think I have someone for Nushino, a guy called Victor Bottenbley" he said in English, because my Dutch had been long forgotten. Considering the particularity of the requirements, I was almost disinterested, thinking it yet another way off-beam producer-type idea, of which I'd had a few. "He's an actor," said Eddie, "He's been the lead in a couple of Dutch films." So far so good. "Can he speak English?" I asked. "He was trained in America. He speaks good English" "But where's he from? What does he look like?" "He's a South American native, born in Suriname." Suriname was next door to French Guyana, so this was indeed promising.
It turned out more than promising. Victor looked fantastic, and he could act. And when he turned up to set he discovered that the tribe we had cast was in fact his mother's tribe...it was an extraordinary homecoming for him after a lifetime's absence.
My first brush with where we were actually going to shoot the film was when I was asked about my availability to go on a location survey to Venezuela. Venezuela had the locations, it was politically stable back then and it had a good film infrastructure, including a laboratory. So off to Venezuela I went, accompanied by Michelle de Broca, the diminutive but feisty 75-year-old French producer.
It was a great and glorious time, flying all over Venezuela, a most beautiful country, going down all manner of river in all manner of watercraft (including shooting the rapids of the great Orinoco River), getting caught in rainstorms in small canoes, having motorboats break down and drift helplessly towards rebel territory in Colombia...and everywhere I went (except down the rapids), so did Michelle, sitting in small boats clutching her handbag to her chest and worrying that the humidity was making her hair go curly.
Some years later, when we were approaching the actual shoot, things were different. Venezuela had become a political hotspot. Colombian rebels were becoming increasingly bold, staging daring kidnapping raids into Venezuela...and our chosen location was across the river from Colombia.
Richard Dreyfuss's agents demanded kidnap insurance, the premium for which was almost as much as Richard's fee itself. The security company engaged for the film predicted a bill in excess of half a million American dollars. We could no longer afford to shoot in Venezuela, and so we went to France instead, the piece of France that sits next to Brazil, French Guyana. Being in France made Michelle very happy. At least people spoke the language and she could get her hair done properly.
I began to understand something of both the complexity and deviousness of the financing of 'The Old Man...' when I was at the Cannes Film Festival in 1999. Michelle and I had numbers of meetings with different people, and at one point I was introduced, casually and by chance, to a French distributor who was not the distributor for the film. After all the meetings were done, I counted up that we seemed to have no less than seven different producers on board, and I began to worry about how to handle them, one being generally bad enough.
That night I went, out of obligation, to a party, one of those big expensive Cannes parties celebrating a film's inclusion in Competition. The budget for this particular party almost certainly exceeded the entire budget I'd had to make my previous film.
I wandered a bit at the party, looking for the bloke who'd invited me. At a large gathering around several tables I saw the French distributor I'd spoken to briefly, less than sixty seconds, earlier that day. On my second circuit past the table, the distributor saw me, jumped up and put his arm around me, announcing to the assemblage around the tables, "This is Rolf de Heer! I am producing his next film!"
Eight producers, I thought, not seven. But I've never seen this man again.
Despite the largely accurate truism that directing is the art of compromise, we did rather well with the locations for the film. I took the Australian sound recordist, James Currie, to one of them the day he arrived in French Guyana, an area with some spectacularly big trees about half an hour's clamber through steep jungle. James was so physically distressed by the time we got there that the journey back became very slow, so slow that we were almost completely trapped by the falling night.
Still only halfway back it was already pitch black, and we were progressing only by shuffling along a sort of narrow falling path with jungle on one side and a steep drop on the other. Not that you could see the steep drop...only the fact that there was nothing to touch on that side reminded me of the fact.
Then a roaring sound started. We stopped, and I remarked to James, "I think it's going to rain"...and it did. The roar was the rain sweeping towards us across the jungle, and within sixty seconds there was nothing dry left on either of us.
I had visions of being stuck there for the night, not a pleasant prospect. Rumour had it there were jaguars in the area, and the spiders are as big as teacup saucers. Remarkably though, the rain brought with it, somehow, some light. I don't understand the laws of refraction, but the harder it rained, the better we could make out the path.
We finally got to the car. James was absolutely exhausted, beyond endurance. We sat mute and dripping in the car, found some dry cigarettes and lit up. After a couple of puffs, James managed to croak, "Great location mate, worth every bit of it..."
It was not the easiest shoot I've ever done...
I'd storyboarded the film during the months leading up to the shoot, and had figured on a modest 14 shots a day, averaged out over the shoot. Deep into the eighth week of shooting, we still had not managed to get even ten shots in any single day of shooting. Every day was a scramble to get the material done, every day the storyboard had to be adapted, to try and maintain standards and not fall behind schedule.
We were shooting with the steadicam in a dark patch of jungle with Nushino, his blowpipe and a peccary (wild pig), difficult enough as it was. Richard Dreyfuss was about 5 kms away with second unit, reshooting a close-up from the previous day. After a lot of fiddling around with light meters and batteries and fluoro lights, the director of photography suddenly said, "I think I'll go to second unit". He handed his light meter to the focus puller and walked off into the jungle. Bemused, I shrugged my shoulders and went back to the task at hand.
A few minutes later the gaffer said, "I must go with him!", and he too downed tools and walked into the jungle. The rest of us continued to try and set up the shot. After a pause of some five minutes, the continuity person closed her script and packed up her stool, saying, "I'm going to second unit too." I stood and watched her walk into the jungle, by now quite befuddled.
A few minutes later the first assistant director came up to me. He said, "Maybe I should go to second unit too...". I looked him squarely in the eye and said, "That's a very good idea, why don't you do just that". He either failed to read or ignored the ironic tone, and walked off into the jungle.
It was a situation without precedent for me. It was clear that these four professional film makers were more interested in being with a star than they were in making a film well enough to make that star look good. But they actually did us, and the star, a favour.
In the next hour and a quarter, without what might be considered the engine room of the crew, we managed no fewer than eleven shots. It was the best shooting of the whole film. The departure of these four key people had somehow lightened a load, removed a burden, and those who remained worked zealously, happily, and efficiently. Meanwhile, second unit was in chaos.
Despite the problems, we'd managed not only to shoot the script, but to shoot it well. The Producers were elated. Awards were being talked of. Now the original script, the one I'd thought so awful that I'd completely re-adapted the novel (and for which task I'd been paid as one that needed doing), now that lumpy exploitative piece of work that I'd forgotten about and hadn't read for four years, came back to haunt us.
Tania Nehme, the editor, and I cut the film back here in Australia. We sent our first version across, and although we liked what we were doing, the first responses were not encouraging. All sorts of notes came back, most of which just didn't make sense. We struggled bravely on, trying out what we could of the notes, and sent another version across.
Note that we didn't actually have to take any notice of anything, as I contractually had final cut, but these things are often much better arrived at through consensus. For the film to succeed, it can't just be a good film, but those who are charged with selling it must have confidence in it, must like it, and the more they feel they've contributed, the more they'll like it and think it's good.
More incomprehensible notes came back. This time I picked up the phone to try to understand what was going on. Several lengthy telephone calls followed. They didn't much make sense either, and this I put down to language differences...my French wasn't the best, their English was better, but not by so much and it certainly lacked the shades of meaning we're accustomed to when speaking in our own language.
We went back to the cut, tried to figure. We were effectively being asked to try cutting sequences with material we didn't have. And then it dawned on me...all the notes and comments were not really about the film we'd shot, but were about the film we would have shot if we'd used the original script. It's as if they didn't read my first draft, or Duncan Thompson's second draft which they also commissioned but which ran along similar lines to mine, or my third draft which they signed off on and financed.
They were still after the full-on masculine semi-exploitative hunting film, rather than the gentle, beautiful and romantic film I'd written and we'd shot. It was at that moment that I realised the prospects for this film, no matter how good it was going to be, were evaporating like the jungle mist.
Each co-production country has the rights to dispose of its territory as it sees fit. In France, part of the financing came from a French television presale, payable when the film was released theatrically for a minimum amount of time in a minimum number of cinemas.
A couple of months only after we'd sent the finished components of the film to France, I received a phone call from someone not associated with the film. "Ah", he said. "I notice your film is opening in Paris next week..."
We had not heard a thing about this. It was done in almost indecent haste, as if in secrecy. There had been no requests for promotional involvement (I don't know that there was any promotion) and I had not done a single interview for the French release (I don't know anyone who has). As I understand it, the film ran in eight cinemas for two weeks...exactly what was required to trigger the television payment?