The list of medical precautions for anyone planning to visit the Costa Rican set of 1492: Conquest of Paradise is more than a little unsettling. ”The following vaccinations are STRONGLY recommended: typhoid, hepatitis, tetanus, polio, malaria, cholera,” advises a memo faxed by the film’s production coordinator. ”Don’t eat any fruit you can’t peel,” my doctor adds helpfully. ”And don’t wade in the water.”
The drive from the Costa Rican capital of San José to the production’s home base in the tiny resort town of Jaco hardly puts my fears to rest. In the middle of the jostling two-hour trip through the mountains, photographer Brian Smith and I are forced to pull our jeep off the pitted dirt track as local authorities attend to a truck that has rolled off an embankment. As we watch, the lifeless body of the truck driver is hoisted up over the side on a stretcher.
The final approach to the shooting location requires a sweltering quarter-mile tromp through thigh-high dried grass and around huge mounds of cow dung. In a dry riverbed, the crew has constructed an elaborate replica of La Navidad, the first Spanish settlement in the New World. For today’s scene, depicting Christopher Columbus’ return to Hispaniola in 1493, the fort has been burned to the ground — the original, most historians believe, was destroyed by Indians — with scattered skulls the only sign of the 39 men Columbus left behind as a garrison.
Twenty feet above it all, strapped into his seat on a crane that also carries the camera, rides director Ridley Scott, wearing his trademark beat-up beige fishing hat. Below him, production assistants steer dozens of Costa Rican extras — dressed as Spanish soldiers in heavy, tarnished armor and helmets — to their proper places amid the ruins. A huge plastic tube snakes through the clearing, belching out a cloud of the thick white smoke that Scott calls ”atmos.” ”The light’s terrific,” Scott shouts. ”And the smoke is pretty good.”
Standing nearby, joking with members of the crew, is Gérard Depardieu, Scott’s Columbus, a hulking man whose long, stringy, dirty-blond hair hangs in his sweaty face. When Depardieu laughs, as he often does, the sound echoes throughout the jungle, competing with the shrieking of unseen monkeys and the buzz of cicadas.
Scott’s obsessive campaign to re-create the 15th-century world of Columbus at times seems almost as daunting as one of the explorer’s own voyages. Of course, Scott’s crew eats in restaurants and sleeps in air-conditioned Jaco hotels when the day’s shooting is done. But the sheer scale of the $45 million production is almost an anachronism in this age of cost-conscious filmmaking. After two months of shooting in Spain — including scenes of Columbus appearing before Queen Isabella (Sigourney Weaver) filmed at Seville’s Alcázar palace — Scott dragged the production to Costa Rica in February. Full-size copies of the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria had to be built and sailed to the location, and a small city — the colonial settlement of Isabela — was constructed from the ground up.
”The telephones don’t quite work, the electricity cuts out when it feels like it, and the transportation isn’t very good,” says executive producer Iain Smith. ”All the things you normally take for granted, you can’t quite count on.”
But the logistical problems that trail a high-tech film crew into a tropical climate are the least of Scott’s concerns. While he toiled in the jungle, Superman producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind were working on a rival version of the story, Christopher Columbus: The Discovery (the $47 million film was released by Warner Bros. in August, earning a dismal $8 million). The bigger question hanging over the movie is whether American audiences will buy the French actor Depardieu — whose 80 previous films have included only one major role, in 1990’s Green Card, in which he spoke English — as the Italian explorer.
And just which Columbus is he supposed to be? The entire production is geared to having the film ready for a unique international release — 3,000 theaters, about 30 countries — on or about Oct. 9, just three days shy of the 500th anniversary of the explorer’s New World landfall. But the quincentennial has been dogged for years by revisionist historians’ attacks on the conventional view of Columbus as a stalwart hero. Instead, many blame him for the ”cultural genocide” that decimated Native American peoples as Europeans took possession of the western hemisphere. Scott has promised that 1492 will present a balanced image of Columbus. But can one film possibly integrate such wildly divergent views?
”We’re not talking here about some kind of very dusty story that happened a long time ago,” says French journalist-turned-screenwriter Roselyne Bosch. Seated at a picnic table at the production’s base camp, she looks utterly Parisian in a short black dress. ”We’re talking about feelings that are completely modern,” she says of Columbus’ motivation, ”like trying to imagine a different world and fighting conformism.”
Bosch began studying Columbus in 1987 for an article about the quincentennial. After seeing copies of letters written in the explorer’s own hand, she became obsessed with the idea of dramatizing Columbus’ full story — his ultimate defeats as well as his discoveries — in an epic film. By 1990, Bosch and her partner, French producer Alain Goldman, had made a deal with Scott’s Percy Main production company to coproduce the film independently.
Known primarily for the richly saturated visual style of movies like Blade Runner (1982), Black Rain (1989), and Thelma & Louise (1991), the British Scott seems a somewhat surprising choice to make the kind of epic normally associated with, say, Richard Attenborough. But Bosch says Scott was always on their wish list. ”Ridley Scott is like Columbus,” she says, absently brushing away the flies that buzz around her blond head. ”He’s able to imagine the future and give reality to something that doesn’t exist. Ridley is pure energy.”
”The effect Columbus really had, in one sweet, simple statement, is ‘He changed the world,”’ says Scott, seated in his director’s chair at the edge of the jungle. As he speaks, he pays close attention to the production assistants arranging skulls and charred bones on the ground. ”I wanted to show who the man was, his standards,” he says. ”I think he’s so unusual, that kind of person who is so full of everything. But someone driven by a certain kind of passion is also naive.”