Time Out London (UK), May 12 – 19, 1993
No place like Om
No stranger to epics, Bernardo Bertolucci and his tumultuous crew are currently tackling the big one: a life of Buddha, no less, starring Keanu Reeves. In the shadow of the Himalayas, Brian Case talks to the former airhead dude about his conversion to Buddhism, his tortured bowels, and the art of motorcycle maintenance.
'And the wildest dreams of Kew are the facts of Kathmandu.' Kipling.
Ghostly prayer flags flap in Kathmandu's morning mist, carrying devotions on the four winds. Rooftops float on a sea of white. A small boy appears on a crumbling balcony opposite to fill a pitcher from the zinc water tank, then his grandfather emerges wearing an orange cloth on his head, throws crumbs to the birds and chants repetitively. 'Om mani padme hum.' Among the washing lines, he presses his palms together to the new day. Buddhism is here at the getting up and the going down of the sun, present as the women gather on the flat roofs to comb each other's hair or spread their spices out to dry.
Bernardo Bertolucci has chosen a particularly difficult subject to film. The life of the Buddha and the modern-day search for the reincarnation intertwine in his latest epic, 'Little Buddha', screenplay by Mark Peploe and Rudy Wurlitzer, and produced by Jeremy Thomas. If 'The Last Emperor' needed a lawyer's bag of permissions, this one has come no easier. But the recently democratic King Birendra authorised the film and his writ runs, and a quarter of the budget will stay in Nepal. Thanks to the good offices of Richard Gere -'the Bob Geldof of Buddhism' - the production has the blessing of the Dalai Lama, and there's a spiritual adviser on set. Nevertheless, the title of 'Little Buddha' has been altered to 'Little Lama' on the clapperboards in deference to protests from a sect. There have even been rumours that the Buddha would be played by Jean-Claude Van Damme, or Michael Jackson. Nobody wants to run into Scorsese's problems on 'The Last Temptation of Christ'.
Historically, the Buddha started life as Prince Siddharta around 563 BC, quit the palace at 29 for a life of asceticism and achieved enlightenment meditating under the Bodhi tree. It's quite a role for Keanu Reeves, best known for 'Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure'. Bertolucci had been impressed by his innocence in 'My Own Private Idaho', and presumably by his exotic, English-Hawaiian-Chinese looks. 'There is no way I would play Buddha. No way!' declared Gere, but Keanu didn't share his qualms. 'Presumptuous? Oh, it's audacious,' he laughed. Chris Isaak and Bridget Fonda are in the modern-day section shot in Seattle.
Getting to the location is strictly for Road Rash video jockeys. By mid-morning, the mist gives way to a thick diesel exhaust, which hangs over the town, trapped in the valley which lies spectacularly surrounded by the Himalayas. Everest, Annapurna, Kachenjunga - Nepal has eight of the ten highest mountains in the world, and terrible roads. Tricycle rickshaws, overcrowded coaches, bikes, highly decorated and tinselled Punjabi lorries drive both ways around roundabouts, baffling a veteran Watkin Path trekkie with a head like Douglas Hurd's, a pipe and a tiny rucksack. Horns honk behind a legless cripple on a skateboard. A cow sleeps in the fast lane. There's an exodus of people moving their household on their backs. A wardrobe staggers by, supported by a strap around the carrier's forehead, the jogging mirrors reflecting Everest and blue sky. Beyond Kathmandu, the land rises in terraced fields and rice paddies, the dust clears and the sacred town of Bhaktapur lurches into view. Everywhere you turn there are Buddhist and Hindu shrines, temples, golden pagodas hung with bells, and Vishnu, Shiva and Ganesh. Italian plasterers, who doubtless dream of Umbria as they did in the Taviani brothers' 'Hollywood Babylon', have been working alongside Nepalese craftsmen to restore the façades for the film.
'Lower me up,' shouts the camera operator, in case there's any doubt that you're on a Bertolucci set. We are in the courtyard of Prince Siddharta's Summer Palace. Fountains splash on to pink lilies floating in an ornamental pond, and a bull drowses in Valium slumber garlanded in orange blossom. Handmaidens sport with racquets, turbanned courtiers come and go, amiably chatting. It's an illustration from 'The Arabian Nights'. Keanu, in long black ringlets, a blue off-the-shoulder toga, gold necklace and ankle bangles, his pregnant wife, Princess Yasodhara, on his arm, is attracted by the song of a sitar player. It is a lament for the singer's faraway home, a land of lakes and mountains. Keanu falls into a reverie. He has never stepped outside the palace. He longs to see the world with his own eyes, although his wife tries to dissuade him. 'I've heard that only suffering lies beyond these walls. Here you have everything you want,' she says, but as they embrace, his eyes stare away beyond.
Between takes, he swigs mineral water and practises his lines. Once he glares as a member of the crew bumps into him, then apologises. 'Sorry, man, sorry!' and mimes blinkers at each side of his eyes. It's a key scene, foreshadowing the journey of Siddharta into the Buddha. 'All of it's key. These isn't a moment that's not key,' corrects the star. He has undergone conversion to Buddhism, which, in terms of his manner, adds new vapour trails to the laid-back Californian. 'I'm not playing it naturalistically. It kinda goes through phases. Well... I'll just say that. Bernardo came up with the term Neo-Fable. About 30 hours before I was due to utter my first words, Bernardo said, "I think Siddharta should have some kinda accent." He works very instinctually and in the moment, which I love, and I think it was a great insight, and the way to go. The accent that I've developed, it's kinda Indian-English-American uh...' He gives one of his irritating secret chuckles as if he knows more than he's saying. 'Those are the ingredients.'
Keanu is no mixer. A common passion for motorbikes, however, drew him to a veteran Beat biker on the crew who'd found a vintage 91 black Enfield, the 1946 model, and remained in the valley 30 years to look after it. `He wrenches his bikes, and it was kinda running when he bought it, but he's redone the forks.' The star misses his Norton. 'Oh God, I wish I had it! The mountains and ridges surrounding the valley are calling.' And, like the Beat biker, he's read Kerouac's 'The Dharma Bums', though it hasn't taken. The core of Beat Buddhism, commented someone, 'is knowing as many people as you can.' Lotta howdies, then, but few from Keanu.
Bertolucci shoots all day, increasingly distracted by the noise of the local population. They've never heard of Keanu, but hiss and simmer continually at the sight of Radesh Wari, his princess. Pregnant women retire from view in Nepal, and they're not to know it's a cushion. The noise increases as school lets out. The five-storey Nyatapola Temple in the square houses a Tantric goddess so terrible she can only be viewed by brahmin priests by lamplight, but this doesn't deter gaggles of schoolgirls in bunches, gym slips and satchels from skipping about the marble elephants, dragons and dogs that flank the steep staircase. The Palace of 55 Windows is an animated frieze of junior Nepalese. These are snot-nosed urchins everywhere, squatting on rooftops, ducking under the cordons, giving the slip to the Nepalese Army security in their blue jumpers with the swagger sticks. 'I bambini!' An Italian assistant director struggles against the din. 'Quiet! It's not no for one, yes, and one not. Quiet for everybody!' How ironic that the Italians, known for babble and bad driving, have been trumped. They've even been refused insurance to drive here. What a derby that'd make! Jeremy Thomas shakes his head. 'You can't stop the town. The whole scene will have to be post-synched.'
It's enough to drive the director back to the video of Michael Powell's 'Black Narcissus' which he brought with him to Nepal. 'The Himalayas he invented in the studio were much more real than the real thing. I'm afraid.' The unit are staying at the Yak & Yeti, Kathmandu's showcase hotel, the one without the pose-bleed on the menu. There's a guy to play slow-action piano to the diners and Raj survivors can still find a peg at the bar. There's even a projection room where, unlike the makeshift facility up-country in Bhutan where bats flew into everyone's pair and all insect life swarmed into the beam, they can watch the daily rushes on those alternate days when there isn't a power cut. 'Good,' the costume designer tells the cow which wanders into her workshop. 'I've dressed Keanu's loins - now I've just got the poor to do.'
The streets by night leap with the importunate. 'Want to smoke, sir?' wheedles a pedlar, offering a Nepalese black so devastating that one of the film people had fallen like a log, breaking his nose, after a single toke. Shrouded emaciates, coughing, retching and spitting, perch like carrion among the scavenging dogs, and shiver till dawn. 'From a sanitary point of view Kathmandu may be said to be built on a dunghill in the middle of latrines,' wrote the British Residency surgeon in 1877. 'Coming to Kathmandu you realise why America is so clean,' says Keanu. 'There's shit everywhere in those medieval villages. I'm sure when the Americans colonised, they must have just wanted to get that out of their paths, outta the sewers, just get it clean.' And, like everybody else who ventured further than Bertolucci's airfreighted pasta, he'd been afflicted with diarrhoea. 'Once, yeah. I was at a monastery. As I was eating the rice and potatoes I was told by a local Nepalese, "Oh, yes - Europeans come and eat here sometimes and they get very sick. Europeans and their weak stomachs." These I was, with a fever and the shits, having to do the Lotus.' He clutched his knees. 'Hold... it... in.'
They shoot early next day to take advantage of the morning mist. Siddharta wakes his manservant at dawn to quit the palace for the world outside. As if bewitched, his soldiers sleep in their quilted brown leather armour, their halberds piled crookedly against Ali Baba earthenware jars. The servant leads his master's white horse in its gold tasselled saddlecloth to the enormous gateway, and the doors swing silently open. Beyond, is a classic Vittorio Storaro vista of mist, narrow streets strewn with petals under arching yellow and orange pennants, Keanu steps through.
The sequence takes all morning. The horse is spooked by the elephants, a multicolour-stained trio which packs away bales of straw while, atop, three handlers in red turbans eat their boxed lunches, and idly flap elephant ears with their bare feet. By midday, dry ice replaces the mist. Storaro, perennially the fashion plate in subtle shades of khaki jumper, corduroys, US forage cap, and cognac aviator's scarf, is everywhere with his light meter. 'One of the joy's is working with Vittorio and his people who have worked together over the years,' says Keanu. 'They create wonders, and they do it with seeming ease and grace. You know, the juxtaposition of light and camera movement - oh my God! Magic! Inspiring! A joy to watch! I've heard people say it's great to see a master chef or just see the incredible movements a body can make, you know, experiencing love-making, or in sports or ballet or even someone ploughing a field who knows what they're doing - from the Earth. Any of those examples really affect you physically, which comes into that other realm of the magnified intensified experience of joy.' He bites an apple. 'And Bernardo has that balance of artistic vision and the machines. He doesn't storyboard. A lot of storyboarding is done so that the producers have an idea of what the director is looking at. Bernardo has this vision and he comes to a place and he responds organically and comes up with something. You're working with a master, so it's a more complex process than Hollywood, but sometimes it's outrageously simple.' And he laughs at simplicity, a noun which has gained new resonances since his conversion.
Keanu has done his can-do Californian best to penetrate the mysteries of Buddhism. At Boudhanath there's a white Buddhist stupa the size of a hill, adorned with staring eyes, where Tibetan refugees turn prayer wheels and cropped monks beat gongs and chant. Echoing around the sacred dome is Bruce Springsteen, blaring from loudspeakers outside a café. 'But the people who are going there with the spirituality don't hear Bruce Springsteen,' he explains. 'If they do, it's not, you know - that might be a gift to bring them deeper into their own practise and search. Something to react against. In Buddhism, your enemy gives you your greatest gifts. How else can you practise your compassion and wisdom as strongly as against an opposite force? I've heard it said it's very hard for younger Buddhist monks here who've started wearing Western clothes. The battle is much harder for them than it is for monks in Tibet, so maybe they'll bring greater wisdom.'
Toughest transformation of all for the Hollywood star will be the eradication of selfhood, though, thanks to special effects, this will be achieved at Pinewood. Under the Bodhi tree, beside a pool, Keanu's Buddha will stretch out his hand at his reflection - and pull free his ego. 'Uh God - that's fun! That's being able to play, you know. That's what makes cinema fun and special. You can participate in special effects and, you know... other worlds. So that's the gateway. Mechanised make-believe.'
He's even managed to assimilate Pashupati nath, the Shiva shrine where they cremate the dead on ghats beside the sacred River Bag mati. Huge hawks wheel above, ravens perch and baboons scream and scuttle among the terminally ill who sit in mausoleums awaiting death. Shiva comes in many guises, including dishevelled and unkempt, and wandering Hindu ascetics, the sadhus, smeared in ashes and grime, with matted dreadlocks and mad eyes smoke the hashish pipe among the tombs. There's rumoured to be a sect that eats the dead. Beside the river, another corpse is dumped from a stretcher, the straw and then the orange shroud catches, and grey smoke billows under the corrugated iron roof. The ashes will be scattered in the river where the women wash clothes. Downstream, a small boy and a water buffalo stand in the water while he washes the animal's flanks with cupped hands.
'I went when the sun was going down, and looked across the river. I was very moved,' says Keanu. 'To me it was the real - there it is! That's life. Right there. Eight or nine saddhus, dogs, the monkeys coming in from the trees. There was a priest praying, people making dinner, children laughing, a man selling the powder. Life was continuing as they prepared the pyres. It's a very holy place. It smells holy. It's put into the water, it's put into the air. To me it was right there.'
'Little Buddha' is scheduled for release in 1994.