KEANU'S IN THE CLOUDS
by Mike O'Connor
Keanu Reeves's latest film is a far cry from the non-stop action of Speed. MIKE O'CONNOR is on location in the Napa Valley.
KEANU Reeves, grape skins plastered over his hair and juice dripping down his face, had clearly had enough.
"Who you (expletive) talking to, man? The trees?'' The absolute silence that followed lasted for fully 10 seconds, even the birds taking this outburst as their cue to desist.
The star was upset.
Not any star but the star who today can ask and receive $10 million a picture.
The assistant director whose haranguing had so irked Reeves also, for the moment, decided to follow the path of discretion and said nothing.
The extras, dressed as Italian workers in the Californian vineyards of the late 1940s, shuffled their brown, sandal-clad feet and looked away.
On the set of 20th Century Fox's A Walk in the Clouds, Reeves's latest film, you could almost hear the fierce afternoon sun ripening the heavy clusters of deep purple grapes on the vines.
Then, as suddenly as a local rain squall, the dark cloud of anger that had crossed Reeves's face vanished, to be replaced by a smile. Reeves smiled, the extras smiled. Someone laughed, everyone laughed.
The crisis had passed. The star was happy.
"Places please, everyone,'' called the assistant director and once more, Mexican director Alfonso Arau, the man who made the extremely successful Like Water for Chocolate, got back to work.
With the box-office blockbuster Speed continuing to rake in the dollars, Keanu Reeves is now a very hot property indeed.
A Walk in the Clouds, however, which he agreed to do before Speed became a hit, marks a different direction for the young actor who has made his name in fast-paced action films. As a serviceman returning to the wine-growing region of the Napa Valley, 90 minutes drive north of San Francisco, Reeves is playing his first romantic lead opposite striking Spanish actress Aitana Sanchez Gijun.
On the set, a huge vat has been built atop a hill looking across a vista that could as easily be in South Australia's Barossa Valley or New South Wales's Hunter River region.
Rows upon trellised rows of lime-green vines shimmer in the afternoon heat, a lone hawk riding the thermals in a washed blue sky, the cultivated hills stretching away to the north and west contrasted against the scrub-covered, non-irrigated land to the south. A patina of dust covers crew, cast and equipment in spite of the best efforts of water cart operators as director Arau signals to his assistant to call "Cut''.
How many takes had it been? Six? Seven? Whatever the total, it was obvious that all was not going to plan, the result of the difficulties involved in shooting one of the film's more complex scenes in which female vineyard workers crush grapes with their feet in a dance celebrating the harvest and the procreative forces of life.
As hundreds of kilos of Napa Valley's finest cabernet grapes are crushed underfoot, Reeves and Gijun embrace to the chorus of their fellow workers, a chorus led by the patriarchal Anthony Quinn. With the cloying, sweet scent of grape juice drifting across the set, cast and crew are reminded of the danger posed by "yellow jackets'', local parlance for a particularly ferocious species of bee which had been rejoicing in the sudden appearance of more than 200 new victims from Hollywood.
Director Arau had fallen victim to them the previous day, a painful incident which underlined the warning being broadcast.
"Don't pull the stinger out. We have state-of-the-art suction equipment. We'll suck out the venom.''
In the trees dotting the hilltop hang a myriad of plastic traps, each seething with bees, lured into captivity by a hormone specially developed by a California university.
"Do not touch the traps. If you get the hormone on you, the yellowjackets will find you extremely attractive,'' warns the assistant director, adding also to beware of snakes.
"Look out for things under rocks - snakes, people from Hollywood things - like that,'' he warns before screaming for the 10th time in as many minutes for silence on the set. To one side, Quinn, cast perfectly as the moustachioed godfather figure of the family, is talking quietly to Reeves, the pair bridging three generations of movie making, the baton-passing tableau unnoticed amidst the chaos that masks the harmony of moviemaking.
Near one of the three camera positions, the ever-present assistant director, a short balding man sporting a black eyepatch, appears to be in real danger of swallowing his megaphone as he bellows for Reeves's co-star Gijun, who has retired to have her visage repaired.
"Forget the hairbrush. Get her out of there and up here. I need her for rehearsal,'' he yells, his amplified voice echoing across the hills as he does a more than reasonable imitation of a man preparing to die from a self-induced seizure.
On the set, dresses are being hiked up around shapely and not-so-shapely thighs as a merciful breeze rustles across the hill and the cast readies for yet another take. "Girls, get your legs up,'' roars the voice and the girls, in the finest traditions of the industry, oblige.
"Keanu. Where's Keanu?'' demands the loudhailer as the young actor devours a pastrami sandwich, lunch on the run as another assistant asks for "quiet, please''.
At this point, the cast has been on the set for more than four hours and director Arau is becoming a little steamed. "We are wasting so much time,'' he moans, casting an eye towards the nearest hill behind which the sun will slip in less than two hours.
Quinn, stretching out in his canvas chair, gets to his feet as the cast assembles again, Reeves joking with him that "standing enervates you''. "Dig down deep,'' advises Quinn.
Reeves decides to entertain his fellow actors with a literal interpretation of this suggestion, suddenly grabbing his crutch and roaring like an enraged bull. "It works, it works,'' he cries, mimicking one who has suddenly found the secret for surviving hour after hour of takes and retakes.
Behind him, this roar affects everyone but two draught horses harnessed to a wagon overloaded with grapes, animals which have now been standing motionless for five hours, a steadily mounting pile of fertiliser the only testament to their enduring patience.
"More grapes. Get more grapes,'' booms the megaphone as the crew leaps into action, tipping case after overflowing case into the vat, the bunches splashing into the rich juice already crushed.
The marathon scene is beginning to extract its toll as first one then two more female extras succumb to blisters on their feet from repeated barefoot dancing.
Several pieces of sticking plaster later, the scene is shot again. When "cut'' is called there is spontaneous applause from the crew and assorted bystanders.
They know the actors have got it right.
The actors, a grapejuice stained sea of smiles, know it too. "(Expletive) marvellous,'' calls the assistant director, employing the same Anglo-Saxon expression used with such effect by Reeves earlier.
With the light changing, filters are being swapped on the cameras.
It's 6.20pm, still time for two more takes of the same scene before, abruptly, the sun slides below the deep emerald outline of the hill, leaving the cast bathed in a soft, golden dusk.
"Absolutely marvellous. Take a break. We'll shoot the night sequence of fighting the frost next.'' The loudhailer instructs: "No one is dismissed,'' as Reeves mingles with his fellow players and trudges down the dusty slope towards the catering marquee for dinner.
Ahead of him stretches another two-hour shoot and 60 more days of the same, all of it riding on the hope that it will establish him firmly as one of the permanent players in the biggest game in town.