by Elizabeth Royte
Director ALFONSO ARAU is happy in Hollywood, KEANU REEVES is in the mood for love, and JUPITER is aligned with MARS on the set of 'A WALK IN THE CLOUDS'
The confab takes place between takes, off to the side, where Mexican textbooks and shiny photos of fruits and vegetable litter a folding table.
"What about the dining room table?" the production designer asks; the director.
"Just condiments, no food. Like a high-class Mexican restaurant."
"Do you want desserts?"
"Not on the table. In the kitchen."
"No! No pies!"
For A Walk in the Clouds, his first English-language, studio-backed film, the Mexican director Alfonso Arau wants the flan in the kitchen and a pot of beans cooking constantly. He wants to see masa being made and the stems on the artichokes to be at least three inches long. Everything must be authentic, authentic, authentic. We must believe the Aragon family is rich, Mexican, and rooted in the Napa Valley circa 1945. The set designers nod, and then, once Arau is out of earshot, allow for an angstrom of inauthenticity. "Would the eggs really be brown?" whispers a production assistant. "No. they would be white," answers a designer who's worked with Arau and his boy-genius cinematographer, 30-year-old Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki. "But you know" - and the four designers lean their heads together and recite - "Chivo is going to dye them brown anyway."
Arau and Lubezki, surrounded by camera equipment and the noontime hum of downtown Pasadena, are in magical-realism land, weaving a tapestry that blends light and color and passion and food with the juice of 40 acres of grapes. If it sounds a little familiar, minus the fruit, it ought to: Arau and Lubezki were responsible for the lush sensuality of Like Water for Chocolate, 1992's award-winning Mexican melodrama. The big difference between the films is that they hope more people will see this one. It's got Twentieth Century Fox and $20 million behind it, and the characters all speak English, "It's not my calling card to Hollywood," Arau says, "but to the world market." This is an opportunity for which he's been waiting 31 years.
A Walk in the Clouds, based on an Italian film called Four Steps in the Clouds, tells the story of Paul Sutton (Keanu Reeves) a shell-shocked soldier returning from war in 1945 to a wife he no longer loves. On the road selling candy, he meets Victoria Aragon (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) as she makes her way home in disgrace to her winemaking family in the Napa Valley. Victoria has just been dumped by her boyfriend. She is also pregnant. Paul, ultrasensitive to human suffering, agrees to stand in as Victoria's husband in a face-off with her overbearing father. Of course, the two fall hopelessly in love. The movie turns on the same axis as Water: Will a mean-spirited, tradition-bound parent keep the lovers apart?
Paul Sutton is a man in the mold of Gary Cooper: all-American, good-natured, perhaps a little naive. Reeves, says Arau, is perfectly suited for the role. "Keanu is like a monk. He is devoted to his craft, and he has in innocence in his spirit that I liked for this particular character."
"Keanu is incredible," reports screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen. "He's romantic, he's sensitive, he's nuanced. It's Keanu like you've never seen him before."
Reeves himself disagrees with that assessment. He reels off a list of his films - Tune In Tomorrow... ,Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, Speed, Own Private Idaho and I Love You to Death - in which, he says, he's played equally sensitive, stand-up guys. "I was shooting Speed at the time I met Mr. Arau," he says, "and I wanted to do romance. I was attracted by the passion of the character. There is an honor about him." There is also, Reeves says, "a nice connection between humanity and nature, with the wine and the family and the earth."
But is there a nice connection between Reeves and Sutton? 'The role was a tough test for Keanu," Arau says, "He was stressed and insecure about it. When I'd ask him to say a romantic phrase differently, I could sense he was worried he'd be criticized. I said, 'Trust me, I'm watching over you.'"
Today, Reeves stands on a balcony at Pasadena's Italian Renaissance-style city hall, which is dressed to stand in for a town plaza, the site of a harvest festival. He pretends to gaze down at his beloved before he leaves town for good. While Arau changes a camera angle, the actor practices looking lovelorn and torn, then rips himself away, suitcase in hand. He stays in character between every take - controlled, alert, with an almost fierce intensity. He growls, performs facial exercises.
Cameras A and B roll, and the director's assistant, the mouth to Arau's brain, yells, "Music!" A mariachi band complies, "Dancers go!" Two dozen artificially happy men and women begin to hop and whirl. Camera A focuses on the stars, who stand under a vaulted archway. Sanchez-Gijon, a dark-haired, composed-looking beauty, and Reeves, still wearing his action-hero haircut, exchange heartfelt words, a soldiers medal, and a dry but meaningful kiss. Having worked on dramatic subtleties during three weeks of rehearsal, Arau pretty much leaves his actors alone on the set. Here, be considers himself mostly a coordinator of this "apparatus." "Mr. Arau knows just what the actors and the cinematographer need," says Reeves in his typically guarded manner. "He is able to discern and inform."
Everything about Arau suggests strength - his healthy mustache, his aggressive overbite. He speaks forcefully, in a Mexican accent: his habit of smiling when he talks has worn lines in his tanned face. Arau is also a man with an evolved inner life. He meditates daily, at 4:30 A.M., and speaks of "radiating love."
He also speaks of angels who, he believes, guided him to make Walk at this exact moment in history, when his previous success, the mood of the country, the indulgence of Hollywood moneymen, the cooperation of Reeves, the splendid weather (Jupiter must be aligned with Mars...) have harmonically converged. It was angels who repaired a complicated electronic camera device when a malfunction threatened to cancel filming for a day, and angels who placed a rainbow - "an omen," says Arau - around his head as he stood in front of a battleship used for one scene. The emotionalism that marks the Latin American literary tradition of magical realism enthralls him. It's just too perfect that his camera operator is the son of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
But even the evolved can be impatient, imperious. "Allonso is very uncompromising," says Gil Netter, one of the film's producers. "He knows exactly what he wants and has no difficulty getting it," Arau has relieved three people of their jobs during Walk's shoot, when an art director on Water couldn't come up with enough white flowers to satisfy him, the director apparently became apoplectic, screaming, "You're going to ruin my dream! You're going to ruin my dream!" More white flowers were found.
Although America may perceive Arau as in art-house kind of guy, his ambition brands him as a mainstream, return-on-the-dollar kind of guy. When Miramax suggested more than ten minutes of cuts for Water's U.S. release. Arau didn't blink. "I said yes to some, no to others," he says sanguinely. "I'm used to people putting their two cents into films."
Arau's five films before Water were political satires, but never for a moment did he drop his eyes from the prize: directing in Hollywood. "That was a snob position, to be a filmmaker who was more oriented to Europe and hated Hollywood," says Arau. "For an actor, the Americans are number one, because they have talented artists, money, and technology." Arau participated in his share of obtuse, arty films, most notably the cult classic El Topo, but he was not an avant-garde filmmaker. "Audiences are more accustomed to the American pace of films thin the European." he says. "And film is both in art and an industry. It has to be paid back, and it has to be addressed to the public. Most good films are commercial."
The script for Walk landed in Arau's hands after Netter screened Water, saw it nine times more, and phoned Arau's agent. "It was my favorite movie of the last five years," Netter says, "Alfonso had the right spirit and emotion for this film."
Arau's first move was to morph the Italian family into Mexicans. "It's important to me to bring a different view of our culture to American audiences, that of an aristocratic Mexican family," he says, smiling. "We're not all bandits."
In a setting where his countrymen more typically look after cars and catering tables, Arau jokes frequently about having Mexicans - five of them in top positions - in charge. "It's not that I'm worried about hiring minorities," he says, "If we make a good film, it will elevate us as filmmakers in Hollywood and in Mexico. These people will work with me in the future."
Reeves's portrayal of a sensitive lover notwithstanding, the biggest star of Arau's major-studio debut may be its art direction. In the hacienda's vast kitchen, brown ceramic tiles line the walls and counters. Tall jars of eggs, beans, pasta, and tomatoes nestle among ceramic platters, wooden rolling pins, brass candlesticks, green glassware, and copper pots. When the family comes in from the fields to eat, they change into jackets and ties and eat off silver and crystal. It's a Martha Stewart wet dream, a hyper-charged fantasy of Mexican abundance.
Today's set, for the harvest festival, is bedizened with terracotta pots of white flowers and baskets overflowing with 48 cases of chardonnay and cabernet grapes. The female extras are dark-haired; their lips are red and their breasts are large. Between each take, a prop mistress wipes their fingerprints from the wineglasses they each hold. Briquettes of olibanum burn just off-camera, giving everything a slightly soft Like Water for Chocolate kind of look. Through the lens, the faces of the superbuff Keanu and the superfeminine Aitana glow- à la Rembrandt - and silvery light outlines their bodies. Watching dailies, the producers weep.
During a break, Giancarlo Giannini, as Victoria's father, strides around the courtyard in his charro suede suit, muttering to himself, "Eees not a proper place, not for my only daughter. Not for my only daughter." Crew members wander with clipboards and headphones, apparently talking to themselves. The AD barks, "Wet-down!" and a hose materializes to stanch the rising dust. Two lackeys watch the scene from behind the camera and then spontaneously turn toward each other and hug. Arau catches them and grins. "See how much love we have on this set?" he says. He encourages the mariachi band to serenade the cast and crew, whom he treats to dinners and salsa dancing. And now and then he plays nasty tricks on them.
One joke was staged solely to get Reeves to lighten up. While shooting in the Napa Valley, Arau put his assistant art director, Mauricio De Aguinaco into costume as a vineyard hand who opens a gate. The camera rolled. But when Anthony Quinn, playing Victoria's grandfather, arrived at the gate, he roared, "What is this bullshit? Get me the real actor!" De Aguinaco cringed in terror. Even the crew members, who knew about the joke, were a little rattled. Finally, Arau yelled, "Corte!" and cracked a smile. One can only hope that Reeves appreciated the effort.
Arau has, for most of his life, made a living off of jokes. Even as a young man, studying ballet and drama in Mexico City and acting in Mexican films, he was an acclaimed stand-up comic, With a dancer from his company, he toured Latin America and Spain. performing political satire. Then, in 1959, he launched a television variety show, El Show de Arau, in Cuba, where he stayed through the first five years of the revolution. "It was very important for me," he says. "I was in sync with the mystical ideas of the revolution, the idea that we were forging a new, more humanistic world."
In 1964, disillusioned with Castro after the missile crisis, Arau left Cuba for Paris, where he studied and performed mime. Four years later the Directors Guild of Mexico accepted him and Arau returned home to make films. But he did not forget about acting. When Sam Peckinpah came to Mexico to shoot The Wild Bunch, he cast Arau and adopted him as a protégé.
The Wild Bunch would open the doors to in acting career in Hollywood for Arau - and most of them led to typecasting. "In Mexico I played all kinds of roles, but in Hollywood I never got away from the roles of bandidos and drug dealers," he says. He means his characters in Used Cars, Romancing the Stone, and Three Amigos! Arau's smile fades. "I played those roles very well, but I got tired of them."
Arau continued directing and acting in Mexico and the States throughout the '70s and '80s, Thirteen years ago, he was up to film number five and past an unspecified number of wives when he married a teacher named Laura Esquivel. An astrologer told Esquivel, who was not a writer, to write a novel, She equivocated, but finally produced Like Water for Chocolate, which the astrologer then predicted would be a great success. And she was right: It stayed on U.S. best-seller lists for fifteen weeks. When Arau turned the book into a movie, at the astrologer's suggestion, it won ten of Mexico's most prestigious awards and became the highest grossing foreign-language film of all time. (Though it took a toll on his private life: He and Esquivel divorced after Water was released and she is now suing him for $18 million. She claims that he made her sign an agreement in English - which she doesn't understand well - giving him all rights to a Water sequel and merchandising, Arau claims her allegations ate false.) Shot for $2 million, it has so far carried $22.4 million in the United States alone.
Needless to say, Arau will do anything this astrologer tells him to. A Walk in the Clouds was scheduled to begin shooting on July 28,1994, but the astrologer suggested the 27th would be more propitious. With much grinding of gears, Arau managed to shoot one scene a day early and make the deadline. He submits himself each year to this celestial specialist for a reading of his chart. He also wears a crystal around his neck "to augment the reception of energy." He his consulted shamans in Mexico and wisemen in Tibet and has, of course, read The Celestine Prophecy - the best-seller about a spiritual quest in Peru - which he'd like to make into a movie. He has pressed the book on a lot of the crew members. "Alfonso kept saying to me, 'Thees weel be our next feelm. It weel be a huge heet!'" screenwriter Kamen says, laughing nervously. There is a dreamy quality to Walk's set, and it's not just the perfumery smoke, the redwood forest lit like a cathedral. It's this whole fuzzy mind-set that views the movie as a progressive wedge in the new world order, a film whose ripple effects will change the planet for the better.
Maybe. But the film is also baldly retrograde, with its femme fatale, her domineering dad, and her rescue by, of all things, an American soldier. Within this framework, Arau sees what he wants to: that love conquers all, that thinking positively can change the world, that we make out own reality. While he hypes the "good" Mexican values (family, tradition, romanticism), he ignores his film's male chauvinism and its hints of classism (the Aragon family is presented as New World royalty, complete with sycophantic underlings). Arau may change some Americans' perceptions of Mexicans - an avowed goal - but Walk's singular accomplishment may be to replace the narrow Peckinpah version with in equally narrow Merchant Ivory version.
"It's no coincidence that Like Water for Chocolate was successful." Arau says. "Audiences are changing, and Hollywood is registering this change. Audiences are tired of special effects and drugs and violence. There's less materialism, less love of money and things." Even Anthony Quinn is on Arau's bus. "Many times, a director has no dream, his soul is not involved in the project, he's just a traffic cop," he says. "But just looking at Alfonso, I knew what he was after: the mystic message of opening the doors of the mind, of love, affection, and reason."
Reeves, however, stolidly disavows any understanding of the shoot's spiritual dimension, acknowledging only that "Mr. Arau is a man of great pragmatism with a belief in, and a wanting to create, magic." Asked to elaborate on Arau's preoccupation with magic, Reeves answers, with peevish sarcasm, "Maybe he knows how to talk to angels." Then, for reasons obscure, he quotes Hamlet, whom he is scheduled to play in a production at the Manitoba Theatre Centre in a few months: "'Their residence, both in reputation and profit, was better both ways.'"
Arau has arranged German, Swiss, Italian, and Mexican bands around the gurgling fountain to complete his harvest festival. Relaxed and happy, the former balletomane-comedian-mime sits behind the monitors, chewing gum and tapping his foot to the music. Now and then he demonstrates to the revelers the proper way to hold an arm or turn a leg. The assistant director tells Arau the German band is ready for its close-ups. "Okay, let's go," Arau says. The AD cites the band: "Ready, guys? Let's give Alfonso something really German now. Cameras rolling, a-n-d action." The band launches into a spirited rendition of "Guantanamera," and it's two bars before Arau's eyes open wide with surprise. "Very good, very good," he says, nodding and smiling.
He lets the musicians yuk it up and gives the AD a moment to gloat, then presses them back to work. "America is waiting," he reminds them.