Pursuing the Dancer Upstairs
 
 

In the winter of 1995 I was making a film in Poland. I got from somewhere a copy of an English newspaper—The Daily Telegraph—which often has articles about what various people are reading. Actually, they're less articles than little blurbs or encapsulations. "I found so and so's book blah blah blah rather stimulating" etc. Someone, I can't remember who, was reading a novel called The Dancer Upstairs by Nicholas Shakespeare and gave the briefest synopsis of the story, and if I remember correctly, commented favorably on the tone of the book. I called my crack staff in Los Angeles for them to hunt up a copy of the book and send it along to my little cabin in the forest next to the requisite icy lake. I read the book, liked it immensely and we immediately set about trying to option it in the hopes of eventually making a film of it through our company Mr. Mudd.

After some time, we set up the film with an English distribution company, a singularly disreputable group of people who after paying to option the book spent several fruitful years ensuring that it would never be made into a movie. Why would they do that? Why would they behave that way? I actually couldn't tell you, and during the two or three years I wasted with these felons I actually didn't much think about it. I've spent many years in the film industry and have on occasions dealt with other liars, some accomplished, poetic and just plain likable, others lacking imagination, creativity or inventiveness.

The film eventually fell apart five or so years ago in Spain when we were only a few weeks from the start of shooting. Every couple of days we were told that the money to make the film would be arriving in the bank on Monday morning. Sorry, Wednesday afternoon, Thursday during siesta hours, and on and on. After a few weeks and a few hundred-thousand dollars of this, I called the owner of the distribution company, made some not so veiled threats, employed the "c" word and shortly after our relationship ended. I tried to rescue the film in a government bailout sort of way, and in the movie industry the government is the studios. I sent the script to several companies in the States and most responded promptly, some (I'm thinking of a gentleman at DreamWorks) were quite fulsome in their praise of the screenplay, but were in no way interested in financing the film.

 

The film was cancelled; the actors and crew notified, and The Dancer Upstairs became another of the film industry's dreams deferred.

During the ensuing few years we searched high and low for film financing, had scores of meetings and heard some immensely curious and entertaining reasons for financiers' distinct lack of interest. "Who is Javier Bardem?" "It's political." "It's too political." "She's old and has a fat ass." "Who cares about terrorism?" "It's about European Mexicans." "It's not political."

Eventually I met a Spanish film producer and although our relationship was at times less than fully gratifying, he said he would make the film, and wonder of wonders, he did. The Dancer Upstairs started shooting in May of 2000. We shot in Spain, Portugal and Ecuador over a nine week period. The film cost around $4,500,000 or so. Among the nationalities represented in the cast and crew were Spanish, Portuguese, Ecuadorian, Italian, British, German, Belgian, Mexican and American.

During the shooting we lost our electrician and our first and second assistant directors due to deaths in their respective families. The production company had neglected to open a bank account in Ecuador and so we arrived there after having shot in Europe for seven weeks with no money to give the crew, so I spent my two days of final preparation for the shoot going around to cash machines in Quito. The maximum amount one could withdraw was fifteen dollars, still quite a bit of money in Ecuador. A highly trained and tenured university professor might make $40 (U.S.) per month. We had a very dedicated cast and crew and with some per diem money which I had left over from other films–probably still Con Air I should hope—we were able to pay people until we eventually received our production money a few days later.

Looking back over the seven years it took us to bring the film to fruition, it seems astonishing to me that it took so long, that so few people were interested, and I must say in closing, that they were so incredibly and so pompously wrong.

©2003 Landmark Theatres