Being with John Malkovich

The making of The Dancer Upstairs

The location: a flat off Ladbroke Grove in London. The time: 2am, early November, 1995. I’m lying across the bed, despondent, broke and just back from India where I spent my last penny taking the girlfriend to whom I’d dedicated The Dancer Upstairs  (and who is going to break up with me anyway) on a trek. In our absence the novel has been published, received good reviews and disappeared. I am wondering how I’m going to make ends meet, when the telephone rings.

It’s my American agent, calling from New York with a trifling matter to discuss. Then a studiously casual: “Oh, and John Malkovich would like to direct the movie.”

I’m not in a mood to be teased and I don’t believe him.

But he’s serious. “Malkovich wants to make a film of your novel. He wants it to be his first film. His directorial debut.”

The Dancer Upstairs  is based on the capture of a Peruvian guerrilla leader who in his ruthlessness and invisibility anticipated Osama Bin Laden by more than a decade.

It is hard to believe, but before his incarceration in 1992, Abimael Guzmán – a corpulent, black-bearded philosophy professor – was the most wanted man in the southern hemisphere. Styling himself the Chairman of the World Revolution, Guzmán sought to transform Peru into a Maoist state.

I became aware of Guzmán when I was living in Lima and read how a schoolboy had wandered into the lobby of a hotel and blown up. This was not an isolated incident. Dead dogs had been strung from lamp-posts; in a crowded Andean market a donkey had exploded; and in the coast town of Chimbote a terrified duck would drag into the telephone exchange a spluttering fuse attached to its wing. But I date the moment of my fascination to the schoolboy suicide. Who had sent him?

What discomfited people was precisely the fact that no one took responsibility for these actions. An utter secrecy pervaded the revolutionaries, known as the Shining Path. And yet month by month they crept towards the capital until in the summer of 1992, amid a flurry of car-bombs and black-outs, a spokesman announced: “We are on the point of taking power.”

Then, in September, I learnt that Guzmán had been peacefully captured while watching a boxing match on television in a room above a ballet studio.

I flew to Lima where I discovered that the ballet studio belonged to a strikingly attractive dancer, Maritza Garrido Lecca. Aged 27, the middle-class Maritza had studied at the Ballet Naçional where a director recalled her as a brilliant interpreter: “She could have been the best ballerina in Peru.” But she needed a role, a god. In Guzmán she found both.

By day she transformed her studio at 459 Calle Uno into a dance school for the daughters of the local bourgeoisie. At night she went upstairs and looked after an ailing Guzmán, who suffered, it turned out, from acute psoriasis.

Already I had my plot, born of two images: the immobile, diseased choreographer of violence, and downstairs, the slender ballerinas going through their dance steps. My novel would condense on the policeman who spent 12-years searching for Guzmán, and this policeman’s infatuation for the talented ballet teacher to whom, three evenings a week, he entrusted his daughter.

Before Malkovich chanced upon The Dancer Upstairs,  Fred Zinnemann had expressed interest in making a film. Shortly before he died, Zinnemann (“High Noon”, “From Here to Eternity”) summoned me to his London flat and said that if he could direct another movie this was the one he’d choose. His polite advice in the event of an adaptation was to concentrate on certain images: notably Guzmán’s appearance in a cage before the world’s press; and the fate I conceived for the ballerina – to be imprisoned in a cell without light. I had a powerful sense of Zinnemann godfathering this as his last project – he even wrote to Alan Parker, but by then Malkovich had contacted my agent and this had led to the early morning call, at the end of which I mumbled: “Any chance of a stab at the screenplay?”

Not that I expected my request to be considered. I knew exceptionally little about film; or, come to that, about John Malkovich. Everyone has their areas which they by-pass, and movies and theatre were mine. But I seized upon the screenplay, apart from a means to earn money, as an opportunity – possibly my only one – to experience a process about which I’d heard too many extravagant and atrocious stories.

In the early hours of the following morning, the telephone rang again: “He agrees.”

Right from the start, I armed myself with a self-protective belief that the film wasn’t going to be made – because, as everyone rushed to point out, they never are. But I was grateful for something to think about now that my love affair had ended. For two months, I spent the afternoons curled in dark cinemas. I watched Malkovich in “Dangerous Liaisons”, read Sid Field on the art of screenwriting, and also went to see Richard Curtis, the only person I knew who’d written a film. He gave me his script for “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and two bits of advice: “Never make a scene longer than three pages – and remember that every line you write is going to be watched on set by 100 technicians who have far better things to do.”

Furnished with a list of scenes that Malkovich wished included, I holed myself up in a friend’s house in Scotland. Then in March 1996, clutching the first draft, I flew to a wintry Chicago to meet the director.

“Are they flying you first class?” asked Mordecai Richler, who credited his reputation as a screenwriter to the squeaking shoes he gave in a stage direction to Laurence Harvey in “Room at the Top”.

“No.”

“Are they picking you up in a limo?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Then it’s not serious.”

Of course, it wasn’t.

At the appointed hour I waited in a café near the Steppenwolf theatre where Malkovich was performing as the Augustan rake, Lord Rochester. I was uncertain what to expect. I’d heard all sorts of rumours about the person I was shortly to meet from which no clear outline emerged: he was brilliant, fascist, irresistible to women, suspiciously effeminate (“I mean, he models clothes – and does needle-point on set”), had been a fat child, and when in a rage – to which, apparently, he was prone – could blister the skin off a hog’s back.

The man who took off his beret and sat down at my table was impeccably dressed in a tailored suit and a small-knotted tie. He spoke in a soft courteous voice, from which I learned that he’d visited Peru and was familiar with the café where much of the novel takes place. In fact, he’d been sitting there when Guzmán blacked out the city. Being susceptible to coincidences, I warned myself: This doesn’t mean he’s going to make the film.  Indeed, as he outlined his ambitions for it I found myself wondering whether celebrity and movies had allowed Malkovich to get away with what in a different context might be considered psychotic or even retarded. He had the unusual habit, for instance, when asked a question, of staring at the ceiling and not answering for several minutes. He reminded me of a cougar I happened to see a few hours later in the Chicago zoo: insouciant of its cage, of the world outside, and moving – when he decided to move – at a pace excruciatingly his own. In days to come it was a relief to learn that this felinity wasn’t an affectation and that like any wild-cat Malkovich was capable of lethal agility. To anticipate a little, I witnessed him in a Los Angeles restaurant spring from our table to rescue a man whom he’d spied toppling off a ladder, and so it surprised me less than most when – this time in Madrid – he intervened in a fight between two motorists, stopping his car, leaping out and separating the men to cheers from onlookers, who shouted: “You are my hero.”

Our daily meetings at the café established the pattern of the next two years. I would fly to Malkovich’s house in the South of France, or to wherever he was on location, and for a week we’d read through the latest draft. His credo was: the script is all – and the experience of teasing out the story was stimulating and enjoyable beyond my carefully guarded expectations. Quite different to the life of a novelist is the team-work demanded in cinema, where the load (and blame) is shared by a gang of people who tend to be more talented than the author. Although I’m credited as the screenwriter, the result was very much a collaboration. Malkovich was a natural writer. He contributed the best lines and jokes, often culled from discussing relationships that had gone wrong for both of us.

Our worlds were not commensurate, but it was impossible to remain unimpressed by Malkovich’s loyalty to a project that was never going to make him – in his terms – much money. (His agent once fumed to me that he’d had to turn down $15 million worth of business so that Malkovich could direct “The Dancer Upstairs”). I enjoyed his unsettling intelligence that could quote Faulkner one moment and the next deliver a tirade on the film industry. Finally, I applauded his decision not to cast Hollywood stars – or himself; rather, he wanted to involve the best European actors and to shoot on location in South America. However, this meant he was to experience considerable difficulty in raising finance, and I can chart our progress by the number of scripts that plopped onto his kitchen table while we worked on ours – and then became films in which he starred.

All this while, I held fast to my belief that the project wouldn’t get off the ground. So long as I travelled economy I was inured against unreasonable hopes. But the day came when I received a first-class ticket with instructions to fly to the Utah desert where Malkovich was filming the part of Cirus the Virus in the blockbuster “Con Air”.

The way in which the movie-world is constructed decrees that those who enter its portals must also take leave of their senses. I can date the moment when I awoke to my new reality. Travelling on the ticket usually reserved for Malkovich’s nanny, I was reclined in a new-style British Airways bed while, inches away, my “bed-mate”, an ugly man with a walrus moustache, kept dipping his fingers into a tin of caviar. At one point the captain announced that we were about to encounter some turbulence. Beside me Mr Caviar turned the blue of a cod absent without leave from a fishmonger’s slab. He threw down a script he was skimming and with a black and glistening finger summoned the stewardess: “Turbulence, waddya mean turbulence? Ah done like de soun of dat.” And he tried to order the plane away from its flightpath.

It both intrigued and alarmed me to discover the man’s identity: a Hollywood producer. His behaviour was a portent of the next three years.

There were a lot of explosions going on when I arrived at the “Con Air” set, in a dustbowl near a gaming town on the Nevada border. Already in France, I’d sneaked a look at the script. I understood how inadequate were my own stage directions (on Richler’s advice I’d included a squeaking shoe or two) when I read: “And then there’s the biggest f***ing explosion you’ve ever seen.”

With helicopters disintegrating all around, I sat with Malkovich in his trailer for a final comb-through. When he had to go and murder someone, I’d walk out and watch.

The set was dotted with faces I recognised from my months in the cinema. John Cusack, Nicolas Cage, Steve Buscemi. Introduced to them, I entered spontaneously into the character of an enthusiast working on his first film.

Once on my way to lunch I fell into conversation with Ving Rhames.

“That scene in ‘Pulp Fiction’ where you tell him…” I heard myself blurting.

“It’s my favourite in the whole movie.”

“Yea, well, it wasn’t in the script. I made it up.”

He made it up! Then mightn’t Ving be someone to offer practical hints on dialogue? “How did it go again?” I asked.

He looked at me thoughtfully. “I don’t remember.”

In silence, we walked towards the food-hall. This was the person responsible, apparently, for creating and delivering a brace of practically the best lines I’d heard in a film – and he couldn’t remember them.

“Sounds a great movie you’re doing with John,” said Jerry Bruckheimer, “Con Air”’s producer, as we queued for pork-ribs.

Out in the desert, another helicopter fragmented into a million pieces.

In the summer of 1997, Malkovich pronounced the script ready. He and his co-producer Russ Smith had raised the money ($5 million) from an English film company. He’d scouted the locations – in Spain, Portugal and Ecuador – and chosen the actors. In his kitchen one afternoon he switched on a video. When I saw Javier Bardem and Laura Morante read out lines that I’d written I felt the excitement of a child and, I suppose, the hope. In October 1997 the

“Dancer Upstairs” went into pre-production in Madrid and I let down my guard.

“He’s what?” said a friend, one of those who’d cautioned me against believing any word that fell from any actor’s mouth.

“He’s shooting in January.”

The location: a remote telephone kiosk on the Welsh Borders. The time: 3.50pm, November 12, 1997.

I’ve received an urgent message to ring Malkovich. His voice is sepulchral. He’s feeling, he says, “sleezed out”. Then tells me that he’s withdrawing from the film.

“But why?”

“You don’t want to know. But only a child would hope.”

It’s the English financiers. At the twelfth hour they’ve decided that the film can’t be made for $5 million and have hired an outside party to provide an estimate, coming up with a sum of $9.2 million. Nor is that all. They love the script, but they want it shaved by 10 pages. “I told them: ‘Why cut something you love?’” But the final straw, what has broken Malkovich’s back, is the remark of a line-producer foisted on him by the financiers. Flown out to Madrid and perhaps ignorant of the fact that in South America they speak Spanish, the line-producer has a problem: “What are you going to do about the street signs?”

Under the blade of the guillotine, Malkovich will not make a film for such people.

My money is running out. Frantically, I feed in my last coin, but we’re cut off.

That night I reach Russ Smith in Madrid. “Is it true?”

“You been speaking to John? Oh yeah, I can just hear it. Two pessimists together. He’s a Sagittarius for Chrissake.”

“I’m a Pisces.”

“Listen, any director would quit if they had to involve themselves with the finances. John doesn’t realise. He should be protected from knowing about things like the street signs.”

In the days ahead I learn that Malkovich has telephoned Steven Spielberg, the head of Disney, Canal Plus. But no one wants to play. In my rented cottage near Hay-on-Wye, the telephone goes dead. Months later I read in the Telegraph that Smith-Malkovich have signed a five-film deal with Granada, not one of them “The Dancer Upstairs”.

Thirteen months pass. I don’t hear anything. It’s as if Malkovich has slouched back into the Hollywood jungle, a jungle without telephones. Now a confirmed cinema-goer, I glumly watch “Con Air”, “The Three Musketeers”, “Being John Malkovich”. Friends pity me my gullibility. “You’ve been dumped- again.”

Bitter and jealous, like a spurned lover, I pen a series of “Dear John” letters that I never send. (“Do you really lack the insight, imagination and empathy to see that this is transparently similar to the way X treated you, and which enraged you so much? In the end, you’re one of the very animals you’re suggesting you’ve advanced beyond – whether you live in France or

not.”) Left in the dark, I contemplate writing an article in the spirit of John Gregory Dunne’s book Monster  (about the making of “Up Close and Personal”). It will be called: “Prima Johnna: being with John Malkovich.”

But I’m unaware of what’s going on. Rather like Abimael Guzmán, Malkovich has been creeping stealthily, invisibly towards his desire.

One Sunday night in May 1999 there’s a telephone call. In the background Nina Simone sings the title track, “Who knows where the time goes?”

It’s Malkovich. He has raised the money from a Madrid-based company, Lola Films, which has already pre-sold the film in Spain, France and South America. All the original actors are still on board.

“We start shooting tomorrow.” I can hear him purring.

The location: A cobbled street in Oporto, Portugal. The time: 10pm, June 8, 2000.

The director appears, wearing yellow socks, a beret and a three-piece grey-green moleskin suit. His face is tired, with a scruff of beard, and he smokes one cigarette after another. There have been the requisite hiccups – “last week I had a screaming match and walked off the set” – but generally it’s going well. The night before he blew the café to smithereens. And tonight he’s persuaded the Mayor to let him black out Oporto four times, beginning at 2am.

Before the black-out, we dine in a tent outside the Bishop’s palace. The Italian actress Laura Morante, who plays the ballet-teacher, sits apart with her daughter, a gawky girl in glasses. A tension makes Morante jumpy. Her movements are bird-like, as if she’s harbouring a terrorist.

In contrast, Javier Bardem (an Oscar nominee for his part in Before Night Falls) is liquidly charming, pouring himself like a cocktail in and out of conversation. Sad-eyed and stocky he resembles a Spanish Clark Gable – a Gable who, as the director observes, likes his tucker. While Malkovich prods at his scrambled eggs and lettuce, Bardem devours a plate of lamb and then appears with three different desserts which he offers around.

“He’s a beast,” says Malkovich, discussing the previous week’s shoot. “The camera looks at him and just can’t pull away. I knew he’d be good, but not this good.”

Afterwards, in a light rain, I follow the actors to the set, a European city of half a million people. Cheerful policemen block off the centre, hemming in a curious crowd. Beyond the barriers, a 100 or so technicians concentrate on a bridge where six dead dogs are suspended from lamp-posts. In the rain, the dogs – they include a dalmatian brought up from a pound in Lisbon – look eerie, if rather well-fed.

It is, I have to say, a bizarre sensation to see dead dogs dangling from Oporto’s lamp-posts and then to watch the city vanish into blackness while troops, tanks and helicopters clatter through the night – all because of a story I’ve written. That night, for a few unrepeatable hours, I feel confirmed on my chosen path.

And later when I see the edited film, I am impressed, even moved. It departs from the novel in many respects, but not in its ambition to extract and re-present the quality that Malkovich says attracted him to the story. “What I like about Rejas,” he once told me of the fictional policeman who captures the Guzman-figure, “is that his life is about loss.”

It is, however, the difference between the two genres that chastens me on the morning after the black-out. A film – even an art-house movie – will be seen by an audience of hundreds of thousands, if not millions. One simply doesn’t have these expectations for a novel, and maybe on this day it’s a good thing. The rain has cleared and a smell of pork and clams drifts along

the tiled facades of Rua das Carmelitas, where I go to look for a copy of The Dancer Upstairs in Oporto’s best bookshop. The novel has been published in Portuguese a month before, but in Livraria Lello the staff can find no record of it. They telephone my publisher, Dom Quixote. The girl in publicity has never heard of me.

And perhaps the film will not see the light of day either.

Location: The East Coast of Tasmania. Time: November 13, 2002, 2am. A message from Malkovich on the answering-machine. The British Board of Censors are refusing to release the film unless he cuts out a scene in which a chicken is apparently distressed. “You’re banned in Britain.”

Location: Tasmania. Time; December 12, 2002. Following confirmation by the chicken’s owner in Ecuador that his animal returned home safe, the film is out. My parents have emailed me the reviews. “Triumphant” – The Guardian; “A hard debut to top” – Evening Standard; “A Gripping thriller”- The Observer.

Since the closest cinema, in St Mary’s on the east coast, burnt down last month, I’ll have to go to Hobart to see it.

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