HOW DID YOU COME TO MAKE
A BORGES FILM?
In 1991, while I was in post-production on
EL PATRULLERO, I was asked by the BBC if I would be interested
in directing a short story by Borges as their contribution to a "strand" of
Borges teleplays in connection with the 500th Anniversary of the
Spanish Invasion of the New World.
I was pretty ignorant about Borges. I started reading
and discovered this marvelous writer, of course - extremely highly
regarded in Latin America and Spain. In the US and Britain
he's often called a "cult" writer, which is depressing
- as if great literature were a "cult" instead of a zenith
to which all writers should aspire.
Pretty quickly it became clear I should direct
THE ALEPH. There
were other good stories, like GARDEN OF THE FORKING PATHS and THE
CIRCULAR RUINS, but THE ALEPH was fabulous - "Quality" Period
Piece Meets 2001. I proposed it, and was told it wasn't
a good idea because it would be too difficult. The difficulty
was part of the fun, of course, but I asked the BBC producers' what
their thoughts were. They faxed me a list of about five titles: it
turned out they were the only stories to which they had the rights! Among
them were EMMA ZUNZ and DEATH & THE COMPASS.
WHY PICK DEATH & THE COMPASS AND NOT EMMA
At first I favoured EMMA ZUNZ and we discussed
Cathy Burke playing Emma. But the more I thought about it the more politically
charged it seemed: it's the story of a woman who fakes her own rape
so as to get revenge against an evil factory owner - it works brilliantly
on the page but on screen it could prove quite dubious. So
I went for DEATH & THE COMPASS, the story of a brilliant detective
whose brilliance and eclectic methodology bring about his destruction.
Borges' work is great material for the cinema
because it is so visual - his descriptions of places, of melancholy
times of day, of deadly doppelgangers, of dark coincidences formed
out of chaos, are visually spectacular.. But some things are harder
to translate than others - like the scene in DEATH & THE COMPASS
where Lonnrot finds himself in a mirrored room.
That scene seemed like a homage on Borges'
part to LADY FROM SHANGHAI - he had been a film reviewer and wrote
one of the very best reviews of CITIZEN KANE. It is brilliantly written, but it was
too daunting to attempt to emulate the work of Welles. So
I left it out entirely.
We shot a 50 minute version in 1992, which
was screened by the BBC and Spanish television. The following year I was asked by the
producer Karl Braun to shoot more scenes with money he'd obtained
from our Japanese partners, Katsumi Ishikuma and Kuniaki Negishi. We
shot another 40 minutes - adding a robbery in which an old friend
of Lonnrot's is killed, various special effects shots, and the scenes
on trial and as an old man.
Once the new stuff was shot we ran into a new
were no additional funds for post-production. Carlos Puente
and I prepared a rough cut of the feature version and set it aside. A
couple of years later I directed a "work for hire" - a
cable movie called THE WINNER (1995). It was re-edited by the
producers in the clumsiest fashion, and the magnificent soundtrack
by Pray For Rain was removed and replaced by porno tunes.
But the money I earned on this unhappy assignment
made it possible for me to complete DEATH & THE COMPASS - which had been
lying in pieces in the negative vaults of laboratories in Mexico
City, London, Seattle, and Los Angeles. The film was mixed
by Victor Barragan at Churubusco Studios, and completed in 1996.
HOW DOES THE STORY DIFFER FROM THE FILM?
You should read it! It is only 13 pages long. It is
constructed like one of Borges' pages from an imaginary dictionary
or gazetteer of a fictitious country: the last adventure of
a great detective. The plot of the story and the film
are quite similar, although the narrative of the film is less linear
-- it is broken up by the interview with Treviranus, his eventual
downfall and disgrace, and the robbery at the Used Money Repository: Treviranus
is our unreliable guide through the labyrinth.
DID YOU USE THE SAME CREW AS EL PATRULLERO?
Pretty much, yes - we had the same cameraman,
Miguel Garzon, the same production designer, Cecilia Montiel, the
same costume designer, Manuela Loaeza, and the same editor, Carlos. We had gone for
muted colour schemes in EL PATRULLERO: this time we wanted
for DEATH & THE COMPASS a brighter, more extreme design. Cecilia
came up with a specific colour strategy for each of the principal
characters. It was important to us all to try something different,
to make a film that was quite different from our previous one.
WHY IS IT NECESSARY TO BE DIFFERENT?
I don't know. It just seems important to be constantly attempting
new things. After SID & NANCY I was offered several projects
about junkies; but I have no real interest in junkies, and
I had to turn them down. After WALKER I was offered several
violent projects, including NATURAL BORN KILLERS. But I am
not interested in violence per se, either. WALKER was about
violent colonialism. I'm not interested in staging shoot 'em
ups and sadistic action sequences for their own sake.
THE CHARACTERS IN DEATH & THE COMPASS INHABIT THREE SOLITARY
WORLDS; THEY SEEM TO HAVE NO FRIENDS; THEY ARE ALIENATED.
In my films all the characters are alienated: the alienated
youth, the alienated adults, the alienated criminals, the alienated
cops, the alienated aliens. Vanderbilt in WALKER is completely
isolated and alienated, and he is the richest man in the world.
WHAT OTHER BORGES FILM ARE THERE?
According to Edgardo Cozarinsky (whose book
URBAN VOODOO Bennie Reyes is reading in his room at the beginning
of THREE BUSINESSMEN) there are two films with screenplays by Borges: INVASION ,
directed by Hugo Santiago in Argentina in 1968; and LES AUTRES,
directed by Santiago in France in 1973. Films based on Borges'
stories include DIAS DE ODIO (66 minutes, Argentina, based on "Emma
Zunz" and directed by Leoplodo Torre Nilsson in 1955); EL
HOMBRE DE LA ESQUINA ROSADA (70 minutes, Argentina, directed by Rene
Mugica in 1961; EMMA ZUNZ (54 minutes, France, directed by
Alain Magrou in 1969); and Bertolucci's SPIDER'S STRATAGEM
(based on "The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero") - made
in Italy in 1969.
(There is even another version of DEATH & THE COMPASS - a black & white
short film directed by Paul Miller at the London Film School back
in the far-off seventies, and shot by Dave Bridges -- later the cinematographer
of WALKER. Apparently Nigel Hawthorne plays Lonnrot.)
Maybe the obscurity of these films is inevitable. Borges is
cynical, sharp-witted. He documents hopelessness and
pessimism, the impossibility of change or escape, the inevitability
of fate and meaningless violence. You could not
make a Mel Gibson movie out of one of these stories, nor a Merchant
LA REVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:
ITSELF IN A CLOAK OF BEAUTY"
SET IN A TOTALITARIAN FUTURE FILMED AMID
SETTINGS OF ARCHITECTURAL GRANDEUR"
WORK OF A TALENTED VISIONARY"
Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles
FREESTANDING, COLOR-CODED COMIC
Ella Taylor, LA Weekly
IN HARSH ,SATURATED COLORS AND ALMOST
CARTOONISH IN IT'S PRESENTATION. DEATH AND THE
COMPASS IS A JARRING FILM EXPERIENCE BUT AN INTELLIGENT
ONE AS WELL"
Cathy Thompson-Georges, BOXOFFICE