A film director in crisis must split time between her pre-production and her father. 2,492 words. Part Two. Part Three. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
It was a few days before Christmas and I was ensconced at the Hotel Raphael in Paris. Jack Kennedy, Katharine Hepburn and Marlon Brando had all stayed there. The Arc de Triomphe and the Trocadero were steps away. In my suite, elegant tapestries, wooden wall panels and period furniture surrounded me. I was back in my home country. By all accounts, I should have been thrilled but I was miserable.
My father was dying.
I had come to Paris in October for pre-production on the sequel to a celebrated and profitable erotic romantic drama which at that point was an orphan without a title. The project was at a standstill as we waited and waited for the starring actor from the original movie, Rex Durand, to sign his contract. In the meantime, he approved me as the director. Getting the job turned out to be the easiest part of making the movie.
The film was to be my third directorial assignment and to try me in ways I had never been tried before, as if all the negative forces in the universe had banded together and decided “Let’s see what she’s really made of.”
Among the complexities was the financing of the film which was partially coming from state-sponsored film funds in three European countries. Each country had requirements attached to the money. We would have to shoot in the trio of nations, and the cast and crews would have to be split between them as well. Having a European passport had been one of the reasons I had been chosen. And the other was my directing work and its sexy edge. For this was to be a very sexy film.
As usual, the first order of business was to choose the cast and locations. For months and months, the producer and I traveled to meet various actresses whom the financiers thought would be perfect for the female lead. I should have known then and there that casting this film would turn out to be an epic tug-of-war with the film partners. Naively, I had artistic aspirations for the movie. But all along, I had to fight the crassness of the choices proposed to me, which included many actresses well-known in Europe enjoying their fifteen minutes of fame and who did not balk at the nudity. The financial partners would have to approve my choices. The inevitable international flap was giving me a headache.
Back in Paris, I had settled into a routine at the Raphael. I prepped and prepped with the production designer. We were concentrating on finding a look since the locations still had to be found or locked in. When I was not working with him, I was casting. All the name actresses we approached turned us down. The process went on and on.
But the adventure came to a sudden stop when one of the European partners decided to hold back their piece of the financing. The picture now in jeopardy, my production designer was ordered back to Los Angeles. I was ordered to stay put in Paris. It was madness.
The calendar year was ending in total turmoil. I did not have a cast or a go picture. I was totally broke and waiting for a loan approval. My father was getting weaker every day and my will and sanity were tested. My anxiety mounted. “I’m probably not any good. What talent do I have? I’m a loser. I should quit right now.” Those were my thoughts.
One night, suffering from insomnia, I called my boyfriend back in Los Angeles. He told me “You did not travel all the way to Paris to fail.” I immediately fell asleep. On December 23rd, he arrived in France and we promptly left the Hotel Raphael to spend the holidays with my family.
On Christmas Day, the most crushing pain struck my father. His pancreatic cancer was marching on. I will never forget sitting in the ambulance next to my dad, holding his hand, staring into the glorious blue eyes I loved so much. I smiled, trying to communicate as much of my adoration as I could. Words were out. I squeezed his hand harder. He said he was sorry to ruin my holiday. Our eyes filled with tears. We knew.
He had a blood clot. Shortly after our arrival at the hospital, it passed. He felt better. We left him for observation. My mother was holding strong. But my business was pressing in Paris, and I had to go back. I’m ashamed to admit the break was a relief because watching my father suffer so horribly was more than I could bear. I felt like I had been thrown into a Cuisinart and tossed in every possible direction by both my father’s illness and my movie’s turmoil. Then I reminded myself about the film, “You’re in charge.” And somehow I pulled myself together.
My mood lightened some when the money for the film was found and I thought I had found our leading lady. We had been putting actresses on tape all along. With this latest French actress, we shot a screen test. The feedback was abysmal. The night before, she had been unable to sleep and it showed so another test was requested. The second test wasn’t good, either. The film’s producer asked me to send the Frenchwoman’s latest screen test to Rex in Los Angeles. When the notoriously difficult lead actor called me, he said, “I like her, but I showed the test to my friends and none of them got a hard on. Sorry.” I had never been told Rex had cast approval but he held all the cards. No him, no movie. And implicit in our conversation was: she’s out. Mind you, Rex had still not signed his contract and the picture was still not an official go.
I went to the Paris apartment of the actress and, while sipping tea, tried to convince her that she should be glad not to be part of this preposterous production. She did not buy it, and burst into tears and blamed me for misleading her. The truth is, I never fought for her.
That same week, I had to fire my first director of photography. Our collaboration during the screen tests had been trying. In the middle of them, he had thought everything was too beautiful. I had to remind him that our job was to “sell” the actress. Worst of all, he had trouble communicating. His thoughts came out all jumbled and I translated.
He had to go. One step forward, two steps back.
Then one of the financiers called me about the revised script. He said, in his honest opinion — a favorite saying of his: “in his honest opinion” – that while better the story was still uninteresting and we would be killed when compared to the original. The result was he no longer had faith that the film would work theatrically in his country. I knew the financier had a point about the script. It was never any good. I had not been blind to it, just unwilling to be totally honest with myself because I did want to direct. As a solution and to protect his personal and corporate position, the moneyman insisted the only way his company would invest in the film was if I hired one of two European actresses. But neither of them could act and the mere mention of their names made me shudder “quelle horreur!” Incensed by my refusal to consider either actress, in the fury of the moment, the executive told me to find another financier for the film. But, after catching his breath, he quickly backtracked.
That January, we were still waiting for Rex to sign. I was told that he had not liked the rewrite either. He wanted to work on the script with the original film’s screenwriter who was a good friend of his. So he did. Rex’s scripter friend arrived at the Hotel Raphael. The concierge confided that the writer hadn’t liked the suite assigned to him, even though it was identical to the rooms where the rest of us were staying. So he instructed the concierge to give him the suite reserved for Rex. The scribe came knocking at my door to invite me to dinner. He was cunning, clever, charming – and assured me he only wanted to be my friend. “It’s great that a woman is directing this sequel. My pal Rex will love you,” were his parting words.
I believe it was Fellini who said, “An artist is someone who follows his beliefs.” I was hanging on to mine. Despite the fact that, over my head, I felt the sword of Damocles hanging by a hair. Another Greek was on my mind: Sisyphus. The universe had given me a miraculous present: the return to France for my father’s last days. But I would have to carry my boulder uphill again and again.
Every day in Paris I waited anxiously for news of my father’s declining health. He was not a religious man. His mother had been taken away from him at the tender age of eight. Proof, in his mind, that God did not exist. But he was a spiritual man, a wise man, a moral working-class man and he endured, quietly. He was defined by pudeur, a word that cannot be translated but refers to reserve, modesty, decency, prudence, secrecy and scruples. That’s a perfect portrait of my beloved father.
The next day, he was rushed to the hospital because his kidneys were failing and he was in terrible pain, again. As I prepared to go to dinner with yet another actress, I tried unsuccessfully to reach his personal physician. We sat down for the meal. I was putting on a good show. In the distance, the Eiffel Tower glittered with Christmas lights. But all I could think of was my little Dad suffering in his hospital bed. Unable to wait any longer for news of his health, I excused myself and called the doctor from the restaurant. At the other end of the line, he gave me the dreaded news. The cancer had spread. It was as if an enormous avalanche of the coldest snow had buried me from head to toe.
I heard “morphine” … “right dosage” … “a decent life.”
“How long?” I asked.
I went back to the table, not saying a word about it.
Two weeks later, on February 6th, my mother phoned. “Your father is going to die. He may only have a few more days,” I now had to decide when to leave. There was still so much left to do on pre-production. That night, my boyfriend called from Los Angeles to tell me his father, a man in his fifties, just was diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor. That night, I dreamt that Rex was going around Hollywood complaining, “We have no director.” This had to be the ultimate test of my life.
Early the following morning, my producer Lawrence rang with the name of an American actress for the lead female. I could not give this news a single thought because I was running to the train station and jumping in the first TGV. I could see it was bad when I arrived home. My father had fallen into a light coma. We started a family rotation at his bedside. On February 8th, at exactly 8:45 pm, as night was falling, I sat by Dad’s bed, alone. My mother had rushed home to take a shower and change her clothes. Suddenly, my father started to groan ever so slightly. I had never seen a person die before but I instinctively recognized the death rattle. I froze for a few seconds. “Papa, Papa!” I rushed closer. That’s when an extraordinary event took place. As life left him, a yellow-orangey light floated above his bed. As the glowing energy dissipated in the air, I sat quietly. Dad had passed. As I looked at his paleness, I thought, “This is not my father. This is his shell.” A strange peace warmed me. Later on, a friend shared a profound thought with me “Your father saw you being born and you saw him die. It was meant to be.”
A horrible scene followed as my father lay dead in his hospital bed. Upon my mother’s return, she and my sister began attacking each other in such cruel and painful ways that it crossed my mind that we would all end up in a loony bin. My head and my heart were exploding with anguish as I remembered how distraught Dad would get watching us fight. And fight we did. It was a family sport inherited from my mother’s side. Many times, after the screaming had ended, my father would gently ask his daughters to try to get along with our mother. I knew how much he had dreamt of a united family and, sadly, never realized it while alive.
It was time to make my plea. With as calm a voice as I could muster, I said, “Shouldn’t we try to get along for his sake?” Stopped midstream, my mother and sister stopped and something like shame crossed their faces. We all took a long quiet breath. And from that point forward, the miracle which my father had been waiting for finally happened and ever since, we have made every effort to treat each other with kindness.
That’s how much we all loved him.
Crushed by her loss, my mother managed all the final arrangements by herself: the bushels of laurel branches, my father’s favorite tree, the flowers, the music… They had been married for fifty-three years and she was determined to take care of him one last time.
The night before the cremation I was awakened by my most intense anxieties yet. Rex had finally signed his contract and I would have to leave for Vienna that day. The weight of my father’s death and my professional obligations were about to collide. I could quit the movie and stay here with the family, or I could try to continue with the film if I could muster the strength necessary. Slowly, I was able to push the terror away. I already knew what my mother wanted me to do.