Almost 30 years ago, British screenwriter Robert Bolt recommended an acclaimed but little-read masterpiece to his friend, Italian producer Fernando Ghia. "With great difficulty," Ghia admits, he struggled through Nostromo. Then he read it again. And again. Joseph Conrad's story took possession of him like the lust for silver that is at the heart of the book. Bolt, who had won Oscars as scriptwriter for Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, suggested turning the novel into a feature film. Intrigued, Ghia insisted that two hours was hardly enough to do justice to the tangled tale of love, revolution and greed set in South America in the 1890s. Ghia and Bolt did collaborate on another South American epic, The Mission, starring Robert De Niro, released in 1986. But their joint dream of adapting Nostromo suffered an amicable separation as Bolt pursued the feature film route with director David Lean, a prospect that ended with Lean's death in 1991. Meanwhile, Ghia sought international backing for a six-hour television adaptation that would be true to Conrad's incomparable storytelling gifts, an effort that has at last borne exotic and wonderful fruit in Joseph Conrad's Nostromo.
Ghia recently talked about the epic effort required to bring Nostromo to television.
What attracted you to Nostromo?
On one level, it's an immensely exciting story -- a kind of South American western with good guys and bad guys and a hidden treasure. But on another level, it's a powerful allegory about Third World exploitation. You must remember that Conrad was writing almost a century ago, when many of the smaller countries still had a chance to become great. Being an artist, he picked up on something which had not yet reached a tragic dimension, and he put it down on paper.
Is that why you decided to shoot on location in South America?
I believed that would give the film an authenticity we could not achieve in any other way. We could have shot in Spain, which has a superb film industry infrastructure, and where everything we needed could have been created: a silver mine, a jungle, a city, a harbor. But you cannot create the look on people's faces, the way they move, their culture. With Conrad, we have to feel that we are on another planet, which is not possible in Spain. So I went to Costa Rica, Cuba and many other places looking for all the right elements. These I finally found in Cartagena, Colombia.
What made Cartagena so perfect?
It is a magical place, and it has everything that is in the book, which the Colombian authorities very graciously put at our disposal. Of course, we had a huge construction job with sets and props, but the basic elements were all there -- a beautiful harbor, a wild jungle, a massive old fort, an island, a ruined cathedral and a perfectly preserved Spanish colonial town -- all within 30 minutes of each other. It was extraordinary. But above all, the people were extraordinary. There is a wonderful spirit there that really captures you.
Does Cartagena have a film infrastructure?
None -- which turned out to be an advantage, because it was much cheaper to shoot there. At the outset I was very honest with the president of Colombia, Ernesto Samper, about this. I explained that we were under no illusions that we were doing the Colombian people a favor by filming there. On the contrary, they were doing us a favor, and I only wanted to know if we were welcome as guests. He was extremely friendly and said that if the film was everything we expected it to be, it could only be a plus for his country, and he offered the full cooperation of his government, which he gave.
Yet you must have faced tremendous problems?
Yes, there were many problems. But if you can handle the problems, you get back something which is quite extraordinary. Let me give you an example. We needed horses. They have beautiful horses, but they are not film horses. On the one hand, you buy a problem because you don't have the typical Hollywood horse which is disciplined and does what you want. But on the other hand, you buy yourself an enormous bonus because you put on screen a creature that immediately captures your attention because it is different. The local horses are a small breed and do not gallop because they would die in the extreme heat. Instead, they do something quite strange to us -- something called "paso fino," which is between a run and a gallop. This captures Conrad's atmosphere in a way you could never have planned.
There is another example. Cartagena's most famous resident is Gabriel García Márquez, the great novelist who has written One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. He used to visit the set, and one day he was watching a scene at the mine with hundreds of extras -- local Indians who dress and move in a special way that you could never teach anybody. He said, "This is authentic. This is real to this place. These people, these faces, these colors are not like a film."
It is something that a Hollywood director may have seen as a problem because it is so unfamiliar, but it is exactly what we were trying to achieve.
Is Márquez a fan of Conrad?
You know in Love in the Time of Cholera there is a passage in which he introduces Conrad as a character: Conrad is an arms dealer in South America during his career as a merchant seaman, before he becomes a writer. Well, one evening Márquez was visiting the set with his wife, and our camera operator, who is Italian, brought him a copy of the Italian translation of Love in the Time of Cholera to autograph. Márquez immediately turned to the page in which he mentions Conrad, and he read the passage to the entire crew, in Italian. At the end he said, "It looks like even in Italian I'm a good writer!"
Did the "Tower of Babel" aspect of using an international cast and crew create problems?
No, it became like an incredible melting pot, in which everybody was bringing in their experiences, their different views, their different languages, their different habits. We all felt that we were taking part in an incredible adventure. This was fortunate, for had it been otherwise I would have been in real trouble.
Do you think there are ways that your film improves on the book?
First you have to understand that it is a very difficult book to read. Conrad does not make it easy. You don't read it like you drink a glass of water. The problem is that Conrad shifts back and forth in time. What we have done is narrate the story in a straight line while being completely loyal to the plot and the characters.
The other thing you have to realize is that the story was published as a serial, so that Conrad was making it up as he went along. In doing this he left out an important link between Nostromo and Emilia, the wife of Charles Gould, who is the mine owner. At the climax of the story, Nostromo reveals a secret to her, yet Conrad does not lay the psychological groundwork for this act of confidence. He suggests it, but we've developed it a little more. That is as far as we've gone to change what Conrad put on the page.
Do you think that your film will help people pick up the book and be able to get through it?
I believe so. I am very optimistic. As you can see, I'm a kind of Nostromo addict. I love the work.
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