IT’S MAGIC TIME : Calendar goes to the movies--around the world : BOB DYLAN HAS ‘HEARTS’
Before he can even begin singing, Bob Dylan is pelted with lighted cigarettes from the audience at the Electric Ballroom and cries of “Off! Off! Off!”
To these cutting-edge punks and skinheads with their jewelry-freighted ears and noses, in this place where a stage-side gong bears a likeness of Mussolini in profile, his gentleness is passe.
But the normal exits are blocked by the hecklers and Dylan leaves the stage the only way he can--by diving headfirst into their midst. With his aureole of (lighter-than-remembered) chestnut fleece, he suggests nothing so much as a sacrificial lamb.
Then, Fiona, his young backup singer, restores order by ripping into a hard-driving ditty called “Hair of the Dog,” winning cheers with her own theatrical hair-flinging. At song’s end she hurls the audience a “Thanks for the cigarettes--but I quit!” The audience feasts on her scorn and calls Dylan back on stage, “because if it wasn’t for him we wouldn’t be here.”
Dylan reappears--to huzzahs. But his craggy face is wearily impassive. He knows too much to be moved by the fickle enthusiasm of the madding crowd.
Indeed, Dylan--or rather, Billy Parker, the character he plays in the currently shooting “Hearts of Fire"--will soon fulminate to Fiona’s Molly McGuire character:
“This business is gonna eat you up. Just like it was gonna get me. It’s this big machine. It gets you in its teeth, it sucks everything out of you. You wake up, you’re a star. So . . . you’re a star ! But there ain’t nothing to you no more. You’re empty.”
Dylan as Billy Parker is “perfect casting,” according to “Hearts” director Richard Marquand. In what the producers are calling a drama-with-music, the sensible and usually reclusive singer-songwriter plays a legendary musician who for a decade has been a self-exiled gentleman farmer in rural western Pennsylvania.
(The troupe later moved production to Toronto, doubling for Pennsylvania and other American locales, with shooting to finish this week. The $9-10 million project is a Torremodo Ltd. production for Lorimar Motion Pictures, with 20th Century Fox releasing next summer.)
Parker agrees to perform in an oldies concert in England because of the opportunities he sees there to promote Molly, his locally born protegee-heartthrob . . . only to watch her fall for British rock-sensation-of-the-moment James Colt (portrayed by Rupert Everett).
“It’s not exactly like me doing Shakespeare--it’s not a stretch in that sense,” Dylan admitted between takes of a scene shot earlier in Wales. In this setting so rich in associations--the former Robert Zimmerman from the Iron Range of Minnesota took his professional name from the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas--he was friendly, smiling and polysyllabic, all the things he was said not to have been at a preproduction press conference in London. “You could say that (like Billy Parker) I’m somebody who became famous through music and that I had certain feelings about fame.”
But Dylan, 45, never retreated from music to the extent that Parker did--though he confessed he’s “not all that aware” of current trends beyond what’s gleanable from “what I just happen to hear on the radio.”
So, despite his similarities to Dylan, Billy Parker is a character separate from him. “Really,” Dylan said, “there are a hundred guys I know in the music business who could have played this role, who have the background and experience to make it seem true.”
According to director Marquand, before accepting the Parker role, Dylan not only asked, “Do you think I can do it?” but submitted to what the director called “a private screen test.” And there is on the set whenever Dylan is shooting, a coach/dialogue director named Harold Guskin.
Guskin, who regularly coaches Marquand’s “Jagged Edge” star Glenn Close, said, “I don’t work on ‘interpretation’ as such. It’s more a matter of getting actors in tune with themselves and the role, so that they can feel free to offer a director options.”
Marquand cited a typical Dylan option: “He’ll do whatever it was that we discussed and then at the end add a smile which is so absolutely right--something that came straight from his knowledge of Billy Parker.”
Whatever insecurities Dylan may have had about acting, Marquand said he had “very definite ideas” about his character as written. “He contributed ideas about what might have happened in Billy Parker’s past. Making it rougher and tougher than what I had been thinking about. There was a very nice thing about how his father might have run a dance band and how he might have traveled around with him. And Bob felt very strongly that Billy’s reasons for dropping out should be made clear, and came up with reasons very specific to Billy’s life, such as the behavior of his manager.”
“It’s a much more professional way of making a movie,” Dylan said, comparing the give-and-take on the current project with his less collaborative association with director Sam Peckinpah on “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.” “That was Peckinpah’s kingdom, Peckinpah’s party--and he was sort of a madman. He kept saying, ‘It’s my movie, my movie'--as opposed, I guess, to MGM’s. He said it so often that you began to wonder if maybe it wasn’t his movie.”
In fact, though, to a significant extent, “Hearts of Fire” is Marquand’s movie. Taking off from a Scott Richardson original screenplay that Lorimar had acquired, Marquand reshaped the material with his “Jagged Edge” writer, Joe Eszterhas.
“In ‘Jagged Edge,’ Joe cut through a lot of the procedural stuff in court to get to the crux of the drama,” Marquand said. “Here, he cut right through the business of how you form a band, scrounge around, live in a rat-infested hovel, to get the human story going on a very high level of energy.
“The other thing was to introduce the character of Billy Parker--originally, as I recall, he existed only as a shadowy figure in the back of a record store. Because I thought that this girl setting off for England on her own would frankly get nowhere. And Billy gave me the opportunity to set up not only a romantic triangle, but, every bit as important, a generational triangle and a cultural triangle.”
The generational triangle has to do with different degrees of experience, the cultural one with different kinds.
“This ballsy contemporary girl of 19 is certainly far less experienced than this crusty, warm-hearted old rocker of about 40 with his 1960s and ‘70s frame of reference,” Marquand explained. “But they’re Americans, very much of and at home in Harrison"--the fictional Pennsylvania town named by Marquand as a nod to his “Return of the Jedi” star, Harrison Ford. “And so they both come to Europe as innocents, their luggage filled with a lot of received--and rather simple--ideas about an immensely complex situation culturally.
“I’m talking about London as an overcivilized place with its sense of the past, its roots in the past. And on top of that you have this superstructure of elegance and music and fashion and, in the background, guerrilla warfare and people being blown up in Harrods (department store). It’s the Europe that attracts and frightens Americans at the same time, this free-wheeling yet eccentric world personified in the film by James Colt.”
Roughly intermediate in age between Billy and Molly, and trapped in the pitfalls of fame that Billy decided to avoid and Molly is now threatened with, Colt is a bit of a poseur. Aided by actor Rupert Everett’s great reedy height, his jet hair, the oxymoron of his predatory profile and ripe-cherry lips, and a liquid lope, Colt’s a rock star as seen by Aubrey Beardsley.
“So, there’s a definite aspect of Henry James to it,” Marquand added. “It’s just not the same thing as her falling in love with whoever the latest hot American pop figure is. He may live in opulence in, say, Malibu, but Colt lives in an old mansion with paintings and sculpture worth a fortune.” For Marquand, who is Welsh-born and began his career in London before spending increasing amounts of time in--or near--Malibu, “all this was something that I wanted to look into personally.”
Fiona--nee Fiona Flanagan--is the 25-year-old singer-songwriter whose first wave-making LP, “Fiona” in 1985, was followed this year by “Beyond the Pale.” The videos for the former captured some of her scrubbed sultriness and a high, frank emotionalism, and led to acting offers. After begging and borrowing coaching time from, coincidentally, Harold Guskin, she guest-starred in a “Miami Vice” episode before reading for “Hearts of Fire.”
“She sort of reminds me of myself at 19,” Fiona said of Molly McGuire. “I can remember arriving in New York from a town in New Jersey that’s probably not too different from Molly’s home town, and not knowing where the Upper West Side was--though it’s kind of self-explanatory, isn’t it?
“She may be a little less ambitious than I’ve been (because) events"--or Joe Eszterhas’ compressed narrative--"let her skip over the cover bands, the day jobs, those conversations I had with friends who tell you how they’re going to make it as I watched them go nowhere. But music is definitely the most important thing in her life, as it’s been in mine.
“And I’ve been fatigued and harassed in the studio as she is, and I’ve been in relationships with men I’ve worked with--I’ve experienced that almost too often. A lot of the scenes in the movie are scenes I’ve had. I’ll be in the middle of one and it doesn’t seem like I’m acting--it’s a little scary.”
She broke off to lock eyes with Beau Hill, the producer of “Beyond the Pale” and all of her “Hearts of Fire” numbers, her collaborator on the movie’s title song and the current man in her life, and they burst into simultaneous laughter.
Because Rupert Everett has never sung in public before, there would seem to be less of a connection between him and the character of Colt than is the case with Dylan and Fiona. And because of his classroom and stage training in his native England, little to connect him with the largely “instinctual” film-acting styles of his co-stars.
But Everett, star of “Another Country” and “Dance With a Stranger,” discounts the notion that he’s the “brilliant technician” that director Marquand calls him. Even before moving to Los Angeles, where he has mostly lived since the 1984 release of “Another Country,” he considered himself essentially American-instinctual in his approach to his craft. One instinct he’s playing off of in “Hearts of Fire” is his longtime admiration for Dylan; it corresponds to his character’s admiration for Parker.
“I determined that my starting point for the film would not be meeting Molly McGuire but meeting this mad old rocker,” Everett said. “Our characters were originally written as adversaries, but Richard Marquand and Bob and I decided that was too simple--and boring--and not necessarily true. Instead, we now really like each other, which makes things interestingly complicated when things start to go wrong because we both love the same girl.”
But music is as important as romance to “Hearts of Fire,” and 22 song tracks have been prerecorded. Most everyone agrees that’s too many.
“That’s something we’re wrestling with right now,” said Marquand. “I don’t think you can expect people to sit still for three minutes, 20 times, while someone sings a song, not to mention how that would extend the length of the film. But I also can’t forget that music is central to the three characters’ lives, and that audiences will be ticked off if we don’t deliver Dylan and Fiona in at least one full song each.
“So the plan is to have some full songs and parts of songs heard either on the radio or at a concert. And to integrate them with a tough, intelligent story of three interesting people that--I hope--will say something about what it’s like to be human in 1987.”