HOLLYWOOD INVADES NICARAGUA

There are so many strange sights in this sprawling, impoverished city that it hardly seemed unusual to walk into the "Walker" movie production offices here and find the front room filled with a forest of fake tree trunks.

In a country where there are shortages of everything but potholes in the streets, the production staff labors in a daily scavenger hunt for provisions.

The toilet paper, like the tree trunks, has been flown in from Mexico City. The cans of paint, to whitewash set walls, come from Costa Rica. The antique cylinder rifles were shipped in from London, which is where the dailies (each day's footage) are sent out twice a week.

"Because of the (U.S. economic) blockade, we have to look everywhere for everything," explained Rosa Maria Roffiel, an energetic Mexican film industry veteran who serves as the movie's production coordinator. "It's very hard, so you have to be very, well, ingenious."

A raucous adventure based on a 19th-Century American zealot who invaded Nicaragua and declared himself "president," "Walker" stars Ed Harris and is being made by executive producer Edward Pressman and Universal Pictures, which is scheduled to distribute the film later this fall. Though the story is set in the 1850s, it seems likely to stir up controversy because of the thinly veiled parallels that it draws between Walker's escapades and the Reagan Administration's current efforts to overthrow the elected Sandinista government via the U.S.-backed contra rebels.

The search for scarce supplies and equipment, coming on top of the rigors of making a $6-million movie in a war-torn country, has also taken its toll.

After concluding a round of hurried phone calls--a few in English, most in Spanish--Rofiel showed a visitor a pair of pictures of her on the wall behind her desk. "This one was taken about six weeks ago," she said, pointing to one on the left. "See, how young and beautiful I look!"

Roffiel gestured toward the other picture. "That was taken yesterday. And look at me. I look older than my mother's mother!"

As Roffiel laughed, a battered Daihatsu rumbled into the driveway. The Korean-made car belched a big cloud of black smoke as it lurched to a halt next to a Russian jeep, perhaps the only auto in town with four gear-shift levers, all pointing in different directions.

The driver opened his trunk and hefted a huge black trash bag, which he threw over his shoulder and lugged inside, dropping it by the nearest tree trunk. The office was crowded with members of the production crew and small children, who kept racing outside to a backyard barbecue, where a pair of local women were cooking lunch.

Nearby, one of the producers sat by a shortwave radio, which, due to the chaotic nature of the country's phone system, was the only reliable means of communicating with the crew out on the set. Over the radio, you could hear the London accent of director Alex Cox, who asked to talk to one of the producers, saying, "We've got to find out which church we have permission to ride the horse into."

A visitor asked Angel Flores Marini, one of the film's Mexican co-producers, what rare commodities were stashed in the bag that just arrived. Could it be canisters of film? Fresh fruit? More toilet paper?

"No," Marini said, with a wave of his hand. "It's money. The biggest bill here is a 1,000-cordoba note, which is worth about 35 cents. We have to find so much money just for the crew alone that we need the government's help to round up enough currency. We have bags like that coming in all the time."

Marini wasn't exaggerating. It takes such a thick sheaf of bills to pay for a meal that when a "Walker" crew member asked a friend how much money he needed for dinner one night, he replied, "Give me about five inches worth."

A small barefoot boy stood at the edge of the film set in Granada, a stately Old World-style town on the shore of Lake Nicaragua where most of "Walker" has been filming for the past five weeks. (Production should be completed in early May, although Cox plans to edit the majority of the film here.)

The boy eyed the lanky director as he showed a group of actors, weary from the sweltering 90 heat, how to form a firing squad. The boy, wearing rolled-up trousers, a bulky cotton shirt and a floppy hat that drooped down over his ears, was selling local cigarettes and chewing gum from a pan hanging around his neck.

As the men loaded their rifles, one of the crew asked the child if he knew what the film was about. " Si, " he said shyly, staring at the ground.

"Well, who?" the crew member asked.

" El gringo malo (the bad American)," the boy said.

"And do you know what happens to him?"

The boy grinned, nodding his head up and down: "We kill him."

In the United States, William Walker is a tiny footnote to history. Born in Nashville, he was an obscure adventurer, journalist and supporter of slavery who, with a ragtag band of volunteers, invaded Nicaragua in 1855, when the country was viewed as a key site for an Atlantic-Pacific canal. With the financial aid of a pair of renegade members of Cornelius Vanderbilt's shipping firm, Walker took control and declared himself president in 1856, eager to transform Nicaragua and its Central American neighbors into what he saw as a model slave society.

Though Walker's regime was officially recognized by the United States, he was forced out of the country after a year's reign. In 1861, trying to regain power, Walker was captured by the British Navy and turned over to the Honduran government, which executed him by firing squad.

But here, and in the rest of Central America, Walker is considerably better known, serving as a graphic symbol--the gringo malo-- of the many U.S. occupations of Nicaragua. Each day, hundreds of awe-struck Granada schoolgirls, dressed in starched blue-and-white uniforms, would swarm around the edge of the set, notebooks in hand, as if watching an elaborate history lesson unfold.

(Locals here remind visitors that the U.S. Marines repeatedly landed in Nicaragua, occupying the country from 1912 to 1925 and again from 1926 to 1933. During the latter stay, the troops helped usher into power the Somoza family, which ruled Nicaragua for two generations until overthrown by the Sandinistas in 1979. Ironically, the Marines left behind something positive--baseball.)

"Walker was an American cutthroat, like an Oliver North-type pirate," Alex Cox explained as he sat on the porch of the film's production headquarters, a two-story, whitewashed building that once housed the Granada Social Club, a meeting place for the local elite.

"No one knows about him in the U.S. because he was a (foul)-up. They don't remember failures in America. They name streets after Teddy Roosevelt and Gen. Pershing, not William Walker."

A tall, slender man with a bushy mustache and shoulder-length auburn hair usually tucked up in a red bandanna, Cox looks a little like a pirate himself, of the cinematic variety. A maverick director best known for such sly, hallucinatory films as "Repo Man" and "Sid & Nancy" (his next film, "Straight to Hell," is due out this summer), it's easy to see why the cast has half-jokingly dubbed him "The Contortionist." When Cox is directing, he gets so involved in the scene that he begins to wrap his long arms around his neck, either tugging at his shoulder blades or grabbing his hip bones, as if he were somehow worried that his limbs were on the verge of flying off into space.

Cox's actors are fiercely loyal, and not just because he'd rather go out for beers with them than oversee production meetings at the end of the day. When his firing squad of soldiers set off its first volley of blanks, Cox stood, facing the soldiers, next to the actor playing the victim, as if to reassure his troops that if anything were to go awry he would be the first to know.

"Alex is one of those rare directors who's thinking of you even when you're not working together," explained Sy Richardson, a black actor who plays one of Walker's right-hand men and has become a familiar member of the director's stock company. "I have a wall full of post cards that he's sent me from wherever he's visiting. There's no color barrier with him. When I saw the script for 'Repo Man,' I figured I'd get offered the one black part. But Alex wouldn't even let me read for it. He said, 'You can't have it. You'll have to be someone else.'

"It was the same way on this film. He told me, 'You're C. C. Hornsby. Lose 30 pounds, build up your muscles and get down to Nicaragua!' "

Richardson patted his slimmed-down stomach. "I started going to Nautilus the next day. As long as Alex can give us a place to work and somewhere to sleep, we'll do the movie--no questions asked."

Cox first learned of Walker in a magazine article he read several years ago about the history of American intervention in Nicaragua. Cox approached Rudy Wurlitzer, a veteran Hollywood screenwriter ("Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid" and "Two-Lane Blacktop"), who agreed to write the screenplay.

The script sticks closely to historical fact, even to the point of including a character, played in the film by "Children of a Lesser God" Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin, who is based on Ellen Martin, Walker's hearing-impaired American fiancee. However, the scenario is also dotted with what Cox refers to as "anachronisms." Walker's soldiers of fortune (known in the film as the Immortals) are outfitted in period garb, but they're occasionally contrasted with more modern images--a bullet-riddled plane, crashed in the jungle; a battered automobile; a baseball bat and a mysterious, hovering helicopter.

"If people want to see a connection with today, that's fine," Cox said. "The whole idea is to steer the film away from a drab 'Masterpiece Theatre' presentation. We want to give it a sense of humor, so we can reach a broader audience, not just the people who go to the art houses on Wilshire Boulevard."

Initially, some cast members were concerned about their safety here, especially after word filtered out that the contras had launched an unsuccessful attack on the power lines just outside Managua the week filming began.

"I had my trepidations at first about whether I'd have to comb the lead out of my hair before I went to sleep each night," admitted Gerrit Graham, who plays one of Walker's brothers. "I guess I'm like every other ignorant American, not knowing what's going on down here and worrying, because I have a wife and two kids to think about. But frankly, as soon as I arrived at the airport, I figured--well, that's it. My life's been changed just from getting here in one piece."

Cox insists the company is in safe hands, citing the Marxist government's enthusiastic cooperation. Several Sandinista leaders, including Vice President Sergio Ramirez, read the script before it went into production, offering advice on historical accuracy and period settings. They've also provided the film makers with a fleet of taxis (such a rare commodity in Managua that drivers need special credentials just to leave the city), and hard-to-find hotel accommodations, and smoothed over many other bureaucratic hurdles.

"The misconceptions are amazing," he said. "People thought I was crazy when I insisted that we shoot here. They think it's a war zone, like Beirut.

"Actually, it's done wonders for everyone's morale, because you see a place where individuals can make a difference. In the U.S. and England, you get very cynical because you assume that if it's not Reagan or Thatcher, it'd be someone just as bad." Cox laughed. "Just like the film industry."

Cox frowned. "What's tragic is that we really have an easy life here. Unlike the people here, who have shortages everywhere, we have plenty of food and supplies and we're treated like kings. But every once in a while, we see the results, on everyday people, of this genocidal war that's still going on, financed by American tax dollars. It's so absurd. Look around this country. Is this place a threat to the Western Hemisphere?

"The other day, one of our drivers didn't come to work. It turns out it was because his son had been killed by the contras or the CIA or whoever's operating up north, and he took the day off for the funeral. He was back the next day, wearing sunglasses so we wouldn't worry or see his tears."

Cox shrugged. "That sort of thing does take some of the fun out of it."

It's an hour's drive from Managua to Granada, a sleepy town of about 4,500 people, most of whom seem to crowd around the fringes of the film set each day. Every day at about 6 a.m., the cast and crew--most of whom stay at the Hotel Intercontinental, a favorite hang-out for foreign correspondents in Managua--crowd into a small bus that shuttles them to Granada.

There's not much talk on the trip out, as the cast either mull over their upcoming scenes or watch the scenery. The rainy season isn't due until May, so the countryside is dry, dusty and filled with the pungent aroma of smoke from fires burning in the fields.

On the outskirts of town, people are lined up along each block, waiting for a ride to work. City buses, like everything else in Managua, are in short supply, so it's common to see workers jammed in the back of pickup and flat-bed trucks, which are often so overloaded that passengers ride on top of piles of feed bags or on the outside, hanging from the rear bumpers. The streets are also populated with baby-faced Sandinista soldiers, most still in their teens, outfitted in green fatigues and carrying AK-47 rifles.

Even though Granada is only 30 miles away, it's easy to feel as if you're going back in time as the bus heads out of Managua, past the rubble and shells of buildings destroyed in the 1972 earthquake. Mothers carry babies in netting on their shoulders, while young girls take fruit to their village, balancing it in baskets on their heads. Sometimes the bus slows to a halt, either waiting to pass a horse and cart or a woman, wearing a bright yellow turban, riding a pony down the highway.

The road is also dotted with rusted, broken-down jeeps and small white crosses, which mark the scene of traffic fatalities. It's easy to understand why the roads are dangerous. Every stretch of highway is pockmarked with holes and ditches, prompting the bus and taxi drivers to weave sharply back and forth, often across the center line into oncoming traffic.

One of the few reminders of the present are revolutionary slogans ( "Sandino Vive," a tribute to the Sandinistas' namesake, a 1920s revolutionary leader) and opposition party billboards ( "Cristianos Al Poder," touting the rival Social Christian Party), which are painted, graffiti-style, on virtually every wall and building, often right next to signs touting Pepsi and Esso gasoline.

One morning, riding in one of the film company's flotilla of rented cabs, Luis Contreras, a Mexican-born actor who plays one of Walker's cutthroats, cheerfully explained how he concludes his role in the film.

"I die a great death in the movie," Contreras explained. "We're trapped, in the midst of a battle, when I say to Walker, 'I'm not going through that hole in the wall!' But I told Alex, 'Why can't I say, 'Benito ain't going through no wall!' "

Contreras paused as the cab swerved, first to avoid a row of potholes, then to narrowly dodge a ramshackle truck which was transporting chickens to the market. The driver, whose gear-shift knob featured a portrait of the Virgin of Guadelupe, seemed to know every gouge in the road--and how to avoid it at any cost.

Out the window, you could see the contrasts of the countryside. Perched on a hillside were two homes--a sumptuous Spanish-style hacienda with a statue and a fountain in the front yard, and its next-door neighbor, a shack with rusty tin walls and a roof of thatched palm fronds.

"Alex liked that," Contreras said as he continued his story. "So now I get my name in the picture. And I don't just get shot once--between the eyes--like it was in the original script. Now, when I rush out, I get blasted five or six times, blood gushes everywhere and then I fall into a coffin!"

Contreras beamed. "See, what a way a go!"

Baseball is still the most popular sport here, though the Nicaraguan season ends just as the American one begins--the country's World Series was held at a ramshackle Pacific Coast League-type park in Managua in late March. In fact, no less an authority than ex-Clash member Joe Strummer--a Gorblimey Brit--predicts that "within five years" the major leagues will "be filled" with Nicaraguan stars.

That may be overly optimistic. But signs of the sport are everywhere. "Wherever I've gone, I've seen these impromptu baseball games," said Strummer, who looked virtually unrecognizable under a thick beard he's grown for his role as one of Walker's Immortals. "You see these kids with make-shift paper bags as gloves, using wadded-up cardboard or even fruit as baseballs."

However, because of a sweeping U.S. government-imposed economic embargo, it's almost impossible to see any of America's most popular exports--new movies. While there are 120 theaters spread across the country, with 32 in Managua alone, most appear to be in disrepair. One drive-in theater, just outside Managua, with a Spanish-language film called "Tomboy" billed on the marquee, was surrounded by a sprawling collection of shacks and lean-tos.

According to Carlos Alvarez, head of In Cine, the state-run film board, most theaters survive on either independent films (often from the Cannon Group), European and Asian movies or old Hollywood classics, many of which they obtain through middle-men in Panama and other Central American countries. Films currently playing around town ranged from "Key Largo" to a kung-fu epic called "Black Panter."

It's symbolic of how difficult it is to obtain quality overseas product that when In Cine attempted to distribute a copy of the Beatles classic "A Hard Day's Night," it took nearly a year to secure a presentable print.

"First they sent us a copy without any Spanish subtitles," Alvarez said. "Then they sent us a print with such bad sound that we had to send it back, too. Finally, we got a copy with good sound, except that one of the reels came without any subtitles. We thought that with all the dialogue in the movie, no one would understand what was going on, so we cut out all the big speeches in that reel."

Alvarez grinned. "I'm not so sure that made the film any easier to follow. But we didn't know what else to do, so we tried."

With U.S. films scarce and domestic movies expensive to mount, local artists have turned to theater. Actors here credit its resurgence to the government, which has encouraged local troupes, partially because of the literary background of many top officials, in part because theater helps dramatize the Sandinista political cause.

"The arts have really flourished since the Revolution," explained Evelyn Martinez, an actress here who's also appearing in "Walker." "Under Somoza, the arts were neglected. He was very vulgar--he only liked 'La Cuccaracha' music and American things. Nothing we could do here was any good.

"Now, in the theater, we work with the Ministry of the Interior doing dramas based on their real-life police cases. We've put on a show about a juvenile delinquent and one about a cocaine-smuggling affair, where I play a CIA contact here. That's why this movie means a lot to us, because it shows what we've gone through and maybe will tell your people what we're trying to do here."

After eyeing all the Sandinista soldiers in Managua with real AK-47s slung over their shoulders, it was reassuring to see the cast here, outfitted either with fake wooden guns or antique British rifles, armed with blanks. Still, after a few days in the tropical heat here, it was easy to get all that firepower confused.

One afternoon, one of the extras awoke from a brief snooze, reached over and picked up a rifle that belonged to a Nicaraguan soldier dozing next door. Quickly realizing his error, he gingerly put the rifle back down, grabbed a wooden one and mumbled, to no one in particular, "I think I'll just keep this one for now."

One of the friendliest young Nicaraguan soldiers here was serving as a technical adviser, helping load blanks into the antique rifles being used for the firing squad scenes. A visitor asked where the old guns came from. "England," he replied, demonstrating how they worked.

"And the blanks--where are they from?" he was asked. He seemed momentarily puzzled. "England, too," he finally said. Then he grinned, shaking a tobacco tin full of blanks.

"We don't use fake bullets here."

Waiting for Cox to finish rehearsing with Ed Harris, a quartet of camera crew members squatted on the ground, drawing a complicated series of squiggly lines in the dirt. It seemed as if they were choreographing a fancy tracking shot. On closer inspection, you realized that this powwow had a more practical purpose.

"OK, here's the hotel," explained David Bridges, Cox's director of photography, giving his crew directions to a highly prized oasis--a good restaurant. He drew another line in the dirt. "Now you take the road about 10 blocks, then make a left at the big Sandino billboard. The restaurant's just off the road from there."

With its beautiful churches, broad central plaza and buildings with wide marble dance floors, Granada looks virtually untouched by the tumultuous events of the past decade. The war, which makes headlines in the papers every day, seems far away. (The soldiers you see on the streets here are often armed with more books than rifles, a result of regular morning education courses.)

Many of the thoroughfares are still tiny dirt roads, and just a block away from the film's central location sidewalk vendors sell pink fruit punch and chunks of chicken wrapped in palm leaves. When twilight comes, the air quickly fills with bats, who swoop out of the church belfries, whirling around the central square.

The film company's only major alteration has been to cover the paved streets in the center of town with a thick layer of dirt, which often swirls in the air when the wind kicks up each afternoon. During the midday heat, the actors and extras who play Walker's troops lounge in the shade, wearing uniforms of blue cavalry fatigues, boots and bandannas which give them the look of a battalion of weary Civil War soldiers on bivouac.

With all the horses and oxen around, it also smells like a bivouac. Despite the stench, swarms of mosquitoes and primitive working conditions, there are few complaints. None of the actors, even star Harris, have anything remotely resembling the requisite mobile homes. They change clothes in a pair of supply trucks, and when in costume, their street clothes hang on clotheslines in plastic bags in front of the production office.

Eager to get out of the heat, some crew members gather in the lobby, sipping coffee or beer in stuffed chairs underneath a travel poster from Cuba, showing stands of swaying palm trees and sunny beaches. A few, surrounded by a clump of local kids, watch "The Flintstones" on an ancient Philco TV, while others sit patiently near a pair of telephones, waiting for a long-distance operator. Getting a call through to the States (or just to Managua) is a whole other adventure. Some actors grumbled of spending several days trying to make a call home. It was easy to spot someone who'd finally made a connection--they were the ones shouting over the static.

It's so hard to get current information that four days after the Academy Awards, many actors were still quizzing visitors about who'd won the big awards. New arrivals here always draw a crowd of curious onlookers, eager for a look at a day-old newspaper or word of current baseball scores. (Likewise, because of Nicaragua's notoriously erratic mail service, departing visitors are swamped with letters and packages to take back to the States.)

There are many visitors to the set--Sandinista Minister of Culture Ernesto Cardenal has been by, as have correspondents from the Nation, Newsweek, In These Times and several European publications. But a pair of Russian advisers working on a nearby irrigation project attracted the most attention. Dressed in floppy white shirts and shorts, each with a '50s-style camera around his neck, they had the distracted air of tourists who'd stumbled on a surprise attraction somehow missing from their tour guides.

Gerrit Graham nudged fellow actor Rene Auberjonois, who plays Henningson, a Swedish soldier of fortune who falls in with Walker's ragtag crew. "Notice our visitors over here," he said, motioning toward the two Russians. Auberjonois seemed puzzled. "Who?" he said. Graham slid over to give him a better view. "These guys," he said. "Guess where they're from. I'll give you a hint."

He pointed at the men's shoes, which looked like the kind of industrial-strength sandals you'd find in a military surplus catalogue. "Check out the footwear. It's a dead giveaway."

A grin spread across Auberjonois' face. "Ah," he said. Graham chuckled, "I think these guys are the real thing."

Earlier that day, Cox sat in a chair last occupied by the victim of the firing squad, giving an interview to a Russian TV crew. They spoke little English, Cox virtually no Russian, but he still hoped he'd got his message across.

"I made a big deal of telling them how horrible it was for a really biiiiiig superpower to terrorize a tiny, defenseless country," he related, spreading his arms wide. "Of course, I meant Afghanistan as well as Nicaragua, but I didn't mention either by name, because I figured they'd cut the Afghanistan part out of the interview."

Cox wasn't nearly as diplomatic when it came to discussing his own problems with making "Walker."

"It was almost impossible to find anyone interested in making this film at all," he said one day, watching a batch of young kids approach a pair of actors, engaging in their favorite pastime--bumming hard-to-find pens for their schoolwork. "There are a lot of cowardly people in the U.S. who aren't very interested in American history or how it applies to the present day."

Cox was particularly incensed by the actions of the film's completion-bond company, which he claimed had attempted to "dump" the movie the day after a story about preparations for the film appeared in the New York Times.

"They tried to pull the plug on us," Cox said. "They said they were canceling our bond. I'm convinced someone was leaning on them for political reasons. I've worked with bond companies before and never had any problems."

Cox said executive producer Ed Pressman and his associates rushed down to the location here. "They caved in," he said. "They came up with more money so we could continue to be bonded. I refused to speak to the bond people. I tried to alienate them the best I could."

Cox added that he's concerned about the film's links with Universal, which had provided only a small, limited release for "Repo Man." "That's definitely another problem," he said. "I'd like to find a way for someone else to distribute this film so we can be sure it will reach a lot of people."

A day later, Cox dropped another bombshell: "When you get back to the States, ask our people why none of the actors here have been paid yet. Everyone's been working for free for two weeks now. I guess paying people here a salary is considered a low priority back in L.A.

"The actors are going to have a meeting tonight about whether to go on strike or not. I really don't blame them. If I hadn't been paid, I'd strike, too. But I'm working for free."

The strike never came off, largely because most of the actors felt that the money problems were a temporary foul-up. Also, most of the cast and crew is working for reduced wages because they see the film as an important political statement. Ed Harris, according to the producers, turned down a role that would have paid him $750,000 to star in "Walker" for $50,000.

Naturally, Ed Pressman sees the film's production difficulties in a different light. He acknowledged that Cox "doesn't want to deal with Universal" because of the studio's handling of "Repo Man."

"But the fact of the matter is that Universal was the only major studio in America to make a significant offer to do the film," Pressman said, speaking from New York. "(Production chief) Sean Daniel and (studio head) Tom Pollock, who had been my attorney, have been very anxious to be involved in the movie. They've put up about half the money for the movie and they've agreed to a lot of abnormal things, like giving Alex final cut.

"They see this as their 'Blue Velvet.' Alex was affronted by that, but I think it's a good starting point. . . . If I see they don't like the movie down the line, then we'd do everything we can to get the movie to a company that does believe in it. But if Universal has been skeptical, they've been a lot less skeptical than anyone else."

Pressman also disputed Cox's account of his problems with the completion-bond firm. "The New York Times piece had no effect on the bond company," he said. "One of the individuals from the company came to the visit the set (in late March). Alex wasn't harassed at all. The film was on schedule and doing fine. Normally, a film maker would reinforce the bond company's confidence. Instead, Alex pushed all their buttons.

"I guess it's part of his idiosyncratic approach to movie making that he proceeded to tell them that the film was way behind schedule and that we'd need far more money. Then he told them, 'So what are you going to do about it--fire me?'

"After that, he refused to meet with them at all. So I had to plead with them to come back a second time to see that the film was doing fine. Alex again refused to talk to them. So the bonder required me to re-insure them and provide additional financial resources, because one of the conditions of the bond is that the director is required to speak to them.

"I've asked myself numerous times why Alex has done this. I know he has a flair for the dramatic, but this has created a great deal of tumult for no good reason. It's almost suicidal on his part."

Pressman acknowledged that there have been some "snafus" in getting payments to "some" cast members, though he insisted salary payments are now on schedule. "We had a period of a week or two where the money I was supplying was getting fouled up and not arriving on time, because it had to go through three different banks to get there. But the funds have always been sent as needed."

Does Pressman, who has worked with such colorful directors as Brian De Palma, John Milius and Oliver Stone in the past (he's currently producing Stone's "Wall Street"), have any regrets after all this uproar?

"In all my years of producing," he said, "I've never had a more difficult project. But despite all the posturing by Alex, I'm still very happy to be doing this and I applaud his achievements. We're both working for nothing--at this point--to make the film happen. I think Alex has a need to create an us-vs.-them situation sometimes, so I guess I'm saying that I wish we could find a better way to collaborate on all this."

Alex Cox calls everybody in the cast by their character names, from Ed Harris down to the bit players. "Anyway, there's a lot of Walker in Ed," Cox said with an impish grin. "He's a soft-spoken, thoughtful guy. But he's also a lunatic. He's one of those wonderful actors who's real, who's not made out of cardboard."

Lunatic--who knows? But soft-spoken? That's an understatement. Harris is sharp and inquisitive, but he's also blunt and extremely reserved--he spent several days sizing up the intruder before he agreed to an interview.

Even then he seemed shy and a bit diffident, to borrow a couple of descriptive phrases from his fellow actors. When greeting a new acquaintance, he offers a courtly bow, a signal of both good manners and an amiable aloofness.

As Harris put it: "I really don't know that I have anything particularly important to say." His body language again bore this out. When he spoke, he often gazed uncomfortably at his shoe-tops, flashing his biggest grin when his visitor announced that the interview was over.

Still, Harris is a formidable presence in the film--and on the set. Wearing his "Walker" costume--a black formal jacket (with a bullet hole in the lapel), a high-collared shirt and a broad-brimmed 19th-Century "Wide Awake" hat--he looked like a cowpoke spiffed up for a Sunday morning church meeting. He cut such an imposing figure that he always seemed surrounded by woman and children, all eager to have their picture taken with him. (Each day some lucky kid was rewarded with a rare treat--an American baseball, one of about 35 that Harris brought with him.)

Like virtually everyone here, Harris was pleasantly surprised by how open and friendly the Nicaraguans have been. "The people have been great," he said. "I haven't heard of one person being told ' Yanqui go home' or meeting any resentment at all. The people really like Americans--they separate the normal U.S. citizen from the government."

Harris obviously isn't afraid of politically explosive roles. In "Under Fire," he was a lethal mercenary in pre-Sandinista Nicaragua (shot in Mexico); in "Alamo Bay," he was a Texas redneck angered by the influx of South Vietnamese refugees. (Well, he's not always a bad guy: In "The Right Stuff," he played the saintly John Glenn.)

He acknowledged that he "didn't react immediately" to the "Walker" script at first read. "Of course, sometimes it takes me two or three readings to figure everything out," he said. "I didn't know much about Alex or his films. But he came to L.A., and when we found the restaurant we'd gone to was closed, we just sat on the sidewalk and he really sold me on it.

"I mean, he had his red bandanna on, that big mustache and long hair and I thought, 'Well, at least he's interesting looking!' "

Harris came here early, with Cox, to help scout locations and get the lay of the land. "My Spanish isn't very good, but at least I can carry on a conversation now." He offered a rare grin. "After a few beers, I'm a lot better at it.

"You do see some strange sights. When we were filming out in the country, we took a 10-mile hike one day--I affectionately call it a forced march. And in the middle of nowhere, far away from any houses or cultivated fields or anything, we stumbled onto this baseball diamond. A real one, with a pitcher's mound, a home plate and some beaten-down earth where the bases should be."

Harris shrugged. "I'm not a real political activist. I've supported the American Indian movement, but I'm not a real joiner. But when you're down here, you can't help but get the impression that what we're doing to this country is wrong. It doesn't make any sense at all, the kind of total paranoia our government has about the government here. I'm not a student of all the specifics, but I just think we should leave them alone."

It was dusk in Granada. Cox and Harris were up on the second floor of the Archbishop's home here, trying to finish one last shot on the balcony before the light faded completely. The crowds along the edge of the plaza had thinned, largely because most of the kids have scampered off to a graceful cathedral next door to attend services.

A group of green-fatigued Sandinista soldiers sat, gossiping in hushed tones by a clump of trees, half-listening to the church services, half-watching the nearby film shoot. Lorenzo O'Brien, one of the co-producers, stood in the street, having a smoke.

One of the actors, still in his cavalry britches and bandanna, stopped by to bum a cigarette. "Here, have mine. I've been kissing Cecilia," O'Brien said, referring to a member of the art department who'd recently fallen ill, first with hepatitis, then with a typhoid infection.

The actor scratched his beard and took a big step backwards. "Ah, no thanks," he said, quickly moving on.

Another crew member walked by, lugging a big case of beer to take upstairs. "Oh, no," O'Brien said. "The Archbishop is upset enough already. We can't bring a case of beer into his house!"

As it grew darker outside, the bats from the church belfry began swooping across the square, zipping past the lights illuminating the scene up on the balcony. At one end of the square, you could hear the muffled tones of the priest, leading a prayer. Upstairs, Ed Harris, as Walker, was ordering a man to face a firing squad, saying, "Treason must be punished. I have no choice."

Cox listened raptly to Harris' speech, his hands clasped behind his back, then quietly said, "Cut."

"Gentlemen, that was very good," Cox purred. "Now let's do it one more time and it's a wrap."

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