‘Old Gringo’: Romance, Revolution, Sex, Passion

At mid morning the wind hadn’t begun to play havoc on this remote, barren film location, 57 miles northeast of Mexico City. Yet daily, around noon, the hot breeze that abruptly sweeps over the landscape and creates clouds of dust is so strong that at times it threatens to halt the film making going on here.

Thirty miles away, in the shadow of the ancient Aztec pyramids at Teotihuacan, Jane Fonda was on her way to the set of “Old Gringo.” Leaving the Club Med resort there that served as her location home, she was riding in a jeep station wagon when she spotted the pancartas (placards) and heard the slogans of striking caretakers and tour guide workers at the pyramids site.

As the four-wheel-drive vehicle passed the strikers, she shouted out the window, “Si se puede!” (Yes, it’s possible!)


She explained, “I run around the pyramids on my morning run, they have no idea who I am, but I know enough Spanish to ask them how long the strike is going to last. They see me and my gringo dog and ask who I am and I say a turista and a student of Spanish. So they wave at me as I go by.”

Since mid-January, her Fonda Films has been on location at Venta de Cruz and at Churubusco Studios in Mexico City shooting Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes’ “Old Gringo,” an almost poetic novel of romance set against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution, as a feature release for next winter.

Gregory Peck is playing his first major role in some years as the Old Gringo--a character loosely based on American writer Ambrose Bierce who disappeared in Mexico during the revolution in 1913 while attempting to join the rebel troops of Pancho Villa. Along with Peck, Jimmy Smits, known to TV viewers (and celebrity magazine readers) as the handsome Victor Sifuentes on “L.A. Law,” has been cast as Tomas Arroyo, a young general aligned with Villa who has a passionate affair with Fonda’s American schoolteacher character.

Argentinian Luis Puenzo is directing the $24-million film, whose budget is a far cry from his last project, the Oscar-winning foreign language film, “The Official Story” (1985), which was shot on a shoe-string budget, mainly in his own house in Buenos Aires.

Tailor-Made for Fonda

“Old Gringo” is Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes’ valentine to Jane Fonda, whom he admires both as an actress and a political activist.

“I met Carlos Fuentes about 10 years ago in Santa Barbara,” Fonda said about the Harvard professor who has written such popular contemporary fiction as “The Death of Artemio Cruz” and “The Hydra Head.” “My husband Tom (Hayden) introduced us. I told Carlos then that I was interested in doing a project about both of our countries.”

At the time, Fuentes mentioned an unpublished manuscript called “Frontiers” that appealed to Fonda, and almost immediately they began working to adapt it for the screen as “Old Gringo.” He tailored the central character with Fonda in mind.

Fonda plays Harriet Winslow, a spinster American school teacher who comes to Mexico to teach English to the children of a wealthy Mexican family but instead becomes caught up in the revolution.

(When asked what would Harriet be doing if she were living in today’s world, Fuentes in a phone conversation from his Washington, D.C., home, replied, “She’d be Jane Fonda making a film about what she learned in Mexico.”)

“Old Gringo” is the first of Fuentes’ books to have been adapted into a movie, although he has written both plays and screenplays produced in Latin America.

Fonda’s view of the character she portrays has contemporary political ramifications. “When Harriet arrives in Mexico, her body and mind are alienated from one another. The (Mexican) culture initially terrifies her, and she’s rejecting of it. Maybe, it’s because we’re so Protestant, but our national tendency is to see another nation or another people and to be paranoid, patronizing or downright destructive.”

But ultimately, Fonda said, Harriet comes to “understand, respect and love” the differences she finds in Mexico.

“This isn’t an easy movie,” Fonda said, as she arrived at the set. “I think there’s enough passion and sex and excitement and action so the movie will be accessible to the kind of audience I want to reach. And the kind of audience I want to reach aren’t people who read. . . ,” she paused, then added, “very much. It’s important not to position it as an intellectual, anthropological film. And I’m scared that if there’s a publicity picture of me reading at the pyramid, then it’s not going to look exciting.” Suddenly, Jane Fonda, film producer, was talking about marketing strategy.

“The reason why it’s going to be the first of the Carlos Fuentes books to be a successful film is because underneath all the literary conceits is a good yarn, man. So the hook is a good yarn. Do I seem like a total sellout?” she joked.

Return of a Matinee Idol

Gregory Peck, 71, is playing the part of Ambrose Bierce, the cynical author of “The Devil’s Dictionary” who’s called “Bitters” in the film. Dressed in his character’s ministerial black suit and hat and wearing an out-of-character blue-striped down jacket to keep the slight morning chill away, the 40-year screen veteran expressed excitement about his first meaty part in years.

“I’ve never retired--although some people might think that. It’s that parts haven’t come my way in the last few years.” Peck attributes the lack of work to his advancing age, but nevertheless he is happy to be working in the production. (Burt Lancaster was originally announced for the role, but left for reasons that Columbia and Lancaster will not clarify.)

Peck last appeared on screen as the President in last year’s “Amazing Grace and Chuck,” but considers the part a cameo. And though he was also in “The Boys From Brazil” (1978), he feels that “MacArthur” (1977) was his last major film. In his view, it wasn’t seen widely because it wasn’t promoted properly.

He smiled when asked if he enjoyed being in Mexico again and recalled “The Bravados” that was shot in Mexico about 30 years ago. “One of the little ladies here worked on that film with me. She’s old now, but she still has a pretty face. She was a beauty then and I still recognize her.”

And what about his character in “Old Gringo”? Was he pleased playing a man his own age? “It makes it easier. Bierce spent most of his life working for William Randolph Hearst instead of attempting to write works of enduring quality. In his writings, you find a bunch of sarcastic cracks that he took at Mark Twain. He wished he were Twain.

"(Bierce) is a strange bird. He reminds me of a few of the characters I’ve played before. He’s an egoist like Lewt (in “Duel in the Sun”), a complete individualist who does what he damn well pleases.”

Suddenly a dust devil rose. His lines for the day, which he had carefully handwritten on yellow legal pad paper, flew in many directions from the hand-tooled leather appointment book that Fonda had given the principal characters when the film started.

After he gathered them up, a production assistant approached and asked Peck to move to the setup for the next scene. He handed the actor a silver flask that his colorful character regularly imbibes from. “What shall we put in it, Senor Peck?”

Agua mineral .”

Manna From Hollywood

The Miranda Hacienda, the sprawling ranch where Fonda’s character is employed, and where more than half of the film’s principal photography takes place, is really the remains of an 18th-Century hacienda that the film company has reconstructed in detail. At one time, it spread over 5,000 acres, but now it’s a mere 500 acres of barren farm land broken only by the noise of highway traffic.

Outside the fenced hacienda are acres of maguey cactus plants, which produce pulque (an alcoholic drink that at one time was the poor man’s version of tequila). But now there’s no market for pulque and the dry soil is so depleted that it produces only corn or beans--every other season. As a result, there is little work for the campesinos and the arrival of the movie company with jobs was considered heaven sent by the farm workers.

“Each extra gets paid 17,000 pesos a day (about $8),” said Jesus Guerrero, a Mexican film extras director, “and they have to bring their own lunch.”

Guerrero said he saw close to 1,000 potential extras before finally selecting the 250 who are used daily. On the walls of his makeshift office were hundreds of Polaroid shots of Mexican faces. Each had a number and words like “ tren /train” to identify the scenes in which they appeared.

Obviously, this film has been a boon to the local economy. “It will bring in between between $8 and $10 million in revenues spent in Mexico alone,” said David Wisnievitz, the film’s executive producer. Most will be spent on labor costs and other services. Some 500 construction workers have been used and the film has employed more than 150 technical crew members on a daily basis. Most are local hires (85% Mexicans to 15% foreigners). About 7,000 man-days are expected to be expended on extras.

When it came time for about 150 of these extras to be used in a scene when General Arroyo leads the recently freed peasants into the once-off-limits main house of the hacienda, director Puenzo himself spoke to the crowd in Spanish: “ Escuchen, por favor . We are going to do it again and we want it to be emotional. You should shout and scream. There should be more enthusiasm. No one is to just stand there.”

Suddenly, the filming was interrupted. It was the impish wind again. Bandannas were instinctively pulled up over faces to avoid breathing the dust that swept everything in sight--even a few surgical masks dotted the plaza area of the hacienda. The scene began to resemble an avant-garde movie when a young female soldier stepped out of the sirocco and began shooting the scene with her Video 8 camcorder.

There was an ill wind of another sort that day. The Mexico City newspaper El Universal blared in big, bold headlines: “Gregory Peck Suffers Serious Fall.” The next line read: “ ‘Old Gringo’ Shooting Suspended.” The text of the UPI story quoted a production assistant as the source.

The publicist for the film, Judy Arthur, quickly moved to ferret out who was responsible for the misinformation. It turned out that the paper’s “source” never existed. A meeting was held to find out what could be done to repair the damage. Peck, slightly amused by the incident, responded with a clever quote: “How could the leading Western Cowboy star of 1950 fall off his horse?”

Copies of Peck’s quote, along with a photos of him on his horse, were immediately messengered to the Mexico City newspapers. None of the dailies printed the quote, but El Heraldo used the photo with a cutline under it that said Peck was well and still working on the film.

It Sounds Familiar, Puenzo

In “The Official Story,” director Puenzo focused on a sheltered school teacher who becomes painfully aware of the Argentina she lives in. Harriet Winslow in “Old Gringo” also goes through the same sort of realization. When the similarities of the two movies were pointed out to him, Puenzo agreed. “I’ve said that often to myself, but this is the first time someone has told me that.

“My way of working is to use a few characters and dwell on the private sentiments of those characters. In that manner, one can tell a story about public events.”

Lois Bonfiglio, Fonda’s producer and partner in Fonda Films, said that Puenzo, at Fonda’s request, “sent us this . . . and I can only call it an essay . . . on what the film was about symbolically and how it could work visually. You see, that’s what had been difficult to do. The book is so elliptical, it’s language so stylistic and poetic that it almost eludes being made into a screenplay. But this worked.”

Before filming started, Puenzo came to Mexico and followed the journey as laid out in Fuentes’ book. “I went to El Paso where Bierce enters Mexico and rented an auto and journeyed through the desert just like the Old Gringo. It gave me the feel of the North of Mexico. I pretended to be a journalist and interviewed people. In Pachuca, I went to a photo archive and was given access to thousands of photographs as well as recordings of the corridos of the revolution.”

With his writing partner Aida Bortnick, he completed a treatment and returned again to the novel to give it a dramatic structure. “I think the film, by being unfaithful to the novel, will ultimately be completely faithful. The spirit is still there.”

(Fuentes, who read the 130-page Puenzo-Bortnick shooting script, came away convinced that they had cracked the code that had eluded him and other writers--including playwright Luis Valdez--who had tried their hand at adapting the novel.)

Turning his attention to his native Argentina, the 45-year-old cineaste declared its film industry limited. “Despite some of the good things happening, our cinema is anemic because of lack of financial backing. The real problem we’re facing there, and in most of Latin America, is that we don’t control our own market. It’s a struggle to even get our own product on Argentinian screens.

“You have to hock your life away to make a film. I had to film ‘Official Story’ in my own house and live there at the same time we were filming. It becomes a cinema of hunger. The only thing we can hope for in Argentina is to recoup the little money we put into it, if we’re lucky. That’s the advantage we have. Since our films aren’t a business, we sometimes get good films. But if we look at it as a business first, you’re doomed.”

Mexican Press Raises an Issue

Since the filming of “Old Gringo” began, reports in the Mexican press hinted that all wasn’t going well. Some accused Puenzo of being unqualified to direct the film, since he is Argentinian and not familiar with Mexican history. And while that bothers him, he said, “Well, the film isn’t just about the Mexican revolution. It’s about the U.S. and Mexico, but it could just as easily be a metaphor for a lot of other things. And I welcome the criticism once the film has opened, but I hope they are willing to give me a chance to complete the film and judge the finished product. That’s only fair, isn’t it?”

And how is Puenzo holding up to directing three leading actors in English and dealing with the international crew that has been assembled?

“At first, it was difficult. This was reflected from what each one liked to eat to their work rhythms and how they understand things. After all, this included people who are accustomed to working differently and under a different system. So we had to work together and invent a new system that we’re working under now.

“But that too was an advantage, especially for this film, since one of the themes is about difference in people and our relations with cultures and our acceptance and enjoyment of them-- Vive la difference!

As he got up to leave, he paused to reflect on the United States: “One of the things that impressed me most about U.S. Latinos was the way they welcomed me in that totally Anglo world as a Latino brother, as one of their own. Somehow, living at the other end of the world, we forget that dream of one America--north and south--that Simon Bolivar envisioned.”

Several days earlier in Mexico City, in the Restaurante Tacuba with its ornately decorated tiles, Guillermo Vasquez-Villalobos, the entertainment editor of Mexico City’s El Heraldo, spoke about how “Old Gringo” had been off-limits to the Mexican press.

“When they got here in January, they held a very brief, 30-minute press conference at Churubusco that started late. We reported that Fonda refused to answer questions other than about ‘Gringo Viejo’ (the Spanish title for the film). Naturally, we wanted to interview Jane Fonda; she’s important news. Columbia also gave us a handout that decreed: ‘Due to the epic nature of the production, the set is currently closed to the press.’ All that did was encourage rumours, and now, headlines.”

Although Columbia eventually allowed the Mexican press access to the closed set once filming returned to Churubusco Studios about three weeks ago, unit publicist Arthur still had some doubts about the decision. “What do you do when you have over 50 journalists wanting an interview with Jane Fonda? It’s like impossible. And if the press is going to fabricate stuff until then, well, it makes it even worse.”

The Rise of Smits

“When I started to prepare for the part of Tomas Arroyo,” Jimmy Smits said, “Jane told me to watch several films, including ‘Dr. Zhivago’ and ‘Lawrence of Arabia.’ She told me that it was going to be an epic film.”

He paused as he drank a pina colada at the Hotel Villa Arqueologica restaurant. It was the end of a long day of shooting. He had hurried from the location, showered and was now waiting for a driver to rush him to Mexico City to make the evening flight back to Los Angeles.

“The crews are the ones who are jealous because they’d like two days off in Los Angeles too. But it isn’t two days off. I get the scripts from ‘Law’ and I’ll be on the plane memorizing for a 6 a.m. call tomorrow morning. I don’t want to tear myself away from this,” the young actor said, clarifying more than complaining about his current work schedule.

“When I got offered the part, Steven (Bochco) said to me, ‘I can’t just let you go.’ I told him that I wouldn’t ask if it was any action/adventure film. But he realized how important this is for me. So he said ‘Go, go for it.’ It’s working out great, but I don’t have any free time until this is over.” Nominated for a Emmy last year for his acting on “L. A. Law,” Smits’ rise has not been easy.

Born in New York City, he comes from a Puerto Rican background. He even lived for several years on the island. “My mother was ill and so I lived there.” He attended school in New York and later got interested in the theater.

“Originally, I was gonna teach in the high school system. I was taking a speech class for my certification for teaching and I stumbled on an acting class. And I said to myself I ought to give it a fair shake.” From there, it was off to Cornell University, where he earned his masters of fine arts.

“I didn’t want to come out to California without a steady job. In fact, I was reluctant to do so. I guess it’s part of being Latino. You’re a bit more conservative about just taking off. . . . Asi es (That’s the way it is) . " During conversation with other bilingual speakers, he peppered his talk with Spanish. It’s a contrast to a few of the film’s Mexicans actors, who prefer speaking bad English to chatting in Spanish.

Yet Smits is quick to explain that he isn’t particularly proud of his film roles so far. He came to Los Angeles for a small part in “Scared Stiff,” the Billy Crystal movie, and then worked in John Schlesinger’s “The Believers.”

“They were really nothing films,” he said. It was his work with the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater and later with Joseph Papp’s Public Theater in New York City that pleased him most.

The following day, as one of Columbia’s hired drivers headed toward Mexico City, he paused by the pyramids at Teotihuacan. The wind was gone, and so were the striking workers that Fonda had expressed solidarity with earlier that week.

Had they settled their strike? The driver glanced at his passenger. “No. They go out on strike every week,” the young Mexican said matter of factly. “I don’t know if it’s for the turistas , but they’ll be out there next week again. If you ask me, they should get to work like the rest of us.”

When the taxi approached the bumper-to-bumper traffic in the capital city, a brown haze overtook the blue sky. The wind kept its distance.