Dancing the 'Naked Tango' : ...

French actress Mathilda May kneels on the promenade deck of the Queen Mary in Long Beach, a pink robe draped over her pale shoulders against the late-night cold. First-time director Leonard Schrader, also the screenwriter, huddles beside her, quietly discussing the scene. The crew relaxes and waits. Everyone's surprisingly calm, considering the circumstances. Or maybe they're just exhausted.

It's the 101st and final day of filming "Naked Tango," originally scheduled for 84 shooting days. After 16 turbulent, demanding weeks on location in Argentina--15-hour work days, six days a week--production has returned here to wrap up. Independent producer David Weisman puts the cost vaguely at "around $10 million," 16% over initial projections. If this were a big-budget studio picture, Schrader readily admits, he might long ago have been yanked from the production.

But his producer is the iconoclastic Weisman, who collaborated with screenwriter Schrader and director Hector Babenco on "Kiss of the Spider Woman" (1985). Shot for $3 million, it earned four Oscar nominations--a Best Actor win for William Hurt--and grossed nearly $50 million worldwide. Weisman subsequently walked away from the prestigious "Ironweed" because of star clout and power struggles he figured he couldn't win.

Now, working without a completion bond on "Naked Tango," Weisman says he's hardly "cavalier" about escalated costs, but also insists he's comfortable with Schrader's meticulous approach.

"We're going for quality," says the short, stocky Weisman, 47, who runs on a deep tank of nervous energy. "If it takes longer to light the shot, you take it."

As Stephanie, a European bride on her way to Buenos Aires in 1924, the 23-year-old May wears a satin sheath dress and silver lame turban, the trappings of a privileged life with which she's grown bored and restless. The scene calls for her to glance down to the dark water, where a suicidal young woman has just plunged to her death, then back to the woman's shoes, left behind.

It's a near-mystical moment in Stephanie's life that helps set the story in motion: almost as a lark, she switches identities with the dead woman, only to be thrust into bondage to a bordello, deadly violence and a passion for love and life she never imagined possible.

Through five previous takes, Schrader has been searching for various moods--"like different clouds passing across her face," as he later puts it. He waits for a noisy party boat to pass in the harbor, then gets what he needs on the sixth take. Cast and crew grab a quick meal break before returning to work until dawn.

Asked if she can characterize Schrader's approach as a director with one word, May answers, "Patience--it was the most important thing.

"I never saw him get angry or screaming. He may have gotten angry, but with us actors he was very gentle, very kind."

At 46, Leonard Schrader is the graying, older brother of film maker Paul Schrader (co-writer of "Taxi Driver," writer-director of "Hardcore," and "American Gigolo"), whose repressive Calvinist upbringing has often been discussed in connection with his films. They characteristically explore violence, temptation, sexual obsession, the primal underbelly beneath the veneer of civilized society .

Raised in the same rigidly moralistic environment, Leonard Schrader has become known as a screenwriter who also deals in dark, complex subject matter; "The Yakuza," "Mishima," "Kiss of the Spider Woman" are among his credits and co-credits.

Now, in his directorial debut, Leonard Schrader is taking on his biggest challenge with "Naked Tango."

It's a highly stylized period piece set against the lurid Jewish underworld of 1924 Buenos Aires. Most of his shooting--on 37 separate locations--has taken place in a foreign country aswirl with social and economic chaos. His lead actors are near unknowns, with limited film experience. In the script, the abuse and degradation of some women characters is unrelenting, the love play often perverse. There's no clear-cut hero to root for, no storybook ending.

It's the kind of material--"Last Tango in Paris," "The Night Porter," "Blue Velvet," "Querelle" also come to mind--that can cause devoted admiration or utter disdain.

Currently busy in the editing room (the film wrapped Nov. 7), Schrader may be putting together his breakthrough film--or his directorial Titanic. And he knows it.

"If I'm not taking some chances, I run out of energy, I get bored to death," he says. "And if you're successful, you've got something no other film has."

Intense and intellectual, Schrader surprises the reporter with a jolly laugh.

"I've always enjoyed doing things that people say aren't possible."

"Naked Tango" began gestating in 1983, when Weisman was meeting with novelist-playwright Manuel Puig about the adaptation of the author's "Kiss of the Spider Woman" for the screen. Puig was insistent that Tango--the sensual dance that originated among the pimps and prostitutes of Buenos Aires at the turn of the century, later becoming the rage of Paris--would soon blossom again as a cultural phenomenon. By 1986, "Tango Argentino" was a hot ticket on Broadway, "Tango Apasionado" was successful off-Broadway, and Tango was making a ripple in a few dance clubs.

Schrader, meanwhile, had long wanted to explore the concept that romantic love, as practiced in an overly civilized culture, impedes the potential for and the fulfillment of a deeper, more profound love. In Puig's descriptions of the shadowy, fervent underworld of the 1920s Argentine bordellos--with Tango its dangerous dance of love and death--Schrader found his backdrop and metaphor.

"For me, the essence of romance, for all its high-octane fuel, is for romance to burn itself out," Schrader explains, chain smoking and drinking coffee in Weisman's exotic home/film making compound just off the fashionable section of Melrose Avenue. "In the ashes of romance can grow a more mature, a different kind of love. The more chance you have to take romance all the way to the end, the more chance you have to be ready for the next phase. Most of us only have the courage to take it halfway."

By loving timidly, safely, with restraint, Schrader feels, we fail to experience a truly transcendent passion. By fearing risk and death, we experience only half-lived lives.

"Most romances keep the element of death hidden under the table," he adds. "I wanted to put it square in the middle of the table."

He began writing a script with William Hurt in mind to play Cholo, a murderous hoodlum and street Tango master who "uses his sex drive as a means of achieving transcendence--he takes it to the highest point possible, but doesn't release it." The Tango is Cholo's artistic tool, an unconscious means of expressing his deepest self. "He can't articulate it, but he's found an art form, and he needs a partner."

In Schrader's script, the beautiful Stephanie abandons her wealthy, older husband--paternal Judge Torres (Fernando Rey)--and takes the place of Alba, the shipboard suicide. As a Polish mail-order bride, Stephanie/Alba begins life with charming Zico (Esai Morales), who quickly proves sinister, enslaving Alba in the elegant bordello over which his domineering mother presides. When Alba resists, he attempts to kill her, but falters--and the sleek, menacing Cholo steps in.

"His radar picks up that she's different from the other women he's known, which is bordello women. Like him, she's looking for something. He senses a partner of emotion, of attitude, a fellow artist. He's found a tango partner."

Alba becomes Cholo's possession. As he teaches her the Tango, in which the man controls the woman's every move, she awaits the chance to kill him. But she also begins to experience passion for the first time, as Cholo pushes her to the edge with him, hoping to inflame her cold spirit and meld their souls.

Completed in 1987, with Hurt committed to star, the screenplay attracted generous bids from numerous studios, according to Weisman. Opting to retain creative control, he and Schrader secured half the financing from Toho-Tawa Co., Ltd., Japan's biggest film company, and the rest from a mix of investors, including Swiss.

When Hurt dropped out last year to deal with personal problems--including the much-publicized "palimony" trial that ended in his favor last year--Weisman and Schrader spent the rest of 1988 searching for Alba and Cholo in Los Angeles, New York, London and Paris.

After ten months, they found Cholo: Vincent D'Onofrio, a somewhat brooding, introspective New York actor who up to that time had been visible primarily in Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket" (see accompanying story).

"His presence was riveting," recalls Weisman of their first meeting. "His take on the part was unmistakable."

"I wanted to cast Cholo from the inside, not the outside," Schrader adds. "I wanted an artist who is already struggling with (Cholo's own issues), who brings that to the table with him. We met some actors who looked more like Cholo, but who didn't carry Cholo inside of them."

D'Onofrio, who had never danced formally, began Tango lessons in New York a year ago.

Around the same time, the producer and director met Mathilda May in Paris. A ballerina who speaks excellent English, she shot to prominence last year in director Claude Chabrol's "Cry of the Owl," for which she won a Cesar, the French equivalent of the Oscar. She was also young, affordable, with an attractive blend of sophistication and freshness.

"The list (of her qualities) goes on and on," Schrader says. "I felt it was almost a miracle that we found someone who was all of these things."

Morales, previously typecast in tough-guy Latino roles--he portrayed Richie Valens' hard-drinking brother in "La Bamba"--had wanted desperately to portray Cholo.

"No question about it," Morales says. "I've been waiting years for a part I felt right for. There's this stereotype that if you're dark, you're dirty . Here was a character of passion, ethnic, and the romantic lead. Also, I'm a natural dancer--I get off dancing."

Instead, Morales was cast as the weak, perverse Zico, a Polish Jew who runs a whorehouse and uses Alba as his sexual slave. "The guy who makes the lead look good, the pimp. It's back to the second position again. I didn't want to do it for the longest time."

He finally accepted the role, he says, because of the quality of the script--"It hits you on a gut level"--and the complexity of the character. Schrader, says Morales, sold him on the importance of Zico, who "represents the world in an archetypal sense. Zico envies the freedom that Cholo has but lives a life bound to the expectations of his own mother."

With high production values a priority, Weisman also signed English production designer Anthony Pratt ("Excalibur," "Hope and Glory") and Spanish director of photography Juan Ruiz Anchia ("At Close Range," "House of Games"). Debra McDermott ("Amadeus") is editing.

Filming began outdoors in Buenos Aires the morning of June 21.

It rained.

"Gruelling" is how Schrader summarizes the Argentine shoot.

The production arrived shortly after a presidential election, amid food riots, gas rationing, wildly fluctuating exchange rates. The principal location, renovated to double as the bordello, was three levels below ground in a decaying, turn-of-the-century galleria-- "extremely oppressive," Weisman says. Illness was prevalent, time off almost non-existent.

The winter conditions didn't help, Schrader adds. "Viral infections, colds, food poisoning, no rest. You're working with a raging fever, rubbery legs, vomiting every three hours, trying to keep your head clear. You're constantly fighting the temptation to say, 'I'll just try to avoid making mistakes,' instead of reaching higher.

"All of that made it (filming) murder. But everyone seemed to feel we were doing something worthwhile. Everyone seemed to get energy from that. We had a few people drop along the way, but we had some tremendous people stay to the end."

Spiraling costs (including bribes) and production delays forced Schrader to "cut two or three shots every day, one scene a week at least."

"We lived on the edge of expecting catastrophe any minute," remembers Weisman. "And it just never happened. I'm amazed we got out with the negative."

D'Onofrio, alluding to a fateful Tango between the characters of Cholo and Judge Torres--men often practiced the Tango together during its heyday--was more philosophical about the Argentine shoot.

"It was a great experience," he says, grinning. "When else do you get the chance to dance with Fernando Rey in a movie?"

Though Schrader's script is rife with nudity and graphic sex--May says she was "very shocked" when she first read it--Schrader says the film was staged, lit and framed to leave much to the viewer's imagination. It will be cut similarly.

"I have no intention of making an X-rated film. I never did. I like to address the eye that sees your dreams, the mind's eye. I've found that, paradoxically, the less you show the physical eye, the greater impact you have.

"My original intention was to write the most erotic story I could without a single sex scene in it. So the dancing was the (metaphor) for sex. (But) eroticism is very definitely one of the forms of energy I'm using to make this story move."

The movie's title refers not to literal nakedness, Schrader says, but to partners baring their souls.

However tasteful the final cuts, the film's content is sure to stir comment. At least at surface level, the story is about a woman falling in love with her captor, her abuser. Schrader hopes he's creating a piece of art--deliberately disturbing art--that will carry viewers beyond that perception, which he sees as simplistic.

"For me, Alba has two choices. She can choose to live with Torres, who will (provide) a long life of comfort and security but emotional death, with a frozen heart. Or with Cholo, who offers more passion, more intensity, than she ever dreamed of, but where she can die any minute. He wants a woman who will fight back, who will be who she wants to be . . .

"Like life, Cholo is a very paradoxical figure. Life abuses and nurtures us. Torres turns off life, which is a much worse form of abuse."

Directing, like writing, has become Schrader's own dark Tango. For the moment, it's danced precariously in the editing room, where false moves can be disastrous.

"This is why I love it--every choice, every step, every moment is crucial," he says. "I love to be in that position, where I can win or lose, because it means that what I'm doing counts."

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