Leo and the Old Boys

Richard Covington, based in Paris, is an occasional contributor to Calendar

No one ever accused Alexandre Dumas of letting bothersome facts get in the way of a swashbuckling tear-jerker. The hugely prolific French master of melodrama was as handy at taking liberties with history as the Three Musketeers were adept with their swords.

In spicing up "The Man in the Iron Mask" with his own daring plot twists, director and scriptwriter Randall Wallace, who wrote the script for "Braveheart," out-Dumases Dumas.

The only historical certainty about the real-life Man in the Iron Mask was that he ended up dying in the Bastille on Nov. 19, 1703. Conspiracy theorists have been arguing his true identity ever since, with Voltaire the first to weigh in with the anti-monarchical bombshell that the Mask was none other than Louis XIV's brother.

The film, which opens Friday, stars John Malkovich, Jeremy Irons and Gerard Depardieu as the aging Three Musketeers--Athos, Aramis and Porthos--with Gabriel Byrne as d'Artagnan. Leonardo DiCaprio--in his first role since his heartthrob breakthrough in "Titanic"--plays the double role of the heartless King Louis and his secret twin brother, Philippe, the Man in the Iron Mask. Judith Godreche plays the king's unwilling mistress, Christine, and Anne Parillaud is the long-suffering queen, Anne of Austria, the mother of Louis and Philippe.

Suffering through the rainiest June in 137 years, the MGM/UA production, which was shot last summer, slogged through location shoots in three of the most spectacular chateaux in France--Vaux-le-Vicomte, Fontainebleau and Pierrefonds--and re-created the Bastille and the storm-tossed Brittany coast on eight sound stages at Arpajon studios an hour's drive south of Paris. "It was a war," says first-time director Wallace, only half in jest.

Rebecca Pollack, the executive vice president in charge of production at MGM/UA and daughter of director Sydney Pollack, initially suggested that Wallace make a film of the Dumas novel. Pollack was the studio executive who said yes, when everyone else in Hollywood rejected it, to the scriptwriter's bloody tale of a legendary Scottish martyr who gets disemboweled.

Quicker than you can say 'All for one and one for all,' Wallace dived into Dumas' sprawling saga. "If Rebecca asked me to have a look at 'The Man in the Iron Mask,' then absolutely I'd have a look," says a grateful Wallace.

He came away from his reading perplexed. "Even when I pored over the comic book as a kid, I couldn't follow the plot," the director recalls. "What you do remember is that iron mask, what a horrible fate and powerful poetic image it is."

Instead of Dumas' convoluted plot, Wallace homed in on the faded heroes' feelings of irrelevance and the fear that their best battles lay behind them.

"They were experiencing a sort of Musketeer midlife crisis," he says. "With everyone asking me how do you follow 'Braveheart,' I felt I could identify with their dilemma."

In this script, the plot is mercifully simplified, with Wallace the former seminary student casting notions of chivalry, honor and sacrifice into high relief. Thirty years after the Musketeers valiantly battled Cardinal Richelieu and the wicked Milady to protect King Louis XIII, they have all gone their separate ways. Aramis, now the vicar-general of the seditious Jesuit order, unites them to rescue the imprisoned Man in the Iron Mask and to install him as monarch in place of his evil twin, Louis XIV.

"Once all of us believed in service, in the idea that we give our lives to something greater than ourselves," says Athos. "We all have one great dream--of finding and serving a king worthy of the throne," he explains to the unmasked Philippe, trying to persuade him to become that worthy king. Only d'Artagnan remains inexplicably loyal to the treacherous Louis and, as a harrowing sword fight explodes in the Bastille, is forced to choose between duty and his sense of justice.

Filming "The Man in the Iron Mask" was indeed no picnic. At times, the director thought he might have a new French revolution on his hands. Once, he even wrote a friend, a former Army colonel who served in Vietnam, for advice on how to handle troops in wartime. "Pick your own morale out of the mud first," the colonel advised him.

Says Wallace: "When it's raining and you're losing light and your crew is cold and hungry and wants to go home and you're falling behind in your schedule and the studio's worried and everywhere you look there's panic in everybody's eyes, that's when nobody is thinking about whether they're making a great movie, they're thinking about wanting to get their paycheck. You're the only one thinking about a piece of something you really thought was unique."

It was the historically incorrect pink piglet that turned the tide. In a scene in a garden party, d'Artagnan foils a stolen kiss between Louis and the innocent Christine by releasing a piglet being chased around the grounds. Just when Wallace felt pressured to scrap the scene, he got a call from the studio urging him to keep it.

"Once in a while, you've got people supporting you, saying let's not lose those little grace notes that made the music wonderful," Wallace explains. Even then, purists in 'technical specialties" insisted that pigs weren't yet bred to be pink in the late 17th century; they were black-spotted. Pink pigs are cuter, the director retorted. And pink the historically incorrect piglet stayed.

"Anyone who really gives a damn can go stand on their heads in a corner," fumes Wallace.

Largely because of the nasty weather, what was originally a 13-week production ran five days beyond the original schedule and a few million dollars over its initial $35-million budget, according to Russell Smith, one of the film's producers.

For a first-time film director, Wallace was under enormous pressure. "The Man in the Iron Mask" is the first project to get under way under MGM/UA's new owners, Kirk Kerkorian's Tracinda Corp. and Australian media mogul Kerry Packer's Seven Network. Within weeks of taking over as president of United Artists Pictures in November 1996, Lindsay Doran, backed by MGM Chairman and Chief Executive Frank Mancuso, gave the green light to Wallace's directing debut.

Since the first movie of "The Man in the Iron Mask" was made in 1929 with Douglas Fairbanks Sr. as the emblematic swashbuckler d'Artagnan, there have been several film and television versions of the story, not counting a dozen more covering the exploits of the original Three Musketeers. In many of the Musketeer films, the boys traded in their fearsome luster for gag-filled caricature. From Richard Lester's absurdist 1974 send-up to the 1993 brat pack exercise with Charlie Sheen and Kiefer Sutherland, the Three Musketeers began to look more like the Three Stooges, sword-wielding comics in pantaloons, quicker with wise-guy repartee than rapiers.

Wallace aims to set this unseemly slide to rights. Says the director: "So often the Musketeers are treated in a kind of musical comedy fashion, swashbuckling and cartoonish. I wanted them to be the kind of men who laughed and had great fun, but if you insulted them, you were going to be in desperate danger."

As serious Musketeers, Malkovich, Irons and Depardieu are a far cry from slapstick. Tracking these three as they roamed about the set was like spying on grizzled but still menacing lions pacing their cage. One was never sure if they would go through the flaming hoop or eat the director alive.

"They're all used to being at the center ring in the circus," Wallace points out. "If you don't have a whip and a chair and a real sense of where you want to go, you've had it."

One of the principal actors, whom the director refused to name, stormed onto the set the very first day of shooting and demanded that his part be rewritten. Wallace, an easygoing Tennessean with a deceptively gentle manner, just grinned. No, he replied with equanimity.

"Sydney Pollack once gave me a useful piece of advice," Wallace recalls. "He told me: 'Don't pay any attention to what actors say, listen to how they say it. They need to know how much you believe in the film.' So I said to the actor, 'Of course your lines work and here's why.' If I had cut him off and said we're going to do it my way, we would not have developed an understanding.

"It was part of his process," reckons Wallace, grinning still.

At 43, Malkovich is the youngest of the Musketeers, but he was intrigued by Wallace's novel portrayal of aging heroes clinging to past glories. "Life hasn't done well for them, as it invariably doesn't. They've been kicked around a bit. I liked that," Malkovich says. "It gives them more of a sense of history and humanity; they're not just cardboard figures with swords."

On the set representing the Brittany coast and the Mask's island prison, Depardieu as the randy Porthos cut a broad swath through the technicians, wet-suit-clad divers employed to create waves, and cast members. The set was pungent with the smell of seaweed hauled in from Brittany 300 miles away.

"Eh oui, it's hotter than hell in here," he bellows, warming up to his character. "Like between my legs," he adds, with a wink.

"Life is too long for Porthos," Depardieu later laments, theatrically bemoaning his fate. "He can no longer drink the way he used to or muster the same passion for lovemaking. Time has left its mark; this makes him funny and sad at the same time."

Irons says he was frankly astonished at the lack of friction on the set. "I came thinking there might be tension because we're all big egos. But we have a very happy time together. We're great muckers, great mates," he says.

Splendiferously dressed in a knee-length, cobalt blue coat with frilly lace cuffs, Gabriel Byrne paced about the overstuffed gilt interior of the king's bedroom. He clowned around with a fake beard, then beat out a nervous rhythm on the armrests of a chair, drawing laughs from the crew. But when rehearsal started with DiCaprio, equally dandified in lustrous scarlet dressing gown and shoulder-length wig, the goofing off fell away and Byrne was transformed.

"Your people are anxious to love you. But they see you building palaces, while they eat rotten food," says d'Artagnan sternly, as the king picked over a table groaning with fruit.

"Rotten food? I'll deal with that decisively," replies Louis, sounding more like a spoiled Valley brat than the omnipotent Sun King.

Dissatisfied, DiCaprio asks for another rehearsal before filming the shot. This time, it's Byrne who is off.

"I am a young king," says Louis, "but I am king."

"Then be a good king," d'Artagnan replies, so seriously his face cracks into an unwilling grin.

"A little more Shakespearean, please," Wallace commands from behind the camera monitor.

Once the camera rolls in earnest, however, the miscues vanish. Mixing threat with solicitude, d'Artagnan warns Louis to shape up. Parrying this thrust, the king forcefully reminds his bodyguard just who holds power. The tension between the two hangs heavily in the air as d'Artagnan slips noiselessly out of the room.

Wallace leaps off his stool to congratulate them. "Great, absolutely fantastic," he says, beaming. Byrne is not so sure. "I never know if I've done a scene well," he says later. "I don't think you ever feel confident you've gotten it right."

DiCaprio says he jumped at the chance to work with him and with the other veteran actors. "The whole film was like an acting class for me," he says. "Some actors would work themselves into a frenzy; others would walk in casually, do their scenes and walk off." He declined to say which ones did what.

Making Louis malevolent was easy, DiCaprio says. The challenge lay in revealing his vulnerability.

"He has to have some seductive charm to be sympathetic," he says. "If he were just an arrogant bastard, he'd be less interesting."

The actor drew inspiration from an unlikely source, one a good deal closer to home than 17th century France; he compared Louis and his court to a hot young film star surrounded by sycophants.

"If people are telling you what a fantastic individual you are because you're in a position of power, you have a hard time seeing who is truly loyal to you," the actor says. "Louis' ultimate tragedy is that when he realizes he's being betrayed for the evil he's done, he goes into a fit of rage, instead of asking forgiveness from the people who have taken care of him."

Throughout the film, d'Artagnan and Aramis carry separate guilty secrets. If Philippe is imprisoned by an iron mask, the two Musketeers are oppressed by equally corrosive masks of deception.

"Orson Welles said that every actor should have a secret with every part," Byrne says. "Every single scene that d'Artagnan plays in, he carries this secret with him that is only revealed at the end of the film. You find he's been carrying this thorn in his heart for years. That makes him heroic and long-suffering."

If Byrne and others lacked confidence, Wallace made up for it, heaping praise where needed, sobbing openly at performances that overwhelmed him.

In fact, the director's unbridled exuberance sometimes got in the way. In one scene, Judith Godreche as the king's mistress Christine flies into a rage. As Wallace came over to hug her and tell her how fantastic she was, Godreche recoiled.

"I had to tell him to stop saying how happy he was; otherwise I could never stay angry for the next takes," she says.

Other times, Wallace took the opposite tack, reining in Aramis and Porthos, for instance, when their exchanges in one early scene skated too close to slapstick humor.

Over lunch, an exasperated Wallace figured out what was wrong. He toned down the joking and turned the encounter between the two into an edgy confrontation, "two guys pushing each others' buttons to try to get a reaction."

"Being adrift like that was scary, but ultimately it was an example of a director emerging who could think on his feet," says Smith.

It's 8 o'clock in the evening and Wallace is trying to squeeze in one last sequence after an already exhausting 11-hour day of shooting. As written, the scene is supposed to show Philippe hurriedly pulling on fancy dress clothes in a moving carriage as the Musketeers drill him with advice. They are racing to the palace for the masked ball where the Musketeers plan on kidnapping the king and sneaking Philippe into his place.

"We were running out of time and I was getting more and more aggravated," says Wallace. Desperate, the director came up with a time-saving brainstorm--shooting the racing carriage from the outside and playing the dialogue as it bumps madly across the countryside.

"Make love as if you don't care and fart whenever you wish," sagely counsels Porthos, loudly farting as Philippe and the others groan in disgust.

"It'll be hysterical," Wallace declares, whooping with delight, "far better and cheaper than what we originally planned."

Plunging, not gently, but ever lustily into that dark night, the old boys ride on.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World