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Shoulda Taken the Summer Job

Donald Chase is a writer based in New York

The benign, tropical-Colonial building with the Thai flag rippling in a torpid breeze could be a government resort hotel. But the sign says “Women’s Correctional Institute,” and as if to prove its truth, a scene of hallucinatory horrors is unfolding in a sideyard.

There, separated by an algae-covered moat, two elevated, wire-meshed platforms face each other, each platform teeming with Asians and Westerners contributing to a cacophonous din or straining to hear above it.

The massed humanity on one platform are visitors, among them, three incongruously clean-cut, college-age Midwestern Americans (Paul Walker IV, Chad Todhunter and Maya Elise Goodwin). The other, more homogeneous mass--they’re all young women in shapeless magenta shifts--are prisoners, among them two of the Midwesterners’ former high-school classmates (Claire Danes and Kate Beckinsale). They’re serving 33 years for heroin smuggling, a crime they maintain they didn’t commit.

Danes (of “William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet” and “Les Miserables”) and Beckinsale (of “Cold Comfort Farm” and the upcoming “The Last Days of Disco”) talk the old, jokey-optimistic high-school talk to their pals as if to say: “Goin’ to leave this Brokedown Palace.” Yet everything else about them--their drawn faces, their weary body language--says: “Many worlds I’ve known since I first left home.”

Those lines, both lyrics of the Grateful Dead song “Brokedown Palace,” though apropos, don’t exactly come to mind unbidden. This scene and this prison set--normally a moatless, platformless women’s mental health facility in suburban Manila--will be on view next fall in a $20-million Fox 2000 movie called “Brokedown Palace.”

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As for the scene, the movie’s perspiring director, Jonathan Kaplan, wont’ be satisfied until Danes, Beckinsale and the others--including an incorrigibly overacting extra--do several more takes. The prison set, however, has made the producer, Adam Fields, imperturbably happy.

During, a break in shooting, he explains why: “This is as close a re-creation you can get of the real women’s prison I visited in Thailand several years ago.”

Fields, who over the years has alternated production-exec posts with actively producing movies like the Jerry Lee Lewis biopic “Great Balls of Fire,” went there on a hunch that the plight of the scores of young Americans in Thai prisons for drug-related offenses was a good movie subject. He traces the roots of that hunch back to the early ‘70s. Back to “the self-assurance and naive arrogance I certainly had as an American teenager when I wanted to go to London or Amsterdam or Morocco and I said to my parents, ‘I’m 16, I’m grown up, I ride the New York subways--what could happen?’ ”

In interviews with 15 young American women serving life terms in Thailand, plus talks with U.S. Embassy and Drug Enforcement Agency officials in Bangkok, he found out what could happen: “Victimization; an almost Kafkaesque legal system; boondoggleism; intolerable prison conditions.” A longer version went into a story he co-wrote with David Arata, who followed Fields’ research trail and expanded the story into a screenplay.

The screenplay takes two best friends--brash, needy, angry, goal-less Alice (Danes) and parent-pleasing, college-bound Darlene (Beckinsale)--to Bangkok on a last-blast vacation just after high school graduation. In the gilded, spice-scented Thai capital, a polished Australian hunk (Daniel Lapaine, the swimmer groom in “Muriel’s Wedding”) proposes a quick, luxurious side trip to Hong Kong. In fact, he’s using Alice and Darlene in an insidious heroin-smuggling scheme.

Planted with the Aussie’s heroin, the girls are arrested at the Bangkok airport--on a tip from the Aussie. He’d banked--rightly--on the noisy diversion of their arrest to allow his other couriers through customs unnoticed. Well-meant but limited help comes from the U.S. Embassy and none from the movie’s cynical DEA agent (Lou Diamond Phillips) until he’s coerced into giving some. Alice and Darlene are unsuccessfully defended by a Thai lawyer at a trial conducted in inadequately translated Thai.

After a year in prison--hellacious overcrowding, bugs, swill diet, sadistic, bribe-taking guards--their relationship deteriorates as mutual suspicion sets in. (In fact, each has reason to believe the other was in cahoots with the Aussie.) The only ray of hope is an American expatriate lawyer (Bill Pullman), and they’re not even sure about him.

How closely, finally, does this story correspond to Fields’ and Arata’s original research--and, maybe more important, to the experiences of those involved in the situation?

Though some of the young women Fields interviewed said they thought they had been smuggling jade instead of heroin, the producer had the impression that “most knew they were smuggling something.” Arata, who spoke with a slightly different set of prisoners, felt that “some were innocent, definitely.” But aside from the issue of criminal guilt, Fields found all his interviewees “guilty of being naive, of being disadvantaged or desperate--I think 10 of them were single mothers. And,” he adds, “they were all recruited by some guy who made them big promises.”

“They might also be plain or heavy, or have psychological problems, or just not have gotten a lot of attention from men,” notes Richard Atkins of the Philadelphia-based International Legal Defense Counsel. “Often the attention from the guy [drug trafficker] is as big a seduction as the exotic vacation or the few hundred dollars he offers for smuggling.” Atkins, familiar with a wide range of cases stretching back to the early ‘80s, finds “Brokedown Palace’s” unwitting drug mules plausible even if they’re both slim and pretty.

He’s met--and believed--"young women who said they didn’t know they were carrying anything at all.”

Fields says that “it was clear from talking to the DEA that the guy who recruited the girls was most likely the one who turned them in.”

But a retired DEA agent with experience of Thailand finds this a bit of dramatic license. “The way the system works,” he explains on condition of anonymity, “if someone were arrested for carrying drugs before boarding a flight at the airport in Bangkok, there’d be increased surveillance at the destination of the flight, on the assumption there were more couriers on board.”

This scenario would also seem to assume no corruption exists in the Thai customs and police departments. The movie doesn’t assume this, and even has a Thai cop inflating the amount of heroin carried by Alice and Darlene, a plot point David Arata will admit is “debatable.”

“Corrupt officials? Drug traffickers giving up something small for something big? That’s par for the course,” Billy Hayes says, giving his assumptions. Hayes’ five years in a Turkish prison for hashish smuggling and his eventual escape were the subject of the 1978 movie “Midnight Express.”

Now 50 and an actor-director, Hayes corresponds with drug offenders in Thai prisons. He offers them no recipes for escape, just a “reality perspective on how to survive the prison experience. I might, for example, send someone a book on yoga.”

The filmmakers were denied access to a real prison dorm, but Atkins verifies the sardine-like sleeping arrangements the movie depicts. Like the movie, he finds no particular malice in the Thai penal system toward foreign inmates. But the treatment of foreign, and particularly American, drug offenders by the Thai legal and judicial systems may be another matter--one that has much to do with the U.S. drug policy.

U.S. policy goes a long way toward explaining why Thai drug sentences are so Draconian--the retired DEA agent likens them to “getting the death penalty for a traffic ticket, almost.”

He says that U.S. policy, implemented by the DEA and backed by U.S. manpower and money, “turned up the heat on Thailand years ago” to stem the tide of heroin into America. “So the Thais’ answer to the U.S. when they arrest these [American] girls is, ‘Don’t talk to us about it.’ ”

Combine this with Thailand’s sovereignty over its “tough [legal] system in which you’re guilty until proven innocent, you’re given a stiffer sentence if you plead innocence and can’t prove it,” and you’ve got a “tragic” situation. The tragic situation, in fact, of Alice and Darlene.

Perhaps no one should be surprised that Fields never got close to shooting “Brokedown Palace” in Thailand--though he was. “I think we’re being honest and respectful and fair to their legal system and to their culture and to the monarchy,” he says. “But you never know how people are going to react.”

Here, in his words, is how: “The usual procedure is to go to a local production services company, which, acting as liaison, presents a translation of the script to the Thai Film Commission. The commission’s a body made up of, I think, 16 individuals representing the departments of the interior, police, foreign affairs, customs, etc. But a local liaison company wouldn’t even associate itself with the submission of it.”

Now Fields is considering the possibility--and surely Fox is, too--that “Brokedown Palace” might never be distributed in Thailand. That was the fate of Fox’s 1956 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “The King and I” with its despotic 19th century Thai ruler.

The film’s chances in Thailand are not likely to be helped by the following news: The impossibility of shooting overtly in the country inspired a covert operation in which a small second unit posing as a TV commercial crew filmed key Bangkok backgrounds and even long-shot and rear-view footage of camera doubles for Danes and Beckinsale. And theater costuming students posing as criminology thesis writers (and admirers of the Thai penal system) infiltrated a Thai women’s prison to get costume designer April Ferry details of both prisoner and guard uniforms.

As for the rest, Manila had to be transformed into Bangkok.

Production designer Jim Newport and his British and Filipino crew redressed Manila streets with Thai signs, and built an arcade of 12 gilded-Styrofoam Buddhas and, at a cost of $200,000, a truly imperial gilt-and-marble Royal Hall of Justice set. They even came up with a label for “Ayutthya,” a fictional Thai beer.

Executive Producer A. Kitman Ho, a veteran of the Philippine shoots of Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” and “Born on the Fourth of July,” arranged to have the flow of street traffic reversed, to duplicate Bangkok’s left-side-of-the-road system.

Manila’s Thai community (and those of Singapore and Hong Kong) yielded a large number of actors to supplement the handful of Bangkok-based performers willing to risk association with the project.

Of course, the Bangkok-in-Manila aspect of the movie has caused mild outbursts of schizophrenia among the cast. Pullman says, “It’s adjusting to two different cultures at once,” the main cultural difference, according to Kate Beckinsale, being between the Philippines’ “heavy Spanish influence and fiesta mentality” and Thailand’s “much more Oriental and Buddhist” feel. Not to mention Imelda-itis, fanned by the local press’ daily discussion of Mrs. Marcos’ plans (eventually abandoned) to seek the Philippine presidency.

But to the movie’s key creative personnel, all this is secondary stuff.

“I was attracted to the project because of the friendship aspect,” says writer Arata. “Brokedown Palace” is his first produced screenplay, but he hasn’t lacked for offers thanks to co-writing “Double Fault,” a spec script Fox bought for a hefty price a few years back.

“Everybody,” he continues, “wants a best friend. You see a 4-year-old meet somebody for 15 minutes at a playground, then run back to his parents and say, ‘That’s my best friend.’ But it takes a long time to learn how to be a best friend. Alice and Darlene in this movie--who, at 18, think they’re best friends--learn how to be best friends through adversity.”

The friendship and the age of the friends are what grabbed 18-year-old Danes, who postponed entering Yale for a year to do the movie. At first reading, she says, “the script petrified me. And it kind of repulsed me--like it really made me shake. Then I realized I loved it.”

Maybe Danes’ initial ambivalence had something to do with the load of anger Alice carries with her. Now halfway through playing Alice, she points out the boxing gloves in her trailer and identifies them as a gift from her boyfriend, Australian rocker Ben Lee, who’s “having a hard time” dealing with the aggression the role has brought out in her.

Or maybe the ambivalence came from the combination of striking contrasts and similarities between her own situation and Alice’s.

Unlike the wide-open-to-danger budget traveler Alice, Danes, as she read the script that first time, was “in this palatial room at the Ritz in Paris,” enjoying all the protections and perks that went with a worldwide publicly tour for “Romeo and Juliet.” But like Alice, whose trip to Thailand marks her first separation from her father, Danes “was separating from my mom at that time. This is the first movie that I decided to do as an adult--it’s the first time my mother’s not been on the set. It’s a really potent period of your life, and the first part of the movie is sort of an ode to that initial rush of freedom.

“But,” she adds, “I think what was really important to me was that this is a love story about two friends, between two girls. There are so few chances to tell a story, a really powerful story that focuses on two female leads. The two characters are extremely dependent on each other--each fills a void that exists in the other, they complete each other.”

Beckinsale says she likes the interdependence of her character and Danes’ “because it’s like having an opportunity to play two parts. In order to really understand my role, I have to really understand Claire’s. It was interesting rehearsing it, being asked, ‘What do you think Alice would do here?’ ” Yet because the script doesn’t shy away from the tensions and frictions in the Alice-Darlene relationship--including the sexual jealousy that gives the predatory Aussie his opportunity--Beckinsale “didn’t read it and say, ‘Oh great, girls’ movie!’ It just felt kind of human. If it was a feminist-flag-waving movie, I wouldn’t have been quite as interested.”

If Danes is the right age and nationality for her role, Beckinsale is a 23-year-old Englishwoman, and in a hotel-room interview, just about the poised, rose petal-skinned Platonic ideal of the species. But neither her Connecticut accent in “The Last Days of Disco” nor Darlene’s flatter Midwestern one daunted her, maybe because of the ear she developed while studying French and Russian at Oxford. That’s where she was at 18, and getting more attention on campus than she wanted because of her role in Kenneth Branagh’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” so she won’t exactly be revisiting her own past as Darlene.

“I don’t think I was ever a typical 18-year-old, so whether I was 18 or not 18, it would be a character part,” she laughs.

Pullman says one main reason for his doing the film, oddly, was rooted in his last movie, shot in the Philippines.

“Last fall, when I was in Guadalcanal doing Terry Malick’s ‘The Thin Red Line,’ ” he says in the production office. “I was seeing all these expatriates we were using as extras. And I got really curious about what it is to live outside your own country.” Mere weeks later, he had an offer to play “Brokedown Palace’s” Hank Greene, an opportunity to satisfy that curiosity if ever there was one.

“I think of Hank as being almost philosophically disappointed in America,” Pullman says. “And then, after moving to Thailand and marrying a Thai woman [Jacqueline Kim, of “Volcano”] and adapting to Thai culture and a kind of Buddhist-oriented world, as still being frustrated.”

Yet the seat of the emotion in “Brokedown Palace” is obviously the friendship between the Danes and Beckinsale characters.

“You have this relationship between two young women that I’ve never seen on the screen before,” says Kaplan, who has made his reputation directing interesting women’s performances, including Bonnie Bedelia’s in “Heart Like a Wheel” and Jodie Foster’s in “The Accused.” “And I just thought the script treated it with so much respect, treated them with so much respect. And I also think that when one girl [Danes’ Alice] is incredibly needy and doesn’t want to let go, and the other one [Beckinsale’s Darlene] is ready to go out into the world, it’s a major rite of passage that’s almost a death--and a very compelling story.”

For Kaplan, while he’s obviously not skimping on the stress-inducing horrors of Alice and Darlene’s arrest, trial and imprisonment, ringing cautionary bells is not his first concern.

“ ‘The Accused,’ he says, “involved the issue of gang rape from the victim’s point of view.” Jodie Foster was the victim; Kelly McGillis prosecuted the case on her behalf. “And this was at a time--the Reagan years--when it was sort of trendy to blame the victim.” But, he adds, “as a director, I didn’t say, ‘I’m making a movie about the blame-the-victim syndrome.’ I said, ‘I’m making a movie about these two women, and how they become friends and more than friends in order to save each other’s lives.’

“Similarly, here, my focus is on telling the story of these two young women in an entertaining and truthful way. If the movie serves as a warning to people not to carry drugs across foreign borders, that’s fine. But that’s not why I’m making the movie.”


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