"This is a universal story, like many others of my generation, I'm interested in the very concept of terrorism. Where
terrorists come from, what their motives are, how they carry out their attacks." - John Malkovich
Like so many good things in life (and bad ones too, come to think of it) this
story is both a book and a movie.
In the 80's a journalist named Nicholas Shakespeare had become fascinated by the terrorist events taking place in Peru. Children
and animals had had bombs strapped to their bodies and been sent wondering into busy market places, hotels and streets - the
bombs exploding just a few steps in. Any journalists who had tried to find out who was behind this had been killed - 47 by
that time. Within a few months a name began to accompany the executions, on a wall or building near by there would be written,
often in blood, "Viva El Presidente Gonzalo!" Still, no one in Lima knew who this person was and a strange hush surrounded all
talk of him. In 1987 Shakespeare left for Peru to try and find out who the man was, with the idea of writing a novel with
this secret organization as the back-drop.
Of this desire to find out more, despite the obvious dangers, Shakespeare has this to say.
"I cannot deny that his Garbo-like
refusal to give interviews acted as a red rag to the journalist in me. But I suspected, once the trail petered out, that the
obsession could be extricated only by the device of fiction. Beyond some point, I would have to invent him. It is a
curious sensation to be obsessed by somebody one has never met, nor has any likelihood of meeting. I understand it now as the
ordinary state of the novelist. For two years, I felt tugged along a narrow path as if I had no say in the matter."
But, after all that time, he left with almost nothing. He had managed to find out the man's real name - Abimael Guzmán - and
that he had been a professor of philosophy who was apparently ill, though no one would or could say with what. He could find
many past friends, students and family members, but no one would say more than what was the word on the street. Still with a
great desire to write the book, he decided to invent the man, to make up the story.
"For whatever reason there entered my
head the image of a man in an upstairs room, alone with his books and cassettes, occasionally getting up to perform a soft
shoe-shuffle. I endowed him with a liking for popular songs, in particular Frank Sinatra: after all, I thought, if you're
the Fourth Sword of Marxism, you probably would have a weakness for something American. And I had him inhabit a smart house
near the Gold Museum, in the area where my family lived in Lima. Since no one knew the nature of his disease, I gave him
Fashioning a story around the meager facts and the world he had invented for the characters, Nicholas Shakespeare had 'The Vision
of Elena Silves' published in 1989, hoping this would cure him of his fascination with the character. However it was not to be
so. A year later he returned again to Peru, traveling under a different name as the country was by this time in the throes of major civil
war and an estimated 30,000 people had died. The police were no closer to capturing the man - but one lead had arisen. The
police had discovered, near the Gold House, a safe-house believed to have been recently occupied by him. Inside it had his
library, a pair of boots and a video-tape that held the first sighting of him in ten years. It showed him, very possibly drunk,
dancing hesitantly to the theme of "Zorba The Greek". It was known that he was the leader of The Shining Path revolutionaries,
who shortly after this discovery in 1992 claimed they were near to victory. A few months later Guzmán was captured while watching
T.V - not a shot was fired. Remarkably, one of the leads that had lead to his capture was the discovery of the nature of his
illness - he had psoriasis.
Amazed by the coincidences, Shakespeare was intent on writing another book, this time with more of the facts. In the end he was never
to meet with Guzmán - no one was allowed to see him. However, using the facts of the capture he was able to speak to two key
people. Guzmán had been captured in the upstairs room of a ballet studio. The first person he spoke to was a poet who had once
lived with the ballet teacher - having no idea that she only had the studio open as a cover for The Shining Path organization.
The second was the ballerina's uncle who had decided to visit her the same night the police raid happened. He had been tied up,
blind-folded and left in the middle of the floor. In the morning when he was released he saw his niece jumping up and down,
waving her hands, fighting with the police and crying "Viva El Presidente Gonzalo!" He later also managed to talk with the
policeman who had been in charge of the capture and told him of his intended plot which involved making the detective on
Guzmán's case fall in love with the ballerina. Leaving once again for America, Shakespeare turned much of his previous novel,
this background and the story of the ballerina into The Dancer Upstairs: A Novel. It was published in 1996 and has often been
compared to the works of Graham Greene and John le Carré.
The book begins with a British journalist named John Dyer who is traveling in Brazil looking for one last major story. His office
have sent him a request to go to either Moscow or the Middle East, but he does not want to leave and begins a quest to find
something they will have to make him stay in South America for. By what at first seems an amazing coincidence, he
finds himself coming into contact with a former police-man named Agustin Rejas - the man famous for capturing terrorist leader
President Ezequiel(Guzmán) in an un-named South American country(Peru). Night after night Dyer plays the amazed and intent
audience as Rejas accounts his whole life story, beginning from his child-hood on a coffee farm that was owned by his father and moving on to his continuous struggle against a failing and corrupt bureaucracy facing extreme terrorism and demanding results.
About how, at the same time there are cuts in pay and he finds himself coming under pressure from his wife, who desperately
wants to be part of the upper-class. How every week he takes his talented young daughter to ballet lessons at a local studio
and over time finds himself sharing a connection, and later, a growing love with the teacher - Yolanda. How several chance
clues begin to lead the detectives closer to Ezequiel, and himself closer to Yolanda. Eventually he tells of the capture of
Ezequiel and his feelings of despair and betrayal when he finds out who Yolanda is. The book is full of graphic detail about
the terrorist attacks and the affect on the people both in the large cities and the rural villages. But at the same time it's
also full of wonderful and rich detail concerning the lives of the major players in the 12 year struggle with The Shining Path.
While there is a lot that happens and gets slowly uncovered the plot is easy to follow and the story is both remarkable and
sad - made even more so when you find out how closely it resembles real life.
The idea for a movie started when John Malkovich read an article in The Daily Telegraph about Shakespeare's book The Vision Of
Elena Silves and then a article written in 1988 by Shakespeare for Granta Magazine entitled "Searching for Guzman". Having
traveled in Peru in 1986, Malkovich had witnessed some of the black-outs and attacks organized by The Shining Path revolutionaries
and was very interested in reading both books for himself, "I had traveled in Peru in the '80s, which was this sort of heyday
for Sendero Luminoso (The Shining Path) and this was a story I was just taken with, the way it combines the true and the false.
That's how it started."
Malkovich brought the rights to the books in 1996 with the intention of directing the filmed version himself. Finding the right
people to play the roles was his prime concern and he began his search with finding someone to play Rejas. From the start he
wanted only Latin actors in the roles, and no big stars. He settled his mind on Spain's Javier Bardem, Italy's Laura Morante
and Argentina's Juan Diego Botto.
In 1997 Malkovich contacted Javier Bardem about playing the role of Sucre, Rejas' partner on the case. "I wanted to work with
him because he was one of the greatest actors in the world to me. So I said yes," says Bardem of Malkovich's offer. Later that
year he meet Laura Morante at a party and asked her to consider the role of Yolanda, the ballet teacher. She was very keen, but
it seemed it was not to be. When trying to find financing for the film, he found his choice of players to be
a major problem. Everyone wanted a bankable star, but Malkovich would not change his mind. In the end a British producer
arranged for a production company to fund them, but just as they were about to begin filming everything fell apart. Mr. Mudd,
Malkovich's own production company decided the only way to deal with this was to try and reduce the budget further.
"I wanted the actors that I wanted because I think to direct a movie, why do something you don't want to do? I saw this movie
as small budget with mostly Latin actors that spoke English as a second language, that was a mandatory, obligatory vision
that I had for it."
After making this statement Malkovich did something quite unusual for a director, he signed the three cast
members into his contract - effectively meaning that if they were not in the movie he would not do it and since he held the
rights it would then not get made at all. Eventually in 2000, this attracted one of Spain's top producers, Andrés Vicente
Gómez, who had a Madrid based production company called LolaFilims. Although it had taken many years for Malkovich to realize
his vision it seemed it had been worth the wait.
Nicholas Shakespeare had had time to craft a script that was what he described as "an amalgam of my experiences growing up
with my father stationed at different posts in Rio De Janeiro and Lima, the stories in my two novels and the reactions of
the people both in Peru and elsewhere to the events that took place." Things had also changed for Javier Bardem, as he was
now much more widely known after his brush with the Academy due to Before Night Falls. "I thank God that this movie didn't
happen at that time because I was too young and I didn't speak any English," says Bardem who by that time had become even
more interested in the story. "Javier expressed an interest in playing Rejas. The more I studied his work and was around him
I actually thought his idea was better than mine," Malkovich explains of his decision to cast Bardem as the lead role
During pre-production Russ Smith, the Executive Producer and Mr. Mudd partner Lianne Halfon split scouting location duties.
He took Spain and Portugal, she took South America. Smith was very interested in Porto and Madrid, knowing they were two of
Malkovich's favorite cities. Although everyone involved had a strong desire to shoot in Peru, wanting to make the film as
authentic as possible. That idea proved to be a lot tougher than they had originally thought.
Halfon describes her job of finding a location as quite a challenge.
"I went to Peru, to Lima and the minute I said the
subject of the movie it became a problem everywhere I went. I got out to take a picture for the production designer and
within two minutes a guy came out from the other side of a wall and took my camera. So I knew Peru would be impossible and
headed for Quinto, Ecuador."
The country has been a stand in for Ireland in some films and in the end it seemed to work well as
a stand-in for Peru. In fact, the movie actually ended up not ever saying exactly where it was happening or exactly who it was
about. The titles simply stated things like "The capital", "The border-post" or "A small village" and The Shining Path was
never directly mentioned. With a $4 million budget the film was shot on two continents and in three countries in 9 weeks.
And that was no mean feat considering the conditions, "We had to bring every single piece of equipment into Quinto because
there simply wasn't any there. Plus, we had all of the different languages of cast and crew to consider. It was a challenge
to say the least," says Halfon.
However, once the film wrapped and editing begun it all seemed to be worth it. Shakespeare was very pleased with the vision
of his work that had been brought to the screen and Malkovich's choice of actors appeared to be working well. The score was
done by composer Alberto Iglesias who wanted to find a unique take on the South American theme.
"It is not the specific pipe
music of the Andes or the tango of Buenos Aires, but it is haunting and captures the South American-ness of the enterprise.
The first song I wrote has a geographic relationship with the place and was based in a song with Andes origins. But instead
of evoking just the place, I wanted it to evoke the main character's destiny and all his complexity. I am grateful to John
Malkovich for his trust and to all the musicians, especially Pedro Alcalde, Javier Casado and Kolya Blacher for their precision
and passion. I think the music doesn't immediately shock you but gets into you little by little as a welcome warmth in spite
of the hardness to the movie."
Malkovich was also very keen on using the Nina Simone song "Who Knows Where The Time Goes" and
had the actors listen to it during certain scenes to try and make them feel the way he wanted the story told. The finished
movie opens and ends with the song playing on a lonely radio.
The film was anticipated due to the good reputation of the book as well as the fact that it was Malkovich's directing debut.
It was chosen as part of the official selection at The Venice Film Festival and Sebastian Film Festival as well as being
part of the première selection at Sundance. It was released in America on the 2nd of May 2003, showing on just 13 screens it
got a box-office opening week of $106,142. In its 4th week it was at its peak, playing on 152 screens in selected cities.
Its final US box-office figure was an estimated $2,282,798 - rather a failure in terms of finance if you look at its budget.
However it was critically acclaimed as a directional debut as well as in terms of the actors and was nominated as The Film
Expose of 2003 by The Political Film Society. The film sticks very closely to the story in the book and is told
in very much the same style - perhaps slightly less linearly - and ends in a rather sad way. Some consider it rather slow
and arty, but that should not be taken as a bad thing. If you're at all interested in the story it's a well thought out and
interesting introduction to the events in Peru and many of the surrounding countries, as well as being a rather affecting
story of life and all that goes with it.
Javier Bardem - Det. Lt. Agustín Rejas
Juan Diego Botto - Det. Sgt. Sucre
Laura Morante - Yolanda
Elvira Mínguez - Det. Llosa
Alexandra Lencastre - Sylvina Rejas
Oliver Cotton - Police Chief Merino
Luis Miguel Cintra - Calderon
Javier Manrique - Clorindo
Abel Folk - Ezequiel Durán
Marie-Anne Berganza - Laura
Lucas Rodríguez - Gómez
Xabier Elorriaga - Pascual
Natalia Dicenta - Marina
Wolframio Sinué - Santiago
Ramiro Jiménez - Sergeant Pisac
Montserrat Astudillo - Woman in Pick-up
Chuen Lam - Major Kwan
José Antonio Izaguirre - Quesada
Isabel Prinz - Quesada's Wife
Ignacio Carreño - Quesada's Bodyguard
Benjamas Boonnak - Chinese Ambassadress
Tito Garcia - Admiral Prado
Director - John Malkovich
Screenplay - Nicholas Shakespeare
Original Music - Alberto Iglesias & Pedro Malgheas
Cinematography - José Luis Alcaine
Film Editing - Mario Battistel
Casting - Katrina Bayonas & Camilla-Valentine Isola
Production Designer - Pierre-François Limbosch
Art Director - Pierre-François Limbosch
Costume Desiger - Sabine Daigeler
Production Supervisor - Josean Gómez
Running Time: 133 minutes
Also Known As:
Pasos de baile (2002) (Spain)
Language: English / Spanish / Quechua
Sound Mix: Dolby Digital
America: MPAA - Rated R for strong violence, and for language