LONDON — Two superstars of the dance world, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines, were acting up a storm on a sound stage here recently in "White Nights," a film due later this year from Columbia Pictures.
Baryshnikov's character, the defender of one political system, was reeling with intensity as Hines' character, on the verge of emotional collapse, was lashing out at the other. The focus was slightly off from real life, however. Baryshnikov, true to his own personal history, was playing a Russian ballet dancer who had defected to the West years before; but Hines was playing an American expatriate, a bitter, black Vietnam veteran living in Russia.
But it wasn't this complicated twist alone that led director Taylor Hackford to acknowledge that the $12-million film was "a big gamble."
"This film is an experiment to build a movie around two great dancers and at the same time tell a credible story involving realistic characters," Hackford said during a lunch break from the film, which was shot here at Elstree Studios and in Finland--standing in for Russia. "The dancing will not enable (the dancers) to get by, nor will it make for a successful film. The movie will have to stand on its own."
Actually, according to Hackford, the film's contemporary dance, being choreographed by Twyla Tharp as well as by Baryshnikov and Hines, was being kept to a minimum. The one major production number was to be shot in New York in January outside the "dramatic context" of the film, allowing Baryshnikov, in his first film role since "The Turning Point" (1977), and Hines, whose first major film dancing role is in "The Cotton Club," to concentrate on the drama.
"This film explores the aftermath of defection: Baryshnikov's for artistic reasons and Hines' for political reasons," Hackford said. "In so doing, it's meant to be a microcosm of the contemporary East-West arena, reeling on the brink. It's a story of the need for artistic and personal freedom in the face of any government's oppression."
Baryshnikov and Hines' characters were engaging in a personal, ideological battle in Siberia, after a plane crash landed Baryshnikov's character back in Russia. "This has not happened to Baryshnikov, but I'm sure he thinks about it every time he flies over Europe," said Hackford. The director was explaining that the ballet superstar should be able to easily place himself in his character's situation, even though great pains were being taken on location to disassociate the story (by Hackford, with a screenplay by James Goldman and Eric Hughes) from Baryshnikov's own defection to the West.
"Maybe this is a challenge . . . maybe this is stupidity . . . maybe after this, I won't even be able to go on a stage again," said Baryshnikov, with self-mocking humor. "I'm a dancer, not an actor," he continued, seriously. "My priority has been and will be for a long time, my dancing. Sure, I have been asked to do a lot of films since 'The Turning Point,' and I have been asked to do defection films. But the main thing about this film is that it is not the defection but the people and the story that is the main thread running through it. Also, it's being approached very seriously, and there are not many serious films about the Russian people."
Hackford said the idea for the film started out as a vehicle for Hines, whose work Hackford had admired for its "great seriousness and depth" in such films as "Wolfen," "Deal of the Century" and "History of the World, Part I."
"I think of myself as a tap-dancer," said Hines, during a break. "But I also want to exercise my talents in as many ways as possible, and this film looked like a real test for me, in that the dancing comes out of the story rather than the other way around. There's also a lot of unexplored territory--controversial, even provocative territory," he said, adding, "It's rare in Hollywood films that you find a complete black man, let alone one involved in an interracial romance."
Hackford acknowledged that he took another risk by casting Isabella Rossellini, 32, daughter of the late Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini, in her first major film appearance as the Russian-born wife of Hines' character.
"This is a test," said Rossellini, who bears a shadowy resemblance to her mother. "I am hoping to do my best, but you have to learn the craft, and I hope I will get better and better with each role. Being my mother's daughter has helped me get this far. I think people look at me and think maybe I have good blood. I don't know if I have, I don't know if I've inherited hers, but so far, in this film, I feel that I have."
"This is a gamble," said Hackford. "But it's a gamble with interesting characters and fresh roles that people haven't seen over and over again. And if you can do a film that has intriguing elements, that is different from others and that rings true, you have the kind of film that people will pay money to go to the movies for."