MANAGUA, Nicaragua — There are so many strange sights in this sprawling, impoverished city that it hardly seemed unusual to walk into the "Walker" movie production offices here and find the front room filled with a forest of fake tree trunks.
In a country where there are shortages of everything but potholes in the streets, the production staff labors in a daily scavenger hunt for provisions.
The toilet paper, like the tree trunks, has been flown in from Mexico City. The cans of paint, to whitewash set walls, come from Costa Rica. The antique cylinder rifles were shipped in from London, which is where the dailies (each day's footage) are sent out twice a week.
"Because of the (U.S. economic) blockade, we have to look everywhere for everything," explained Rosa Maria Roffiel, an energetic Mexican film industry veteran who serves as the movie's production coordinator. "It's very hard, so you have to be very, well, ingenious."
A raucous adventure based on a 19th-Century American zealot who invaded Nicaragua and declared himself "president," "Walker" stars Ed Harris and is being made by executive producer Edward Pressman and Universal Pictures, which is scheduled to distribute the film later this fall. Though the story is set in the 1850s, it seems likely to stir up controversy because of the thinly veiled parallels that it draws between Walker's escapades and the Reagan Administration's current efforts to overthrow the elected Sandinista government via the U.S.-backed contra rebels.
The search for scarce supplies and equipment, coming on top of the rigors of making a $6-million movie in a war-torn country, has also taken its toll.
After concluding a round of hurried phone calls--a few in English, most in Spanish--Rofiel showed a visitor a pair of pictures of her on the wall behind her desk. "This one was taken about six weeks ago," she said, pointing to one on the left. "See, how young and beautiful I look!"
Roffiel gestured toward the other picture. "That was taken yesterday. And look at me. I look older than my mother's mother!"
As Roffiel laughed, a battered Daihatsu rumbled into the driveway. The Korean-made car belched a big cloud of black smoke as it lurched to a halt next to a Russian jeep, perhaps the only auto in town with four gear-shift levers, all pointing in different directions.
The driver opened his trunk and hefted a huge black trash bag, which he threw over his shoulder and lugged inside, dropping it by the nearest tree trunk. The office was crowded with members of the production crew and small children, who kept racing outside to a backyard barbecue, where a pair of local women were cooking lunch.
Nearby, one of the producers sat by a shortwave radio, which, due to the chaotic nature of the country's phone system, was the only reliable means of communicating with the crew out on the set. Over the radio, you could hear the London accent of director Alex Cox, who asked to talk to one of the producers, saying, "We've got to find out which church we have permission to ride the horse into."
A visitor asked Angel Flores Marini, one of the film's Mexican co-producers, what rare commodities were stashed in the bag that just arrived. Could it be canisters of film? Fresh fruit? More toilet paper?
"No," Marini said, with a wave of his hand. "It's money. The biggest bill here is a 1,000-cordoba note, which is worth about 35 cents. We have to find so much money just for the crew alone that we need the government's help to round up enough currency. We have bags like that coming in all the time."
Marini wasn't exaggerating. It takes such a thick sheaf of bills to pay for a meal that when a "Walker" crew member asked a friend how much money he needed for dinner one night, he replied, "Give me about five inches worth."
A small barefoot boy stood at the edge of the film set in Granada, a stately Old World-style town on the shore of Lake Nicaragua where most of "Walker" has been filming for the past five weeks. (Production should be completed in early May, although Cox plans to edit the majority of the film here.)
The boy eyed the lanky director as he showed a group of actors, weary from the sweltering 90 heat, how to form a firing squad. The boy, wearing rolled-up trousers, a bulky cotton shirt and a floppy hat that drooped down over his ears, was selling local cigarettes and chewing gum from a pan hanging around his neck.
As the men loaded their rifles, one of the crew asked the child if he knew what the film was about. " Si, " he said shyly, staring at the ground.
"Well, who?" the crew member asked.
" El gringo malo (the bad American)," the boy said.
"And do you know what happens to him?"
The boy grinned, nodding his head up and down: "We kill him."