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'Napoleon And Josephine' : French Love Story Re-created For Abc Miniseries

July 17, 1987|NANCY MILLS

PARIS — Bosoms heaved as the couples danced a stately minuet. Off to one side of the wood-paneled ballroom, but well within camera range, stood Talleyrand, Napoleon's foreign minister, in satin breeches and silk stockings. Regrettably, Napoleon was nowhere in sight. Neither was his wife, Josephine.

No, they weren't having a little tete-a-tete upstairs in Josephine's silk-draped bedroom. Nor were they examining the estate's rabbit hutches to see which bunny they might like for dinner.

Alas, Josephine (Jacqueline Bisset) was in her hotel room recovering from bronchitis. Meanwhile, Napoleon (Armand Assante) was sitting disconsolate in his trailer, wondering if he would be working that day.

Disaster--in the form of a virus--had struck the set of ABC's 6-hour miniseries, "Napoleon and Josephine: A Love Story." The production had already been shut down for 24 hours, and now director Richard T. Heffron was trying to shoot something--anything--while awaiting Bisset's return.

So the music played on, and Talleyrand (Anthony Perkins) and Josephine's best friend Therese (Stephanie Beacham) got a bigger scene than they'd signed up for.

Halfway through a carefully orchestrated 13-week schedule, the "Napoleon and Josephine" crew had arrived as planned at the Chateau de Nandy, a small estate on the outskirts of Paris. They would be there for eight days to film all the scenes set in Josephine's Paris house. Naturally, Josephine would be in all the scenes.

But with Bisset ill, the producers were panicking. French bureaucracy and the crowded chateau schedule meant that changes were difficult. "These sets are like dominoes," executive producer Bernard Sofronski explained. "You pull one away, and they all fall down. Sure, we could re-dress another chateau later and bring in new extras, but that would be double the expense."

(In the end, Bisset missed four days of filming. Co-executive producer David Wolper reports that the unshot scenes will be saved until the end, when the unit will either return to the Chateau de Nandy or build sets to match somewhere else. Costs will be covered by insurance.)

Already the miniseries was costing a hefty $18 million because Sofronski and Wolper had decided to "do it right" and film in Paris. "Paris is very expensive," Sofronski complains. "We're paying a premium of 20% to film here. That's $3 million. Americans have stopped coming to Paris to film because they have to pay a 45-46% 'social fee' (fringe benefits) on every French employee."

Sofronski & Co. agreed to pay for one simple reason: "Shows like 'Napoleon and Josephine' or 'Peter the Great' don't come along often. You have to offer something to the public that they don't see every day. We could have shot in Hungary for $12 million, maybe even $11 million. We saw some marvelous locations there. But we'd have spent all our time trying to make them look like Paris."

Instead, the producers are using ABC's $15-million license fee, plus additional funds from Warner Bros. TV, to film entirely on location in Paris, Morocco and Portsmouth, England, using numerous locales that Napoleon himself once graced.

But enough already about money. What will audiences see if they switch on "Napoleon and Josephine" in November? "We are telling a love story, not giving a history lesson," director Heffron stresses. "The history is accurate but it's in the background, not the foreground."

Heffron, a Harvard graduate who says he developed his love of history from reading historical romances, directed "North and South" several seasons back. "Giving people a sense of life about a certain time will make history come alive for them," he believes.

" 'North and South' also had a great deal of historical accuracy, but it was a less elegant tale than 'Napoleon and Josephine.' 'North and South' was not a story of the most powerful people of the time."

"Napoleon and Josephine" begins in 1794. Josephine Beauharnais, a widow with two children, has just been released from prison. Napoleon, a 24-year-old military officer, is beginning his quest for power. They meet, woo and wed.

But Napoleon's life never followed a normal course. Twelve years after the wedding, he had the marriage annulled because Josephine could not bear him an heir. Although they still loved one another, they decided he should marry the young and fertile Marie Louise of Austria, who did indeed provide him with Napoleon II. The miniseries ends with Napoleon being exiled to Elba in 1814, after failing to conquer Russia.

It's a dramatic love story but one that has always seemed secondary to Napoleon's military exploits. Assante is happy to play this side of Napoleon, but he wants to make sure that the stress on the bedroom rather than the battlefield doesn't turn the production into a soap opera.

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