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Dancing the 'Naked Tango' : "Kiss of the Spider Woman" writer and producer re-team to film an offbeat tale--and it hasn't been easy : All sex is the same. It just leaves you more sad. Tango goes beyond sadness, beyond death. It's the way to beauty. Perfect beauty. Cholo to Alba, From the script of "Naked Tango"

January 07, 1990|JOHN M. WILSON

French actress Mathilda May kneels on the promenade deck of the Queen Mary in Long Beach, a pink robe draped over her pale shoulders against the late-night cold. First-time director Leonard Schrader, also the screenwriter, huddles beside her, quietly discussing the scene. The crew relaxes and waits. Everyone's surprisingly calm, considering the circumstances. Or maybe they're just exhausted.

It's the 101st and final day of filming "Naked Tango," originally scheduled for 84 shooting days. After 16 turbulent, demanding weeks on location in Argentina--15-hour work days, six days a week--production has returned here to wrap up. Independent producer David Weisman puts the cost vaguely at "around $10 million," 16% over initial projections. If this were a big-budget studio picture, Schrader readily admits, he might long ago have been yanked from the production.

But his producer is the iconoclastic Weisman, who collaborated with screenwriter Schrader and director Hector Babenco on "Kiss of the Spider Woman" (1985). Shot for $3 million, it earned four Oscar nominations--a Best Actor win for William Hurt--and grossed nearly $50 million worldwide. Weisman subsequently walked away from the prestigious "Ironweed" because of star clout and power struggles he figured he couldn't win.

Now, working without a completion bond on "Naked Tango," Weisman says he's hardly "cavalier" about escalated costs, but also insists he's comfortable with Schrader's meticulous approach.

"We're going for quality," says the short, stocky Weisman, 47, who runs on a deep tank of nervous energy. "If it takes longer to light the shot, you take it."

As Stephanie, a European bride on her way to Buenos Aires in 1924, the 23-year-old May wears a satin sheath dress and silver lame turban, the trappings of a privileged life with which she's grown bored and restless. The scene calls for her to glance down to the dark water, where a suicidal young woman has just plunged to her death, then back to the woman's shoes, left behind.

It's a near-mystical moment in Stephanie's life that helps set the story in motion: almost as a lark, she switches identities with the dead woman, only to be thrust into bondage to a bordello, deadly violence and a passion for love and life she never imagined possible.

Through five previous takes, Schrader has been searching for various moods--"like different clouds passing across her face," as he later puts it. He waits for a noisy party boat to pass in the harbor, then gets what he needs on the sixth take. Cast and crew grab a quick meal break before returning to work until dawn.

Asked if she can characterize Schrader's approach as a director with one word, May answers, "Patience--it was the most important thing.

"I never saw him get angry or screaming. He may have gotten angry, but with us actors he was very gentle, very kind."

At 46, Leonard Schrader is the graying, older brother of film maker Paul Schrader (co-writer of "Taxi Driver," writer-director of "Hardcore," and "American Gigolo"), whose repressive Calvinist upbringing has often been discussed in connection with his films. They characteristically explore violence, temptation, sexual obsession, the primal underbelly beneath the veneer of civilized society .

Raised in the same rigidly moralistic environment, Leonard Schrader has become known as a screenwriter who also deals in dark, complex subject matter; "The Yakuza," "Mishima," "Kiss of the Spider Woman" are among his credits and co-credits.

Now, in his directorial debut, Leonard Schrader is taking on his biggest challenge with "Naked Tango."

It's a highly stylized period piece set against the lurid Jewish underworld of 1924 Buenos Aires. Most of his shooting--on 37 separate locations--has taken place in a foreign country aswirl with social and economic chaos. His lead actors are near unknowns, with limited film experience. In the script, the abuse and degradation of some women characters is unrelenting, the love play often perverse. There's no clear-cut hero to root for, no storybook ending.

It's the kind of material--"Last Tango in Paris," "The Night Porter," "Blue Velvet," "Querelle" also come to mind--that can cause devoted admiration or utter disdain.

Currently busy in the editing room (the film wrapped Nov. 7), Schrader may be putting together his breakthrough film--or his directorial Titanic. And he knows it.

"If I'm not taking some chances, I run out of energy, I get bored to death," he says. "And if you're successful, you've got something no other film has."

Intense and intellectual, Schrader surprises the reporter with a jolly laugh.

"I've always enjoyed doing things that people say aren't possible."

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