"Originally," says the Hungarian-born Kennemy, seated in a tent out of the heat on the sand pit set, "this movie was conceived very differently. It was going to be shot in France and America, and just a small part in Hungary."
The budget was bigger too. But when their original partners dropped out, HBO assumed a greater share of financing and went into partnership with Anglia Television. Anglia's David Puttnam (formerly studio head at Columbia) became executive producer with Halmi, and the budget was downscaled.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 29, 1990 Home Edition Calendar Page 103 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 17 words Type of Material: Correction
In the July 22 Sunday Calendar, the name of John Kemeny, producer of HBO's "The Josephine Baker Story," was misspelled.
"It had to be," says Kennemy. "To shoot a movie on this scale in the U.S. would cost us $20 million. And French costs were unbelievable. Then we went with production designers to Paris, and found we couldn't empty the streets and fill them with vintage cars for period scenes. We couldn't stop traffic on the Champs-Elysee."
Kennemy had collaborated with Gibson and Hutchinson on another HBO project--"Murderers Among Us," starring Ben Kingsley as the renowned Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal. It was shot in Yugoslavia, so Kennemy scouted and budgeted there for "Josephine Baker."
"In the end, it wasn't just that Budapest is a wonderful city for your cast rather than, say, Zagreb, Hungary was less expensive and the locations were better. You can shoot Paris, Vienna, Germany here." The crew shot a scene of Baker's arrival in Paris on Andrassy Boulevard, one of Budapest's main streets, and closed it down for an entire Sunday.
"We had horse-drawn wagons, buggies, over a dozen vintage cars imported from Czechoslovakia, for a big musical number," chuckles Kennemy. "It looked like a million dollars."
Money in Budapest, then, goes a lot further. It needs to: The production calls for 70 locations, three separate construction crews, 6,000 extras and 200 dancers. But Kennemy does not pay a day rate for these services--the Hungarian companies providing them negotiate a flat rate in advance.
Hungary's cheapness lies in its severely depressed economy. Budapest's most luxurious villas cost only around $120,000; the nation toils under a $20 billion national debt, which is hard to repay now that it has distanced itself politically from the Soviet Union. Salaries are low; Hungarian crew members receive far less than Western Europeans or Americans.
"Costs will probably go up here eventually," says David Dukes, who plays Baker's second husband, bandleader Jo Bouillon. "I hope they do, because that'll show the economy is picking up. Hungarians have to live very cheaply. Many of them pay accumulated taxes of 97%. Can you imagine?"
The economic crisis is affecting Hungary's film industry, which has a distinguished history. (Miklos Jancso Jr., son of Hungary's most famous director, is second unit cameraman on "Josephine Baker.") Elemer Ragalyi laments: "My feeling is the industry's in trouble. A little industry like ours can't make money. The government's subsidized us till now, but I doubt they'll be able to in the future." The talk is that Mafilm, the state-run Budapest studio, may even have to close.
This saddens the Westerners on the set, who admire the Hungarian crews. "They have great cameramen, excellent directors of photography and production designers," enthuses Kennemy, who has imported only a dozen Americans or British to the 120-strong crew. Gibson agrees: "They have a tradition which goes a long way back in terms of filmmaking quality."
Still, frustrations are apparent, and arise from Hungarian crews being less regimented. Gibson's impatience is intensified by the language barrier. He has four interpreters dealing with different sections of the crew; on encountering a problem, he must identify who has caused it, then which translator should convey his displeasure.
On this day, just before shooting a crucial scene, Gibson discovers the GIs nearest the camera have not been spritzed with water by production assistants to give the appearance of sweating in the desert heat.
"Who's responsible for this?" roars Gibson, eyes rolling heavenwards. "Anyone outside this country would be astonished by this!"
Dukes sees it similarly: "When you change wardrobe at the last minute, you need translators who are never around when you need them. It can get frustrating."
Kennemy has problems with bureaucracy: "In no eastern European country is it easy for a director in the evening to say, let's not shoot location scene 132 tomorrow, let's shoot scene 65. It's the nature of the system--there's inflexibility."
"It can be irritating," sighs Gibson. "Every day I try not to start blaming and getting resentful, and every day I fail. But I always end up apologizing."
Despite the problems, Baker's spirit somehow infuses the production. The word "Josephine" is on everyone's lips constantly, and Lou Gossett Jr. speaks warmly of having met Baker when he was a young actor in the 1950s. Gossett plays Sidney Williams, an Army officer in North Africa who encouraged Baker to perform for GIs there.