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The Odyssey of 'Garcia Lorca'

Movies: After six years, a Latino labor of love is completed.

September 02, 1997|CLAUDIA PUIG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

About six years ago, a quartet of America's most acclaimed Latino actors converged on a Studio City deli.

"It was very funny; it looked like a Mafia meeting," said director Marcos Zurinaga, who was also there. "Everybody looked at us like, 'What's going on? These Latins are getting together. Oh-oh. Scary.' "

For nearly five hours, Raul Julia, Edward James Olmos, Andy Garcia and Ruben Blades tossed around movie ideas with Puerto Rican director Zurinaga. They talked about developing several projects on pivotal Latino figures for American as well as Latin American audiences. They finally settled on a movie about Federico Garcia Lorca, arguably the greatest Spanish poet and playwright of the 20th century, a gay man who was murdered by fascists under mysterious circumstances at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936.

"We had a great time," Olmos said. "We laughed and really enjoyed the fact that we were all in one place, rejoicing over the fact that we were going to do this movie."

Their initial rejoicing was short-lived, however.

Over the course of the ensuing half dozen years until "The Disappearance of Garcia Lorca" could make it to the screen (it opens next week), several difficulties impeded the movie's progress. Some were expected challenges, like cobbling together financing for independent films about literary figures. Others were unforeseen and shattering, like the 1994 death of Raul Julia, who had been the first actor to express a keen interest in starring in the film.

"The way our culture has been portrayed in films is not that flattering, and we felt that it was up to us to work together to get our point of view across," Zurinaga said. "We cannot just complain about the way our heritage is portrayed. We have to do it ourselves. 'Lorca' was to be the first of several films. Then Raul left us. It was a big drawback, not only on a personal level, but for the project."

Julia and Zurinaga had become interested in making a film about Lorca in 1989, and Julia then drew Olmos and Garcia to the project.

"I think that Raul's passion for it ignited me," Olmos said.

"Raul told me, 'We're trying to do this project, we'd like you to be involved,' " Garcia said. "I said, 'I'd be honored.' It was a project that was very dear to Raul."

The film is dedicated to Julia, a renowned stage and film actor who was also known for his involvement in a variety of social causes.

"I really believe his spirit was with us," Olmos said. "I think it was a very spiritual experience making the movie. I'm grateful we got it done and that they dedicated the film to him."

Julia initially wanted to play the part of Lorca, although he was a bit older than the poet, who died at 38, not to mention far taller.

"Raul Julia was very funny," Zurinaga said. "When I told him about the idea, he said, 'Wonderful! I'll play Lorca.' I told him that Lorca was rather short. He said, 'Doesn't matter.' I said, 'Raul, you're 6-foot-3.' He said, 'Well, get taller actors!' "

Zurinaga said the last time he spoke to his friend was in October 1994, just days before his death of a stroke at age 54.

"I was going to New York and I was going to meet with him," recalled Zurinaga. "He called me and said, 'We will have a wonderful dinner with wonderful wine and wonderful cigars'--'wonderful' was his word. We were going to talk about the film because at that moment it was just moving forward. That night I went straight to his house from the airport. When I knocked on his door, his wife's mother said he was rushed to the hospital. I said, 'What happened?' I had talked to him just three hours before. The last thing we discussed was Lorca."

Julia died not knowing that the film that he had come to feel so passionately about would indeed get made.

"He was with us while we filmed it," Garcia said. "I basically dedicated my performance to him. . . . Raul had a very Lorcian spirit. He was a sort of contemporary Lorca, in a way, in terms of his humanity, his creativity, his sense of humor, his sense of opera."

Julia, known for his roles in "The Kiss of the Spider Woman" and "The Addams Family" as well as for many other credits, had worked with Zurinaga in Puerto Rico on two films, and the two men had been introduced to Lorca's work as children. They conceived of the film not as a biography of the poet but as an examination of his death as seen through the eyes of a probing journalist, played by Esai Morales.

"This film is a dramatic thriller, not a biopic," said Zurinaga of the finished product. "Garcia Lorca is more like a metaphor."

Zurinaga financed the film himself, gathering the $12-million budget any way he could--mortgaging his home, taking personal bank loans and counting on the star value of Garcia and Olmos.

"I think I lost everything doing this project," Zurinaga said of his odyssey. "People would say 'No' and somehow you just come back. The passion was so strong that maybe it blinded me. I thought on many occasions that it was never going to happen."

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