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The ocean is in his blood

Filmmaker Simon West, a direct descendant of Captain Bligh, plans to make "The Sailmaker."

June 22, 2003|Nancy Tartaglione | Special to The Times

Cannes, France — Simon West is going back to his roots. Way back. The director of such action fare as "Con Air" and "Lara Croft: Tomb Rai- der" will turn his attention to the seafaring epic "The Sailmaker," allowing for his scheduled work on Sony's upcoming "RPM." . What many people don't know about West -- who is responsible for the Budweiser frog ads and hails from the stable of talent at the now-defunct Propaganda Films that included Antoine Fuqua, Michael Bay and David Fincher -- is that he is also a direct descendant of HMS Bounty's Captain Bligh.

In Cannes last month to promote "The Sailmaker," West charms his listeners recounting the story of having met by coincidence a descendant of another of the Bounty's crew, Fletcher Christian, several years ago in Los Angeles. With thoughts of his forebear haunting him, West "tried to pitch the real story of Bligh's life to Paramount, but they weren't buying," West says. So the director is now embarking on "The Sailmaker," based on an original script by Barry Schneider and Ron Montana. "I've always been obsessive about boats," he muses.

With all the trappings of an old-fashioned grand opus, "The Sailmaker" is the tale of a Spanish navy captain who goes off the rails after the death of his wife, nearly sinking his ship in a reckless fit of drunken rage. The quiet, mysterious sailmaker saves the boat, but all members of the crew are court-martialed and imprisoned for life. For his part, the captain, Melenez, is sentenced to be their warden. When Melenez accidentally discovers the sailmaker is John Reese, a renowned shipbuilder, a plan is hatched to build a boat concealed underneath the prison's church. When the boat is ready, a daring escape across the desert to the sea constitutes the final act.

West first became aware of the project six years ago and it stuck with him. "It read instantly like a classic, and it's rare that you find that in an original script; it seemed like it might have been adapted from a book," he says. After finding that the rights were tied up between Shimon Arama and Largo Entertainment, West "kept checking in every six months" and finally pounced when the rights reverted solely to Arama who, via his U.K. production company Cumberland Pictures Ltd., is producing the film with West and Jib Polhemus.

"The Sailmaker" is an Australian-British-French co-production budgeted -- and fully financed -- at $70 million (although no U.S. studio is involved yet, one will be sought out for distribution). Not unlike the now-shooting American-/BritishFrench-Spanish Robert De Niro-starrer "The Bridge of San Luis Rey," "The Sailmaker" will use worldwide locations and big-name talent to try to create a film of epic proportions. West likens "The Sailmaker" to " 'Lawrence of Arabia' with a 'Papillon' element. The kind of movie I got into the business to make."

French producer Fabien Liron ("Me, Myself, I" "I'm With Lucy") will co-produce via his company Fabulous Films.Financing was assembled by the NatWest Financial Group and it is being sold by Arama's sales company, Arama Entertainment. The film is set to start shooting in 2004 in Australia, Malta and North Africa.

In incorporating European actors and locations, the film will qualify as a European co-production, and thus will be eligible for lucrative tax breaks and funding.

Although the film -- the script is undergoing a polish by scribe John Brunlow (who also wrote the coming Sylvia Plath project "Sylvia," starring Gwyneth Paltrow) -- is dominated by the two principal characters of Melenez and Reese, a pair of other pivotal roles highlight the cast: another prison warden, Vargas, and the church priest, De Marco. Among those pivotal parts, West hopes to cast one or two top American actors, and the rest likely will be European, as will the single female role.

International experience

After working mostly within the studio system, West, who is British, says he feels comfortable with shooting such a large-scale film in foreign lands. "I've shot in almost all the European countries, and I find the crews fascinating."

The cultural differences especially appeal to West, who explains that while working in Switzerland he was "Mr. West" on the set where the crew lined up to greet him every day, while in Italy he says he learned that "Silenzio!" on a set means only to "talk quieter."

West will work with his favored cinematographer, Peter Menzies Jr., with whom he has collaborated on "Lara Croft" and "The General's Daughter." The rest of his core crew from previous films will remain in place, and post-production will be handled in London.

"The Sailmaker" also marks West's second outing as producer. His most recent feature-producing effort was Ridley Scott's "Black Hawk Down." West says he got into the producing game because there were so many projects he wanted to do but for which he "just didn't have the time."

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