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Cinema: In The Swim Again

10 minute read
Jeffrey Ressner/Khao Yai

Leonardo DiCaprio is fully dressed, shivering and gurgling in a large pool of icy-cold water and…wait a second, isn’t this where we left off? Not quite. This time the 24-year-old Titanic star–the world’s most famous young leading man–is submerged beneath a gushing waterfall in Thailand’s Khao Yai National Park, an immense forest reserve crawling with tigers, leopards, elephants and pythons. A doctor also warns of leeches: real ones, not the Hollywood type. But it’s 1999, not 1997, and there’s more than just dangerous wildlife surrounding DiCaprio these days. His entire world has been saturated with changes since the last time he dunked in the line of duty.

Wherever DiCaprio now goes, at least one or two bodyguards are no more than an arm’s length away. Groups of Asian teenage girls shadow his every move; a blond European stalker in hot pants even showed up uninvited at his hotel-room door. And unlike the controversies during the making of Titanic, where the heat was on director James Cameron for a runaway budget, this time around DiCaprio finds himself in the crossfire of a hostile debate over environmental problems allegedly caused by the filming of his new movie, The Beach.

The film is based on British writer Alex Garland’s acclaimed novel about a remote island paradise settled by a commune of world travelers, with disastrous results. Local environmentalists claim the landscape has been just as disastrously damaged by the film crew. DiCaprio has been an irresistible target of criticism from some media-savvy Thai activists and newspapers (the more artsy protesters performed skits in Leo masks decorated with fangs dripping blood), and the actor complains that he’s been unjustly painted as an ecovillain. “It’s a stab on my reputation if I’m associated with a film that comes in and recklessly destroys things,” he grumbles, looking newly tanned and nearly buff in his trailer before taking a watery plunge.

In an effort to show good faith, DiCaprio has issued spin-control statements, done photo ops with Buddhist monks and praised the quality of Thai cuisine. Still, the controversy rages on. Daily tabloids–yes, they have them in Thailand too–print reports that he’s got his female co-star pregnant (although amused, she denies it), that he’s been rude to young fans and that he’s so paranoid about being poisoned that he’s hired food tasters. “This is something I probably have to get used to–lies culminating in something much more hysterical and out of hand,” he says, laughing nervously.

The ongoing ecology debate is only one of the challenges that the actor is having to face as he undertakes to carry his first movie alone as a major star. On one particular day in early February, for example, some of the friends who regularly travel with DiCaprio are missing in the park, and one of the star’s brawny bodyguards frantically screams out their names while searching for them; they’re eventually found unharmed. During another crazed moment, about a dozen save-the-forest protesters attempt to rush onto the set but are held back by armed officials. Meanwhile, studio executives from 20th Century Fox in Los Angeles are on the phone constantly nagging the producer to lobby DiCaprio to wear Puma sandals for a product-placement plug. What makes all this tolerable for DiCaprio and his colleagues is the opportunity to bring The Beach to the screen. It is the story of an aimless traveler named Richard who gets a map leading to a secret beach where a post-hippie community uneasily shares its Eden with treacherous, dope-growing Thai farmers. Some critics described the novel as Lord of the Flies for Generation X. Though it sold a scant 17,000 copies in the U.S., it proved a cult hit in Britain and Thailand. Soon after it was published in 1996, British director Danny Boyle picked up a copy and was immediately captivated.

“I thought it was fantastic because it wasn’t Lord of the Flies,” recalls Boyle. “It’s not about primitivism; it’s about trying to develop a perfect society built on a complete falsehood: that you can create paradise in the middle of someone else’s culture with no relation to that culture at all.” Boyle was also drawn to Garland’s narrator, whom he saw as “deeply flawed, difficult, disillusioned, impressionable, weak and a bit crazy. It’s the kind of character I love, but also the kind that’s difficult to sell to a mainstream audience.” Boyle grins a bit, then lets loose a high-pitched giggle. “So, Leo’s got the responsibility to sell it!”

DiCaprio wasn’t the first choice for the role. In the novel, Richard is a Brit, and Boyle had planned to cast Ewan McGregor, the young Scottish actor who appeared in all three of his earlier films (and who stars as the young Obi-Wan Kenobi in the upcoming Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace). However, DiCaprio had expressed strong interest in working with Boyle ever since they crossed paths at the Cannes Film Festival in 1996. DiCaprio had recently made The Basketball Diaries, a dark indie film about heroin addicts, while Boyle was there with Trainspotting, a light indie film about heroin addicts. Back then DiCaprio lobbied Boyle’s team for a shot at a future film; two years later, in the wake of Titanic, the Brits were chasing him down to take the part of Richard.

“The image of an American going into Southeast Asia and mucking it up for everybody was pretty irresistible,” Boyle explains. “It gave the story added frisson.” Nabbing this particular American for the lead also instantly added to the profile of the film, and to the cost of making it. Boyle had tentatively approached DiCaprio before Titanic came out, but by the time serious negotiations got going, the star’s asking price had soared to $20 million, effectively doubling the film’s budget.

During the year he took off after Titanic, DiCaprio considered several projects, including a film version of Bret Easton Ellis’ controversial novel American Psycho. But he was intrigued by the story of The Beach. “I waited quite a while for my next movie because I wanted to truly find a project I was in love with,” says the actor. “This character clicked with me, and the story line clicked. It was a character that went on a journey within himself while exploring the exterior of a beautiful island.” Yet when Boyle and his longtime producer Andrew Macdonald met to discuss the project with DiCaprio at New York City’s trendy Mercer Hotel last May, the young star hadn’t even opened the script. “That doesn’t matter,” said the director. “We’ll read it out loud now.” By the July 4 weekend, DiCaprio agreed to make the film, leaving McGregor to rattle his light saber. “I was gutted,” he harrumphed to Vanity Fair, stung by what he perceived to be the sheer financial opportunism of Boyle & Co. “Ewan was upset, very upset, and that’s natural,” concedes Macdonald. “But in the end, we really didn’t feel it fit him; it was a better choice for Leo.”

The budget, casting and local scenery weren’t the only things to get chopped up in making The Beach; the story was revamped too. As in most adaptations, characters have been combined, events telescoped. “The first time I read the script it was partly flattering, partly unsettling,” admits Garland, the novel’s 28-year-old author. Among the major changes: a reduction in gruesome violence and the addition of love scenes, which allow DiCaprio to get passionate with French actress Virginie Ledoyen. “I’m slightly worried if I can see it with my mother or not,” says Garland. “There’s certainly no way I’ll sit next to her.”

Screenwriter John Hodge, who has collaborated on all Boyle’s movies, felt the picture needed sex to succeed, especially since DiCaprio’s character Richard develops a crush on a fellow traveler’s girlfriend. “My friends all read the book and said, ‘He’s got to shag the French girl,'” Hodge notes. “Alex set up a perfect triangle but didn’t follow through–it’s probably more realistic because guys usually don’t get to shag the French girl. Life isn’t like that. But movies are. Novels are subtle, screenplays blunt.”

Explaining why he downplayed the orgy of mayhem in the book, he paraphrases Hitchcock: “The anticipation of violence is much more effective than actual violence.” Not that the movie lacks shock value. A bad trip on magic mushrooms, shark attacks, brutal shootings and witnessing a suicide are just a few of the horrors DiCaprio’s character experiences.

Around the same time that the script and DiCaprio’s deal were locked in, producer Macdonald turned toward securing permission to film at four locations in Thailand. His request included the right to shift two sand dunes and to plant dozens of coconut palms at the Maya Beach lagoon on the isle of Phi Phi Leh (pronounced pee-pee-lay). Believing that the movie would help promote tourism, officials in the Royal Forestry Department approved his plans. But bulldozers moving in to raze the dunes prompted what a reporter in a bit of hyperbole called “the most fought-over beach since the Americans wrested Iwo Jima from the Japanese.”

Before shooting began, protesters staged sit-ins on Phi Phi Leh until local workers, waiting to start jobs guaranteed by the movie company, kicked them off the beach. “It was a very exciting day,” says Macdonald. “These 10 wimpy Greens from Bangkok facing off against 60 to 100 of these tough fisherman types. There weren’t machetes flashing, but it was a bit Jimmy Hoffa.” Macdonald takes pains to explain, however, that his crew hauled tons of garbage off the island and is gingerly removing the 60-odd coconut trees as well as replanting the uprooted beach grasses.

Bangkok-based filmmaker/activist Ing Kanjanavanit isn’t appeased. “This battle isn’t just over one cove on a small remote island; it’s over the institution of our National Park Act itself,” she says. “For 10 years the government tried to defang it and open up parks for tourism de-velopment. In this case, the studio’s agenda and the government’s agenda met.” Kanjanavanit, who can no longer speak about The Beach situation without crying, says families and friends on the neighboring island Phi Phi Don have split over the controversy. She’s right about that. “Many people no like cinema; some like cinema,” says an elderly woman running a trinket stand on Phi Phi Don. “I like cinema; I like Century Fox. But tore-up beach is no good.” A nearby friend turns away and twirls her finger around her ear–the universal sign language for “she’s nuts.” Says the friend: “Beach O.K. Leo good actor.”

The actor himself remains rankled but almost wistfully resigned about the hurt feelings and the bad press. “If there’s anything negative, I’m sure it will be talked about–more so than the positive,” he sighs before leaving his trailer for the set. “The facts are that absolutely nothing wrong was done to that island. If anything, I’ve seen our people take meticulous care with every little branch. We’re trying to portray the beauty of Thailand’s nature, and how Thailand is in one of those unique time frames in its history. It’s such a wild, crazy time in this country right now, almost like Paris in the ’20s.”

He appears earnest about his environmental concerns, but it’s unlikely anyone back then was pressuring F. Scott Fitzgerald to wear Pumas.

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