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Newsweek – February, 1997

A STAR’S TREK – by Jeff Giles

A $60 million Brad Pitt adventure flourishes in Argentina against overwhelming
oddities. Welcome to the set of ‘Seven Years in Tibet’.

Bringing a herd of yaks to Argentina is not easy. First you must negotiate
with an eccentric yak breeder in Montana: you tell him you’re making a
movie about the famed Austrian mountain climber Heinrich Harrer, and he says
you can have the yaks for free if you cast Demi Moore. No? Fine, they’re
$3,600 apiece. Now you must procure a passport for each yak, and yak passports
are not like people passports: you’ll need three photographs of every
yak’s head [a front view and both profiles], as well as a print of his
or her muzzle. By the time your herd has landed in Argentina, some of them will
be pregnant—hell, it’s a long flight—but your mind will be
elsewhere because now it’s time into the country. Importing Brad Pitt
is somewhat more complicated.

To understand Argentina’s ardor for Pitt is to understand not only the
actor’s celebrity but also the paucity of movie stars who ordinarily pass
through. As executive producer David Nichols puts it: “Anthony Quinn was
mobbed here a couple of years ago.” [Madonna, as we know, barely made
it out alive.] In September, Pitt flew into Buenos Aires International, where
there was pandemonium despite the best intentions of the Ministry of the Interior.
He then took off for Mendoza in the president’s jet. Eventually, he reached
the movie set in remote Uspallata, and found he was so famous he couldn’t
walk down the streets in a place so small it hardly had streets. One night Pitt
ate in a local restaurant, and a pack of scarily crazed girls banged on the
window a foot from his table. The owners later installed a wood partition, dark
windows and dimmer lights, but Pitt never returned. For the rest of his stay
in Argentina, he was more or less under house arrest.

And the irony is that this is the most fun he’s had in ages. The Andes
are standing in for the Himalayas in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s “Seven
Years in Tibet,” due out late this year. The movie follows Harrer as he
escapes from an Allied prison camp in India during World War II, bluffs his
way into Tibet with a fellow POW and winds up tutoring the young Dalai Lama
not long before China drives him into exile. “Seven Years in Tibet”
is based on Harrer’s best-selling memoir. It’s a dull, creepily
unemotional book—“Apparently it’s even worse in German,”
says a crew member—but screenwriter Becky Johnston has unearthed a human
being as well as an adventure.

Annaud’s film had a difficult birth last year. It was the victim of international
politics—China still regards the Dalai Lama as an enemy, and doesn’t
want him coming to a theater near you—as well as of the Byzantine machinations
of Hollywood. On top of all that, Pitt and his co-star, the tremendous British
actor David Thewlis, came to “Tibet” fresh from the most demoralized
experiences of their careers. Pitt had just finished “The Devil’s
Own,” a Harrison Ford thriller he calls “the most irresponsible
bit of filmmaking—if you can even call it that—that I’ve ever
seen”. Thewlis was on the apocalyptically weird set of “The Island
of Dr. Moreau” when his agents asked if he wanted to do another big Hollywood
movie: “at first I was like, ‘No, no, no, no, no! I’m not
sure if I even want to act again’.”

As karma would have it, Pitt and Thewlis have now found peace. Only a dictator
or a saint could direct a movie like “Seven Years”—16 languages
are spoken on the set—and the Frenchman Annaud tilts toward the latter.
One morning at 5:30, crew members straggle up a rocky hill to shoot a funeral-pyre
scene at dawn. It is pitch black and freezing. “Hello, lazy ones,”
Annaud chirps as he dashes by. The director has a bright mop of silver-white
curls, and since there are no flashlights around, the only way to get up the
hill is to follow his hair. Annaud says he isn’t wedded to Hollywood—he’s
happy to get foreign financing for his movies [“The Name of the Rose,”
“The Lover”]. Studios may respond best to people who don’t
need them. “Yes, it is true,” says Annaud, in his soft accent. “I
do not have a house in the States. I live in hotels. I have a, uh, folding bag.
I am always telling them, if I am unhappy, I will just, uh, fold the bag.”

Many were the times Annaud thought of folding his bag in the last year or so.
“Seven years” was supposed to be shot in India. But the Indian government
feared antagonizing China, and rejected the project after encouraging the producers
to build sets and burn a couple of million dollars, Meanwhile, “Seven
Years” was being delayed because Pitt was embroiled in that Harrison Ford
film, “Devil’s Own.” Columbia Pictures, which was making both
movies, had yet to name the highly regarded John Calley as chairman and was
still riding out Mark Canton’s infamous Reign of Error. Pitt tried to
quit “Devil’s Own.” Annaud tried to take his star and his
production to another studio. Columbia threatened a mighty lawsuit.

So for three months “Seven Years” sat still and pined for Pitt.
Meanwhile, another Dalai Lama picture, Martin Scorsese’s “Kundun,”
got a head start in Morocco. That means it’ll likely get a head start
in theaters. As it happens, “Kundun” was written by Harrison Ford’s
wife, Melissa Mathison Ford. Hmm. An out-there conspiracy theory sprang up among
the makers of “Seven Years,” who may have been suffering from mountain
fever. Was Ford holding Pitt hostage so his wife’s movie could get an
early jump? “Maybe I’m being paranoid,” says Annaud. “but
for a while there, things weren’t too Buddhist.” The Scorsese movie
quickly ran afoul of Chinese officials, who threatened to block Disney’s
expansion into the biggest nation on earth. China has since backed down, eager
for a Disneyland in Shanghai. They hate the Dalai lama, but they love Mickey

Last fall Pitt was finally free to make “Seven Years.” During the
week he holed up in an army cabin in Uspallata, smoking Camels and eating Twizzlers.
On weekends he relaxed in a leafy neighborhood of Mendoza, inventing high-intensity
“Crazy Croquet.” Pitt’s house had a stone wall, and locals
sat vigil on it. “The little girls are sweet,” says Pitt. “But
then there were hundreds of paparazzi. They were just everywhere, banging on
the house.” So the production company built a $30,000 corrugated-metal
wall on top of the existing wall. It was shiny and rippling and endless—and
possibly the ugliest thing south of the equator. Girls still chanting outside.
What were they chanting? Pitt’s driver, a young Venezuelan guy named Peter,
looks around sheepishly, then sings: “Ole, Ole, ole, ole. Brad Peeeeet.”
On Sunday, Pitt sent Peter out to ask the girls not to chant until noon. So
they didn’t. But once it was noon: Ole. Ole, ole, ole. Brad Peeeeet.

Tibetans are thrilled Peeeeet is making a movie even peripherally about their
plight. They are eager to have their story told here, there and anywhere. “Half
of the Tibetan population is here and half of it is in Morocco making ‘Kundun’,”
says B.D. Wong, who plays the controversial Tibetan officials who brokered the
surrender to China. “And there’s a fantastic hot line.” Later
the real Dalai Lama’s sister, Jetsun Pema, stands in a hotel lobby, beaming.
Pema is playing her own mother in “Seven Years.” Her ddaughter is
playing the same role in “Kundun.” Which is to say: she’s
playing her mother’s mother. Pema shows off a photo of her daughter in
costume on Scorsese’s set. “She called me last night,” Pema
says. “She said, ‘The scene I just played? I was pregnant with you!’”

It’s so strange to see Pitt in a skirt and high-top Nikes, in the company
of monks. But then “Seven Years” finds him at a curious moment in
his career: he’s a movie star, but what he really wants to do is act.
Unlike Robert Redford, who’s always played fanatically to his strengths,
Pitt is trying to tear his golden-boy image down with both hands. As Annaud
puts it, “Even his agent said to me, ‘Put dirt on him! Put crap!’”

Watching Pitt huddle with his accent coach—watching him try to graft
his American charisma onto this international period piece—you wonder
if he’s in over his head. But you never wonder if his intentions are good.
“Brad understands Hollywood,” says Annaud. “He understands
that all those people who are rich and famous go from the glorious party straight
to the analyst. Why? Well, because they don’t respect themselves. They
became famous and rich doing s—t, and they know it. Brad doesn’t
want that.” Annaud hopes America wants something better, too—and
so do hundreds of other creatures, great and small. Yaks do not get passports
for nothing.

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