Hollywood, Hemmingway and Tortola
Story by Claudia Colli
Photos by Dougal Thornton
Along the shore of Tortola's Smuggler's Cove, a group of women roll out a fishing net. An old car drives up a dirt road and a woman steps out and walks down the sparkling sand beach. A graying old man sits on the veranda of a dusty café passing the time of day with a group of friends.
A typical B.V.I. scene? No, Hollywood. For six weeks last summer, the television production of The Old Man And The Sea, Ernest Hemmingway's classic tale of an old man battling a giant marlin, the sea and his fading self-esteem, was filmed on location in the British Virgin Islands.
According to the movie's Executive Producer Bill Storke, the B.V.I. provided all the ingredients needed to film the story that earned Hemmingway a Pulitzer Prize in 1952. The movie-which will star Academy Award winner, Anthony Quinn - is set in 1930's Cuba. Cuba itself had been considered as a location, says Storke, (Castro is reputedly a Hemmingway fan), but logistics and politics made it impossible.
Instead, Storke and his partner Robert Fuisz set out on a Caribbean-wide search for a locale that would evoke the feel of a poor, rural, fishing village. Clear, calm waters were important, as was a mountainous backdrop. The production also required a mixture of English speaking Black and Hispanic people, a politically stable area, as well as an easily accessible one so film and equipment could be flown in and out without problem.
Equally important, emphasized Storke, "we wanted an area that was untouched, a place with the feel of another era." Among the locations investigated by the producers were Belize; Cancun and Cozumel in Mexico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The B.V.I., though, won the star search. The moviemakers found all the essential elements on Tortola, in a relatively contained area. A final plus, he declares, was the B.V.I. people and their government, whom he found both friendly and cooperative.
''When you make a decision to spend so much money in an area like this, you'd better be right," adds the producer, whose movie credits include the well-received television productions of The Christmas Carol and The Last Days of Patton, both starring George C. Scott. Co-venturing the movie along with Storke Enterprises is England's Yorkshire Television, which, along with NBC is financing, the productions $4 million budget.
The only other movie made of The Old Man and the Sea – the 1958 film starring Spencer Tracy - was shot entirely in a studio. ''Today's audience is too sophisticated for that," claims Storke. ''They expect the authenticity of a film shot on actual location."
The logistics of filming in a remote location, though, - can be daunting even for the most seasoned movie producer. In Hemmingway's novel, most of the action takes place on the sea. The Old Man, a poor fisherman who has not caught a fish in over 80 days, sets out in his small boat for one final attempt at the urging of a young boy, his only friend. At one time, the most successful of the village fishermen, the Old Man has to now prove his worth to not only his fellow villagers, but to himself.
To replicate the fishing village, location scouts scoured the island for suitable locales. The Old Man's shack was found in one location in Carrot Bay, a picturesque community on Tortola's north shore, and moved to another more suitable site in the same village. Set designer Ian Whittaker then combed the area for appropriate period pieces, including a number of items from the V.I. Folk Museum. Other props included a Model A ear found in Puerto Rico and a '38 Packard discovered in Miami.
The current production departs from Hemmingway's book in several key ways. Characters have been added that were only alluded to in the novella, and a series of flashbacks add dimension and color to the character of the Old Man (referred to in the movie as Santiago). These flashbacks include a scene from his marriage, shot in Road Town's St. George's Church; and a barroom scene of Santiago as a young and virile man (played by Quinn's son Francesco.) Valentina Quinn, plays Santiago's concerned daughter, who vainly attempts to persuade her father to return with her to Havana. The movie marks the first time that Quinn's children have co-started with their father.
Also starring in the movie is Gary Cole, known for his role in NBC's Midnight Caller, who is featured as a visiting American intrigued by Santiago and his plight.
Making a movie based on classic material can be risky from a producer's standpoint, Storke admits, but it is the material he prefers. "We like to be involved in productions that are worthwhile, and that will last a long time." Jane Eyre, The Count of Monte Christo and The Man in the Iron Mask are among the classics that he has produced for television. Actors, he contends, respond to this kind of material. "Tony Quinn has wanted to do this part forever."
Quinn himself says he not only feels comfortable with the material, but also with the island. "I love the water," he declares expansively, adding that the island's sand, sea and sun evoke memories of other places he has been.
Much of the movie's action takes place at Smuggler's Cove, a small hotel and beach bar located on the island's north shore. In less then a month of work, set builders magically transformed the modest facility into a Hollywood stage set. To the beach bar, they added arches and a wooden terrace, as well as an antiqued second floor bedroom complete with gingerbread. The addition of fishing boats, nets, palm frond fish market and a rickety wooden dock further altered the quiet cove into a bustling fishing village.
Some of the film's most dramatic innovations will appear in the movie's water sequences. Life size mechanical marlins and sharks were fabricated by Effects Associates in England's Pine wood Studios, famed for the spectacular special effects they produced for the movie, Star Wars. These sequences filmed at Brewer's Bay will be deftly blended with actual marlin footage from Australia. A special underwater platform was constructed alongside a barge at Nanny Cay, location of the film's Tortola office.
Producing the movie, though took more than imported Hollywood stars and dazzling effects – it also required the input of dozens of islanders. Tortola residents, and even some visitors, were used as extras, playing everything from fishermen and their wives to wedding guests. Coordinating the extras was Tortola resident Carol Arneborg. B.V.I. High School student Henry Creque was chosen as a trainee cameraman and Michele Leslie worked as a production office assistant. Charter yacht operator, Kevin Rowlette helped with the film's boating needs; while others chipped in with everything from catering to laundry.
The movie was a financial boost for many islanders during the July doldrums. The filmmakers kept an army of taxi drivers busy, as well as a score of restaurants and bars. Both Long Bay Hotel and Ramada Nanny Cay – which put up the crew and the stars – operated at full capacity during the shooting.
Will the movie have any lasting impact on island life? The Smuggler's Cove Beach Bar plans to retain its Hollywood renovations and there are the many residents who had a fleeting shot at movie stardom.
But in the end, the ultimate star was the island itself. The B.V.I. will be credited as a location, says Bill Storke. "It may be a good thing, or it may be a bad thing. But we will let the world know that these islands are a paradise."
The movie will be aired on NBC during the upcoming '89-'90 television season.