John Berry, widely viewed as the model of the blacklisted director portrayed by Robert De Niro in Irwin Winkler’s “Guilty By Suspicion,” comes into the Cannes Film Festival this year in a unique dual role.
“Guilty” is a competitive entry in the festival’s main event. And “A Captive In The Land,” a U.S.-Soviet co-production that Berry directed, is the closing film in the fest’s prestigious Un Certain Regard sidebar.
Berry has lived in Paris since he made “The Hollywood 10” in 1951, a documentary produced to raise funds for the defense of the writers summoned by the House Un-American Affairs Committee.
Despite being shut out of the Hollywood loop for decades, Berry is philosophical about his blacklisting. Although he couldn’t get any assignments in the States, he was able to support himself by writing and directing stage plays in London and films in France.
And he relished his life in Paris. “Where else,” he says, “could one have had the opportunity to meet and mingle with Camus” Sartre and de Beauvoir?”
Berry’s latest project qualifies him as perhaps the only director who has experienced a co-production that involved arctic locations, Moscow interiors, Paris production headquarters and a four-month hiatus because of a heart attack suffered by the Russian co-star.
“A Captive In The Land” stars Sam Waterston and was co-produced with Malcolm Stuart Norkat’s Norman Katz, onetime Warner Bros. International topper, the producer’s representative, made a deal for Mark , Cruise attached as producer, at Damon’s Vision International to handle the foreign sales, which are being launched at the Cannes market. A U.S. domestic release arrangement is still pending.
Berry says a decision was made early to go ahead with the production of “A Captive In The Land” without an upfront distribution deal. The film, he says, is a tribute to the late American screenwriter Lee Gold, who adapted the script from a novel by James Aldridge. Gold’s brother, Los Angeles industrialist Peter S. Gold, put up the money for the $6 million production.
Originally Berry and Lee Gold, friends and collaborators for many years, went to Russia more than four years ago to arrange a co-production before the full impact of glasnost and perestroika. They set up a deal with Sovin-film, a pre-perestroika government brokerage office that put them together with Gorky Film Studios. Berry and Gold went looking for western money after they were assured that the Soviets would come through with the below-the-line costs.
Lorimar and Charles Fries had shown interest but, one by one, the money sources fell away. And then Gold died. “It was an enormous blow.” says Berry.
Enter co-producer Stuart, who had been an executive at Lorimar. He knew about the property and joined with longtime friend Berry to get it off the ground. Peter Gold’s “need to do it as a tribute to his brother” clinched the dollar financing.
Berry’s experience with Soviet filmmaking is perhaps summed up in his recital of a “saying” of the Russian film business – “anything that is quickly done cannot be well done.” Despite the below-the-line arrangement, Berry brought in a 20-man French crew from Paris, where he has lived and worked
“A Captive In The Land” is essentially a two-character drama about an American meteorologist and a Soviet airman in a wrecked aircraft in the Arctic. The experience was harrowing, according to Berry. First location was an island east of Murmansk. “I was the first American there in 40 years,” he said. “It was a 15-minute flight by helicopter and 90 minutes across the ice on a half-track.”
About a third through the Arctic shooting Alexander Potapov, co-starring with Waterston in the role of the Russian airman, had a heart attack. He was out of action for four months. Waterson returned to the U.S. to do another film and Berry went back to Paris.
When doctors said Potapov was sufficiently recovered to resume his role, it was impossible to return to the original location because the spring thaw had set in. A new Arctic location was found and the cast and crew endured storms, buried equipment and all the discomforts of the region.
“On some things, the Russians were great,” said Berry. An Aeroflot plane provided transportation to the location from Paris, where Stuart maintained production headquarters.
A big problem surfaced on the score, which was originally to be provided by a Russian composer. For some reason, said Berry, they could never find the studio time to record the music. Time was at last found for a 50-minute session.
“It was totally wrong for the picture,” said Berry, who went back to Peter Gold and told him that an American composer was needed. Gold put up the extra money. Berry retained Bill Conti who insisted that the music be recorded in Rome and not in Moscow.
Excluding the hiatus, Berry completed the film in 16 weeks. “It was an incredible adventure,” he says. “I can understand what it’s like to work in Russia and what’s going on there now.”