By Elliot Blair Smith, USA TODAY
MEXICO CITY After nearly 50 years of moviemaking flops and heartaches in a country where life is stranger than fiction, Hollywood is taking renewed interest in Mexico. Cheered by the success last year of The Mexican, starring Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt, and the Oscar-nominated Traffic, the Mexico Film Commission expects 40 foreign films to be produced in the country this year up from a half-dozen five years ago. Not since Mexican film's "golden age" from the 1940s to early 1960s when American director John Huston delivered seminal works The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and The Night of the Iguana (1964) has the stardust been sprinkled so widely.
Frida and Mexican muralist Diego Rivera emerged as Mexico's most visible, most enduring artists of the first half of the 20th century, shaping the country's bohemian intellectual movement and searing their images on the world's consciousness.
"The Mexican people had a voice in the world art scene. It was a very interesting time in this country that I'd like people to know about," says Hayek, 32, the tiny, dark-haired beauty who co-starred in Desperado and Wild Wild West.
Spanish actor Antonio Banderas, who appears in a cameo role in Frida as Mexican artist and Rivera rival David Siqueiros, is in the country now filming Once Upon a Time in Mexico, the final chapter of director Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi trilogy. Later this year, Banderas is expected to film a sequel to 1998's The Mask of Zorro in Mexico.
Other U.S. movies in the works in Mexico include Vampires: Los Muertos, starring rocker Jon Bon Jovi, and possibly a Tom Cruise production of the Stephen King short story Dolan's Cadillac, which will star Kevin Bacon and Sylvester Stallone.
The movies' ascending star here is due to a dramatic change in the way the government does business. It streamlined permit applications for filmmakers who want to work in Mexico and overhauled union rules and tax laws.
Another contributor to Mexico's nascent movie boom is the surging number of moviegoers flocking to scores of newly built theaters, enjoying Hollywood fare and a creative burst from Mexico's formerly self-censored filmmakers. Box office receipts totaled a record $432 million last year, up 10% over the prior year.
And Mexico hopes to begin attracting foreign-film tourists with the aquatic theme park Foxploration, where the big-budget blockbuster Titanic was filmed in 1996 at the adjacent Fox Studios Baja in Rosarito, Baja California.
The rags-to-riches story of Mexico's comeback in the eyes of Hollywood and the moviegoing public could itself serve as the basis for a film script.
Mexico City's Estudios Churubusco, where Frida was filmed, was built by representatives of RKO Radio Pictures in 1944 when the war forced a temporary halt to U.S. production. But it languished once it was taken over by the Mexican government in the 1950s.
At the same time, it came to control everything the Mexican public saw. Faced with a stream of Ma and Pa Kettle-type movies relieved only by a sprinkling of gangsters and busty blondes, the Mexican public turned away in droves.
"The government was monopolistic. There was censorship even though they said it didn't exist," says Estudios Churubusco marketing director Gonzalo Latapi Ortega.
Meanwhile, the country's growing reputation for graft and violence turned off Hollywood moviemakers who used to feel at home in Mexico.
The Mexican government eventually saw no hope of reviving Estudios Churubusco. In 1994 it announced plans to close the operation and sell the back lot to real estate developers. Mexican arts supporters arose in protest. The result was a compromise that paved the way for a newly invigorated studio and a renaissance in Mexican filmmaking.
Government authorities sold two-thirds of the back lot, including the grassy area where Johnny Weissmuller filmed the original Tarzan movies, to other government agencies. It invested the proceeds in modern production equipment.
Today, Estudios Churubusco is a thriving home-away-from-home for foreign filmmakers. It rents offices, soundstages and warehouses. It provides expert cameramen and sound technicians. It builds props, develops negatives and delivers the edited product.
Mexican officials trace the success of their efforts to director James Cameron's decision to film Titanic in Baja California. Cameron demonstrated to other Hollywood directors and producers that they could achieve spectacular results from props to post-production at about 60% of Hollywood's fixed costs.
"The point was to bring one (foreign) producer to Mexico to show what we could do," says studio marketing chief Latapi, who made several fruitless trips to Hollywood where he says initially he met with "suspicion." Eventually, Latapi developed a winning presentation of about 1,000 scenic film locations throughout Mexico. "Mountains to deserts with jungles in between. Modern cities and ancient cities," he says.
An example of the campaign's success is Delta Airlines' 90-second TV advertisement called "Shadowlands," which purports to depict an airplane trip around the world. It delivers kaleidoscopic scenes of red deserts, sand dunes, flower fields, green pastures, blue seas, modern architecture and cascading waterfalls, all filmed in Mexico.
Another example of Mexico's versatility is evident in Frida. In a bid to save money, the crew opted to film New York and Paris scenes in the nearby colonial city of Puebla. "We don't have a budget to film Paris in Paris and New York in New York," acknowledges Hayek.
Sergio Molina, head of the National Film Commission, responds, "Mexico isn't cheaper. It's less expensive. It's part of the learning process. People are realizing Mexico is a great place to film."
Other more subtle changes also took place.
In 1992, the government deregulated movie ticket prices. "This permitted new screens to be built," says Alfredo Nava Garduno, president of the government's National Chamber of the Cinematography and Videography Industry. Although ticket prices soared (to about $3.25 apiece today) and the Mexican economy reeled through much of the 1990s, entrepreneurs were motivated to build modern movie theaters that attracted 130 million moviegoers last year, more than double the 62 million at the industry's nadir in 1995.
And the Mexican government grudgingly lifted the unofficial censorship it exerted on Mexican filmmakers. Government subsidies remain a staple of Mexican filmmaking, but public opinion has forced authorities to back away from steering the content.
The trend became evident in January 2000 with Todo el Poder (All the Power), a tale about a Mexican filmmaker who confronts a ruthless gang protected by police. Mexican filmmaker Fernando Sari๑ana penned his screenplay after being robbed at gunpoint for the fourth time. "The movie is a response to being fed up. It's a reflection of the thousands of people we know that have been robbed," he told reporters.
In February 2000, La Ley de Herodes (Herod's Law) added another chapter to the Mexican film industry's attempts to break away from its government benefactors. The Mexican government initially funded and then tried to quash the film, which tells the story of a small-town politician's rise to power through corruption and impunity. It is the first Mexican film to mention the former ruling party, the PRI, by name.
Ruling-party representatives allegedly cajoled the moviemaker to delay releasing the film until after national elections. But public outrage forced government officials to back off. In response, the film's independent distributor devised a marketing campaign with posters that asked: "Why don't they want you to see it?"
In an example of life imitating art, charismatic opposition-party leader Vicente Fox was elected president of Mexico at midyear, smashing the PRI's 71-year hold on power and promising a new era of free expression.
Miramax's production of Frida reflects the Mexican film colony's growing independence. "This is the perfect time for this movie to come out," says Hayek, who has tried to get a film of Kahlo's life made since 1994.
And though the Mexican government says it has no plans to privatize Estudios Churubusco, the flowering of Mexican film is everywhere apparent.
The film bug has bitten so badly that small-town mayor Jose Antonio Rios recently diverted $16,000 from his city treasury in Tultitlan, near Mexico City, to underwrite a low-budget action film that starred him alongside a chesty blond actress.
The mayor was reviled by local citizens and ousted by his political party the same as Mexican President Fox's but his moviemaking dreams remain unsated. Rios wrote a personal check to repay the city and says he plans to continue acting.