When LEONARDO DICAPRIO beat Ewan McGregor to the lead role in The Beach, it was only the beginning of a media circus which saw the filmmakers under flak from environmentalists
in Thailand. Words: Miles Fielder
'LEO IS A WONDERFUL ACTOR IN THE TRADITION OF BRANDO. and Dean through to De Niro, Pacino, Hoffman. And now DiCaprio.‘ Praise doesn’t come much higher than that. In this case, it’s Martin Scorsese’s assessment of Leonardo DiCaprio, star of his next film, the $90 million 19th century period epic Gangs Of New York, which begins filming at Rome’s Cinecetta Studios next month.
Before then, however, DiCaprio must prove his worth — both in terms of critical acclaim and box office returns — with The Beach, the Trainspotting team’s screen adaptation of Alex Garland‘s hit novel. The pressure is on, but it wasn’t always thus. Certainly, DiCaprio’s early film roles singled him out as a fine actor in the making, in particular This Boy’s Life — in which he more than held his own against co-star Robert De Niro — and What's Eating Gilbert Grape .7, for which he received an Oscar nomination.
But it was with Baz Luhrmann’s radical update of Romeo And Juliet that DiCaprio found stardom. Just a year later, in 1997, the phenomenal success of the box office record-breaking, multiple Oscar-winning Titanic conferred superstar status upon him. So when Britain's coolest filmmaking trio — Danny Boyle, Andrew Macdonald and John Hodge — decided to follow their previous literary adaptation with the other hot British novel of the 90s, DiCaprio was in prime position to nudge Ewan McGregor out of the running. The Beach was on, and Leo was in; as was his $20 million fee.
McGregor, star of the team’s three previous films (Shallow Grave, Trainspotting and A Life Less Ordinary), was originally slated to play Garland’s back- packing alter-ego, Richard. When he was replaced with the more ‘bankable’ star (despite the fact he was due to appear in what would become the biggest film of 1999, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace), McGregor’s response was unsurprising. ‘This is a very bitter pill to swallow,’ he said. ‘I was very surprised when they chose Leonardo over me, but it was down to money. Danny can get a bigger budget with him. I thought we were more than that.’
Controversy didn’t stop there. The casting of DiCaprio over McGregor was overshadowed by the environmental scandal that erupted around one of the film’s locations in Thailand. The crew and its production company, 20th Century Fox, came under attack from locals and conservationists for alleged damage to Maya Bay on Phi Phi Leh island in southern Thailand. Critics claimed the remodelling of Maya Bay to better resemble the novel’s hidden utopia was doing irreparable harm to one of Thailand’s national parks. Meanwhile, the country’s own
'The interesting thing about my character, Richard, Is he I: a backpacker in the true sense of the word. A rugged individualist.’
Swimming against the tide: Robert Carlyle as Mr Duck and Tilda Swinton as Sal in The Beach
government came under fire for — again allegedly — putting commerce before the environment.
Of course, this is only one side of the story. Other local residents were said to be approving of the tourist attention resulting from the filming of a major Hollywood film on their doorstep. Meanwhile, producer Andrew Macdonald pointed out that the production had guaranteed to return the area to its original state by rebuilding the dunes and employing a horticulturalist and irrigation specialist.
Nevertheless. criticism and inevitable press attention continued to escalate, prompting DiCaprio to issue a statement on behalf of The Beach. ‘From what I see with my own eyes. everything is OK.‘ he said. ‘I have seen nothing that had been destroyed or damaged in any way. I cannot tell you the reasons why people have been saying the opposite. It is beyond me. lfl had seen evidence that anything was being done wrong. I wouldn't be happy. I wouldn‘t endorse this project. The environment, and environmental issues. are the first and foremost charitable concerns I have focused on. and I consider myself to be an environ- mentalist.‘
DiCaprio also reckons that, because the part he plays has a note of realism about it. there will be spin-off benefits for the local economy. ‘In the film, the interesting thing about my character. Richard, is he is a backpacker in the true sense of the word. A rugged individualist. He is not looking for luxury. He is truly looking for adventure. The great thing about real back- packers. who come to foreign countries, is they go to more isolated places and improve the commerce of the people who live there. I think the release of a film like this will encourage young people to see the beauty of Thailand, and encourage more young backpackers to come here. This film will also encourage more people to explore the countryside of Thailand and some of the isolated villages that wouldn‘t normally earn money from tourism.‘
Stories within stories within stories, and everyone has their own version. There’s Garland’s book and Hodge‘s screenplay; McGregor’s rejection and DiCaprio’s participation; the filming on an island paradise and the alleged destruction of it. But now, after much off-screen drama, The Beach is to be released in the UK. From next month, British audiences will be able to make up their own minds whether this is paradise lost or found.
The Beach opens Fri 11 Feb. See review next issue. For tickets to an exclusive preview screening, see page 103.
20 Jan—3 Feb 2000 THE ll8T9