I was saddened to hear of the death of Gabriel García Márquez this week. I spent a memorable couple of hours in his company just over fifteen years ago in Havana.
I met Gabriel García Márquez in November 1998, when he was president of the International Film & Television School in Cuba (EICTV). I had recently been appointed Head of Editing by the new principal Alberto Garcia Ferrer, who had himself been headhunted by Márquez. I initiated some major changes in the department, which Alberto welcomed, but he suggested I visit Márquez to let him know what I was planning to do. As I was leaving the campus at San Antonio de Los Baños—one of the most enchanting campuses anywhere—with the interpreter Oriel Rodriguez I bumped into the Belgian editor/director Rogier van Eck. I asked him whether he would like to join us. He jumped at the chance.
Márquez had a residence in Havana, a grand building that also housed the Latin-American Foundation for New Cinema, of which he was the founder member. Everything about Gabriel García Márquez surprised me. I expected him to be tall, in fact he was short; the man with the distinctive, vivid and resonant authorial voice was softly spoken; and the firebrand of the left struck me as a courteous, graceful and charming patrician.
He knew that I was not full-time at the school and that I devised the courses, invited the tutors, and paid periodic visits to debrief the students, give masterclasses and organise workshops. He was struck by the fact that the tutor list included Bill Forsyth, Peter Kingsgate Smith, Jack Gold, Kerry Crabbe, Harry Hook etc. ‘Are you planning a British invasion?’ he asked. ‘I suppose I am,’ I said. ‘Well,’ he replied, ‘better than an American one.’ He asked me why there were so many directing workshops for editors. I told him that it was a standing joke at the British National Film & Television School (NFTS) that my editors had more directing workshops than the directors. Editors learnt how to work with directors by stepping into their shoes.
He asked about the current workshop, which was about the ‘eye line’. Now, the ‘eye line’ is helpful in telling the audience who is where in relation to whom on the screen, but it has also become a fetish—I suspect because it’s about the only thing that filmmakers can define easily and agree about, that is, if one imagines an invisible line between two characters the camera should stay consistently on one side of the line or the other and not cross it. Ozu and Ford, to name but two in the Pantheon, crossed the line repeatedly—and the sky did not fall. My workshop was a ‘three eye-line’ exercise, that is, with three characters. Challenging, but, once grasped, the students would be able to place the camera with confidence. How did it work, he asked. (Abstraction does not work well in movies. There is no equivalent to a five-finger exercise.) I told him that I had asked a young screenwriter at the NFTS to come up with two scenes based on a plot I had devised: The story should be about a girl who is having an affair with two men, one her own age, the other twenty years older. The younger man does not realise the situation but the older man does and after a while tells the girl she must choose between them. She decides in his favour and promises to tell the younger man.
In the first workshop scene, the girl arrives at a café to meet the younger man and, to her horror, the older man is sitting at a table watching them. It’s an L-shaped exercise with two people sitting close to and one far away. Throughout, her attention is constantly divided between the two men.
The second scene shows the girl and the older man a year later at the same café—but totally unexpectedly the young man joins them at the table. This is the A-shaped exercise of three characters close to each other. The scene ends with her telling the men that she hopes they will be happy together—and leaves them to it.
Márquez’s reaction took us all by surprise. He became quite animated and his voice became firmer. He said that he had been working on an unfinished novel with a similar plot. His story was about impecunious young lovers and a rich man who comes into their neighbourhood. The rich man is attracted by the girl and the young man suggests she has an affair with him, makes him fall in love and later fleeces him and takes him for all he’s got. Of course the plan goes awry, the young woman falls in love with the older man and the young man plans to murder him—a very different world from my two-dimensional story. But Márquez was nudged by the workshop story and muttered something about a ‘series of betrayals’. Very Márquez, you might think. He said he was going to return to his unfinished novel, but I don’t know if he ever did.
Márquez gave screenwriting courses at the Foundation and students were thrilled to be taught by him and totally charmed by his straight forwardness, as indeed I was. There was no side to him and he did not play the Grand Maître. At no point during the couple of hours that we spent with him did he bring the conversation round to himself. I spent most of the time answering his questions. His curiosity seemed limitless.
Referring to our encounter, Rogier said ‘You are not impressed by anyone, are you?’ ‘Was I rude or too familiar?’ I asked. ‘No,’ he said, ‘you treated him as an ordinary man.’ ‘He is an ordinary man,’ I said, ‘an ordinary man who happens to be one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century.’