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Film Page Logo  To launch a new film feature in The Barcelona Review what could be more appropriate than bringing to an international bilingual literary site a story of a Spanish novel set in Barcelona being turned into an English language film by an American producer/scriptwriter and an international cast and crew?


 An Interview with Dawn Westlake, Producer/Scriptwriter/Actress


      A finished film is usually promoted in the media by the actors/actresses or the director involved. All are paid professionals who offer their talents and their names to the success of the product. For the actors it is a few months of commitment, for the director a longer period, but for people like Dawn Westlake, more than likely out of the public eye, who fight to get the movie to the point where an actor even utters a word in the first place, it can be an uphill struggle and involve years of frustration.

Dawn Westlake's persistence in realising her screenplay of Nada, based on the Spanish novel by Carmen Laforet, has finally paid off and filming will start soon. In an e-mail interview with The Barcelona Review we gain an insight into the origins of a film.

Dawn Westlake
photo: Cinema Prints

Dawn Westlake, who grew up in suburban Chicago, fell in love with Barcelona after participating in a foreign exchange program between her high school Wheaton Central and Empereador Carlos V in 1980. At Northwestern University, she majored in Radio-TV-Film and took graduate classes while still an undergraduate in Spanish and Hispanic Studies. She made good spending money tutoring Northwestern athletes in Spanish for the Athletics Department and was also chosen to be a drill instructor for a two-year intensive program offered to beginning Spanish students at the university. In 1984, Dawn won a Richter Scholarship to return to Barcelona to study TV3, Televisió de Catalunya. In 1987, she was honored to receive the Society of Professional Journalists' Mark of Excellence Award for a television interview she did with former President Jimmy Carter.

After graduating from Northwestern with honors, Dawn began acting professionally. She soon got her SAG/AFTRA cards in Chicago doing commercials and industrials. She also studied at Second City, performed with two improv troupes, wrote for WGN- TV's internationally-syndicated "The Bozo Show" and several magazines before moving to San Francisco in 1990. It was there, between acting jobs in 1993, where Dawn stumbled upon Carmen Laforet's Nada (1944, Synopsis of Nada ) at the Sausalito Public Library.

Since then, she has relocated to the Los Angeles area where between more acting jobs and work on original screenplays, she has also written the English-language film scripts "Martyr" and "Span", based on San Manuel Bueno, Mártir by Miguel de Unamuno (1930) and Lazarillo de Tormes by Anonymous (approx. 1550), respectively. In the works is the script "Angel Steps on the Santa Fe Trail", based on the true life diaries of an Italian nun who had adventures with Billy the Kid, Geronimo and others in the Old West. Co-writing on "Angel Steps" is Andrea Marfori, director of the Italian soap 'Un posto al sole' (RAI/Grundy),who will also direct the project.

Dawn currently lives in Beverly Hills with her husband, Bruce Rheins, an Emmy Award-winning producer for "The CBS Evening News with Dan Rather".

 BR: When I was trying to find a job description for what you do I asked "What is your title? ...You can't be just a screenwriter/actress...". You put me in my place by saying that you were sorry to disappoint but you were ".. 'just' a screenwriter/actress/producer...just like Carrie Fisher and just like Quentin Tarantino, although he used to be a director, too ;-)" What I meant was that there doesn't seem to be a term to describe what you do. 'Producer' evokes the idea of money maker/giver as well as a million other things. You conceived and nurtured 'Nada', created the possibility of a movie and also went finance and people hunting. You hear artists, of either sex, refer to their work as their 'baby' and I wondered if the word 'Mother' is not such a bad title. Could you see in the future "Mothered by Spielberg" or whoever? Any other ideas?

DW: I've never been a mother, but I have a great one...and the best lesson she taught me was that I could do anything and that I should never give up. Quitters aren't highly respected in my family. Another good piece of advice was from a casting director who said that if I hung in until my fingernails bled, I'd be sure to make it. To speed up the process, I bite my cuticles. ;-)

BR: So from the beginning, just how did an American woman from suburban Chicago get the idea to produce an English-language film based on a Spanish novel?

DW: Well, I was an exchange student in Barcelona in 1980 and lived with a family who had all kinds of secrets and were highly emotional and manipulative with each other. Coming from a rather staid background, I found them fascinating...a real live soap opera right there in front of me on a daily basis! I also made some great friends in Barcelona...friends I still have to this day (in fact, I'm the godmother to the son of a pal I made back then), and I fell in love with the spirit of the Catalans, the architecture in Barcelona, the art, history, cuisine...the whole package! I had great Spanish profs in high school and at college who exposed me to a lot of Spanish literature...in fact, I thought I knew it all...until I was in the library in Sausalito, CA between acting jobs and saw this thing called Nada peeking out at me from the one shelf they had as a 'Hispanic Section'. I'm a big fan of 'Seinfeld', the American TV sitcom about essentially 'Nothing', so I was intrigued to see what 'Nothing' the book was all about and... I was about to start it over again for a fourth time when my husband really wondered about my sanity. So, I put it down and took out a legal pad instead and began translating it and putting it into a script form. This is something I always do when I adapt books...I write them out in a half long-hand translation, half-script format to see if they make any sense. If they 'work', I continue to write.

BR: There was obviously a point from first reading the book to deciding to go for broke and making the film. More or less when did you start to get serious, buy the rights and get the project rolling? How long did that process take?

DW: I got serious right away with that legal pad! I didn't work every day, but on and off for about six weeks during the summer of 1993. At that point, I didn't have the rights. Wasn't I dumb? In fact, it never occurred to me that I would have to track them myself. A friend in LA pointed that out! (She'd been burned on an adaptation effort before.) So, I wrote to the Spanish consulate in San Francisco and asked for Carmen Laforet's address. They had her ex-husband's on file, so I sent a letter there. I got a response from what I thought was her but I've since learned that she never opens her mail. Either her ex-husband or a member of her family wrote back and told me to follow up with her literary agent Carmen Balcells in Barcelona, and they signed Laforet's name. So, thinking I had a sort of 'blessing' from Laforet herself, I happily started communicating with Balcells' office. We signed an agreement but it took four years to get the rights. I sent Laforet more letters, wrote, called and faxed Balcells...visited Balcells in 1994...then, I finally met Carmen Laforet last October at her son Agustín Cerezales´s house. Which was pure fantasy. Probably the second best day of my life. My wedding day being the first, of course.

BR: Is there any reason why it took four years to secure the rights? Is this normal?

DW: Let's just say there were some misunderstandings on their end (I'm not sure Balcells took me seriously at first...although, they were very generous and let me write an adaptation and shop it around to producers without an agreement), and I also had some problems with a certain attorney here in LA who I've since fired.

Once you eventually met with Carmen Laforet what did you talk about?

DW: I told her all about my experiences in Barcelona, the 'interesting' family I lived with, what her novel meant to me, what I was hoping to do with the film, things like that. She is in ill health now, but was really witty and shot straight from the hip. I'll bet she was a firecracker when she was younger. I'm looking forward to seeing her again when I return to Spain this fall for the San Sebastian Film Fest and other meetings in Barcelona and Madrid.

BR: When will shooting start and will it be totally shot in Spain?

DW: We aren't shooting until January of 1998, but yes, at this point the plan is to shoot both exteriors and interiors in Barcelona.


BR: Since writing the first draft of the script in 1993 and the present, you've just been trying to get the film made?

DW: Not exclusively, no. I have also been doing acting jobs, producing theatre, and I wrote two original screenplays and two more based on Spanish novels, 'Martyr' based on San Manuel Bueno, Mártir by Unamuno and 'Span' based on Lazarillo de Tormes. The film got made during transatlantic phone calls in the middle of the night for about eighteen months! These are Purple Eye Bags of Honor! :-)


BR: And where are you in the development of your other Spanish literature-based films?

DW: 'Martyr' has Sergio Arau, Alfonso's son, attached to direct and Yareli Arizmendi, the star of Like Water for Chocolate as Angela. 'Span' is very new...just off the press this spring, so it's circulating...I'm getting comments from trusted friends...one director has approached me, but well...we'll see.


BR: I'll bet Lazarillo de Tormes. was something you read in high school Spanish, but San M.anuel..?

DW: Also high school. My teacher heard me arguing about religion and its function in society with some of the more zealous Evangelists in my school (Wheaton, IL is a large notch on the Bible Belt.) and handed me San M.anuel. saying, 'Toma. Tienes que leer esto.' That was 1981. From that time on, it's been a really important story for me, and sadly, no one really knows it outside of Spain.


BR: Are you very faithful to the books you adapt?

DW: I think so. Well, Lazarillo I updated by 400 years, and I made Lazarillo a little girl named 'Limosna', but other than that, it's all the same. :-) And, with San M.anuel., I put the novella into a 'sandwich' between pieces of 'bread' with a wrap-around story about a man under house arrest, like Unamuno was in the end. This way, I make his statement about the constraints of religion on society and my own statement about the constraints of radical politics and government on society.


BR: Has everyone in Spain been receptive to your wanting to make a film version of Nada ?

DW: Only the Laforet-Cerezales family and my own family ...thank goodness for those miracles! Actually, the Spaniards have been tough...'Why in English?', 'Why an American producer/writer?', etc. And, I really wanted a Spanish director, but people kept me waiting, couldn't bring themselves to tell me 'no', flirted with the idea and dropped it, etc. It finally dawned on me that maybe it was too big a deal for a Spaniard to commit to. Like trying to get an American to direct The Catcher in the Rye. Although, Americans have more careless egos, especially in Hollywood...there would probably be a line around the block of people wanting to prove themselves with Catcher. But, to their credit, I think Spaniards are more careful and reflective...and to their discredit, they may overthink things...casting ahead to the possible negative criticism without giving me or the script or the concept a try.

BR: So, who will direct?

DW: Gabriel Beristain. He's a Mexican national who has worked as a director of photography on many foreign and studio films. He's worked with all the great directors, Taylor Hackford, David Mamet, Carl Reiner, etc. His father was Luis Beristain, a famous Mexican actor who was in several Buñuel films. Gabriel has a fantastic sense of imagery, symbolism, atmosphere and dialogue. He's the perfect person to deliver a beautiful film version of Nada to the international film community.

BR: Are you using all Spanish actors speaking English...American stars with accents...?

DW: So far, Blanca Marsillach is attached as Andrea. Emma Suarez really wants to play Ena, according to her agent, and Yareli Arizmendi is Angustias. I wrote Gloria for myself. We're looking at international names to round out the rest of the cast.


BR: International names? Who? In their native tongue and dubbed later ?

DW: Those are under wraps for now, but they are fine actors from all over: the US, England, France, Germany, Italy...and they'll all speak English with Catalan-Spanish accents. I am really inspired on this by films like The Unbearable Lightness of Being (there you had a Frenchwoman, Englishman and Swedish woman playing Czechs) and For Roseanna (in which a Frenchman, an American woman and an Englishwoman played Italians). It works! It really does!


BR: You said you wrote the role of Gloria for yourself. Was this something you had in mind from the word go?

DW: In the beginning, I never thought of being in Nada. But, as I went through more and more drafts this year, I began to really fall for Gloria...her crazed logic, her profound sadness, her humor...I ran into another writer at a party during AFM (the American Film Market) and was telling him about the project, and he said, "And you'll play...?" I modestly said, "Oh, I won't be in it." He said, "You're the producer/writer and you own the rights, but you won't hire yourself? Gee, Dawn. If you won't hire you, who will?" That really stung and I went home determined to be Gloria. And, you know what? She has so many nude scenes now that I think most actresses wouldn't want the part anyway, but I have no trouble with that issue...I've been a fine art model for such internationally known photographers as Frenchman Lucien Clergue, Englishman Robert Holmes and American Randall Michelson for almost ten years now.

BR: What has the American film community thought of the idea of Nada?

DW: They're coming around. There are no explosions and no parts for Schwarzenegger, so it's been tough, but Shine, The English Patient, Kolya....films like these have shown that there is a niche market for films about people and relationships with beautiful scenery, world politics,etc. Still, it's all about packaging. By 'Packaging' I mean you can't get a good distributor without a good cast, you can't get the cast without the distributor commitment...vicious circles. It's all about hanging out with the 'cool kids'. I learned all I ever needed to know about this business in junior high ; -).

BR: Are there added difficulties for a woman trying to put a film together?

DW: Things have changed a lot, for the better, I think. But, I'm still surprised to get questions like 'who is your partner?' and then hear their relief that it's a male. Also, he (Damon Barone of Cobalt Films) is able to get into the good meetings and to the meat of things with people much quicker than I can, and people often overexplain things to me like I'm five (I guess being a blonde American doesn't help my profile much...) and make me defend my choices on creative issues. On the other hand, there's a flirtation to this business that my male partner doesn't have access to, so I guess you use what you can and get what you can and try not to take anything too personally.

BR: What are your favorite book to screen movies?

DW: Easy! Emma Thompson's Sense & Sensibility, Alfonso Arau's LikeWater for Chocolate, and Roman Polanski's Tess.. The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Lord of the Flies were also brilliant. I haven't read The English Patient but I heard that although it was totally different from the book it was a beyond- brilliant adaptation. I loved the film!

BR: And the worst book to screen movies?

DW: I can't remember what they called it eventually, but it was based on my favorite series of children's books, the Mrs Piggle-Wiggle series. Horrendous! They dummied it down like the audience was moronic. Also, I'm a huge Paul Bowles fan and The Sheltering Sky was almost there, but not quite right...and then, there was Interview with a Vampire...what a mess! That was mostly a casting problem though.

BR: What will they say about Dawn Westlake's Nada?

DW: Well, it'll be Gabriel Beristain's Nada...won't it? He'll get the blame, right? :-) No. I don't know. But, you know what? I'm not dwelling on that. I just want to please the Laforet family, my family and me. If I can do that, I'll feel completely successful.


 For more information about the film and Dawn, e-mail Ron de Caña Productions

© The Barcelona Review 1997




based on the novel by Carmen Laforet
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Orphaned during the Spanish Civil War, seventeen-year-old Andrea arrives in a shell-shocked Barcelona to start her university career in literature. Her happy illusions about life in the big city clash with the tension and violent emotions she finds in her grandmother's house. She searches for her true identity among the contrasts of the sordid, physical relationships in her extended family's apartment and the fragile, intellectual and political life she's being exposed to at the university. Striving to better herself, Andrea focuses on her new friend Ena, a beautiful, dynamic, and well-connected classmate who Andrea believes represents everything she wants to be yet isn't. Without warning, her two worlds collide when Ena becomes romantically involved with Andrea's twisted Uncle Roman, a Civil War veteran who worships the Aztec god Xochlpilli and longs for a Discordian Society. Abandoned once again, Andrea turns to Pons and Iturdiaga, two young Bohemians, who lift her spirits between her Aunt Gloria's graphic reports of Ena and Roman's increasing involvement. Finally, Andrea can ignore the dangerous liaison no longer, and she dramatically confronts her friend and her uncle. In doing so, she learns that Ena was only trying to avenge the ugly relationship that Roman had with Ena's mother a generation before. Mysteriously, Roman is "taken out", but instead of dwelling on the laundry list of suspects, including the possibility that it was only a suicide, the death is utilized as a wake-up call and fresh start for the family and especially Andrea, a new adult who now knows full-well where she belongs.

Nada is a dark, yet at times highly comic, look at a young girl's quest for self- esteem in a war-torn society where the "haves" and "have nots" are harshly delineated. Reminiscent of Howard's End, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Thelma & Louise, Nada celebrates the righteousness of youth and the struggle against political, sociological and psychological conformity.


Info as of Sept 1997:

Blanca Marsillach ("Flesh & Blood") attached as Andrea.
Yarell Arlzmendi ("Like Water for Chocolate") attached as Angustias.
Emma Suarez ("El perro del hortelano") attached as Ena.

Gabriel Beristain ("Dolores Claiborne", "Trial & Error" ,etc. d.p.) attached to direct.

Teresa Medina ("Female Perversions", "Things I Never Told You", "Todo esta' oscuro", etc.) attached as director of photography.

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