`The Falcon' Takes Wing -- A Russian Folk Tale Becomes The First Co-Production Of Film Companies From The U.S. And Georgia, U.S.S.R.
TBILISI, Georgia, U.S.S.R. - Sometimes it was hard to discern the boundaries of the fairy tale, to know where fantasy ended and reality began in this republic at the southern edge of the Soviet Union.
Magic pollinates the air by design on movie sets such as the castles, palaces and gardens that were used for ``The Falcon.'' And it pervades naturally places such as Georgia, where the Caucasus Mountains crest the clouds like snow-capped shoals, forming a monumental bridge between the Black and Caspian seas.
Greg Palmer, the Seattle playwright and former KING-TV broadcaster, had been directing his adaptation of a Russian folk tale, ``Fenist, the Bright Falcon,'' for two weeks before I arrived in Tbilisi.
Already, in order to shoot one scene, Palmer and his cast and crew had leaped - or, variously, flopped and tumbled and rolled and sprawled - from a hovering helicopter to a snow bank on a narrow ledge 10,000 feet up in the Caucasus.
Already, among the stone houses of a remote mountain village where no other Westerners ever had set foot, they'd been feted and fed on mutton fat and dark red wine.
Already, during a break in the filming schedule, they'd dodged Soviet tanks and troops that were poised to put down a rumored attempt to topple the statue of Lenin dominating one of Tbilisi's main squares.
Not many fairy tales offer more adventure than that.
``The Falcon,'' which will have its premiere as both a television and stage production during the Goodwill Games, follows a classic fairy-tale quest. At the same time, it marks the beginning of an adventure for Palmer.
In the story, Anna - clever and kind and brave - receives as a gift from her father the only indulgence she has ever asked of him: the feather of Fenist, the Falcon.
The magical feather transforms into a prince, who is driven from Anna by the cruel plotting of Agripina and Marta, her two haughty older siblings. To save Fenist, who has fallen into the clutches of the vain Tzarevna, Anna undertakes a trek across the nine mountains to the Tenth Kingdom with the help of three fey sisters and an enchanted ball of yarn.
As he sets out to seek his own fortune, however, rather than being led by a pet ball, the bearish, puckish figure of Greg Palmer will be following a grand idea.
It was an idea he offered to KING. But when the station wasn't interested in sending him to Georgia, he put together the project on his own time. Although KING fired Palmer earlier this year, the station bought broadcast rights to the production.
The video project, produced by Palmer-Fenster Productions of Seattle and Kartuli Telefilmi, is the first co-production ever undertaken by U.S. and Georgian companies. Cast and crew of ``The Falcon'' were composed of both Georgians and Americans; the Georgians now are in Seattle rehearsing the A Contemporary Theatre production that opens July 24.
As a result of its airing during the Golden Fleece Film Festival on the Black Sea last month, representatives
of several international television organizations have expressed an interest in broadcasting ``The Falcon'' during the coming year. David Shalikashvili, director general for Kartuli Telefilmi, is negotiating with Palmer to adapt and produce three more Georgian stories.
And now, Palmer has begun to seek money for similar co-productions of folk-tale adaptations in other nations, from east of the sun to west of the moon.
Funny thing about fairy tales: No matter how much magic is floating around, nothing seems to come easily. On the day of my arrival in Tbilisi, the shooting schedule for ``Mimino'' (the Georgian word for ``bird of prey'') was 13 hours, from 1 in the afternoon until about 2 the next morning.
On the 25 or so hillside acres of the Georgian Ethnographic and Folk Museum, blossoming pomegranate trees shed flurries of petals in a breeze that did little to relieve the bright springtime heat. Below, the Mtkvari River flowed fierce and brown; on its banks the whitewashed expanse of Tbilisi stretched into a rolling, arid landscape.
The museum is composed of traditional buildings reconstructed from all regions of the country - round, thatched Mingrelian patskhas (huts) from the Black Sea coast; western Georgia family houses with long covered porches; traditional Tbilisi townhouses with buttressed balconies; and ruins of stone darbazi houses from the east and tower houses from the mountains.
Among them sat enormous elliptical red-clay jars - refrigerator-size vessels traditionally buried in the ground up to their necks and used for wine storage. Their design dates to the ancient days when Georgia was known as Colchis, home of Medea, where the Greek hero Jason and his Argonauts came on a quest to obtain the legendary Golden Fleece.
It was an ideal place to film part of a fairy tale, as Palmer had discovered last fall on a scouting trip with associate producer Liz Russell.
A rough-hewn, one-room building served as the inn for the framing scenes of ``The Falcon.'' Nana Gerasimova, production and costume designer and arbiter of Georgian protocol, dressed it as carefully as she had the actors and actresses, to ensure an authentic atmosphere. Venerable, smoke-dark carpets hung on the walls. Low benchlike tables were set with glazed earthenware drinking bowls, shoti's puri (bread) and plates of fresh herbs and vegetables.
Cecilie Keenan, listed in the screen credits as location manager and chief wrangler for the magic ball, was busy in her pivotal role as ``staff factotum.'' She was stoking the fire in the stone circle at the center of the room. As the smoke curled upward to escape through the vented roof, the old house seemed to breathe, returning to life after who knows how many decades of dim silence.
Of the 50 or so Georgians and Americans involved in the project, upwards of 20 milled about the set.
Larry Ballard, whose skill and experience had made him the anchor of the cast, was having a beard pasted on by Dodo Chelidze for his role as the storyteller. Erika Warmbrunn was being drawn into the role of Anna by the steady stare of the falcon sitting on her wrist.
Ia Parulava (Marta and the Tsarevna) and Carmen Roman (Agripina and the three fey sisters) were applying their makeup under a pomegranate tree. Nearby hovered Dato Basilidze, the easygoing Tbilisi student-actor whose troubleshooting talents had drawn him to the heart of the company.
Palmer paced, dangerously circling his Georgian co-director Koba Tsakadze. Nugzar - ``Noogie'' - Ruhadze (Anna's father) and Levan Unchaneishvili (Fenist and Tevdore) were late again.
Palmer never did get used to the vagaries of what the American cast called GPT (Georgian People's Time): Clocks tend to be more decorative than demanding here.
And no one could get used to the ominous rumble of Soviet troop planes on their low approaches to the airport every 15 or 20 minutes. ``The Krem'' (Kremlin) was preparing for ``eventualities'' during the April 9 independence rally in Tbilisi the following week, Dato said, scowling.
Bill Fenster, director of photography, along with sound designer Jack McKeogh, engineering director Mark Huffstutter and key grip John Blackman, wound their way warily through webs of wire. The hundreds of pounds of gear they'd brought from Seattle had been rigged to odd assortments of antique transformers and lights nurtured by Beso Solomonashvili and his earnest compatriots on the Georgian electrical crew.
``Isn't this an adventure?'' Huffstutter moaned, going pale but smiling bravely at the occasional spark, blackout, ungrounded connection or raw wire.
``Technology transfer,'' McKeogh said dryly, grinning as they patched and jury-rigged a lighting circuit. ``Well, let's fire this baby up.''
``Don't put it like that,'' Huffstutter said.
Just as the set had settled for the shoot, Valeri Donguzashvili, assigned by Kartuli Telefilmi as a co-producer for ``The Falcon,'' slammed open the door of the inn, grinning broadly. He'd brought good Georgian wine as a gift from the countryside, he said. Toasts were called for! A celebration! A party!
A half-hour later, satisfied that tradition and the rule of hospitality had been adequately served, Valeri hauled his 5-gallon jugs into the background. Cecilie Keenan stoked up the fire again for the opening scene at the inn. Noogie, at the head of the table, took a final shot at memorizing his lines and stuffed his script under his stool.
Palmer sighed again and called for quiet.
Cries of ``Sichume! (Quiet!)'' echoed in the falling dusk outside.
An electrical connection sizzled slightly. The lights flickered but held.
``Go,'' Palmer said, and mumbled, ``Thank God.''
The Seattle ``Falconers'' took whatever spare hours they could to explore Tbilisi's streets, courtyards, cafes, shops and public baths.
In the course of three weeks, they'd become familiar celebrities in their black-satin jackets embroidered with a falcon's head and Mimino written in sinuous Georgian script.
The people, culture and atmosphere of Georgia had opened to the Americans, and they had reciprocated (co-executive producer Lucy Mohl already has made a return trip to Georgia and is studying Georgian language in her spare time in Seattle).
All had made close friends in Tbilisi, but even strangers, moved by a deep tradition of hospitality, would approach to offer gifts and invitations to dinner. A trip to the city's cooperative market inevitably resulted in free bagfuls of cheese, bread, fruit and vegetables; a whole, freshly plucked chicken was politely declined.
Palmer, usually fretting over his tight shooting schedule and more than a little homesick, could most often be found holed up in his room at the Iveria Hotel.
The Palmer environment was a clutter of script and production notes, books, spent cigarette packs and empty soda bottles. Sometimes a candy bar or a can of tuna would be thrown into the mix - gifts from the ``home food'' store that sound man McKeogh had packed along.
One night when I dropped in, we talked mostly about fairy tales.
``The Falcon'' builds on the tradition Palmer began with his stage adaptations of other stories: ``Snow White'' and ``Puss in Boots'' for Seattle Children's Theatre and ``The Big Bad Wolf and How He Got That Way'' for Empty Space.
With wry humor he puts idiosyncratic spins on conventional interpretations of the tales, relieving them of any medicinal flavor and replacing the role of Fate with a variety of choices for his heroines and heroes.
``Especially in video,'' he says, ``a folk tale becomes more real. Remember, the children in the audience are used to watching television, which is a very literal medium; even when the story is clearly a fantasy, it has a base in reality - and the reality had better make some sense.
``That's one of the reasons I like working with strong heroines, who triumph not just because they're pretty and passive. For example, if `The Falcon' was about Anna being rescued by Fenist the prince, I wouldn't have chosen it. . . .
``In `The Falcon,' we have a story within a story - a fairy-tale family framed by a real family who are at an inn, celebrating Anna's engagement to a nice, bumpkinish kind of guy named Tevdore.
``At the end, Anna's faced with a choice: Will she accept Tevdore or go for the feather and the prince?
``The script doesn't present an answer. The children watching will have to decide for themselves. But I'd like to believe that at least some of them will think she'll choose Tevdore.
``I guess that's because I'm kind of a Tevdore myself.
``In real life, there are no princes, only Tevdores who have their princely moments.''
On the set, in the middle of the night, the power suddenly went out. Like magic. No lights, no sound, nothing.
``What?'' Palmer said. ``Are we in Georgia or something?''
The Georgian crew offered any number of explanations: power rationing . . . the Kremlin had shut down the city . . . something just went wrong someplace.
Sometime later, after a number of searches had failed to pinpoint the problem, the answer became apparent with a sound - KRR-WOOSH! Two exposed cables lying in the damp grass had shorted and were arcing. In a moment, a fine little fire was blazing beside the inn.
The Georgian crew ran to the spot and began beating the cables with sticks, like snakes.
By the time the fire was extinguished, 20 people, Georgians and Americans, were rolling around under the pomegranate trees, laughing together.
It was time for a toast. A celebration. A party.
`The Falcon' productions
-- The TV version of ``The Falcon'' will air on KING-TV, Channel 5, at 6 p.m. Sunday, July 22; and at 9 a.m. Friday, July 27.
-- The stage version, under the direction of David Ira Goldstein, will run at A Contemporary Theatre at 11 a.m. matinee performances Tuesdays through Sundays, July 24-Aug. 5, with additional 2 p.m. Sunday matinees July 29 and Aug. 5. Ticket information: 285-5110.
-- A home video also is being prepared for marketing.
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