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CINEMA
MARCH 8, 1999 VOL. 153 NO. 9


Explaining why he downplayed the orgy of mayhem in the book, he paraphrases Hitchcock: "The anticipation of violence is much more effective than actual violence." Not that the movie lacks shock value. A bad trip on magic mushrooms, shark attacks, brutal shootings and witnessing a suicide are just a few of the horrors DiCaprio's character experiences.

Around the same time that the script and DiCaprio's deal were locked in, producer Macdonald turned toward securing permission to film at four locations in Thailand. His request included the right to shift two sand dunes and to plant dozens of coconut palms at the Maya Beach lagoon on the isle of Phi Phi Leh (pronounced pee-pee-lay). Believing that the movie would help promote tourism, officials in the Royal Forestry Department approved his plans. But bulldozers moving in to raze the dunes prompted what a reporter in a bit of hyperbole called "the most fought-over beach since the Americans wrested Iwo Jima from the Japanese."

Before shooting began, protesters staged sit-ins on Phi Phi Leh until local workers, waiting to start jobs guaranteed by the movie company, kicked them off the beach. "It was a very exciting day," says Macdonald. "These 10 wimpy Greens from Bangkok facing off against 60 to 100 of these tough fisherman types. There weren't machetes flashing, but it was a bit Jimmy Hoffa." Macdonald takes pains to explain, however, that his crew hauled tons of garbage off the island and is gingerly removing the 60-odd coconut trees as well as replanting the uprooted beach grasses.

Bangkok-based filmmaker/activist Ing Kanjanavanit isn't appeased. "This battle isn't just over one cove on a small remote island; it's over the institution of our National Park Act itself," she says. "For 10 years the government tried to defang it and open up parks for tourism development. In this case, the studio's agenda and the government's agenda met." Kanjanavanit, who can no longer speak about The Beach situation without crying, says families and friends on the neighboring island Phi Phi Don have split over the controversy. She's right about that. "Many people no like cinema; some like cinema," says an elderly woman running a trinket stand on Phi Phi Don. "I like cinema; I like Century Fox. But tore-up beach is no good." A nearby friend turns away and twirls her finger around her ear--the universal sign language for "she's nuts." Says the friend: "Beach O.K. Leo good actor."

The actor himself remains rankled but almost wistfully resigned about the hurt feelings and the bad press. "If there's anything negative, I'm sure it will be talked about--more so than the positive," he sighs before leaving his trailer for the set. "The facts are that absolutely nothing wrong was done to that island. If anything, I've seen our people take meticulous care with every little branch. We're trying to portray the beauty of Thailand's nature, and how Thailand is in one of those unique time frames in its history. It's such a wild, crazy time in this country right now, almost like Paris in the '20s."

He appears earnest about his environmental concerns, but it's unlikely anyone back then was pressuring F. Scott Fitzgerald to wear Pumas.

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