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"A Festival Wife" is a romantic thriller that takes place in the world of film festivals. A roman a clef, it contains characters, both real and disguised, who come together at the fictional San Lorenzo International Film Festival, a composite of many real festivals. Anyone who has been to Cannes and the global film markets will find the characters recognizable and the story intriguing – even controversial.
A Festival Wife - Chapter 5: The Dirty Deal Goes Wrong
"Rassi is wonderful," Nora was saying over breakfast on the Medici terrace. It was well past nine. She was in a state of high excitement. On the table beside her coffee cup and cinnamon bun was a script.
"Aren't you going to the Besson screening?" I was thinking of Charles and his plan to end their affair this morning after they went together to the screening of Luc Besson's latest film, a kind of "Gallic Western" they were calling it.
"Rassi promised his place can be used as a location for the movie at absolutely no cost," she said, biting off a white-frosted chunk of bun. "I had the idea last night and called him as soon as I woke up. He was very enthusiastic. He and our director will be here in a moment. I set up the meeting. I'm a real wheeler-dealer in the movie biz, Henry."
I could imagine Rassi waking up to a phone call from Nora. It must have seemed - ordained. I asked how the reading went last night with our director, the Festival's so-called Guest of Honor.
"Terrible," she grimaced, flicking the pastry crumbs from her chin with two tapered fingers. "I read two lines. He unzips his pants. Shows me his withered old penis. I told him it was very nice, thank you, but please put it away. Then we drank champagne and talked all night. About all the people we knew on the West End. He did theater before he did movies, you know. The bay looked marvelous from his balcony. And why are his doors locked? You should talk to the concierge."
"You should get going," I said, not bothering to tell her I'd had purposely as the hotel to lock the balcony doors so that the guest of honor would not dishonor the festival by leaping to his death in one of his manic-depressive moods. "You're going to miss the screening."
"Rassi is coming to talk to us about the project. My director, of course and me. And speak of the devil."
"Good morning, Nora. And a very good morning to you, too, Henry."
It was the Great Director - our director - standing over my shoulder, no longer looking suicidal. On the contrary, the man was freshly shaved and emanating a cocky savoir-faire as if he had shaken off twenty years. Nora took him by the hand, a child she had just now adopted.
"Rassi is on his way," she said.
"Oh, excellent, excellent. I have already faxed my producers the information that we have the perfect location. I am insanely hungry."
He sat down and ordered coffee and toast and two poached eggs with ham, done just so, from a very patient waiter. He abruptly tapped the script on the table and squinted at Nora.
"Be frank, I mean really, really brutally frank."
"Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.
"And the part of the sister?"
"I love the character. Love her. Does she have to be Swedish?"
"She can be English. She is English. Problem solved."
"Then I'll do it."
"It's only a small part. Ten days, two weeks' shooting at most. I can have the writers go back in and make the part bigger?"
"No, no," she protested. "that would upset the integrity of the story. I like it just, just as it is."
The very patient waiter came up, hovered while our director described his feelings for screenwriters (idiots, assholes, he hated them all) before he was noticed.
"You have my breakfast I presume?"
"There is a phone call for you, sir."
"My producers," he said, rolling his eyes. "Keep your fingers crossed. And I want my breakfast on the table when I return, is that clear?"
The waiter nodded. Nora offered two pairs of crossed fingers and a blown kiss. He blew her a kiss in return and hurried off.
"He's such a dear," she said. "This is going to be such a surprise for Charles. I am going to be paid fifty thousand dollars. Cash. Goes straight into my Cayman Island account. It's my goodbye money, Henry. Belize, here I come."
"I thought it was Zanzibar."
"Whatever. Listen, please, we mustn't let Charles know a thing. You know how he'll spoil it with his questions, his wanting to know this and that. Every little detail. You know how he is. Will you promise me, Henry? Charles mustn't guess at any of this."
"Oh, and here's Rassi. Buongiorno Pietro!" she called out.
Rassi waved in his slightly goofy manner. He was not a man who waved at you, danced the polka or shouted hurrahs at a football game. On the way out across the terrace, his path intersected with that of our director on the way in. They paused for a moment to shake hands, one gesturing inside and making a little phone gesture, hand raised to ear, the other pointing to our table, then each nodding and continuing on his way.
"Buongiorno," said Rassi, taking Nora's hand.
"Como estae?" she said brightly.
"I am wonderful today, now that I see you, Nora, looking so beautiful."
"You make me feel beautiful. Like a beautiful fool," she said.
Nora tilted her head and beamed. These men all around adoring her... how could she not love it? And this was how she envisioned herself, the ideal of life... not those interludes at home tending to the homefire, feeding her child, dealing with the handymen coming to fix the plumbing or the new drapery for the endlessly unfinished Tuscan house that once been a barn, cooking up new recipes for her husband, undressing at night, preparing for bed, slipping beneath the sheets next to her spouse and in the twilight between wakefulness and sleep, trying to shake off, the wearisome ordinariness, the sticky boredom of things in order to reach for the dream that she could ride, ride like the rollicking wind off into the night. And this was the dream...
We looked up to find Charles standing over our table, clutching the Herald Tribune. He smiled with exaggerated casualness at Nora.
"We're missing the Besson screening," he said to her.
"I'm doing an interview with Pietro," she replied.
"Good party yesterday, Pete."
"Thank you. I always enjoy contributing to a good cause."
"Got to fix that cable car one of these days."
"One of these days, yes," Rassi nodded, tolerating the old jibe with rare good humor. There was an awkward pause while it became clear that Charles was not invited to sit down.
"Well," he said finally with a weak smile, "have a good day."
"You, too," said Nora sweetly. "Let me know how the movie was."
"I think I'll skip it," he said suddenly and went off to take a seat at a nearby table. He ordered a coffee, opened his paper and pretended to read it, all the while keeping an eye on Nora. Here he had steeled himself for the awful climactic moment - telling Nora the affair was over - and now he was forced to cool his heels, listening as she laughed gaily with Rassi, ignoring Charles completely.
Rassi said he understood that the film would be shot in six weeks. Her part would require two weeks of shooting, all of it on location at his place. Would she be able to take that much time away from her family? Nora said she would discuss it with her husband but it shouldn't be a problem.
"You may want to stay at a hotel, but if you like, perhaps the Villa would be more convenient?"
"That would be so super."
Rassi looked down into his coffee cup, as if searching for a reason to be disappointed. "Your child won't miss you?"
"She has the nanny, her papa, her grandmamma and grandpapa, loads of people to look after her."
"And your husband - he won't miss you for two weeks?"
"Two weeks, two years. It doesn't matter. I will adore staying at the Villa."
Her nonchalance registered encouragingly with Rassi. His big mournful face contorted into a grin.
Suddenly, our director was back, looking troubled.
"What's wrong?" asked Nora.
"Where is my fucking breakfast?"
The waiter who had been patient glided to the table at that very moment with the tray, but was ignored as was the food.
"I'm sorry, Pietro," our director sighed. "My producers need to have a word with you. This business about the location. Would you very much mind?"
Rassi got up and the two of them went inside together. It was the moment Charles had been waiting for. He came over and sat down, looking grave.
"Look, I have to talk to you."
"Not now Charles," she said, picking at the director's breakfast, in her fingers a slice of toast, a sliver of ham, and the sautéed tomato gratineé.
"But it's very important."
"I'm doing an interview, can't you see?"
"With Rassi? Since when does he have anything to say?"
"I don't like it when you're nasty."
"What's going on, Nora?"
"What's going on? What's going on is I'm doing an interview."
"I mean last night."
"What about last night?"
"You were not in your room. I came to see you and you weren't there. I knocked."
"I must have been fast asleep. Oh, Charles, Henry doesn't want to hear this. Do you Henry?"
I made a motion to leave but Charles put his hand on my shoulder.
"Henry can hear it all."
"I need to talk to you."
"Not now," she said, munching on another slice toast spread with butter and jam.
"About last night -"
"I won't be interrogated this way."
"I'm just asking, Nora."
"Why? Are you my husband?"
"Oh, for God's sakes, Nora -"
"You're not my husband," she said. "You're not."
"You stop it." She stuck out her tongue like a child.
Rassi emerged from the hotel alone, without our director, and was coming towards us on the terrace.
"Okay, okay, when?
"I'll call you, okay? Now stop being this way and let me do my work."
Charles shot her a look, turned and loped back across the terrace into the hotel, nodding quickly to Rassi as they passed. Charles paused in the doorway before going inside. He was watching Rassi and Nora as they talked, his face darkening. Then he noticed me watching him. Embarrassed to be caught so blatantly spying, and so nakedly angry, he turned back and disappeared inside.
"I'm afraid I'll have to be going any minute now," Rassi was saying. "I'm expecting a phone call."
But it was my cell phone that sang out, not his. When I answered it was for Rassi.
"So sorry to bother you, old pal, but I lost his damned cell number," Delfont explained from the other end. I handed my phone to Rassi.
"Yes?" he said, and after a short moment, Rassi interrupted, telling Delfont, "No, no, wait, let me tell you what I want to do."
Rassi left the table and wandered off to the far edge of the terrace so that we couldn't hear his conversation, but from the animation of his hands we could see it was an intense exchange.
"Something's cooking in Rassi-land," said Nora. "Uh oh, here comes a poor puppy."
Our director shuffled back to us, no longer the image of eternal youth; he was in his shell again, a defeated old man. He stared down at his breakfast, what was left of it after Nora's predations, and mumbled something incoherent.
"Is something wrong?" I asked.
"Coffee," he growled. "Coffee!"
I signaled to the very patient waiter who approached the table and the hapless man made the mistake of politely enquiring if anyone wanted something from the kitchen.
"Yes, I want just a simple hot cup of coffee, you see, because this fucking cup of coffee is fucking cold and I want another fucking cup of coffee right fucking now or I'll do serious fucking damage to somebody, so help me God," he said to the waiter.
"American coffee or -?"
Our director's face was a tight knot of red and blue veins pulsing under bulging skin, stretched tighter than the drumhead on a Watusi tom-tom.
Nora placed a calming hand on the director's trembling paw and the waiter was able to escape without further ado.
At this strained moment, Rassi returned to our table, his hound-like jowls distended by a broad grin. "Don't worry," he announced happily. "The project is on."
Our director let out an astonished gasp. "You don't bloody say!"
What had happened was this: the producers who were going to do his movie were dropping the project, but typical of their cowardly ilk they were afraid to come right out and say so. They allowed the guy to go on and on about Rassi's villa, how it was a free location, how perfect it was. They had even given Rassi a go, asking him a multitude of questions over the phone that made it seem as if shooting in Villa Il Cielo was happening tomorrow or next month for sure - but they were only going through the motions. When the director got back on the phone they switched course and said that shooting in Italy was out of the question. For logistical reasons. But that was untrue.
After hemming and hawing, the fellows in London finally confessed that in the end they didn't really want to do the project anyway. They had decided to back another project by a younger, edgier auteur. Our director, upon receiving the news on the hotel phone, had turned to Rassi and in complete and utter humiliation was forced to tell him thanks for the offer of his house, but never mind - production was definitely, unfortunately, and permanently off.
With no movie and no need to use his house as a location, Rassi's hopes of having Nora stay at his villa for two weeks during the shoot were completely dashed. Unlike our director, however, who went into an instant funk, Rassi was on a high, perhaps the highest he had ever been in his life. He was in love. Love makes people do some very crazy things, just like the sappy songs say.
So Rassi did a crazy thing. Rassi decided on the spot to save the production by putting his own money behind the Great Director's project. His money would not be invested directly, of course. He called on his partners (Heath, Gordon, Safta, et al) to provide the funding. Rassi's leverage was the two million he'd already invested in Everest - and the others could not easily say no. Indeed, they not only did not say no, they were very happy to have a go-project to announce. It made Everest Entertainment Limited seem almost real.
It was a great story for Variety, I thought.
* * *
At noon the director decided he couldn't stay cooped up any longer and wanted to go for a stroll in the old port. Even when Jeffries called up to the room from the lobby to do the interview, my director couldn't stop talking about Nora.
"I am so, so in love with that girl," he said, like a boy discovering his first romance. "I simply must, must get her a gift. The right gift. Will you help find the right gift, Henry?"
Jeffries was forced to do his interview on the fly, as it were. He was taking notes as we ascended the steep cobbled incline lined with cute ristorantes and shops selling floral tables cloths, eccentrically shaped marzipan candies, silk flowers, bundles of herbs, olive oil, ceramics, hand-blown glass and tinned regional delicacies, most of it over-priced tourist fare of dubious quality.
"What do you think?" our director would say to me and Jeffries, holding up some garish souvenir plate or item of faux provincial gimcrackery. "It's a gift, you see, a gift for a young lady of my, shall we say, acquaintance."
The reporter from Variety chose not to indulge the director in his suggestion of some outrageous liaison, instead checking his watch frequently and appealing to me with sidelong glances that plainly sought a swift completion to this task.
The Lavender Twins came sauntering up the hill, turning the director's head. "What the devil is that?" he wondered aloud as the purple duo brushed by. The older one turned and winked at him.
"You should do a story on them," my director told Jeffries lightheartedly.
"I wonder if you might tell me, when you were making ‘The Stallion' -" said Jeffries, trying to launch his inquiry. He had done the minimum reportorial homework by looking at the festival program and reading the section on the guest of honor, memorizing a few of his movie titles. He got "Under The Willows" wrong, calling it "Underneath The Willow Trees." It never fazed the director, allowing some light repartee on the director's career, provoked a few quotes regarding the honor of being feted at the San Lorenzo Festival, and then, eager to wrap up the conversation, our scribe asked the obligatory "What's next in your career?"
"Now we are getting to the real poop," my director grinned. "Allow me to consult my publicist. Henry, should this be on the record or off?"
We had just then entered a shop selling jewelry. The goods were evidently hand-made as opposed to the assembly line silver baubles imported from Moroccan sweatshops that were sold everywhere, and what we saw in the front room was not too badly designed. The shop girl was a dark-haired beauty, standing quietly by while the wares were fingered.
"Is the owner around? I'm looking for a gift for a beautiful young lady. I'd like to speak to the owner if you please, my dear?"
She pointed shyly to a doorway leading to another room, from which came the sound of voices. By the rise and fall of the tone, it was clear that someone back there was engaged in an argument.
"Odds are they keep the best stuff in the back," said my director, aiming to keep Variety in suspense.
"Look, I think I have enough now, I really have to be getting back to file a story -"
"Stick around a moment," I promised. "This really is a bit of a scoop. We'll make it brief."
"Well, well!" we heard the director exclaim. "Look who we have here!"
In the backroom sitting at a desk with a man who took advantage of the distraction to get in a few last words in Italian, was Rassi. The two of them looking somewhat put out, Rassi immediately got up and introduced us to the shop owner, a Semitic-looking gentleman of about the same age as Rassi. They had evidently been engaged in some sort of heated business discussion before our interruption.
"If you are looking for good jewelry, David Halevi's is the best place in San Lorenzo," said Rassi, gesturing around the shop with an almost proprietary air.
"I am looking for a gift for a lady friend," the director said to Rassi as if he were the shop owner. Rassi turned to Halevi, who immediately took the cue.
"A lady friend says the young man!" the shop owner exclaimed, jumping up and reverting to his role as a shop owner who flatters his customers. "Please allow me to show you a few things."
"I gotta go," Jeffries said, giving up and starting for the door.
"So you are the reporter from Variety," said Rassi.
Jeffries stopped, looked at Rassi, trying to remember who he was.
"We didn't get a chance to talk the other day when you were at my house. These parties are always so, you know, crazy with so many people."
"Oh, yeah," said Jeffries, remembering him now. "You're Count Rassi."
"Please call me Pete," Rassi said, shaking hands. "I am sure our director has told you the news about our movie?"
"Not exactly," said Jeffries, looking confused. "Which movie is that?"
"The one I am producing through my new company."
"And your company is -"
"Everest Entertainment. I believe you've already met my partners."
Almost cartoon-like, a light switched on behind Jeffries eyes. "Yes," he said, "Heath, Gordon, Ari Safta..."
"Exactly," said Rassi proudly.
"So you guys are making his next picture?" Jeffries pointed at the director whose smile showed each one of his capped teeth.
"That's right," said Rassi. "It's going to be shot right here in San Lorenzo. Up at the Villa, in fact."
"What's the budget?"
"It is a small budget. Four million. It will be shot on digital video. A minimal crew, but a great script."
"Can you tell me how it's financed?"
"Part equity financing, foreign sales, and we have a credit line through a Luxembourg bank."
"The tax shelter deal?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact."
Our director came over and said, "Your jeweler has some lovely things, but I'm not quite sure."
"If you are looking for something special, it would be my pleasure to show you the best places to shop," said Rassi. "Not the tourist places, but the real artisans of San Lorenzo."
He said something in Italian to the shop owner who nodded seriously, and combining the gestures of his nodding head and sweeping hand to indicate that it was all right with him, they would settle whatever they discussing at a later time.
Together, the four of us set off up the sloped street, stopping in one place after another. In each shop, the owner's greeted Rassi warmly and brought out their best wares for him and the director to look over.
I chose to believe that both understood implicitly that they were shopping for the same woman. Or perhaps only Rassi knew that, and was secretly amused by it. He was the producer, the man behind the money, and this was his town. He was in charge. It was his moment and though he hated publicity, this was different; his name was going to be in Variety. Nora would see it. He was doing this for her.
As we strolled, Rassi expounded on the intricacies of the Luxembourg Tax Deal as well as on the unique qualities of each shop's specialties while Jeffries scribbled furiously and our director searched for just the right gift.
Luxembourg had a favorable tax credit for productions that ran cash through certain financial structures. It was a post-war leftover, originally instituted to encourage the growth of industrial infrastructure: steel, oil, and produce. But, as these things go, the statute was overlooked for many years and left on the books. Many independent film productions used this vestigial loophole, more or less legally, creating Luxembourg front companies through which outside investment was facilitated by a covey of Luxembourg banks and funneled into Euro-based film productions.
"It is more or less a way to allow producers to get a better rate on their investment," concluded Rassi, showing our director a certain kind of bronze-tinted hand-blown glass made only in the hills behind San Lorenzo from a Roman recipe handed down from generation to generation over the centuries.
Jeffries was scribbling in his notebook. "Gee," he said, "You know a lot about this, Pete."
"I have been involved in financial structuring most of my life," said Rassi.
"Well, thanks, Jeffries beamed. "I think I've got my story."
"If you are looking for a souvenir to take home, I strongly recommend this glassware," Rassi advised the reporter.
"I'll be back," Jeffries vowed, and took off happily down the street.
"Does he have the correct spelling of my name?" said Rassi.
I promised to check on that.
"I think the first place we looked - that jewelry shop - had the best stuff," our director opined.
At Halevi's silver shop, Rassi and his director together chose a fabulous broach, a phoenix with Egyptian onyx inlay, which was only a thousand pounds with the special discount accorded Rassi.
It was six o'clock when I returned to the Medici. I went to the front desk to check for messages and Luigi the concierge was busy. The fax machine sat on a side table with a pile of papers next to it. I walked over and leafed through the pages -nothing had arrived for me, but I noticed a page addressed to Variety marked Faxed.
"Everest Unveils New Project" was the title over Jeffries' byline. The whole story was there on two pages. Everybody's name was spelled right, even Rassi's. The time of the fax was noted: just after 5 PM. This meant that with the time difference, it would be in tomorrow's paper. I ran it through the fax machine, hitting the button marked "copy" and left the original where I'd found it.
On the way to my room I stopped off on the third floor and slipped the pages underneath Delfont's door. By the time I walked into my room, the phone was ringing. It was Delfont.
"This hasn't gone to press yet, has it?"
"No, but if there's any corrections, we have a couple of hours to take care of it."
"This should have been a story about our new production company."
"It is. A good one, too. Worth ten grand, I'd say."
"You've got to kill this story," said Delfont.
"You'll get your money, Henry, don't worry. And don't be pissed off."
"I am pissed off. First you want me to get this story in the paper, then you want me to kill it?"
"Henry, it's just that we didn't want anything in here about the Luxembourg Tax Shelter. Did you give him that part, Henry?"
"It's just two paragraphs."
"But how did he get this?"
I told him how.
"Fucking Rassi," he swore. "Well, we just can't go public with that, Henry."
"But it's legal. People have been using it for years."
"It's one of those gray areas, Henry. There's increased scrutiny these days. If it's mentioned in the article, it'll be a red flag for the regulators. It could blow up the deal."
"It's not going to blow up the bloody deal."
"I'm telling you it is. You have to kill the story."
I was furious. Killing a story in the media is like dropping the atom bomb. You don't do it unless the alternative is already mutual destruction. No self-respecting reporter will kill a story once they've latched onto it. They might hold it. They might be persuaded to spin it a certain way. They might be willing to look at new evidence, contrary evidence, exculpatory evidence, and - if they are honest reporters (there are a few) - they might rethink the premise of their story. But to ask them to actually kill the story they've worked on, you might as well ask a reporter to strangle his own child in the cradle.
Most of the time you have to go over the reporter's head and appeal to the editor. This risks incurring the everlasting wrath of the reporter who will cry "censorship" if you succeed in convincing the editor to spike the story. They will never trust you again, never do you any favors, and always have the knife out for you.
"All I want to know is where's my money, Artie. You promised five upfront."
"The money's coming. But if this story isn't killed, you won't get a penny, I can tell you that much."
"I'm sorry, but is that some kind of threat?"
"You know me, Henry, I don't make threats," he said. "But Ari Safta does. He has your cash."
"I don't care about the cash."
"He's also got Ivan, that little fellow who follows him around? I wouldn't want Ivan knocking on my door in the middle of the night."
Right then there was a knock on my door. I hung up on Delfont. I was relieved to see it was not Ivan but Leticia. I let her in and double-locked the door.
"Are you alright, Henry?" she asked. "You look so pale."
It was suddenly quite clear to me that either I killed the Variety story - or Ari Safta's hitman would kill me.
NEXT WEEK: 24-HOUR PARTY PEOPLE
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