A STAR'S TREK - by Jeff Giles

A $60 million Brad Pitt adventure flourishes in Argentina against overwhelming oddities. Welcome to the set of ‘Seven Years in Tibet’.

Bringing a herd of yaks to Argentina is not easy. First you must negotiate with an eccentric yak breeder in Montana: you tell him you’re making a movie about the famed Austrian mountain climber Heinrich Harrer, and he says you can have the yaks for free if you cast Demi Moore. No? Fine, they’re $3,600 apiece. Now you must procure a passport for each yak, and yak passports are not like people passports: you’ll need three photographs of every yak’s head [a front view and both profiles], as well as a print of his or her muzzle. By the time your herd has landed in Argentina, some of them will be pregnant—hell, it’s a long flight—but your mind will be elsewhere because now it’s time into the country. Importing Brad Pitt is somewhat more complicated.

To understand Argentina’s ardor for Pitt is to understand not only the actor’s celebrity but also the paucity of movie stars who ordinarily pass through. As executive producer David Nichols puts it: “Anthony Quinn was mobbed here a couple of years ago.” [Madonna, as we know, barely made it out alive.] In September, Pitt flew into Buenos Aires International, where there was pandemonium despite the best intentions of the Ministry of the Interior. He then took off for Mendoza in the president’s jet. Eventually, he reached the movie set in remote Uspallata, and found he was so famous he couldn’t walk down the streets in a place so small it hardly had streets. One night Pitt ate in a local restaurant, and a pack of scarily crazed girls banged on the window a foot from his table. The owners later installed a wood partition, dark windows and dimmer lights, but Pitt never returned. For the rest of his stay in Argentina, he was more or less under house arrest.

And the irony is that this is the most fun he’s had in ages. The Andes are standing in for the Himalayas in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s “Seven Years in Tibet,” due out late this year. The movie follows Harrer as he escapes from an Allied prison camp in India during World War II, bluffs his way into Tibet with a fellow POW and winds up tutoring the young Dalai Lama not long before China drives him into exile. “Seven Years in Tibet” is based on Harrer’s best-selling memoir. It’s a dull, creepily unemotional book—“Apparently it’s even worse in German,” says a crew member—but screenwriter Becky Johnston has unearthed a human being as well as an adventure.

Annaud’s film had a difficult birth last year. It was the victim of international politics—China still regards the Dalai Lama as an enemy, and doesn’t want him coming to a theater near you—as well as of the Byzantine machinations of Hollywood. On top of all that, Pitt and his co-star, the tremendous British actor David Thewlis, came to “Tibet” fresh from the most demoralized experiences of their careers. Pitt had just finished “The Devil’s Own,” a Harrison Ford thriller he calls “the most irresponsible bit of filmmaking—if you can even call it that—that I’ve ever seen”. Thewlis was on the apocalyptically weird set of “The Island of Dr. Moreau” when his agents asked if he wanted to do another big Hollywood movie: “at first I was like, ‘No, no, no, no, no! I’m not sure if I even want to act again’.”

As karma would have it, Pitt and Thewlis have now found peace. Only a dictator or a saint could direct a movie like “Seven Years”—16 languages are spoken on the set—and the Frenchman Annaud tilts toward the latter. One morning at 5:30, crew members straggle up a rocky hill to shoot a funeral-pyre scene at dawn. It is pitch black and freezing. “Hello, lazy ones,” Annaud chirps as he dashes by. The director has a bright mop of silver-white curls, and since there are no flashlights around, the only way to get up the hill is to follow his hair. Annaud says he isn’t wedded to Hollywood—he’s happy to get foreign financing for his movies [“The Name of the Rose,” “The Lover”]. Studios may respond best to people who don’t need them. “Yes, it is true,” says Annaud, in his soft accent. “I do not have a house in the States. I live in hotels. I have a, uh, folding bag. I am always telling them, if I am unhappy, I will just, uh, fold the bag.”

Many were the times Annaud thought of folding his bag in the last year or so. “Seven years” was supposed to be shot in India. But the Indian government feared antagonizing China, and rejected the project after encouraging the producers to build sets and burn a couple of million dollars, Meanwhile, “Seven Years” was being delayed because Pitt was embroiled in that Harrison Ford film, “Devil’s Own.” Columbia Pictures, which was making both movies, had yet to name the highly regarded John Calley as chairman and was still riding out Mark Canton’s infamous Reign of Error. Pitt tried to quit “Devil’s Own.” Annaud tried to take his star and his production to another studio. Columbia threatened a mighty lawsuit.

So for three months “Seven Years” sat still and pined for Pitt. Meanwhile, another Dalai Lama picture, Martin Scorsese’s “Kundun,” got a head start in Morocco. That means it’ll likely get a head start in theaters. As it happens, “Kundun” was written by Harrison Ford’s wife, Melissa Mathison Ford. Hmm. An out-there conspiracy theory sprang up among the makers of “Seven Years,” who may have been suffering from mountain fever. Was Ford holding Pitt hostage so his wife’s movie could get an early jump? “Maybe I’m being paranoid,” says Annaud. “but for a while there, things weren’t too Buddhist.” The Scorsese movie quickly ran afoul of Chinese officials, who threatened to block Disney’s expansion into the biggest nation on earth. China has since backed down, eager for a Disneyland in Shanghai. They hate the Dalai lama, but they love Mickey Mouse.

Last fall Pitt was finally free to make “Seven Years.” During the week he holed up in an army cabin in Uspallata, smoking Camels and eating Twizzlers. On weekends he relaxed in a leafy neighborhood of Mendoza, inventing high-intensity “Crazy Croquet.” Pitt’s house had a stone wall, and locals sat vigil on it. “The little girls are sweet,” says Pitt. “But then there were hundreds of paparazzi. They were just everywhere, banging on the house.” So the production company built a $30,000 corrugated-metal wall on top of the existing wall. It was shiny and rippling and endless—and possibly the ugliest thing south of the equator. Girls still chanting outside. What were they chanting? Pitt’s driver, a young Venezuelan guy named Peter, looks around sheepishly, then sings: “Ole, Ole, ole, ole. Brad Peeeeet.” On Sunday, Pitt sent Peter out to ask the girls not to chant until noon. So they didn’t. But once it was noon: Ole. Ole, ole, ole. Brad Peeeeet.

Tibetans are thrilled Peeeeet is making a movie even peripherally about their plight. They are eager to have their story told here, there and anywhere. “Half of the Tibetan population is here and half of it is in Morocco making ‘Kundun’,” says B.D. Wong, who plays the controversial Tibetan officials who brokered the surrender to China. “And there’s a fantastic hot line.” Later the real Dalai Lama’s sister, Jetsun Pema, stands in a hotel lobby, beaming. Pema is playing her own mother in “Seven Years.” Her ddaughter is playing the same role in “Kundun.” Which is to say: she’s playing her mother’s mother. Pema shows off a photo of her daughter in costume on Scorsese’s set. “She called me last night,” Pema says. “She said, ‘The scene I just played? I was pregnant with you!’”

It’s so strange to see Pitt in a skirt and high-top Nikes, in the company of monks. But then “Seven Years” finds him at a curious moment in his career: he’s a movie star, but what he really wants to do is act. Unlike Robert Redford, who’s always played fanatically to his strengths, Pitt is trying to tear his golden-boy image down with both hands. As Annaud puts it, “Even his agent said to me, ‘Put dirt on him! Put crap!’”

Watching Pitt huddle with his accent coach—watching him try to graft his American charisma onto this international period piece—you wonder if he’s in over his head. But you never wonder if his intentions are good. “Brad understands Hollywood,” says Annaud. “He understands that all those people who are rich and famous go from the glorious party straight to the analyst. Why? Well, because they don’t respect themselves. They became famous and rich doing s—t, and they know it. Brad doesn’t want that.” Annaud hopes America wants something better, too—and so do hundreds of other creatures, great and small. Yaks do not get passports for nothing.