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Gabriel García Márquez
Director Mike Newell fights off laughter as a Spanish-speaking parrot jabbers his way through what was supposed to be a sombre shot of a Roman Catholic wake.

He has no idea what the bird is saying, "but I love it," Newell says, seconds after yelling "cut" on the set of "Love in the Time of Cholera."

A studio voiceover will transform the avian actor into an English-speaking version of Pacho the parrot, a surreal twist Gabriel Garcia Marquez might appreciate, having populated his literary realm with parrots who sing Italian arias and people who regularly soar in the air.

But Newell may need more than a little movie magic as he attempts the first English-language adaptation of a novel by the Nobel Prize-winning Colombian author.

Despite donning a thin Guayabera shirt, the very English director, with his elevated diction and lobster-red burn, looks sorely out of place amid the ramparts of this 16th century Spanish colonial fortress overlooking the Caribbean.

Before production began, the director of "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and the most recent instalment in the Harry Potter series had never set foot in South America.

"It isn't so much the heat, but the 100 per cent humidity that knocks us down everyday. It's very enervating but we've all simply said we're not going to feel it anymore," said Newell.

If the gruelling, 14-hour days filming under stifling tropical heat seem daunting, it's nothing compared to the challenge of labouring under the shadow of Latin America's literary patriarch, says Newell.

Readying Gabo for the silver screen, says Newell, necessarily means boiling down all the magical metaphors that infuse every page of his books. "The stitchwork of his novels is so rich that if I tried to capture it on film I'd never find my way out of the weave of the carpet."

An unwavering defender of Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution, Garcia Marquez has jealously guarded the rights to his florid literature from the Hollywood suits for decades.

To change his mind, independent producer Scott Steindorff hounded the 78-year old author for more than two years, defying the advice of much of Hollywood and even Garcia Marquez's own agent in Spain, who said the famously cantankerous author would never sell.

The reward for his perseverance - the privilege of writing a US$3 million cheque.

"We had a brief conversation, through a translator, and I told him I was going to be like Florentino and never give up until I got what I wanted," said Steindorff, referring to the novel's main character, who doggedly pursues his true love over a span of a half-century.

Garcia Marquez, who has for decades lived in Mexico City, didn't respond to a faxed request for an interview for this story. But the author's long-standing revulsion to Hollywood appears driven by his fidelity to Latin America.

At the same time Garcia Marquez was emptying Steindorff's pockets, he ceded for free the coveted rights to another highly cinematic novel, "Of Love and Other Demons," to a first-time feature-length director from Costa Rica whom he met at a workshop in Cuba.

Production of Hilda Hidalgo's low-budget Spanish-language film will begin next year in Cartagena.

"I know when someone wants money and this wasn't the case," Steindorff said of Garcia Marquez, as he relaxed off set at his rented, colonial villa. "The bigger challenge was convincing him we'd stay true to his material."

To guard against a sugarcoated screen version, Steindorff's Stone Village Pictures hired the sure-handed Newell who, even though he'd never been to South America before, said he was accustomed "to travelling to strange places: Los Angeles."

Cast in the lead roles of Fermina and Florentino, whose tortured courtship in a turn-of-the-century South America marred by class divisions closely resembles the real-life saga of Garcia Marquez' parents, are two acclaimed actors largely unknown to American audiences - Spain's Javier Bardem and Giovanna Mezzogiorno from Italy.

The US$50 million film, the first major foreign production shot in the scenic, walled city in decades, will be released around Christmas 2007.

Gabo, as he's affectionately known among his Latin American readers, may have succumbed to Tinseltown, but hasn't necessarily giving his full blessing. During four months of filming, the author hasn't once visited the set, despite having a home and several siblings in Cartagena, and he's been mum about the project ever since it was first announced two years ago.

Comments he sent on the script written by Ronald Harwood, who in 2003 won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for his work on "The Pianist," were described as "pungent" by Newell.

"I'm sure it causes him some distress that an Englishman would make this film about a very South American subject in what you could regard as the wrong language," said Newell.

But Gabo, a frustrated filmmaker before becoming a best-selling author, isn't keeping himself entirely on the sidelines either.

On his own initiative, he convinced hip-shaking pop star Shakira, who hails from the nearby city of Barranquilla, to provide three songs for the film. "I could've wandered a long time looking for that haunting, lilting sound that's so particular to this place and which he was able to put his finger on instantly," said Newell.

Two nephews are among the crew and Gabo's brother Jaime performed as an extra. He's also made himself available to answer questions by Newell and other cast members. Despite media speculation that Garcia Marquez would write the script, Steindorff said the author expressed no interest in doing so.

"I'm sure the first thing everyone will focus on is whether he approves or not and I suspect he's bound to be disappointed," said Newell. "But you can't read those books, that have such a fabulous understanding of human beings, and not want to please the man who wrote them."

One reason for the author's reticence may be his own less-than-stellar track record in cinema.

Since his days as a young film critic for a newspaper in Bogota, Gabo has been fascinated with the seventh art. Until the 1967 publication of "One Hundred Years of Solitude" vaulted him to fame, he struggled as a screenwriter and even directed a short film.

With his royalties and Nobel prize winnings, he spearheaded the creation in 1986 of a school in Cuba to train budding Latin American filmmakers. His son, Rodrigo Garcia, is also a prominent Hollywood director, responsible for critically acclaimed 2005 film "Nine Lives," starring Glenn Close and Sissy Spacek.

But none of the dozen or so film projects he's been involved in - none of them in English - have achieved the praise or popularity of his literature.

"I think he's got a clear picture of his track record in cinema and figures there's probably no need to go and screw up such a wonderful book," said a smiling Newell. "Especially when we are quite capable of doing that ourselves."

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