I have come here to find love. Not in the traditional sense, but for the characters in the screenplay I am writing. Having reached the end of the script, a happy ending seemed wise. But days of staring down the final ten pages left me dulled and uninspired.
So I packed a bag and fled the mire of Los Angeles in search of inspiration south of the border. This idea came in part from reading "The Year of Magical Thinking", in which Joan Didion recalls escaping to Mexico with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, to work on a screenplay together without distraction. I was seduced by her nostalgia. I too wanted days of writing and nights of wine by the shore in the fragrant darkness.
And so it is that I have arrived here--at the Hacienda San Angel in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, a place so mired in its tumultuously romantic past that I cannot help but be encouraged.
INT. HACIENDA SAN ANGEL, CASA BURSUS -- AFTERNOON
The Hacienda San Angel is a luxury boutique hotel in Old Town, Puerto Vallarta, a winding, cobblestoned neighbourhood in the hills above the Banderas Bay. The place looks a lot like an old Italian village, if you take away the mountains covered in palm trees (which served as a less bucolic backdrop in the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger film, "Predator").
When my taxi stops in front of the hacienda's doors, I am deflated by the crumbling white steps and the sun-blighted walls. But with a pull of the bell, the doors open wide, welcoming me in with a rush to the senses. An open courtyard reveals windswept Mexican red tiles, bright pink bougainvillea drips from white-washed balconies and fresh calla lilies bloom in vases everywhere. Staff walk about gently in crisp maroon-and-white uniforms, and a fountain in the centre fills the space with the soothing sound of falling water.
Janice Chatterton, the proprietress, greets me with a cool handshake and bowl of guacamole. When she first came to Puerto Vallarta in 1980, Chatterton knew she wanted a vacation home here. She just fell in love with the place, she explains. In 1990 she bought Casa Bursus (the villa we are standing in), named for its former owners, Richard Burton and Susan Hunt. Chatterton now owns seven villas within a two-block radius, as well as a recently renovated chapel, which is steadily becoming the place in PV (as the locals call it) to get married.
"You should be married! Have kids! It is wonderful!" exclaims the man who takes me on a tour of the chapel, upon discovering I've come alone. But he soon assures me that the chapel's charms has its limits. "Two times was it for me!" he blurts. "I will not get married again even in such a beautiful place."
For a moment my romantic cynicism wanes and I consider how wonderful it would be to be married here. I picture my family enjoying the same bright, endless view. I can even see my unknown bethrothed's face smiling at me...and then it disappears.
I find my way around the corner to the villas Richard Burton bought for himself and Elizabeth Taylor as a love nest while shooting John Huston's "Night Of The Iguana", just south of town in Playa Mismaloya. (Ms Taylor pre-dated Ms Hunt as a paramour.) The villas, now part of the Hacienda San Angel, lie across the Calle Zaragoza from each other, and are connected by a faded pink "Love Bridge" on which, it is said, the couple spent much time drinking, fighting, breaking up and coming together.
INT. HACIENDA SAN ANGEL, ANGEL'S VIEW SUITE -- MORNING
I awaken to the sound of bells chiming from the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe. This is infinitely better than the rumble of garbage trucks that typically starts my day. I pull back white curtains and crack open the glass doors leading to my balcony. The weather is perfectly warm and sunny. The air is dry. The sky is a clear blue. I draw the cool, white hacienda robe over my shoulders, grab my computer and-
INT. HACIENDA SAN ANGEL, POOL -- CONTINUOUS
A handsome hombre Mexicano appears and asks if I would like breakfast. I say yes and settle back against the voluminous white cushions on the day-bed, half-in, half-out of the sun. I look out at the ocean. I look at my computer. I look backwards toward the mountains and think, this sure was a good idea. I promptly fall asleep.
INT. HACIENDA SAN ANGEL, POOL -- LITTLE WHILE LATER
So, I didn't get much done this morning. No big deal. I'll work this afternoon. That is, just as soon as I check out the town.
EXT. PUERTO VALLARTA, VARIOUS STREETS -- LATER
When travelling for a "working vacation", one must find a place that is different enough to be inspiring, but not so different as to be distracting. The local language should be one you don't speak, which will keep you from accepting invitations to the club con música viva and staying out all night. The area should be small--like a postage-stamp--so that an afternoon stroll to stretch the legs is sufficient to satisfy any adventurous impulses.
Puerto Vallarta was such a place for me. One can walk from Nuevo Vallarta to Zona Romantica in an afternoon, and I do not speak Spanish. It is all exotic without being awesome, unless your idea of awesome involves packs of sunburned Brits, loud Americans and a smattering of more civilised Europeans mobbing the Malecón and complaining about the heat.
Even the "more authentic" areas south of PV, such as Playa Mismaloya, are beset by tour buses and cruise-ship aficionados. To the north, Sayulita features "young gringos with dreadlocks, surfboards, and bright, baggy swimwear", according to my guide-book.
A slight veer off the beaten path and a handful of fresh shrimp tacos from a roadside vendor give me a taste of what the town must have been like before old Burton and his libido put it on the map. I am ready to return to San Angel.
INT. HACIENDA SAN ANGEL, ANGEL'S SUITE BALCONY -- DUSK
I stand on my terrace watching the sun go down and listening to the mariachi band play in the courtyard below. The air is cool, the sun has left its warmth on my skin and the music fills me with a sweet melancholy. I consider the tales these walls would tell if they could: of loving and cheating, fighting and making up. It leads me to think about the people who now inhabit the places where I once lived. What has changed? How have the walls adapted?
After all, who has never stood in the doorway of a home once shared with a lover, facing walls where photos once hung, seeing bookshelves that previously groaned with life, now half-empty, and wondered who would be next? And haven't we all lingered on the threshold of a new lover and wondered who came before us, searching for traces of a lingering existence? It is amazing the walls don't crumble with the knowledge of it all.
INT. HACIENDA SAN ANGEL, CASA BURSUS -- DAY
Janice Chatterton wears a double-stranded turquoise and silver necklace, with a smart black top and flowing black pants. She cuts a purposeful figure as she moves quietly through the house. There is something about her that is very private, almost shy, which seems odd for someone who owns and runs a hotel.
I ask what inspired her to turn her one-time vacation home into this thriving business. "I decided to put a guesthouse on the first property in the back as an excuse to build," she says. "My son had died shortly before that, and when I started working, it so occupied my mind that for the first time I was happy again. I would go all day without thinking about him and it felt like a relief."
When a grandfather clause prohibited Chatterton from expanding a window in the guesthouse, she simply bought the property that held the offending clause and when a neighbor on the side threw rocks at her animals, she bought his property too. "I was standing here thinking, what are you going to do now? You have nine bedrooms. I couldn't rent it out. I tried once but I didn't like it. People lock the doors." Her eyes drift toward the former "guesthouse"--now a four-room villa called Casa La Luna. "I still can't believe I'm doing this half the time. I bought it as my vacation home and decided it needed remodeling. I got carried away."
A new guest arrives and she excuses herself to greet him, leaving me alone. I marvel at the human capacity for turning something terrible into something beautiful.
INT. JOE JACK'S FISH SHACK -- EARLY EVENING
I am sitting at the bar of Joe Jack's Fish Shack enjoying a "Mex-jito", a mojito with top-shelf tequila. The drink comes garnished with a bright blue plastic animal that I can't quite identify, which may have more to do with the strength of my drink than the design. The cocktail is a holdover from Joe's days as chef and co-owner of Luna Park in San Francisco and LA. We talk circuitously about what brought him to PV. In the end, of course, it was love--"the Shack" came about after two big relationships in his life went awry and he decided to channel his energy into something positive. Puerto Vallarta: a rehab for the lovelorn.
I finish my Cesar de Tijuana and spoon out the last of my cevice--see-through pink, delicately butterflied shrimp and slivers of coconut. I have just enough energy to make it back to my hacienda for a nap.
INT. JOE JACK'S CASA -- LATE THAT NIGHT
Joe Jack's casa is a stone's throw from San Angel, sharing the same magical view of the bay and mountains. It is completely open on one side, and the night air blows in sensuously. It feels like I'm on a boat. Joe's young, wide-eyed friend Kyle has joined us. He has a problem. He is in love with a girl and has only the waning night to make her a mixed CD in time for her birthday. Kyle is beside himself; he is not sure he has chosen the right songs, if the songs he chose say what he wants to say, perhaps they say too much and what about the order...
I have brought over my iTunes-laden computer, and Joe and I take turns playing songs we think Kyle should include. There are dueling love songs (Nick Cave's "Into My Arms" for Robyn Hitchcock's "Beautiful Girl"); we go blow-for-blow over the break-ups (Ryan Adams' "Hard To Fall" for Lucinda William's "Changed The Locks"); and throw in some surprise doozies, such as Charles Aznavour and Isabella Rosalinni's "For me Formidable". The three of us stay up until dawn smoking cigarettes, polishing off an astonishing amount of wine and making a CD to fall in love to.
INT HACIENDA SAN ANGEL, ANGEL'S VIEW SUITE -- MORNING
I somehow wake up the next morning without a hangover and write the perfect ending for my script. It happens just like that sometimes, all at once, in a flurry.
I pack my bags and in the doorway turn to look back at my room. I recall how every time I drive past a certain hotel in Malibu I look for a certain window, behind which I once experienced the greatest heartbreak of my life, and think, it's still inside. Love ends, but it doesn't disappear; it lives inside the walls, is sunk beneath the cobblestones and floats in the air we breathe, just waiting for us to swallow it whole.