French avant-garde filmmaker Auguste Des Jardins had committed a script and production plans for his masterwork to paper and blueprint before his untimely death in 1976, but he freely admitted that the technology to bring his rough vision into reality did not exist. Rumors persisted for years that he had actually finished the film but it had been suppressed by jealous peers of censors, mostly begat by a few staged and altered “production stills” Des Jardins had set up as visual aids in searching for investors willing to back a project that, by his own estimate, was “20-30 years from fruition.”

When the American director Anthony Marguiles was poring through Des Jardins’ personal archives in Lyon, looking for notes on his remake of Les trois Juliets, he stumbled across the plans for the untitled project. After Three Juliets swept the Academy Awards and won the Big Five statuettes, Marguiles had the clout to pitch the project. He presented a complete script and production designs in Des Jardins’ hand, written in English, to the bigwigs at RKO Republic, the third largest studio in 2000s Hollywood. The late director had written in English, according to his surviving notes, to achieve the same effect that Beckett had writing in French: an economy of word and style that stripped away all artifice.

The script was simple: a disparate group of people (teachers, students, professionals) found their way to a realm where the ordinary rules of existence no longer applied. The means for doing so varied, from the first journey in a dilapidated old bus to later ones hidden in a grove of orange trees; the script hinted that the world was full of such chinks to a more fluid reality, and that each one had some deep and hidden meaning for viewers to decipher. Once there, danger and freedom seemed to mix exhilaratingly in the script: the characters altered the rules of reality simply by invoking new ones, usually by association with a familiar concept. For example, being underwater and invoking the “power of Poseidon” would allow one of the travelers to breathe there; the production notes contained details of a long, loving tracking shot which started at sea level in a cenote and went straight down hundreds or thousands of feet to where an actress lounged with a mermaid tail, breathing underwater, having invoked the “power of Poseidon.” The shot continued with her awaking and swimming upward as the camera followed, breaking the surface in a flying leap that also dispelled her altered form.

Obviously the introduction of digital technology would greatly facilitate the making of Des Jardins’ film, but there were other considerations that made it astonishingly difficult to realize. There were, for instance, the dark and unpredictable entities with the same power over natural law that emerged later in the narrative, which the script hinted might be anything from natives of the strange land to projections of the sojourners’ hidden fears a la Forbidden Planet. As the tone shifted from liting and verdant to dark and urgent, the darkness was scripted to “be on the verge of escaping into our ordered world.” There were scenes which called for *the environment of the theater itself* to be altered as this came to pass, everything from dimming or undimming the lights to changing the physical arrangement of seats and walls (something which could only be achieved with a Disney-esque level of animatronic sophistication).

Marguilles struggled mightily with the technical challenges, insisting that he stick as closely as possible the Des Jardins’ original designs despite howls of protest from the distributor and theater chains. Eventually they reached a compromise: three theaters would be modified to show the film as intended, with Marguilles’ personally covering half the expense and agreeing to produce documentary films through his company to help the space turn a profit in the long run. The theaters were the IndieTastic Beverly Hills, the Avant-Garden Brooklyn, and the Mackinac Theater in Hopewell, Michigan.

The film, officially the Untitled Auguste Des Jardins Project but referred to in marketing and promotional materials as The Sacred Cenote, opened in those three theaters five years after production began and expanded to 3000 theaters worldwide one week later.

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