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Legend Costa-Gavras shoots new film on home turf

  • Story Highlights
  • Double Oscar-winning Greek film director Costa-Gavras is shooting a new film
  • He is shooting "Eden is West" in Greece -- for first time in his 43 year career
  • Based in Paris, the director is famous for hard-hitting political films
  • "Z" his critically-acclaimed 1968 debut was banned in Greece
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By CNN's Mairi Mackay
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- You could say controversy is Constantin Costa-Gavras' middle name.

74 year-old Greek director Constantin Costa-Gavras is shooting his latest film "Eden is West" in Greece for the first time in his career.

In a career that has spanned more than 40 years, the Greek award-winning director's highly political movies have earned him a reputation as one of the world's greatest thriller directors.

Telling stories with emotional bite is Costa-Gavras' passion. His films are often based on real events (the following counter-disclaimer runs in the opening credits of thriller "Z": "Any resemblance to real events, to persons living or dead, is not accidental. It is DELIBERATE.") and told with an authenticity and sense of outrage that has politicized generations, and wowed cineastes and critics alike.

After so long making films, it's hard to imagine there are many things the Greek director hasn't seen or done (he was a ballet dancer for a time) but he is shooting his latest film "Eden is West" in Greece -- for the first time in his 21 film career.

"It was amazing to find this place in Greece, it was always a problem for me to make a movie in Greece of course," the 74 year-old film veteran told CNN on set in Crete.

"Eden is West" tells the story of illegal immigrants living in the EU, going right to the heart of one of contemporary Europe's most sensitive issues.

"It's an Odyssey with Ulysses," explains Costa-Gavras. "A modern, young Ulysses. He doesn't want to go back to his house it's the story of millions of people. They emigrate, they are looking for a place to have a house and a job, a wife, to live like normal human beings.

"That's [Elias'] story, his dream is to go to Paris, because it is magical, the city of light. So, he has to cross part of Europe, Italy, Germany and France and then he gets to Paris. And the whole kind of adventures, the immigrant and his adventures, to show our people how we are, Westerners in front of these people."

Such material could be turgid in the wrong hands. "Are we superior?" asks Costa-Gavras. "We make war because we feel superior ... and bad actions are part of our psychology."

But he says he wants to deal with the issues "in a light way" and handling the tough stuff entertainingly is a Costa-Gavras hallmark.

His big break on the international scene came in 1968 when he directed French-language thriller "Z." It charts the real events surrounding the assassination of Greek reformist politician Grigoris Lambrakis.

"Z" holds a mirror up to 1960s Greek society and the military junta in power at the time didn't like what it saw. The closing credits list some of the things banned by the junta including labor unions, long hair on men, The Beatles, sociology and Mark Twain.

Unsurprisingly, "Z" was also banned, but in other countries like France it was a huge success. Costa-Gavras was awarded the Jury Prize at Cannes and the Best Foreign Language film Oscar in 1969. The film remains a landmark of political cinema.

Age has not mellowed Costa-Gavras' terrier-like curiosity and in "Amen" (2002) he asks why the Vatican remained silent during the Nazi Holocaust.

The film's poster -- an image of a swastika that morphs into a crucifix -- was created by the notorious Italian designer Toscani who is best known for a highly-controversial Benetton ad campaign showing a man dying of AIDS.

Costa-Gavras' formative experiences were pivotal to the path he would choose as a director.

As a young man his opportunities for study and work were stifled by the junta which had blacklisted his father for his activities in the Greek resistance during WWII.

When he failed to get a visa to study in the U.S. -- the country whose films had so mesmerised him as a boy -- he went to Paris and studied at the Sorbonne before completing his training at the French national film school.

Costa-Gavras made his first film, "The Sleeping Car Murder," a detective thriller starring Yves Montand (the French actor and crooner who had a highly-publicised affair with Marilyn Monroe) in 1965 and has been based in France ever since, saying "the only place to make [these] movies is France."

Nevertheless, after the extraordinary success of "Z" in 1969 he was overwhelmed by offers from Hollywood. It is said that Costa-Gavras turned down "The Godfather" before it was offered to Francis Ford Coppola. He made four U.S. movies including "Missing" (1982).

The story of the kidnapping and death-squad murder of Charles Horman, a liberal American journalist in Chile finally allowed Costa-Gavras to weave his fascination with U.S. political culture into a film.

U.S. audiences responded enthusiastically to the story, aided by inspired performances from Sissy Spacek and comic actor Jack Lemmon who won the Best Actor award at Cannes. Costa-Gavras picked up the Palme D'Or and an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay that year.

It was also the year the director took over directorship of the Cinémathèque Française in Paris, which holds the largest collection of films and related documents in the world.

During his five years in charge he proved a dogged champion of film preservation and artistic freedom and helped rescue the institution from decay and disarray.

Now he's back on hometurf in Crete and fighting a different battle -- this time financial.

He needs a cargo ship for "Eden is West's" crucial opening scene in the Cretian port of Heraklion. Time is running out and even if he does find one, hiring a boat will eat up a substantial part of the film's budget.

"We went on a boat that transports illegals, it happens all the time, so we tried to find a broken down one, an old boat and the ship owners, sell them or abandon them, when they are full of people," he sighs.

Despite the stresses of filmmaking at an age when most people would be slowing down, the man, who was once a ballet dancer, still has movies he wants to make: "It's an old dream. I would like to make a musical."

Knowing Costa-Gavras, it's unlikely to be a rom-com.

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