Showdown At Starbucks
All the names but Luke's have been changed in the following but everything else is true.
Scene: Starbucks on Pico and Robertson Blvds in Los Angeles. An anxious looking Luke Ford rechecks his watch. Damn it! His interview date is 30 seconds late!
Ahh, he sees a man in his 40s with a goatee. Luke approaches him. "Are you Sebastien Winchester III?"
Man shakes his head.
Over the next ten minutes, Luke approaches two other men. They also turn him down.
Luke sits at a table with a view of the intersection and drinks his hot chocolate. He checks his watch. 9:06 AM. Luke picks up his walkman and tunes in Dennis Prager's show. He can't tell if it is live or a repeat but either way Prager has done this leftist colleges thing too many times before. He puts away his walkman.
Luke's black Ethiopian friend from shul looks at him over his laptop. Luke feels uncomfortable and annoyed. He spots a friend in line and makes small talk for ten minutes. At 9:18 AM, Luke walks out and storms home. At 9:30AM, he arrives home and phones Sebastien. His secretary puts him through.
Sebastien: "Sorry I was late. I'm here now."
Luke runs back over to Starbucks. He hates the producer.
Luke meets the producer and he's affable. And then the interview begins and this guy, holy cow, is actually telling the truth. What a change from typical Hollywood fare.
Luke: "You've made many films with gay themes. Has their homosexuality hurt their distribution?"
Seb: "I think that gives them a niche to hold on to. I'm not damning gay films as much as I am damning getting distribution and getting paid. Gay films are very hard to sell overseas. There's a lot of snogging."
Luke: "I can't watch two men kiss."
Seb: "XXX is not a sex film. There's a gay bashing in it and a chance for a guy who's lover was bashed to come back for retribution. Only 90 seconds of this movie will you have to cover your eyes."
Luke: "It's hard for independent films to make any money from the domestic theatrical release?"
Seb: "Right. All the money that [2001's] In The Bedroom makes in theatrical will get sucked into P&A (prints and advertising). But they'll have an Academy Award nominated film, if not winning film, and that's worth a lot."
Luke: "Have any of your films made money from domestic theatrical release?"
Seb: "Ones that have sold outright to TV and video. I haven't had my Boys Don't Cry. I haven't had my Pi, my Go, my Requiem for a Dream, my Company of Men. I haven't had my little movie that's popped out but goddamn it, I'm going to make one. Producing a film is so much work to make $50-100,000. And I have to make three of those a year to survive. I have three fulltime people working for me.
"I'm struggling to put the money together for my latest film. It's just getting harder. I still believe in independent film. But I'm a married man with kids. I'm not a bachelor living in a pad in Venice. I have house payments. I'm going to keep living this fantasy life of not having a boss. I work harder being my own boss. I'm online at 7AM and 11PM."
Luke: "Which films have you made primarily just to make money?"
Seb: "A few. One studio film. I settled for making them and knowing I could get paid for doing it. I can't say that I loved making XXX. I thought the script was hogwash. But I made almost half a million dollars from that film and bought a house. I made that film for the money. I hoped I could be proud of it, take the kids to see it, make a damn sequel and get a beach house and put the kids school. I hope that I can make more studio films that I can be proud of and make money.
"I've got this independent film habit. It's like heroin."
Seb imitates shooting up. His eyes grow wide. "No, no, no!"
He sits back. "A friend came to the office. He wants to make a movie of his play about four people having dinner. He wants to shoot it for $250,000 on Digital Video. I love the play. I'm thinking about it. I believe there are still discoveries to be made. If I can mix in one or two charity cases a year with more commercial fare. Ideally, I'd like to make one studio movie a year, one medium-sized sexy thriller and one Sundance special. I've been to Sundance a few times and I'd go again if I had a film.
"Everybody's so risk averse that companies are making films off balance sheets. You become responsible for everything. It's all these corporations saying, 'You make the film and take all the responsibility. You get a smidgin' of the upside and have all of this freakin' risk.
"Last year I made a film, and bless the company for giving us the resources to make it, but I ran up $300,000 in uncovered pre-production costs and the bank loan closed 72 hours before principle photography. Production was a cluster fuck. I had to draw lines with the production crew. I had to bully people. I almost had to lie to the bond company. I lost 16 pounds during the month of February. In the second week of production, I thought I was having a heart attack. I was driven to the hospital and they said I was having an anxiety attack. I went on seratonin uptake inhibitors for a few months. Even when I got the whole film financed and my $300,000 back, I didn't want to throw up my fists in joy and triumph. I wanted to go into my little corner and weep. I borrowed the last $100,000 from my own portfolio without telling my wife. I was like a gambler rolling the dice. 'I'm going to get it all back on this roll.' I was risking three times as much as I stood to make. I cornered myself so if I didn't make it happen, I was going to explode.
"We were due to start principle photography on Monday. The Thursday night before that, [lead actor] John's deal fell apart over a ridiculous insurance question. 'If some guy sees John with a gun, and goes out and kills somebody, we want to be insured for that.' And my line producer calls from the desert and says that we're $250,000 over what the minimum guarantee is from the bank. In 12 hours, I had to solve these issues. My wife is on vacation with the kids. I'm losing weight like the stock market. I woke up at 5AM with the shakes. I called Toronto to work out the John thing. I had to tell the bond company, 'It will be ok. It will be ok. Just sign here. It's fine. Just sign here.' I had to lie to the bond company. I had to get a $270,000 check to SAG by 5PM or the actor weren't coming. We got there at 4:15PM. It wasn't even a triumph. It was just horrible.
"The film was a nightmare shoot with a first-time commercial director. He wouldn't take the script as gospel. The script turned out to be a more complex than I realized series of flashbacks that if you didn't follow right, if one thread fell through, none of it made sense. I had a low-budget production staff he couldn't get along with. He was Latin American and had his own pride and ego thing working. And a lesbian production manager who couldn't talk to the director. I had an AD [assistant director] who spoke Spanish. I thought that was good. But he was a horrible AD and I ended up firing him. We were through the contingency funding the day I signed the papers. My production manager kept that from the bond company [which guarantees completion of the film in exchange for 2-3% of the total budget] for two weeks. And two weeks in, all fucking hell broke loose. Every day of that movie was dreadful. We're now six months late delivering the film to distributors. I've lost at least $50,000 of my own money. We couldn't get it into Sundance or Berlin.
"The film is going to suffer from being finished by committee. I would work with the director again. And everybody says I'm crazy. He's brilliant. The film looks stunning. And people say he's crazy to work with me again. But if we had the right circumstances, it would work out. He wasn't really ready to make an independent film. I don't think he really caught on to what the distributor wanted until they'd run out of patience with him. We brought in a friend of his to help him finish the film. And we were so panicked about how late we were and problematic things were, that we clung to his friend's vision of the film. I think the director's instincts were more Jim Jarmusch than Coen Brothers. For four million dollars, we wanted a Coehn Brothers film. We don't need an artsy black-and-white film. We need something that will play at the AMC if it gets lucky, or at least at the Sunset Five. Right down to doing the music, everything was hard about the film."
Luke: "Why were you six months late?"
Seb: "Editing took extra time. We had re-shoots to do. It's a case study of dysfunction.
"XXX  is a simpler film. It was made for $1.5 million. We shot in New York. Actor and Native American activist XXX held me up and accused me of putting him in a hotel room he wouldn't put a white man in.
"Again we had a first time filmmaker who did not finish the film because the financiers ran out of patience. The financiers felt he was not delivering anything close to what was on the page. They brought in another guy to reshoot some stuff and rewrite some stuff. We reshot 15% of the film.
"The director's a wonderful guy. A theater guy. Smart, engaging. But at the end of the day, it just didn't go smoothly. We didn't get enough coverage. Some of the secondary casting was weak and we had to cut around it. I don't know yet. The jury is out on if we're taking this film from an 83 to an 87 [out of 100]. Or, as the people who wrote the checks fear, we're taking a 55 to an 87. We have no distribution on this film and there's a million-and-a-half dollars at stake. I haven't shown it to anybody yet because it is not done. It's a personal film with sparkling dialogue and three great performances. The question is will the guy who's taking over bring out the gist of what was in this film or is he going to fuzz out the original voice. Fortunately this is a book and won't be in print for a year or two. If you were a print journalist, I couldn't let this appear in the next few months. Too scary.
"YYY was a film I godfathered. A friend of mine came to me and said, 'I've raised all the cash. I need your credibility.' He didn't take all my advice and now he's got a sweet family drama that will be really really hard to sell. We got lucky and got a star interested in one of the parts and it fell apart over $5-10,000. I don't think he was convinced the actor was perfect for the part but at least on the video box we would've had some safety net. He's teetering on a high wire and he could lose $400,000.
Luke: "It must've been cool working with $43 million for a studio?"
Seb: "It was. My biggest concern was 'when's lunch? And where are the dailies?' We shot two pages a day. All the responsibilities that are normally mine were the studio's. I'm dying to do it again. I'm dying to do it again better and where I have some say. Universal changed regimes in the middle of it and they buried the release in the end of August, the graveyard for films. It only did three million its first weekend."
Luke: "And your most blessed film of all was your first one."
Seb: "It was the most profitable, the most fun, we knew the least about what was going on."
Luke: "What have you learned from your 15 years in the independent movie biz?"
Seb: "You have to shut up and do it. I'll never know if I should've just taken that $250,000 I brought with me to Hollywood and just made a movie. Too many people just want to make a movie without thinking what will happen to it when it's done and who it is for. When I walk into a studio pitching a movie, I say, 'this is the poster. It will be this guy riding a horse.' Something they can see. They want to know the logline. They want to know who will star and who will see it. And the tighter your script is before you start, the better. It's nerve-racking to fix a script during the shoot.
"I've never worked with the same director twice."
Luke: "Is there a common thread through your films?"
Seb: "I like films about the human condition. I liked Lantana. My nickname for it is Australian Beauty. I like Woody Allen's better films. I still think Crimes and Misdemeanors is like a swiss watch. It's my favorite film of all time. It's so heart breaking and funny. Sex, Lies and Videotape is a favorite. It still gives me goosebumps. In The Company Of Men. I like being in the hands of an assured filmmaker. It's hard for a director to cut scenes that he loves. Monster's Ball  is a high concept film - a racist falls in love with a black woman.
Luke: "How many of your films would you count as a success?"
Seb: "About half. It's exhausting. I've got to search for a new sales company for XXX film. How much money am I going to get for that? It's almost a pride thing. I feel that I have to get people to see it in other countries. I'm trying to think bigger and more commercial. More studio films."
Can't We Make It More Positive?
Luke faxes the Producer a transcript of their conversation. Producer calls back upset.
Producer: "I want to stress some of the positive things I did as a producer. My career and my life has been a joy. And just taking the negative things only. Just taking the negative reviews. There were good reviews too. There are more positives than negatives about being a producer. This is going to keep people away from being a producer. Delving into the drug abuse and all those things, that has nothing to do with producing."
Luke: "But it will grab the reader's attention."
Producer: "I understand but there are positive things that I can grab their interest with. I'm not trying to undo what I did, but it's a question of choosing and being balanced."
Luke: "Sure, we can go over it to your satisfaction."
Producer: "And what does my religion have to do with producing?"
Luke: "Just that most people in Hollywood, like you, are secular Jews."
Producer: "Well, why don't you say that? I don't want to go into the philosophy of that. And my wife is an artist and a writer... I want to go into the satisfaction of working with directors and writers. They are very serious and conscientious about what they do. Those are the things I want to say. The interview appears as though I'm knocking everybody and am dissatisfied. I love my life as a producer and it doesn't come through. And I hate the opening that I talk too much. And when we have lunch, let's just have a pleasant time."
James DiGiorgio writes Luke: That producer, the one you faxed the interview to...the one who sounded annoyed and, well, bordering on angry.... will this guy be the first guy where you set out to alienate yourself from the subjects of your jounalism? You know, like you did when you covered the "smut beat?" I'm keeping a timeline of your new "beat" and I sense this might be a significant moment. Please advise.
Luke: "Tell me about producer Dino De Laurentiis."
Producer: "He's very short. I walked in his office. He immediately made me sit down. He can't deal with me standing over him. I knew another short producer in London who had a couch down near floor level so people wouldn't tower over him."
Dino was referred to by critics Harry and Michael Medved as "Dino Di Horrendous" in their 1980 book "The Golden Turkey Awards" after having produced a succession of costly failures during the previous decade (i.e., the 1976 "King Kong" remake). (IMDB.com)
Why Aren't There More Movies About Mental Illness?
"I started as an actor in the film industry," says producer Joel S. Rice over the phone, January 23, 2002. "I became a social worker because I wanted to do things like helping people and raising awareness. I missed the entertainment industry and the larger scale impact you could have, that I wasn't having as a social worker. Though I had done some rewarding stuff. I had started a Big Brother program for disabled kids and I had a private therapy practice. So I developed some ideas for movies that were social work in their orientation. The ideas tended to be more movies for television rather than features.
"I had this idea for a movie. And I got the LA Times to write an article about this true story that I had the rights to. That brought the industry to me and that's how I got started. The movie was eventually released in 1998 - About Sarah - a drama about role reversal - a woman who must cope with her mentally retarded mother. It's similar to 2001's I Am Sam starring Sean Penn and Michelle Pfeifer.
"About Sarah is the most meaningful movie I've done. I grew up with a mother who was chronically ill. As a child, I was a parent in my own family. When I was a psycho-therapist, I worked with many mothers and sons for Big Brothers. My mission is to help kids be kids and parents be adults.
"The first movie I produced was 1993's Bonds of Love. And I continued to try to do movies that raised awareness, that raised consciousness, that brought up subject matter that hadn't been explored. That's always been my goal as a social worker-producer. I did a [1995 movie] Dare to Love that dealt with the impact of schizophrenia on a family. My consultant was [A Beautiful Mind protagonist] John Nash's psychiatrist. I spoke to John Nash several times before he committed to doing that movie."
Mick writes on IMDB.com about Dare to Love: "Uplifting in a sense that it gives you the feeling true love is out there. This movie was sensational. I would love to have it on tape or to see it every week when I hit a low spot. This movie gives you a giddy feeling about falling in love and having someone there no matter what."
Joel speaks in a soft reassuring therapeutic voice.
Joel: "I've done this movie [1994's Cries from the Heart] on autism and this technique called 'facilitated communication' which helps some autistic kids communicate when they are not able to communicate in a normal way.
"I did [2000's] One Kill that dealt with women in the military, and how women are treated in a man's world. And it also dealt with the issue of guns and that kind of thing. It was a military thriller but my reason for doing it was to explore the treatment of women in the military and the issue of guns and shooting and how that could affect your life. I'm smart enough to know that I just can't do a movie about gun control. You have to find a compelling entertaining story to tell these things in.
"I have't gotten to do every single movie about something meaningful but 85% of the 15 films I've done have dealt with some kind of psychological or social issue.
"I became an actor when I left college and I was cast as the lead in the  film Final Exam when horror films were popular. I continued to do a lot of theater and television but my career never took off. So I would always work in psychiatric hospitals. I taught acting to people with mental retardation. As an actor, I didn't have enough opportunity to express what I wanted to express. So then I got my Masters degree in social work at UCLA and eventually found my way back into the industry in a way that felt like I could have a greater impact.
"I now have my own company that deficit-finances movies, pays the difference between what the network pays you to do movies and what the movie really costs.
"When I didn't have kids, the driving force in my life was making movies. Now I have kids, I want to be with them. I'm more discriminating how I use my time. When I was an actor, I remember inviting a casting director to my showcase. And she said, 'I never go out during the week. I'm with my children.' She said it as a hard and fast rule. But I have to say, now that someone wants to do something with me in the evening, aside from a screening or something I deem critical to be at, I don't do it. When I am making a movie, it usually takes me completely away.
"These days there aren't that many [movie] slots to fill for the networks. In the past two years, I've moved from just doing network movies to doing movies for the Disney Channel, Lifetime, Showtime, TV series work and reality work."
Luke: "Isn't it hard to sell movies centering on mental illness?"
Joel: "Yes and it has gotten progressively harder. I don't think I could sell one now as I did these other ones. Mental retardation is not mental illness. Mental illness is more specifically something they're afraid of because it is harder for the audience to experience. While mental retardation has always been a subject, a la Rain Man.
"I did a movie about a deaf kid also. All those disabilites are hard. The networks are afraid it feels like some 1980s disease of the week movie. You have to find a compelling story, and if within that compelling story there's mental illness or disability, then it is ok.
"I did a movie about schizophrenia [1995's Dare to Love]. It was one of my best movies. We were careful to only have one act of seven in an institution. The protagonist got on a drug that was able to help. It was a love story. The opening was provocative. We did everything we could to get people to the table and we still didn't do that well, even though it was critically acclaimed. People are afraid. They want to escape in a movie though hour-dramas can do well exploring great issues. It's a bigger commitment to take that on for two hours than to do it for an episode of something where you already know the characters."
Luke: "What was it like working with Anne Heche?"
Joel: "She was easy. A friend to the crew. A great work ethic. Because I was an actor and a therapist, I can create an atmosphere where people can do their best work. I can't point out any negative experience with an actor. I've worked with actors who had reputations of not being easy to work with and I've never had a problem."
Luke: "How do you know when you've made a movie that's made a difference?"
Joel: "I often have 1-800 numbers on after my movies so people can find more information about whatever is at the center of the story. There's an organization NARC, which used to stand for the National Association of Retarded Citizens but they don't use those words anymore... I've gotten many awards from those organizations. But it's hard to know. I used to be in-house at CBS and NBC and people would call the network after a show.
"I try to hire people with disabilities in all my films."
Luke: "Working with them must be a real challenge?"
Joel: "It isn't really. I think people are afraid, that it is hard enough to make a movie. But it isn't any more of a challenge than any other challenge. It's just accommodating whatever the needs are, whether you're working with a person with a disability. In one film, we used seven deaf actors and 30 deaf extras.
"I've done two movies about mental retardation and I didn't cast a person with mental retardation in the starring role. But I made sure that the star's best friend was a person who was really mentally retarded. In I Am Sam, you could tell that Sean Penn's four friends really did have mental retardation. It's important for authenticity and for giving people opportunities.
Luke: "How do your peers react to your niche?"
Joel: "As far as the people I sell stuff to, it's good to have a niche. It shows that I can be trusted. They know the project won't be criticized for inaccuracy. They don't need a consultant. One Kill was a compelling military thriller. Even though I have my own agenda, it isn't really what the movies are when you see them. I'm more typecast by my peers as someone who feels he needs to be on the set every second of every day. Some producers just sell it and move on."
Noted Atlanta writer Mike South is the subject of a 6000 word profile in the Winter 2002 issue of the Oxford American literary magazine.
Luke spoke Wednesday evening with Mike via IM:
South1226: the story following mine is an unpublished william faulkner
Go Ahead, Drive Those Nails Through My Hands
The day will come and you will see that I'll rise again, ain't no power on earth can keep me down. Death can't keep me in the grave.
Khunrumr writes: Luke That is the attitude that made America great. The Can Do spirit. I think I speak for us all when I say that we look forward to your next incarnation. Go get em' Tiger.
Fred writes: Even if Rabbi M. says, "hey--don't do that"?
Kwelam writes: Christian imagery? Luke are your returning to the warm embrace of The Community?
From GeneRossExtreme.com: You might remember a guy named Luke Ford. At one time he was the mainstream’s answer to Louella Parsons and Rex Reed combined--although, personally, I always felt he more deservedly belonged in the Rex Reed camp, if you catch my drift. However, as his star continued to rise and his fame grew with each passing month and each new edition of "Hard Copy" or some other trashy tabloid show, he fell--and fell hard--by the wayside and became completely irrelevant. Irrelevant in a a Bryan Sullivan kind of way, but at least Sullivan was, is, and always will be a nobody who will never be taken seriously by anybody. Sorry but that's the just the way things are. Luke, conversely, seemed to have had the world handed to him on a silver platter--not bad for a guy whose facts were shaky at best and whose writing skills were virtually nonexistent. All of which begs the question, "Where is Luke Ford today?” Well, if one happens to be an early morning person, Luke can often be seen at the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax Boulevards staring longingly at the advertisement for some L.A. talk show put on by his hero and role model (and the man who took legal action to stop Luke's overtly bizarre psychosexual attentions toward him) Dennis Prager. Luke can sometimes be seen touching himself through his clothing in a thoroughly unwholesome manner as he stares lovingly at Mr. Prayer's image. Funniest damn thing I've seen in quite some time. Luke who?
Luke replies: When I've shared the writings of the above author with my therapist, she's laughed so hard she's cried.
Khunrum writes: Blasphemy.....Luke touching himself through the trousers of his black Penny's Mortician suit? Character assassination. Don't take this shit Luke. Demand a rematch. This time be in shape. Do some push ups and road work. Like you promised us buddy, you will be back..So hurry up and be back already...
Litvinoff optioned the Anthony Burgess novel A Clockwork Orange in 1966 and developed screenplays by Burgess and Terry Southern, among others. The movie was originally intended to star Mick Jagger with such directors as John Boorman, Ted Kotcheff, and Nicolas Roeg until Stanley Kubrick took on the project in 1970.
Graduating with honors from Adelphi College in New York, Si went on to N.Y.U. Law School.
He's a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Divorced, he has two sons - Ian and Bram Litvinoff.