Luke Gets Mail
Aaron writes: I’m confounded about a couple of things.
1) The producers interviews are really interesting… but why producers? Do you want to be a producer? Or are you just filling a niche? Keep up the good work though. I was laughing out loud at the [David] Permut interview
2) As a jew raised in a semi-secular atmosphere, I don’t really consider you a “remember of the tribe.” What I mean is, kudos to your religious fervor… but although you practice Judaism, you are not “A Jew” or a person belonging to that peculiar ethnic group in mine (and other people’s eyes). It’s like me trying to be black (African American)… I know I may be in the minority and there is some debate over this but still, growing up I never believed I was “white” or was told by my parents I wasn’t.
Jim writes: Dear Luke- Good shabbos! Nice to see a retrun to jewish content, albeit about Nina Hartley. Some of the producer series profiles are interesting, but most still ponderous. New fonts and graphics might help. I trust the series means you are shopping a screenplay or two.
JMT writes: Luke - Once you have enough material for the book, you should start introducing yourself as a writer for the "Journal of Applied Pederasty" and seeing if these Hollywood idiots will still grant interviews to you without batting an eye. That way, you'll have an amusing anecdote to tell on NPR when you're promoting the book.
Khunrum writes: This could possibly be the most boring book ever written about Hollywood....maybe the most boring on any topic. Why not do it in Hollywood Babylon style (parts one and two, my favorite books on T.Town) You know ...Like, "it is alleged that producer David Shlotnik once made love to a giraffe at the San Diego Zoo". Do it in the old Luke style not the new alzheimer Luke style...
Rabbi Asks Porn Star To Address Congregation
AP: SANTA CLARITA, Calif. -- Porn star Nina Hartley is going to temple. She's been invited to share some of her sexual insights with the congregation of Temple Beth-Ami in Southern California. Hartley will speak from experience, having starred in nearly 600 X-rated films. She'll be telling couples how they can add some zing to their bedroom action.
Rabbi Mark Blazer asked Hartley, who is Jewish, to speak as part of his congregation's adult education series. The rabbi adds that sex is holy and pure.
Producer Michael Phillips Still Eats Lunch In This Town
Producer Michael Phillips (The Sting, Taxi Driver, Close Encounters) is tall, trim and balding. Born June 29, 1943, he stays in shape through regular practice of yoga.
We talk at his Beverly Hills office February 13, 2002.
Luke: "I was raised in a religious community. I didn't see a movie in a theater until I was 16. Raiders of the Lost Ark."
Michael: "You should talk to Paul Schrader. He was also raised religiously [Calvinist]. He didn't see his first movie until he was 18."
Luke: "Was there any movie that most influenced you as a child?"
Michael: "The Day The Earth Stood Still ."
An alien lands and tells the people of Earth that we must live peacefully or be destroyed as a danger to other planets.
Michael: "I lived in Brooklyn. And they had double features with about ten cartoons for 25c. I used to go every week and I was a big science fiction fan. When I saw The Day The Earth Stood Still, I stayed in the theater all day and watched it three times in a row. It profoundly affected me in terms of the possibilities of us not being alone in the universe. It was a great opportunity [25 years later] to work with Steven Spieldberg on the same subject [Close Encounters of the Third Kind].
"My family moved to Long Island at the end of fourth grade. I went to public school. I was an all-round goody guy and not tremendously deep. I played sports. I was obsessed with basketball and baseball. I wanted to be center fielder for the New York Yankees. I went to Dartmouth college where I met my late ex-wife Julia who went to Mount Holyoke. We went together our Junior year and broke up.
"A year or so later, I was in NYU Law School and we saw each other again and got married. She worked in publishing and then in the story editing department for the movie business. I worked for two years as an analyst on Wall Street. We were both unhappy and we decided it would be nice to work together.
"Julia met Tony Bill in 1970. We became friends with Tony and his wife. Tony thought there was opportunity for fledgling producers to come to Hollywood and get into business with film school graduates who at that time were not taken seriously. We put our life savings into this venture. The Phillips family contributed $2500 and the Bill family $1000. We started to read scripts and look for ideas.
"Tony sent us a tape of a verbal presentation of an idea that a film student (David S. Ward) brought to him - a movie about con men. David had an infectious laugh and had a fascinating story he'd worked out but he wouldn't tell us the ending. We asked to see his writing and he showed us his graduate film school thesis Steelyard Blues. We gave him $3500 for an option on Steelyard Blues and told him to go write The Sting.
"Two weeks later, we had two studios want to make Steelyard Blues. Tony Bill's agent was Mike Medavoy, the second youngest agent at CMA. Jeff Berg was the youngest. Mike had one known client - Donald Sutherland. So through the chainlink effect, Mike sent Steelyard Blues to Donald Sutherland who was living with Jane Fonda. The previous year, Donald and Jane had made Klute, for which she won an Academy Award.
"Steelyard Blues was an antiestablishment unconventional script. I have a strong sense that part of the reason that Steelyard Blues was given the go-ahead was timing. The right package at the right time. As a young producer, it looked easy. You optioned a script and two weeks later you had a deal.
"We made a deal with Warner Brothers in February, 1972. I quit my job. We rushed into production in June, 1972, because Jane had a window in her schedule. We didn't know what we were doing. Jane had insisted that the director be Alan Myerson, who directed Jane and Donald on their antiwar shows they were giving on army bases.
"Alan was not an experienced film director. We started production with first-time director, producers, cameraman, writer, art director, down the list. Only one person knew what he was doing - our production manager and associate producer Howard Schneider. He got drunk with power because he knew what he was doing and we didn't.
"It was an incredible learning experience. You learn more from a failure than you do from a success. We delivered the film and the studio didn't know what to make of it. So they did something unusual. They gave us our own print and our editing equipment and told us to play with it. It was against union rules and everything. We cut and recut and learned where the mistakes were. What pieces we were missing.
"The film came out and did no business. The one thing good about it is a wonderful performance by Peter Boyle."
Luke: "Tell me about The Sting."
Michael: "David delivered The Sting script just as Steelyard Blues was ready to go out. And The Sting was such a wonderful piece of writing, such a joy to read, that we had a lot of competition among studios for it. We went with Universal because Dick Zanuck and David Brown had been the studio executives at Warner Brothers who had treated well on Steelyard Blues. This was before they emerged as major producers.
"The Sting came together with a chainlink effect. It reunited director George Roy Hill, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, just like Steelyard Blues reunited Fonda and Sutherland. Sometimes if you get one person, it opens the door to bringing in others.
"The part of Henry Gondorff, eventually played by Paul Newman, was written for Peter Boyle. The character was a fat slob, over the hill. The antithesis of Paul Newman. After George Roy Hill and Robert Redford came on board, Newman and Hill had been friends since Butch Cassidy. George sent Paul a copy of The Sting. Paul called up and said he wanted to be in it. George said sorry, Redford is already doing Johnny Hooker. Paul said, no, I want to be Gondorff. So we had to reinvision the character and now we can't imagine it any other way."
Luke: "At age 29, you're dealing with the biggest people in Hollywood."
Michael: "My first day on the set of The Sting, meeting Paul Newman, I was so nervous I could barely talk. I didn't know how to be a producer. We never got used to being around him. I was on the set every day while Julia was responsible for the release of Steelyard Blues.
"I see George Roy Hill as my mentor. It was a back lot picture, shot on the soundstages of Universal. Everything was carefully prepared, the antithesis of the Steelyard Blues experience. You could see in the dailies that we were doing something wonderful. Yes, I did dream that it was going to win an Academy Award.
"We had first cast Richard Boone to play the part of Doyle Lonnegan. Richard was signed and he panicked and he became unreachable by phone. He wouldn't return George Roy Hill's calls. He wouldn't return Lew Wasserman's calls. He hid out in Florida. Ultimately they had to send him a notice that we're assuming you're bailing out. It was close to production and it was panicky for us. We were lucky to get Robert Shaw, who tore a tendon two weeks before shooting. So that link that the character has is real."
Luke: "Do you remember the 1974 Academy Awards in a similar way to the way Julia described them in her book You'll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again?"
Michael: "I don't remember what she said about it."
Luke: "It seemed like an endless cascade of drugs she was doing."
Michael: "No. I remember it was us versus The Exorcist. Both had 11 nominations. Universal made us share a limo with David Ward and his wife. I remember hearing early awards. The difference in the applause when we won awards and when they won awards. As the night rolled on, and we knew that we were likely to win, it just got scary.
"We went to Mexico the next day. We hopped a plane and got away from all the pressure, anxiety and craziness."
Luke: "How was your life changed by winning the Best Picture Oscar?"
Michael: "It's wasted on the young. You don't have the proper perspective on how lucky you are. A. To even make a movie that turns out well is a miracle. And B. To come up in a year where you can win. The Exorcist is a great film. But they had so much public squabbling between the director and the writer, that the Academy membership tired of reading about it and things swayed toward The Sting. Had the vote been held in early January, it might've turned out differently.
"Winning the Academy Award liberates you from the fantasy that it is going to change your life. When the dust settles, you are still you. People are nice to you but if you don't walk in with a project that has Newman or Redford attached to it, they scratch their heads and they're not interested. The next thing I was really devoted to was Taxi Driver  and it took three years to get it made."
Luke: "Do you believe The Sting was the best movie of 1973?"
Michael: "Tough call. Either The Sting or The Exorcist. In the light of history, the rest of the competition doesn't come close."
Luke: "How close in general do you think the Oscars correlate with excellence?"
Michael: "I think it is the best awards show because it is by the peers. You have something like the Golden Globes where these people are not qualified. They're journalists. They're not really film critics. They have an inordinate amount of power to publicly give laurels to films that the world perceives as deserves. While the Academy is voting by your peers. And maybe it is not a highbrow elective body but yeah, I think it is a combination of what this film means to the movie industry and how well made it was. I never vote purely on the basis of how good the film is. There are other factors that come into play. How ambitious is the film? I often want to vote for a film that falls short of succeeding but it's ambition and reach are terrific that it is a contribution to the art of film. I like to see people stretch, and stretch the medium. Especially today when we're in a very conservative period for the studios."
Luke: "You came of age during the most experimental time in movie history."
Michael: "Yes. In the '70s, it was a collegial atmosphere. Every studio had two or three creative executives. And the movie business was the US theatrical business. Foreign sales weren't on anybody's mind. There was no video. And films were not released the way they are today - massive releases promoted by television. Films were released like art film are released today - primarily a print campaign and one or two theaters in a city. Rely on word of mouth and on critics. Modify your campaign depending on how the audience responds. You find your audience. This allowed the executives who pushed the button to respond to ideas they liked.
"As releases got wider and television advertising replaced print... And the marketing campaign was to spend almost all your money on television in the two weeks prior to release. It became bet the farm. You better open big on opening weekend or your picture will be pulled. The name of the game switched from what can make a good movie to what can open. How can we compete in the crowded marketplace for the attention of the public? Let's give them what they like. Let's give them stars they like, formulas they like, presold titles they like, television shows, anything that gives us a leg up so we don't have to go out with nothing that is not presold. That's the biggest change in the business in my 30 years.
"Instead of we'll make this movie and the marketing guys will be challenged to figure out how to do it to now marketing is in the driver's seat. Marketing wants things they know they can sell. They don't want things that are a challenge."
Luke: "How did you connect with Taxi Driver?"
Michael: "During the Bobby Fischer - Borris Spasky chess matches, there was a fever to play chess. And I used to play with Brian DePalma who lived with Margot Kidder. Julia and I lived next door to Margot Kidder on the [Malibu] beach. Brian had a journalist Paul Schrader shadowing him. And Brian said Paul wrote a script. 'It's not for me but I think it is good. You should read it.'
"I read the script and it was basically shot as is. It was an incredibly pure and true piece of work. We optioned the script from Paul for a $1000. Nobody wanted to make it. We then had to try to package it. At some point, Paul Schrader said we had to take a look at a rough cut of Mean Streets. Thirty minutes into it, I said, 'He's [director Martin Scorsese] is our guy. And so is DeNiro.' We were sold. They weren't bankable yet. They didn't mean anything. We offered the script to them and they both said yes. We then got rejected by everybody for two years. Finally, Marty went off and did, 'Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore.' His stature grew. It still wasn't enough. DeNiro went off and did Godfather 2 and won an Academy Award.
"We presented a budget for a $1.5 million and reluctantly got the go-ahead from David Begelman at Columbia. Everybody went in cheap. DeNiro got $35,000. Paul got $30,000. We got $45,000. Marty, who was broke, got his original number to $65,000. That was the hardcore team. The studio wanted one more name so we brought on Cybil Shepherd at the suggestion of her agent Sue Mengers. She got $100,000. It was a rough tough experience.
"There was a lot of second-guessing on management's part. Why did we ever finance this movie? Nobody is going to see it. It's weird. It's dark. There were such good dailies and all we heard from the executives, 'You're over schedule. We can't do this.' We never got a kind word."
Luke: "Any apologies after it was a big success?"
Michael: "No. Begelman wasn't big on apologies. They did an experiment. They opened the movie small. But people were lined up for the first show. They smelled it in New York. It was a satisfying vindication. This was an uphill battle all the way. Nobody wanted to make it. Most people hated it. That it became a classic was a great feeling, one I bled for."
Luke: "How did you come to Close Encounters of the Third Kind?"
Michael: "Steven Spieldberg was cutting The Sugarland Express while we were on post-production on The Sting. He and I used to have lunch together and discuss science fiction movies including The Day The Earth Stood Still. Then one day, he said that he wanted to come over to the beach and discuss an idea he had with Julia and me about UFOs and Watergate. He had this idea which had nothing to do with what the movie ultimately turned out to be. But we believed in him based on his first TV movie Duel . We knew Steven was something special.
"We joined forces to set this up for development at Columbia. We went through a couple of drafts and it wasn't coming together. Steven said, 'Listen, I'm broke. I've been offered this movie about a shark. How about I go off and do that and then continue on with the script?' So he did Jaws. We came up to Martha's Vineyard a couple of times with writers to meet with him. He finally came to the conclusion that the only way it would be right is if he wrote it.
"I give Julia most of the credit for doing all the battles on Close Encounters. I was the point person on The Sting and Taxi Driver and she was the point person on Close Encounters. And she lived through the hell of the financial pressures from the studio. My contribution was that I really fought for the idea that the aliens should be good guys. If they're smart enough to get here... If we went to Mars, we wouldn't slaughter the inhabitants. Steven wasn't sure at first but he came around on that.
"Then Steven wasn't sure that the meeting of the two species would be enough of a payoff. We didn't have a dramatic goal. It was a new structure. I think he never really had confidence that it would work so he decided to make sure the ending was so loaded. It was a cornucopia. The last 40 minutes just keeps on giving and giving. I think he wasn't quite sure that the audience would feel satisfied so he gave and gave and gave. Every time you think, 'This is enough. If the movie ends here, I'm satisfied,' he comes out with more.
"It was a painful experience because of my relationship with Julia. She was really in drug hell. She was impossible to deal with. She was a nightmare for everybody.
"Because Julia was impossible, the studio removed her and I took over in post-production. I love the movie and I love Steven. I'm happy he passed through my life. But there's a lot of pain associated with the memories of my marriage. We'd divorced in 1974. And I'd gone off with Taxi Driver and she went off with Close Encounters."
Luke: "When did you find out Julia Phillips was writing her memoirs You'll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again [perhaps the most searing book about Hollywood ever]?"
Michael: "She told me as soon as she got the idea."
Luke: "How did you feel about the book?"
Michael: "It was not happy for many reasons. It was her choice. She wrote what she saw. I had sometimes startlingly different memories. But she had the need to express her views."
Luke: "How did affect you?"
Michael: "I wasn't happy. Her version of history is not consistent with mine. But when someone publishes a book, that becomes the truth. Her version is what's out there as the truth. That can be frustrating and I have my own life and my own recollections. And some of it was tough on our daughter."
Luke: "I don't recall you being portrayed negatively in the book?"
Michael: "She didn't take out an attack on me. But she didn't do me any favors. She took sole credit for everything because her view was that she was the center of the universe. Everything that happened away from the center of the universe didn't happen."
Luke: "Did you get blamed in any way for her book?"
Michael: "No. Oh yeah, of course I did. She called my father's late brother a neer do well, which created a family rift. Just a gratuitous swipe that became our fault. There were a few gratuitous swipes here and there."
Luke: "How much contact have you had with her over the past 20 years?"
Michael: "We have a child. And we had some ongoing business so there was reason to talk on any occasion surrounding our daughter and left over business from films we'd done together and legal things. But we didn't go out to dinner or have a social relationship. We were able to be civil. We got along fine in dealing with what we had to but we didn't choose to spend any time together."
In her book about Hollywood, Julia Phillips wrote that actor Warren Beatty once asked if she wanted to have a threesome with him and her twelve year old daughter Kate. Julia replied, "Warren, we're both too old for you."
Luke: "Which of your films after Close Encounters have had the most meaning to you?"
Michael: "When you say 'meaning,' in terms of memories or learning experiences or what?"
Luke: "Wherever you want to take the question is fine with me. The happiest experience was The Flamingo Kid . One name, Garry Marshall, what a joy. Garry created all those 1970s TV series like Happy Days and the movie Pretty Woman. Gary had a basketball game at his house every Saturday that I used to play in. I gave Gary the script of The Flamingo Kid and he responded to it and we ended up making it. [Garry directed.]
"It was a tremendously fun experience because of the way Gary runs his sets. He's funny. He has a gigantic heart. He just keeps everybody smiling and laughing. We didn't know if the film would be any good. We had doubts all the way through as we watched dailies.
"Cannery Row  was an important learning experience. It was a failure. After the first 20 minutes, I loved the movie. I wasn't realistic about how it was playing to others. I thought I knew. I felt infallible. I thought that because I liked it, it was going to be good.
"It was very painful for a lot of reasons. It was David Ward's first time directing. And I wanted to produce his first film as a director. We were happy to get a greenlight on his adaptation of John Steinbeck. It was a tough shoot. We fired our lead actress Raquel Welch three weeks into the production. We had a breakdown in communications and ended up in a lawsuit. We brought in Debra Winger who was great. I loved the movie but it's very painful because I had such high hopes.
"The movie was not only not successful but was assailed by a lot of people in the press. It's like your child is being attacked and you feel badly. I developed a bit of protection. But it hurts. It hurts to have a failure that you're unprepared for being a failure. But it happens. You have a screening and you think they're going to love it and then they start walking out. Your stomach goes through the floor. The audience is the final arbiter. You're making a film for an audience. You have to learn that you are not infallible. You still have to be guided by your own taste. If you have to guess, you're not going to produce anything that has integrity.
"Cannery Row was a painful surprise. I haven't had any films that have been anywhere near the success of the early films but some of them have done ok. But I haven't been as emotionally attached. I was very emotionally attached to one film that was a complete flop. It was called The Tender and starred John Travolta. The company that produced it went bankrupt before they released it. It was eventually released as Eyes of an Angel . That was a painful experience too because I cared about the film. I thought it had the possibility of being wonderful. But it didn't have an ending.
"Lesson two. Never start shooting and telling yourself that you'll fix it. You'll come up with an ending. We came up with 17 drafts of an ending all the way through production and none of them were any good. We ended up with a film without an ending."
Luke: "What's lesson one?"
Michael: "Lesson one is just because you like it doesn't mean that everyone else will. But I feel better about the films that I like than the films that did well and I don't like. Or that I didn't feel much connection to."
Luke: "Which ones did you not feel much connection to?"
Michael: "I wasn't actively involved in the ones that I was executive producer on like Mimic and Don't Tell Mom The Babysitter's Dead."
Luke: "Was Companion the last movie you produced?"
Michael: "Is it? I don't know. I've been taking executive producing credit... So that may be it. That may be the last time I was really on the set all the way through. Yeah."
Luke: "So you don't find yourself as emotionally involved?"
Michael: "It just means much more to you when you bleed and you feel all the pressures and all the small joys and failures. Obviously if you have your name on something, you have your pride and your hopes and your dreams but it's not the same when you haven't really poured as much of your life into it."
Luke: "Are you still looking to produce?"
Michael: "It depends. I want to produce when I really like the people and the project and everything is right. If it doesn't look like an experience I really want to put myself on the line for, I'd just as soon give what I can in putting it together as an executive producer, and hiring the principle elements and reemerging in post-production. That's the way it seems to be as an executive producer. I like when I am fully committed but I only want to do that when I know that at the end of the day, I will like the experience, even if the film doesn't turn out well.
Luke: "Do you have a pet project you haven't been able to get off the ground?"
Michael: "I have one thing that is really an albatross. I wouldn't really want to call it a pet anymore. It's a project that's been in and out of development at Universal Studios under three different regimes. Right now I don't know if I love it or hate it anymore. Every time I think it's dead, it comes back to life on its own. I can't kill it. I've tried to kill it but it won't die. It may be something that is in my destiny. That is one I'd produce because I've suffered enough that I have to complete the job.
"As a producer, you have pots simmering on the back burner. Then things suddenly jump up and they get active. And you think, 'Ohmigod, I'm going to have two pictures starting at the same time next Spring. Then neither of them happen. So I don't count on anything until we shoot it."
Luke: "Do you see a common thread through your work?"
Michael: "I like escapist fare. I like larger-than-life experiences, whether it is the characters or the situation. I like things that strike me as fresh. I like an exotic story. I don't get involved often in formula films. If something comes along that is a business opportunity, I will depart from my general line. I'm not likely to make a film like In The Bedroom. I can enjoy it. I like to make movies like the movies I used to see as a kid on those double bills - science fiction and adventure."
Luke: "If we were to make a movie about your life, what would the character arc be?"
Michael: "I feel that some things have gone backwards. I learned the wrong lessons. It's an odd thing to win a [Best Picture] Oscar at 30 and having the financial freedom. It was great in that it liberated me me from the illusion that an Oscar would change my life. But it also taught me some wrong lessons. This business is not easy and you're lucky every time you get to make a film. God is smiling on you if you get a greenlight. It always looks like the other guys have it easy. Their films come together out of nothing. But there are always years of frustration behind it.
"I feel like I've gotten everything I've ever wished for. I don't know where the arc is going. This is a private question that I think a lot about right now. I've had the luxury to do other things. I haven't had to focus on succeeding in Hollywood. I feel blessed. I feel lucky. It's a story of a lucky young man who now realizes how lucky he was.
"The job of producing is so different today. I feel lucky that I was a producer when producers were allowed to be producers and to do something. The role of a producer has become unclear today. If you play an instrumental role in putting things together you're a producer. Somewhere in the late '70s, the directors and studios figured out they didn't need producers. They could deal directly with each other. When I started, the producer's job was to be the middleman between the two of them. You protect the director from the studio. They don't want that anymore.
"I don't like being on set because you don't have the power that you used to. It's less fun, less satisfying and more frustrating."
Michael's been married to writer-producer Juliana Maio for 14 years. Together they operate the production company Lighthouse Productions. Juliana practiced entertainment law for several years before choosing to work with Michael. They have one 13-year old daughter.
Michael's two other kids are 28 and 22. "Kate, my daughter with Julia, went to NYU law school and practiced in New York. She's been busy with her mother's decline and death. I think she will want to practice in the entertainment world here. My middle daughter is a film major at college. And my youngest is writing songs."
Producer Stuart Benjamin Wonders What He's Thanking Luke For
"Thank you for your time," says the intrepid journalist as he turns to leave.
"You're welcome," says producer Stuart Benjamin, not exactly a journalist's dream. "And thank you..."
Stuart pauses and thinks hard. "I don't know what I'd thank you for. I don't know why you're writing this book."
And the journalist turned and walked outside into the sunshine. It was Tuesday afternoon, February 12, 2002.
It had all started 90 minutes before. The journalist walked down the corridor and poked his head in the door. A fierce smart man looked up from his computer.
"Yes, come in. Please give me a minute."
Luke Ford sits on the white couch and reads his book, "How To Write A Damn Good Novel."
"How do you replace the same word multiple times?" asks Stuart.
Luke gets up and walks over to his desk. "You go to Edit, then Replace, then write in the word as it appears in the original, and write in the word as you want it spelled."
Five minutes later, they settle down to talk.
Benjamin's dressed casually in jeans. He's in his early 50s. He stands about 6'1 and 200 pounds. He's produced such films as An Officer and a Gentleman, Against All Odds, White Nights, and La Bamba.
Stuart grew up in the San Fernando Valley. At North Hollywood High School, he played varsity basketball, served in student government and got A grades.
"I went to USC as an undergraduate with future director Taylor Hackford. He was my best friend. I went to law school [Harvard] while he went into the Peace Corp.
"The guy who wrote the book The Paper Chase was in my class at Harvard but nobody knew him because he was off writing the book. The John Houseman character was like my contracts professor Dr. Clark Byse. He was a tough crusty guy with a soft heart underneath. If you didn't come into class prepared, he kicked your ass.
"At a place like Harvard, you have to opt to do one of two things. You can lock yourself in your room for 20 hours a day for the next three years, do the Harvard Law Review and graduate in the upper five percent of your class. Or you take the easy way out, which I did.
"Taylor went to work for KCET, the public television station in Los Angeles. I went to work for this entertainment law firm Wyman, Bautzer, Christensen, Kuchel & Silbert. We decided that we wanted to start a company and do stuff. We were too young and too dumb to know we couldn't do that. So we started New Visions. Our first job was to shoot a concert by the rock group Traffic (Steve Winwood) in 1972. Later we did Chicago and Rod Stewart.
"In 1978, Children's Home Society hired us to do a 30-minute docudrama "Teenage Father," which won Taylor an Oscar. Then in 1980, Taylor made The Idolmaker, and in 1982, I produced and Taylor directed An Officer and a Gentleman. Then in 1984 we made Against All Odds, in 1985, White Knights, in 1987 La Bamba and in 1988, Everybody's All-American. Then we merged with the public company Cineplex Odeon and we ran a mini-studio for a couple of years.
"In 2000, I joined Crusader Entertainment because [financier] Howard Baldwin was a friend of mine. I'd done work for the National Hockey League. Howard owned a couple of teams."
Luke: "What was your role on Officer?"
Stuart: "Keeping the wolves at bay. Paramount was concerned that schedules be met so we didn't run into the actors' strike. I acted as a buffer between the studio and Taylor."
Luke: "Were you on the set of Officer? What do you remember?"
Stuart: "Nothing that I can talk about. The stories are legion about Debra Winger and Richard Gere."
Luke: "But their conflicts don't come through on the screen."
Stuart: "The chemistry was there on screen which was a testament to their acting skills, and to Taylor's skills as a director, and to the editing staff. Stuff happens on movies that is best left on the set. Debra Winger has been quoted heavily about Richard Gere."
Luke: "Your legal training has taught you discretion."
Stuart: "I think that's part of it. I'm not a good interview because of that. And because I'm a private person, I tend to respect other people's privacy. Making movies is a funny business. It's great fun.
"We shot Against All Odds in Mexico, where there was a cave that we wanted to use for the steam bath thing. When we got down there, they wouldn't let us shoot the scene because of the nature of the scene. Too sexy to shoot near sacred ruins. So we came back here and built the cave.
"La Bamba is the highlight of my career. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley. Richie Valenz was a local hero. Everybody who went to school with me remembered well the plane crash [which killed Valenz, Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper]. I remember slow dancing in junior high school gyms to Richie Valenz.
"In the 1970s, a friend of ours, Daniel Valdez, was the brother of Luis, who directed La Bamba. Danny traveled up and down the Central Valley [of California]. He always wanted to be Richie. In the 1970s, none of us had a clue how to get a movie made. Then in the early 1980s, Danny calls from Watsonville, in Northern California. He's become close to the Valenz family. Would we be interested in the rights to do a movie? By then, Taylor and I had a deal at Columbia Pictures. We'd made Against All Odds.
"We started having meetings with the Valenz family. A whole group of them, the mother, the brothers, the sisters, would drive down from Watsonville, near Santa Cruz, and meet with us. Richie was the light of their life. He was what he was in the movie - a sweet kid who grew up into this great America success story who died way before his time. So a legend grew up of Richie Valenz. In the minds of the family, his legend grew over time. No matter how wonderful Richie really was, he was ten times more wonderful 20 years later. That memory of Richie Valenz was precious to them and they were not easily going to give it up. They were concerned about creative control and how we were going to depict Richie.
"So one day I said to them, 'We know how important Richie is to you. And we wouldn't do anything to tarnish that image. Part of the process of making a movie is a bit of trust. You've got to trust us that we will do justice to Richie's image. So when you're comfortable that we will do that, call us.
"Taylor and I wrote a check out of our pockets to the family to option the rights. This is one of those stories which I believe belongs in the book.
"We're about to go off to make White Nights. We're having lunch with the head of Columbia, Guy McElwaine. And we asked for $50,000 to develop the story of Richie Valenz. And he said, 'Who?' 'Richie Valenz. The guy who sang La Bamba. Went down on the plane with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper.' 'Oh? Who'd want to see a movie about that?'
"'Guy, we're going to off to make a really expensive movie. Give us $50,000 to develop a script.' And he did. Luis Valdez writes the script. Many months later, we turn it into Columbia Pictures. At the screening room at Columbia, to show them a rough cut of White Nights, and in walk a couple of senior production executives. And Taylor asked them what they thought of the Richie Valenz script. And one of them said, 'There's no fucking way this studio will ever make that movie.' And it was clear that the reason they were never going to make the movie was not that they didn't like the script or the story. They just didn't think anyone would go see a movie about a Hispanic kid that nobody remembered.
"Coca Cola owned Columbia at the time. Guy said he'd go to Atlanta and fight for the Richie Valenz story. We had budgeted the movie at $8.5 million. He comes back and says that Coca Cola doesn't want to make the movie for $8.5 million. We ask for a price and he comes back with $6.5. We agree to make the movie for that amount but you have to give us the money and let us go off and make the movie. We can't do a studio movie.
"They said, fine, we'll do that. But you have to put off your fees to guarantee completion. If the movie goes over budget, that cuts dollar for dollar into our fees. We said fine. I had $6.5 million deposited into our bank account in the name of R. Valenzuela Productions, which I controlled, without a piece of paper between us and the studio. You couldn't get $2000 today without a blood oath. You can't even get a dinner reimbursed without going through expense reports.
"Probably the most amazing moment I've ever spent on a movie was a day in July at the airport in Pocoima. We shot the scene where the plane takes off in the snow with Richie, Buddy Holly, and the Big Bopper. It's the middle of the night. It's hot. We're blowing the Styrofoam snow everywhere. And there's this little teeny Cessna. Before we shoot, I decide to get in the plane. And when you step on the wing of the plane, the plane tilts. The plane must weigh 150 pounds. You get in and it seems like the backseat of a VW.
"Richie's mom and a couple of his sisters break down in tears and plead with actor Lou Diamond Phillips, who plays Richie, to not get on that airplane. It's the end of the shoot and they've really bonded with Lou. He's become Richie's alter-ego. And they don't want him to get on that airplane because they know what happened last time.
"The picture was finished shooting in July of 1986. We got a release date for August, 1987. We knew we had a [good] movie. We went to Kansas City to a whitebread audience and it tested well. Taylor and I controlled the music rights. Coca Cola held its marketing meeting that year in Monterey, California. We wanted Coke to help market La Bamba and we offered them the song La Bamba for free to use in their commercials. And they said they weren't interested.
"Then the song by Los Lobos became the number one song in the country for several weeks in a row. The sountrack album became number one. The movie does serious business. And now the Coke marketing people knock on our door to use the song. We say, 'Sure, you can use our song for the commercial. How a big a check are you going to write?' And they wrote a substantial check.
"La Bamba changed my life. Right afterwards I stopped practicing law to concentrate on movies. I bought a Porsche, which I still drive."
Luke: "Crusader Entertainment's mission statement says: 'We believe that gratuitous violence, use of drugs and smoking, sex and profanity will obscure the positive message we wish to impart and compromise the entertainment and commercial value of our projects.' You would not have been able to make most of your 1980s films with these guidelines."
Stuart: "Crusader is a new company that's trying to find its identity. It's making one of my pet projects - The Ray Charles Story."
Stuart's now reclining on the couch while sits in his chair feeling like a shrink. He tries to take advantage of Stuart while he's relaxed and vulnerable.
"If you were to put ethics aside, how could you have made more money as a producer?"
"Which of your films have had the most meaning to you?"
"Have any of your movies broken your heart?"
"What movie would best describe your producing work?"
Stuart "Quote Machine" Benjamin thinks through each question and essentially says no, nothing, not really.
Luke: "If we were to make a movie of your life, what would the character arc be?"
Stuart thinks for five seconds before he begins his umms. "Character arcs are artificial. We design arcs for characters to justify making the movie. So we pull and squeeze our characters. In real life, the growth process is not easy and not clear.
"I've never been willing to cross certain lines. I've always tried to keep balance in my life. I did not give up my life in law school. I know I'm smart. And being smart enables you often to accomplish what you want to accomplish by being smarter, as opposed to working harder. And sometimes it becomes an excuse for not working hard."
Luke: "You don't think the movie business is a particularly vicious business?"
Stuart: "No more than anything else. Read the Business section."
Luke: "What's it like for you dealing with actors, these incredibly needy people?"
Stuart: "I'm not sure that they are anymore needy than any other group. I've been around athletes all my life. In the 1970s, I was invested in the Boston Celtics. In the late '70s, in the Clippers. You meet needy people all over the place."
Benjamin has two children who live in New York - a 24 year old daughter Jennifer who writes for Cosmopolitan, and a 23-year old actor-waiter son Mathew.
Luke gives Stuart a release form. He becomes the first producer to decline to sign it until he sees and approves how Luke uses his quotes. "I'm very careful," says Stuart.
I marveled how all the producers I've interviewed have been nice.
John, 45 years old: "You can't have a bad meeting with Americans. You can't necessarily do business with them but nobody wants to say no to your face. It has to do with that knowledge that you really don't know anything. And no one knows anything. When you look at the acquisitions of films by buyers over the years, they don't know anything. We've all missed every big breakout success every year going back to Sex, Lies & Videotape to Crying Game to Leaving Las Vegas. Every year you can point to the successful breakout independent film that the acquisition community missed several times.
"The Usual Suspects, as a script, was turned down several times by the studios. E.T. was turned down four times.
"Most people don't admit that we know nothing. But if you know it in your gut, you can't get too abrasive about turning people off. Because you're probably wrong about them as well, as to how successful they will be and when their break will be. Kevin Williamson used to be an assistant to a friend of mine. And suddenly he's the man behind the rennaisance of scary movies. I don't know about the people who fucked with Kevin back then when he was arranging parties and doing the things assistants do.
"The young producer always say, how should I act? If you try to act like Scott Rudin... You decide those tactics will be effective. You couldn't do it if that wasn't your personality. You'd be a melted heap of ectoplasm in two weeks. The biggest trait needed for producers is resiliency. Like actors, you're being turned down multiple times a day.
"My dad Martin started directing theater on the East Coast and moved into producing movies and television in Los Angeles. Not intending to, I took a parallel course.
"I went to Harvard preparatory school here in Los Angeles, graduating in 1974, and then went to Harvard college in Boston. I was running in different directions. I loved having keys to everything on campus in high school because you could scam everything that way. The administration responded to students who were responsible and had initiative. And you could get away with murder.
"I straddled the hard partiers and the creative people. I edited the yearbook and put on theatrical productions and I worked with the sports teams. I managed football and basketball. I spent a lot of time in creative and coordinating roles and partying a lot. I aimed to be a doctor. I wanted to veer completely against my parents' course. My mother Katherine Bard was an actress. Highschool was great but highschool is great for everybody. I got through academically without doing a lot of work. And that was true in college too. I went in pre-med and I graduated with a degree in English. I spent ten hours a day in theater. I like doing lots of things and I have a terrible time giving up anything that intrigues me.
"Then I went into theater in New York with Circle Repertory which crashed and burned in the early '90s but was then in its heydey. It had talented writers and actors, such as Bill Hurt, Judd Hirsch, Greg Durman. Many of my acting interns of the time are now stars."
Luke: "What do you remember about Bill Hurt?"
John: "Not much that is printable though I liked him dearly. He's a wild man. He's seriously disaffected and seriously challenging for everyone who deals with him. Bill has such a strong personality that you could spend a lot of time talking about. And you wonder why you're doing it, but you are. And it's just because he's interesting. It could be stuff that's driving you nuts but it is interesting anyway. Bill's extraordinarily talented and self destructive.
"I directed him in Hamlet and a new play by John Bishop, The Great Grandson Of Jedediah Callwell. I remember one time Bill was about to do, 'To be or not to be.' It was a rowdy audience. The second row was college students. They'd brought a few beers with them. They were disturbing things.
"Bill pulls out his rapier and steps over the first row of the audience and literally with his leg over the row and his sword at one of the kid's necks and looking at him. And the audience has gone completely quiet at this point. And Bill looks at him and says, 'Do you have anything else to say? Because I'll continue when you're finished.' And the kids didn't know what to do. Bill's a big guy. He stands 6'2". And he's intense and a little mad. You don't know whether the madness is in control at times, particularly in the middle of a performance like that. Bill stepped back, went off stage and came back on.
"When you take that off stage into places where there is less protocol, and you know what Bill is like."
Luke: "How did you get into television in 1984?"
John: "As a gig to pay the rent. It was summer. There was no theater. I had $26 in my bank account. I figured I was doing it for a few months until the next season started. I got this job on Thursday and they asked me to come in on Monday. And I asked if I could come in tomorrow, because I'd just bought a haircut and a tie and I was worried about getting through the weekend. I put together a show for them, Comedy Zone [CBS]. They asked me to stay and said if I was willing to work cheap, I could produce.
"I think my greatest accomplishment was hiring and nurturing David Janollari who I took in as an intern, promoted to my assistant, then director of development, and sent off to see the world. Now he's producing Six Feet Under.
"For me, it was continuing to do theater. Comedy Zone was packaged with theater writers who had never agreed to do TV before, people like Chris Durang, Wendy Wasserstein, Ted Tally, John Ford Noonan.
"Then, in 1986, I got approached to come out here [to Los Angeles] by Edgar Scherick.
"Careers are funny. I was a real wunderkind at that point. I was 26 years old. I had a network series on that I had created. I had a certain cachet with the articles and all that.
"I'm not a good employee, with anybody. I come in and out of those roles. I get sucked in when something's attractive but ultimately there's a point where you feel you aren't going to be fired and I lose interest. They want you, they need you, they're comfortable with you, and you're doing the job. And there's a psychology of being able to call your own shots.
"The Basketball Diaries started as my wife's [Liz Heller] project. She had been in love with the book [novel by Jim Carroll]. She'd worked with the director Scott Calvert in music videos. It was the fastest project from development to screen that I've ever been involved in. It was a year because [executive producer] Chris Blackwell was behind it. He's entrepreneurial and not corporate. On a script level, we probably moved forward too quickly.
"Leonardo DiCaprio was well known. He'd just done Boys Life with Robert DeNiro. On Diaries, he became great friends with his co-star Mark Wahlberg.
"I got involved just before production. It was challenging. There wasn't a lot of money. It was squeezing out a lot of days, mostly nights, in New York, in down and dirty grungy locations. With that, and the HBO movie I did with Cuba Gooding, Day Break, I've probably worked in more subterranean dank alleys than I'd want to remember.
"I've been lucky to have been involved with people like Leonardo Di Caprio, Mark Wahlberg, Angelina Jolie, Cuba Gooding, early in their careers. You get to build nice relationships because it is early and there aren't a lot of things carved in stone - their careers, their egos, their handlers, whatever..."
Luke: "Tell me about 1996's Foxfire."
John: "Like most of my work, it has a mix of entertainment and social conscience. It's based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates. You just knew when you saw Angelina Jolie's audition, that she was going to be a star. She had a quality even then that was daunting, which wasn't easy on the people she worked with. Because she was so sure of herself and so strong minded that you could not not pay attention to her.
"When you bring young people together, they behave differently when an adult actor comes in for a day or two. They don't really respect authority so it hard for producers or directors to exercise much control. You play a gamut of roles from parent to leader to friend to try to make everything work. It's hard because it is a group that doesn't want to get wrangled that way.
"Foxfire has now become famous for its candle-lit tattoo scene which is the big DVD sale. I talk to a lot of young guys now who are buying the DVD just to watch that scene. It's a gorgeous elegant scene but because it had nudity with all these chicks, it's become a cult item."
Luke: "Tell me about acquiring the 1997 movie Lolita for Samuel Goldwyn."
John: "Lolita was one of those mystery shows. How can you spend that much, $60 million, on a movie that should've been a $10 million movie? That's what drives me nuts about this industry. I could make ten movies for that much money and have a breakout shot with two of them, and discover some filmmakers and launch some careers.
"With Lolita, we did a simultaneous pay-cable and theatrical release. It's an interesting model. There's money in the pay-cable area that, if you find a way to balance it, can support independent theatrical distribution, which isn't a good business model under normal circumstances.
"The sponsored distribution series was a groundbreaking good idea. A few sponsors felt that the independent film demographic was interesting to them so they sponsored the distribution process to have their names associated with a series of six films."
Luke: "You had no moral qualms about Lolita?"
John: "I didn't have moral qualms about Lolita at all. There were differences of opinions but not vehement. There are films that I would have moral qualms about. Just as I have moral qualms about the news media telling people about what a neat terrorist plot would be. There are certain things you shouldn't approach people with. The War Zone , a British film that dealt intensely and graphicly with incest, was something that Samuel Goldwyn didn't want to distribute. The actress in it was underage. Ultimately, we got enough advice that we could be liable on federal child pornography charges for releasing the film, despite the fact that it had been highly reviewed by the best critics in the country. It was clearly a work of art, in some way, not a work of exploitation.
"I think of Lolita in the same regard. There are topics that make you think. And if they're not dealt with exploitatively... I don't Lolita makes people think of going out and doing those acts. They tap into something deep within us that is fascinated by these things. And whatever the governers are that keep us from indulging in them, the seeds, the thoughts, are there. Doesn't mean you are going to do them. Those films that treat these matters with probity and angst are interesting.
"I was more torn over The Basketball Diaries and the linkage that was brought with that and the school shootings. People died. I don't think we had anything to do with it. We set out to make an anti-drug movie. It's a work of literature that's survived for generations. When the writer of the book thinks you've done a terrific job with the movie, that makes you feel good. To be named in connection with the shootings was shocking for us.
"The only thing we thought about while making the film, in that context, was when shot the Devil's Toe sequence, which is right out of the book. Where the boys jump off the rocks at the head of the East River at the top of Manhattan. And we spent a lot of time thinking whether we influenced kids to do that. We decided it was an integral part of the book and kids probably do it anyway. He wrote about it because kids do it. But we never even thought of the dream sequence [of shooting up the school] because it was a dream sequence. It was clearly a fantasy. There was no good that came of that. There was no activity that bled into his real life from that fantasy.
"I felt very intertwined with that day of shooting because our A.D. left the set that day. We got a call from the union saying they were coming down to check out our set. She was a union person working non-union. That's a standard thing. You just leave in those situations. So I stepped in to A.D..
"We patently never showed anyone shooting up in the film. We don't like needles going into people's arms. They obviously used drugs in the movie but we never wanted to show that graphic element.
"Most people that I run into think the movie's cool. We've gotten letters from a lot of kids whose lives have changed because of it.
From Yahoo.com: "A member of the top high school basketball team in New York City falls prey to the lure of the streets- more specifically heroin- in this coming-of-age drama. Pre-superstardom Leonardo DiCaprio gives a strong performance in this gritty and interesting, if rather unfaithful, adaptation of writer/poet Jim Carroll's captivating teenage memoirs of being young and streetwise."
John: "Part of the reason we started this company was to move ourselves away from the system as much as possible, away from trying to get 14-layers of people to agree with your vision as something marketable, and then trying to maintain it as a vision through the process which is largely run by fear. Fear of what the person above me thinks. Fear of losing my job. Fear of second guessing the audience. You can never move far away from the system because you need the system to get distribution. It's just a question of how long you can delay your involvement."
Luke: "Which of your projects have had the most meaning to you?"
John: "Swing Kids  had a lot of meaning to me because it was my first film. And it spoke to everything I wanted to do with film. It was a blending of intelligence, entertainment and some social resonance. It isn't the movie I wish it could've been. I haven't made the movie I haven't wished could've been better. And I envy those who have, such as the guys who made American Beauty.
"I made Swing Kids and Day Break  during my anti-fascism period. They were both from the heart of the Reagen administration. They were both making a statement. Day Break was an AIDS allegory using a genre to coat the social relevance with sugar. It had a compassionate love story at the center of it. I was proud of that one because we put an interracial love story out there without ever mentioning it. And it freaked people out. And I was very proud of that. We got a lot of letter. HBO got a lot of letters from certain areas of the country - how do you dare this? And what they were really saying was not how dare you put a black man and a white woman together, but how dare you not make it an issue. We never talked about it. They fell in love, they had sex, they gave their lives up...
"My most successful project was a Movie of the Week called Intimate Strangers . We had a 47 share. It was the first time network television had done Vietnam. And again we posited it under a love story. But ultimately it was about a couple who survived Vietnam. When you can walk out on the street and realize that one out of three people you see probably saw what you did last night. That's a powerful feeling. Work that has impact is a turn-on.
"I'm proud of Tortilla Soup  because it is arguably the first latino picture that didn't make an issue out of that but represented role models that had nothing to do with gardening, cooking, immigration. Just people with a dream who had family and wanted to improve their lives. In a way, it's a very political movie.
"The battle to get all these movies made is with a system that really has no interest in any of that stuff, how do you get the messages out that you want to get out and not realize they're necessarily doing it? It was really moving to go to screenings of Tortilla Soup. People would come up to you and say, thank you for making the movie. I'm so moved. I'm so proud. If you're not going to do medicine [John's initial ambition], you better get that kind of reaction from people. Otherwise I'd go join the Peace Corp.
"I love getting something said. Not a soapbox, but having an impact. I remember something I read about Norman Lear's All in the Family. There was a major turning point in that show where they flushed a toilet off screen. That had never been done on network television. It was one of those things on the list - people do not have bowel movements. And they flushed a toilet off screen and in some way, it was a shot heard around the world. It just resonated. These thoughts, that become subliminal, become really impactful. It's one of the frustrations of doing independent films that they don't get farther out there."