Producer Alexandra Rose - Norma Rae, Nothing in Common, Frankie and Johnny
On May 14, 2002, I met producer Alexandra Rose at her home in the Hollywood hills. Striking, tall and slender, she wears green pants and a sleeveless green top. Her hair is long and black. She wears little makeup.
No woman has been producing movies in Hollywood longer than Rose. She's made such classic films as Big Wednesday (1978), Norma Rae (1979), Nothing in Common (1986), and Frankie and Johnny (1991).
Born January 20, 1946, she grew up Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Alex: "It was freezing cold in the winters and hot in the summer. My father was a banker. I have four siblings - an older sister, younger brother and two younger sisters."
Luke: "What group were you in in high school?"
Alex: "We were called 'The Hill Gang.' We were the ones going on to college. I don't know why were called 'The Hill Gang.' People need to group people for their own understandings. There was a group of us always geared for college and always taking certain kinds of courses. We were serious about schools and we were offices in student government and editors of the school newspaper and yearbook.
"At the University of Wisconsin, I did a double major in Political Science and French. I then did a graduate degree in Political Science at the L'Institut D'Etudes Politiques in Paris. It was a program designed for foreign students. That school is where the future leaders of France go. You get plugged into the highest levels of French government.
"I finished at the University of Wisconsin early. I decided to go to France with my friend Marian. In the late 1960s, we took a steamship across the Atlantic Ocean in the middle of winter. It was unbelievably stormy with waves the size of mountains. The north Atlantic in winter is a turbulent ocean. They gave us first class cabins but it was horrible because everybody was old. Everybody we liked were down in steerage.
"Paris was filled with rioting and strikes at the time. It was wild. The country went on a national strike for nothing. No buses, no trash. I loved it. To see all the cars come into Paris because there was no public transportation was amazing. People would walk across the roofs of cars to cross streets.
"We lived from pillar to post. We scrounged. We combined all our talents and put one ad in the international Herald Tribune. Whenever a call would come in, we would decide who would go apply for the job. Translating became my avocation. That's how I got into film. My then boyfriend [Patrick Kamenka] to be worked at the Cinemateque Francais. His grandfather founded it. I'd see six films a week there. In 1970, there was no foreign cinema in America. I'm a Curious Yellow (1966) was the first foreign film to become a hit in America.
"For me to see Cuban cinema, Russian cinema, Polish cinema, Chinese cinema was incredible. I became an historian of French film. My boyfriend's aunt and uncle had a French co-production company [that worked with an English company]. I would be called in to interpret for meetings and to translate screenplays for them.
"I came back to the States around 1971. I got off the plane in Los Angeles and went to an employment agency. And there were two [entertainment] jobs available - one with a television company and one with a small film production company. Both companies were interested in me but the guy at the film production company, Medford Films, said, 'Stay. Start now.'
"I was a secretary. Medford had several small films in distribution. It was a wild outfit. The guys would wear their shirts unbuttoned to the navel, with gold chains. They couldn't write letters. They'd tell me to write, 'Dear so-and-so: That thing you sent me really sucks.' And I'd translate it into proper protocol. I became the center piece of the office. I learned about film collections and theater bookings.
"Then when Roger Corman was looking for someone to work in his new company, New World Pictures, I interviewed for the job and got it. I worked for Roger for about 30 months. The hours were exhausting but it was the best experience. Three weeks after I got there, his partners and head of distribution split up. Roger said he didn't want to bring in another distributor. 'So you can handle it. There will be no raise in pay but you will be head of distribution.'
"I had to oversee prints, trailers, ad campaigns... We'd buy these horrible films from Italy and we'd have to make them into American films. There wasn't anything I didn't do there, from reading scripts to casting sessions. We'd have casting sessions with lines down the block [of actors dying to get a job].
"I met Marty Scorsese there because Marty directed Boxcar Bertha [for Roger Corman]. Marty was then living with my husband of the time [Fred Weintraub]. Marty's girlfriend was Fred Weintraub's daughter Sandy.
"It was a wild and innocent time. A whole group of us ran around together - Paul Schrader, Marty Scorsese, Michael and Julia Phillips, Brian DePalma, John Millius. Julia Phillips was one of the strongest toughest most vulnerable people you'd ever meet.
"Tamara Asseyev [Brian DePalma's ex-girlfriend] and I formed a production company [in 1975?]. She'd just produced a couple of films in Ireland on her credit card that I distributed through Roger Corman. She wanted a female partner for her production company.
"Tamara was the spearhead of the independent film movement. It was then considered outrageous to finance a film on credit cards."
I spot a huge 185-pound Newfoundland dog walk into the room. Alex and her Aussie husband Rob live with three of these beasts.
Alex: "I had raised money using sub-distributors in a system pioneered by Roger Corman. At the time, there were 13 film distribution territories in the United States. I went to these sub-distributors and raised money to make a karate film. Then the karate market fell out. After a few big karate pictures, all these others came out that had been sitting in vaults for years. The market was glutted. So I sent the money back.
"I had been doing research at the library at UCLA writing treatments for our own projects. And they became the bases of our first films. We'd take the treatments to a famous writer, develop a script and then try to sell the project to a studio.
"Tamara was friends with director George Lucas and his producer Gary Kurtz. And they wanted to do an African-American version of American Graffiti. Our version was called Drive-In. The project was similar to my life. I'd grown up as a teenager at the drive-in. I figured it was a great place to set a movie.
"We took it to Universal and we were all set to go. But 1975 was a politically sensitive time. And there was a woman at Universal who was upset that they would have two white women producing this black film. So she created a lot of hue and cry. Universal got nervous. Their black expert was making trouble so they dropped the project.
"We raised the money independently and changed the race of the characters to white. Columbia bought the movie and we were in profit.
"Tamara and I got a deal at Warner Brothers. Two young USC graduates, Bob Zemeckis and Bob Gale, came to us with this idea of four young girls who want to see the Beatles. We pitched it to Warner Brothers and they decided to go for it. We were looking for a young hip director. We looked at all of them. We saw Bob Zemeckis's AFI thesis film and thought his 14-minute short was better than all these big films we'd been seeing. But Warner Brothers wouldn't go with a young inexperienced director.
"So we consulted our friend Steven Spielberg. He said that if we really wanted Bob to direct, he'd support us by executive producing the project. And in case something happens, I'll be there. Warners passed but Universal wanted it."
Luke: "Big Wednesday, 1978m directed by John Milius."
Alex: "Dennis Aaberg and I became friends. We decided to do a surfing film. John heard about it and said, nobody can do a surfing film without me. I'm the big kahuna.
"We took it to Warner Brothers and they didn't want to make it because John had all these other projects. But they agreed to develop the script.
"My job was to get John out of bed. I'd call him at 8:30AM. Then 8:45. Then 9. Because he had to do six pages a day. That was my job. To get six pages a day out of John. I'd go to the dentist with him. I'd go everywhere with him to get those six pages a day. He's a talented man but undisciplined."
Luke: "Were there other female producers at this time?"
Alex: "Julia Phillips worked with Michael but there were no just-female producers aside from Tamara and I.
"Norma Rae was a project I held for three years before I even showed it to my partner. Being in distribution, I knew the marketplace and I knew the marketplace was not yet ready for this project. I found the story in a New York Times Sunday Magazine piece. I didn't bring it out until Rocky, the first independently-financed "negative pickup" to be a huge hit.
"Negative pickup means the film is made with the bank's money but there's a promise made ahead of time that the studio will pay the cost of the film to the bank upon the delivery of the negative. The reason for this form of financing is to avoid union dues. It's a way of making a film outside the studio system.
"I figured that I could sell Norma Rae as a female version of Rocky. After we went to Director Marty Ritt's office with Norma Rae, he asked his secretary who the two actresses were that were trying to sell him a project. She said, 'Mr. Ritt, they are not actresses. They are producers.' Because there weren't female producers then."
Luke: "How did you get movie greenlit?"
Alex: "A film never gets greenlit on its own. A film gets squeezed through a pastry tube until finally all it can do is come out the end. There are so many ways to say no.
"I had passion for this project. I'd held on to it for years. I knew this was a character I wanted to bring to the screen. I knew this was a character that was important for women. It was a character I identified with. I was a young woman. I wanted to see someone come up from nowhere with nothing, struggling and succeeding.
"Our agent Guy McElwayne helped us. He got us in to see Marty Ritt. Guy was one of the best agents I've ever met. He didn't care who you were or where your project came from. If it was a good idea, he went for it. And when he was president of Warner Brothers, he did the same thing. He didn't cover his tracks. He didn't protect himself. He'd get on board.
"Marty loved our project immediately. He said that if we'd get his friends the Ravetches to write it, he'd do it. The book on Norma Rae came out and sold about two copies. A book is a bad first draft of a script. It gives you a beginning, middle and end for a story. We optioned the book.
"We began giving the book to actors. We offered it to eight actresses (including Joanne Woodward, Louise Fletcher) before Sally Field. We couldn't get a studio to go for it. It was a tent-pole kind of film. Guy decided to get the project to Alan Ladd Jr at Fox. He was fresh from Star Wars. And Ladd has a producer mentality as well as a corporate mentality. These particular corporate executives didn't have a corporate feel. They were filmmakers. And Alan Ladd Jr. was always a filmmaker. He sees projects in terms of a film, not in terms of protecting his corporate ass. And he liked Norma Rae. We agreed to make the film for half our normal fees in return for a percentage of the profits. And Ladd said, if the other filmmakers agree to do that, we can go ahead. We had to show our belief in the project.
"We shot the movie in Opelika, Alabama."
Luke: "Were there any indications on the set that you had a great movie on your hands?"
Alex: "Yes, I knew it from Sally. She would come to work every day so prepared, so eager, so knowing this character, so imbued with it... And everyone working on the film was outstanding. They were cohesive, prepared and so full of belief in this character. We all believed in the iconography of a character who hadn't yet become an icon.
"The film was budgeted at $5 million. We brought it in under budget and days ahead of schedule because Marty Ritts shot so economically and we were all so prepared. Any time a producer can get the financing entity to give one week at least in solid rehearsal time, on location, they should do it. That saves so much in time and money. We came in $500,000 under budget and nine days ahead of schedule."
Luke: "How did your life change after Norma Rae's Oscar nominations?"
Alex: "The week we were nominated, I said to Tamara that we should call the president of the United States. Everybody took our call instantly. There wasn't one person who didn't pick up the phone. They were never busy."
Luke: "Nothing in Common, starring Tom Hanks, directed by Gary Marshall, in 1986."
Alex: "We developed it as a TV movie. But the networks thought it was too multi-layered and didn't have a salient enough logline.
"I met my husband Rob on Overboard (1987). He'd sailed the boat from Australia."
Luke: "But you were nothing like the snooty Goldie Hawn character in Overboard."
Alex: "Rob's a great navigator. He's great on the ocean."
Rose was married to Fred Weintraub for about ten years, from 1974 - 84. She married Rob at the end of 1988.
Alex: "Tom Selleck was the driving force behind Quigley Down Under (1990). The script had been around for centuries. A number of fine actors wanted to do it, from Steve McQueen to Clint Eastwood.
"Quigley was a great character. That's probably the linking theme of my work. I glom on to projects with great characters. Characters who stand up in the face of obvious oppression and resolves to make things right. And it is usually a character who you wouldn't expect to have that role. That is my innate belief system in the human being that any person will do the right thing when the opportunity is forced upon them.
"We had script problems and Tom was excellent in fighting through the mishmash of the studio's version of what it should be and the director's version...
"We got to Australia in 1989 during a national air strike. We were waiting in Sydney for Tom Selleck to come in. And Tom's hairdresser Lonnie says, 'You better check some of this stuff out when you get to location. You need to take a look at these horses.'
"We took a private jet from Sydney to Alice Springs [central Australia]. We asked to look at the horses. And we see this ridiculous horse for Tom. It's a short fat nag of a beast. And Tom is a big man. He got on the horse and his feet dangled down near the ground. I said that the horse was not attractive. Can you see this horse on the poster? And the horse crew said, 'Well, in those days horses weren't so big. It was 1870 and the horses were scrubby horses.' And I said, 'Yeah, and you're going to tell that to the movie poster? Here's Tom Selleck on a scrubby horse because in 1870 Australia, that is what the horses looked like?' It was presented to me that it was out of the question to get another horse.
"We also brought with us from Montana this wonderful old cowboy. And there were two groups of workers on the movie - the horse guys and the stunt guys. The horse guys were the ones who got this scrubby horse. I created this split by refusing to accept the horse. I was told by a horse guy that I had created the split by calling their horse a short and fat horse. I said, 'It is a short and fat horse.' And they were all upset.
"The stunt men were great. We chatted. They whispered that there was another horse in a trailer coming from Sydney. Tom refused to start shooting scenes until the horse was replaced. It caused a huge furor. It was a long drive from Sydney to Alice Springs. And there was no other way to get the horse there. A couple of days later, the horse arrived and it was a big gorgeous horse."
Luke: "I loved your 1991 movie Frankie and Johnny starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer."
Alex: "The material was given to Garry Marshall. Paramount owned the script. Gary asked me to read it. I thought it was a wonderful script. And so we embarked upon it."
Luke: "Every movie we've talked about so far you must've been pleased with how it turned out. Have there been any of your movies where you were disappointed?"
Alex: "Exit to Eden. It's an interesting example of how genre and tone can get confused. Exit to Eden is a fun campy film but there's a tonal issue that never got resolved. We weren't sure of how much comedy and how much sex in the film. And the balance was never realized because none of us knew ahead of time how it was going to go. Part of it depended on the level of the cast involved.
"We had an ensemble cast with three couples. Dan Akroyd and Rosie O'Donnell [police], Paul Mercurial and Dana Delaney and the mystery couple Stuart Wilson and Iman. The A story was the sexual story between Paul and Dana. The B story was the Dan and Rosie story. And what happened through dint of personality, the B story overtook the A story. And once that happens, the B story gains preponderance and is given more screen time than the A story. But the movie is the A story. And when that happened, the movie suffered. The scenes were good but what the movie was meant to be was lost.
"We were adapting Anne Rice's book. And you can't move away too much from an author's original intention. There's a disappointment when you move away from the source's intention. The book was a psycho-sexual fantasy. And we made a comedy-sexual fantasy. You not only alienate the fans of the book but you have to come up with Band-Aids for the script, as opposed to using the intrinsic material. For those reasons, the movie ended up different than what we expected. And because we didn't know what to expect, we didn't know what audiences should expect. If our intention as filmmakers is not clear-cut, then our intention can't be received."
Luke: "You tackled tough material, about developmentally disabled lovers, in 1999's The Other Sister. What were you thinking?"
Alex: "Once again, I thought the developmentally disabled couple represented that same theme of people who are unsung heroes. People who we don't think of as capable turn out to be enormously capable. We make a mistake in judging people a priori without giving them the benefit of flexing to the degree they can flex.
"The material is based on my family. I came up with the story. Garry Marshal knows my family well. He and I spent a weekend in Chicago where my sister Anne went to school. And we visited the school where she'd lived for many years.
"I'd shown Garry a picture of Anne and her new boyfriend. They were cute. And Garry said, 'That's the movie I want to make. I want to make a love story between those two people.' So on my next trip to Green Bay, I interviewed on videotape my sister Anne and her boyfriend. And Garry could then see the cadence of their speech and what they were about.
"Garry and I worked on the script. We brought on Bob Brunner and Blair Richwood. And after many rewrites, we felt we'd achieved a draft that was good enough to make."
Luke: "And how does Anne feel about the movie?"
Alex: "She loves it. Contrary to what Roger Ebert said, the movie is the most authentic film about mentally challenged people. We spent months at the McBride school in Chicago and at the Center for Developmentally Disabled people who are trained to work. My attorney is on the board of that organization so [actors] Juliette Lewis and Giovanni Ribisi spent much time there. So they got exactly the mannerisms and everything... I think it is Juliette and Giovanni's best performance to date. Women who see the movie see it over and over again."
From Imdb.com: "The "other sister" is quite an admirable work, because not only is it superbly acted and well scripted, it offers an insight at the Mentally Retarded-Developmentally Disabled Population as being more than "those people Geraldo rescued." The nervousness of parents not willing or ready to allow their children to grow up and move out when they are clearly capable of doing so, the frustration of a MR-DD adult child who knows her limits and yet is stymied by those who are supposed to be her support circle -- especially her mother (played wonderfully by Diane Keaton!)...this has you rooting for "the other sister" to assert herself and be an adult in so many different ways."