Producer Frank Konigsberg - The Joy Of Sex
Frank Konigsberg launched The Konigsberg Company in 1975 after a decade as West Coast head of International Famous Agency - predecessor to ICM. The Konigsberg Company, with Frank as executive producer, was responsible for such television miniseries as the Emmy nominated Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones which won Powers Boothe an Emmy for his starring role, and the seven hour miniseries Pearl with Brian Dennehy, Leslie Ann Warren and Angie Dickenson, written by Sterling Silliphant. Konigsberg's movies for television include the Humanitas Award winner Divorce Wars starring Tom Selleck and Jane Curtin, Dummy with Levar Burton and Paul Sorvino, which won a Peabody Award, and the Christopher Award winner The Pride of Jesse Hallam starring Johnny Cash.
In 1983, his company became Telepictures Productions, where he acted as President. Some of the projects Mr. Konigsberg executive produced for Telepictures include the miniseries Ellis Island, starring Richard Burton and Faye Dunaway which received five Emmy nominations, Right to Kill?, starring Justine Bateman and Frederic Forest, Surviving, with Molly Ringwald, River Phoenix, and Ellen Burstyn, nominated for a Humanitas Award. For HBO Frank produced Act of Vengeance, with Charles Bronson, Ellen Barkin and Keanu Reeves and As Summers Die, starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Scott Glenn and Bette Davis. Both of those films were awarded numerous Ace Award nominations.
Frank Konigsberg left Telepictures/Lorimar in 1986 to start the Konigsberg/Sanitsky Company with Larry Sanitsky. Among their diverse slate of successful productions were two top-rated mini-series, Stephen King's IT and the miniseries Stephen King's The Tommyknockers. Their production of Paris Trout, starring Dennis Hopper, Barbara Hershey and Ed Harris garnered the prestigious Director's Guild Award, five Ace Award nominations and five Emmy nominations. Other Konigsberg/Sanitsky projects include the television movies In Sickness and In Health with Leslie Ann Warren, Tom Skerritt and Marg Helgenberger, Casanova, with Faye Dunaway and Richard Chamberlain, the miniseries Onassis, with Raul Julia, Anthony Quinn and Jane Seymour in her Emmy-winning portrayal of Maria Callas, and the ABC Theater Presentation, The Yarn Princess with Jean Smart and Robert Pastorelli. cont.
Their Emmy nominated production of Alan Gurganus' best selling novel The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All was a four-hour CBS miniseries, starring Donald Sutherland, Diane Lane, Anne Bancroft, and Cicely Tyson who won an Emmy for her role in this drama.
The Konigsberg Company, produced Shadows of Desire, starring Nicollette Sheridan, Joe Lando and Adrian Pasdar, the Emmy, Ace and NAACP Image Award nominated four-hour miniseries, Children of the Dust, starring Sidney Poitier, Regina Taylor, and Farrah Fawcett. Children of the Dust was also recognized by the New York Festival - winning a silver medal. Frank subsequently released four television movies: Deadly Pursuits, starring Tori Spelling and Patrick Muldoon and Blessed Assurance (also known as The Price of Heaven), directed by Peter Bogdonavich and starring Grant Show, Cicely Tyson, Lori Loughlin and George Wendt, A Face to Die For, starring Yasmine Bleeth, James Wilder and Robin Givens and Sweet Temptation starring Beverly D' Angelo and Rob Estes.
In the last few years, Mr. Konigsberg with Mr. Sanitsky produced the CBS mini-series Titanic, starring George C. Scott, Catherine Zeta Jones, Tim Curry, Marilu Henner and Peter Gallagher; The Last Don, a six-hour mini-series for CBS, based upon Mario Puzo's last novel. The all-star cast included, Danny Aiello, Joe Montegna, Daryl Hannah, Jason Gedrick, Penelope Ann Miller, Kirstie Alley and k.d. lang, and four-hour sequel The Last Don II a sequel to their highly rated miniseries.
Frank Konigsberg produced the miniseries for CBS Bella Mafia, written by Lynda Laplante, and starred Vanessa Redgrave (Golden Globe nominated for Bella Mafia), Dennis Farina, Nastassja Kinski, Jennifer Tilly, Illeana Douglas and James Marsden. The two parts of Bella Mafia were the 13th and 22nd highest rated movies, including theatrical films, of the 1997-98 season.
Most recently Frank produced Deep in my Heart, a two hour film starring Anne Bancroft, Lynn Whitfield and Gloria Reuben for CBS, for which Anne Bancroft received an Emmy for Best Supporting Actress in a Television Movie or Mini-Series; and Like Mother, Like Son: The Strange Story of Sante and Kenny Kimes with new partner Drew Smith, a two hour film starring Mary Tyler Moore, Jean Stapleton, and Robert Forster for CBS, due to air May 20 for Sweeps.
I sat down with Frank at his office on Sunset Blvd April 2, 2002.
Frank: "I grew up in Queens and in Manhattan, New York. My father was an engineer and he owned a metals fabricating plant. My old brother William is a professor and scientist at Yale in bio-chemistry. We went to private schools. I've always liked the theater, movies, and books.
"I went to Yale where I majored in English. I graduated in 1953. Then I went to Yale Law School. I graduated in 1956. Six months later, I went to work at CBS, and then transferred to NBC after a couple of years where I negotiated deals for talent and programs. I met two guys who were selling shows to NBC. They wanted me to come to California to work for them in their business affairs division of their company - Artists Agency Corporation. Marvin Josephson repurchased the agency and shortly afterwards acquired Ashley Famous company. It became the International Famous Agency (IFA) which later became ICM. I ran the West Coast office for about ten years. Then I became a producer.
"Bing Crosby was a client and I produced his Christmas specials. I knew all of the people running the networks from my days as an agent. My partner Sterling Silliphant and I sold a mini-series [Pearl, 1978] on Pearl Harbor to ABC. We got the rights to use footage from Tora! Tora! Tora! and went to Hawaii and made it."
Frank speaks so softly that I have a helluva time picking up his words as I transcribe my tape. He seems bemused to be the subject of an interview.
Luke: "The golden era of TV movies seems over."
Frank: "Probably because of the change in tax regulations [around 1986]. We used to have the investment tax credit where a portion of the money you spent on a film could be deducted directly from your income tax. For a long time, people turned out the same kind of movie over and over again. We got to be formula. We got to be uninteresting."
Luke: "Your first feature was National Lampoon's The Joy of Sex (1984)."
Frank: "Paramount was running out on their option on Alex Comfort's book. They had four months to start principle photography. They came to me and asked me to do it. They knew that in television you do things quickly. We threw together a script. They wanted me to use director Martha Coolidge, who'd just made Valley Girls. It was a job. We just had to get it done. I didn't think it was a successful movie at all. It was awful. Martha hated it. I hated it."
Luke: "Nine 1/2 Weeks ."
Frank: "I held the rights to the book for about eight years. I had a number of scripts written. I tried for years to get it set up with Zalman King directing. He tried to get the rights to the book out from under me. Finally, I washed my hands of it and sold it to Keith Barish. I didn't like the final movie. In the book, the guy's tight, controlled, and precise. They cast Mickey Rourke who's interesting but hardly a Wall Street commodities trader. And the woman is repressed. But Kim Bassinger is just sexy from the get go. It was awful. I hated the movie.
"It was supposed to be an interesting psychological study of carrying things to the limit. Like the Stockholm Syndrome, where the woman became increasingly attracted to this man who was abusive. It explored why people stay in abusive relationships."
Luke: "Is one of the joys of producing movies getting to vicariously explore things you would never touch in your ordinary life?"
Frank: "Yes. Like an actor, you get to play out different scenarios. Though you have to remain grounded in the reality of your own life or things can spiral out of control."
Luke: "Have you seen that happen to many of your peers?"
Frank: "No. In the television business, you can spiral downward but you don't spiral out of control. The feature business is much more excessive. In television, you're working with tiny budgets and tight schedules. It's more of a mass production factory. If you get a chance to do something really good, like some of my early films, it's because there's a lucky combination of a good executive who leaves you alone and subjects that are intriguing and fresh."
Luke: "Post production is a favorite of yours."
Frank: "I am a good editor. It's a complicated and intricate process and I like that best of all the aspects of making a film. You have the most control. It's more of a puzzle. You have all the pieces and you have to put them together. When you're on the set, it can rain or snow or a truck can go by. And you're dealing with actors."
Luke: "Do you like pitching?"
Frank: "No. Does anybody?"
Luke: "Yes. Jerry Leider."
Frank: "Jerry's much more of a salesman than I am. He's probably much better at it than I am. I don't like it at all. I think the merits of my project are obvious and I shouldn't have to pitch it."
Luke: "Do you get frustrated dealing with idiots?"
Frank: "I don't think they buyer are idiots. We just come from different places. Most of them I like. They're bright people and their hearts are in the right places. There are just more corporate layers than when I was making films [in the 1970s]. Then, there was one guy at CBS who had a division called 'CBS Specials.' And he had a mandate to make, say, six a year. And he'd say, 'Go ahead. Develop it.' He didn't have to clear it with five other people. And there was an appetite to do programs with some social value. I don't think they do that much anymore. The networks are much more into, I can't say exploitative, but they're trying to get an audience without being challenging. They still do the wife-beaters [stories]."
Luke: "Do you ever get frustrated with the medium? For instance, when you make a movie from a book, the book is always far more intellectually complex than the movie."
Frank: "It doesn't have to be. If you take Guyana Tragedy, the book just lays out all the facts. We picked the scenes that we thought were the most illuminating... If you read the book and you saw the movie, you'd probably like the movie better."
Luke: "How much artistic freedom to you feel to fictionalize movies like Guyana Tragedy?"
Frank: "Not much."
Luke: "Have you ever made a movie that you've looked back on as socially irresponsible?"
Frank laughs: "The Joy of Sex. I don't make violent movies or horror movies or things that will harm the youth of America. Those subjects don't appeal to me."
Luke: "Do you ever put messages in your films?"
Frank: "There are social messages in my films but I don't think they're inserted apart from the inherent nature of the subject."
Luke: "You don't feel that you are part of the anointed with a moral imperative to wake up the somnolent masses?"
Frank: "No. I have made some do-gooder films like The Pride of Jesse Hallam about illiteracy. But I think that the personal story of that man is what makes it compelling, not the statistics or the message at the end about calling the Illiteracy Council."
Luke: "Do you struggle between the conflicting aims of artistry and commerce?"
Frank: "No. I'm happy to do anything. I like to work."
Luke: "Tell me about Traci Lords."
Frank: "I worked with her on her life story. It was never made into a movie."
Frank: "A sudden degree of Puritanism was in the air when we delivered the script and nobody wanted to make the movie."
Luke: "Talent manager Bernie Brillstein says that the primary reason men get into the entertainment industry is to have sex with beautiful women."
Frank: "I don't think so. Do you?"
Luke: "I'm not sure."
Frank: "If you're successful or rich or powerful in any field, you can attract the opposite sex."
Luke: "You've never had an actress throw herself at you to get a part?"
Frank: "Never. You make me feel like I've missed out. I guess it says something about me."
Luke: "Which of your productions that we haven't mentioned have had the most meaning to you."
Frank laughs again. "I don't know."
Luke: "Tell me about your 1996 movie Titanic."
Frank: "As we were making it [for CBS], was looming behind us James Cameron, who's working with $120 million. And we have $12 million. We had tried to get Fox to give us a million dollars not to make it [as soon as Cameron's project started]. But CBS wanted it and Fox didn't want to give us the money. I think our movie is good.
"We shot the movie in Vancouver in the middle of summer. We had a small tank at the University of British Columbia. And everyone's wearing fur coats. It's meant to be in the North Atlantic in the middle of winter. My partner says, 'Why isn't there breath showing? Why are they sweating? It's supposed to be cold.' You can't show people's frozen breath, and people shivering, when it is 110 degrees and you are shooting in a confined space with no air conditioning."
Luke: "Have you ever burned out?"
Frank: "No, I like this. Where else can you get well paid and meet interesting people and go places?"
Luke: "How could you a Jew make the 1999 movie Jesus?"
Frank: "I think it's a terrific story."
Luke: "Didn't you want to say, 'Hey, he was just a carpenter.'?"
Frank: "He may have been a carpenter but he was a lot more than that as well."
Luke: "Do you believe Jesus was part of a triune godhead?"
Frank: "It is important for a lot of people to believe in that. It's certainly a story that's had sway over people for 2000 years."
Luke: "What would you parents have thought of you?"
Frank: "They weren't religious as Jews and they were tolerant of other religions.
"Have I exhausted you?"
Frank: "Mary Tyler Moore stars in [the 2001 TV movie] Like Mother, Like Son: The Strange Story of Sante and Kenny Kimes. She plays a mother who has an incestuous relationship with her son. And they kill this New York socialite [Irene Silverman].
"We got the greenlight from CBS to do the project in November, 2000, and they wanted to air it in May. So we couldn't shoot it anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere. The story takes place over the July 4th weekend in New York City. The city was deserted and they had this big mansion to themselves. They lived in Las Vegas and Hawaii, which are warm weather, blue sky places.
"At one point we wanted to show the mother and son outside the home of a man (business associate of the late husband, Mr. Kimes) that they have been accused of murdering. They are now standing trial in Los Angeles for that crime. But at the time we were shooting, they had been accused but not indicted. And CBS didn't want us to show them park outside the man's nondescript house.
While we were shooting, the Kimes were indicted for the murder. Then CBS wanted us to change all the dialogue, identify the house, and put in everything that they had initially insisted we take out.
"We shot in Melbourne, Australia. We were able to find a couple of streets that we made resemble New York City. Hawaii was easy. Down the coast, we found a house with a Hawaiin name, built in Hawaiin style, overlooking the sea. When we surveyed it, it was a bright sunny day. When we shot there, after about two hours, the storm clouds came in. And it started to rain and you couldn't see the sea. I was in Australia for six months. We left in mid-December, 2000, to find a crew, not realizing that everybody took a vacation in Australia from mid-December to mid-January.
"We met every possible crew member who wasn't in France or Italy. We got a crew together and started on the movie at the end of January. We did the post-production in Australia. It was difficult because CBS was back here. Every time we sent a cut back, it would take us two days to get a response. That slowed the process down."
Luke: "You weren't able to email it?"
Frank: "They didn't have the technology then. This was a year ago. Now I think you can get an optical line for $8000 a week, but they have to have the capacity to receive it."
Luke: "How was your Australian crew compared to an American one?"
Frank: "Our crew was a little slower. For all I know, there are probably great crews there."
Luke: "Are you married? Did you take your wife [Susanne]?"
Frank: "Yes I am, 40 years. No I didn't take her. I think she was in Burma. She travels a lot on her own. Her trips didn't coincide with this and I didn't know when I'd be back.
"When I'm working, it's not much fun for her because I'm on the job 12-14 hours a day. I shot a miniseries (The Tommyknockers) in New Zealand. She spent a couple of days waiting around for me. Then she got a car and drove all around New Zealand by herself and then she left."
Luke: "What was your wife doing in Burma?"
Frank: "She just travels around. She likes to see exotic countries. She's an amateur archaeologist. She almost got her PhD in archaeology."
Luke: "About a third of the producers I've interviewed have been lawyers."
Frank: "It helps to have a business background as a producer because you're constantly up against legal, contractual and economic issues. At the same time, you can't have your mind constricted by those things. You have to be able to break out and have a creative vision. That's a hard combination."
Luke: "Do people team up to maximize their strengths?"
Frank: "Sometimes but it is rare to find a producer who doesn't have both skills. It's hard to find a producer who's solely business or solely creative. If they're solely creative, they go way over budget and don't get jobs again."
It hits me that I could never make it as a movie producer because you have to get along with so many people and make so many compromises.
Luke: "It would be nigh impossible for anyone to succeed as a producer who is anti-social because you have to deal with so many constraints and collaborate with so many people."
Frank: "It's important to maintain good relations with the network people, their legal department, standards and practices, the buying side and the creative side, the promotion and publicity department. It is sometimes difficult because they occasionally take positions that are wrongheaded."
Luke: "You have to suffer fools gladly."
Frank: "You have to hold yourself back. It's their money and you have to do what they say if you want to work again. You have to have your convictions though and fight for things you believe in with well-reasoned arguments."
Luke: "But you lose a lot of those arguments."
Frank: "You do. "
Luke: "The type of kid who wants to play with his toys by himself is not going to make a good producer."
Frank: "He'd be a better writer. Producers have to get people working together as a cohesive team and that's often difficult because there are disagreements amongst the crew. The costume designer wants to have everybody in red and the DP (director of photography) feels that red will spoil his color scheme. There are usually a lot of personality conflicts, often between the producer and the director and the production manager. The director will want to shoot longer hours and not stop for a meal break. The production manager has to point out the costs and the producer has to arbitrate."
Luke: "Often individuals, such as a director, will want to do things to impress their peers that don't add value to the final product for viewers."
Frank: "Directors, for instance, will often want to make a production as showy as possible."
Luke: "A narcissist wouldn't make a good producer."
Frank: "He'd be looking in the mirror all the time instead of at the monitor. You have to be more self-effacing. And you don't get the credit as a producer. If the movie is good, the director gets the credit.
"When you start a project, you pick these people and they become your intimate family for months. Then you never see them again."
Luke: "This must be why so many producers I interview seem bland. They can't afford to flaunt their egos."
Frank: "Even when you read the biographies of moguls like Samuel Goldwyn. They gave a lot of leeway to the directors and the writers who were talented."
Luke: "Do you own your negatives?"
Luke: "I hear that is harder to do."
Frank: "It is probably impossible now. Eversince the [revoking of] financial interest rule [which limited the networks from owning their shows and movies], the broadcasters have insisted on owning more and more."
Luke: "Are you feeling increasingly squeezed as an independent producer?"
Frank: "Yes. I'm making fewer [TV] movies. I'm trying to make features. It's difficult. While television welcomes with open arms people with feature experience, it doesn't work the other way round. It's a different set of people and a different set of ideas about how they think about projects. In television, they want pre-sold stories - stories with a built-in audience and recognition value. Because they have a hard time getting attention, getting critics... Examples would be Judy Garland, Anne Frank, Gulliver's Travels, the Helen Keller Story, the LA Law reunion. Both features and television are doing all these revivals of old television shows [a trend started by producer David Permut].
"It's rare to find a big book these days that has enough name value. NBC bought the Tom Wolfe book A MAN IN FULL. But it is not well known enough for them and so they're not doing it. USA is doing Helen of Troy and did Attilla the Hun. Everyone has heard of them though I would defy most people to tell the story of Attilla the Hun.
"Features are willing to do a subject that is more complex and less easily defined, aside from the action and the high concept films. But features are willing to tackle subjects, like In the Bedroom. A few years ago, that would've made a nice television movie. Now it wouldn't be made [as a TV movie] because it doesn't have a pre-sold audience. Dead Man Walking could've been a television movie from one of the cable companies.
"Features is much more concerned with who the director is. In television, it doesn't matter who the director is. You sell the project and then you hire the director. In features, you don't get financing until you have a director.
"A lot of it is a snobbery amongst the talent agents who don't like to expose their top writers and directors and agents to people who aren't currently hot in the feature field. In television, you get the project set up and then you go cast it. TV agents are eager. They want to get offers if not the actual job for their clients. But in features, the talent drives the project, be it the star cast or the star director. Their agents are much more protective. They don't like to send them out on things that may not get made."
Luke: "Why would they care if you already have the money?"
Frank: "If you already have the money, then they don't care. But if you are looking to set up a project, and to use their clients to move it forward, then they are much less eager to help."
Luke: "I sense that many film people despise television as an inferior medium."
Frank: "They think that. Though many feature people are crossing over because there's more money and the work is steadier. And they're received like the Messiah. If a feature producer or director produces a TV show, even though they're not going to do anything on the project, just by attaching their name, they can get a lot of press for the project. Barbra Streisand's company did that TV movie on the lesbian army woman played by Glenn Close. Barbra Streisand didn't write it. She didn't direct it. She didn't star in it. But she put her name behind it and she got a lot of publicity for it. Networks are eager for that because it gives them that extra edge getting magazine covers, talkshows, etc... They don't have the budgets to pursue publicity so they have to get it through other means, such as attaching somebody."
Luke: "When you're trying to get a project set up, do you ever have to say who you are?"
Frank: "All the time. I used to know many of the people running the studios, but I can't call them to pitch an idea. So I am often meeting with people in their 20s and early 30s. I can't expect them to know me. It means selling myself again, which I really love (sarcastic).
"The ratios of movies that get made is much worse for feature producers than television. You stand about a one in three chance with a TV movie development deal. With features, your odds are about one in twenty.
"I'm not encountering age discrimination. If I were trying to do a TV series for Nicklelodeon, I suppose I'd have a hard time."
Luke: "Do you get pushed to aim for a young audience?"
Frank: "I don't get pushed to do it but that's what they want, so you try to develop something that will hit that narrow target. Often you will try to find a lead in that age range and a subject that will appeal to them. You tend to stay away from things like The Golden Girls [TV series about old women] and the Walter Matthau movies Grumpy Old Men.
"If you're pitching to Lifetime, you pick a movie that has a female lead and a subject that appeals to women. To USA, it's better to have
a male lead and more testosterone action."
Luke: "Robert Kosberg says you have to be careful about pitching stories to studios that are too intelligent."
Frank: "Well, you can pitch them in a dumb way. If you were pitching Albert Einstein, or the Niels Bohr Story, you'd have a hard time. But they were able to dumb down A Beautiful Mind, so I guess you could dumb down the Albert Einstein Story."
Luke: "Are there topics that are too controversial?"
Frank: "Absolutely. I've been trying to sell a story about the recent priest-sex-scandal controversy. I have a particular way of doing it. It's not just watching priests diddle boys and girls. And it was too controversial."
Luke: "But Hollywood loves to make movies bashing Catholics."
Frank: "This was for television. They were afraid it would offend their more conservative viewers. But their decision baffled me. I don't think anyone believes that priests should be able to molest kids but anything that criticizes an established institution like the Catholic church will create controversy and controversy is bad."
Luke: "I thought controversy would create hype."
Frank: "There's a fine line between controversy and hype. They don't want to be criticized. Even the cable companies don't want to be criticized. They want to be talked about but not criticized. I think in that story you have to take a position. Obviously not all priests are bad and the entire church hierarchy isn't bad, but obviously there's something rotten there to allow this to go on for so many years. And that's what needs to be dramatized."
Luke: "Other things you've found too hot for TV?"
Frank: "Female genital mutilation in Africa. In many tribes and country, it is a common practice. It was not well received. All the female executives were fascinated by it but they thought they couldn't get advertising for it.
"I had a good story on an adolescent girls physically abused, beaten by their boyfriends. That's common. According to a survey, about 30% of teenage girls in relationships are beaten by their boyfriends. And the networks do wife abuse stories all the time. And they rate well. But the advertisers hate it and they have a hard time selling the time. Even though they force one through every year or two, it is a big problem."
Luke: "Traci Lords."
Frank: "That wasn't about advertisers. It was more this whole southern conservative Jerry Falwell grassroots revolt against sex on television.
"I've tried to sell Mormon projects and they won't touch them. I had a wonderful script about Brigham Young's 27th wife. She was a young girl. He was in his 60s. She was engaged to someone else and he went ape over her. Because of his power and charisma, she married him under the condition that he would not have sex with anyone else. She had her own house and everything went great for a while. She got along with the other wives. Then after a few months, one of the other wives became pregnant. She objected. So he had her work in the fields. Then she led the wives on a revolt. They went shopping and refused to do what he wanted.
"She ended up speaking out against polygamy. She spoke before Congress, helping to pass the law against polygamy, which had him jailed. They felt that they'd get a lot of flack for it. That it was disrespectful to the Mormons. But it was the truth.
"I was going to do another Mormon story based on a news report from a couple of years ago. A young girl was forced to marry her uncle. Her father had six wives. She was 15, and her uncle was about 35, and he'd had several other wives. She ran away. Her father took her to this home where she was beaten severely. She crawled out to the highway, where she was picked up and taken to the hospital. She told her story. Her father and her husband were brought to trial and convicted. It was the first polygamy trial in many years."
Luke: "I can't think of any Mormon movie."
Frank: "Seven Brides for One Brother?"
Frank: "Is that a Mormon movie?"
Luke: "It's about these two Mormon missionairies who go door to door and one (Trey Parker) accidentally becomes a porn star.
"I bet it's hard to get a movie made that puts Jews in a bad light."
Frank: "Although they did The Believer, about a Jew who becomes a skinhead."
Luke: "But no movie about the Jews in the Wall Street insider trading scandals."
Frank: "I don't think so. They prefer Anne Frank or Holocaust stories."