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Producer Ilene Kahn Power
I'm greeted at the door of producer Ilene Kahn Power's place by her young beautiful smart female assistant Susan. I gulp and stumble inside and ask for a cold glass of water and the restroom.
Ten minutes later, I'm sitting with Ilene on her sunny porch. It's July 25, 2002. We can look up to the tall 9000 Sunset Blvd building and east to the Hollywood sign.
Luke: "Where did you grow up?"
Ilene: "I grew up in Chicago. My father was a driven lawyer who died of a heart attack at age 45. I was only 17 years old. My mother died a couple of years later from a hospital mess-up. I have a younger brother and sister. My sister is a writer-producer Arla Sorkin Manson. My brother is a singer, Mark Nudelman. He worked at Propaganda Films as head of their physical plant. He's a favorite of Spike Jones, who puts him in all his commercials. My brother has a cult following.
"I've always been in the arts. My mother, who came from a genteel upbringing, told me to always know how to support myself - be a secretary or a teacher. I took shorthand and typing in high school. My father encouraged me to be a lawyer.
"I got my teaching degree from Northwestern to teach Art and English. I majored one quarter in the oral interpretation of poetry. I got a Masters in painting from the Art Institute of Chicago.
"At age 21, I couldn't find a job teaching. I thought my life was over. There was no concept of film school then (1972). I could type.
"I know you're looking at Susan [Ilene's beautiful young blond assistant, a graduate of Harvard and a member of the Directors Guild of America]. It's ok. I'll just keep talking."
Luke: "Where did she go?"
Ilene: "She'll be back. You can interview her later."
Luke: "I'll tell her I'm writing a book about new female members of the DGA."
Ilene: "I answered a job to temp. I figured I'd try to teach again in the fall. I was dating. I was all over the place. Then my mother died. I was floundering. I got a job as a receptionist for the producers of Wild Kingdom. It was the only network show produced in Chicago.
"I was locked in this little room down the hall and people said hello to me. I saw Marlon Perkins and Jim Fowler. I got paid $400 a month. I learned about film there. I almost got fired because I was never at my desk. I was hanging out in the editing room. I was there for a couple of years and then I quit because I wanted to go skiing with my then boyfriend and they wouldn't give me the time off.
"I went skiing. I broke up with my boyfriend. I came back and I had no job. I thought about going to France to study film at the Sorbonne but I met my second husband (Terry Kahn, his second marriage), while temping for an industrial film company.
"We fell in love. We married [for 16 years and two boys Jeremy and Adam]. He was a writer with a Ph.D. in English Literature. He imported me to LA. I had a child right away. We started our own industrial film company, the Terry Kahn Organization. Our first production was about the bringing of the London bridge to Lake Havasu.
"I returned to my oil painting. I had a studio in Venice. I sold my paintings. We lived in our little home in Benedict Canyon, Beverly Hills. Our kids go to private school. We closed our company. Terry wanted to be a fulltime screenwriter.
"I didn't know where I could get a job. I wrote a story based on a friend of mine. You know how fools rush in where angels fear to tread. I'm not a writer but I had an idea for a story."
Ilene catches my eyes wandering over her condo.
Ilene: "Did you see Susan again?"
Luke: "Oh no. I can't even see her."
Ilene: "She had to hide from you so you wouldn't be distracted.
"I fictionalized a story about my friend, about a single woman who wants to have a child but can never get it together with a man, and opts for artificial insemination. She has this child, and from the child's characteristics, she starts to imagine who the father might be. She falls in love with the father through the attributes of the kid and goes on a search for the donor.
"At that time, single girls couldn't get inseminated."
My eyes wander again. I drain my ice water.
Ilene: "Isn't she great? She's adorable. She's very fit. She does lots of yoga."
Luke: "Yeah, she's fit. She could beat me up."
Ilene: "And she rock climbs and climbs mountains."
Luke: "She wields that computer mouse with grace."
Ilene: "Through somebody I knew, I got an interview at CBS. I pitched my story and they bought it. Then I was a producer with a producing deal but I needed a writer and a production company.
"It's the greatest thing if you sell your story to the network then if you sell it first to a production company. Every door in town opened up to me from that one little story. It never got made but it got sold twice.
"Through it I met Freyda Rothstein at Time-Life Films, who was looking for a development executive. She took a chance on me and became my mentor and friend. It's hard for a producer of commercials to transition to films. It's like a doctor changing his specialty.
"I went into the initial interview with Freyda thinking, 'I don't want this job because I will be a glorified reader.' I didn't even know how much money to ask for. She said she didn't know if she could afford me. How much salary did I want? And thinking I was going to price myself out of the job, I said "$35,000.' She said, "I'll pay you $40,000." She had $60,000 in her budget.
"It was a wonderful one year that we spent together. We made two movies. I got my name on movies. Then Time-Life Films went out of business. It was 1982. We'd heard that HBO was starting a movie division and there was an opening for the director of made-for-pay motion pictures.
"Everybody laughed at the concept of cable companies making movies. Anybody who read the trades at that time would skip over the cable portion.
"I eventually interviewed with Michael Fuchs. I put on my best non-funky outfit. I put on a chic long Navy outfit. I walk in. I had a great interview. He liked that I had a good education.
"That began a ten-year stint. I oversaw 60 films. It was an amazing earn-as-you-learn opportunity. Michael was a great leader. He threw us into the pit. It was an opportunity to do something great without censorship and commercials.
"I traveled so much. My marriage dissolved. This was a startup industry. There were few of us in the division. It was hard to have two young children and constantly traveling. I had a wonderful housekeeper from Mexico. My husband was writing. I lost a lot of time with my children.
"When you're an executive, you get so burned out. It becomes so consuming of your life.
"We have a fraternity around the world of ex-HBO people. It was an amazing time. Anybody who wasn't in it felt left out, including our spouses. It became more than a job. At first, I treated my job as a performance piece. To think that I would be sitting on the 41st floor of a huge office [in Century City] being a major corporate executive for a major corporation. Here I am, a former radical working for Time Inc.
"We went from not even being eligible for the Emmys to winning for Best Picture five years in a row.
"After ten years of doing that, I felt that I didn't want to climb the corporate ladder. I'm a producer. I was able to turn my job into a producing job for HBO. My first movie, which I started as an executive and then became the producer, was Stalin. I went to Russia with Mark Carliner and Robert Duvall in 1991.
"Mark developed it. I rewrote it. I was sent in as the HBO producer. It was hard for Mark at first to have another producer insinuated into the mix. We got on well. I knew how to handle the difficult and byzantine culture that was HBO.
"It was HBO's biggest production at $10 million. It was going to be a four hour production but we ripped out World War II and made it two-and-a-half hours.
"We were location scouting in Russia in 1991 when the coup [deposing Gorbachev] happened. We were staying at the apparatchiks hotel. We saw them plotting the coup. The next day Yeltsin was standing outside our hotel on the tanks and HBO said, 'Get out of there.' We went back home.
"Originally, Anthony Hopkins wanted to play Joseph Stalin but Michael Fuchs loved Robert Duvall. We offered Robert Duvall Lenin, because he looked more like Lenin, but he said no. 'I really want to play the monster.'
"Duvall was worried about the makeup. We had to age him from 38 to his death. Duvall was 60 years old at the time. It was hard to make him look in his 30s. We couldn't get our first choice for makeup. We had to create our prosthetics. We had trouble fitting them.
"We shot the film chronologically. Bobby Duvall is in every scene. We had our first difficult week of shooting in Budapest, Hungary. Bobby sees the dailies. We were staying in a hotel in Budapest. We come down around 5PM to the lobby. I see Bobby and his assistant Brad get out of the taxi. I say hello to them. Bobby looks at me, and in front of everybody, he yells, 'Fuck you, you cunt. Fuck HBO. Fuck, fuck, fuck.' He was so mad about how he looked in the makeup that he blamed me and HBO.
"This is my first week on my own as an independent producer. Everybody doesn't know where to look. Brad pushes him into the elevator.
"I was in shock. I had to be the Queen of England at that moment and not completely dissolve. I went up to my room and burst into tears. I thought, 'Ohmigod, I am going to get fired. The movie will collapse.' I talked to Brad, who said, 'Bobby is not coming to the set tomorrow unless you agree to reshoot days four, five and six.'
"I knew that you can never give any actor that kind of power. They are brilliant children. I asked for a meeting. Bobby refused to come. I got Brad, the director and Mark Carliner to meet. We agreed that we were all on the same side. We will cut the sequences together and if we collectively think we need to reshoot anything, we are open to it. But he cannot say he's not coming to the set. If he is not coming, then we're shutting down production. He's in breach of contract and everybody's going home.
"Brad calls to say that Bob will show up on set.
"I cry and cry in my room. Bob Cooper calls me back. Bob said, 'Ilene, you did the right thing. I checked Duvall out. While he's a passionate guy, he's a pro and he'll definitely show up.'
"From then on, Bobby and I got on well.
"It was my complete baptism as a producer. We shot in all the actual locations. The last day of our shoot was in Stalin's last datcha [home]. We didn't even have to bring in any props. It was Stalin's birthday, December 31, 1991. If Stalin could see us now... We shot the last scene. We wrapped. I brought in 2000 McDonalds hamburgers and Baskin & Robbins icecream, the embodiment of American capitalism. It was the night they changed the flag on the Kremlin. I walked in Red Square. We shared the Emmy for Best Film with Barbarians at the Gate."
Luke: "Did you have to pay off local mafias?"
Ilene: "Let's put it this way. We carried $50,000 cash. You couldn't transfer money through banks. We worked with a company owned by Nikita McKailkoff. He's Andre Konchalofsky's brother. He's considered a national treasure. We used his goods and services company. We used his employees. We paid them and they made everything happen.
"We had KGB guys who were just losing their jobs and were on our payroll. For $20, you could get into Lenin's apartment, which is where we shot. It was a never-to-be-repeated time filled with excitement and adventure."
Luke: "How do you make a film about such a loathsome character as Stalin?"
Ilene: "You can learn from villains. We grappled with how to tell the story. There still hasn't been a good story about Hitler because he's such an icon of evil. The cause of Stalin's monsterdom is unknowable. He was born with a club foot. His father beat him. That doesn't make you off 40 million people.
"What Stalin so chilling was to see somebody who looked like a warm papa... We chose to tell it like the Russian godfather. We told a more intimate story. It was more affordable and better suited for the small screen. Stalin ate his own. He made his best friend kill himself. He was paranoid. We think he had a form of dementia. He had no moral sentiment. He had a vision of a cult of Stalin. He was able to effect the imprisonment of tens of millions of people.
"Producer Mark Carliner was a Russian scholar. And his son Rob speaks Russian."
Luke: "Gia is an other depressing story."
Ilene: "I sold it to Bob Cooper at HBO as the dark side of modeling. He told me he'd do it if I could come up with a true story. Around that time, there was an excerpt of a book in Vanity Fair [The Thing of Beauty: The Tragic Story of Gia]. Our head of publicity brought the book to my attention.
"We couldn't get the book. It was under option to Gene Kirkwood at Paramount. I asked him if he wanted to team up on the HBO project. He said no. [It's yet to be made.]
"I decided to go my own way. I hired a researcher. I found out everything I could about Gia that was in other places aside from the book. We couldn't get the mother's rights. She was in cahoots with [Kirkwood]. I hired journalist and screenwriter Jay McInerny. I made strategic deals with four people who would corroborate everything about her. A guy who loved her but never slept with her because she was gay. Janice Dickinson, a top model who knew Gia. Another model who knew her. And the makeup artist Sandy Winter who had the affair with Gia.
"Sandy was straight and is straight now. She said that Gia wooed her. Those scenes of Gia with the makeup artist come straight from Sandy's memories of her.
"Gia was a beautiful junkie who was completely undone by the beauty business and her mother leaving her.
"A documentary was made about Gia. It's received wonderful reviews. She's become a cult. Our movie launched Angelina Jolie as a star."
I snagged this biography of Kahn from her website www.music4film.com: Emmy award winning producer Ilene Kahn Power was Executive Producer on GIA, HBO's story of the tragic supermodel with Angelina Jolie in her first star making role. Mercedes Ruehl, and Faye Dunaway also starred in the film which was written by 'Bright Lights, Big City' author Jay MacInerney and co-written and directed by Michael Cristofer. The film received six Emmy nominations and won two Golden Globe Awards including Outstanding Motion Picture For Television, as well as both the Directors Guild and The Writers Guild Awards.
Kahn Power was also nominated for the Producers Guild Golden Laurel Award as Outstanding Producer of the Year for her work on the film. Kahn Power is currently producing a feature musical based on John Gay's 'Beggars Opera' with director Bronwen Hughes ('Forces of Nature') and 'Sexy Beast' writers Louis Mellis and David Scinto. Upcoming projects include 'N' starring Sir Ben Kingsley to commence production via Infinity Entertainment in early 2003.
Kahn Power was instrumental in the startup of HBO Pictures. In l993 she left her executive post to form her own company, KAHN POWER PICTURES, and she produced the award winning STALIN for HBO in Moscow. Starring Robert Duvall and Julia Ormand, the film received three Golden Globe Awards as well as three CableACE Awards, and was nominated for ten Emmy Awards, of which it won four, including Outstanding Motion Picture For Television.
In her ten years as Vice President of HBO Pictures, Kahn Power supervised the development and production of over sixty films. Among these were the award-winning JOSEPHINE BAKER STORY, starring Lynn Whitfield and Lou Gossett, Jr., and MURDERERS AMONG US: THE SIMON WIESENTHAL STORY, starring Sir Ben Kingsley. Both films were directed by Brian Gibson. SOMEBODY HAS TO SHOOT THE PICTURES, starring Roy Scheider, directed by Frank Pierson; LONG GONE starring William Peterson and Virginia Madsen, directed by Martin Davidson; THE IMAGE, starring Albert Finney and Kathy Baker, introducing Brad Pitt, directed by Peter Werner; and MANDELA starring Danny Glover and Alfre Woodard, were all films initiated and supervised by Kahn Power.
In l996 Kahn Power produced three films: ROSWELL, starring Kyle Maclachlan and Martin Sheen and directed by Jeremy Paul Kagan for Showtime and Polygram, WHITE MILE directed by Bob Butler, starring Alan Alda, Peter Gallagher and Robert Loggia for HBO; and FATHERLAND, directed by Chris Menaul, starring Rutger Hauer and Miranda Richardson for HBO.
In l997 Kahn Power had the distinction of being the only producer in history to have three out of five films nominated as Best Motion Picture for Television for the Golden Globe Awards. In l996 Ilene Kahn was consulting producer on SOUL OF THE GAME, also on HBO, and starring Delroy Lindo, Mykeleti Williamson and Blair Underwood, directed by Kevin Rodney Sullivan. In December of l997 Kahn Power was Executive Producer on BUFFALO SOLDIERS, starring Danny Glover for Turner Network Television which received three Emmy nominations.
In 2001, Kahn Power produced THEY CALL ME SIRR for Showtime, starring Michael Clarke Duncan, written and directed by Robert Munic. From 1993-1997 she was a consultant to Cabin Fever Entertainment in the acquisition, development and production of independent theatrical films.
A native of Chicago, she is a graduate of Northwestern University and holds an MFA degree from the Art Institute of Chicago. She has two sons, Jeremy and Adam, and resides in Los Angeles with her husband, personal manager Derek Power, with whom she is partnered in Kahn Power Pictures.