'My history seems to be that I hook up with a company, bankrupt them, and then move on.'
"My history seems to be that I hook up with a company, bankrupt them, and then move on. I never deliberately do this. I bankrupted Sandy once or twice. I got hired by Bob Shaye at New Line and made one of the Nightmare on Elm Streets. I thought they were about to go bankrupt, so I hopped over to DEG (De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, everybody in the '80 was an entertainment group) before I drove another company to extinction. And what do I do? I bankrupt DEG. Then I went to Cannon and bankrupted them. Then I worked with MCEG and bankrupted them. I did this horrible movie called Boris and Natasha. That was MCEG's last gasp. I don't think they ever made another movie. I don't think DEG ever made another movie after Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure .
"Then I stopped bankrupting other people's companies and came close to bankrupting my own when I started Neo Arts & Logic in 1989. But we've held together for 12 years now. We've tottered a couple of times. People suggested that I call my company 7/11 Productions because I'm always considering which bankruptcy option to take.
"I'm holding on with Miramax now. I haven't bankrupted them yet. I gave them an off year or two. But I think I've turned the corner."
Producer Joel Soisson is my most amusing interview yet. We spoke at his office on Beverly Blvd April 11, 2002.
Joel: "For many low budget producers, the process of filmmaking becomes more important than the result. For them, a film is a sexy thing until you finish it. Then it's like yesterday's hooker. They don't even want to think about it. I can never be that way. I can't divorce myself from the agony of living and dying with a movie.
"Producer Lynda Obst says the only word that a producer should know is 'Next.' I find that something to aspire to.
"I'm locked into making low budget movies that are not meant to be permanent. They are not meant to be revisited at in ten years. They are not meant to be paragons of art or social commentary. They are just meant to entertain somebody for 90-minutes and then they go on about their day.
"You grow old making these things and blow out your health... I want to evolve into that kind of producer who can just enjoy the process. The deal. I hate the deal. I despise the deal. I'm the reluctant producer. I came to the job through the backdoor."
Luke: "Tell me about your childhood."
Joel: "It's that typical Cleveland, Ohio story. And I'm sure you've heard it from all the Cleveland filmmakers [Luke only knows one - Mathew Rhodes].
"I came late to the film bug. My father was a commercial and fine artist. I would have become a fine artist had I been convinced that I could be as good as him. I went to an art institute in New York where I was exposed to film as animation for the first time. I thought, 'Wow, this is cool. You can make drawings that move. I can smoke the old man. He's never done this shit.'
"I came out here in 1979 to make cartoons. I went to USC and then AFI (American Film Institute). Five colleges in all. I didn't graduate from any of them.
"We [Neo Art & Logic] have a little digital effects studio that's the last remnant of my artistic pretensions. I can go back and weigh in on 3-D animation, matte paintings, etc...
"I hopped around schools because I never found what I was looking for, aside from a sense of community and making contacts. The only way you learn is by picking up a camera and doing it. At school, I found everything was too theoretical."
Luke: "Your first credit was for writing and associate producing Hambone and Hillie."
Joel: "I worked for Sandy Howard, who was in the Roger Corman mold of: 'Screw the film, just get another one made. If it doesn't work, just make sure you have two more in the hopper.' By the time I left him, he was drafting his 12-14 Plan, which was to make 12-14 pictures, any pictures, a year. Just get them ground out. We had a slow year in my last year there. In 1986, we only made six films.
"With Hambone and Hillie, Sandy said, 'We need to do a family movie. Let's get a dog. Everybody loves dogs. We haven't done a dog movie.' I was a camera assistant at the time, on the verge of getting fired. So I knew that this was my chance to get another month of employment. I pitched him this dog idea. He said 'Write it up.' So I became a producer-writer. In those chaotic days, you did everything. And as long as you were willing not to get paid for anything, you were like gold. It didn't matter if you had talent as long as you had initiative.
"This was about a dog who went from New York to LA. Because I was new, they only let me take the dog from New York to Philadelphia. Other writers took him the rest of the way, without any idea of what I had done. Sandy wanted to put his stamp on it. So he wrote the last leg where the dog got involved in a gang rape. I said, 'I thought we were setting out to do a family film.' He said, 'Yeah, but we still need drama.' I thought, 'Well, this man is pushing the envelope. I'm impressed.'
"I got to write the part where O.J. Simpson picks the dog off the turnpike and drives him a ways. They're sitting there motoring along. It was in the days where dogs didn't talk. And O.J. was lamenting that he was a lonely trucker. His wife ran off with another guy. Thinking back, it's precious.
"I told an interviewer from the LA Weekly that the movie premiered on a TWA flight to China. I believe so because that's the only record I have of it being screened anywhere. A friend of mine flying to China saw it. Then I got this horrible letter back from Sandy saying that real producers don't denigrate their own work. He gave me that rule, which I have since broken at every chance. I've got a kiddie movie with a gang rape [rated PG] and I'm thinking, 'Thank God it premiered on a flight to China.'"
Luke: "Did anyone jump out of the plane?"
Joel: "I don't know but I'm sure it opened up a whole new world for the Chinese view of American culture.
"By the way, the dog didn't participate in the gang rape. He was a little dog so all he could do was nip at the heels of the assailants."
Luke: "What was Sandy's company called?"
Joel: "Many independent companies during the 1980s, including Sandy's, went bankrupt for a year and then came back under a new name. He had Sandy Howard International, Howard International, Sandy Howard Productions, Republic Pictures... If you stumble five times, you can go quiet for six months and then come back with big new fanfare. 'New astounding international company has a 12-picture slate for next month.' That's a salesmanship that I don't see as much anymore."
Luke: "It sounds like Menahem Golam and Yoram Globus of Cannon Pictures."
Joel: "Showmen. I worked with those guys for a while. I remember one time I went to Cannes and they had this big poster selling, 'Mitchum, Wayne, Taylor.' And it was Chris Mitchum, David Wayne, John Taylor. Those guys would do anything. And they're all cheap.
"I got involved after Menahem and Yoram split up and had this holy war against each other. Yoram Globus was my guy. Yoram was more the producer/financial side and Menahem was more of the creative guy.
"I got involved at the time of the Lambada dance craze. I had gone to Cannon Pictures from Dino De Laurentiis after making Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. Dino had phoned up his pal [Giancarlo] Paretti. [Fortune magazine article] And we got a call, my partner Michael Murphey and I, to head up the new Cannon Pictures. We were totally jazzed to run a studio. We get there and meet with Chris Pearce, Yoram's backroom manipulating guy.
"We asked, 'So, what do we do?' Chris said, 'I'm not sure yet. There's another guy who wants to run the studio with you.' He sent us down to the script library to see if there was anything we wanted to make into a movie. Something to kill time.
"We come back up after lunch. Chris said, 'We'll figure this all out later. Just go down and get your ID cards so you can get a parking pass.' And I am so passive on these things. I say ok. So I went down and the screening guy asked for my title. I said, 'Story Department.' That got me the Lambada job.
"They had this new dance wave coming. They didn't have a script. So they gave me this old script that had nothing to do with dancing about a math teacher in East LA. 'Just put some dancing in it. Make it the Lambada. I don't care if you know how to dance or not. Just say, whenever they dance, that it is the Lambada. Just put a sexy girl in there and lets go. We've got to beat Menahem. They're shooting now.' They wanted to totally destroy the other guy's company.
Writes a critic on Imdb.com: "This film [The Forbidden Dance] that was hastily made to cash in on the short-lived 1990 Lambada craze is entertaining, to a point. Don't expect great dancing or a great film; this is basically an exploitation flick, what with those scenes of the Brazilian princess, who is trying to enter a national dance contest in the U.S. No, see it for nostalgia's sake, and because one of the things that makes this film entertaining is all the corny dialogue. Not only the Lambada, but also the save-the-rainforests subplot, were timely topics in 1990; remember just how hip an issue ecology was in 1990?"
As for Lambada. a poster on Imdb.com writes: "J. Eddie Peck smolders as Kevin Laird, a high school math teacher who lives in 2 worlds, the Beverly Hills school where he teaches and the east LA world where he came from. Delicious to watch, the dance scenes with the pulsing sexual undercurrents showcase J. Eddy Peck's attributes beautifully as does a voyeuristic butt shot as he writes on the blackboard in front of his Beverly Hills class. The classic themes are all here: there are no bad kids they're just misunderstood (West Side Story), we have more in common that we have differences, acceptance of diversity, you can't judge a book by it's cover. This movie will entertain, it has music, dancing, competition, overcoming obstacles, family values and a happy ending. Great date movie."
Joel: "The two versions came out a week apart. One had something like a two week post. The other had a three week post. Both were awful movies. The box office on ours was $1100 per screen [not good]. But Yoram was triumphant because it was $200 more per screen than Menahem's made. It didn't matter that they were both abject failures. It was that we won. I just realized that so much of this business is all about ego."
Luke: "How long did you last at Cannon?"
Joel: "My history seems to be that I hook up with a company, bankrupt them, and then move on. I never deliberately do this. I bankrupted Sandy once or twice. I got hired by Bob Shaye at New Line and made one of the Nightmare on Elm Streets. I thought they were about to go bankrupt, so I hopped over to DEG (De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, everybody in the '80 was an entertainment group) before I drove another company to extinction. And what do I do? I bankrupt DEG. Then I went to Cannon and bankrupted them. Then I worked with MCEG and bankrupted them. I did this horrible movie called Boris and Natasha. That was MCEG's last gasp. I don't think they ever made another movie. I don't think DEG ever made another movie after Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.
"Then I stopped bankrupting other people's companies and came close to bankrupting my own when I started Neo Motion Pictures Arts & Logic in 1989 (later became Neo Art & Logic). But we've held together for 12 years now. We've tottered a couple of times. People suggested that I call my company 7/11 Productions because I'm always considering which bankruptcy option to take.
"I'm holding on at Miramax now. I haven't bankrupted them yet. I gave them an off year or two. But I think I've turned the corner."
Luke: "Do you think it is because you're working with your own money."
Joel: "Partially. But we still do things with other people's money, like Dimension Films."
Luke: "Is it your free spending ways?"
Joel: "Exactly the opposite. I'm the tightest. I'm cheap to a fault."
Luke: "Are you Jewish?"
Joel: "No. But I've learned enough that sooner or later, I am going to join the [Jewish] faith. I think it is only fair.
"It is physically impossible for me to squander money.
"I have made some turkeys in my career. But what has really done all these companies in is hubris. They have made far too many movies and sold too many rights away. The whole '80s was about overextension and greed. They'd make these giant monolithic companies with huge overheads, making movies that were completely antithetical to their original vision. Cannon was making an over the top $30 million Stallone turkey Over the Top. These companies suddenly want to be A list. It's an ego thing.
"Being successful making $3-5 million movies only gets you so far and then you need more gratification. In one year, Dino was making huge movies that were all $30 million out and one million in. The irony of my career is that the most successful movie I ever made bankrupted Dino. Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure . We made the movie for about $10 million and Dino sold it for a million because he thought it was a turkey. He didn't even test it. Orion picked it up and it tested through the roof. And it was a huge box office success. I don't know that I can shoulder all the blame for these bankruptcies. I just find it peculiar that I am attached to so many of them.
"Bill and Ted can be accused of stupefying the world but it contributed to the American idiom. When the president spoke about his excellent adventure... It's an ego thing to make a movie that has actual cultural impact, even if it is negative, you go, 'That is so cool.' A friend of mine in distribution informed me that the movie tanked in your home country of Australia.
"I've had a good clean run for the past 12 years. I've forged a reputation for being commercially viable. My last unsuccessful movie was Phantoms, 1998. Miramax was on a roll that year, so it didn't affect the balance sheet too badly. But I was in the doghouse for a year on that one.
"You never anticipate failure. You go into every movie thinking it will be a $100 million blockbuster. You have to think that way to work your ass off. You don't set off to make a bad movie.
"What's allowed me to survive some of my stumblings is that I've always behaved responsibly. During the 1980s, a lot of people were spending money wildly and blowing it up their nose, and the cars, and the lifestyle and all the trappings... That's what it was all about for them. And they had no respect for what they were given to do.
"When tax shelters fell away, and video [sales] fell away in the early '90s, it made what I do [independent films] really risky. That's why for much of the '90s, I found myself making films for less than I did in the early '80s. It took me awhile to get back to making a $3 million movie. That's one of the glories of working with [Bob Weinstein's] Dimension Films. They are one of the few companies willing to gamble in that $3-10 million zone. That's the gray area between a typical direct-to-video movie and a theatrical level production. Being owned by Disney, they have Buena Vista underneath them. Buena Vista is one of the few video distribution companies that can put out video product and make money on it. You can buy Buena Vista videos."
Luke: "You make a lot of sequels."
Joel: "There's a chapter in William Goldman's last book entitled, 'Sequels equals whores' movies.' Because there's nothing original about them. It's about money over passion. You're working a concept until nobody will pay you anymore. I don't think any producer in history has done as many sequels as I have."
Luke: "Does that mean that you are the biggest..."
Joel: "Whore in history. I think I should say it before you did it. I have made a concerted effort to start focusing on original material."
Luke: "You sound like a whore who goes to church."
Joel: "And I do have a heart of gold. In my defense, because I'm not sure that you will come to my defense... It is so hard to make movies in this industry. And it is even harder to make new or good movies. It is very hard to close the door when someone is pushing through a bag full of money to make a movie. So yes, guilty as charged.
"And it is not like I am running laughing to the bank. These movies are like ripples on water. Their budgets get smaller and smaller. They're pretty much invisible to the rest of the world but we still see them and that little chunk of change left to make them. And we still even care. We have never set out to make a bad movie. Honest. How they come bad, I haven't figured that out yet.
"And we've never set out, as many producers have, to go: 'They'll never know. It's just a box with shrinkwrap on it. If they open it up, that's not out responsibility. Our responsibility is getting it off the shelf.' Those are what they called in the '80s the poster movies. The box movies. Forget the script and the movie, get that art work. Get that picture on the cover of that cute chick with the gun. Even though we've been asked to do that. 'Nobody's going to care. They're buying the picture on the box. The roman numeral.'
"That's what we call sequels - roman numeral movies. It gives it more of a gothic feel."
Luke: "What are the Weinstein brothers like?"
Joel: "You must have heard many stories about them over the years but they are nothing if not unpredictable. They'll blow up at the slightest things. But I've done scenes that came out hideous, or a movie that was a big disappointment, and when things are at their worst, when you want to jump off a high bridge, they are the most gracious guys on earth. They'll tear you down, but they'll never let you fall. Even when they are on one of their tirades, I know that it is just energy dissipation directed at the world.
"Harvey Weinstein fired me off a show [Mothers Boy] in the mid '90s when I was supposed to be a supervised hitman for Miramax. I was supposed to shake down the production and get it back on track. I didn't do a good job and I got fired. After I got hired to make movies for Dimension, I used to avoid Harvey in the hallways in case he said, 'What's that guy I just fired doing back in my building?'
"Miramax has the art house mantel and Dimension the genre popcorn movies like Spy Kids, Scream, Dracula. The adage in the industry is that Harvey scarfs up all the statutes and Bob makes the money. And yet Miramax is always considered the bigger."
Luke: "Do you get a lot of beautiful women throwing themselves at you to be in movies?"
Joel: "Daily. That's why I have a casting couch here. No, again I am an anomaly. I've been happily married and living with the same woman since 1981. That whole thing has never been part of the game for me. I'd like to think that is because I have dignity and scruples. But a case could be made that nobody thinks that I have enough juice that I am worth sleeping with. I think I was flirted with in 1988 but it may have been a mistake in communications.
"You should interview this guy Don Phillips. He works with us. He's the most fascinating man I've ever known. He produced Melvin & Howard. He cast Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Dazed and Confused. He's the antithesis of me. He is Hollywood Babylon on wheels. Or was. He's a good boy now."
Don Phillips walks in the room.
Joel: "I don't know how I could've interviewed that any better. This guy is the good, bad and the ugly of Hollywood."
Luke to Don: "Do you have a card?"
Joel: "We don't do that."
Don: "Quick story. I got off the plane in Tel Aviv to prep a movie. I've got long hair. I get off the plane and the first thing that happens to me is that they point two Uzis at me and ask me to put my hands up. My friends look the other way. They take me to this tent and ask me why I am in Israel. I say it is to scout locations. They say, 'Well, do you have a card?' I said, 'No, we don't do cards.'
"They said, 'You don't have a card? You can't be in the business.' This went on for about 15 minutes. And the only reason they let me go is that I had just produced a movie called Melvin & Howard. It won some Oscars. And I was donating something to the Cinematec [large Tel Aviv film assocation]. And I had a letter from this great agent Lucy Collins. She represented Carl Sandberg. And she'd written a letter to Teddy Kollek, the mayor of Jerusalem."