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The Basketball Diaries

I sat down with producer John Bard Manulis (The Basketball Diaries) at his Foundation Entertainment office in Culver City, January 31, 2002.

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 [1997], 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 [1993] 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 [1993] 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 [1986]. 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 [2001] 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."