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Producer Judith James

I sat down with Richard Dreyfuss's feature producing partner Judith James at her office in West Hollywood January 14, 2002. In her 50s, she's tall, silver-haired and full of energy.

We discussed Wayne Wang's movie Center of the World, which James liked. "It's only got one pornographic moment with the lollipop scene. It was an honest examination of the American psyche with regards to its sexual life. For Europeans, sex is a simple function of life. For Americans, it is veiled and secret and hidden and more exciting because it is not permitted."

Luke: "What are your moral obligations as a movie producer?"

Judith: "Whatever your own moral obligations are. I wouldn't set down any standards for the industry but I am appalled by some things that happen. Having produced a film in which there is violence [Trigger Happy], it will sound weird for me to say this, but I do think there are people who should look themselves in the mirror. Censorship is way too complicated but I do get surprised at people's ability to forget what their mothers taught them when they were growing up. It's like once they walk in the door in Hollywood, all bets are off and they can do anything they want."

Luke: "Is it more profitable to make immoral films rather than moral films?"

Judith: "I don't think so. I do worry that there is a fear that if you aren't outlandish, you won't make money. I think distributors sometimes say this is a soft money and it probably won't do as well so we won't push it as hard."

Luke: "I wonder how much transgressiveness is done primarily to grab the attention of one's peers?"

Judith: "Read the trades [Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety] six month late. Whew! Unbelievable, the fuss and announcements done for the attention of one's peers."

Luke: "Most of the projects announced in the trades are never made."

Judith: "If you hear of a new source of money, get to them because they are not going to be there long. A movie will go through five or six castings before it is finally cast. But they'll announce every damn one. I'll read the trades for three months and then not read them for three months... I try not to read them at all but then you lose touch with what's going on with people you know."

Luke: "Is there a common thread through your movies?"

Judith: "The common thread is what interests the producer or what he thinks he can make money on. What interests Richard and me is what is the project saying? It's hard to make money doing that. There's so much stuff you want to open a window on. 'Did you see THAT?' It sounds like I'm being educative but it can also be commercial."

Luke: "Many of your films have a moral."

Judith: "Yes. It's hard to withstand the criticism. 'Oh wow, then, it must not be entertaining.' You have to not think about that."

Luke: "How did you come to partner up with Richard Dreyfuss?"

Judith: "I was the co-head of the Film and Television Department experiment at the Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles's regional theater company. It wasn't a good marriage. You take the nonprofit regional theater with the for-profit film and television industry and I had to spend money before we got paid and that scared them.

"Richard was working at the Taper a lot because he'd suffered a setback with a drug arrest. He's a smart man and he knew he needed to sit down and rethink who he was and what he was doing. And he was doing a lot of workshops. We liked the same authors, we had the same politics [left-wing]. We bought [film rights to] a book together. The bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution was coming around and we had said to each other that it was possible to do something commercial about the Constitution. Why does it always have to be relegated to PBS which Richard and I and 17 other people would watch?

"We put together a one-hour special for ABC TV called Funny, You Don't Look 200 and went on from there."

Luke: "Tell me about 1995's Mr. Holland's Opus."

Judith: "Bob Court, who was head of the production company Interscope, which was distributed by Disney, sent over the script in 1993. I read it and I called him to say it was a Richard project, and it was about something. It's just what an audience wants from Richard. Audiences want something from their stars. They expect comedy from Richard or if not comedy, they want him to be a doctor, lawyer or teacher. He's got an inherent intelligence in his face. I always kid him about the number of people I do business with who all want to have lunch with Richard Dreyfuss. They just imagine themselves to be a friend of Richard's. The warts on the character were interesting. He wasn't a namby pamby character.

"To play the part, Richard had to learn music, how to conduct, and how to do sign language. So I worked on the script, casting and everything leading up to the shoot.

"In the final product, we had to cut 25 minutes. It was a difficult film for the studio to market because they perceived it as too soft while test audiences were giving it phenomenal reviews. But newspaper editors and those assigning reviewers said it was sentimental drivel. Not until we pushed until we were blue in the face did the film begin to pick up steam. It got dropped out of the Thanksgiving, 1995 release and not put out until March 1996 [aside from a brief one week run at two theaters in late 1995 to qualify for Oscar nominations].

"There are greed aspects to the studio system that approach evil but the everyday business of what studios do is just a bunch of human beings just trying to get a film out... Who says that something wonderful can't also be commercial? Who patented this word soft?"

Luke: "After seeing the trailer to Mr. Holland's Opus, you have no desire to see the film, because you've already seen the highlights of the film."

Judith: "You could say that about any trailer over the past five years. They suck the life out of a movie. Try to get that changed? We had another trailer cut. But their evidence is that people come to the movie. Shine had a bad trailer and it overcame that."

Luke: "Tell me about 1994's Quiz Show."

Judith: "Dick Goodwin [the Jewish House investigator who uncovers the scandal] gave us his book. He was unrehearsed in the ways to move in Hollywood. It wasn't a book that appeared to be a movie. It was years of his life in politics. The quiz show scandal was one chapter. At one time, Dick thought Richard could play the part [of Goodwin]. Richard and I said the book was great and could become a movie but Richard can't play the part. The character is fifteen years younger than Richard, just starting out.

"It took director Barry Levinson 11 months to read the book because he was doing another film. Dick Goodwin kept wondering why he couldn't read the book more quickly. When Barry finally read it, he said absolutely this is a movie and I want to write it. Then Barry decided he couldn't write it. He and his partner Mark Johnson produced it. And finally Paul Attanasio wrote it. And Robert Redford came on board to direct it. The script had a problem - the TV audience today is more cynical and less likely to be shocked by the fixing of quiz shows.

"Quiz Show got a lot of attention in the circles in which we travel - New York intelligencia and the media. People who read the New York Times and care deeply about our country. But it wasn't a major commercial success.

"It's become an old story that when people accept their Academy Award, they say, 'It took us ten years to get this movie done.' The fastest movie [Trigger Happy] I ever did was seven months from the time we decided to do it to production. And we had to raise over five million from 27 different territories. But if you talked to the writer-director of that, it did take him seven years to get it done."

Luke: "Quiz Show took a hammering over historical accuracy."

Judith: "No, it did not take a hammering over historical accuracy. The Quiz Show's facts and conventional wisdom coincide. There people who say that is not how it happened, Herbie Stemple being one. There are people who were annoyed by the central position of Richard Goodwin but it was his story. It was from his perspective."

Critic Edwin Jahiel writes: "For dramatic purposes the film compresses a period of three years into one, makes many changes, takes liberties and adds inventions. For the exceptionally fine script, writer Paul Attanasio, the former film critic of the Washington Post, has declared that Redford wanted "a detective story," so that modifications, suspense and surprises were woven in. But they are artfully done, the details in the step by step development of the story -- even if you know its outcome -- are engrossing, and the whole thing rings true throughout. Whether or not the movie's liberties are themselves a form of cheating for fame and fortune or acceptable creative-artistic license is not an easy question to answer."

Read more on the Charles Van Doren and the scandal here.

Judith: "There ended up being 13 producers on the Quiz Show. Producing also got split up on Kissinger and Nixon. Walter Isaacson's book was sent to me and I thought it could be a movie. I was asked if Richard was interested in playing Kissinger. I knew it would interest him way more than playing the Richard Goodwin part in Quiz Show.

"We got the money to make the movie. Then I thought, if Richard and I do a movie on Kissinger, and we're left of left politically, we can be vulnerable to criticism that we're going after Kissinger. Richard and I have a strong friendship with Lionel Chetwynd, known as one of the few vocal Republicans in the entertainment community. There are a lot of Republicans in Hollywood despite what people say. If you include studio executives, I'd say the breakdown was 70-30 Democrat/Republican. The discussion would have you believe that it is 95-5. What is rare is for someone in the ranks of people who write and direct admitting that they are Republican. Lionel is able to speak intelligently on why the Republican position is a valid choice. He is a joy and a worthy debater. He, Richard and I have had some wonderful discussions.

"So I went to Lionel and asked him to join us. We discussed just a couple of chapters from the book (just before and after Nixon got elected the second time) because you have to select, you can't float around. Right now I'm looking at Edmund Morris's book Theodore Rex. And I'm beginning to get a handle on what the film might be based on. Richard has always wanted to do Teddy Roosevelt. We've had several different projects with different takes on his life.

"Richard finally decided he wouldn't play Kissinger. People said, 'Thank you Judy for developing a good script but if you can't deliver Richard, goodbye.' This was a project that almost broke my heart. I felt that I understood that movie better than [eventual producer] Daniel Blatt. I have nothing against Dan Blatt except that he was there and not me. He's a good line producer [production manager].

"I liked how the movie turned out except for the use of prosthetics. They stood in the way of the audience and broke the audience's acceptance of the piece. They were always looking at the wrinkles and the nose. I think they should've just had us accept the two actors."

Judith says Walter Isaacson was able to substantiate allegations in his book about Kissinger that Henry threatened to sue over. And that the script wasn't changed to avoid a suit from Kissinger, as Dan Blatt told me last week.

Judith: "There were a couple of scenes that determined how you looked at the next scene that were cut. But there's no scandal here. Lionel tweaked the book. He removed some language from the book"

Luke: "Didn't you lose a scene of Kissinger secretly taping?"

Judith: "My recollection is that it was removed because it wasn't needed."

Luke: "Did you ever make a movie about Winnie Mandela?"

Judith: "No, I owned, for ten years, the rights to her life story. Camille Cosby [Bill's wife] and I bought them from her. She's a difficult person. We bought the rights from her four years before Nelson Mandela got out of prison. She was an entirely different person then. I'm a much greater supporter of hers than 92% of the people in the United States. I defy any person in this world to stand up to what she stood up to and not go crazy. She went nuts and she has not come back from the other side completely but she's a great woman. Her story is a Shakespearian tragedy.

"We got money from NBC to do a mini-series. We sent writer Emily Mann to South Africa two years before Nelson got out. Then HBO did a movie on Nelson. But we were doing it from Winnie's point of view. It ended with her, a little drunk, refused entry to her home in Soweto. She punched a white cop and scared the shit out of all the cops. And she said, 'I'm going home and you're not going to stop me.' And she did walk into Soweto. And that was six months before Nelson got out. Then she became so blind and so badly thought of, before the football episodes."

From ABC TV's show Nightline 11/25/97: "This week, something called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up a year and a half ago to review the abuses of the apartheid era, is hearing charges against Winnie Madikizela- Mandela, the ex-wife of President Nelson Mandela. There have been accusations for years that while her husband was in prison Mrs. Mandela led a group of thugs who terrorized other blacks. She was even convicted of kidnapping. Mrs. Mandela called for public hearings to clear her name. But so far they have hardly done that. Witnesses have accused her of torture and murder, even said today that Mrs. Mandela wielded a weapon herself. As ABC's Jim Wooten reports, a woman who was once an icon for black South Africans and who still has political ambitions may now be fighting to stay out of prison."

Judith: "It wasn't two months after Nelson got out of jail, that they were closing Winnie Mandela out of every single meeting of the ANC (African National Congress). She had run it for years and kept the idea of Nelson alive. She had an inherent sense of what to do to call attention to herself. She got noisy and difficult and he divorced her. When she was down, there may have been drugs, there was a lot of drinking, and they say there were a lot of young men, particularly around the 'football' episodes.

"Did we have trouble with her? Yes. Did we find that she tried to sell the rights to her life two and three times? Yes. But she has a great story and people should hear about it. There's a little imp in me that says, 'You don't want to hear it? Fuck you, I'm going to tell it to you anyway.'

"The writer of our play and 1999 TV movie, Having Our Say, Emily Mann, was the writer we hired to do the Winnie Mandella story. Emily is a close friend. I was at her house, driving up to see my mother who had Alzheimers. Emily's sister is a book agent and had sent Emily the book. I picked it up, read the back cover, and asked to borrow it. I read it at a truck stop between New Jersey and Massachusetts and got on the phone calling agents. In between the lines of these two old ladies talking to each was the history of the last 100 years of this country. It was so colloquially done and so important...

"Sadie was dignified and quiet and believed you could find a way without confronting. And Bessie was a confronter. And the two of them were not the black urban bullshit myth about black people. Their father was a slave until he was seven years old. They were two of ten kids. Nine of the ten graduated from college through determination and saving their pennies. They were lawyers, doctors, teachers and dentists.

"The book was being bid upon as a mini-series: they lived and they didn't die."

Luke: "What's wrong with a mini-series?"

Judith: "American mini-series tend to be biopics."

Luke: "So?"

Judith: "Why do you want to tell their stories? The book was about what these 101 and 103-year old women thought about the world. It was not about what they had gone through. What the project needed was the personality of Bessie and Sadie.

"I called my close friend Camille Cosby and she'd read the book the week before. So we decided to do it together.

"I come from a theater background. You think about movies as magical. To me, commercials are magical. Movies are linear. Plays are magical. You can go into people's minds in a way you don't do as a movie. So Camille, Emily and I thought about doing it first as a play."

Luke: "You can do more interior monologue in a play."

Judith: "Of course. You can do a one-man play. You could never do that as a movie or you'd end up with My Dinner With Andre, and how many of those can you do? You are in the internal with a play, which is a lot closer to a book. The problems of going from a book to a film are difficult. Have you seen A Beautiful Mind? Why did Nash do what he did is better approached in books.

"In our play, we had two women chatting with each other and a third person. And Emily made the audience the third person and welcomed them in for tea... And we never flash-backed on stage. When we did it as a movie for CBS, we had to flash back. We had two offers to do it as a low budget film. We talked to many people and looked at statistics. Movies on a black theme had become more common and were relegated to a certain audience and a certain distribution pattern. And we weren't going to reach as many people on film as by television."

Luke: "Why did you switch from producing plays to producing movies?"

Judith: "I came out to Los Angeles in 1967 with a play that was going on Broadway and I met a man. Billy James was in rockn'roll, A&R at Columbia. We married in 1969. I felt that I was finished with Broadway. The role of examining ourselves through the theatrical medium has gone out to the regional theaters. Broadway has become an aspect of the Chamber of Commerce in New York City. And it needs to do either musical comedy or the internal community promotable plays.

"You can't produce theater well in Los Angeles because everyone in it is looking for a job in film. The actors are not giving their all, the directors are dabbling..."