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I interview Lewis Chesler of Chesler-Perlmutter Productions at his office in Westwood on July 9, 2002.
It's a hot day and his secretary wears shorts. Lewis wears pants and a white undershirt. He moves his hands constantly during our interview, continually rearranging his hair and desk. Sometimes his voice falls to a whisper.
Chesler/Perlmutter received a glowing profile by Variety 6/30/02: Canada's most persevering indie production duo, Chesler/Perlmutter, has stepped up the tempo -- and they're making it happen without the aid of handouts from federal funder Telefilm Canada. The Canuck agency is desperate to convince Canadian producers to make more commercial pics. But Chesler/Perlmutter Prods. is already successfully cranking-out market-driven pics and TV projects, all financed sans Telefilm coin.
Lewis Chesler and David Perlmutter...are masters of the complex co-production, a type of financing on which Canadian producers were relying long before it came into vogue everywhere else.
Now almost everything Chesler/Perlmutter does is a CO-production, usually with Euro producers.
"Since I first went to Europe in the early '80s, I've steered the sensibility of our projects toward the ambiguous and the morally complicated," Chesler says.
Chesler's early breakthrough, "Hitchhiker," the cult HBO series, utilized some exotic Euro auteurs and established a signature off-center tone a decade before "The X-Files" appeared. Perlmutter was originally an accountant who got into the film biz during the boom years of tax-shelter financing in the 1970s, and he has helped put together the financing for Chesler's projects for more than 20 years. The pair founded Chesler/Perlmutter in 1990.
Lewis tells me: "I was a Cultural History major at Amherst College in Massachusetts. I was interested in literature. I found fiction to have a more vivid truth than nonfiction.
"After college, I joined the Peace Corp and went to Venezuela for two years."
Luke: "You were like a Mormon missionary."
Lewis smiles: "No. I was there making friends for America. It was a different era. I was a child of the sixties. It was a romantic time and I was there supposedly to promote universal fraternity and brotherhood. Really I was stoned out of my mind for two years (1968-70).
"After school, I thought I might go into broadcasting but I found after working in the medium that it was reductive, dogmatic and propagandistic. I was then drawn to producing works of dramatic fiction and stories of imagination.
"Now, even speculative fiction, has become didactic. Stories have become tendentious and moralistic. They are not filled with contradiction and they are not allowed to be messy complicated or interior. They are forced by market demands to be simplistic, formulaic and one dimensional.
"After Venezuela, I came back to New York and I started working in the performing arts as a producer and administrator. I had a girlfriend who was a dancer. I fell in love with her. I eventually lost her but I kept the love of the dance. I ran several modern dance and ballet companies. At the time, it was a fast growing entertainment form (it's since lost its appeal). I still love dance. I think it's the purest art form there is. It's simply the body as idea.
"I recognized that you couldn't make a living working in the performing arts because there is no support for the arts in America.
"I then went to work in the mass media. Entertainment is a serendipitous business. Through a series of random events, I came to the West Coast and became a theatrical producer of spectacle entertainment like theater, rodeo and rockn'roll shows. I became the artistic director of the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center.
"In 1979, I lost that job because of funding cutbacks (Proposition 13). I was stranded here in LA. I looked around for work.
"At the Center, I'd created a theatrical event televised on HBO. I'd met television producer Riff Markowitz who I'd introduced to an executive at Home Box Office, Michael Fuchs, who subsequently became the chairman of HBO.
"Through our joint relationship with Michael, Riff and I became one of the leading independent producers for pay television. We made a lot of event programming for HBO like concerts (Crystal Gale), one-man shows starring great performance artists and comedians like George Burns and Red Skelton (who taught me that great clowns are not about making us laugh but about breaking our hearts)...
"Network television was strictly hierarchical then. It was hard to gain entry unless you'd started at an agency or studio or network and worked your way up. Because cable was an emerging industry, it allowed you lateral entry. I went to Michael Fuchs and said that I wanted to do drama. I created an anthological concept (The Hitchhiker) inspired by The Twilight Zone and the court metrage (European notion of small films).
"HBO was then chiefly a purveyor of film, not conventional television programming. We discovered that the creative license of pay television allowed us to produce these shows like features with creative licenses not available in standard network television. We used a European flavor with a more graphic visual presentation. We had more license with language and provocative ideas.
"This made the programming distinct and and a value to HBO, which was trying to sell itself as a premium service. HBO wanted the audience to understand that they were getting something of value for their subscription."
Luke: "I remember in high school people were talking about it because it had a lot of nudity."
Lewis: "I wanted to deal with emotion, sexuality and psycho-erotic ideas in a way that no other American mass medium allowed you to do. Sexuality is a fundamental part of the dramatic conflict. In the 1960s and early '70s, it was a part of American filmmaking but since then American film has become chaste. Even suspense has been removed from storytelling. American films are star driven. Because you have to protect the longevity and the heroic value of the star, you know that Julia or Tom is going to be all right. So what's the point of seeing the movie? Once you have invested so much in personage, there's no investment in story.
"The Hitchhiker was also distinct because it was done as a Canadian-French coproduction. It was a progenitor of the possibility of globalization. I've long been a fan of European cinema. I used directors like Paul Verhoven, Philip Noyce, Roger Vadim and Wayne Wang who'd rarely worked in North America and never in television. HBO was not a signatory to the Directors Guild of America at the time. I became the definitive expert on Eastern European and South Pacific directors. They in turn brought in feature talent like Klaus Kinski, Gary Busey, Willem DeFoe, Karen Black and Peter Coyote.
"European television at the time was state-run television. It was rudimentary.
"The last 25 30-minute episodes of The Hitchhiker were made in Paris.
"There's a tradition in Europe of the small movie. That's what we were making. NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff took note of The Hitchhiker. He was one of the few people in Los Angeles with a satellite dish. HBO did not have penetration into Los Angeles then.
"Brandon solicited me. Through his largesse, I went to MGM for seven years where I created and produced mainstream television programming."
Luke: "You've made a ton of stuff over the past three years, most prolific."
Lewis laughs: "Until today we were. It is getting more difficult. The fragmentation of the market. The collapse of the world economy. The collapse of the broadcast market in places like Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK."
Luke: "There was a glowing article about you in Variety a week ago."
Lewis: "Yeah. I hope it is not my obituary. There have been some cataclysmic changes in the multimedia business."
Luke: "How do the sinking stock prices of companies like Vivendi, AOL etc affect you?"
Lewis: "Those are the distribution streams we sell to. Now they are taking their cash and not spending it on content but on keeping their own companies afloat. It's all changing and at such exponential rates. Fifteen independent distributors have gone out of business in the last 12 months. And I'm a company dependent on those kind of distribution companies."
Luke: "How much time do you spend in LA a year?"
Lewis: "As little as possible, because the more time I spend in LA, the more time that I am not working. I like to supervise production. I've just returned from six months in Paris where we shot Tempo for Canal Plus. I usually spend about three months a year in LA."
Luke: "Are you married?"
Lewis: "I was in a long term relationship."
Luke: "That must be hell on your relationships."
Lewis: "It's hard. Is this a personal interview or a professional interview? I've been a gypsy for 20 years. I love the excitement of it. I love to experience new things. I love the interchange with creative people. We're crazy. This is a community of misfits. We live on the marginal edges of reality or too directly in the center."
Luke: "How much fraternity do you have with your fellow producers?"
Lewis: "I rarely see them."
Luke: "What is the filmmaker's moral responsibility to society?"
Lewis: "To subvert. I would make any film [regardless of moral concerns]. Artists are not supposed to be good citizens. It's not their work. They must challenge the system, not reinforce it. American studio films reinforce preconceived notions of behavior."
Luke: "Have you ever read a script and thought, 'This is too immoral for me to make.'"
Lewis: "No. Immoral is not a word I use as a judgment.
"There's no point to humor unless it wounds."
Luke: "What are some of the taboos you've run into?"
Lewis: "You couldn't do a movie now about pedophilia. It's part of the human condition and you should be able to do a film about it so that people can make their own judgment on it."
Luke: "What did you think of American Beauty?"
Lewis: "I thought American Pie was better."
Luke: "It doesn't seem that the projects you work on live up to the ethos you espouse?"
Lewis: "It's hard because the market compromises everything you do."
Luke: "Which producers do you admire?"
Lewis: "I think the Weinstein brothers are the most interesting American producers and entrepreneurs."
Luke: "Why is your industry so afraid of themes dealing with organized religion?"
Lewis: "Many things are taboo - politics, religion... Many things can not sustain legitimate discourse in American life. We're not an introspective culture."
Luke: "What's the most desperate thing you've ever had to do to get a film made?"
Lewis thinks. "In comparison to the truly desperate things that some people have to do to survive, I haven't had to do anything desperate. Mostly what you have to do to get films made is lie."
Luke: "How do you handle bad reviews?"
Lewis: "Nothing bothers me. I have no character. I don't get that invested. As my former partner used to say, 'At the end, it's just a TV show, not a religious crusade.' I've always separated myself from the produce of my labors."
Chesler is a founder of The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and is on the board of numerous ballet and modern dance companies.
I did a follow-up interview with Lewis on July 19, 2002. He still wears a white singlet.
Lewis: "I fear that I may have made my last movie. So if this interview is going to be my epitaph, I have some things to say about the industry."
Luke: "Why so dour?"
Lewis: "The independent movie business has collapsed. With the concentrations of the big media companies, with the nature of the changing viewing patterns of the public, it may never come back. I hate to be dire. There have just been many sea changes in viewer interest, demand, taste, satisfaction levels and cultural changes in notions of originality and authenticity versus the lack of need for them. Those things are no longer valued.
"This is prevalent not just in popular culture, but was first introduced in high art, where authenticity was no longer valued. The aping of means of mass reproduction, with people like Warhol, became valued. Warhol did it in an ironic fashion. His was a critique that had value and originality but in the 40 years since Warhol, it has overwhelmed us. This has impacted on story telling and people's response to story and the values they look for in story. Stories are no longer sequential, linear, interior, contradictory or original. The audience wants some level of reassurance that formula and engineered response provides them.
"There was a review today of K-19 by Kenneth Turan that said the film was fundamentally undermined by the fact that it was so predictable in its key moments, in comparison to the definitive submarine piece of Das Boot.
"There are a number of factors that mitigate quality work. We're an ahistoric culture. There's a despotism of the present. We're a reductive culture. Everything is reduced to compressed, simple, intense ideas. I think that's the influence of advertising and the exponential growth of information. The only way to take in all this information is to compress it. Unfortunately, we've lost essential information in the process.
"We've lost the deliberation of information and knowledge. The kind of knowledge we receive does not permit us reflection. There is no contemplation any longer. There's certainly no contemplation in popular art, film or television. There's not only an intellectual change in the way we perceive things, but thanks to the introduction of the computer, there's a sensory change in the way we receive information. We're no longer a linear, sequential, chronological culture. We're now a random binary culture. Thanks to video games and music videos, our narrative structure has been altered significantly.
"Why we can't deal with other kinds of information is of interest to me. American culture defends itself against pain and suffering and history, loss, death and ultimately life. We're a death-denying culture. We're a life-denying culture. We're a sex-denying culture. This is a residue of the fact that we're fundamentally a Protestant culture and therefore we're a culture that is sexually guilty and bodily shameful."
I stare at notes Lewis has made to himself and wonder what language they are written in. They appear Cyrilic.
Lewis: "There is no willingness in America to deal with dark intent. We had artists who did - Edgar Alan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mailer - but they don't speak any longer to the culture. American life has been homogenized and sanitized. We're the residue of an English culture. Remember the E.M. Forster comment about the English not being disposed to accepting human nature.
"I think that most of it has to do with sexual guilt. I have always felt there's a relationship between sexual repression and the violence that is so endemic to American culture. One part of American's fascination with horror and violence is that horror and violence is basically sexual projection and sexual repression. If there was a greater genuine sexual permissiveness, we would be less violent. The moralistic self-righteous critics of American culture say there is too much permissiveness. I find it to be a coy permissiveness. It's manufactured. It doesn't allow the genuineness, the pain, the raggedness of real emotion and therefore sexuality.
"Our notions of beauty have become artificial. The constructed, the manufactured, the augmented breast, is now what is perceived as the ideal. The human, the regular, the slightly misformed is repressed and denied. This is a residue of the Protestantism of the American culture. One of the premises of that paradigm was grace through good works and purification and that we be an insistently self-improving culture. This process of self amelioration denies and attempts to cleanse human nature, which I think is impossible.
"It's not unlike when Marquis De Sade wrote."
Luke: "Is he a good guy in your eyes?"
Lewis: "Oh no."
Luke: "He seems to be the opposite of everything you've decried."
Lewis: "The point of Sade was to critique the utopian hope of the Enlightenment. He wanted to subvert or challenge the investment in reason and science as salvation by saying that not withstanding the progress in those areas, man was still ruled by fundamentally bestial, aggressive, and libidinal impulses."
Luke: "What did you think of the movie Quills?"
Lewis: "I didn't like it. It was too flamboyant and theatrical. I like the French version of Sade. I'm not an expert on Sade. I only read him because he turned me on as an adolescent.
"The other principle, by the way, that we deny in our culture is the principle of pleasure. Even our popular culture doesn't give us pleasure. It gives us engineered sensation but not genuine pleasure the way a great work of art should. It should be erotic, tactile..."
Luke: "I don't get why you didn't love American Beauty because it glorifies the homosexual couple, portrays everyone else as screwed up..."
Lewis: "I thought the targets were easy."
Luke: "But they're all the targets you just named."
Lewis: "But I thought it was too easy. It wasn't wounding enough. It wasn't scabrous enough. It didn't truly pierce to the heart of anything. It presented it all with a sitcom irony. These are things that have been addressed by other ironists and satirists in American culture in a deeper way."
Luke: "Who has pierced through and been scabrous enough?"
Lewis: "I like the black artists."
Luke: "Spike Lee. Clockers."
Lewis: "Yes. Chris Rock. Richard Pryor."
Luke: "Quentin Tarantino?"
Lewis: "Yes and no. He's more about form. He's more of an aesthete than a social critic. His art is about art. His filmmaking is about filmmaking, which is ok. Art is self referential and a lot of art has become about the process of art.
"The reason I think I am citing some of the black artists is because the outsider has nothing to lose. They can have the courage to be most damaging. When Roseanne did her best work, because she was fundamentally an unattractive woman in the conventional sense, she was so audacious and honest in her pain, that I thought, even in the context of a sitcom, there was real humor in what she did.
"It's been almost impossible for [true artists] to work [within the system] in the last 10-15 years because the economic forces of the market are so overwhelming."
Luke: "Are there some pornographers that you find piercing and scabrous enough?"
Lewis: "Not that I know of... I've watched it randomly but I wouldn't know anybody specifically.
"I also like the lyrical and the tender. I don't think that's present in a lot of American work either. That's a result of a desensitization of feeling. We've become feeling less. We are not permitted to be vulnerable. That is some kind of a warding off or a defense against some of the notions I've talked about.
"You asked me about morality. I think that's a religious or social term. The point of art is to engage taboo not to recede from it."
Luke: "What did you think of photographer Robert Maplethorpe?"
Lewis: "He was an aesthete. He forces us to deal with issues of gender, sexuality and politics, which is where art went. Everything in recent art has been seen through the prism of identity. This sometimes ignores our common humanity. We are all searching for the same thing - love, affirmation, and intimacy. I don't care what social or political group you come from. I say that so much of American work has become didactic and propagandistic because it focuses more on social-political association and connection then it does on human need. There should be no censoring the human heart."
Luke: "So who are the guys in town who are fighting this good fight?"
Lewis: "I don't think anybody is. I can't cite a commercial film that was moving or valuable. I think there are films made by North Americans that have tremendous energy of form, style and skill. But I don't care about the sophistication of film. When special effects come on, I close my eyes. I was never interested in cinema as a kinetic art. I've always treated film as pictorial literature, and maybe that's not fair to film. Maybe film is its own thing and I should look for the qualities that I want in film in literature. "I remember films
"I remember films of greater depth, complexity and beauty or even greater commercial energy. I just watched Training Day and I don't know how to comment on it when I compare it to a film like French Connection.
"Training Day was completely manipulative. It was so posed that every frame was a tableau. There didn't seem to be any arc to the cinema let alone to the character or the story. There didn't seem to be any truth. I didn't believe a single moment.
"Maybe everything has been said. Maybe there are no more stories to be told."
Luke: "Could you get any darker and more pessimistic?"
Lewis laughs. "You're young. There are guys who preceded me who said this.
"I once read a quote by Jean Luc Godard. It said that anytime that anything good is successful, it must be the result of a misunderstanding. I said, how wry, how clever, how sardonic. Then I was reading an exchange of letters between Heinrich Mann and his brother Thomas in which he says that anytime that if anything good is successful, it must be the result of a misunderstanding. I said, wait, Jean Luc Godard plagiarized. And he was one of my cultural idols.
"But after I thought for a second, I said, 'But of course. That's exactly what he was about. Appropriation. Godard's work was always about deconstruction and appropriation."
Luke: "So what great loss did you suffer that made you so cynical?"
Lewis: "I've always had a forlorn view of life."
Luke: "It doesn't go any deeper?"
Lewis: "What else is there? For Citizen Kane, it was his sled Rosebud. For Proust, it was his tea cookies. Ultimately, it's all irony and pathos."
Luke: "It doesn't have to be. Why do you want to choose that?"
Lewis: "Because I don't know how else to treat the world."
Luke: "That's it. Secular life is so reductive that if you are intelligent, there's no alternative but the dark view."
Lewis: "Faith. I can't partake in it. I might find some transcendence through art."
Luke: "You have no hope."
Lewis: "I can always hope for an increase in my Master Charge line."
Luke: "Why do you get get up every morning and keep doing this?"
Lewis: "Because of pleasure. I have pleasure in experience and learning. You should learn something new every day. Life is a matter of wasting time."
Luke: "When was the last time you were starstruck?"
Lewis: "I was never starstruck. I've never had a hero."