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The Contender

Marc Frydman produced 1993's Boiling Point, 1994's Star Gate, 1995's Murder in the First, 1997's Nil by Mouth, 1999's Kimberly, 1999's Deterrence, 2000's The Contender, 2001's The Search For John Gissing and 2001's Scenes of the Crime.

In September, 2002, he should become the first Frenchman to produce a show airing on American network television - a yet to be named ABC political drama directed by Rod Lurie.

"It's about what's going on in the capitol. If the West Wing is about a bunch of good guys doing the right thing, we're a bunch of bad guys doing the wrong thing. We have one good character, who's pure. The rest is horsetrading and blackmail and shakedowns. It's funny. It's a drama with a lot of comedic twists. It's not a lecture."

Luke: "Is it slanted liberal?"

Marc: "I would be dishonest to say it is right in the middle. I think there will always will a liberal slant to it because that is what we are. We met in Washington with all the top guys. [House Democractic leader] Dick Gephardt has a different personality from Trent Lott [Senate leader of the minority Republican party].

"I've known actor Gary Oldman for ten years. We've been friends. I made a movie in which he starred [1995's Murder in the First]. I produced his directorial debut, 1997's Nil by Mouth. We went to Cannes together when Nil was an official selection. And with The Contender, it unravelled."

For more on how the movie was allegedly edited to make partisan points for the Democrats, see this fascinating article in Premiere magazine:

"Little did anyone on the set know that this raw nerve was an early sign of what would become a postproduction battle, with distributor DreamWorks and Lurie on one side, and Oldman and his man ager–producing partner, Douglas Urbanski, on the other. What had once been an amusing irony—that The Contender, a rare politically charged drama with obvious Oscar potential, was being made by the conservative-leaning Oldman and Urbanski in partnership with the self-proclaimed “die-hard liberal” Lurie—became the seed of a struggle that involved allegations of breach of contract and the charge that the film’s true spirit had been sold out by its director."

Luke: "Does he hate you for what happened?"

Marc: "I don't think he hates me. I'm not happy with the way he behaved. I think much of it came from his entourage. I don't think he's totally his own man. He once was divorced... The relationship between Gary, his producing partner Douglas Urbanski, me and Rod Lurie became heated. It was not that way on the set. And then when we sold the movie to Dreamworks, that's when things got really bad. Gary wanted his character to be more like the good guy. And we liked the movie the way it was. Dreamworks [strong supporter of the Democratic Party] asked us to trim the movie. We had two meetings with Steven Spieldberg in the cutting room that were benign.

"From the moment Urbanski saw the movie, they were not happy with the cut. When you have such a deep disagreement, you are not going to resolve it. I was happy with how the movie turned out. The writing was good. The movie delivered. The reviews were good. The domestic box office was fine and it did even better overseas. We had great actors [Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges, Christian Slater, Oldman] but no movie stars. Jeff Bridges and Gary Oldman are bigger stars overseas than in America. It was difficult subject matter. Like The Big Lebowski, the movie has grown in stature since its theatrical release. In some countries, it made more money than Titanic. It's a cult movie. If we did Contender 2, we'd probably make more money.

"Rod Lurie's first movie, Deterrence, was low budget. It was more like a calling card for Rod so that he could convince big investors that he could direct. He wrote the script. He also wrote and directed a 22-minute short movie before that called Four Second Delay. It's about a radio talkshow host who invites Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward (played by Rigg Kennedy) to come on his show. And the host tries to get Woodward to reveal the identity of his Deep Throat Watergate source. One of the callers says he's holding hostages that he will kill one by one unless Woodward identifies his source.

"We met Woodward in Washington D.C. a few weeks ago and showed him the film.

"We're thinking of doing a feature verson of the film, like [Oliver Stone's] Talk Radio.

"Rod was a movie critic for Los Angeles magazine and he hosted a radio show on KABC. I met him in 1994, when he had a class and was showing Murder in the First. He loved the movie. He gave us a screenplay called Pork Chop, which I thought was brilliant but extremely violent. And we couldn't put it together. I told him to write something small and contained. And that was Deterrence. It's about a president of the United States stuck in a diner during a snowstorm while campaigning. And while he's stuck, he must deal with a nuclear threat made by Iraq without his normal staff and means of operation.

"It's difficult to do a one-location movie because you have no way to tell time passage. We sold the movie to Paramount and then Rod wrote The Contender. I went to my normal sources for independent financing. I didn't want to depend on studios.

"The original budget for Star Gate was $30 million and we ended up at $55 million. It wasn't budgeted properly. I knew something was wrong when we built a set in Yuma, Arizona that was bigger than the production company's building on Sunset Blvd. We'd been mislead by production designers. I was green. I knew that I liked the screenplay and I knew I had the financing. We cast it well. But nobody trusted the movie. It had a smell of disaster. MGM, which distributed it, told us that our $55 million movie was going to make $5 million opening weekend. So go and hide because it's going to be a disaster. So Roland Emmerich, the director, and Dean Devlin, the writer, and I went to hide as instructed. They called us Friday night to say we're at $8 million already. So we came back to town. We did $17 million that weekend and ended up at $70 domestic box office with huge ancillary sales and a TV show after that."

Luke: "Were you guys involved in the TV show?"

Marc: "No because we hated the take on it that MGM took. At the time, our relationship with MGM was so damaged. They were not supportive of the movie and then they became big credit grabbers when the movie performed. Roland and Dean were hurt by how they had been treated by the studio. They hated MGM. The head of marketing at MGM then was Albert Nimzicki and he became the villain in Independance Day [1996]. They hated him. MGM called Roland and Dean hacks. So they felt totally abandoned. And when their movie performed, MGM came to them and said, 'Let's do our next movie.' And they laughed. 'Are you kidding? Do you think we have such a short memory?' And they made a killer deal for Independance Day which became one of the top grossers of all time, close to $900 million theatrically. MGM could've had this movie if they had behaved properly. Even if you don't trust a movie, don't openly despise it."

Luke: "Have all your films made money?"

Marc: "Yes, because of my low budget approach."

Frydman worked in French television from 1982-1992 before moving to Los Angeles to make movies.

"Nil by Mouth was a strange movie based on Gary's personal life as a poor boy in a lowlife district of London. It's about his childhood memories."

Luke: "That movie was painful to watch."

Marc: "Yes. Gary didn't want to compromise on anything in that movie. He did it the way he wanted. It was primarily by Luc Besson because he wanted Gary to be in [1997's] The Fifth Element. Gary said, ok, but instead of paying me, pay for my [four million dollar] movie."

Luke: "Did it make any money?"

Marc: "No. It's a tough movie. It's a well crafted movie but it is not aimed at any kind of audience. Gary did the movie more for himself than anything else. We all knew that."

Luke: "It was a tough film to watch."

Marc: "I don't know why anyone would want to. I didn't want to watch it."

Luke: "Why couldn't you get your unauthorized Janis Joplin off the ground?"

Marc: "It took us a long time to secure the music rights. We had to buy the music and the words. It was a case by case detangling of a very complicated situation. We competed with other [authorized] projects. There was an unbelievable bidding war for the music. At the end of the day, we figured we couldn't do the movie we wanted. The [1979] movie The Rose [loosely based on Janis Joplin] didn't have any of Joplin's music. We were going to end up with that kind of situation.

"When you cumulate the bidding rights to her music, that it was a period piece, and the difficulty of the concert scenes, the budget became prohibitive. Our lead actress was supposed to be Melissa Etheridge who lost interest. I spent three years on the project."

From the Hollywood Reporter 1/4/99:

Meanwhile, the competing film, put together by producer Marc Frydman and director Marc Rocco, was attracting interest all over Hollywood. Frydman tied up rights to the National Book Award nominee "Buried Alive: The Biography of Janis Joplin," by Joplin's close friend Myra Friedman, who handled the singer's media relations; a script by rock video director Julie Cypher; and, as the star, singer Melissa Etheridge (who happens to be Cypher's girlfriend). Significantly, Frydman also acquired the rights to "Piece of My Heart," at a reported cost of $1.1 million.

The project, with $35 million budget, was then taken to Paramount-based Lakeshore Entertainment, which brought in a different director, Stephen Gyllenhaal ("Home Grown"). Then came script rewrites. And then a third director, Gary Fleder ("Kiss the Girls"). After an evidently disappointing Etheridge screen test, there was also a new star search. The role has yet to be cast.

Luke: "You must be growing tired of bio-pics. I know you've pursued for years a movie about the Binion family in Las Vegas who own the Binion's Horseshoe casino. What are your odds of doing this movie?" See The Fall of the Temple of Chance: Benny Binion’s Legacy. Ted Binion's murder.

Marc: "Zero."

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

Marc: "They're mainly true-story or issue-oriented. I find contemporary American history fascinating, from Watergate on.

"Rod Lurie is the first movie critic turned director in America. The closest example of Peter Bogdanovich who was not a critic but an essayist about movies. In France, all the big directors used to be critics. A lot of people told me I was crazy producing a movie for a critic turned director. Critic - director roles have nothing to do with each other. I was not so antagonistic because I came from a different background."

Luke: "European filmmakers don't seem to make films that people want to see as much as American films?"

Marc: "Yes."

Luke: "What's your critique of the European film industry, particularly the French one?"

Marc: "I wouldn't know where to start. I think it is a disaster. The movie industry in Europe has been decimated. The French system is under subsidy, on IV, and artificially protected."

Luke: "They're making films for themselves."

Marc: "Last year there was a big turnaround in France with a big budget special-effects driven... It's coming out this week and will probably be the biggest movie yet released in France.

"I think the problem with French film goes back to the auteur idea, that the director is like the author. He creates the movie and is all powerful. But movies are different from books. They are much more expensive. You can't afford to have authorship status and be in your own world without regard for what the audience wants to see. That's why they need subsidies. If Americans knew about the system, they'd laugh at it. It's like if the U.S. government would pay for 50% of every movie made regardless of how it performs. Now that Canal Plus became Vivendi and now has bought Universal and the chairman of the company has acquired clout. He's saying, enough of the French system as we knew it. I think things will change.

"Most of the money to make French movies comes from TV. And all those guys who called themselves auteurs, they are basically now in the paw of TV. TV executives now decide on cast and story. The French directors who think differently, like Luc Besson, come to America. He would never accept the French system. He rolled up his sleeves and came here."