Producer Michael Phillips Still Eats Lunch In This Town
Producer Michael Phillips (The Sting, Taxi Driver, Close Encounters) is tall, trim and balding. Born June 29, 1943, he stays in shape through regular practice of yoga.
We talk at his Beverly Hills office February 13, 2002.
Luke: "I was raised in a religious community. I didn't see a movie in a theater until I was 16. Raiders of the Lost Ark."
Michael: "You should talk to Paul Schrader. He was also raised religiously [Calvinist]. He didn't see his first movie until he was 18."
Luke: "Was there any movie that most influenced you as a child?"
Michael: "The Day The Earth Stood Still ."
An alien lands and tells the people of Earth that we must live peacefully or be destroyed as a danger to other planets.
Michael: "I lived in Brooklyn. And they had double features with about ten cartoons for 25c. I used to go every week and I was a big science fiction fan. When I saw The Day The Earth Stood Still, I stayed in the theater all day and watched it three times in a row. It profoundly affected me in terms of the possibilities of us not being alone in the universe. It was a great opportunity [25 years later] to work with Steven Spielberg on the same subject [Close Encounters of the Third Kind].
"My family moved to Long Island at the end of fourth grade. I went to public school. I was an all-round goody guy and not tremendously deep. I played sports. I was obsessed with basketball and baseball. I wanted to be center fielder for the New York Yankees. I went to Dartmouth college where I met my late ex-wife Julia who went to Mount Holyoke. We went together our Junior year and broke up.
"A year or so later, I was in NYU Law School and we saw each other again and got married. She worked in publishing and then in the story editing department for the movie business. I worked for two years as an analyst on Wall Street. We were both unhappy and we decided it would be nice to work together.
"Julia met Tony Bill in 1970. We became friends with Tony and his wife. Tony thought there was opportunity for fledgling producers to come to Hollywood and get into business with film school graduates who at that time were not taken seriously. We put our life savings into this venture. The Phillips family contributed $2500 and the Bill family $1000. We started to read scripts and look for ideas.
"Tony sent us a tape of a verbal presentation of an idea that a film student (David S. Ward) brought to him - a movie about con men. David had an infectious laugh and had a fascinating story he'd worked out but he wouldn't tell us the ending. We asked to see his writing and he showed us his graduate film school thesis Steelyard Blues. We gave him $3500 for an option on Steelyard Blues and told him to go write The Sting.
"Two weeks later, we had two studios want to make Steelyard Blues. Tony Bill's agent was Mike Medavoy, the second youngest agent at CMA. Jeff Berg was the youngest. Mike had one known client - Donald Sutherland. So through the chainlink effect, Mike sent Steelyard Blues to Donald Sutherland who was living with Jane Fonda. The previous year, Donald and Jane had made Klute, for which she won an Academy Award.
"Steelyard Blues was an antiestablishment unconventional script. I have a strong sense that part of the reason that Steelyard Blues was given the go-ahead was timing. The right package at the right time. As a young producer, it looked easy. You optioned a script and two weeks later you had a deal.
"We made a deal with Warner Brothers in February, 1972. I quit my job. We rushed into production in June, 1972, because Jane had a window in her schedule. We didn't know what we were doing. Jane had insisted that the director be Alan Myerson, who directed Jane and Donald on their antiwar shows they were giving on army bases.
"Alan was not an experienced film director. We started production with first-time director, producers, cameraman, writer, art director, down the list. Only one person knew what he was doing - our production manager and associate producer Howard Schneider. He got drunk with power because he knew what he was doing and we didn't.
"It was an incredible learning experience. You learn more from a failure than you do from a success. We delivered the film and the studio didn't know what to make of it. So they did something unusual. They gave us our own print and our editing equipment and told us to play with it. It was against union rules and everything. We cut and recut and learned where the mistakes were. What pieces we were missing.
"The film came out and did no business. The one thing good about it is a wonderful performance by Peter Boyle."
Luke: "Tell me about The Sting."
Michael: "David delivered The Sting script just as Steelyard Blues was ready to go out. And The Sting was such a wonderful piece of writing, such a joy to read, that we had a lot of competition among studios for it. We went with Universal because Dick Zanuck and David Brown had been the studio executives at Warner Brothers who had treated well on Steelyard Blues. This was before they emerged as major producers.
"The Sting came together with a chainlink effect. It reunited director George Roy Hill, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, just like Steelyard Blues reunited Fonda and Sutherland. Sometimes if you get one person, it opens the door to bringing in others.
"The part of Henry Gondorff, eventually played by Paul Newman, was written for Peter Boyle. The character was a fat slob, over the hill. The antithesis of Paul Newman. After George Roy Hill and Robert Redford came on board, Newman and Hill had been friends since Butch Cassidy. George sent Paul a copy of The Sting. Paul called up and said he wanted to be in it. George said sorry, Redford is already doing Johnny Hooker. Paul said, no, I want to be Gondorff. So we had to reinvision the character and now we can't imagine it any other way."
Luke: "At age 29, you're dealing with the biggest people in Hollywood."
Michael: "My first day on the set of The Sting, meeting Paul Newman, I was so nervous I could barely talk. I didn't know how to be a producer. We never got used to being around him. I was on the set every day while Julia was responsible for the release of Steelyard Blues.
"I see George Roy Hill as my mentor. It was a back lot picture, shot on the soundstages of Universal. Everything was carefully prepared, the antithesis of the Steelyard Blues experience. You could see in the dailies that we were doing something wonderful. Yes, I did dream that it was going to win an Academy Award.
"We had first cast Richard Boone to play the part of Doyle Lonnegan. Richard was signed and he panicked and he became unreachable by phone. He wouldn't return George Roy Hill's calls. He wouldn't return Lew Wasserman's calls. He hid out in Florida. Ultimately they had to send him a notice that we're assuming you're bailing out. It was close to production and it was panicky for us. We were lucky to get Robert Shaw, who tore a tendon two weeks before shooting. So that link that the character has is real."
Luke: "Do you remember the 1974 Academy Awards in a similar way to the way Julia described them in her book You'll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again?"
Michael: "I don't remember what she said about it."
Luke: "It seemed like an endless cascade of drugs she was doing."
Michael: "No. I remember it was us versus The Exorcist. Both had 11 nominations. Universal made us share a limo with David Ward and his wife. I remember hearing early awards. The difference in the applause when we won awards and when they won awards. As the night rolled on, and we knew that we were likely to win, it just got scary.
"We went to Mexico the next day. We hopped a plane and got away from all the pressure, anxiety and craziness."
Luke: "How was your life changed by winning the Best Picture Oscar?"
Michael: "It's wasted on the young. You don't have the proper perspective on how lucky you are. A. To even make a movie that turns out well is a miracle. And B. To come up in a year where you can win. The Exorcist is a great film. But they had so much public squabbling between the director and the writer, that the Academy membership tired of reading about it and things swayed toward The Sting. Had the vote been held in early January, it might've turned out differently.
"Winning the Academy Award liberates you from the fantasy that it is going to change your life. When the dust settles, you are still you. People are nice to you but if you don't walk in with a project that has Newman or Redford attached to it, they scratch their heads and they're not interested. The next thing I was really devoted to was Taxi Driver  and it took three years to get it made."
Luke: "Do you believe The Sting was the best movie of 1973?"
Michael: "Tough call. Either The Sting or The Exorcist. In the light of history, the rest of the competition doesn't come close."
Luke: "How close in general do you think the Oscars correlate with excellence?"
Michael: "I think it is the best awards show because it is by the peers. You have something like the Golden Globes where these people are not qualified. They're journalists. They're not really film critics. They have an inordinate amount of power to publicly give laurels to films that the world perceives as deserves. While the Academy is voting by your peers. And maybe it is not a highbrow elective body but yeah, I think it is a combination of what this film means to the movie industry and how well made it was. I never vote purely on the basis of how good the film is. There are other factors that come into play. How ambitious is the film? I often want to vote for a film that falls short of succeeding but it's ambition and reach are terrific that it is a contribution to the art of film. I like to see people stretch, and stretch the medium. Especially today when we're in a very conservative period for the studios."
Luke: "You came of age during the most experimental time in movie history."
Michael: "Yes. In the '70s, it was a collegial atmosphere. Every studio had two or three creative executives. And the movie business was the US theatrical business. Foreign sales weren't on anybody's mind. There was no video. And films were not released the way they are today - massive releases promoted by television. Films were released like art film are released today - primarily a print campaign and one or two theaters in a city. Rely on word of mouth and on critics. Modify your campaign depending on how the audience responds. You find your audience. This allowed the executives who pushed the button to respond to ideas they liked.
"As releases got wider and television advertising replaced print... And the marketing campaign was to spend almost all your money on television in the two weeks prior to release. It became bet the farm. You better open big on opening weekend or your picture will be pulled. The name of the game switched from what can make a good movie to what can open. How can we compete in the crowded marketplace for the attention of the public? Let's give them what they like. Let's give them stars they like, formulas they like, presold titles they like, television shows, anything that gives us a leg up so we don't have to go out with nothing that is not presold. That's the biggest change in the business in my 30 years.
"Instead of we'll make this movie and the marketing guys will be challenged to figure out how to do it to now marketing is in the driver's seat. Marketing wants things they know they can sell. They don't want things that are a challenge."
Luke: "How did you connect with Taxi Driver?"
Michael: "During the Bobby Fischer - Borris Spasky chess matches, there was a fever to play chess. And I used to play with Brian DePalma who lived with Margot Kidder. Julia and I lived next door to Margot Kidder on the [Malibu] beach. Brian had a journalist Paul Schrader shadowing him. And Brian said Paul wrote a script. 'It's not for me but I think it is good. You should read it.'
"I read the script and it was basically shot as is. It was an incredibly pure and true piece of work. We optioned the script from Paul for a $1000. Nobody wanted to make it. We then had to try to package it. At some point, Paul Schrader said we had to take a look at a rough cut of Mean Streets. Thirty minutes into it, I said, 'He's [director Martin Scorsese] is our guy. And so is DeNiro.' We were sold. They weren't bankable yet. They didn't mean anything. We offered the script to them and they both said yes. We then got rejected by everybody for two years. Finally, Marty went off and did, 'Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore.' His stature grew. It still wasn't enough. DeNiro went off and did Godfather 2 and won an Academy Award.
"We presented a budget for a $1.5 million and reluctantly got the go-ahead from David Begelman at Columbia. Everybody went in cheap. DeNiro got $35,000. Paul got $30,000. We got $45,000. Marty, who was broke, got his original number to $65,000. That was the hardcore team. The studio wanted one more name so we brought on Cybil Shepherd at the suggestion of her agent Sue Mengers. She got $100,000. It was a rough tough experience.
"There was a lot of second-guessing on management's part. Why did we ever finance this movie? Nobody is going to see it. It's weird. It's dark. There were such good dailies and all we heard from the executives, 'You're over schedule. We can't do this.' We never got a kind word."
Luke: "Any apologies after it was a big success?"
Michael: "No. Begelman wasn't big on apologies. They did an experiment. They opened the movie small. But people were lined up for the first show. They smelled it in New York. It was a satisfying vindication. This was an uphill battle all the way. Nobody wanted to make it. Most people hated it. That it became a classic was a great feeling, one I bled for."
Luke: "How did you come to Close Encounters of the Third Kind?"
Michael: "Steven Spielberg was cutting The Sugarland Express while we were on post-production on The Sting. He and I used to have lunch together and discuss science fiction movies including The Day The Earth Stood Still. Then one day, he said that he wanted to come over to the beach and discuss an idea he had with Julia and me about UFOs and Watergate. He had this idea which had nothing to do with what the movie ultimately turned out to be. But we believed in him based on his first TV movie Duel . We knew Steven was something special.
"We joined forces to set this up for development at Columbia. We went through a couple of drafts and it wasn't coming together. Steven said, 'Listen, I'm broke. I've been offered this movie about a shark. How about I go off and do that and then continue on with the script?' So he did Jaws. We came up to Martha's Vineyard a couple of times with writers to meet with him. He finally came to the conclusion that the only way it would be right is if he wrote it.
"I give Julia most of the credit for doing all the battles on Close Encounters. I was the point person on The Sting and Taxi Driver and she was the point person on Close Encounters. And she lived through the hell of the financial pressures from the studio. My contribution was that I really fought for the idea that the aliens should be good guys. If they're smart enough to get here... If we went to Mars, we wouldn't slaughter the inhabitants. Steven wasn't sure at first but he came around on that.
"Then Steven wasn't sure that the meeting of the two species would be enough of a payoff. We didn't have a dramatic goal. It was a new structure. I think he never really had confidence that it would work so he decided to make sure the ending was so loaded. It was a cornucopia. The last 40 minutes just keeps on giving and giving. I think he wasn't quite sure that the audience would feel satisfied so he gave and gave and gave. Every time you think, 'This is enough. If the movie ends here, I'm satisfied,' he comes out with more.
"It was a painful experience because of my relationship with Julia. She was really in drug hell. She was impossible to deal with. She was a nightmare for everybody.
"Because Julia was impossible, the studio removed her and I took over in post-production. I love the movie and I love Steven. I'm happy he passed through my life. But there's a lot of pain associated with the memories of my marriage. We'd divorced in 1974. And I'd gone off with Taxi Driver and she went off with Close Encounters."
Luke: "When did you find out Julia Phillips was writing her memoirs You'll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again [perhaps the most searing book about Hollywood ever]?"
Michael: "She told me as soon as she got the idea."
Luke: "How did you feel about the book?"
Michael: "It was not happy for many reasons. It was her choice. She wrote what she saw. I had sometimes startlingly different memories. But she had the need to express her views."
Luke: "How did affect you?"
Michael: "I wasn't happy. Her version of history is not consistent with mine. But when someone publishes a book, that becomes the truth. Her version is what's out there as the truth. That can be frustrating and I have my own life and my own recollections. And some of it was tough on our daughter."
Luke: "I don't recall you being portrayed negatively in the book?"
Michael: "She didn't take out an attack on me. But she didn't do me any favors. She took sole credit for everything because her view was that she was the center of the universe. Everything that happened away from the center of the universe didn't happen."
Luke: "Did you get blamed in any way for her book?"
Michael: "No. Oh yeah, of course I did. She called my father's late brother a neer do well, which created a family rift. Just a gratuitous swipe that became our fault. There were a few gratuitous swipes here and there."
Luke: "How much contact have you had with her over the past 20 years?"
Michael: "We have a child. And we had some ongoing business so there was reason to talk on any occasion surrounding our daughter and left over business from films we'd done together and legal things. But we didn't go out to dinner or have a social relationship. We were able to be civil. We got along fine in dealing with what we had to but we didn't choose to spend any time together."
In her book about Hollywood, Julia Phillips wrote that actor Warren Beatty once asked if she wanted to have a threesome with him and her twelve year old daughter Kate. Julia replied, "Warren, we're both too old for you."
Luke: "Which of your films after Close Encounters have had the most meaning to you?"
Michael: "When you say 'meaning,' in terms of memories or learning experiences or what?"
Luke: "Wherever you want to take the question is fine with me. The happiest experience was The Flamingo Kid . One name, Garry Marshall, what a joy. Garry created all those 1970s TV series like Happy Days and the movie Pretty Woman. Gary had a basketball game at his house every Saturday that I used to play in. I gave Gary the script of The Flamingo Kid and he responded to it and we ended up making it. [Garry directed.]
"It was a tremendously fun experience because of the way Gary runs his sets. He's funny. He has a gigantic heart. He just keeps everybody smiling and laughing. We didn't know if the film would be any good. We had doubts all the way through as we watched dailies.
"Cannery Row  was an important learning experience. It was a failure. After the first 20 minutes, I loved the movie. I wasn't realistic about how it was playing to others. I thought I knew. I felt infallible. I thought that because I liked it, it was going to be good.
"It was very painful for a lot of reasons. It was David Ward's first time directing. And I wanted to produce his first film as a director. We were happy to get a greenlight on his adaptation of John Steinbeck. It was a tough shoot. We fired our lead actress Raquel Welch three weeks into the production. We had a breakdown in communications and ended up in a lawsuit. We brought in Debra Winger who was great. I loved the movie but it's very painful because I had such high hopes.
"The movie was not only not successful but was assailed by a lot of people in the press. It's like your child is being attacked and you feel badly. I developed a bit of protection. But it hurts. It hurts to have a failure that you're unprepared for being a failure. But it happens. You have a screening and you think they're going to love it and then they start walking out. Your stomach goes through the floor. The audience is the final arbiter. You're making a film for an audience. You have to learn that you are not infallible. You still have to be guided by your own taste. If you have to guess, you're not going to produce anything that has integrity.
"Cannery Row was a painful surprise. I haven't had any films that have been anywhere near the success of the early films but some of them have done ok. But I haven't been as emotionally attached. I was very emotionally attached to one film that was a complete flop. It was called The Tender and starred John Travolta. The company that produced it went bankrupt before they released it. It was eventually released as Eyes of an Angel . That was a painful experience too because I cared about the film. I thought it had the possibility of being wonderful. But it didn't have an ending.
"Lesson two. Never start shooting and telling yourself that you'll fix it. You'll come up with an ending. We came up with 17 drafts of an ending all the way through production and none of them were any good. We ended up with a film without an ending."
Luke: "What's lesson one?"
Michael: "Lesson one is just because you like it doesn't mean that everyone else will. But I feel better about the films that I like than the films that did well and I don't like. Or that I didn't feel much connection to."
Luke: "Which ones did you not feel much connection to?"
Michael: "I wasn't actively involved in the ones that I was executive producer on like Mimic and Don't Tell Mom The Babysitter's Dead."
Luke: "Was Companion the last movie you produced?"
Michael: "Is it? I don't know. I've been taking executive producing credit... So that may be it. That may be the last time I was really on the set all the way through. Yeah."
Luke: "So you don't find yourself as emotionally involved?"
Michael: "It just means much more to you when you bleed and you feel all the pressures and all the small joys and failures. Obviously if you have your name on something, you have your pride and your hopes and your dreams but it's not the same when you haven't really poured as much of your life into it."
Luke: "Are you still looking to produce?"
Michael: "It depends. I want to produce when I really like the people and the project and everything is right. If it doesn't look like an experience I really want to put myself on the line for, I'd just as soon give what I can in putting it together as an executive producer, and hiring the principle elements and reemerging in post-production. That's the way it seems to be as an executive producer. I like when I am fully committed but I only want to do that when I know that at the end of the day, I will like the experience, even if the film doesn't turn out well.
Luke: "Do you have a pet project you haven't been able to get off the ground?"
Michael: "I have one thing that is really an albatross. I wouldn't really want to call it a pet anymore. It's a project that's been in and out of development at Universal Studios under three different regimes. Right now I don't know if I love it or hate it anymore. Every time I think it's dead, it comes back to life on its own. I can't kill it. I've tried to kill it but it won't die. It may be something that is in my destiny. That is one I'd produce because I've suffered enough that I have to complete the job.
"As a producer, you have pots simmering on the back burner. Then things suddenly jump up and they get active. And you think, 'Ohmigod, I'm going to have two pictures starting at the same time next Spring. Then neither of them happen. So I don't count on anything until we shoot it."
Luke: "Do you see a common thread through your work?"
Michael: "I like escapist fare. I like larger-than-life experiences, whether it is the characters or the situation. I like things that strike me as fresh. I like an exotic story. I don't get involved often in formula films. If something comes along that is a business opportunity, I will depart from my general line. I'm not likely to make a film like In The Bedroom. I can enjoy it. I like to make movies like the movies I used to see as a kid on those double bills - science fiction and adventure."
Luke: "If we were to make a movie about your life, what would the character arc be?"
Michael: "I feel that some things have gone backwards. I learned the wrong lessons. It's an odd thing to win a [Best Picture] Oscar at 30 and having the financial freedom. It was great in that it liberated me me from the illusion that an Oscar would change my life. But it also taught me some wrong lessons. This business is not easy and you're lucky every time you get to make a film. God is smiling on you if you get a greenlight. It always looks like the other guys have it easy. Their films come together out of nothing. But there are always years of frustration behind it.
"I feel like I've gotten everything I've ever wished for. I don't know where the arc is going. This is a private question that I think a lot about right now. I've had the luxury to do other things. I haven't had to focus on succeeding in Hollywood. I feel blessed. I feel lucky. It's a story of a lucky young man who now realizes how lucky he was.
"The job of producing is so different today. I feel lucky that I was a producer when producers were allowed to be producers and to do something. The role of a producer has become unclear today. If you play an instrumental role in putting things together you're a producer. Somewhere in the late '70s, the directors and studios figured out they didn't need producers. They could deal directly with each other. When I started, the producer's job was to be the middleman between the two of them. You protect the director from the studio. They don't want that anymore.
"I don't like being on set because you don't have the power that you used to. It's less fun, less satisfying and more frustrating."
Michael's been married to writer-producer Juliana Maio for 14 years. Together they operate the production company Lighthouse Productions. Juliana practiced entertainment law for several years before choosing to work with Michael. They have one 13-year old daughter.
Michael's two other kids are 28 and 22. "Kate, my daughter with Julia, went to NYU law school and practiced in New York. She's been busy with her mother's decline and death. I think she will want to practice in the entertainment world here. My middle daughter is a film major at college. And my youngest is writing songs."