Producer Robert F. Newmyer
On May 23, 2002, I interviewed producer Robert F. Newmyer at his office on Sunset Blvd.
Bob: "I was born 5/30/56. I grew up in Washington, D.C.. My father James Newmyer was a political consultant. I went to the private school that most of the politician's children went to, Sidwell Friends. It's a Quaker school.
"I graduated with a degree in Economics and Political Science from Swarthmore in 1978. It's a small liberal arts college outside Philadelphia. I transferred twice to the University of Colorado at Boulder to have fun. I talked my six best friends from Swarthmore into forming a real estate company in Telluriede, Colorado. We had two of the best years. We built condominiums and homes on spec and made a fair amount of money. And then I made a big mistake. I went to business school at Harvard, graduating in 1982. They were miserable years, unpleasant and unproductive.
"After graduation, I thought about moving to Telluriede, where I probably would've been extremely happy and remained to this day. But I decided to just swing through Los Angeles to see what the movie business was about. I'd been here just a few days when I got a job interview with mid-level executive Johnathan Dolgen at Columbia Pictures. Now he's the chairman of Paramount. Then he was in charge of pay television and ancillary markets.
"The microcomputer was a new device in 1982. It was hot off the press. I knew how to do financial modeling. He wanted someone to model all the types of deals that previous to that had been modeled with a hand calculator. I worked with John for two-and-a-half years, modeling business affairs deals, pricing videos, pay TV output deals, acquisitions... It was interesting for a while and then it became repetitive, like all jobs.
"John moved to Fox in 1984. I became Vice-president of Production of Columbia. I wanted to become an independent producer. I went to David Putnam to ask for his blessing. He asked me to stick around and produce for the studio. He moved us to a suite of nice offices. Just as we were beginning to negotiate the lowest rent producing deal in the history of motion pictures, Putnam got fired by the Coca Cola board of directors.
"I stayed on the lot in those nice offices for two years until it was discovered that I had no business being there. I had free offices for a couple of years, free phones and free furniture. I started optioning screenplays, for $5-10,000, with my own meager resources. Many of the movies we eventually made came from those scripts, such as Sex, Lies and Videotape, Mr. Baseball, Don Juan DeMarco, Crossing the Bridge, Addicted to Love and Santa Claus.
"I loved Steven Soderbergh's writing. I'd never been able to persuade anyone to produce one of his scripts. The first script I optioned was something he'd written, Dead From the Neck Up. I started working on another project with him called Revolver. Because I was spending so much time with him, and he was living in Baton Rouge, I had to fly him out here every time I wanted to get together. I gave him a small check and asked him to move out here.
"And it was during his drive out here in his beat-to-shit Oldsmobile, that he conceived the idea for Sex, Lies and Videotape. He'd collect material in his brain, stop at a park bench and write it out in longhand. Then he'd drive, stop and write again. By the time he got here, he had a screenplay written out in longhand. I had my assistant type up his screenplay and there it was. Ninety five percent of what he wrote on those park benches was true to what the movie became.
"Columbia had a video distribution arm that made low budget productions, many of which went straight to video. Larry Estes ran the division. He read the script once and approved it for a $1.1 million budget. Steve subsequently had a change of heart. After Larry approved, Steve asked that he be allowed to make it in black and white and be able to Hard Mat the pay TV and video release so the image would come in its original aspect ratio. Larry said no. 'You kidding? You're not Woody Allen yet.'
"I backed out. Steve went off and tried to get other financing. He eventually came back to the original deal. He shot it in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. When I saw a cut of it, I thought it was a terrific picture, but a small picture with a limited audience. None of us imagined that it could break out.
"We were the last picture submitted to the Sundance Film Festival. We continued to do editorial and soundwork on the picture right up to its screening. Steve took a wet print on the plane. We won the Audience Favorite prize. We then won the Palm D'Or prize at Cannes. That led to a frenzy among the distributors. We went with Miramax because Bob and Harvey Weinstein seemed like the most aggressive marketers and they also made the most aggressive financial offer for the film."
Luke: "And was this the best ride you've ever had with a movie?"
Bob: "Yes. It was the best ride because it was so unexpected and Steve is such an assured and self-contained filmmaker. It sets you up for enormous disappointment for the rest of your career."
Luke: "So many producers I've interviewed had their best ride on their first film. Were you able to work into bars and say, 'Hey baby, I produced Sex, Lies and Videotape.'"
Bob: "No. When the movie came together, I formed the two great partnerships of my life. I got married in 1986. And I formed this company, Outlaw Productions, with Jeff Silver, who'd run physical production for Canon Pictures. We went into business together on the theory that I would develop scripts and package them, raise the financing and get them set to go and Jeff would see them through.
"We're coming up on our 16th wedding anniversary. We have a 14-year old, a 13-year old, a 9-year old and my 44-year old wife is now four months pregnant."
Luke: "What was your status in town like after Sex, Lies?"
Bob: "There were two big changes in my career life. The first was Sex, Lies. After that, I didn't have to struggle to get my phone calls returned. I went from having no credibility to a track record. I started getting material. It was the wrong type of material. I was labeled as an independent filmmaker and I was much more interested in becoming a studio filmmaker. The independent world is a tough way to make a living. You're not really paid fees. You get profit participation, which is unlikely to mean anything. I had two kids. I had to earn some money.
"After our first movie, we made two small independent pictures - Crossing the Bridge and Indian Summer. Then we decided to own a picture. We got some of the people who invested in our real estate ventures in Telluriede to invest in our movie. We got 32 investors to give us $2 million and we made this little movie The Opposite Sex. We showed it to Harvey and Bob and they took it off the market immediately with a preemptive bid of $5 million. I then had a lot of difficulty collecting that money. It ended up a nightmare, for me, for Miramax and for all the investors."
Luke: "How did the movie do at the box office?"
Bob: "Nothing. It was not much of a movie. It was silly and broadly comedic and sporadically funny. It was the worst experience I've ever had with a film. We were suing Miramax and they were cross-filing against us."
Luke: "Let us not forget your 1991 movie, Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead."
Bob: "We had a great time with Director Stephen Herek and with the folks at HBO who financed the movie. God, after dealing with Miramax, it was such a pleasure dealing with HBO.
"I took two dozen trips to Japan during this period trying to find private financing. While there, I saw some American baseball players playing in Japan. That was the concept for Mr. Baseball, starring Tom Selleck, which we made for Universal."
Luke: "Did you ever work with Miramax again?"
Bob: "Not until earlier this year, with Mindhunters.
"The second thing that changed my career, after Sex, Lies, was The Santa Clause. We'd optioned a screenplay with our own money. We'd taken it to Jeff Katzenberg at Disney. He put us together with Tim Allen. We produced it for $20 million, all in, and it grossed $145 million in the U.S., the third highest grossing movie of 1995. The Santa Clause did more for the stature of our production company than Sex, Lies. On the heels of Santa Clause, we had the clout to get an overall deal at a studio.
"I'd known [Warner Brothers executive] Lorenzo di Bonenventura for a decade. We'd worked at Columbia. We brought some Japanese money to Lorenzo at Warner Brothers and Warners gave us an overall deal. That's a huge turning point. All of a sudden, instead of my partner and I having to pay for our assistants and our offices and our telephones, all of a sudden the studio is paying for our overhead and looking to develop projects with us.
"From 1987 until 1994, when we got the deal, I was working 16-hour days on average. I was burned out. Once I had an overall deal, I was working 70-hour weeks.
"We produced a mixed-bag at Warners."
Luke: "Don Juan De Marco."
Bob: "That's a picture we developed with our own money that we set up at New Line. We've had two pictures which ended up in lawsuits - The Opposite Sex and Don Juan De Marco. We'd developed the movie with first-time writer and director, Jeremy Levin. We sent it to Johnny Depp who was interested. We then sent that package to New Line. We couldn't make a deal with them. We couldn't figure out what was going on.
"They brought in Francis Ford Coppola's company to produce, instead of us. Marlon Brando played one of the two leads. They'd gotten to Coppola because he was the way they could get to Brando. We sued them and they ended up paying us our full producing fee and a credit not to produce the movie."
Luke: "How did you like the movie?"
Bob: "I thought Johnny Depp was delightful. I think the changes apparently mandated by Marlon Brando screwed the movie up. I wasn't there. But the screenplay we developed had the psychiatrist played by Brando suffering marital difficulties from the get go. The movie was ostensibly about Marlon Brando having an impact on Johnny Depp's life when what was really happening was Johnny Depp having an impact on Marlon Brando's life.
"My guess is that Marlon was uncomfortable playing a screwed-up husband at the beginning of the movie. His marriage was ok at the beginning of that movie and there was nowhere for it to go. What was the impact Johnny Depp had on his life? It was almost imperceptible.
"Addicted to Love (1997) and Training Day (2001) were successful movies. Nobody came to Three to Tango (1999) and Ready to Rumble (2000).
"There were two competing wrestling leagues on television. Vince McMahn's WWF was clearly dominant. He had the Rock. But Time Warner owned the other wrestling franchise, the WCW. We were forced to ally ourselves with them, and when the movie came out, they were out of business. Professional wrestling fans don't want to pay $7:50 to go to a movie and people who aren't professional wrestling fans don't want to go to a movie about professional wrestling.
"I would've predicted that Ready to Rumble was the most commercial movie we ever made.
"We were assigned the movie Gossip, which did not have good results. We knew we had problems with it from the time we first tested it. And that's always a painful experience because you then spend months editorially trying to make the picture better. And when you've exhausted that, you think about what you can reshoot. It was the first and last time we ever had that experience. Roughly half the movies studios release they know are in trouble from the first time they see them.
"Gossip was a particularly tough experience because the director, David Guggenheim, was a friend of mine.
"In the late 1980s, we optioned Addicted to Love by a then-unknown screenwriter named Robert Gordon. It took us a frustrating five years to get the right combination of director and movie star to commit to the picture. I loved the movie. I think the reason that the movie was not more successful was that audiences were not looking for Meg Ryan to play that dark of a role. Is that your belief or is there something more structurally fucked up about the movie?"
Luke is dying to give his two cents. "It had to be either darker or lighter."
Bob: "Part of the reason that it is not darker is Meg. She brings a certain lightness."
Luke: "It just didn't work for me. I sat there and watched it, and about 40 minutes in, I found myself losing interest."
Bob: "As a producer, you're just so involved in the process at every step that you lose perspective. When you see the finished product, it is flawless to you even though it is obviously flawed to everyone else."
Luke: "Tell me about Training Day. Lead Denzel Washington won his Best Actor Oscar for it."
Bob: "We got the script from a 23-year old writer, David Ayer, which we loved. We optioned it with our own money and started developing it. We sold it to Warners. To my great surprise and joy, Warners did not want to take the edge off the script and make it a PG-13 movie. Denzel was the first person we went to and he said yes immediately. Antoine Fuqua was a director Denzel wanted to work with.
"I was happy with the experience because the picture never lost its integrity. It never softened up. It was a tough shoot in the worst neighborhoods of Los Angeles. On a $40 million budget , it grossed about $78 million domestically.
"Warners put pressure on us to put more action in the third act. Young males were more likely to go to a movie with action than a movie with character and dialogue."
Luke: "Which of your films have turned out creatively the way you wanted them to?"
Bob: "If you'd asked me that before we shown them in front of an audience, I would've said every one except Wagons East. John Candy passed away two-thirds through the shoot.
"I get so blinded... Then you show them to an audience and half the time you find out you're wrong.
"Two years ago, Warners offered to extend our deal. At the same time, we got an aggressive offer from Intermedia and we took it."
Luke: "Is there a common thread through your work?"
Bob laughs. "I wish you wouldn't have asked that. The most interesting material to me is more appropriate for the independent world. I realized more than a decade ago that I couldn't make a living producing independent films. I own a house. I have three kids in private schools. Nannies. It's OK if you're single and you live in an apartment, you can have an interesting work life making independent films.
"Most of the pictures we will make for the next decade are action pictures and comedies because they are the most commercial genres. I'm hoping that once I get my kids through college, I'll be able to make more interesting material."
Luke: "Sex, Lies and Videotape is the most cerebral movie you've made."
Bob: "By far."
Luke: "Do you feel yourself living and dying by the box office results of your films?"
Bob: "Yes. It is clearly true that you are treated by the town by your [box office] results. Not on your track record over the last 15 years but by how your last movie did. Everyone thinks you're a genius when your last movie worked and an idiot when your last movie didn't work. I hope that neither are true. Business is clearly easier after a hit. Business was easier for us after Training Day. It was harder for us a couple of years before that. Objectively life is more pleasant when we are successful.
"I used to let it effect me emotionally to a greater extent. I know that in the next ten years I will make a couple of movies that will be really successful, and at least a couple of movies that tank."