Producer Stuart Benjamin Wonders What He's Thanking Luke For
"Thank you for your time," says the intrepid journalist as he turns to leave.
"You're welcome," says producer Stuart Benjamin, not exactly a journalist's dream. "And thank you..."
Stuart pauses and thinks hard. "I don't know what I'd thank you for. I don't know why you're writing this book."
And the journalist turned and walked outside into the sunshine. It was Tuesday afternoon, February 12, 2002.
It had all started 90 minutes before. The journalist walked down the corridor and poked his head in the door. A fierce smart man looked up from his computer.
"Yes, come in. Please give me a minute."
Luke Ford sits on the white couch and reads his book, "How To Write A Damn Good Novel."
"How do you replace the same word multiple times?" asks Stuart.
Luke gets up and walks over to his desk. "You go to Edit, then Replace, then write in the word as it appears in the original, and write in the word as you want it spelled."
Five minutes later, they settle down to talk.
Benjamin's dressed casually in jeans. He's in his early 50s. He stands about 6'1 and 200 pounds. He's produced such films as An Officer and a Gentleman, Against All Odds, White Nights, and La Bamba.
Stuart grew up in the San Fernando Valley. At North Hollywood High School, he played varsity basketball, served in student government and got A grades.
"I went to USC as an undergraduate with future director Taylor Hackford. He was my best friend. I went to law school [Harvard] while he went into the Peace Corp.
"The guy who wrote the book The Paper Chase was in my class at Harvard but nobody knew him because he was off writing the book. The John Houseman character was like my contracts professor Dr. Clark Byse. He was a tough crusty guy with a soft heart underneath. If you didn't come into class prepared, he kicked your ass.
"At a place like Harvard, you have to opt to do one of two things. You can lock yourself in your room for 20 hours a day for the next three years, do the Harvard Law Review and graduate in the upper five percent of your class. Or you take the easy way out, which I did.
"Taylor went to work for KCET, the public television station in Los Angeles. I went to work for this entertainment law firm Wyman, Bautzer, Christensen, Kuchel & Silbert. We decided that we wanted to start a company and do stuff. We were too young and too dumb to know we couldn't do that. So we started New Visions. Our first job was to shoot a concert by the rock group Traffic (Steve Winwood) in 1972. Later we did Chicago and Rod Stewart.
"In 1978, Children's Home Society hired us to do a 30-minute docudrama "Teenage Father," which won Taylor an Oscar. Then in 1980, Taylor made The Idolmaker, and in 1982, I produced and Taylor directed An Officer and a Gentleman. Then in 1984 we made Against All Odds, in 1985, White Knights, in 1987 La Bamba and in 1988, Everybody's All-American. Then we merged with the public company Cineplex Odeon and we ran a mini-studio for a couple of years.
"In 2000, I joined Crusader Entertainment because [financier] Howard Baldwin was a friend of mine. I'd done work for the National Hockey League. Howard owned a couple of teams."
Luke: "What was your role on Officer?"
Stuart: "Keeping the wolves at bay. Paramount was concerned that schedules be met so we didn't run into the actors' strike. I acted as a buffer between the studio and Taylor."
Luke: "Were you on the set of Officer? What do you remember?"
Stuart: "Nothing that I can talk about. The stories are legion about Debra Winger and Richard Gere."
Luke: "But their conflicts don't come through on the screen."
Stuart: "The chemistry was there on screen which was a testament to their acting skills, and to Taylor's skills as a director, and to the editing staff. Stuff happens on movies that is best left on the set. Debra Winger has been quoted heavily about Richard Gere."
Luke: "Your legal training has taught you discretion."
Stuart: "I think that's part of it. I'm not a good interview because of that. And because I'm a private person, I tend to respect other people's privacy. Making movies is a funny business. It's great fun.
"We shot Against All Odds in Mexico, where there was a cave that we wanted to use for the steam bath thing. When we got down there, they wouldn't let us shoot the scene because of the nature of the scene. Too sexy to shoot near sacred ruins. So we came back here and built the cave.
"La Bamba is the highlight of my career. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley. Richie Valenz was a local hero. Everybody who went to school with me remembered well the plane crash [which killed Valenz, Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper]. I remember slow dancing in junior high school gyms to Richie Valenz.
"In the 1970s, a friend of ours, Daniel Valdez, was the brother of Luis, who directed La Bamba. Danny traveled up and down the Central Valley [of California]. He always wanted to be Richie. In the 1970s, none of us had a clue how to get a movie made. Then in the early 1980s, Danny calls from Watsonville, in Northern California. He's become close to the Valenz family. Would we be interested in the rights to do a movie? By then, Taylor and I had a deal at Columbia Pictures. We'd made Against All Odds.
"We started having meetings with the Valenz family. A whole group of them, the mother, the brothers, the sisters, would drive down from Watsonville, near Santa Cruz, and meet with us. Richie was the light of their life. He was what he was in the movie - a sweet kid who grew up into this great America success story who died way before his time. So a legend grew up of Richie Valenz. In the minds of the family, his legend grew over time. No matter how wonderful Richie really was, he was ten times more wonderful 20 years later. That memory of Richie Valenz was precious to them and they were not easily going to give it up. They were concerned about creative control and how we were going to depict Richie.
"So one day I said to them, 'We know how important Richie is to you. And we wouldn't do anything to tarnish that image. Part of the process of making a movie is a bit of trust. You've got to trust us that we will do justice to Richie's image. So when you're comfortable that we will do that, call us.
"Taylor and I wrote a check out of our pockets to the family to option the rights. This is one of those stories which I believe belongs in the book.
"We're about to go off to make White Nights. We're having lunch with the head of Columbia, Guy McElwaine. And we asked for $50,000 to develop the story of Richie Valenz. And he said, 'Who?' 'Richie Valenz. The guy who sang La Bamba. Went down on the plane with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper.' 'Oh? Who'd want to see a movie about that?'
"'Guy, we're going to off to make a really expensive movie. Give us $50,000 to develop a script.' And he did. Luis Valdez writes the script. Many months later, we turn it into Columbia Pictures. At the screening room at Columbia, to show them a rough cut of White Nights, and in walk a couple of senior production executives. And Taylor asked them what they thought of the Richie Valenz script. And one of them said, 'There's no fucking way this studio will ever make that movie.' And it was clear that the reason they were never going to make the movie was not that they didn't like the script or the story. They just didn't think anyone would go see a movie about a Hispanic kid that nobody remembered.
"Coca Cola owned Columbia at the time. Guy said he'd go to Atlanta and fight for the Richie Valenz story. We had budgeted the movie at $8.5 million. He comes back and says that Coca Cola doesn't want to make the movie for $8.5 million. We ask for a price and he comes back with $6.5. We agree to make the movie for that amount but you have to give us the money and let us go off and make the movie. We can't do a studio movie.
"They said, fine, we'll do that. But you have to put off your fees to guarantee completion. If the movie goes over budget, that cuts dollar for dollar into our fees. We said fine. I had $6.5 million deposited into our bank account in the name of R. Valenzuela Productions, which I controlled, without a piece of paper between us and the studio. You couldn't get $2000 today without a blood oath. You can't even get a dinner reimbursed without going through expense reports.
"Probably the most amazing moment I've ever spent on a movie was a day in July at the airport in Pocoima. We shot the scene where the plane takes off in the snow with Richie, Buddy Holly, and the Big Bopper. It's the middle of the night. It's hot. We're blowing the Styrofoam snow everywhere. And there's this little teeny Cessna. Before we shoot, I decide to get in the plane. And when you step on the wing of the plane, the plane tilts. The plane must weigh 150 pounds. You get in and it seems like the backseat of a VW.
"Richie's mom and a couple of his sisters break down in tears and plead with actor Lou Diamond Phillips, who plays Richie, to not get on that airplane. It's the end of the shoot and they've really bonded with Lou. He's become Richie's alter-ego. And they don't want him to get on that airplane because they know what happened last time.
"The picture was finished shooting in July of 1986. We got a release date for August, 1987. We knew we had a [good] movie. We went to Kansas City to a whitebread audience and it tested well. Taylor and I controlled the music rights. Coca Cola held its marketing meeting that year in Monterey, California. We wanted Coke to help market La Bamba and we offered them the song La Bamba for free to use in their commercials. And they said they weren't interested.
"Then the song by Los Lobos became the number one song in the country for several weeks in a row. The sountrack album became number one. The movie does serious business. And now the Coke marketing people knock on our door to use the song. We say, 'Sure, you can use our song for the commercial. How a big a check are you going to write?' And they wrote a substantial check.
"La Bamba changed my life. Right afterwards I stopped practicing law to concentrate on movies. I bought a Porsche, which I still drive."
Luke: "Crusader Entertainment's mission statement says: 'We believe that gratuitous violence, use of drugs and smoking, sex and profanity will obscure the positive message we wish to impart and compromise the entertainment and commercial value of our projects.' You would not have been able to make most of your 1980s films with these guidelines."
Stuart: "Crusader is a new company that's trying to find its identity. It's making one of my pet projects - The Ray Charles Story."
Stuart's now reclining on the couch while sits in his chair feeling like a shrink. He tries to take advantage of Stuart while he's relaxed and vulnerable.
"If you were to put ethics aside, how could you have made more money as a producer?"
"Which of your films have had the most meaning to you?"
"Have any of your movies broken your heart?"
"What movie would best describe your producing work?"
Stuart "Quote Machine" Benjamin thinks through each question and essentially says no, nothing, not really.
Luke: "If we were to make a movie of your life, what would the character arc be?"
Stuart thinks for five seconds before he begins his umms. "Character arcs are artificial. We design arcs for characters to justify making the movie. So we pull and squeeze our characters. In real life, the growth process is not easy and not clear.
"I've never been willing to cross certain lines. I've always tried to keep balance in my life. I did not give up my life in law school. I know I'm smart. And being smart enables you often to accomplish what you want to accomplish by being smarter, as opposed to working harder. And sometimes it becomes an excuse for not working hard."
Luke: "You don't think the movie business is a particularly vicious business?"
Stuart: "No more than anything else. Read the Business section."
Luke: "What's it like for you dealing with actors, these incredibly needy people?"
Stuart: "I'm not sure that they are anymore needy than any other group. I've been around athletes all my life. In the 1970s, I was invested in the Boston Celtics. In the late '70s, in the Clippers. You meet needy people all over the place."
Benjamin has two children who live in New York - a 24 year old daughter Jennifer who writes for Cosmopolitan, and a 23-year old actor-waiter son Mathew.
Luke gives Stuart a release form. He becomes the first producer to decline to sign it until he sees and approves how Luke uses his quotes. "I'm very careful," says Stuart.