I broke new ground in my interview 7/1/02 with blonde Producer Diane Sillan Isaacs at her office in Green Mountain Productions in Santa Monica. She's president of the company owned by Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas.
Diane's the skinniest producer I've interviewed. And in fantastic shape. She competes in triathlons. In a couple of months, she'll do the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii which consists of 2.5 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride followed by a marathon (run of 26.2 miles). She finished this race last time in eleven hours, about two hours behind the winning female, and about four hours behind the winning male.
In addition to her training and work, Diane is a wife and mother. She has two boys.
Diane: "I grew up in Wicopee, in rural upstate New York, 60 miles north of the city. I had a girlfriend who lived in the city so I took a train to New York City about every other weekend to be in the action. When I was 11 years old, I got to know [the future actor and Miami Vice star] Don Johnson, who was about 21 at the time, and was living with Melanie Griffith, who was 15. Melanie had just got a tattoo. My first brush with Hollywood was intense. Melanie tried to teach me to astral project. I knew how to play baseball, but metaphysical travel?
"I kept in touch with them over the years.
"I went to NYU film school. Then I worked at the David Letterman Show for a year. Then I realized that New York was either going to be commercials or live TV [and that most of the other TV and movie production would take place in Los Angeles].
"I had interviewed with Michael Mann and was on my way to Hollywood when I ran into Don. He had come on Letterman. Don's life was getting out of control because of the Miami Vice groundswell. He asked me to help him out in Miami. I got there the beginning of the second season and stayed on till the end (1984-89), working my way up to associate producer. The TV series was a great producing bootcamp. So many of the guest stars and directors have become big - Julia Roberts, Bruce Willis, Helena Bonham Carter, Director Rob Cohan...
"I finally arrived in LA in 1989 and I ran a development company at Universal for Don. We made the TV movie - In the Company of Darkness (1993) starring Helen Hunt.
"The company shifted to Paramount for several years. Then we geared up for Don to go back into television with Nash Bridges. I produced the pilot and then I realized that I was not ready to go back into the grind of series television. It's 18 hours a day. I would've had to relocate to San Francisco. I was married with two young boys.
"Melanie and Antonio [Banderas] were just forming their own company through a deal at Warner Brothers. I met Antonio through Melanie. They asked me to come over and run a company we called Green Moon Productions. Antonio saw Green Moon as an opportunity to do things that would not normally be done by a studio. Projects true to his heart may not be easily financeable. That was a little different from Warner Brothers fare."
Luke: "Why do studios offer stars producing deals?"
Diane: "Studios do it to build relationships with stars. If the studio made an overall deal with a star, then the studio believed it would have first dibs - an inside line - on getting the star to do your movies. It was a big part of the Warner Brothers model. They made these deals with Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, George Clooney... It worked up to a point, especially with the films that Clint Eastwood developed to direct. But there's no guarantee that the stars' next film will be with the studio that's given them a producing deal.
"Warners was ahead of the game in recognizing Antonio in his early U.S. days. Warners had just made Assassins with Sylvester Stallone and Antonio. They saw that Antonio was going to become a leading latino man. They made a deal with him and Melanie but Warners focus was not on developing latin material. Antonio is a cross-over actor but he came with a unique edge. I'm not sure it fit into the kind of films Warners made at the time. Making deals with stars where the studio pays for the overhead for the stars production company sounds good but there are fewer of them. The business model must be flawed.
"We were at Warner Brothers four years (1996-2000). We'd bring them material for our first-look deal and it didn't feel urgent to them. In giving Antonio and Melanie a company deal, they made a corporate decision that did not necessarily translate into day to day operation. Warner Brothers makes a specific kind of movie [highly commercial] and they make it well. They do great with big actioners and high concept thrillers. The things Green Moon was developing was not in sync with their slate.
"One of the first ideas I took to them was an Ann Rice mummy project. Our instincts were right about the genre, as evidenced by Universal's big hit, but it wasn't for them. We did set up the Ayrton Sena story, about a formula one race car driver from Brazil. We started to develop it and then the regime change and it lost focus. I find it's hard to fit into a studio's immediate needs and agenda.
Luke: "Do they take actors seriously as producers?"
Diane: "Antonio is a filmmaker and he's made more films than most producers. He has a great sense of material and is a powerful salesman. Melanie is smart. She knows the business better than most producers. She may not even consider what she's doing producing but she's great at pulling things together. Unfortunately, we didn't have the chance to show Warners their producing abilities."
Luke: "Was Crazy in Alabama dear to Antonio's heart?"
Diane: "He loved it and he still holds it very close to his heart. After he read the script, he called me at 3AM saying he sees the film and he needs to make it. Some of the specific things he told that first night are in the film. He was inspired. It'd been set up at Disney years ago. It wasn't your obvious commercial quality with two divergent stories [that never meet up]. Somehow, we convinced Sony to take the gamble.
"Antonio and I went into John Calley and Derek Wiggins office at Columbia. In retrospect, I think they were ready to pass on the movie. The material was too far outside their 'box.' But Antonio came in with such passion and animation. He acted out almost every part with vim and vigor. It was an amazing and entertaining two hour meeting. The studio execs were beside themselves, and through Antonio's eyes, were able to see the film. 'How much do you want to make this for?' 'We think it's around $16 million.' 'Ok.'"
Luke: "This was the first film Banderas directed."
Diane: "I've worked with a bunch of first-timers and Antonio didn't come across as a first-timer. His set was calm and focused. He could articulate his vision beautifully. I was truly blown away by how smooth and creatively stimulating the whole shoot went. He was a leader and a visionary. The cast and crew became a big family. It was a joy."
Luke: "Were you pleased creatively with how the movie turned out?"
Diane: "I was. I think it is a special movie. As time goes on, it will hold up.
"Antonio likes to go for emotions in a confrontational way. He likes to hit it where you'd least expect. His first cut of the movie was three hours and 47 minutes. We loved every minute of it. The true creative process began at that point - how to cut it down, weave together the two stories and make it have emotion."
Luke: "How did you deal with the reviews and the box office?"
Diane: "It was terribly disappointing. Antonio had said that he didn't see this as box office material. The reviews were harsh and at times personal. Some reviewers seemed to have a built-in attitude about the husband and wife thing.
"We were coming off a wonderful European tour. At the Venice Film Festival and at San Sebastian, the film was truly applauded. I think reviewers acted as gatekeepers to the first weekend. I recieved so many calls from people that saw the film on video and said they had no idea it was so good.
"Antonio wants to do left-of-center pictures. We have a slate of 40 projects, and 90% of them have a Latino element.
"Antonio comes from the [Pedro] Almodovar school of the pregnant nun. Anti-Franco. He is a rebel inside from his youth as an anti-Franco artist. He loved that 'Lucille' cut her abusive husband's head off and is ultimately set free. He likes to be in your face."
Luke: "Tell me how you got involved with The Body ?"
Mieko writes on Imdb.com: "An archaeologist finds a body which is seemingly that of Jesus Christ. If it WAS him, it would disprove the whole Resurrection thing and bring the whole Christian world into chaos, so the Vatican sends a priest (Mr Banderas) to investigate. As I said, fantastic premise. They could have made a really powerful film based on that, bringing in all the religious and scientific elements such a discovery would have... only it sort of falls flat."
Diane: "That was an incredible script by Jonas McCord that had been floating around for many years [based on a Richard Sapir novel]. The financing was tricky and hard to keep together. As we went through the process, the script got watered down because of religious opinions and money needs. We shot in Israel. The Israeli money pulled out at the last minute. The Spanish money didn't want the priest to leave the priesthood. Every financial source seemed to have a vote. Everyone argued about the ending. We lost the simple clarity of the original script. I saw us losing focus during the filming. It became too confusing. Yet the premise was compelling."
Luke: "Did you have any trepidations about dealing with such sacred material?"
Diane: "I thought the script had handled any controversial religious issues so that in the end it was about faith. Conclusions were up to the individual. I wasn't worried about the controversy. We veered away from anything preachy."
Luke: "It seems that Hollywood is afraid to tackle organized religion?"
Diane: "Hugely. That's why the script couldn't get made in the studio system. For many years, it was considered one of the ten best unproduced screenplays.
Luke: "How do you choose which projects you want to develop?"
Diane: "We weed through and come up with most of our material here at Green Moon. Then I take it to Antonio and Melanie to see which projects they want to develop. Ideas are cheap. You have to be able to attract talent and financing for it to become real. The work begins when the interest level is piqued."
Luke: "What are the common elements in your passion projects?"
Diane: "Finding compassion in a tale. Love overcoming. Making a statement about our humanity in the details of the characters. But I want it to be entertaining. I am so not about doing anything 'important' or 'difficult' or 'good for you'. The message is much more powerful if it is below the surface of the human portrayals."
Luke: "I've heard that women are particularly suited to producing because they are nurturing?"
Diane: "We have the ability to multitask. We're used to having nine balls in the air."
Luke: "Have you run into any taboos in making movies that have surprised you?"
Diane: "I had this wonderful story about a Cuban pitcher that was at the time impossible to set up because everyone is afraid of baseball movies [they don't travel well overseas], particularly ones without a leading American character."