Producer James G. Hirsch
I interviewed writer-producer James G. Hirsch by telephone July 10, 2002.
Jim: "I was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri. During the summers in high school and college (1964-68), I worked at the CBS-owned and operated television station KMOX, Channel 4. In those days, a network could only own a maximum of five stations. I was a floor director on the morning news.
"I went to the University of Wisconsin. I took writing courses. In my senior year, I studied with screenwriter Jerry McNeely and became interested in writing for a living.
"After graduation in 1969 with a degree in history, I moved to Los Angeles and tried to break in as a writer. I worked for my cousin Producer Larry Gordon at AIP (American International Pictures) reading scripts and writing synopses. I read material by people like John Milius, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, who were about to make their mark in the industry.
"In 1971, I wrote my first screenplay and I sold it to ABC for a movie of the week [1972's No Place to Run]. I pursued my writing career for several years until I was offered a chance to become a story editor for a series (Jigsaw John) produced by Universal. Eventually I became a producer for Universal on the show Kingston: Confidential starring Raymond Burr.
"In 1979, I started my own production company with writer Jim Henerson. We made six TV movies together and the TV series Starman. In 1987, I started my present partnership with producer Robert Papazian (The Day After, Inherit the Wind).
"In 1997, Bob and I bought a 12-acre facility in the Warner Center in Chatsworth that we've named Ray Art Studios. We have six soundstages and all the other support facilities of a full service studio.
"We'd been independent suppliers of television for years. But with the changes in the rules [allowing networks to own production companies], there were fewer opportunities for independents to own their own product. In 1996, we hired ourselves out for four years to run the Nash Bridges series for CBS, which shot in San Francisco. When the movie of the week business was still more of an independents business, we probably would not have signed on to do a series like that for somebody else. It's become difficult for small independents to survive in the television business.
"Recently we made three TV movies without an American buyer. We teamed up with foreign distributor WIN and we raised the money through foreign sales to make three pictures. We eventually sold them to Lifetime and Court TV for American broadcast. The old way was that you sold your picture to an American company like ABC, and then went out and got a distributor who sold the foreign rights. We reversed the process."
Luke: "You've made many TV movies. Which ones stand out in your memory?"
Jim: "In 1985, I was nominated for a Writer's Guild award for a movie I did with Richard Crenna, The Rape of Richard Beck. Crenna won an Emmy for Best Actor."
Cwd writes on Imdb.com: "A movie about rape with a shocking twist. This time a straight man gets sodomized by the criminals he's after. Richard Crenna gives a powerful and tender performance as a macho cop who thinks he's all that and ends up being violated sexually by two sadistic criminals in an alley. This is a tale that in reality I'm sure has happened to men but you never hear about it.
"To see a man like Richard Crenna go through the humiliation of rape was powerful and gripping. His emotional journey and the fact that he has been violated in such a terrible way is shocking. After he is raped, he becomes more aware of his emotions and his sensitivities as a man and his machoness a front to cover his tender side."
Jim: "The network was afraid of the subject matter. They didn't know how to sell it.
"In 1990, we helped put USA's movie nights on the map with The China Lake Murders. Until recently, it was the highest rated movie ever made for basic cable. It became a cult classic.
"In 1991, we made Crazy From the Heart starring Christine Lahti and Ruben Blades. It the first directing job for Christine's husband Thomas Schlamme. Tommy is now one of the executive producers of West Wing.
"When I started in television, there was a truism that everyone working in television wanted to be in features. In the last few years, we've seen that wall breakdown as the Jerry Bruckheimers, Scott brothers, Wolfgang Petersons work in television and the David Kelleys and Aaron Sorkins work in features.
"I remember one director who looked at a cut of a successful picture we did. He didn't like it. He said, 'Well, I'm a feature editor. I don't like the way you cut for television.' It was a silly statement.
"I remember the day when to approach a feature actor about a television project was anathema. There were big announcements when anybody would cross over. Now, look at the announcement yesterday that Robert Altman has chosen to do a three hour HBO television movie rather than a feature on Matahari. Look at the number of television series that are being turned into features."
Luke: "As you've become a bigger businessman, have you resented the time that's taken away from your writing?"
Jim: "No. But I noticed that the more I worked with the networks on TV movies, the more I found that I was writing projects to get film orders and I was losing my creative juices. I was painting by the numbers. I was fixing scripts for networks to get the order but it wasn't creatively what I wanted. That's the tightrope walk between art and commerce.
"Most of my time today is spent on business and I write occasionally when a project interests me.
"There are always rules that you get from people you pitch to. 'Oh, we're not doing those kind of movies.' You can always break those rules if you convince them that your project is good. I remember a conversation I had with a guy who was VP of movies for ABC. He said, 'I can tell you three things we're not looking for. We're not looking for baseball movies, anything about old people or anything about blacks.' The next day in the trades, the network announced The Story of Satchel Paige [an old black baseball player]."
Luke: "Have you ever had to risk your life for a project?"
Jim: "We made The Morris Dees Story . He's a lawyer in Alabama who's taken on the Klu Klux Klan and other white supremacy groups. Morris had been targeted for assassination on any number of occasions. We interviewed him at his home in Alabama. I remember when he picked us up at the airport in an armored car loaded with shotguns. We drove to his house and I remember the guards walking around with rifles folded across their arms. He lived in an armed camp. He's still a target of the right wing because he still fights them successfully.
"I wrote the script. We got some threatening anonymous calls for shining a light on the Klu Klux Klan's murder of a young black man in Mobile, Alabama in 1985. When you put together the various crimes, you realize that the white supremacy groups are tied to gether. Morris helped prove this. They're linked by similar goals and by the internet.
"You can't let someone bully you into not doing what you believe in. We took extra security precautions during the filming. I remember when you could call a number and get a message from the head of one of the white supremamcy groups in southern California. That recorded call would talk about us and about us doing the movie."
Luke: "Are you married with kids?"
Jim: "Yes. My wife understood what we were doing and she was behind me all the way. My wife was an Elementary school English teacher and for years I would go to her class and show a section of the film and she would teach about tolerance and racism and the right-wing and the Klan."
Luke: "What do you love and hate about the business?"
Jim: "I love that the business constantly forces us to use our creative juices and think of new ways to do things. We use the best of technology and creative artistry. It keeps us stimulated.
"I hate that there is so much human waste. This is a tough business on people. We've all heard stories about stars and executives who brutalize emotionally, who pound on people beneath them. I'm not a fan of the auteurs who beat the hell out of everybody beneath them to mold everyone to their vision. I don't think film is more important than people.
"Both of my kids (Rachel and Charlie) are pursuing acting. I never pushed them to enter this business. But when they perform, I'm there watching at every show. When my son played King Arthur in the musical Camelot, I saw every single performance and when my daughter recently played Annie Sullivan in the Miracle Worker, I saw the play ten times."