I sat down with producer Morris Ruskin November 2, 2001 at his Shoreline Entertainment office in Century City.
Standing 6'5" and hailing from Cape Town, South Africa, Morris is easy to get along with but difficult to get to know. He chooses his words carefully and it is hard to tell what he's thinking.
Ruskin's best known film is 1992's Glengarry Glen Ross. He developed the project, signed on the actors and helped find the financing. This highly regarded art film written by David Mamet stars Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin, Alan Arkin, Ed Harris and Kevin Spacey.
Lakeboat is an adaptation of David Mamet's comic play Lakeboat about a grad student who takes a summer job on a Great Lakes freighter and sees life through the eyes of his low-brow crew members.
The Visit describes a young man dying in prison who brings his family together for a fateful visit, and then proceeds to put his life back together.
Morris did his Bachelor's degree in Communications at UCLA while writing scripts and working as an intern at MTV. Knowing his passion was film, and not wanting to get sucked into television, he took a job as a story editor for the independent production company Zupnik Enterprises, which was financed by Stanley Zupnik, a developer out of Chevy Chase, Maryland.
"That ended my writing career," says Ruskin, "because I started reading scripts seven days a week. I also worked as a PA on the movie Wild Fire."
Ruskin became Director of Development and eventually Vice President, working with such writers as Terrence McNally and Tom Cole and directors Robert Wise, John Frankenheimer and Irvin Kershner. Ruskin oversaw production, financing, and foreign sales.
"Glengarry Glen Ross was a passion project. I saw the whole thing through with my boss Jerry Tokofsky. I first read the Pulitzer prize winning play in 1986. It obviously wasn't a studio film. I saw the play in Los Angeles. Stanley Zupnik stepped up to the plate and bought the rights. David Mamet did the adaptation right away.
"Once Al Pacino signed on to the movie, we went forward with the financing, which was driven by distribution deals. Foreign sales accounted for half the $12.8 million budget. Then a huge chunk came from Live Home Video and Showtime. Then New Line stepped in towards the end to guarantee a domestic theatrical release. They put up three million dollars in print and ad money.
"We shot the movie over eight weeks in 1991 in New York, part of the time at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens where they were shooting the office set of the Cosby Show in Queens. When I'd walk by Bill Cosby's office, he'd call out, 'Young man, young man. Please come in for a minute. Eat, eat...' And I'd listen to his stories for a while."
Luke: "What was the box office?"
Morris: "About $11 million for the US. Everyone did all right with the movie. It was a good piece for New Line. They'd just released Ninja Turtles. Glengarry Glen Ross was part of making their reputation as a bigger player, someone who releases more than just Freddy Krueger movies."
In 1992, Ruskin moved on from Zupnik Enterprises to form his own independent production and distribution company Shoreline Entertainment with partner Mary Skinner, who was bought out in 1998 by Morris's current partner Vicky Pike.
"In 1995, we became a worldwide sales company. And so we had to focus in more on what the market wanted as opposed to what are those cool independent films we want to make. We produce about three films a year and pick up about three films a year from other producers. We get offered a lot of nice movies but we have to choose the stuff that will sell."
Luke: "What films stir your passion?"
Morris: "I look back on the films I've made and I realize there was a reason in some part of my life for why I was so compelled to do that movie. I made Glengarry Glen Ross when I was still new to the business and feeling the stress of the business. I then went through a series of father-son movies including Brittle Glory aka Continued Adventures of Reptile Man and His Faithful Sidekick Tadpole.
"Reptile Man is about an actor who used to portray a super hero during the 1960s and 30 years later, he still puts on a cape and goes to car shows... Over the years, he's hired different sidekicks, called Tadpole, and they keep leaving him because the guy's a belligerent jerk. At that time, I was going through leaving my boss Jerry Tokofsky.
"Jerry treated me like a son. It was hard for me to move on but I had to move on from Glengarry Glen Ross.
"I made The Price Of Glory aka The Ortegas, a father-son story about a boxer who never made it. He trains his sons to meet his dream. So, is he their manager or their father?
"The Visit, made in the year 2000, was also a father - son story. I only figured these things out later."
Luke: "Are you in therapy?"
Morris: "No, my therapy is in making movies. I know why I was attracted to The Man From Elysian Fields, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival September 13, 2001. It's about a writer who struggles to make ends meet. He finally makes a deal with the devil to survive."
Luke: "Is that your story?"
Morris: "No, I've never made a deal with the devil. It's come up but I've never made that deal. But it is a struggle getting these independent films made. Sometimes you have to make commercial movies that you're not compelled to make, because it is what the market wants. Like Thrillers. We just hope to make good thrillers."
Luke: "How sure are you what the market wants?"
Morris: "I'm sure because we're out in the market place. We talk to distributors every day. We hear them say, we don't want any of those talking movies. We don't want any dramas. We don't want any comedies. We just want thrillers.
"And then as we're making it - we go through the same thing. How does James Spader work for you? How does William Baldwin work for you? How does Tom Beringer work for you? The distributors know what works in their market."
Luke: "Why doesn't Hollywood make more G-rated films when they make more profits than R-rated films?"
Morris: "Let me tell you about another father-son movie I'm really proud of, Flight of Fancy."
A use of IMDB.com reviews the film: "This was a lovely family film which explored the relationship between a pilot, Clay (Dean Cain) and a boy, Gabriel (Kristen de la Osa), and the boy's obsession with Clay's plane which he believes speaks to him. They both have to come to terms with their fears. Clay is forced to face up to the fact that he is running away from himself and that he has to reassess his life. Gabriel learns to face the fact that his mother is to marry again and that he will have a stepfather, whom he comes to accept by the end of the film. The empathy between Dean Cain and Kristen de la Osa was the cornerstone of the story. They say never act with children but Dean was totally at ease with Kristen. Both turned in outstanding performances. The Puerto Rican scenery was another bonus, to this film which is suitable for all ages."
Morris: "It's a nice sweet sentimental film but the market didn't respond. It got good reviews and played well at the festivals. If you're a studio and you're making bigger budgeted G-rated films, that's one thing. There is a big market. But if you're an independent, I don't think you'll get noticed in the market place with G-rated films. You'll become filler programming. Yes, they'll rent but a kid will pick up Lion King four times before Flight of Fancy. Yes we'll play Showtime and Encore, but will we play the networks? Teenagers aren't going to see a kid's film."
Luke: "How many theaters do you get to see your films?"
Morris: "The Visit opened on 200 screens this year. That's been our biggest. Lakeboat has been doing a slow crawl across the United States one theater at a time. It opened in New York and moved to Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco. When you make films for a small amount of money, you know going in that you're making it for the video and cable market."
Luke: "So you make most of your money from video and cable sales?"
Morris: "Yes. Most of it comes from the minimum guarantees. We don't count on the film ever going into profit [for the distributors who will then send part of that to Shoreline]. We have to figure out the budget for our movie based on what we think the market will pay us. We end up backing into these things. And that's why we always end up making thrillers, because we know our market. We know how much we will get from Germany, Spain, France. Then we can figure out what we will get out of the United States."
Shoreline's biggest budgeted film has been the $12 million The Man From Elysian Fields starring Andy Garcia, Mick Jagger, James Coburn and Anjelica Huston.
Morris: "All these movies becomes projects from the heart because you put so much effort into them."
Luke: "How does a really smart well-educated person like yourself justify to yourself making comic book movies based on Judge Dredd?"
Morris: "I love movies. I grew up with James Bond movies. I like to be entertained. We've just made the creature feature Tail Sting about genetically altered scorpions shipped on a plane across the ocean and they escape the cargo hold. They grow. I can't think of anything more ridiculous but it is a fun entertaining movie. We developed the script from scratch and made it a love story."
According to Shoreline Entertainment: "Prepared for a routine flight across the Pacific, lonely widower and pilot Jack Russell maneuvers his jet into the sky and unknowingly tightens the gap between his passengers and doom. Lying dormant in the craft's hull is a secret shipment of genetically engineered Scorpion fetuses, the creation of Dr. Jennifer Ryan and her team of biochemists for the purpose of discovering a vaccine. At the same time, Yaffi and his brother Sudan sneak onto the airplane speaking in hushed tones about a conspiracy of their own; to smuggle themselves into America. One of Jennifer's most trusted colleagues uses this opportunity to break into the cargo hold and steal the Scorpions. Each fetus sleeps submerged in a jell liquid inside its own glass container. While transferring the fetuses from their secure metal unit the scientist is discovered by security. A desperate fight ensues, containers break, and the Scorpions open their ugly black eyes."
Morris: "Sylvester Stallone made a Judge Dredd studio movie. We're reinventing the franchise. Like Tim Burton did with Batman. Theater audiences would rather see a remake of Chicago than a new play by Tom Stoppard. I know A.R. Gurney. His son was my best friend who lived across the street from me in Boston. I know David Mamet, Tom Cole, Terence McNally from the business. I know Jon Robin Baitz from high school. I know Tom Stoppard because my mother did her dissertation on him. I love their plays bu the business is in the Lion King, Mama Mia, Cats. There is nothing wrong this either as these plays are incredibly entertaining. The sets and costumes are creative.
"I see Judge Dreed like a musical. We can be creative within the genre and make spectacular entertainment - although I promise there will be no songs."
Luke: "Has September 11 affected your movie production?"
Morris: "We're shooting a movie in South India, and even though it is nowhere near Afghanistan, there is still a reluctance of talent to fly. It was difficult enough before September 11 to get people to go to India.
"September 11 changes your subconscious decision making. And I know a director who was working on a terrorism-ridden script about a hijacking. That project's a bust. Who knows what people want to see? I think it is too early to say. Pop culture is affected by the subconscious and everybody seems to be attuned to the same thing at the same time even though you're not sure what it is. Or why you want to see something. Now this is so in your face."
Luke: "What do you think of Robert Altman's comments that Hollywood was responsible for the events of September 11?"
Morris: "I think it is farfetched. I studied the effects of media on people at UCLA. Who is to blame? Movies because they have these outrageous ideas of crashing airplanes into buildings or the news media because they give ideas to terrorists. Or would terrorists come up with these ideas anyway? I think that television and movies definitely have an enormous impact on the world. People can see what other people have. I remember the days of the TV series Dallas. That show went over to Russia and many Russians got the idea that that was how Americans lived."
Luke: "If the reality that movies can have an enormous impact on the world, are you exercising moral responsibility?"
Morris: "Yes. My partner Vicky Pyke is a religious Jew. Are we put off by excessive violence? Yes. I wouldn't make Robocop for example. I think a certain element of action and adventure, a James Bond type, is unrealistic and cathartic and fun."
Luke: "If you had the ability to distribute Lolita or something like it?"
Morris: "If a script came to me that dealt with that issue, I'd be resistant."
Luke: "Your parents see your films?"
Morris: "My mom passed away in 1989 but my dad seems to like everything I make.
"My mom got her Ph.D. in theater arts and ran a theater in San Francisco. Before that, she directed plays. Before she married, in South Africa, she was an actress. My father did his graduate work at Harvard Business School.
"My sister Cindy Ruskin wrote The Quilt: Stories from the Names Project (about AIDS victims) which was made into a documentary film."
The Quilt is dedicated to preserving the memory of those who have died and increasing national awareness of the disease.
"Susan Ruskin produces films (Vacuums, Woman in Red, Anaconda). She ran Gene Wilder's company for nine years.
"And Karen works for my dad's irrigation business."
Morris has been married since 1988 to an American girl named Karna. They have two kids.
Luke: "Walk me through how a movie gets made."
Morris: "Gregory Gieras, a friend I made Super 8mm films with in high school, came to me with this script called Asylum. He got the script into a bidding war between a few companies, New Line, Live Home Video which became Artisan Entertainment, and Trimark. He ended up going with Trimark believing they would produce the film right away. Trimark never made the film and he got into another bidding war. Lakeshore ended up picking it up. They were going to make it for a big budget. But the project died there. So Gregory came back to me and said Morris, 'What can you do?'
"We got it out of Lakeshore with turnaround costs and we pre-sold that movie 100% with distribution deals. We made a deal with HBO for the cable premiere and Lions Gate for video."
Luke: "Did you have to sign certain actors before you got the distribution deals?"
Morris: "We told the market that it would be a certain level of cast and the buyers knew we could deliver what we said. It ended up starring Judd Nelson, Larry Drake, and Paulina Porizkova. We did enough contracts through pre-sales, took the pre-sales to the bank. The bank loaned us the money and we made the movie in Romania, through the studio Media Pro in the middle of nowhere, 30 minutes outside of Bucharest, to save money. It's hard to make an action thriller on a small budget.
"It was hell and it was great. We shot for four weeks, six days a week. The Romanians built a whole sewer system for us and made incredible sets. We needed big rats for a scene and they assured us they'd have them. On the day of the rats, come these big white guinea pigs. 'Don't worry, we will spray paint them grey and pin a tail on them.' No, don't worry, we don't need the rats. Let the poor guinea pigs go."
Luke: "Do you include those trailers, 'No animals were hurt in the making of this film'?"
Morris: "Yes we do. They send us all these forms and we fill them out. There were no animals in the movie so none were hurt.
"I ended up sending my sister to the studio where she made Vacuums. They were great people who meant well, you just have to go through a lot of red tape. It's a different culture and a different system. I figured out that I had to go to the guy at the head of the studio to get what I needed. If he guaranteed they'd take care of it, they actually took care of it.
"They want business. They want people to come back."
Luke: "What's your dream?"
Morris: "To have the flexibility that I have now with the distribution of the studios. A place like 20th Century Fox would be great because you have Fox Searchlight so you can make projects that are more interesting and edgy. Or you can go through Fox 2000 or Fox proper.
"The running joke between Vicky and I is when someone comes in and asks, 'Who's head of marketing?' That would be me. 'Who's head of production?' That's me. 'Who writes the synopses or reads the screenplays?' That would be me. 'Who finds the directors and the talent?' That's me. Who develops the scripts? Who keeps the film on budget? Who sells the films? Who puts together the financing? Who oversees post production? Who creates the posters and trailers? That's me. We're hands on. People at studios have one narrow job. On any given day, I'm trying to get a distribution deal, developing a script from a book or play, casting another picture, setting up a production on one picture and post-production on another picture. I get a certain adrenalin out of that. It keeps it interesting and fascinating."
Luke: "What's your favorite part of all those roles?"
Morris: "Working with a writer. Shaping a script is the most interesting. You have the most creative control. And the post-production. Film production is usually four or five weeks of crisis management."
Luke: "How has the market surprised you the most?"
Morris: "It never gets easier. Every year it's a tighter market. I'm always waiting for a return to the good ol' days when you could sell anything. You could just go in with a poster and sell it.
"I'm sometimes disenchanted when I go to film markets and you see all these shoot-em-up exploitation films. It disenchants me that everything comes down to that at the end of the day. My partner Vicky Pike has this thing about not too many dead bodies. Yes, we have to give the market what it wants, but not necessarily something so crass as just violence and T&A."
Read another interview with Morris Ruskin here.