Producer Pierre David
I interviewed producer Pierre David July 12, 2002 at his Beverly Hills office.
Pierre: "I grew up in Montreal. My dad, Paul David, was a cardiologist. After his retirement, he became a senator. In Canada, senators are appointed, not elected. My mom was a writer under the name Anne-Marie. The eldest son, I was followed by four sisters and a brother. My eldest sister Francoise was the head of the women's federation of Quebec. My sister Therese helps run the Canadian TV network TQS. My sister AnneMarie teaches social work. My sister Helene is a psychologist. My brother Charles Phillip is a world authority on defense. He's a Fulbright scholar. He's published about six books.
"I spent almost three years in Rwanda, Africa. I was a high school teacher and then I worked with the government to help get them Canadian aid. I got my degree in teaching from the University of Montreal. I then went to Paris for a year to study public relations. I hung out with people from radio and became the Paris correspondent for a Montreal network. I worked for 15 years for the [French] Mutual Broadcasting Network based in Montreal.
"The owner decided to get into television. He decided to go to Cannes to buy movies for the network. We called our friends at Odeon Theaters, one of Canada's two large theater chains. We all went to Cannes in 1972. I knew nothing about movies. We came back with a couple of horrible Italian action movies with American stars who lived in Italy. It snowballed from there.
"I created Mutual Films. We were distributing up to 40 films a year, everything from Truffaut to Serge Leone's movies. Then French-Canadian filmmakers came to us to finance and distribute their movies. I started taking executive producer credits.
"I met Barbara Boyle and Bob Rehme who worked for Roger Corman. We started New World Mutual Films of Canada. Mutual Films being my company and New World being Roger Corman's company. We became the largest independent distributor in Canada. Tax shelters were flourishing in Canada. Hundreds of millions of dollars went into movies. There was more money than scripts.
"I made the David Cronenberg movies The Brood (1979), Scanners (1981) and Videodrome (1983). I also made some dogs. I should not touch comedy. Hog Wild, Gas. They are campy they are so bad.
"I was instrumental in Arnold Kopelson's career. When I first met him, around 1976, he was a lawyer in New York. He was doing tax deals. He brought in my 1981 movie Dirty Tricks.
"I was friendly with [Italian director] Sergio Leone. Sergio was upset at his American distributors. I told him that Arnold Kopelson would do well by him. I called Arnold."
Pierre: "Arnold, you know Sergio Leone?"
Pierre: "Sergio Leone. He makes spaghetti westerns."
Arnold: "Oh yeah, I've heard of him."
Pierre: "You can have his next movie."
Arnold: "Why would I want a movie by an Italian?"
Pierre: "You don't understand. These movies have a following."
Arnold: "Yeah, well, it'll be my standard deal. Tell him..."
Pierre: "No, no, no. This is an enormous name. You have to go to Rome to sell yourself."
Arnold: "What? Me have to go sell myself?"
Pierre: "You have to go sell yourself and trust me, you can make a lot of money."
Pierre: "So Arnold borrowed the money to fly first class because Arnold would never fly economy. He went to Rome. He was impressed by Leone. Saw his work. And Arnold came back with the movie My name is Nobody. Arnold made a deal with Universal Pictures for US distribution. I distributed it in Canada. Arnold made $300,000 and he used that money to buy his present house on Sunset Blvd.
"I moved to Los Angeles May 1, 1983. Arnold sponsored me for my greencard. He asked me to be president of his production company. I put at least 20 projects into development. I left as Platoon went into production.
"I remember when I called agent Jeff Berg at ICM, who represented Oliver Stone, and asked for an option on Platoon for a few months, he said, you can have any option you want. Nobody has been able to put it together and you won't be able to. It's a waste of time.
"It had gone to every producer.
"Platoon came to Arnold's desk. He read it. I read it. I found a domestic distribution deal. It was not easy as everybody had already passed on it.
"I went to Barbara Boyle (head of production under Mike Medavoy at Orion), who agreed to read it. She changed her mind about it because of her kids. They asked her what she was reading. She said a really good script about the Vietnam war, but who wants to see that? Her kids said, mom, we talk about Vietnam in school. We ask questions. We're interested. That was a revelation. She came back Monday morning and said, let's do this. Pierre, my kids want to know about the Vietnam War. What if other kids want to know about the Vietnam War? We will make the movie. We will give you the money for US rights.
"That immediately triggered the sale of the foreign rights and Arnold went to make the movie. We then parted company."
Luke: "What ended your relationship with Arnold Kopelson?"
Pierre: "Egos. We liked each other but we didn't see eye to eye and it became better that we didn't work together.
"I then became a partner with Larry Thompson, an important manager and maker of TV movies. He wanted to get into features.
"After a while, I decided I didn't want to be in a partnership anymore. I made a list of the things I wanted to do in life. I want to make decisions. I want to do things with Canada. I want to travel. I want to sell. I decided to create a sales company. I became the chairman and CEO of Image Organization. I opened my door in 1987. Over 12 years, I sold over $180 million worth of movies. I produced 30-40 movies, including martial arts movies and realistic thrillers. In 1997, I sold the company. It was a way to get out of the 18-hours a day, seven days a week work schedule I'd maintained all these years.
"I then went to WIN, where they asked me to keep making the same sort of thrillers, like The Perfect Tenant, The Perfect Nanny and The Perfect Wife. I like to make well-made low budget thrillers about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Over the past two years, I've had eight movie premieres on the Lifetime network.
"A couple of months ago, I asked myself again if I was going to retire. I decided no. I would start again. I revived my company Lance Entertainment. It's about my sixth reinvention of myself."
Luke: "Tell me about producer Denise Di Novi."
Pierre: "Denise DI Novi was introduced to me by Arnold Kopelson. They'd met on the movie Final Assignment. She was smart. She could read 15 scripts over a weekend and give succinct coverage. We were a good match. An interesting thing about this business is that there are times when it is good for two people to work together and it is good for you to split. Denise split and became a successful producer.
"The reason that David Cronenberg and I have not worked more together is that he became more esoteric. Because I come from distribution and marketing, when he wanted to make movies like Naked Lunch, I just didn't want to take the risk.
"I remember Bob Rehme from [Roger Corman's] New World Pictures. Who knew that this young wholesome guy would become president of the Academy [of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences].
"LA is a tough town. I always feel that I am on location here. I am not going to die here. I will go back to Montreal at some point. It took me many years to not live my life according to Variety. I'd wake up and see that this guy has been promoted. Let's have lunch with him. Lunch, dinner and breakfasts, everything was business. And if somebody lost his job at a studio, somebody I was developing projects with, and there was a management change, I was crushed. My projects were put into turnaround.
"I lived through Bob Rehme leaving Universal and Frank Price coming in. I was in the room when Bob heard. I saw all the politics and what it does to people, who are always on edge and afraid of losing something. You are so insecure. There is such a rage to succeed. It's not normal. It's not like this in other cities. In Montreal, we had a life. I had friends who were not in the business. Here every conversation, morning to night, from my dentist to potential girlfriends, is what are you doing? What can you do for me? What can I do for you?"
Luke: "Why have you never married?"
Pierre: "My shrink would have a much more complex answer but I think that I am a workaholic. I had something to prove to my family. I've had a girlfriend for three years. By the time your book is published, I will either be married and divorced, or married and happy or I will not have committed. God only knows."
Luke: "What does your body of work say about you?"
Pierre: "A lot of people have asked me, 'Why are you not making more movies like Internal Affair, Platoon, Deep Cover? Why have you decided to make so many low-budget movies? Why didn't you stay in the big movie business?'
"I don't like to have my projects at the mercy of a studio. I've had control over my low-budget movies. I've made the movies I've wanted to make.
"Even my own girlfriend says, 'Pierre, make bigger movies.' When you're not Scott Rudin or Joel Silver, you can't get everything you want made. I don't want to be one of the guys who schlep around scripts or projects they are trying to sell. I am making movies. Everything in my smaller movies has my signature. Nobody can change a line in the script without asking me. I check every costume, every car, every location."
I interview Pierre 7/31/02.
Luke: "Tell me about a producer you admire."
Pierre: "Jake Eberts, who wrote My Indecision is Final, a big thick book that I couldn't put down. I admire him because: A. He did high quality projects like Chariots of Fire, The Mission and Gandhi. B. He made them independently, raising the money from everywhere. C. He was an active producer. D. He followed the release and made sure the movie got the optimal audience.
"Some people go the studio route, which is much easier. Some people do split rights with foreign and domestic. I admire people who take risks and jump through hoops to get it done. What I don't admire is people filming deals. You get the money from France and Luxembourg, now what can fit it? Let's devise something."
Luke: "I read an interesting article by Jeffrey Wells about Hollywood players like John Carpenter who've fallen apart after they split from their wife."
Pierre: "There are good teams that together are able to do good stuff and when they split, they can't get it together. Some people work better alone. Arnold and Anne Kopelson work together well. I'm in offices with two other producers, Tom Bery and Michael Levy. We are happy when one of us has something that happens. It gives us energy and motivation."
Luke: "Who are some of the most memorable personalities you've encountered in your career?"
Pierre: "[Italian director] Sergio Leone. I got to know him well because I was distributing his movies in Canada. First I had to convince him that I was the right person to acquire his movies. His spaghetti westerns were enormously popular in French Canada. I went to his house many times in Rome. He was a force of nature. He was a visionary. I saw him shooting a movie in the middle of a desert in Arizona. And he was totally at ease. He captured a certain feel for America. He had passion and enthusiasm that was contagious. He was eccentric, dictatorial, difficult, moody and brilliant.
"I remember taking him on his first trip to Canada. Everybody wanted to meet him, including Pierre Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada. I went to dinner at Pierre's house with Sergio and Arnon Milchan. After dinner, Pierre, Serge and Arnon started a long conversation on film. Meanwhile, Margaret showed me the house and we ended smoking together and talking about her problems with the prime minister. They were about to separate.
"I admired Claude Lelouch [sentimental French director]. He built an empire with his own production and distribution company. He made the movies he wanted to make.
"Ned Tanen is the kind of executive I wish every studio had. Passionate, supportive and willing to risk. He told me once, 'Pierre, you are so passionate about this, go do it. I will give you a few dollars.' People who've worked with Ned Tanen will tell you that as complex and moody and eccentric as he was, he had a true passion for what he did.
"Yes, he passed on some movies he shouldn't have. He told me I was crazy to try to pursue Platoon. But at least he made decisions. He didn't go through committees.
"David Cronenberg. Talk about complex. This guy started as a maker of C movies but quickly made movies that people talked about and he achieved cult status. We parted ways because he wanted to take more risk than I was willing to take. Naked Lunch for example. I couldn't understand it. He makes movies that nobody else does. He found a way to be an original and stay in Toronto and not be contaminated by the system.
"I loved to work with him because it was never about ego. It was about what's right for the movie. If I could rationally convince him he was wrong, he'd change in a minute.
"Writer Henry Bean. I met him on Internal Affairs and then we did Deep Cover together. He's open to discussing points and he will never let it go until we come to an understanding. On our two movies, we wanted to go deep into our characters, and not just do action movies."
Luke: "Are there things you do just for appearances?"
Pierre: "When I came to LA, I thought the only way to succeed here was to spend my life wooing people. I almost never had a dinner where I did not invite an executive from a studio or a director or writer. I did this constantly for a couple of years. Then, I became frustrated. I was spending no time with my real friends.
"I have not found being social has made an enormous difference. I no longer feel I need to cultivate every agent. If I find the right project and acquire the right rights, the agents will call me. I now prefer to spend time developing a script than to go to party after party.
"Some people go to parties, meet people and develop projects. Look at Elie Samaha. He's the reverse of me. He's made a business out of socializing. He gets the stars and then the stars bring the financing for the projects."
Luke: "Which of your movies have been the most heartbreaking?"
Pierre: "Videodrome, just after Scanners. The production was well planned. Universal was our partner. My first studio partner. We had James Woods, Debbie Harry. I thought we had an exceptional movie. Then we tested it in Boston and it was a disaster. People walked out. People booed. In hindsight, we were probably ahead of our time. It became a cult classic on video. There's not a week that goes by without several people telling me, 'Oh my God, you made Videodrome, one of the best movies of its time.'
"Universal said, 'Good job Pierre. You delivered the movie you promised. The timing is wrong.'"
Luke: "The one project you are most disappointed not making?"
Pierre: "The Practice. A script I developed at Mutual in Canada about doctors influenced by drug companies. Universal bought it. It then went to Paramount. It ended up at Columbia. I had it all set to go. Tom Mankiewitz was going to direct. Ted Danson was going to star. Five weeks before shooting, Ted Danson pulled out. We could never get it back on track."
Luke: "What does your body of work says about you?"
Pierre: "Someone looking at the whole body of work, since my French-Canadian films to my bigger films to my smaller films, would be confused.
"I protect my independence. I've always done what I wanted to do. I've always been my own boss. I've always wanted to have control to make the movies I want to make. I am not going to wait and wait on a project, and put months and years of energy behind it, and then not see it happen. I'm a control freak. I'm dedicated to producing quality. Unless they talk to me, they would not understand why I haven't made more big movies. The reason is that I prefer to work hard in my office and make things happen in my own way."
Luke: "You don't like pitching?"
Pierre: "I hate to sell. I'm supposedly good at it. If I'm convinced of something, I hate having to convince somebody else."
I point to a picture on the wall.
Luke: "How did you get that picture with Ronald Reagan?"
Pierre: "My friend Clark Petersen was friendly with someone working on Reagan's staff. So one day, Clark asked me if I wanted to meet Ronald Reagan. I said absolutely. It was a year after he left office. It was wonderful. We spoke for about an hour about movies. He showed me stuff on the wall about all the movies he made. He told me anecdotes. He forgot some of them. He told, it was touching, 'I don't know what's happening to me these days. I keep forgetting stuff.' It was the early stages of Alzheimers. Politics was barely mentioned. I was talking to an actor who was happy to talk to a person in the business that he knew so well.
"His charisma was unbelievable. When he smiled and said hello, he made you feel like a million bucks. I understand why this guy was so popular."
Luke: "Have you ever worked on a film that's changed you?"
Luke: "Have you ever made films that have changed other people?"
Pierre: "Maybe more in my French Canadian art phase. Those films had more of a message. Panic was about water pollution. The movies I've made in the States are pure entertainment."
Luke: "Are there common themes that you like to explore in your movies?"
Pierre: "I've always been intrigued by obsession. I'm intrigued by the behavior of people who surprise me. I found out that five percent of nannies have a criminal record. I kept hearing from people, 'All nannies are weird.' I heard all these bizarre stories about nannies. That inspired my movie for Lifetime, The Perfect Nanny. I created the character of a woman who's obsessing with the man of the house, a widower. I directed Serial Killer. It dealt with the Catholic upbringing of Kim Delaney. I'm fascinated by serial killers. I read all of John Douglas's books [criminal profiler]. I like to present characters who are far out - psychopaths, sociopaths..."
Luke: "Have you noticed common ways that producers illegally line their pockets?"
Pierre: "There's this image of the producer with a Rolls Royce and a cigar. Like every other profession, producers are a mixed bag. You don't train to be a producer. You don't get a diploma to be a producer. It's like a manager. Anyone can be a manager or a producer. You have characters from all walks of life becoming producers. Some do it because they love film, because they want to make money, because they want to f--- the stars, because they want the high life, because they want to go to Cannes...
"If you want to be dishonest, you can. There are all sorts of ways. You can sell stuff to yourself. You can make a deal with the supplier of the camera for a percentage [kickback]. You can inflate certain costs. You can sell the rights to a movie for a certain price, make the movie for much less, and put all the money in your pocket. I think it's less possible [to do these things] as the industry becomes more structured, with all kinds of checks and controls, and more auditing, and more corporate and public companies.
"I see a lot of producers who cut their fees and invest part of their salary to get the movie made. I've done that.
"The image of all the big producers smoking cigars and eating at Ma Maison may have been true in the 1980s, but it isn't now. Sure, you may cheat on a few expense accounts and bill a few lunches and dinners to the production, sure, everybody does that. It's peanuts. I consider myself very honest. I've never stiffed anybody."
Luke: "The popular image is that producers are sleazeballs.
"What impact have the Weinsteins had on the independent scene?"
Pierre: "Enormous. It showed you could make money on independent films. Bob Shaye [CEO of New Line] proved it. Mark Amin [Lions Gate] proved it. The Weinsteins proved it. I remember paying for dinner for Bob Shaye's team in Cannes because they didn't have the money to go to a good restaurant. It was right before Nightmare on Elm Street, when the company almost went bankrupt."
Pierre's girlfriend Sophie walks in. They go to lunch.