Producer Richard C. Berman

I interviewed producer Richard C. Berman (Grumpy Old Men) at his Lancaster Gate Entertainment office in Encino, April 25, 2002.

He's tall and skinny and his hands and feet move a lot as we talk.

Richard: "I acted a lot in school. At Ohio State, I directed plays. After graduating college with a double major in Speech and Education, I taught for a couple of years. I got fed up with the education system. I did the casting for a couple of shows (Juvenile Judge and Traffic Court) on the CBS affiliate in Columbus, Ohio. In 1972, I moved to Los Angeles. I started as an agent's assistant and worked my way to becoming an agent. I was an agent for 15 years and then, in 1990, I became a manager and a producer.

"It was an easy transition. I did many of the things that a producer does as an agent. I developed and sold projects. I set up Don't Tell Mom the Baby-sitter's Dead, Can't Buy Me Love and a number of television movies. I find that management and production go hand in hand. It makes me stay on top of my game. I noticed that when I was an agent that producers who came to me on a project, and didn't have anything else going, they were out of the loop.

"They'd come to me and say, 'I need to get back into it. I have projects that I want to sell.' And I'd say, 'Who do you know? What are your relationships that we can use?' And they'd say, 'Well, such and such at the studio.' And I'd say, 'They're not there anymore.' And then they'd name someone else who was no longer in position. And you'd begin to see the panic set in in their face. And I said that I would never get into that situation. With management, you are constantly working with what's current. You have to stay on top of who is saying in what seat, and maintain those relationships."

Luke: "Tell me about Grumpy Old Men."

Richard: "The writer [Mark Steven Johnson] was a client. He was an undiscovered writing talent. I had a personal deal with Davis Entertainment (John Davis in Century City). We set it up at Warner Brothers. I told John, 'This project is going to legitimize you.' Because he'd been doing [little] projects up to that point...

"Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon were always our first choice [for the lead roles] but the studio wouldn't initially let us make an offer. They wanted us to look at other people. We went all around the barn and then came back to Jack and Walter.

"I was on set. I was there when they shot the wedding scene outside in 30 degrees below zero weather. The actors remembered that I was out there in the early morning 'freezing my ass off.'"

Luke: "What was it like trying to pitch Grumpy Old Men in Hollywood's youth obsessed culture?"

Richard: "That was when the youth movement wasn't so strong. I think now it would be more difficult to do. Warner Brothers said they loved the script and that they wanted to make it their next Driving Miss Daisy.

"Warners bought another [similar] project at the same time - Wrestling Ernest Hemingway. We were running a foot race at the studio. Because that project had Randa Haines attached to direct it was regarded as the more prestigious project. We were the stepchild. They thought Wrestling Ernest Hemingway would pick up Oscars. They assembled a distinguished cast.

"But when it came time for testing, Grumpy tested much better. And every time we tested it, the scores kept getting higher. Ultimately, we were the ones that got the push [big studio marketing campaign]. The studio felt ours was a more commercial movie to market."

From a Wrestling Ernest Hemingway review on Imdb.com: "It is worth comparing with the glitzy and ineffective "Grumpy Old Men", which tried to be both serious and a comedy and failed at both. This is the `serious' half of that movie done right, even brilliantly. The odd title comes from Frank's story - repeated ad nauseum to anyone whose ear he can grab - about how he once wrestled Ernest Hemingway in 1936. The screenplay is touching in a restrained way that is all the more effective for its restraint. No tear-jerker scenes to wring the emotion from the audience, and yet it is more emotionally powerful than a lot of run-of-the-mill hankie-twisters. The plot moves to a predictably sad ending, but then moves beyond that to a quiet reaffirmation of life."

Richard: "My company gravitates towards projects that are not just entertaining but will affect people. That's rewarding. That's probably the educator in me that still wants to affect the audience. There are a lot of movies out there that I will look at and say, 'I would never make that movie.' Is it a successful movie? Yes but it is not something I would attach my name to. And maybe because of that, we end up taking projects that are difficult to sell. But usually those are the ones that end up having the most rewards at the end."

Luke: "Do you ever insist that someone take you on as a producer if they want to use your actor?"

Richard: "If I feel I have something to contribute, yes."

Luke: "Are you married, children?"

Richard: "No. My clients are my children.

"I enjoy my work but there are other things in my life. You have to get away from it or you will burn yourself out. This is a business that will take someone right down and then throw them away. I've seen a lot of hotshot agents and casting directors, not to mention talent, that have burned out. Nobody knows where they are now.

"A lot of these guys in their 20s eat, sleep and drink the business. And you have to do that initially. They're hungry and ambitious but you have to shift or you will burn yourself out."

Luke: "As you've pitched your projects, have there been any areas with secret taboos that have surprised you?"

Richard: "Yes. We've made some of them. We made this movie for the USA network called Secret Cutting [2000] that the other networks were scared to death to do. It was about self mutilation. We got over 2500 emails from the audience. People said, 'Thank you for helping me. I was thinking of becoming a cutter and after seeing the movie I now know what I need to do.' That was rewarding for us. We knew it was not going to be an easy sell."

From Imdb.com: "I have a loved one who has engaged in this type of activity. This movie was both painful and insightful to watch. Having lived through all of the emotions and feelings of the parents and friends, it was strange to realize that this condition is much more common than I had ever imagined. It was also a strong impetus to show this movie to my loved one and help them through the issues, as much as I could. It has been a long time since anything else has happened, and I believe that this movie had a bit of an impact."

Richard: "You should've seen the responses we got from the major networks about the subject matter. 'Blood all over the screen? I don't think so.' One executive said to me, 'Oh, this sounds icky.'"

Luke: "How does media consolidation affect you?"

Richard: "You mean vertical integration [where one entity owns many phases of the production and distribution process, like AOL Time Warner]? I understand what they're doing. There are some things that come across my desk that make me wince. I can't go into details. We do too much business with Disney and these other companies. And it is probably going to become more [consolidated] rather than less in the future.

"You can tell a difference in the way companies are run. We had a project at one of these vertical integration companies and it just became difficult to do business. And it was a place where we had done a lot of business in the past. The practices of the parent company are imposed so strongly on these companies that the way they do business is dramatically affected. And it just takes forever to hear back on a project, and we have to just take that ride with them. "