Producer Stanley Isaacs
I met writer-producer Stanley Isaacs at Starbucks on Larchmont Drive, near Beverly Blvd, in Los Angeles, July 17, 2002. He sports a large earring.
We sit outside. I sip my hot cup of Green Tea.
Isaacs has produced five low budget films and written four. He's been married for 20 years to motion picture marketing executive Cheryl Boone Isaacs. They have a seven year-old son Cooper.
Stanley: "Times are tough and are getting uglier.
"I was born and raised in New York City. I've always loved movies. I studied acting for two years at the Neighborhood Playhouse. I shied away from the business for a long time because of the economic pressures of making a living. After years in marketing and advertising and sales, I drifted back in.
"I took a class in 1975 in independent film production by a former rabbi, Herb Freed. He'd directed several movies. He'd married an actress. One night producer Sandy Howard came to talk to the group. He went from picture to picture to picture, always financially behind, using one movie to pay off the other. He was a maverick independent producer in the Roger Corman, Sam Arkoff mold.
"Somebody asked Sandy a question. 'How do you become a producer?' And Sandy deadpanned to the audience, the next time you meet somebody and they ask what you do, tell them you're a film producer. It's one of the few businesses in the world where you can say you have a few projects you're developing and nobody can say you are not.
"What does a producer do? He finds material or talent or money and puts them together. What training do you need for that?
"My first movie making experience... I was the associate producer on an ultra low budget 1978 film, The Great Skycopter Rescue. It was the kind of thing you wish you were never involved with. It was a ten-car pileup. It was ugly.
"On the first day of shooting, in a state building in Sacramento, and I walked into a bathroom before we started shooting, and one of the lead actors was standing over the sink, snorting cocaine. We shut down production after the first day because it was such a mess. I stepped in and took over more responsibility but it didn't matter because the movie was destined for failure.
"I had a friend, Alan Jay Glueckman, who'd written screenplays for several different studios. When I came back from location, he suggested that we should work on a project together. We conceived an idea. His agent got us an appointment at Disney. We went to a friend of ours who did concept art work for a one-sheet [movie poster] for the idea. We walked in, pitched the story, showed the art work, and got a deal to write and produce a big expensive action adventure movie. And I'd never written anything before beyond a postcard.
"I spent a year at Disney working on the script. It was the greatest on the job training in the world. I was paid to learn the craft of putting together a movie.
"We asked Disney to allow us to develop the movie in a similar fashion to how they develop animated features. We wanted to sit down with a storyboard sketch artist and have him storyboard the movie as we tell him the story.
"Every day we would sit down with this marvelous man, John Jensen, a brilliant wacky professor type who'd worked with Cecil DeMille and Alfred Hitchcock, and tell him the segment of the story we were working on. The three characters walk into the room and the villains are there and this is what happens.
"We'd come back the next morning and in our office were hundreds of sketches. Then we would write from the pictures. People would read the script and say, 'This is one of the most visually telling scripts we've ever read.' And we'd snicker to ourselves because we were just writing from the pictures.
"Unfortunately, the writers strike hit in 1981 and turned the business off kilter and killed our project.
"Most movies developed never get made. In the eighties, all the studios had hundreds of projects in development. They'd make about 15 a year. If you had any kind of a good idea, and any way of getting an appointment with a studio executive, and any ability to pitch a project, it was a glorious time.
"My other most memorable moment was producing the 1994 film Last Gasp. It was written by David Twohy, who wrote Terminal Velocity, The Fugitive, GI Jane, and Pitch Black. It was set in the American Southwest. The production company, in an effort to save money, made us film it in Bucharest, Romania.
"That was three months of my most schizophrenic time. I had several opportunities to go sightseeing in Italy and Turkey but I wouldn't leave the country because I knew I'd never return to the production.
"I remember we were going to shoot part of the movie in India. Ed Feldman had just returned from producing a movie in India. ,I asked him about my going to India. Do you have any advice? He said, 'Don't. But if you must go, bring a suitcase full of food.' Ultimately we never went to India but I did pack a suitcase full of food for Romania, where the food was wretched.
"When I went to the airport in Romania [in 1994] to pick up the star of the movie, Robert Patrick, we got in the car and drove through the streets of the city. He turns and gives me one of those Terminator glares and says to me, 'What year are we in?' It was perfect. It was not, 'What country?' Or, 'Where are we?' It was, 'What year are we in?' Because it looked like the early sixties. The countryside and environment looked like bombed out Berlin.
"You see the uniformed armed guards with automatic weapons standing over you as you went through customs. The buildings were old and full of rubble. The cars were old and funky. You had a sense of being in a time warp."
"The director was Scott McGinnis. After we wrapped production, Scott, Robert and I joined forces and started a production company (360 Entertainment). We produced two movies (Within the Rock and Ravager). I love the low budget sci-fi world.
"Within the Rock was made two years before Armageddon. It was about a giant meteorite on a collision course with earth and a team of drillers is sent to plant explosive charges deep within it to blow the meteorite out of orbit. The movie was released in Japan under the name Armagheddon. We got excellent reviews and a lot of press. Ravager, not as successful, was a variation on the old John Ford movie Stagecoach, but set in outer space. A mixed bag of characters on the run forced into a hostile situation. I met one of my current partners on the movie, Pat Corbitt, who's been in the computer imaging business for 30 years. He sold us two effects shots for within the rock. His company did all the effects shots on Ravager.
"We're finishing the movie Megalodon. Though made for a minimal budget, we have almost 500 computer images in the picture, including submarines, sharks, helicopters, ice storms, undersea oil drilling... An unheard of amount of material for a picture made for about $2 million. And all the images done on a computer. Though we can't afford to put big stars in our movies of this budget, we can afford big special effects.
"Megalodon is about a huge prehistoric shark that was more ferocious than the tyranosaurus. It was 60-feet long. We're already planning a sequel based on a guy we met in Florida who does fossil expedition boat tours and they're constantly finding Megalodon fossils.
"The toughest thing will be finding somebody willing to invest the millions of dollars [in prints and advertising] necessary to make the film work on a theatrical release.
"I'm on the steering committe of the Writers Guild and we've just put together a new under $750,000 agreement to entice current members and aspiring writers to join the Guild by creating a window of opportunity where they can produce or sell a project made for $750,000 and under a Guild contract. That's never happened before. The Directors Guild and the Screen Actors Guild have had those kind of agreements."
Luke: "What are the advantages and disadvantages of being married to somebody in the business?"
Stanley: "I don't think there are disadvantages as long as your spouse understands that your job as a producer requires that you be gone a lot. I spent six months last year in New Jersey working on Megalodon.
"If you can withstand the separation, and the frustration you inevitably encounter when things don't go your way. You live on an emotional rollercoaster. I don't know how two actors can stay together because they're dealing with such fragile egos.
"Cooper is clearly my child. I sit with him weekly and show him old sci-fi movies from the 1950s. He loves giant creature movies. He's constantly asking questions about how did they do this and that."
Luke: "Has it changed you as a writer and a producer to be a father?"
Stanley: "Absolutely. I get to see life through his eyes. I get to see his innocence. I've always had the notion, but it's been stronger since I became a dad, to infuse, even in our little low-budget sci-fi pictures, some life-affirming positiveness. I hate watching these sci-fi movies that present a dark future. My wife and I look at these movies and wonder if these filmmakers have kids.
"I wish studios would release sanitized versions of PG-13 and R-rated movies that have excessive gore, language and violence yet contain stories that kids would like. Cooper wanted to see Reign of Fire but I think it looks too dark and depressing. It's PG-13, but we all know that PG-13 can range from mild language and pretty pictures to heavy language and grotesque imagery.
"When you're constantly exposed to negative, dark, unproductive imagery as a child, I have to think it registers in their subconscious. I don't understand why we can't put more positive stuff out there for kids to see to encourage them."
Luke: "How do you relate to the tremendous snobbery in this business?"
Stanley: "Not well but it is a fact of life. I still can't relate to people who don't return phone calls. Why can't you just say, 'Fuck off and die and don't ever call me again.' But I guess they do by not calling you."