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Authors: Art Linson

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So in the process of trying to transform this into a script, I realized that I had to give the character a time frame, a personal life, and so on. It couldn't just be a series of Hollywood snapshots, because nobody would care about it. I compressed these events and added some new ones where you are watching this guy in the course of three or four weeks in his life trying to hold on. The reason it came out even more desperate than I imagined it to be in the book is because once you impose this time frame, you go, ‘Holy mackerel, what a mess. Who would want to be that guy?' It looks so good on the outside, he's hanging out with Bruce Willis and Sean Penn, but he comes off like Willy Loman. There's an air of panic, there's a sense of feeling like everybody in Hollywood
is like a snail on a glass pane just trying to hold on for dear life. You could be Brad Pitt on the high end of the glass or you could be a junior executive over here, the desperation is about slipping down. Maybe desperation is a word I've used too much. It's insecurity too. Everybody feels insecure out here. When a lot of money is at stake, and everyone's career is going up or down every time, treachery, lying, duplicitous behavior as well as panic and insecurity will set in somewhere. It just does, every day here. How can it not?

PB
: The script is very funny. Had you ever written one before?

AL
: I actually have. Frankly, through my career, as a producer, one of the things I am good at is helping writers frame screenplays so that they worked. Then I wrote a couple of books. I never had the courage to go out there and be a screenwriter, in the sense that if you really want to find a hard way to make a living, pick that one.

So when De Niro said this, what clicked in for me was that I realized I had to change it from the book and make it more personal. I had to use my own life as a template, and if I did that, then I could pull people in as opposed to just presenting snapshots of the process.

When I was able to frame the story, start it right off the preview that is a disaster—because it violates all the no-no's that you can't do with movies if you are trying to get decent distribution—I was hoping it would get people to feel for a guy in that situation.

PB
: It's very funny, because the guy's driving his Mercedes, looking like he's on top of the world, picking up his kids to take them to school from two or three homes in Beverly Hills big enough to house everyone in Tijuana, and then you realize he must be hemorrhaging alimony and child-support to his ex-wives.

AL
: I must tell you, I know people like this. Divorce lawyers take your big house, they cut it in half with a chain saw and you don't get either half.

PB
: How many drafts did the script go through?

AL
: Bob's the ultimate of what you would want an executive to be, only you can't expect it of them, because he is an artist. But what he does is that he nurtures, so it's not that he goes and says, ‘Do this, do that,' but he reads it and instead of stripping you of your confidence, he sort of mumbles, ‘You know, it's okay.' If every time he went ‘Boy, that's really terrible,' he's not going to get the best out of me, because I am going to lose my confidence and so is everybody else. So if something didn't work, he sort of circles around it, and then goes, ‘I don't know about that, but this is good, this is good.' In effect, he's saying, ‘There is something good, but it's not there yet,' but he won't say ‘it's not there yet.' It's almost like I have to say it for him. And then he says, ‘Just keep going.' His mantra is, ‘Keep going, get through it, finish it,' but he did find scenes that made him laugh, and he started to see the character that he wanted in the first place that is only thinly in the book—a man hanging on, which is what the movie ended up being about.

Everybody who has worked with Bob either as a director, a writer, or an actor knows that he makes them better. And no one knows how he does it, you just kind of go, ‘Huh?' He's a little bit like Chauncey Gardiner, you have to listen for the right note. If you aren't listening it makes no sense a lot of times but if you are listening it actually does. Part of it is a humility of not wanting to criticize. I've known him for a long, long time now, and he's not somebody who you see criticizing other people's scripts or other people's movies. He makes stuff, so he doesn't think about it that way.

So every couple of months, I'd send Bob some pages and ask, ‘What do you think?' He never told me exactly what he thought. It was ‘I'm sort of—I'm looking at the thing.' I probably went through three or four drafts, and when I was finally done, he read it and he went, ‘It's great, we should give this to Barry.' I went, ‘Terrific.' Barry read it and said, ‘Yes,' and we were on our way.

PB
: Why Barry Levinson?

AL
: Bob worked with Barry on
Wag the Dog
. I'd never worked with Barry but I'd known him for a long time, and I just thought that this movie had a comedic sensibility and a reality sensibility that fit his thing, and moreover Barry doesn't do shtick comedy, it's more real. I know he knows the business like I know the business, so I knew he would understand it as true. The guy, the producer, the me-character is not a comedian. He's just a guy who perseveres.

PB
: You had a table reading? Were you worried?

AL
: I'm always scared by table readings with Bob. After what I've been through with him I thought, ‘Oh my god we're going to have one reading and he won't want to do this after all this fucking work,' so to say that wasn't always on my mind—of course it was always on my mind. I kept saying to him, ‘Look, under normal circumstances, I don't mind having a reading, but with you every time I have a reading, it's your excuse to get out of the movie.' As great as Anthony Hopkins was in
The Edge
, initially I wanted Bob to do it. But Bob wanted to read, and when he says, ‘Let's do a reading,' it means something's wrong. So this time he said, ‘No, no, no, don't be defensive, let's hear what it sounds like.' We had some wonderful actors there like Steve Buscemi who didn't end up in the movie, but I learned a lot from it, including that it was funny, you could feel that.

PB
: What was De Niro's reaction?

AL
: It's always the same, ‘It's good, it's good.'

PB
: How did you know it was a go for him?

AL
: He never said it wasn't.

PB
: The movie is packed with stars and great actors, not only De Niro, Penn, and Willis, but Catherine Keener, Robin Wright, Stanley Tucci, Michael Wincott, and John Turturro. How much did it cost?

AL
: The budget was just under twenty million. The actors frankly didn't work for long periods of time. I think we shot Sean in a day and a half, we shot Robin in three days, we shot Bruce in one day. It was done in the spirit of an independent film. It comes off being a bit more glamorous than that, but that wasn't my intention.

PB
: Was De Niro the magnet who attracted the other actors?

AL
: No, I think it was a combination of De Niro, Barry Levinson, and the script. With Barry, at least we weren't going to embarrass ourselves, the script made me laugh, and then De Niro's in every single scene, how bad can it be? If the movie works, it's because of what Bob brought to it as much as the writing. For him to play a guy hanging on for dear life, and just being the mayonnaise in the sandwich, is just a hard role to play for a guy who doesn't play that kind of stuff. In 95 percent of his movies, he plays guys who say, ‘I don't take shit from you, I'll kill you first.' He feels comfortable doing that. He rarely plays a guy where things are being done to him. He strikes back. That's why in this movie when he attacks Stanley Tucci, for a second you're thinking, ‘Oh, he'll have to do ten years in prison,' because that is what he does so well, you don't ever think we're being tricked. Bob is really good at this, because it's not him and yet it is him. As a person, he's extremely powerful, successful, he does not take shit from anybody, and yet he became completely absorbed in playing someone totally unlike himself. Bob, just from being around me and doing this thing, he instinctively, he saw this man hanging on for dear life.

PB
: Your character is dying to get back with his ex-wife, played by Robin Wright, but there's that scene in the restaurant where a young wannabe actress comes on to him, gives him her phone number, they sleep together, and then she disappears from the movie. What was that about?

AL
: I put that in as a moment of showing that this guy is not clean. To me the irony—a bad word for Hollywood, a death word—the
irony of it was, well he is bitching about the fact that some writer may be sleeping with his ex-wife, but he has no problem fucking this girl, like it's completely a separate issue. There is this kind of odd double standard, don't you think? Guys have it and they've always had it: I'm getting laid and all that stuff, but you're fucking my ex-wife!

PB
: You started producing in the early seventies with
Car Wash
and your career spans nearly four decades. Is the picture you paint of the producer's life, the producer's job, the same as it would be now for a kid in his midtwenties, say, who comes out to Hollywood and wants to produce?

AL
: The business has changed. When I started, studios never lost money, so you could make movies like
Car Wash
or
Melvin and Howard
or
This Boy's Life
. Those would have to be independently financed today. After
Car Wash
came out, Lew Wasserman buttonholed me on the Universal lot. You almost fall to your knees, ‘Mr. Wasserman, sir.' He said, ‘I just want you to know we made all our money back in two nights. Thank you.' Today, there are no Lew Wassermans. The studios are part of multitiered, multinational vertically integrated corporations, so the guy over here who is making the decisions, it only works for his career if he attaches himself to a Johnny Depp megahit like
Pirates of the Caribbean
. I've never met Dick Parsons. He's not interested in making $5 million on
This Boy's Life
. It's a waste of his time. These big distribution companies just want to make sequels, and they sort of opted out of the other business. That's what's changed. But that's created an opportunity for these smart business guys who have made their money elsewhere and have suddenly seen an opening in Hollywood that they haven't seen in the last ten years. They're going, ‘No, no, there are some real good movies we can make, and we can make money on these movies, and the studios don't want to do this anymore and they no longer understand that business.' Sean Penn's movie on Harvey Milk with Gus Van Sant directing is being independently funded by Michael
London's company. So for somebody like me, who has to get things made, that's great.

PB
: But is the ‘getting things made' part the same as it used to be?

AL:
It's one thing if you're one of those trust fund babies with $30 million in the bank, and you don't have the pressure to make money, but to do it the way I did it is the same. You're still saying, ‘I find that book or that newspaper article or that script interesting, let's option it. In other words you've found something that you think is going to work, then the producing takes over and this is where the real craft begins, if there is a craft, which is, ‘Okay, how do I take this idea and nurture it in a way to get it financed?'

Obviously it starts with the writing, but even with a good script you have to ask, ‘How do I get a good script made?'So you tell the writer, ‘Don't write this script for the ten million people you hope are going to want to see it—write this script for the guy who is going to make it, so that he'll go, ‘I can take a risk on that because I can justify the loss, or, ‘I believe that we have a shot.' That is the hidden secret that most people don't know. As a producer, I have never designed anything for the public. Everything I do first has to interest me, but once I get past that test, the next thing is who is going to do it and am I redesigning this thing so that they find it irresistible? If it's for Barry Levinson or a director like that, is this the kind of thing when they read it they go, ‘I have to do this.' If it's for Bob De Niro, you'd have in your mind this is a part for a guy in his fifties. There are seven actors who fall into that category who can get your movie made, so you write it for them. Because even if a young executive says, ‘This is just terrific, I love it, we want to option it,' and then they give it to those seven actors, if they turn it down, you're out of business. So in Bob De Niro's case, you have to write it so he says, ‘Fuck, I want to be that guy.' Because then your executive is saying, ‘Wow, this got Bob De Niro,' or Al Pacino or Michael Douglas. If you start to think about it clearly, you're not writing this
thing for millions of people, you are creating it for such a small group it's scary. So in this particular example, I knew it would get Bob—I knew it had the humor, I knew it was taking him to a place as an actor that he doesn't usually get to go to because he's always got to be a tough guy like in
Heat
where he's got to kill somebody, and this is completely opposite. Bob can even play a Woody Allen kind of character if he wants to, making him sympathetic. And I know Bob as a person can't resist that.

PB
: As you put it, your character is just a snail that is trying hard not to slide down the glass.

AL
: He doesn't ever acknowledge how bad things are to himself, to his ex-wife, to his friends, to anybody. So even at the end, after Cannes, at a Paris airport, with a private jet leaving him standing on the runway, he has his ex-wife on the phone and she says, ‘So when are you coming home?' and he says ‘How often am I going to be in Paris?' He can't even say, ‘I've just been fucking ditched by the studio,' you know.

BOOK: What Just Happened?
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