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Authors: Art Linson

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The second boost for me was that
Heat
was about to be premiered at the Steven J. Ross theater on the Warners lot. The buzz for the movie was soaring. De Niro and Pacino facing each other off in a movie for the first time (you can't count
Godfather II
because they were never together in the same scene) was having an enormous impact. After a year and a half and more than a few battles, Michael Mann had finally made the movie that he'd always wanted to make out of this material. Unwittingly, I couldn't help but feel that my stock was rising. My step was lighter. I was acting like
them
. I would attend meetings at Fox and the look on my face said it all: ‘You're all a bunch of dumb fucks, listen ta me and I'll lead you outta this horrible mess you all got yourselves into.'

A producer bursting with confidence can be a truly ugly sight.

The only hitch (and at this point a minor hitch) was that Tom Jacobson, the guy who had heard the pitch from Mamet months before, had ‘stepped down' from his position at Fox to return to a more ‘hands-on moviemaking role.' At least that's what the announcement in
Variety
declared. This is Hollywood-speak that means he
got ceremoniously dumped by his superiors and was forced to forge onward as a movie producer. No one wants that. I guess someone had to fall for past disappointments, and it sure wasn't going to be Chernin or Mechanic, at least, not yet. Frankly, I was disappointed. After that wacky pitch meeting, Jacobson and I had found a reasonable way to work with each other. Since you never knew whom they were going to bring out of the dugout, the abrupt change in command meant I would have to start the inconvenient executive-bonding dance all over again. You remember what Stephen Stills said: ‘If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with.'

Tom Jacobson was replaced by a gangly lawyer, Tom Rothman, who had previously been running the Fox Searchlight division for about six months. Before becoming an executive he had had a short and rather empty stint as a movie producer. He couldn't make a go of it. Our first encounter was chilly. He talked, I listened. He conducted the entire meeting with his back to me while he was organizing some papers behind his computer. I suppose he was either showing me that he could do more than one thing at a time or else he was saying, ‘Since I couldn't make a go of it as a producer, fuck you for trying.'

Let's just say for now that Rothman, after receiving his new promotion, was short on humility. He did not share this disease alone. After all, when you get ‘chosen,' you contract the same virus that everyone else gets in Hollywood when presented with some power. You think you
know
. Before the marketplace gets the chance to punish you, really punish you, you actually believe you're onto something. You know what works. You were born with it. Within a short time, however, you're hopelessly bedridden, just praying that one of the giant directors will come along and revive
Planet of the Apes 4
or
Star Wars 6
or
Terminator 3
and save your sorry ass. If that doesn't work, you're on the phone with Robin Williams's agent begging him to get Robin to put the multiflowered dress back on and play an older woman one more time. Once one of those tent poles gets released, Rothman and his ilk will be front and center, crowing about their newfound legacy, the legacy they had nothing to do with, hoping not to be found out. Murdoch has shown a knack for seeing through that charade.

Early proclamations of making pictures with integrity, support for new directors, or the need to be progressive soon fades like cheap designer jeans. It is more than just an exhaustion of fresh ideas; it is the sticky fear of taking a risk. In less than a year, the executive's appetite to be a pioneer is replaced by the desperation to hold on to an overpriced job – hold on, no matter what. Fortunately, since Mechanic and Chernin were still running the show, Rothman's early pontifications proved to be an annoying but minor inconvenience.

For me, I had to get a cast and secure a director, or
Bookworm
wasn't going to get made.

‘Do you know why you are rapidly losing the hair on your ankles?'
Dustin Hoffman asked me, noticing I was not wearing socks.

‘No. Not really,' I said, glancing at my feet.

‘You're getting older.'

‘Oh.'

‘It's a genetic thing.'

‘Interesting.'

‘Loss of testosterone, really.'

‘I see.'

‘It doesn't happen to everyone.'

‘Can something be done?'

‘I'm afraid not.'

‘Nothing?'

‘I don't think so.'

I looked over at Lee Tamahori, wondering if he knew how to shift the focus of the conversation. We were entering into the second hour of our meeting with Dustin, and we still hadn't gotten to the script. Lee returned the look as if to say, ‘Is this how you guys do it up here?' Preliminary small talk was taking on a new meaning.

Lee, a Kiwi, had recently directed his first movie,
Once Were Warriors
, a spirited tale of a Maori family dealing with contemporary life in urban New Zealand. This spirited, raw, hard-edged movie with an emotionally aching core had become the highest-grossing
film in New Zealand's history. After seeing the movie, I sent
Bookworm
to Lee and was buoyed by his interest. The studio, because of the sizzle that
Once Were Warriors
had created, was cautiously encouraging us to get a couple of ‘stars'; only then, they implied, would they fund the movie. No guarantees, but so far so good.

We met with Mechanic and Jacobson to make cast lists. Jacobson could not, at the time, have known that the guillotine was inches from his neck, the lever having already been pulled. We were there to ask: Who were the key actors who could play an aging, wealthy bookworm? Who were the key actors who could play a younger fashion photographer intent on stealing the bookworm's money and wife? These lists did not necessarily include the ‘best' actor for the job. For example, Robert Duvall may be a brilliant casting choice for the bookworm, but when the computer tallies up his recent box office wreckage, he may not be considered as good a business choice as Bill Cosby. Trying to create a pecking order that would satisfy us as well as the studio turned into a random guessing game. Which actor, if he could play the role, would sell the most tickets? Who knows? Who can ever know? Certainly not us. We were rats chasing our tails.

First, we received the obligatory and expected turndown from Harrison Ford. At that time, any script written that required a male lead over forty-five went directly to Harrison because his acquiescence ensured a start date. It wouldn't matter if the character was an international spy or a transvestite. If the character was an older male, it went to Ford; unless, of course, Tom Cruise was interested. Cruise would've been allowed to play the bear in our script or any other role of his choosing. He was running hot. Since Ford passed, our next stop was Dustin Hoffman because his agent said he had read the script and was interested. A bird in the hand. Dustin Hoffman wasn't tearing up the box office as he once did, but he was still a star. Fox encouraged the flirtation.

This is always a tenuous time in the packaging of a movie. This is how it works: Even if the studio gets excited, even giddy, by the new script (as they claimed to be with
Bookworm
), the studio never calls the producer and says, ‘We love this, we love you, here's the
money, let's fire this baby up.' They always have several scripts in the pipeline that they fancy from different directors and/or producers. As optimistic and encouraging as they appear, they are simply not going to make all of them. The executives' collective enthusiasm for the material can bounce around like a baby's temperature. If Harrison Ford passes, their enthusiasm dips. If they think he passed but probably didn't personally read the damn thing, the dip begins to rise. If several actors or directors pass, their enthusiasm goes on life support. If you get a nibble as we'd gotten from Dustin, spirits lift. If and when he passes, confidence wanes, and eventually, as the rejections add up, finger-pointing inevitably follows: ‘Who the fuck on my staff liked this piece of shit script anyhow?' ‘Can you believe even Richard Gere couldn't make heads or tails of it?'

When this starts to happen, your best hope is that you have another script to work on because their intention to package this one will soon be transferred to fresher material. Knowing you're going to get some noes, you have to strategize not to get too many before the flame burns out. Just as on the TV game show
Let's Make a Deal
, newcomers to this game are continually led to door #1, #2, or #3 certain that the money is just on the other side, only to be tossed out at high speed in the middle of rush-hour traffic, screaming, ‘But … but … but you said …' And your executive friend won't be flying out the door with you saying, ‘I don't care what anyone thinks, I love this turkey and we're going to make it no matter where we have to go.' In fact, the word
we
is no longer used in conversation once you're off the lot.

From the agent's point of view, the terrain is just as tenuous. Some subtle issues are involved. If a client at the top of his power is deluged by offers, the agent won't give him or her the script without a firm offer from the studio. Except for rare instances the studio gulps and gives firm offers to very few. Today that may include Jim Carrey, Tom Cruise, and Julia Roberts. The list gets redefined yearly depending on recent successes or failures.

It can turn into an Abbott and Costello sketch:

‘Could you please give my script to Harrison Ford?'

‘Do you have a firm offer from Fox?'

‘Well, not exactly, but they said they'd make the movie.'

‘Harrison does not read without a firm pay or play offer.'

‘But he might love it, really love it, and think his destiny lies in making this movie.'

‘Pay to play.'

‘But if he doesn't read it, he'll never know what he might miss.'

‘Fifteen million against fifteen percent of the gross.'

‘Okay, I'll talk to Bill.'

‘By the way, Alan Alda is looking for something good, I can give it to him to read.'

‘Gee, thanks, let me talk to Mechanic.'

Dustin Hoffman, with all of his past greatness, was now, as they say,
reading
. This euphemism means that he is willing to look at scripts without a firm offer, and if he is interested, he is willing to meet with the producer and the director. This is particularly good news for the studio, especially if the actor loves the script and the studio has yet to commit. The leverage builds logarithmically in their favor. If the executives at Fox agree to make the movie, they may be able to reduce the actor's price because they already know that he loves the script. Actors are like everyone else: When they want something they might not get, they often want it more. If Mechanic et al decide not to make the movie, even if the actor is begging, they lose nothing and can make some apology for the inconvenience. The agent then gets the horror call: ‘What kind of dickhead agent would send me a script that the studio won't make even if I liked it.' ‘But … but, Dusty … but …' That's why agents are very, very careful how they distribute the material to their top clients. Since the studio heads don't know exactly what the total cost of the film is going to be, they are equally reluctant to expose themselves. It's the catch-22 of packaging, with the producer hopelessly in the middle, staring wide-eyed into space, having as much control over the situation as a busboy at Spago's.

Back in Dustin's office, another two hours had passed. We were in the middle of a lox-and-bagel lunch, and we had still not discussed the Mamet script. It's not that Dustin was avoiding it,
he just seemed to have a lot of tangential interests. We talked about sports, current events, diet, religion. He even gave Lee and me some literature on a new rabbi who had captured his imagination. Occasionally, he would glance at my ankles.

Being the restless type, I was hoping to make a frontal assault. I kept looking at him, thinking, ‘Fuck me. We're gonna die here. Are you gonna make this sucker or not?' But producers are not known for raw courage. All that I could muster was an occasional ‘That is
so
interesting.' ‘Really.' ‘Gosh, I feel the same way, don't you, Lee?' Self-loathing was starting to creep in, and I decided to leave the meeting, hoping that in my absence they would begin to address the script. As I politely rose and told them I had had no idea this was going to be such a time-consuming first discussion, blah blah blah, I suggested that perhaps they could carry on without me. I glanced at Lee, with a stunned, wide-eyed signal: ‘Try and wrap him up, please.' Lee looked at me as if to say, ‘I'm from New Zealand, don't leave me here alone.' Clearly, we both had the sinking feeling that this exercise was sliding into the toilet.

When I was in the elevator, it occurred to me that Dustin had made one reference to the script about an hour earlier. He had said
Bookworm
reminded him of
Straw Dogs
. Since that Peckinpah movie was one of my favorites and since Dustin was so fine in it, I took this to be a good thing. Wrong. He'd done this part already! Of course! Bookish guy with a pretty, seductive wife having to rise to the occasion when the going got brutal. Dustin's a rich man. Why would he ever do the same part again? Perhaps Lee didn't know it yet, but it was time to look for someone else. Let's go back to the list. We could spend the next six months having nice chats with Dustin, but when the time came to put the chips on the table, I was sure he wasn't going to be there, and I was more sure I would have even less hair on my ankles.

FOUR
One plus One Equals Three

Alec Baldwin might be in. His agent said that Alec had read the script and wanted to talk about the role of the duplicitous fashion photographer, Bob Green. Lee and I greeted the news with measured enthusiasm. I knew that even if Alec was ideal casting, this news was never going to make the walls of the Fox administration building shake with delight. His past success was spotty, and there were rumors that he was difficult. At best, Alec would be considered a solid ‘element' to the overall package, but not enough of a reason, I thought, for Fox to pull the trigger. It was the best nibble so far. We had to pursue it.

BOOK: What Just Happened?
3.17Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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