Sunday, November 29, 2009

ROBERT EVANS interview



In this era of 12 producers per movie and studios run by committee, and driven by marketing analysts, it is well worth remembering a time, not that long ago, when studio heads relied on their own instincts and trusted their own taste in material instead of that of a research firm. There are two producer in town who can say they saved a studio. One is Richard Zanuck, a prince of Hollywood royalty, rescuing a nearly bankrupt 20th Century Fox with “The Sound of Music.” Dick Zanuck is still actively producing, his recent films include a long association with Tim Burton, including last year’s well-received musical, “Sweeney Todd.”

The other studio savior is also, as he put in his best-selling autobiography, still in the picture. By now, Robert Evans has passed into legend and achieved an iconographic status unlikely to be enjoyed by any producer in the years to come. He saved Paramount Pictures with “Love Story“ and turned a company best known for Jerry Lewis vehicles and creaky Hal Wallis Elvis movies into the most successful and artistically challenging studio in the industry.

Evans also epitomized the glamour that was of a different era, of a Hollywood in its prime, he enjoyed his success and made no attempt to hide his good fortune as so many others did during the topsy-turvy days of the counterculture, (which was also the last great golden age of movies). He still possesses the larger-than-life Hollywood matinee idol charisma that launched his career as first, a not very good actor, and then as one of the greatest studio chiefs in American film history. His rise, his fall, his loves, his lifestyle - these are the stuff of legend that remain permanently etched into lore of the Hollywood, thanks in no small part to his absorbing memoir, “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” and the equally celebrated audiocassette version of the book and subsequent motion picture, which also garnered impressive notices.

Evans has survived crises that would destroyed lesser mortals, he is a true Hollywood legend, a throwback to a time when everyone in Hollywood - actors, directors, producers - all seemed larger than life. But Evans was no empty glamor boy: his track record when he was running Paramount Pictures from 1966 to 1975, is a astonishing run of brilliance and creativity, including what many call the greatest American film, “The Godfather.” A few other titles during his tenure as head of production include a catalogue of some of the most popular and innovative films of the era including “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Medium Cool,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “True Grit,” “Love Story,” “Don’t Look Now,” “Harold and Maude,” and “Chinatown.”

As has been noted, Evans’ own life is the stuff right out of a Hollywood film. Spotted next to the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel by Norma Shearer, in an eerily prescient piece of casting, she tapped him to play her late husband, MGM studio head and “boy genius,” Irving Thalberg in a Universal picture. Evans would go on to rival Thalberg with his astonishing success at Paramount. In recognition of Robert Evans’ tremendous accomplishments and contribution to the American film industry, this coming Thursday, May 22, the Academy of Motion Pictures will be honoring him with a screening of “Rosemary’s Baby,” and a panel moderated by Evans’ former associate, Variety editor Peter Bart.

Evans remains busy, he hosts the Sirius Satellite Radio show, “In Bed with Robert Evans,” a few seasons back he had his own highly-rated cable TV cartoon show, “Kid Notorious,”(how many movie producers can make that claim?) and he still has more energy than a dozen wannabees half his age. In that silky, mellifluous voice of his Bob Evans took a few moments to talk about his storied career and upcoming tribute at the Academy. With his distinctive, silky, 3 o’clock in the morning DJ’s purr; every utterance comes out as smooth as a single blend malt whiskey, it is a voice that should be labeled 100 proof.

MT: So, how’s the Academy tribute shaping up?

RE: Well, I hope it all works out, it’s an eclectic group - Peter Bart, Brett Ratner, Sumner Redstone and (Guns n’ Roses guitarist) Slash. All together again, for the first time.

MT: What were some of the differences between that era and today?

RE: Well, it was very different when I did it, I had total freedom. But it was a smaller business then, there were no ancillary markets like today, with home video, cable, rentals. The movie opened and if it didn’t open, you were dead, that was it, except for a TV sale, and that wasn’t much back then. But the stakes were smaller, the budgets were smaller. Paramount made about 25 pictures a year and the total budget for all them would be $100 - $200 million. Today, that’s the price of one picture. It was simpler, smaller and you could take more chances. We made “The Godfather” for just $6.6 million. Brando only got $50,000. No one on that picture got paid more than that. Now, it’s so corporate, the studios are owned by conglomerates. Although Gulf+Western was really the first conglomerate to own a studio, I could say yes and get a picture made. Now, there’s so much bureaucracy. It’s not show business any more more, it’s communications, it’s become legitimate. I liked it when it was smaller and somewhat illegitimate. We had more fun then.

MT: What was the first picture you greenlit?

RE: I think it was “The Odd Couple,” and then “Rosemary’s Baby,” I also had something to do with “Alfie” going forward. But as I said, I had complete freedom to go ahead with what I liked. We had a great team there, Peter Bart and everyone, our group. Many people now refer to that time as a “second golden age” of Hollywood. But when I started, Paramount was ninth out of nine studios. Gulf+Western was ready to shut the studio down, they were going to sell it to the cemetery behind us - the cemetery business is always good. They were in the sugar business, they were in the metal business, they were in the coffee business, they didn’t really want to be in the movie business. But in five years, we were number #1. “Love Story,” which I bought, saved the studio and “The Godfather” did more business than “Gone With the Wind” had done in 35 years.

MT: “Rosemary’s Baby” was interesting because up to that point the producer William Castle had been known for low budget horror pictures.

RE: He wanted to direct that picture himself. But I wanted Roman, I had seen his talent in films like “Knife in the Water,” “Cul-de-Sac“ and I knew he could bring something exceptional to the picture if I could talk him into it. He didn’t want to do it at first, he wanted to do a skiing picture. But I told him he could write the script and I dealt with him a great deal on the film. And I was right, he did bring something extraordinary to the picture.He and Francis (Coppola) are the two great artists I have worked with.

MT: Is it true that Coppola had drastically cut down the running time of “The Godfather” and you made him put the footage back in?

RE: Well, I don’t want to go into that. As they say, there are three sides to every story - yours, mine and the truth. And memory shared serve each differently. But I will say, I totally supported his casting of Brando. Nobody would hire Marlon at that point, there were no other stars in that film, Pacino had only made one film, “Panic in Needle Park” and it had flopped. The brilliance of Coppola, was that he turned it into opera. We had just done another Mafia picture, “The Brotherhood,” with Kirk Douglas, and that had flopped. Nobody wanted to do “The Godfather,” a lot of directors turned it down. But Francis was absolutely the right director for it, he knew the way it had to look, he knew those kinds of people and their families, he made you smell the pasta.

MT: You made another picture about the same time that wasn’t a hit upon its initial release but has had an amazing shelf life, a personal favorite, “Harold & Maude.”

RE: Ahh, yes, “Harold & Maude. Imagine trying to go to the front office and pitch that one - “I want to make a movie about a 20 year old boy who’s always trying to kill himself who falls in love with an 80 year old woman.” You’re right, it wasn’t a hit at first, but it got great word of mouth, it became a cult picture and it’s still playing around the world in places like Minneapolis and in Paris, where one theatre has played it for 5 years straight! Cameron Crowe has just produced a box set of the original soundtrack on lp, it’s four records and he did a great job on it, it’s full of memorabilia, film cells and things. He wrote a wonderful essay. You must pick it up.

MT: It was a remarkably eclectic slate of pictures at Paramount, you would do something like “Love Story” and then turn around and release Haskell Wexler’s “Medium Cool."

RE: The distribution arm didn’t want to make "Medium Cool," they thought it was too political. There was a lot of resistance from the East Coast office about that picture. But I fought for it and I won. It was exactly that eclectic range of films that made the job so rewarding. I felt like the richest man in the world.

MT: Another great film of your regime was “Chinatown.”

RE: Ah yes, that was a special picture. It came from three lines that Bob Towne gave me at Dominick’s restaurant on Beverly Blvd. And I knew Roman would do a spectacular job with the material. The only difference of opinion we had was about the score. Music in films is so important, I don’t think enough people realize that, and the score we had didn’t fit, we took it out to preview, and it wasn’t working. So we brought in Jerry Goldsmith and he wrote the score in 8 days. It was the first picture that I personally produced, even though I was still running the studio. As I said, it was a different time then, you could do something like that.

And what a time it was, a perfect convergence of the man and the times. Old Hollywood had been shaken in the Sixties and the Seventies, it was a time of unprecedented social change and upheaval, but that winter of discontent was made glorious summer by this son of Gulf+Western. Robert Evans made a contribution to film history, the likes of which we shall not soon see again.

Following his tenure at Paramount, Evans went on to a storied career as an independent producer with such films as “Black Sunday,” “Urban Cowboy,” “Popeye,” the ill-fated “Cotton Club,” and his most recent production, “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.” So, as his well-deserved tribute at the Academy next Thursday approaches, let us toast Bob Evans and be grateful that the kid has not only stayed in the picture, but with three films in pre-production at Paramount, that there are still a few pictures left in the kid.

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