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The Producers. Money, Movies, and Who Really Calls the Shots
Tim Adler

London, Methuen, 2004
25.01€, 287p., ISBN 0-413-77152-0


Reviewed by Anne Crémieux



The Producers is a very entertaining book about the very serious, risky, and passionate business of producing movies. The book is divided into six narrative-like chapters “starring” those most powerful figures in cinema who rarely appear in the limelight: producers Michael Douglas, Dino De Laurentiis, Duncan Kenworthy and Andrew Macdonald (a team), Jeremy Thomas, Marin Karmitz, and Christine Vachon, seven producers whose visions have greatly impacted cinema. The seven figures selected by Tim Adler give a range of the types of producers in commercial cinema today: the famous actor, the old-fashioned mogul, the team of two men, the auteur, the maverick, and the rebel.

As expressed in the introduction and reiterated throughout, Tim Adler wishes to debunk the French Nouvelle Vague myth of the auteur director. According to him, the most important person is often not the director, who may well be a hired hand in charge of coaching actors, as was often the case in Hollywood’s studio system of the 40s, but the producer who sees the film through from beginning to end. Some films may be marked by the director, especially smaller, more personal films, but it is always a collaborative process held together by the producer. The example of Hitchcock is most convincing: “As Thomas Schatz has argued in his book The Genius of the System, surely there is a connection between the later drop-off in quality in the films of Alfred Hitchcock—the director most often singled out as being an auteur—and the fact that he no longer worked with his regular team” [5]. According to Adler, auteur directors, such as “Woody Allen, Quentin Tarantino and Reiner Werner Fassbinder […] John Ford, Howard Hawks and Frank Capra enjoyed some degree of autonomy […] because they were trusted to be producers as well as directors” [5-6]. But such directors are exceptions, since most films cannot be considered the product of one single creator.

The producers Adler chose to focus on are equally exceptional, so much so that The Producers largely only modifies the above argument regarding the exceptionality of the auteur director; ultimately, we could suggest that some producers are just as involved in the creative process and the vision of the film as the directors they work with. The Producers simply gives credit where credit is due, with loads of anecdotes about the men who shaped the business, whether they first required storyboarding (David O. Selznick) [16] or thought of deferring payment of stars as a percentage of profits (Sam Spiegel) [21].

Although Adler looks at movies from the business sides of things, he presents the producers he interviewed as very much driven by art and passion. The portraits drawn by Tim Adler are engaging because they are human. Adler presents each producer as a person, with their impressive qualities but also their flaws, leaving a lasting impression of great will and determination, adaptability and insight, but also of a desire for limitless power and control, which they can outsource, or ruthlessly savor and apply.

Adler’s capacity to focus on the interesting details and not bog the narrative down with day-to-day budgetary or scheduling considerations makes The Producers a pleasant read. Adler starts with his most famous interviewee, Michael Douglas. Although not encouraged by his father Kirk Douglas to become an actor, Michael did learn the business of movie-making when he was first cast on the TV-show The Streets of San Francisco. Having always wanted to produce, Michael decided to make the film his father never could: One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest. Kirk had acquired the rights to the novel and adapted it for the theatre, but no one in Hollywood had believed in its screen potential. Finding the right director, speaking with the writer, convincing Kirk that he was now too old to play McMurphy, all were difficult decisions that changed Michael’s career. Being a successful producer greatly enhanced his acting opportunities. Douglas cast himself in The China Syndrome, Fatal Attraction, Romancing the Stone, The Jewel of the Nile, as well as other less successful films. These facts, presented with clear admiration for Douglas’ success, also level unveiled criticism at his somewhat overblown ego.

Yet Adler is always clever, never condescending, always engaging. This tone characterizes a book whose author’s own knowledge offers insight into more than just its primary subject, producers. For instance, he looks at what made the book One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest unique, giving a humorous, one might even say scary, description of the author Ken Kesey. Adler describes the drug-induced inspiration that fed the novel Kesey wrote while a night attendant on a psychiatric ward, a job he took to have access to LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs. Adler always gives his interpretation of the books and films that inspire the producers. Concerning the end of Cuckoo’s Nest he writes: “To break into the hospital, Chief lifts a stone drinking fountain in an action reminiscent of the rock being rolled away from Christ’s tomb” [48]. Adler talks about the conflict between director Milos Forman and his cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, who was eventually fired. Disliking the director’s comic approach to a serious subject, Wexler wanted to give the hospital a more depressing look. Forman wanted the acting to be foregrounded and the premises forgotten. “If you gave a cameraman his freedom, said Forman, he would exchange the actors for puppets because they would be less likely to disturb his lighting” [46]. Later Adler notes that “the editing and cinematography were singled out for being unobtrusive” [48]. Such tongue-in-cheek remarks are constant. Tim Adler describes Milos Forman as an opinionated yet flexible artist for whom “the story resonated because it echoed the situation of those who disagreed with the Communist regime being locked up in mental hospitals. For Forman mental illness was a social disease, and therefore Cuckoo’s Nest was a metaphor for society” [43]. Adler offers similar insights about the producers he portrays in each chapter. Douglas likes stories about “individuals caught in a corporate or social structure that forces them to make a moral decision at the expense of their lives” ( The China Syndrome, Fatal Attraction) [50]. Adler does not hesitate to underline their bad decisions and describe the hard times, like when on the set of Jewel of the Nile, things were going so wrong that Douglas “went to his hotel room and cried” [59]. Douglas admits having difficulties delegating and managing employees [67]; he also confesses that in Hollywood, he was driven by “the revenge factor”, wanting to show “them” he could produce his film. “I think revenge is a very good emotion if you can direct it. It’s healthy” [50] says Douglas, with no comment from Adler who likes to portray his producers as perhaps a little scarier than they are (especially Dino de Laurentiis and Christine Vachon). 

Reading The Producers, you will find out how Dino de Laurentiis produced the worst King Kong ever ( “the whole thing feels as dated as disco” [91]) and still managed to make money off of it; how Duncan Kenworthy and Andrew Macdonald are struggling to keep British talent within the UK, selling their work to American distributors who believe “no American alpha male would pay to see a film with ‘wedding’ on the poster” [117]. Jeremy Thomas is the greatest gambler of them all, with his independent productions of big-budget films like The Last Emperor ($25 million), David Cronenberg’s Crash ($10 million), and Little Buddha ($5 million), or the smaller, even more risky The Naked Lunch ($2.5 million). Every film he makes is an adventure, whether it’s the inhabitants of Agadez, Niger, attacking Debra Winger for playing out an argument a bit too convincingly in The Sheltering Sky [172], or a flood delaying the crew of The Last Emperor, as meteorological aberrations seem to follow Hollywood producers around. “Somebody should hire out film crews to drought-stricken areas, as their arrival inevitably coincides with rainstorms” [171].

Adler’s examples range large, from the most accepting of the system—Michael Douglas, Dino De Laurentiis, Duncan Kenworthy and Andrew Macdonald—to the least conventional ones—Jeremy Thomas, Marin Karmitz, and Christine Vachon.

Presented as “the Napoleon of French cinema” [194] Karmitz’ impressive achievement is presented in light of his personal and ideological background. Adler frames his portrait of Karmitz with his experience of emigration as a child. Like the five others, the chapter starts with an anecdote: his memory of having a gun held to his head when he was four years old [193]. For Karmitz, France is both the country that welcomed him and his family after Lebanon and Italy had rejected them, and the police nation that limited his freedom in the 70s because of his political stands [199]. Having given Karmitz a chance to explain what themes run through his films ( “the first: what is modern cinema? The second: defending the values that make people civilized in a language that is accessible and not academic” [220]), Adler continues, adding his own interpretation: “Throughout his career he has always rejected man’s humiliation of man. Instead his films have tried to show the need for generosity. What drives him is anger—anger at people who abuse their power, anger at censorship, anger at how the media is dominated by a handful of conglomerates” [220]. Adler chose to interview Karmitz because he works within the system, and against it [199]:

Karmitz has maintained a juggling act which probably could only happen in France. It would be naive to think that he has built an empire without treading on other people’s toes. But unlike most Hollywood producers, who are just in the business of feeding the popcorn penitentiaries, Karmitz’s films are actually about something. Karmitz himself argues that he may have become a capitalist, but his films remain linked to the attack on capitalism. [195]

Adler retraces Karmitz’s experience of social cinema in the 70s and his bold business moves in the 80s, when his company was on the verge of collapse. Most interesting is his commitment to make Kieslowski’s Red, White and Blue, just as Au revoir les enfants and La Vie est un long fleuve tranquille were breaking French box-office records.

Christine Vachon produces films that no one else will produce, not because they do not believe they will make money, but simply because they do not understand them. Often called underground or community cinema, such films can be highly profitable, as were Go Fish, Kids, I Shot Andy Warhol, or Boys Don’t Cry. Just when it felt like she was becoming a mainstream Hollywood producer, with One Hour Photo and Far From Heaven, she produced Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Party Monster, safeguarding her position as the most entertaining, off-the-wall queer producer around.
Adler both defends Vachon for being no more ruthless than most producers, and harshly reports negative criticism about her: “Despite the ‘we’re all in this together’ Vachon sometimes feeds the press, crew members often complain of rotten working conditions,” with the crew of One Hour Photo wearing tee-shirts that said “18-hour photo” [249]. He reports her feeling that “as a woman she bumps against the double standard of how to command respect without being called a bitch” [250], which is, however, the general feeling his portrayal of her leaves. He is not much kinder, however, to the men she shares these pages with as he concludes: “Like many of the people described in this book, you sense that what lies at the core of Vachon—the final doll nesting inside the Russian doll shells—is low self-esteem.” [254] Yet Adler’s portrayals are never one-dimensional:

Michael Douglas may always see himself as the son trying to gain the approval of the father who walked out on him. Marin Karmitz may always regard himself as an immigrant turned away from one port to another. Others described in this book may deep down think of themselves as the Jew, the lesbian or the homosexual. But one thing that all of them have in common is their absolute conviction in themselves as artists, in their ability to produce a film which achieves its full potential. As Vachon herself puts it: the "producer as auteur, the producer as creative force, is sadly maligned." [254]

The Producers is a wonderful look at how the business side of things is still all about art, and pressure, and intuition, and bottom-line dollars. Adler, knowing a scholar’s work is never done, points in his conclusion at the generally dismissed contribution of screenwriters, quoting Robert Riskin, writer of several Frank Capra films, when he “marched into Capra’s office, dropped 120 blank pages on the director’s desk and demanded: "Here! Give that 'the Capra Touch'!” [258]. A good director relies on the talent of many.


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