one of Hollywood's most successful actors and producers, he produced the 1975 Oscar-winning film "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"
You were part of what a lot of people we talk to portray as the last golden
age of the studios, that explosion of films in the 1970s. How hard was it, back
then, to get a film like "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" made?
Well, the so-called "last golden age," in the 1970s, most of those movies were
independent films. It's sort of like a precursor to what I think is just about
happening now. "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," which my father had tried to
get made for six, seven years, and I for four, was turned down by every studio.
Every studio in the world had passed on it. And it was only after my partner,
Saul Zaentz, financed the picture out of his record company, Fantasy Records,
[that we] made that picture. Originally, I think our budget was $1.9 million,
and it escalated dramatically to $4 million, after all the elements came
together. But nobody wanted to make that. ...
You know, "Five Easy Pieces," "Easy Rider" -- those are indie pictures; those
were not studio pictures. They had relationships with studio distribution, but
they were indies.
Is there a danger of these big companies being so careful and depending so
much on marketing to determine what they make?
Well, I would like to say yes, but maybe it's the time now. I kind of feel like
we're in the 1950s a little bit. It feels sometimes a little bit like after
Eisenhower and Hula Hoops. ... I think you're seeing a younger generation who's
got a good shit detector ... and likes not to think they're being fed by the
Man. But in general, it's kind of a silly time. No one wants to think a whole
a film critic for National Public Radio and The New York Times
... If you're trying to make [something that] essentially is a risk into a sure
thing, you're going to make the same thing, often with the same people, over
and over and over again.
And when something does come out and surprise people, you get something like
"Reservoir Dogs," and "Pulp Fiction" a couple years later, first of all what it
does is it puts the studios in a position [where] they feel they've got to make
what they call "independent film," which is now as meaningless as "alternative
music" or "alternative media." They get in that game, too, so you have Miramax
now being owned by Disney. And when they get something that's kind of scary to
them, like "Priest," or even "Dogma," they sell it off because, again, they
don't want to scare off stockholders, they don't want protesters at
stockholders' meetings. Or they don't want people seeing "Dogma" and then going
to protest at Disneyland.
What happened to the shining light of Miramax?
... What Miramax has always been in the business of doing is making money. ...
They used to be a [place] that picked up other movies. You know, nobody wanted
to make "Pulp Fiction." I was at the studio when "Pulp Fiction" got turned down
three times, and that was probably the lowest number of turndowns it got, but
it finally got made. But on the other hand, Miramax picked up "The Crying
Game," because nobody else wanted to distribute it. ...
By being able to capitalize on these movies that are being made that kind of
flew under studio radar, Miramax put themselves in the position where they were
thought of as being the alternative. But now they're as much a studio as New
Line, which started off as kind of a mini-major, too, or any of these other
places. It's almost like now Miramax needs to have a Miramax Classics Division,
where they make the kind of movies we think of as being Miramax pictures. ...
You know, when you think of a picture like "Shakespeare in Love," that's a
pretty expensive movie. That's not an art-house movie, or what we think of as
being art-house pictures now. What Miramax does, really, are mainstream movies
with big movie stars in them. You know, "Captain Corelli's Mandolin," that's a
Miramax movie. That's got Nicholas Cage in it -- and not the Nicholas Cage who
was in million-dollar pictures, but the Nicholas Cage who gets $20 million a
The independents kind of died out in the mid-1980s. And what happened with a
company like Miramax, [it] showed that a lot of money could be made. ...
Miramax showed you could make a $100 million art-house movie. Or with something
like "Life Is Beautiful," a $50 million foreign-language film.
And what that said to the studios was that, "Oh, if we pretend we're in the
art-house business, the independent business, then we can co-opt that money,
too." I'm sure I'm not the first person to say this to you -- or the first
person to say it today -- but it's now all bottom line, where each division has
to sort of produce. And, you know, Miramax is to independent film as Godiva is
to designer chocolate; it's owned by Campbell's. It doesn't mean anything
At some point, you want to play a full room. It doesn't matter who you are. The
danger is the way you want to get people into that room. ...
So you go to a film festival, and you see a movie like "Memento," which is a
lot of fun. Got turned down by everybody, or people won't even offer so much
money for it. And, what happens? "Memento" has now made $25 million, a huge
independent hit. So now Chris Nolan's making an Al Pacino movie for Warner
Bros. Again, it doesn't matter who you are -- well, for the most part, it
doesn't matter who you are -- you want people to see your movies.
You make these movies so that they can be enjoyed by an audience -- that
communal experience we talked about. You want a room full of people there to
experience this movie and get the joke or maybe not get the joke, and that
thing you wrote in your room by yourself two years ago that you, like, begged
and borrowed and stole money to get made, three years later, people are
enjoying it and arguing about it and asking what that ending meant and if the
movie means what I thought it meant. That's what excites filmmakers, and that
What always fascinates me is now how quickly what feels like the independent
voice is just subsumed into the middle. It took hip-hop a long time to find
purchase in the mainstream, and now it's everywhere. It's part of everything.
In a way, the studios are still afraid of it because what are really sort of
the last independent voices are filmmakers of color, and women. I mean, women
aren't the minority, although you wouldn't know it from the movie business,
it's still controlled by white men.
What I'm hoping these new technologies will do is have that Eurasian lesbian
filmmaker make this movie that comes out of her, that's a part of her
subconscious, that overtakes the country, that excites us all about the
possibilities of dreaming somebody else's dream through broadband. And then she
gets to make her big-deal movie, or she makes this movie for the Internet, or
digitally, that gets bought up by somebody and spills over the world, that
takes over everything.
That's what I want to see happen. That's what still keeps me going to the
movies every week. That's what sends me out to film festivals, is waiting to
hear that voice that I haven't heard before, that hasn't yet been infected by
the idea of getting a major movie star to ruin her dream, because this movie
star's not going to want to do what she wants to do, but she's got these actors
we've never heard of before. That's what still thrills me about this, that you
can't corrupt everything yet.
the director of such independent films as "Gas Food Lodging" (1992), "Mi Vida
Loca" (1994), and "Things Behind the Sun" (2001), which was shot in digital
Was your tending to work outside of the studio system a choice you made? Is
that how your career took the kind of path it did?
It's so funny, because when you asked about the film business, you know ...
there's a weird part of me that still doesn't acknowledge that it's a business.
... I think that in order to make the films that I make, I have to not think
about it that way. ...
It occurred to me last year that I actually achieved what I always wanted. I
wanted a career like Wim Wenders. He was my hero. That was my ideal of what
being a success would be, you know, that you got to go to film festivals, and
people talked about your work, and you got to make the films you wanted to
make, and you got to put cool music in movies. That was really all that I ever
wanted. ... So in a weird way, I achieved what I wanted to.
But it's hard to remember that in the industry we work in. And I would see over
the years, if Wim would get discouraged, or any of my heroes, you know, by the
way that the industry works, I would think, well, why do they care? They're,
like, art filmmakers. ... And now, of course, I see how it works on you. ...
It's interesting. You tend to forget that you actually, you know, this is the
career you wanted. It's never occurred to me I could make a dime, but money was
never very important to me anyway.
In addition to having to compete at the box office, have you seen any other
dramatic changes in the last 10 years or so? ...
Well, I think that the biggest thing was when "Pulp Fiction" had the
outrageously good opening box-office weekend. ... That victory was sort of the
beginning of the end for the rest of us, because very few indie films can
compete in that same kind of a way. But [independent companies] always wanted
that kind of success. And so they set out to duplicate that kind of success.
And I think that that's when it really became a problem. It became a problem
for character-driven stuff ... It takes time for people to discover those
movies. ... It used to be that a critic would write something wonderful about
your movie that would get people out to the movie theaters to see your film.
And the movie theaters themselves were not so corporately owned ... they could
let you have time.
Is the audience to blame for the state of movies today, or do you think it's
... I don't think that audiences are the problem. I really do believe that
corporations have really found a way that nothing is ever enough. No success is
ever enough. It used to be that our little successes were just fine. We made
our money back. I've never not made my money back for distributors. So
they made their money back, and that was fine. They made back what they put in
and maybe a little bit more. They were happy with that. But they're obviously
not happy with that any more. And they're not autonomous any more either, the
independent film companies. They're all owned by bigger studios. And so that
kind of put an end to the dream that we had in the early 1990s.
Miraculously, these movies still get made. But distributing them has become
more and more difficult. ... You still get the movies made. A filmmaker can
always scrape up money to do a movie. The passion drives it. And you'll get the
money. Money's the easiest thing. But the hardest thing is finding a way for
people to see your movie.
Why are movies important to you?
I don't know that movies are important. But I know that stories are important.
Movies may disappear. They've only been around, for God's sake, for the last
hundred years. ... I think that it's the need to tell stories, and that people
need to be told stories. It's the old sitting around the fire, you know. ...
And I don't think they really care how they get them either, but people really
need them. And they'll either get them through movies or they get them a lot
through TV now, which I think is great also. They'll be getting them through
the Internet and any way that they can get them in the future.
Do you think that telling a good story will ultimately win out?
Well, I'll tell you. I think down the line, ten years from now, probably more
people will remember good stories than they're going to remember ... this
weekend's box office winner. They're not going to go, "Oh, I remember when
'Legally Blonde' was the box office winner." They're not going to remember
that. They're going to remember some story that really meant something to them.
But I have to say, I do have my dire moments where I'm, like, "Why does this
continue. ... How is this ever going to get any better?" I really think it's up
to young people to really start a revolution. I'll back it up. I'm a little too
old to start a revolution at this point. And it really shouldn't be people my
age; it really should be younger people. ... I feel like there should be some
really renegade young filmmakers out there, and, like I say, I will totally
back them up 100 percent. But it really has to come from young filmmakers. And
I think we did that in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. ...
In film school, I remember going, "God, the French New Wave and New German
Cinema -- why can't we have a film movement? I want a film movement, too." And
then one day I woke up and I was part of it. ... So it's time for somebody new
to shake it up, really.
he wrote and directed such independent films as "Clerks" (1994), "Chasing Amy"
(1997), and "Dogma" (1999)
... I was really into entertainment from a young age, but never really thought
about working in film. It seemed like other people did that, not people in New
Jersey. So I never really considered it as a career until I was about 21. [On
my] twenty-first birthday, I went to see a movie, Richard Linklater's "Slacker"
, at the Angelica Film Center up in New York. And it was a real
eye-opening experience, because it was not the standard studio fare that I was
used to seeing everywhere, was weaned on. It was kind of my first independent
film. And I was really just taken aback by it, like, wow, this counts as a
movie? Like, nothing's happening really, just people walking around. We don't
even have one main character, it's just one character leads to the next, and
leads to the next, leads to the next. It was just a string of characters
talking about nothing, no plot, just a lot of dialogue. And I was fascinated by
that. You know, I viewed it with a mixture of awe and arrogance. I was awed by
the fact that this passed for entertainment ... that people would actually sit
down and enjoy it as much as I was enjoying it. And then arrogance, because I
was, like, well I could do this. I mean, if this counts as a movie, count me
in, I can try this.
So I got into indie film and started studying up on the past ten years of indie
cinema. People like [Jim] Jarmusch, and people like Hal Hartley and Richard
Linklater ... Spike Lee, stuff like that. And really kind of built a library
of sorts to draw from. And then went to film school for about four months, and
dropped out, and went home and made "Clerks."
After "Clerks" screened at Sundance, we got a few overtures from some studio
folks who had attended the festival. So we did this meet and greet thing,
where somebody flew us out to Los Angeles and we sat down with a few studio
folks, and basically people were very interested in seeing what I would like to
re-write and direct. And not even re-write. Some people were just, like, we
have these scripts, would you like to direct any of them? Which I always
thought was weird, because "Clerks" is a terrible looking film. ... So I was
surprised when people would ask if I wanted to direct something. Because, I
don't know, I just never really thought of myself as much of a director.
But we did kind of get courted, but not hardcore, you know. We got a few
overtures, enough to bring us out to L.A. for a visit. ... We spoke to Jim
Jacks, who produced the two "Mummy"s, later on. But he had produced
"Dazed and Confused," Richard Linklater's second film. And "Tombstone." He'd
worked with the Coen brothers on "Blood Simple" and "Raising Arizona." And he
kind of liked the idea of doing this movie we had called "Mallrats." So we got
involved on a studio level there.
And it was a different experience having just made the first movie by
ourselves, with no involvement whatsoever. Working with a studio, and working
with a budget was different, and kind of trial by fire. It wasn't that bad,
but we had to learn how to work well with others, in terms of dealing with
notes -- that's the first thing you have to deal with when you're working with
a studio. They'll hand you notes on your script and tell you exactly how to
tell your story, like, you're not telling it right, this would make it better.
And what it means is, this would make it more marketable, or this would appeal
to more people than the way you're doing it.
I remember having a discussion with [a woman] who was then at
Universal. ... And she's a great lady, but she said, she was talking about the
story, and I said, I don't know, I just think it's kind of watering it down if
we do this, if I address this note, one of these notes the studio had. And she
said, yeah, but Kevin, wouldn't you like your story to be seen by as many
people as possible? Like, isn't it really about reaching the widest possible
audience? Could that be a bad thing? I was like, no, I guess not. And later
on I figured out, it's not like it's a bad thing, but it's not necessarily for
There's some filmmakers who are definitely in it to reach the widest possible
audience, because it's show business, you know. There's a lot of business
involved, a lot of money to be made. And there's some people that just like to
tell stories, and it doesn't matter if a hundred million people identify with
it, or a thousand people identify with it. You know, there's a certain
satisfaction, a certain artistic satisfaction, for lack of a better word, that
kind of draws them to filmmaking. And I was one of those people. And I don't
think of myself as an artist at all, but I think I'm just kind of pig-headed
enough to want to do my stories my way. And without any involvement, without
any tips from somebody else.
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