The Oscar-winning producer explains why he decided to take a gamble on one of his new projects, the black-and-white silent film The Artist.
Film producer Harvey Weinstein
Tavis: It’s hard to imagine in this 3D digital age that anyone would bankroll a silent, black-and-white film about a 1920s-era Hollywood. But it’s high-stakes gambles, just like that, his latest project, in fact, that have made Harvey Weinstein one of the most important and celebrated movie producers of our time.
The new project is called “The Artist,” which is already front-and-center in the conversation for best picture this year. Here now, some scenes from “The Artist.”
[Short film preview of “The Artist”]
Tavis: Harvey Weinstein joins us from New York City. Mr. Weinstein, good to have you back on this program, sir.
Harvey Weinstein: Tavis, nice to be back.
Tavis: I guess every producer is a bit of a gambler, but this is a – this is a gamble. Why?
Weinstein: Well, I have to tell you that Thomas Langmann is the producer of this movie, and he’s a family friend in France. He’s also Claude Berri’s son, but certainly defined by his own incredible taste and his own fantastic success in France.
His relationship with Michelle, the director of the film, led him to go to America, shoot an entire movie in Los Angeles that’s black and white and silent. So the big gamble was his. I came in after the fact, so I have to really shout out to Thomas for being crazy to do it.
In my case, when I said yes, I went back to my team and my brother and David said, “I think you’ll probably have to talk to the board of directors about a black-and-white silent movie. Even though we support you, this is that controversial a decision.
Of course, I said, “I didn’t know we had a board of directors,” and then – (laughter). Then after I got through that, because I thought “The King’s Speech” gave me immunity this year, but apparently not for a black-and-white silent movie
So I went before the board of directors, but I said, you know what? I’m not going to do that until the movie’s finished, and I showed them the finished movie. For a silent movie this spoke volumes, and they were okay.
Tavis: What is it about this film – you’ve said a couple of things, Harvey, I want to go back and unpack in a second, or get you to unpack. But what is it about this film, as I suggested earlier, in the digital era, in an era where everybody wants to do a 3D film, they’re remaking movies in 3D, why would you believe and why does the board believe, to your point, that something like this can break through and be successful in this particular era?
Weinstein: First, it’s a superb comedy, to quote “The Wall Street Journal,” and I agree with that. It’s funny as hell. You laugh and have a great time. So the experience is universal and it’s amazing.
Just to use another great journalist, great columnist, Maureen Dowd wrote today an article in “The Times,” in her column, called “Silence is Golden,” and she talked about the joy that in this digital age of where everybody’s got their BlackBerry on and you’re sort of half there, here’s a movie where in order to – you pay attention, you concentrate.
Then the experience I had when I first saw an early cut of the movie, I walked out of Paris and the people’s faces looked completely different to me. I was looking at people almost for the very first time, and I think Maureen’s column in “The New York Times” so captured the essence of our over-busy, crazy age, and all of a sudden in the middle of that comes this sort of anti-tech movie.
In “The Los Angeles Times” Kenny Turan said that there are two technical marvels in the last five years of movies. One is “Avatar,” which takes us to an extraordinary world using technology, and then one is “The Artist,” which also uses technology to take us to the past, and also a way of thinking and a way of – I think it was without the crowded use of Facebook and phones and BlackBerrys.
I know myself, I’m there with my kids and sometimes I’m not there, and that’s frustrating for them and it’s frustrating for me. This movie will remind you not to do that. This movie will make you dance on air. You walk out of this theater; you’re Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
Tavis: (Laughs) To a phrase you used a moment ago – and I’ll get back to the film, you’ve got a few others out this year, it’s not just “The Artist.” I especially want to talk about the Marilyn project; I love that myself. We’ll get to that in a second.
But to your point, Harvey, how much of your success has to do, you and your brother’s success has to do with being the anti? You used the word, but it seems so apropos for the way you’ve approached your success. How much of it has to do with being the anti?
Weinstein: I think, Tavis, I’ve tried to make movies that appeal to me and also to try and make something that’s different out there. I always get a kick out of when some people criticize me and I go, “Oh, my God, if they only understood the reality, the economic realities of what I do,” and I know they think that I don’t go far enough.
But within the limits of running a company, I try to go as far as anybody in their right mind would go, and sometimes not even in their right mind. Sometimes people sit back in journalism and go, “Oh, my God, couldn’t it be tougher,” couldn’t it be this, couldn’t it be that, and I’m going, “Are you kidding me? What studio is doing the kind of work that we do or Sony Classics or Fox Searchlight?” There aren’t any of them doing that, and they have the money, the capital, the money to spare to make those kind of movies.
So I think I take the risks because I believe in the work that we do, and I also believe in movies. I’m a fan and I want to see something different. Last year we made “The King’s Speech,” and people said to me, “A movie about stuttering? Are you crazy?” This year they’re saying, “Black-and-white movie? Silent movie, ‘The Artist?’ You are crazy.” (Laughter) I don’t know, I’ll probably make the first superhero movie that bombs. (Laughter)
Tavis: You mentioned “The King’s Speech” a couple of times in this conversation. Earlier, you said something I want to come back to, Harvey – and I’m paraphrasing – you suggested that you thought the success of “The King’s Speech” might offer you some entitlements, which raises this question for me.
Does the level of success that you and your brother have achieved, does it, in this business, ever offer you a sense of entitlement? Does it entitle you to anything or is everything, I think to your point now, like starting all over again and trying to convince people that if you are crazy, you’re crazy like a fox?
Weinstein: Well, I don’t know how crazy like a fox; crazy, definitely. But I think the thing about our industry is I’ll never forget I was at the Academy Awards the night that Mark Johnson, who produced “Rain Man,” was young in the business and he won the Oscar.
I think it was one of my first times that I ever attended the Academy Awards. As he walked out, he went and his car took two hours to get to him, and I know, because my car took two hours to get to me, and I was just sort of standing in the back and I kind of knew, and I’m saying, “Wow, he just won the Oscar and look at that.” (Laughter) It’s not like the car appears immediately.
So I always took that as a metaphor. It’s like five minutes later. It’s probably the idea of imagine you make those movies and you struggle to make great films, and then five minutes later you’re sitting in front of, like, maybe a teen pop star and trying to convince them to do a song for your movie.
Maybe it’s good in a way because it keeps us humble; otherwise our egos would be inflated as some of the people who are in front of the camera. (Laughter)
Tavis: I’ll leave that alone, Harvey.
Tavis: I want to build this conversation in a moment to asking a question about what you’ve just raised now, and that is how it is when you have a multiplicity of projects that are all in the race for the Academy Award right now all getting buzz about being Academy Award nominated, how it is that you manage these things successfully to the point of winning the Academy Award.
We’ll talk about that in just a second, but first there are a couple of other projects I want to get to, because again, you’re managing a bunch of stuff right now. So I mentioned earlier the Marilyn project – “My Week with Marilyn.” I was so anxious to see this that I didn’t even wait for the studio in this town, which is very nice to me, to send me a copy to watch at home or to invite me on the lot to watch it in a private studio.
I actually paid my money, in part because I know how desperate you are for cash, Harvey.
Weinstein: Thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: You’re very welcome. I went to the Grove here in L.A. to watch the Marilyn project. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Tell me how that came to be and what your hopes are for it.
Weinstein: Well, I read Colin Clark’s book about a 23-year-old boy who got to romance Marilyn Monroe at age 30 for a week when he was making a movie in Pinewood Studios in London in 1956. The movie doesn’t take place over the period of a week, but we feature the week that he and Marilyn got close when Arthur Miller left her after they had a big fight in the middle of their honeymoon and this boy sort of told Marilyn the truth about her, life, this, that.
She kidnapped him one day and I cannot say that the idea of being kidnapped by Marilyn Monroe (laughter) did not have its total appeal to my fantasy. I read Adrian’s script and Michelle signed on board to play Marilyn, which was actually probably – in one sense, probably the most courageous act that anybody has done this year in a movie.
If you think financing the artist is as courageous as playing Marilyn Monroe, I don’t think it is. Darts could have been thrown at her; instead, roses were thrown at her. And Judi Dench came on board and Kenneth Branagh as Sir Laurence Olivier, and this incredible ensemble cast of brilliant actors, and sort of a new face in movies, Eddie Redmayne, who won the Tony award for “Red.”
So I had a fantastic cast, a fantastic director in Simon Curtis, and David Parfitt and I had produced “Shakespeare in Love.” It was irresistible. But the idea of recreating Marilyn Monroe’s musical numbers, recreating a skinny-dipping scene in the palace where Marilyn and this boy went to Windsor Castle and they went into the library, where his godfather is the librarian, but afterwards they came out and they went skinny-dipping in the lake on palace grounds.
What an – just, and it’s true, and it’s fun and it’s entertaining. My mom always says I make two kinds of movies. She said, “You make ‘The King’s Speech’ movies, the ‘My Week with Marilyn’ movies, ‘The Artist’ movies,” and then,” she said, “You’ll blow up everybody in the room in ‘Inglourious Basterds.'” (Laughter)
So this is more the charming side of the company, not the one that blows up everybody in the room.
Tavis: I think I get what you mean when you suggested a moment ago, Harvey, that you think that the actress Michelle took a huge gamble, that it was a very courageous move. I think I get what you mean by that, but I think she did a wonderful job and obviously everybody else does as well. But why do you think it was so courageous on her part to sign up for the project.
Weinstein: Everybody who’s played Marilyn Monroe before has gone down in flames. It’s impossible to capture Marilyn Monroe. This was the first girl who went in; read every book about Marilyn Monroe, like a student on a college with one course, the Marilyn Monroe course.
She can tell you what Kazan said about her, Arthur Miller, Laurence Olivier. She can quote verbatim everything that Marilyn ever said. She’s got a photographic mind and she also can sing and she can dance. Most actresses, Tavis, tell you they can sing and dance, or actors tell you they can ride horses, and (laughter) then you sign them and that golden day comes and that’s what we call – that’s why stunt people exist, and that’s why doubles exist.
But in any case, Michelle needs none of that. She did her own singing, her own dancing, she did the wiggle and the waddle and she did the voiced and three and a half hours to create the look and the makeup, and that’s what it took every day.
She was just as involved with the creation of that with the great Jenny Shircore, the great makeup lady in London who created “Elizabeth” for Cate Blanchett, and just incredibly transformed into Marilyn Monroe and just – it’s a breathtaking performance because she plays Marilyn, she plays Norma Jean, who was the alter ego of Marilyn, and then she plays the girl that she plays in the movie.
So it’s just heartbreaking and fun, but this is really an entertaining movie. Thank you for saying it, but I think you’ll back me up on that. The idea was to entertain the audiences and just to really do something that they would walk out and just feel great and exhilarated by.
I have to say when Rex Reed said something that’s great, like “Going out of a theater and feeling exhilarated again,” and that was the intention in making it and that’s what I wanted to do for audiences – this true story that’s really a fairytale.
Tavis: You delivered on this one, I’ll tell you. I enjoyed it immensely. When you suggested earlier, and I’ve heard you say this before in other conversations I’ve read where you’ve said this in print, Harvey, and that is that you make movies that you would like to see and consequently hope that others would like to see it.
But what is it about – I know you’re a movie lover, obviously, but what is it, you think, about your sensibilities about the movie business that does, in fact, resonate with the audience?
So if you start out with the idea I’m going to do something because I’m turned on by this, you’re not that out of sync with the movie-going public because the stuff that you bet on tends to work. What is that thing you have in sync, you think, with the movie-going public?
Weinstein: I think that we have a desire to do something different, and to do the kind of things that just – I like to go to a movie theater and have an out-of-the-box experience. I don’t care if it’s – Robert Downey’s “Iron Man,” for example. Here’s a movie that just absolutely blew me away, especially Robert and Gwyneth. They just elevated the genre and Favreau’s directing.
So I love – and it just turned me on my head. Or “The Descendants” this year, or “Hugo,” Marty Scorsese’s movie. There are movies like that – I saw “Tin-Tin,” Steven Spielberg’s movie. This is like the best “Indiana Jones” movie – it’s as good as “Raiders,” “Tin-Tin.”
So I love the experience – and here’s a cross-section of four different movies, or “Ides of March.” You walk into a movie theater and it takes you on a journey, and I like to do that too, but I don’t like to take you on the expected journey. There’s nothing worse than saying a movie’s predictable as far as I’m concerned.
It’s like you watch the movie and five minutes in you know exactly when the heroine is going to get together with the hero, and I like to just dabble in the unexpected. I think it’s what audiences like. Also, the offbeat and just try to do something a little bit different.
Tavis: This movie is not out yet, but people are talking about it already and I can’t wait to see it myself, because I would say anything, and I do mean anything, that – anything Meryl Streep is in, I’m going to see it, because I so adore Meryl Streep.
That said, “The Iron Lady” is starring Meryl Streep. Tell me about this and when it’s dropping.
Weinstein: This movie is going to go across the United States January 13th and New York and L.A. on December 30th, and this is a transformation. The opening scene of this movie, I think your jaw is going to drop. I know when it was put together, mine did, and that’s Meryl playing 80, Meryl playing 70, 60, 50, 40. Just incredibly seamless, invisible.
This movie is something counter to my expectations in a way, because when somebody first said Margaret Thatcher, I must tell you that I’m not Margaret Thatcher’s biggest fan. But by the time I got done making the movie and listening to Meryl talk about her and understanding her the way Meryl Streep does, I think the movie humanizes her but doesn’t shirk away from the controversy.
Margaret Thatcher made tough decisions. She put people out of work and she stood up to labor unions and she did a lot of things that I did not like. Some of that turned out in retrospect to be absolutely the right decision, but one thing that comes through – here’s a principal leader, and this is where I’m really buoyed by the fact that conservatives love this movie and liberals love this movie, too.
Because at the beginning, as the movie was progressing, you had a situation where they wouldn’t see the movie, the conservatives, but people close to her would say, “How dare you,” because they’d read the script and we didn’t saint her, and then the liberals would say to me, “Oh, my God, if you don’t demonize her, don’t show up.”
So I think you’ll see one of the most full-bloodied performances in movie history. Barbara Walters said, as she was leaving the theater, that it’s one of the greatest performances she’d ever seen, and she’d interviewed Thatcher six times.
But you’ll also see a movie that deals with the tough stuff and also the human stuff, too.
Tavis: I’m glad to hear you say that, because I’ve not been a Margaret Thatcher fan either of her public policy positions, and yet because Meryl Streep is such an amazing actor I want to see what she does with the character. So I’m anxious to go see that.
Now, the question I said earlier I wanted to get back to, this notion of how it is – first of all, obviously it’s a wonderful good fortune to have when you’ve got a number of projects out, three, four, five, that are being talked about for Academy Award nominations and you know you’re going to win something somewhere I this process. But how does the guy who runs the company go about managing all of this right about now, up through March?
Weinstein: Well, first, Tavis, anybody who thinks they’re going to win is not accurate, and I’ll give you my best Academy story. I don’t think I’ve ever told this on TV. I’ve certainly told it in a couple of bars. (Laughter)
But we had a movie called “The Crying Game,” because this is a bar story, had a movie called “The Crying Game.” Neil Jordan was the director. It was nominated for nine Academy Awards. Tavis, people told me exactly what you said – well, you’re definitely going to win something tonight.
The movie was wildly successful; it was a $4 million movie, grossed like $60 million in the United States, incredible night. Neil Jordan and I, and Steve Woolley, the producer, walk into the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where the Oscars were that night, Neil Jordan’s Irish. He says to me, “Harvey, I can feel it, I can feel it, I can feel it. We’re going to win them all tonight. I tell you, we’re going to win them all. I just have that great feeling.”
I said, “Wow, that’s cool, Neil. Wow, that would be so exciting.” So we took our seats, and we were competing against Clint Eastwood that year, and he had made “The Unforgiven.” We took our seats, nobody noticed.
Clint Eastwood walked into the theater and they gave him a standing ovation (laughter) for taking his seat, for sitting. I said, “Neil, they just gave Clint Eastwood a standing ovation for sitting down. How in the hell do you think we’re going to win anything?” (Laughter)
First nomination comes up, “Unforgiven,” “Crying Game.” The award that we were favored to win, we lose, and then we lose again. I said, “Neil, I will not be spending the rest of the night in my seat. I will meet you in the bar.” (Laughter) It was the biggest shellacking of all time.
Clint Eastwood not only won the Oscar that night, he won the seats, the cars, people’s wallets. It was just the biggest, most impossible, and Neil Jordan, “Don’t worry, I’ve got a feeling, the luck of the Irish.” (Laughter) Yeah, okay. So much for predictions.
Tavis: That’s why I love Harvey. You can see why he’s a great producer; he’s a great storyteller. I could talk to this guy literally for hours at a time. I’m always honored when he takes our phone call and agrees to come on the program.
Again, I don’t want to jinx Harvey Weinstein and I don’t want to be like his friend, but it’s hard to imagine this Academy Award season, the stuff they’ve done, not getting a lot of nominations.
Again, I won’t jinx anything, but there’s a lot of good stuff, I will say, that this company, the Weinstein Company, has put out this year. Harvey, thanks for the good work that you put out for us to see this year, and I’ll just leave it at this – all the best come Academy Award season. How about that?
Weinstein: Thank you, Tavis, I really appreciate it. I love being on the show.
Tavis: Good to have you on. That’s our show for tonight. See you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from L.A., thanks for watching and as always, keep the faith.
[Film clip from “My Week with Marilyn”]
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