Tavis talks with award-winning movie mogul Harvey Weinstein about his latest film, the animated feature Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil, and his career as co-founder of both Miramax Films and The Weinstein Company.
Movie Executive Harvey Weinstein
Tavis: Awfully pleased to welcome Harvey Weinstein to this problem. I’ve been trying to do this for a long time. In 1979, along with his brother Bob, he founded Miramax Films, which became the creative outlet for so many critical and commercial successes.
In 2005 he cofounded the Weinstein Company, which has kept up the tradition of quality storytelling through film. Here now, just a small sampling of his iconic filmography.
Tavis: Starting this weekend you can catch the latest project from the Weinstein Company, the animated feature, “Hoodwinked 2.” The company also just purchased the rights to a terrific project that made its debut at the Tribeca Film Festival. It’s called “The Bully Project.” Harvey Weinstein, you are the man.
Harvey Weinstein: You say that to everybody, Tavis.
Tavis: (Laughs) Laughs. No. Everybody ain’t got a filmography like that, man. (Laughter) I watched you watching that monitor. So when you see stuff, and that’s just a small sampling of your stuff, when you see stuff like that, what do you think?
Weinstein: I think, “What’s next?”
Weinstein: You never appreciate it, I guess, until you’re old and in that motion picture home, sitting there and just looking back with the old actresses and the old actors. But right now, it’s all about the next thing.
Tavis: How do you know, how do you figure out, what’s next?
Weinstein: To me, it’s all about reading and it’s all about understanding literature. I often tell the story that when I was 10 years old I played cowboys and Indians, I got my right eye poked out. I had a neighbor next door, Frances Goldstein, 72 years old, we lived in a rent-controlled apartment in (unintelligible) New York, and Frances Goldstein – my mom worked, my dad worked, and Frances Goldstein every day came and saw me because I couldn’t go to school. I looked like Quasimodo from “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” I think they thought I was going to scare the other kids.
I just finished my homework fast, I was bored to death. There wasn’t 500 channels so there was a thing for a librarian to teach a kid like me about reading. I started reading early and I read all the time, because I love it. When people ask me what makes movies great, it’s the material.
Tavis: Is there a lack of an appreciation for literature in our country today, and if so, how does that impact the film business?
Weinstein: I speak to kids 16, 17 years old, they haven’t read a newspaper. They haven’t physically handled a newspaper. They don’t even look at the headlines on a subway. These kids are on the Internet and the level of news that they’re getting is not the quality of “The New York Times” or “The Wall Street Journal.” It’s way deficient, and they don’t care. So for me, I bemoan the fact that I don’t think that our kids are as literate as they should be.
Tavis: What’s that say about the future of our country and the future of the business?
Weinstein: Well, I think the future of the business I’m less worried about. I’m worried about the future of our country, and I think it’s up to us to educate people and also to show the joy and wonder of reading.
If I can say that there was a moment of feeling great, it was on “The King’s Speech” when kids who couldn’t speak, who had impediments, who stuttered, told me and wrote to me and said, “Hey, we love this movie because if the king could overcome his impediment, then we can overcome ours.”
So many stories of kids practicing in the mirror and overcoming this thing. As a parent myself I’ve got to tell you that was one of my proudest moments, to make a movie like that that inspired kids that way.
Tavis: I loved it, too. So did the Academy, obviously. If President Obama called tomorrow and made you the tsar, since he loves tsars, he made you the tsar of the I Love Reading program, where would you start in trying to develop a love of reading in today’s kids?
Weinstein: I would change libraries and make them more visual, make it more exciting. Holograms, 3D. I think there’s a way to use technology to captivate children’s imagination early and then it’s like anything, it becomes addictive after a while.
I don’t think there’s a week that goes by where I don’t read a couple of books a week, and sometimes even more than that. But it all started when I was 10 with Frances Goldstein, so I channel Frances Goldstein across the country, and if the president is watching, and I know he’s a big fan of yours, I accept. (Laughter) I always wanted to be a tsar, and I’m part Russian, too.
Tavis: (Laughter) Well, you are the tsar of the independent film these days, so you’ve got your own little fiefdom that you control.
Weinstein: I’ll take the education thing, too. I’ve got spare time.
Tavis: They could use you. Speaking of spare time, I’m just curious. How does a guy who makes films spend his day? Do you sit around and read scripts all the time? What do you do?
Weinstein: I know it looks incredibly glamorous because I work with so many incredibly glamorous people, but most of the time I’m in an editing room, it’s pretty dark, it’s me and Kevin the editor, or me and Matt the editor. It’s two guys, and I miss cigarettes for especially those occasions. I haven’t smoked in five years but I used to love smoke-filled editing rooms.
Kids, if you’re watching, don’t do that, but it’s a lot of lonely time, watching celluloid go round and round and trying to find the best way to make a movie even better than the way you shot it, or watching old movies and learning things.
I love Turner Classic Movies, for example, because for me it’s an education each time to watch a film and just say, “Wow, that’s how he did it,” or “That’s how he lit that scene,” and just amazing things that I’m always constantly learning all the time.
Tavis: So you know the next question that I have to ask. Since you mentioned not smoking for five years, you know the question, so you want to just answer it?
Weinstein: Go for it. No, I don’t know it.
Tavis: Why not smoke – how’d you kick that? Why kick it? How’d you do it?
Weinstein: I read a book by Allen Carr.
Tavis: Back to books again. I love it.
Weinstein: Yup, exactly. (Laughter) That’s how I do most everything. I read a book by Allen Carr and he was 72 years old at the time and it was about how he quit smoking. It was unlike anything I’d ever read. Basically his premise was that you’re a jerk for smoking and that you have no control whatsoever, that anybody who smoked was not cool, they were weak, because they were giving in to cigarette companies that were putting one over on us.
They knew these products were addictive at the time they were 12. So I rang him on the phone, he told me he was going to be dead in six months of lung cancer, but he got me a guy named Damien O’Hara and he said that Damien’s trick was to spend five hours with you in a room and let you smoke through him talking to you about smoking.
So I sat with Damien O’Hara in a hotel room, and you know you can’t smoke in these hotel rooms in New York City, so what we were doing was illegal, even though he was helping me. So I smoked for five hours and we talked about cigarettes, talked about smoking in the boy’s room when I was a kid, thinking it was cool, watching James Dean, thinking I was Steve McQueen, the whole situation.
By the time I was done, I was so sick of cigarettes and realized that the tobacco companies had completely put one over on me, that I was angry. As a result, I never picked up a cigarette again and I realized that it’s like selling crack to kids. Damien O’Hara convinced me that it was crack and Allen Carr died at 73 years old.
Tavis: How hard was it for you to kick it?
Weinstein: I kicked it that day. I kicked it after five hours.
Tavis: Cold turkey.
Weinstein: I went cold turkey, because I just said, “I’m stupid. I’m really stupid. This is crack, and I’m not going to do that to myself. This is complete BS.” But I read it in a book.
Tavis: That, I suspect, sounds foreign to some people, because if we are to believe the latter part of your formulation, that you’ve been had, hoodwinked, bamboozled, run amok, led astray – sorry, Spike – by the tobacco industry, the argument is that it’s an addiction. So if you’re addicted to something, how do you just kick it cold turkey?
Weinstein: Because you’re just so upset, pissed off, that my anger addiction, how upset I was at myself, overcame my other addiction. Whatever remnant of pride in me I found in myself and I just said, “Goodbye. This is not going to beat me. It’s not going to control me.” And it didn’t.
Tavis: Looking back on over the time you were smoking, when you came to that realization, was there a sense of weakness? Not that you’d just been played, but that you, Harvey Weinstein, had been weak and –
Weinstein: One hundred percent. That was the genius of Allen Carr and Damien. He was a very successful businessman, Allen, and he felt he had been duped by the cigarette companies, and guess what? He’s 100 percent right. So this was a very unique way to break cigarettes. It came out of literature.
Tavis: The flip side of weakness is obviously strength. There are two things that come to mind right now. Give me two seconds to set this up, and I want to get your take on this.
So a guy I’m sure you know on this program a couple-few years ago said to me, Steven Botchko, said to me in a conversation one time, he cleaned it up for PBS, but he said to me in this business, Hollywood, it helps if you have F-U money or an F-U attitude, and both doesn’t hurt, but either F-U money or an F-U attitude.
I was reading an article literally just yesterday where (laughter) where Chris Dodd, the new head of the Motion Picture Association, was making a reference to you about how tough Harvey Weinstein can be when he wants the right kind of rating for his film, and you’re entitled to do that.
I say all that to ask, because you seem like such a nice and warm and friendly guy sitting next to me, but I know in this business you don’t get to where you are without being aggressive, and I’m trying to be charitable and kind here. So tell me how tough you have to be to get the stuff done that you get done.
Weinstein: You don’t have to be tough, you have to be smart. You also have to be principled, and you also have to be smart enough to enact your principles. So all the time it’s like the false accusation when women – when women are demanding, people call them bitches. It’s complete nonsense. They’re just smart, they want something and they’re aggressive, and aggressive is a compliment.
Except in this society, for women, it’s not, unfortunately. So if I’m “aggressive,” what am I aggressive about? The fact that there are 11 F-Us in “The King’s Speech” and those 11 words – there’s nothing in the movie sexually, there’s nothing in the movie violently – that prohibited a generation of children from seeing “The King’s Speech.”
In England, they understood that the content of those F-words would not – they didn’t want that to prohibit the kids from seeing it. Thus, families could go. So I went and overturned that rating. Does that make me aggressive? Does that make me whatever, a bad person, so that kids could go and see the movie?
That was something that I was aggressive about. Same thing about “Blue Valentine.” There was nothing adult about that movie that was different than any other movie. It didn’t show that much; it showed actually less than others. So there was discrimination, and we enacted it.
It’s image. Actually, I go home, I have four daughters, they kick my butt every day, but I’m glad that Chris Dodd and people think that I have that image because it’s very helpful in act of negotiation. (Laughter) I’m not even going to ask Chris Dodd to do what I want; I’m just going to tell him.
Tavis: (Laughs) That’s why I love you, man. To the point of this conversation now, do the fights change for you with each film to get it made, or is there a perennial fight that you find yourself fighting?
Weinstein: The kind of material that I choose is obviously not Marvel comic books, so I try to go against the grain and I also try to say what do I like, what do I want to do, what’s my art. What can I do that’s different and that’s exciting for me, and also what I can I do that’s exciting and different for the world public?
So I make movies about stuttering kings, I make movies about guys who have a left foot and paint with their toes and it becomes “My Left Foot,” and I have a lot of people tell me most of the time that I’m off the deep end and don’t do this. Probably a lot of people say that about the “Bully” movie, too.
Tavis: Since you raised it, tell me about it. This is the Tribeca project you just bought.
Weinstein: Yeah. There was an old motto that we had at Miramax when we first started that said, “Good can triumph over evil if the angels are as organized as the mafia,” (laughter) and it was the first motto of Miramax. When I saw this movie I said, “Hm, my old motto, going to come to be.” We’re going to, in a strange way, beat the bullies at their own game, because we’re going to end it.
We’re the right company to take this movie on, both politically – the country needs to end this thing. There are too many good kids dying, too many good kids shamed by stupid Internet, stupid pranks, stupid everything.
These kids get bullied on the buses; this is a movie that shows that footage. Any father who sees this, any mom who sees this, you want to get on the bus with your kids and go to school, trust me. You see the level of what has escalated so heavy in this country and around the world, that we can shame these kids that they throw themselves off a bridge or hang themselves in a room because they think they’re worthless? That day is over, because this movie and us are a perfect pair.
My staff says, “There’ll only be one bully left – you, Harvey, in our office.” (Laughter) “That’s your dream.”
Tavis: Let me ask a question about where you get the chutzpah, I think that’s the right word, the chutzpah to fight these political fights. I ask that because we had on this program not long ago, and I’m blanking on the movie right now – you produced it, you’ve done so many – Julian Schnabel.
Tavis: “Miral.” I’m going to go see his art collection while I’m in town this week.
Weinstein: It’s pretty damn good.
Tavis: He told me it’s pretty good. I’m going to go check that out. I can’t afford anything, but I want to just go look at it.
Weinstein: Me, neither.
Tavis: (Laughter) I just want to go see it. But that obviously was a very controversial film. I know there are many people in your own community, the Jewish community, who didn’t like that film. How do you choose or how do you fight those kind of fights even when sometimes they’re in your own community?
Weinstein: My mom’s 85 years old. She’s the Miriam in Miramax – my dad was Max, so it’s “Miramax.” So my mom reads about me with “Miral.” Then she sees the movie and she wants to know if my brother had anything to do with it, if he saw it, too. I said, “Mom, he loved it as well. He approved it, too.”
She said, “In that case, I’m putting you both up for adoption.” I said, “At our age, Mom?” She said, “I don’t think anybody’ll take you two.” So there’s my mother, with her strong, 85-year-old B’net B’rith Hadassah Jewish mom who’s I love her dearly, but obviously she doesn’t want to see that the Palestinians have a point of view, and that it’s a point of view that we have to understand if there’s going to be peace.
She’s half-kidding, but also not half-kidding, you know what I mean? So I think that was the first thing to overcome, is Mom. Over the years, Mom’s rolled with the punches. I remember we did the movie “Priest,” which was all those years ago. We made a movie about a priest molesting young boys, and the cardinal called us on the carpet in New York. It was front page headlines everywhere.
Tavis: I remember, yeah.
Weinstein: My mom wouldn’t even talk to us, that we made a movie like that. She said they used to show the Miramax sign up in Westport, Connecticut, where she lives, the Miramax logo would come up and people would boo in the theater. (Laughter) Because we were involved with “Priest.”
Okay, so we had heard all these stories, we had historically verified these stories, so we weren’t scared to take the cardinal on, and look what happened all those years later. Look at those stories of those boys and what happened to those boys. Now you look at what we did with “Priest” and people want to give us a medal for it.
So I feel the same way not about the medal, but we have to tell it. There won’t be peace in the Middle East until we as the Jewish community and the American community takes a better look at the plight of what’s going on in Palestine.
Tavis: How much did it really hurt, how angry were you, you tell me, when you couldn’t get it back?
Weinstein: I was not happy, but the people who have it now are doing a good job and I respect them quite a bit. They are self-made people and self-made entrepreneurs, and they’re treating us well, we’re treating them well. It’s working better than it was working with Disney.
Tavis: What’s the value, since you used the phrase, what’s the value in this business or any other of being self-made?
Weinstein: I think the idea is that you don’t get it handed to you and you appreciate it a lot more. Every day I might say I’m on to the next, but trust me, I appreciate it. I pinch myself a lot and just say how lucky is a kid born in Brooklyn and grew up in Flushing, Queens, in a rent-controlled apartment, sitting on the balcony of some hotel at the Cannes Film Festival with a premiere in front of 2,500 people. It’s pretty cool.
Tavis: How do you let this kind of success in Hollywood, no less, not go to your head? Or does some of it?
Weinstein: I live in New York, that’s how I let it not go to my head. When you live in New York City as opposed – in Hollywood, you go to the grocer and they probably go, “Hi, Mr. Weinstein, how are you? By the way, here’s a script, I’d love you to read it and I love all your movies.” That’s the grocery experience in L.A.
In New York it’s like wait on line, (laughter) sit there, shut up, you’re nobody.
I love New York; it’s the greatest equalizer in the world. You’re nobody in New York and you’re everybody in New York. So it’s the greatest city on Earth, as far as I’m concerned.
I don’t live there, so I don’t get to experience that smoke up my butt, if you can say that on PBS.
Tavis: I live there and that doesn’t even happen to me, so – and I live in L.A. How often does that happen, when people – you made a joke about it. Do people walk up to you and throw scripts at you these days?
Weinstein: I get a lot of “Do you remember when I met you in an elevator in the Cannes Film Festival?” and I go, “How many years ago was that?” “Ten years ago.” I say, “Absolutely, of course I remember you 10 years ago in an elevator.” (Laughter) “How could I have forgotten in all that time? Have I seen you subsequently?” No, but it was that 10 years in the elevator. I think we both looked at the floor lights up.
Nothing wrong with it, by the way. When I started out people helped me. There’s nothing wrong with somebody coming up and saying, “Here’s a script” or doing that, and if you do it politely you can really get a lot of mileage out of it.
Tavis: Just between the two of us, nobody’s watching, just the two of us –
Weinstein: Okay. Got a script?
Tavis: No, no. (Laughter) That was good, though, I like that. That was a good one, yeah. No, I don’t, but if I do, I’ll send it to you.
Tavis: A two-part question here, just between the two of us. The one thing that you did, in fact, make that you have since had reservations about, if there is one, and the flip side, something that you didn’t make that you say now, “Maybe I should have.”
Weinstein: Well, I think that didn’t make was just on a pure commercial, loved it for its pure entertainment value, was “The Dragon Tattoo.” I read about it in “Newsweek,” I had an opportunity, I believed in it; it was one of those situations where I walked in to the staff. It was one of those days when I wasn’t being alpha male and walked in and said, “Guys, what do you think we should do?” And they said, “Ah, it’s Swedish, forget it.” (Laughter) I said, “Okay. They’re probably right. It’s Swedish, forget it.”
Everything about it said to me, “I want to buy the rights to this, I want to make these movies,” et cetera, and I didn’t do and I regret it for that reason. I had another one too was “The DaVinci Code.” I liked this one and I wanted to do it, and Dan Brown wanted to sell it to us. But he wanted Anthony Magnella (sp?) involved in the production, and Anthony just said, “I can’t crack this.”
Anthony, great writer that he wasn’t, couldn’t crack it for the screen and admitted it to Dan Brown. As he said it, it was like one of those scenes out of a movie – you see the fortune moving away from you. (Laughter) How many millions of copies. We would have done that movie, we could have made art movies for the rest of our lives and still never run out of money. But so those were two that got away, I remember.
Tavis: Is there something that you have made that in any way you’ve had other thoughts, second thoughts, revisited, or are you happy with your complete filmography?
Weinstein: Oh, no. I’m sure there – I probably blocked it out somehow, Tavis, but there’s got to be, I’m sure, a whole bunch of movies that I wish I had a second chance or I wish never came to light of day. I’m just mentally blocked, I think.
Tavis: We’re just meeting for the first time, but the thing that has always turned me on about you, and I don’t even know you, I just love people who get counted out and they come back.
I’ve lost track of how many times you’ve been counted out, but I remember just a couple years ago, it was just a funny part to me, just reading a major article in a major New York publication, that you guys were done – Weinstein was through, it’s over, and here you are, on stage with “The King’s Speech” again, for the fourth time. How do you navigate forward when people count you out?
Weinstein: They pretty much counted us out from the beginning. If you really look at it, all the odds were stacked against us so I’m kind of used to that. But my favorite was – I know you’re talking about a “New York Times” story.
Tavis: Exactly. I was trying to be kind.
Weinstein: I always laugh when they get it wrong. Arthur is a friend of mine, who owns the newspaper, and those journalists, they just can’t wait for it to be proven true, but they’re going to wait a long time. They’ll all be gone by the time that happens. (Laughter)
Tavis: I love that humility. (Laughter)
Weinstein: No contest whatsoever. But the best was (unintelligible) who’s a wonderful writer.
Tavis: He is, sure.
Weinstein: (Unintelligible) about media, he’s great. He wrote like a 20-page profile of us pretty much saying that we were gone, and this was in the year 2000. He said, “This company was the king of the ’90s. Harvey has the sensibility for the ’90s. But the new millennium, I don’t think he’s the guy to go forward.”
They had about 20 guys off the record say the things – and this article was so transparent that I could tell the guys who were off the record saying it, like the leaders of other studios and all sorts of people like that. Three weeks later – not three weeks later, the company got nominated for 40 Academy Awards. It’s not even close, nobody’s ever even come near that, including three movies – “Chicago,” “The Hours” and “Gangs of New York” for best picture, and we won the best picture with “Chicago.”
Nicole Kidman won best actress for the – it was insane. (Laughter) It was just like throwing five no-hitters at the staff of “The New Yorker” magazine.
Tavis: (Laughter) So finally, this weekend, “Hoodwinked 2.”
Weinstein: I have four daughters, from eight months to 16 years old, and one of the things we always do is go to the movies, and I see a lot of the movies. Of course, the Pixar and DreamWorks movies are the golden standard, but there are a lot of others that as a dad you have to sit there and go, “Oh, my God, I can’t take this.”
But your kids are watching it, so it’s good enough. We try to imbue a sense of humor in the “Hoodwinked” movies that Mom and Dad can go see the movie and actually have a good time and get some extra special jokes. So I’m proud of it, it’s good and I hope people see it.
Tavis: I’m sure they will. Harvey, it’s a pleasure to meet you.
Weinstein: Thank you, Tavis Smiley. A pleasure.
Tavis: Thanks for coming through, I appreciate it.
Weinstein: Pleasure, my pleasure. Thank you.
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