Producers are very misunderstood. Of course, there‘s a lot of pigs — I won’t mention names — who sit in New York and buy every piece of literary property they can and get a studio to pay for it. But people like Don [Murphy] and Chris [Hanley] are really struggling, because they have to do things on a very small level. Those guys are the lifeblood of this industry, the fertility. So more power to them. We need them.
interviewed for this article
It‘s about people who sell their work, but won’t sell themselves. Anybody who holds out is a misfit. If he loses, he is a failure, and if he is successful, he is rare. This movie is about a world in change.
–John Huston, from The Making of The Misfits
One lasting effect of the independent-film boom of the ‘90s is the perception that all the interesting American films come out of New York. Here, rather than being a Trojan horse that subverted Hollywood from the inside, the indie cycle became a pretext for Hollywood proper to do and say what it wanted, no matter how crass or commercial the effort. American Pie? Freddie Got Fingered? XXX? Why not? There would always be some Harvey Weinstein or Scott Rudin or Ted Hope or Christine Vachon back East to uphold standards.
And yet, interesting, oddball, even outre films still get made — in Hollywood, within the shadow and amid the crushing machinery of the studio process. They always have. And for every director or writer or actor who lends his or her talents to big films that wind up smart, or to little films that turn out edgier or more subversive or less programmatic than might be expected, there is inevitably an independent producer, toiling in obscurity, who actually makes it happen. These figures, surreptitiously or flamboyantly, inhabit an ill-defined purgatory between management and labor: They impose parental controls on wayward talent from above, while soliciting creative concessions from skeptical studio heads from below. Depending on the day, they’re the nudges at the party, or the sore thumbs in the boardroom. But they rarely belong.
This is the story of four of them: Don Murphy, who, with partner Jane Hamsher, discovered Quentin Tarantino and brought his script, Natural Born Killers, to Oliver Stone, and who now has a studio deal at Sony; Chris Hanley, who has cobbled together foreign financing and “found money” to produce some 20-odd eclectic projects featuring micro-budgets and top-shelf talent; Stuart Cornfeld, who ushered David Lynch into the studio system and put David Cronenberg on its map, and who now runs Ben Stiller‘s company, Red Hour; and Steve Golin, who, with ex-partner Joni Sighvatsson, founded Propaganda Films, a TV-commercial, music-video and management company that launched many of today’s top directors, and who would like to do more of the same with his new company, Anonymous Content. Between them, they have produced some 70 movies, more often than not on a wing and a prayer. And they all agree it‘s getting harder.
These people are misfits — mavericks, visionaries, savants, bullies, cardsharps, egomaniacs — who follow in a tradition that stretches from Samuel Goldwyn to David Brown to Ed Pressman and Keith AddisNick Wechsler. They do it to get made the movies that nobody else will make, or that they want to see made.
But still, given the odds and the obstacles — to say nothing of the seat at the big table they’ve given up for the sake of tilting at windmills — it‘s an odd way to spend one’s life.
Don Murphy and the Angry Smiley Face
Monday Morning(executive producer, 1990)
Double Dragon (1993)
Natural Born Killers (1994)
Permanent Midnight (1998)
Apt Pupil (1998)
From Hell (2001)
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)
Don Murphy is industry point man for the geek Zeitgeist. Walk into his office on the Sony lot, and you‘re overwhelmed by toys and tchotchkes: Gigantor, a life-size Astroboy, Iron Man and Spawn and Star Wars figurines. Accompany him to Meltdown Comics on Melrose, and it’s like Elizabeth Taylor strolling into Harry Winston — staff and management stiffen and enthuse, clearly in the presence of a preferred customer.
So it should come as little surprise that following a string of outsider opuses chronicling opera-buffo mass murderers, comical junkies and dueling Nazis (Natural Born Killers, Permanent Midnight and Apt Pupil, all with former partner Jane Hamsher), his current slate should be focused almost entirely on the worlds of comics, horror, science fiction and cult cinema. His last film, the Jack the Ripper story From Hell, and his next, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a Victorian sci-fi opus, are based on graphic novels by Alan Moore. Meanwhile, he and partner-fiancee Susan Montford are producing an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft‘s At the Mountains of Madness with Guillermo del Toro, and an update of the Lee Madden biker saga Hell’s Angels ‘69, called Speed Tribes, re-purposed for the phenomenon of Japan’s underground motorcycle culture.
“He‘s a comic-book junkie from way early on,” says Apt PupilX-Men director Bryan Singer, a friend since USC in the late ’80s. “He understood the film industry early on too, but he never lost his — for want of a better word — geek status. He‘s the real thing. He’s always at the conventions.”
In person, Murphy borders on physically intimidating — 6-foot-2, an Irish brawler with an asymmetrical haircut who speaks so fast it often requires an aural double take. At his most manic, he seems like a cross between Richie Rich and Godzilla — a precocious 12-year-old irradiated into city-crushing leviathan. But close your eyes and listen, and the result is even more incongruous: With his halting rapid-fire delivery, slight lisp and overrefined sense of justice, he‘s a dead ringer for Rudy Giuliani. (Hamsher’s nickname for him in Killer Instinct, her tell-all of the Natural Born Killers roller-coaster ride, is “hyperanxiety boy.”)
The son of a well-to-do Long Island ad man, Murphy spent his undergraduate career at Georgetown University as film critic for the student paper and head of the campus film program. At the last second, he dodged the bullet of Georgetown Law School and entered the USC graduate film program, where Singer cut sound on Murphy‘s student feature film. There, Murphy also met future partner Hamsher, a sardonic ex-punk editrix (San Francisco’s Damage fanzine), and their faith in a stray script by the undiscovered Quentin Tarantino led them to Oliver Stone, who not only committed to direct the Tarantino-scripted Natural Born Killers with a $35 million budget, but installed them as on-set producers — the equivalent of a crash course in filmmaking. “We wouldn‘t be where we are if not for Oliver,” Murphy says. “He had every opportunity to fuck me on multiple occasions, and he didn’t.”
Another byproduct of the Hamsher book is that Tarantino, stung by criticism, spotted Murphy dining at Ago on Melrose in October 1997 and — looking for headlines, revenge or maybe just the cheap thrill of the sucker punch — began pounding Murphy in the side of the head, forcing Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein, of all people, to act as a mediator and pull them apart. The story became a Tarantino staple on talk shows, and there was talk of a lawsuit before the inevitable reconciliation. “Quentin and I are absolutely fine,” states Murphy for the record. “I wish him nothing but the best.”
But somewhere along the way, Murphy‘s reputation as a hothead and loose cannon was codified. Once JD (for Jane and Don) Productions had disbanded, he settled on the shingle Angry Films.
“That’s a joke,” says Murphy, defending the moniker. “The stationery has a really angry smiley face. I know what my reputation is in town — difficult, great taste, gets movies made. To me, that‘s fine. I’m not trying to win a popularity contest. You don‘t get movies made by being friendly. You get movies made by saying you have to make this movie. There are so many people involved in making a movie, there’s so much petty bullshit and egos and personalities that get involved that at a certain point you realize the only way is to just put your head down and ram. It‘s not really about being liked. They like you if you make a movie that makes $200 million. They like you a lot.
”Anyway, I have mellowed somewhat as I’ve gotten older. But at the end of the day, I‘m from New York. I don’t have kids, I don‘t have dogs, I don’t have a big huge house with a pool — and there are easier ways to make money. I just want to make movies. So don‘t get in my way, and I’ll be your best friend. But if you get in my way, don‘t be surprised if I smash this ashtray into your head. Maybe that makes me a colorful personality.“
And yet filmmaker Larry Clark (Bully), not noted for his affinity for producers (he once punched Another Day in Paradise producer Stephen Chin onstage at the Venice Film Festival), is borderline-ecstatic in his praise: ”I can’t say enough about Don Murphy. I think he‘s a great producer and a really good guy. I like him a lot. I think Don and I are probably cut from the same cloth. We’re determined to get it done. Nothing‘s going to stop us.“
”He certainly wants to make good movies,“ says screenwriter David Goyer, ”but I think he’s trying to appeal to his own sense of what‘s good and what’s not, and he really doesn‘t give a shit what other people think. Sometimes it makes him reckless, and sometimes it makes him his own worst enemy, but he really fights for this, and he doesn’t care about the politics. The funny thing is, he‘s actually a huge softie.“
Maybe so. But according to screenwriter Scott Rosenberg, who co-wrote a project called The Book of Skulls with his brother Phil for Murphy at Universal, ”Don’s a throwback to the old days of the bombastic, bellicose, belligerent producer. Takes no shit from anybody. Does not suffer fools gladly. But at the same time, he has this incredible taste for the most out-there, insane stuff. There‘s not a whole hell of a lot of mavericks in this day and age — no Sam Peckinpahs, no Richard Brookses. Or even actors — there are no Lee Marvins, no Robert Mitchums. Every now and then, though, you get an Oliver Stone or a Mike De Luca or a Don Murphy, and it’s refreshing.“
Murphy is also the guy who has stood up to industry powerhouses like Jerry Bruckheimer by threatening to go to the press. (”Years ago, I was involved in a project at Touchstone, and because of the way it was orchestrated, I think mostly by agents, it was putting me in a position where if I didn‘t get out of the way, the very successful Jerry Bruckheimer was going to cancel my Christmas. a And I stood in front of the tractor and said, ’You know, run me down, this is not okay what‘s happening here.’“) And when German financing entity Senator backed out of financing a Manson biopic last year, Murphy made sure its credibility suffered at every agency in town. (”You know, you have your little checklist of people who must die? Most of them now are people who fucked up that movie.“)
Much of what sets Murphy off is business as usual — people so mortified of being the bearers of bad news, to themselves or others, that they refuse to return a phone call, or pass on a project, or admit that their line of credit has come to an end. But his sense of right and wrong also extends to matters that, arguably, he has no business getting involved in — and which invariably come back to haunt him.
”I was developing a film with Mike De Luca at New Line that was basically the Teena Brandon story,“ he says. ”We knew there was another project with Lindsay Law at Fox Searchlight, a joint production between Diane Keaton‘s production company and Drew Barrymore’s production company. Drew was desperate to play the lead. Also, Drew was best friends with [Fox chairman and CEO] Bill Mechanic. So Drew and Diane had their rights, and we had these rights. There really weren‘t any rights left. Then we heard that [independent producer] Christine Vachon in New York was doing her version of the story — Boys Don’t Cry. And Lindsay Law bought it.
“The worst thing of all was, the Chloe Sevigny character, Lana Tinsdale, I‘d gotten to know her through all of this. She was a nice girl. She was fucked, because she was living in Bumfuck, Nebraska, where people are calling her a dyke. And I said to Lana, ’You know what? You need to meet this attorney I know, a really good litigator. And I know they don‘t have your rights, because I do.’ And she did see them, and she did sue Fox Searchlight, and they settled.
”At the time, people told me I was crazy. They said, ‘You’re about to start a film with Fox, and you‘re sending them lawyers?’ And okay, it did fuck me up. But it was wrong. Here‘s this 24-year-old kid who I think they gave her maybe 60, 70 grand to shut up. Where she comes from, that’s a fucking house. At one point, the chairman of Fox told me I‘d never set foot on his lot again. Then, a year and a half later, I was not only premiering From Hell for them, but the head of the studio was no longer the head of the studio. He had his own company and was buying projects from me.“
Mechanic, who’s gone on to produce The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen with Murphy, says diplomatically, ”Well, you know, Don‘s an excitable guy. He’s fought for what he‘s got. He believes that is what has gotten him there. As with anybody who fights for stuff, sometimes they fight when they don’t have to. I‘m the one who kind of banned him from the lot. There were some behavioral issues, in terms of what I thought was inappropriate for somebody who was making a movie for us. But,“ he sighs, ”Don and I made peace.“
”The one thing I have learned,“ Murphy says, ”is the value of the long-term. Should I kill this guy now, or should I just wait until it presents itself later, when it’s less overt? Should I get upset about this or,“ in the words of Charles Manson, ”realize that what goes around comes around?“
Stuart Cornfeld: ”Yeah, That Was Pretty Weird.“
The Elephant Man
(1980, executive producer)
The Fly (1986)
Wilder Napalm (1993)
Mimic (co–executive producer, 1997)
Had he never become a producer, Stuart Cornfeld would still be remembered as the fast-food boss in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, as an enduring symbol of minimum-wage humiliation. ”Hamilton, you‘re going over there as a representative of Captain Hook’s Fish and Chips,“ he tells a laconic Judge Reinhold, who‘s about to change out of his pirate costume. ”Part of our image, part of our appeal, is that uniform . . . Show a little pride.“
”He produced my student film at the AFI,“ says the movie’s director, Amy Heckerling. ”As far as working with him, he‘s the most fun guy in the world. He just looks like the world’s worst boss — especially in a pirate outfit.“
Coming out of the American Film Institute in the late ‘70s, Cornfeld, at 23, was reportedly the youngest producer of a studio film up to that time (Fatso, starring Dom DeLuise, but still). It was a short walk from that film’s director — Anne Bancroft — to Mel Brooks, Bancroft‘s husband, and Cornfeld’s employer for most of the ‘80s. Soon after, he began sharing an apartment with legendary hipster Mason Hoffenberg (Terry Southern’s collaborator on Candy), just then in the latter stages of heroin addiction. It is between those two poles — borscht-belt comedy and bohemian rhapsody — that Cornfeld‘s hipster sensibility was galvanized.
With his bald pate, red beard, roly-poly physique and power-casual Hawaiian shirts, Cornfeld vaguely resembles Santa Claus if he had spent his early years as a pot farmer on Maui. He grew up in Hollywood, and his first conscious memory is of appearing on the Art Linkletter TV series Kids Say the Darnedest Things — which he did twice, both times managing to broach the subject of death. His mother’s cousins played Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz, and at 12, he himself appeared in the religious short subject The Day the Temple Disappeared, which, he says, instilled in him to this day an aversion to moral absolutism. His father was an efficiency expert at Mattel toy manufacturers, and in some ways, Cornfeld inherited the family business: He‘s still the guy in the toy store charged with making the model trains run on time.
After getting a psychology degree from Berkeley and a series of odd jobs on the periphery of show business — managing the Ash Grove rock club in Santa Monica before it mysteriously burned down, opening mail for Joni Mitchell, taking the U.S. Census along the seamier stretches of Hollywood Boulevard — Cornfeld found his way to what would soon be christened Brooksfilms. There, he and fellow assistant Jonathan Sanger decided to set up a script by Sanger’s baby sitter‘s boyfriend — The Elephant Man — and dragged Mel Brooks to the Nuart on opening night to see David Lynch’s Eraserhead.
”Mel‘s reaction to it,“ Cornfeld remembers, ”was, he said to David, ’You‘re the only guy who truly understands what parenthood is about.’ Mel used to call himself my ‘mentor-tormentor.’“
”Stuart‘s a talented guy,“ says Brooks. ”He was very prescient back then. He showed me this weird flick, and I got it immediately. So I said, ’Stuart, set up a meeting with me and this guy David Lynch, whoever the hell he is.‘ I really expected a guy in a cape, kind of a Max Reinhardt type. And in walked Charles Lindbergh — close-cropped hair, white shirt buttoned at the neck. He couldn’t believe I was serious about having him direct something.
“Stuart goes through a lot of strange transitions. Some of them are physical — he gains weight, he loses weight. He‘s a crazy guy. If Franz Kafka had worked the Improv, that would be Stuart. Living with his demons, only a tortured soul could come up with such creative flights from it.”
While at Brooksfilms, Cornfeld also produced David Cronenberg’s The Fly, which ended up being the highest-grossing film in America for three weeks running. “Stuart‘s a fantastic guy,” says Cronenberg. “He’s very witty, very well-read, and he‘s got a ferocious intellect. So in pre-production, when it was conceptual, he was terrific. But when it came to actually figuring out how to be a producer, I think he was still learning. And I had already figured out pretty much how to be a director. So Stuart is the only producer that I’ve ever thrown off my set. It was kind of a friendly throw, but a throw nonetheless.”
Cornfeld also logged time at Barry Levinson‘s Baltimore Pictures alongside veteran producers Gail Mutrux and Mark Johnson, where he produced Kafka for Steven Soderbergh and Glenn Gordon Caron’s little-seen Wider Napalm. Offered the job of head of production at New Line in 1990 by Bob Shaye — the job Mike De Luca eventually took — he instead opted to suspend his career as a producer, to write and regroup. (That hiatus produced at least one memorable screenplay — IHave Smelled the Future — co-written with Bryan Higgins.) Later, he returned to AFI to teach part time for several semesters, and among his proteges was future Pi director Darren Aronofsky.
“I can understand why Stuart is reluctant to call himself a mentor,” says Aronofsky, “because Stuart definitely tried to treat us as equals. But when I showed him an early cut of Pi, he was the first to give me a confirmation from Hollywood that this could actually play outside my mom‘s basement. And when I first wanted to do Requiem for a Dream, it turned out he was a huge Hubert Selby Jr. fan, and he said, ’You‘ve got to do it!’ just at the time when everyone else was saying, ‘Why don’t you do something more commercial?‘ People who have taste and a conviction of what’s good and what they like, that‘s worth its weight in diamonds.”
Finally, through the intervention of longtime friend Bill Horberg, at Sydney Pollack’s company Mirage Productions, and writer Jerry Stahl, who had approached him for notes on his long-planned adaptation of Budd Schulberg‘s What Makes Sammy Run?, Cornfeld came to the attention of Ben Stiller, just then bathed in studio attention from There’s Something About Mary and looking for someone to run his production company, Red Hour.
“He‘s just a very interesting guy who has a really eclectic background and interests,” says Stiller. “I liked his sensibility and I liked his taste. He’s really good at working with writers and understanding how to make a script better, in both a specific and a general sort of way. Because he‘s a writer, he has a real respect for it.”
For his part, Cornfeld consistently downplays his own efforts and denies having any overriding agenda. “I like movies,” he says. “It doesn’t go too far beyond that. I‘ve always looked at myself as a footnote in other people’s films. I do outsider stories — that‘s just kind of my fundamental paradigm. I don’t know if it‘s because I was a fat kid or what, but you look at the times that the movies were really good, it was in the ’30s, when the European emigres came over who had a view of America that was both cynical and optimistic. They had an outsider‘s perspective, where they felt detached enough to comment on what was going on. The ’70s was the same thing, because of the them-and-us countercultural fault line that was in place. Once again, these were outsiders saying, ‘This is not what I’m a part of.‘”
It is Cornfeld’s enduring wit that makes him both a friend to writers and the front-runner to be the modern Herman Mankiewicz, whose bons mots once summarized an era. Many of Cornfeld‘s best lines border on the aphoristic: “If you want to see how well someone can write, take a look at their arbitration letter.” “The blank page is God’s way of letting you know how difficult it is to be God.” Or the enigmatic: “I‘ve got plenty of irons in the freezer.”
“He’s also the king of the obscure metaphor,” says screenwriter John Hamburg (Zoolander, Duplex). “When I first got to know him, I would nod like I understood, but it would never make sense to me. Or anybody you mention, he‘ll say they’re the smartest, the best, the whateverest in Hollywood. Harold Ramis: ‘Hands down, smartest person in Hollywood.’ He does this completely seriously, under the assumption that everyone knows this. ‘The thing about Ben Hecht is, he had the smallest hands in Hollywood.’ ‘David Cronenberg makes the best seared tuna in the business.’”
“He knows every musician, every band, every book, every writer, every author, every random figure,” says Nancy Juvonen, president of Drew Barrymore‘s company Flower Films, which just co-produced Danny DeVito’s Duplex with Cornfeld and Red Hour. “And literally, casting with Stuart is like being dropped off in Taiwan and trying to find your way around. It‘s all these names, to where you’re going, ‘I don’t know this person. Please let me know just one.‘” Screenwriter David Goyer, Cornfeld’s longtime neighbor, adds, “Stuart has had one of the most storied lives I‘ve run across. Anybody who is remotely interesting, Stuart’s a good friend of: Ricky Jay, David Lynch, Jerry Stahl, Karen Finley — whoever they are, they know Stuart. One time I asked him what‘s the strangest thing he’s ever seen, and he was apparently playing poker with Barry Levinson and Herve Villaichaize one night, and they decided to go fishing, so they rented a boat off the Santa Monica Pier. And Stuart looked up at one point, and Herve Villaichaize had caught a barracuda, and he was wrestling with the barracuda in the boat, stabbing it with this big huge knife he used to carry, this life-and-death battle going on. And Stuart kind of nodded and said, ‘Yeah, that was pretty weird.’”
Yet after 20 years in the film business, Cornfeld resolutely declines to lay blame with either those who make the decisions or those who prosper by them. “Over the course of my career,” he says, “I‘ve only met two studio executives who were really stupid. Everybody else was smart enough to get in the room. So I don’t look at it like I‘m this great guy with amazing taste. It’s just that my real enthusiasm is so much better than my fake enthusiasm. I just can‘t get it together to be that kind of cheerleader, because when I do, my voice and my eyes totally fucking let me down. I just broadcast desperation. If you make some morally corrupt film that makes a shitload of money, if you give $600,000 to Cedars-Sinai that’s going to save kids with cancer, [then] at the end of the day you‘re not really beating yourself up for having done a movie that’s all about things going boom.”
THE MAD SCIENTIST
Chris Hanley on Drugs, Cyberpunks and Serial Killers
(executive producer, 1992)
Trees Lounge (1996)
This World, Then the
Two Girls and a Guy (1998)
Buffalo ’66 (1998)
The Virgin Suicides (2000)
American Psycho (2000)
Love Liza (2003)
With his Buster Keaton deadpan and wild tangle of hair behind thick black Philip Johnson glasses, the soft-spoken Chris Hanley most resembles a European intellectual, or perhaps a mad scientist engaged in experiments involving small animals and electricity. A world traveler — his Web site, www.musefilm.com, features extensive photos from Tokyo, Phi Phi Island in Thailand and the house he keeps in Lamu, Kenya — Hanley has speech patterns that reflect an eclectic host of influences, from brain chemistry and chaos theory to his former lives as an electronic musician, art dealer and karaoke mogul, as well as the colorful figures he has encountered along the way.
From a beachfront loft in Venice, Hanley‘s Muse Productions, which he runs with his wife, Roberta, has produced roughly 20 films in a mere decade, luring adventurous, often first-time directors with the promise of final cut, and attracting major actors at far below cost with challenging material unlikely to get made elsewhere. Muse is currently awaiting the release of three features: Love Liza, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as a grieving widower who takes up gasoline huffing; Spun, the story of speed tweakers in Portland; and Tiptoes, a comedymelodrama from Freeway writer-director Matthew Bright in which Gary Oldman will appear computer-composited with a dwarf body double.
“Chris and Roberta’s life is just like an Interview magazine article,” says a former employee who wishes to remain anonymous. “The whole Warhol ‘80s, ’Look at all the crazy people around me, isn‘t it cool’ kind of thing.”
“Chris is from outer space,” explains Larry Clark, for whom Hanley produced Bully with Don Murphy. “He definitely is from another planet. But it‘s what makes him interesting, I guess. And somehow he has the knack for raising money for these difficult films.”
Born in the upper-middle-class suburb of Montclair, New Jersey, where they shoot exteriors for The Sopranos, Hanley — the son of a dentist and a dancer with the New York City Ballet — became an itinerant student at Columbia and Oxford (briefly) before settling at Amherst College in western Massachusetts, where he collected degrees in literature and philosophy. It was at the affiliated Hampshire College’s electronic-music lab, which featured the first sequencers and drum machines in the country, that he met his future wife. Relocating to Manhattan, where he and Roberta spent most of the ‘80s, Hanley found his way into the downtown “no wave” noise-music scene, where he formed a company called Intergalactic Music, initially providing vintage guitars and synthesizers to musicians like John McLaughlin, Heart, and John Entwhistle of The Who. Intergalactic later opened its own studio and recorded contemporary acts such as Afrika Bambaata, Soul Sonic Force, Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, the Ramones, and Blondie minus Debbie Harry.
Soon, as an offshoot of Intergalactic and financed, in part, by a thriving art dealership (on occasion, he paid people with Warhol paintings), Hanley formed Rock Video International to distribute the first music videos in Russia, the Eastern Bloc and Japan — and then, reversing direction, brought karaoke to the U.S., producing more than 400 video clips for the burgeoning fad. In the latter capacity, he wound up hiring practically anyone in New York who had an independent feature to his or her credit.
In February 1992, the Hanleys closed out their various businesses and relocated to Los Angeles, first stopping off in London long enough to produce Split Second, a subpar Rutger Hauer action film financed by Roberta’s father, a London banker. It put them on the map. “We worked with Harvey and his gang at Miramax,” says Hanley. “The entire net worth of the company was a pumped-up $6 million. At one point, actually, Harvey came to our house in London, and we could have bought 50 percent of Miramax for $6 million. We called our friend Gary, who worked with Paul Allen, who put October Films together, and he said, ‘Oh, man, they’re so much in the red. That‘s a dangerous investment.’ Then The Crying Game came out.”
Relying on New York contacts, Hanley quickly partnered with Nick Wechsler, of Addis-Wechsler, on Steve Buscemi‘s Trees Lounge. Through Wechsler, he met Matt Bright, who dragged him to a meeting with Oliver Stone, who in turn impulsively offered to produce Freeway, a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, starring Reese Witherspoon, and Kiefer Sutherland as a serial rapist. Hanley tapped his New York music pal Vincent Gallo to direct Buffalo ’66 and partnered with New York producer Ed Pressman on Two Girls and a Guy, and American Psycho (to which Leonardo DiCaprio was infamously attached for a heartbeat, before reason prevailed).
Today, Muse carries between 15 and 20 projects at any one time, many of them literary properties, including, at present, two Philip K. Dicks (Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said and A Scanner Darkly); one J.G. Ballard (High Rise); current literary pinups Amy (A.M.) Homes (Music for Torching and In a Country of Mothers) and J.T. Leroy (The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, to be adapted-directed by Asia Argento); and Mama Black Widow by Iceberg Slim. “There‘s a drug genre, a cyberpunk genre and a criminal genre,” says the aforementioned former employee. “Everything fits into one of those three. At one point, we had 10 books, and six of them were about serial killers.”
For fear of having projects stranded in turnaround, Hanley avoids development scenarios, preferring to retain the rights and use the studios to finance them upon completion under a negative pickup or production deal. Consequently, his financing tends to come from wherever he can find it, often a loose, overlapping consortium of foreign entities in the Canal Plus orbit. Describing the division of labor at Muse between himself and Roberta, Hanley says, “I’m the president of Muse Productions. She‘s the chairman. Chairman’s higher. She probably produces as much as me, but she makes me do the hardcore, in-the-trenches stuff — financing and on-the-set. She gets the screenplays going, and she‘s written several of our properties, or co-written them with people. I have to work the festivals more, hang out with Wild Bunch, Studio Canal, and do more of the traveling into Germany, England, Paris, Madrid, closing the deals. I’m pretty good with legal things. But Roberta and I trade off constantly.”(Roberta also directed Woundings, based on a Jeff Noon play.)
“I think there‘s a kind of parallel world that Chris inhabits, of random bankers and found money and instinct and openness,” says director James Toback (Two Girls and a Guy). “And it’s not really the so-called independent world, because that phrase has ceased to mean anything. There‘s an almost Don Quixote–like courage to persisting in it, because it’s so out of step, really, with what drives movies ultimately, which is money and marketing.”
“In some ways I‘m seen as being subversive, but it’s not my intention,” says Hanley. “I didn‘t come out here trying to fight the system. I just assumed that if you had an interesting idea, it would be well-received. I think the brilliant moments in all of history would be like what they say in complexity theory — right at the edge of chaos. It’s not actually chaotic activity, but it‘s near-chaotic activity, where mutations take place at the most frequent rate. My films are kind of like these little mutations. I don’t calculate what a contemporary audience is looking for. I don‘t think about that. I could, by accident, choose that, but that’s not what‘s causing me to push something. Blair Witch, to me, was an exploration of minimalist filmmaking. I mean, as a former art dealer and artist, I think, this is great — half the movie is a shot of leaves on the ground at night. What could be more interesting to me? But I don’t understand why anybody else likes it.”
Steve Golin:“For Good and Against Evil”
The Blue Iguana (1988)
Kill Me Again (1989)
Fear, Anxiety & Depression (1989)
Wild at Heart (1990)
Madonna: Truth or Dare
(supervising producer, 1991)
Fallen Angels (1993)
Red Rock West (1994)
The Portrait of a Lady
(associate producer, 1996)
The Game (1997)
Your Friends and Neighbors (1998)
Nurse Betty (2000)
The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2003)
Perhaps more than any of the producers profiled here, Steve Golin is equally at home with small, quirky upstarts (Being John Malkovich) and strictly a commercial fare (Beverly Hills 90210). And it is precisely such properties as Charlie Kaufman‘s Malkovich — legendary scripts within the development community — that aren’t likely to get made without the intervention of a name producer or studio executive who takes it on as a personal mission.
“Not only can Steve break down doors,” says Steve Unger, Golin‘s former assistant and now an agent at ICM, “but he also knows which doors to go through. And he overcomes obstacles brilliantly. I’m in awe of his ability to get things done. Producing is a relationship game, and he‘s proven that his are long and fruitful.”
Like Don Murphy, Golin is the son of a successful New York ad man, a biochemist in Rockland County who specialized in medical advertising. After NYU film school, Golin transferred to the AFI producers program, where he met Joni Sighvatsson, a former Icelandic rock star who’d been up at Berkeley on a Fulbright scholarship. After producing several best-forgotten titles — Hard Rock Zombies, American Drive-In — together to ramp up their learning curve, they formed Propaganda Films in 1986 to capitalize on the cresting music-video wave. At its height, the company produced some $50 million in revenue and more than 150 music videos annually, or roughly one-third of those being aired. Yet unlike others at the time, Propaganda managed to leverage its production skills and contacts into an R&D process for feature films, incidentally launching the careers of many of today‘s top Hollywood directors — David Fincher, Michael Bay, Spike Jonze, Dominic Sena, Simon West, Antoine Fuqua, Mark Romanek and Michel Gondry — and adding commercial production and management arms along the way.
They also produced half a dozen dark, edgy thrillers, much of early David Lynch (Wild at Heart, the Twin Peaks pilot) and, although no one remembers it today, misfit-auteur director Todd Solondz’s first film, Fear, Anxiety and Depression.
“Joni and I were definitely like fire and water at the end,” says Golin, reflecting back on a split that still carries battle scars on both sides. “Joni likes to wind people up, and I basically had to calm them down. It was a little bit like Ronnie Meyer with Ovitz. I admire Joni, and I think he‘s very clever, but we ran out of steam. We had very similar skills, and I think that we complemented each other very well. We still have a very interesting shorthand between us that I don’t have with anybody else.”
“I think it was a very successful partnership,” says Sighvatsson, choosing his words carefully. “And I always felt that a big part of the things I have managed to accomplish in America are due to my partnership with Steve. So I look back on it not necessarily with nostalgia, but with great fondness.”
After Sighvatsson left to head Lakeshore Entertainment in 1995, Golin and Propaganda produced The Game for David Fincher, Portrait of a Lady for Jane Campion, two films by Neil LaBute (Your Friends and Neighbors and Nurse Betty) and Spike Jonze‘s first feature, Being John Malkovich.
“You know, I grew up with a lot of directors,” says Golin. “I’ve been friends with directors for a long time. I try not to fuck people over, and I try to do what I say I‘m going to do, and pay people what I say I’m going to pay them, and do all those things that build up trust — and it takes a long time to do that. My job is to back filmmakers. Postproduction is the place where I can have the biggest effect on movies. If I have to get involved during production, it‘s bad.”
In person, Golin is the opposite of eccentric, his New York intimidation factor effectively muted by the slightly rumpled, slightly comical persona he employs to allay skittish moneylenders and artistic temperaments alike. Those who have worked with him invariably cite his honesty and directness.
“He’s a great conduit between all the disparate kinds of people who get together to make a project work,” says Neil LaBute. “Business affairs, musicians . . . he‘s got a hand in all those worlds. But he doesn’t have six different faces that he wears. He doesn‘t slip into his heavy eye makeup with Marilyn Manson and then back into his Brooks Brothers shirt to talk to the attorney, or into a large plaid shirt to talk to me. He has this absolutely specific and unique taste, and yet it doesn’t guide his every move. He doesn‘t dress eccentric or drive a strange car or have a secret handshake. He has good taste — and the good sense to be normal.”
“He’s really straightforward,” says Spike Jonze. “I think on the financial side, people are probably calmed by him because he‘s practical in terms of knowing what their situation is. And with filmmakers, he has opinions, but he’s also supportive. He‘s honest, and he genuinely cares.” Adds Malkovich screenwriter Kaufman, whose Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Golin is currently producing for the newly formed Universal Focus, “I like his taste, and I like his honesty. He’s a direct, decent, honest person. I think that‘s rare in any position. People lie to you about everything, even about whether or not they like your work, just to keep in practice, or more, to keep you under their control, to have you on their side, or as a friend, or whatever they need to have you as. From the two movies I’ve been involved in with Steve, I feel like I trust him.”
“Look,” says Golin, “everybody‘s for good and against evil. Everybody wants to make good movies. But at the end of the day, Hollywood is a place where a lot of people — a lot — live by their word. A lot of deals get done here on your word. I think people in Hollywood are basically straightforward and honest, as much as the system allows. I really do. I mean, if I give my word, that’s it, and I expect the same from other people. And I‘m not disappointed too many times.”
In 1998, Propaganda was sold to Universal as part of owner PolyGram’s divestiture of its film assets, and then to Barry Diller‘s USA Films, before being taken over by a consortium of private investors in 1999, at the peak of the free-money bubble. Golin was summarily fired, and replaced by former William Morris agent Rick Hess. Two years later, the company collapsed. By then, Golin had formed a new company, Anonymous Content, which similarly sought to subsidize feature-film production with ancillary businesses — commercials, music videos and talent management. The company currently enjoys a first-look deal with Universal Focus and a second-look deal with Ridley and Tony Scott’s Scott Free Productions. But despite Anonymous Content‘s innovative forays into advertising, such as BMW’s online series of short filmscommercial spots directed by people like Guy Ritchie, Wong Kar-Wai and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, the studios have only recently begun to respond to the company‘s material.
“We started at the worst possible time,” says Golin. “It was right at the end of the whole Internet bubble, stupid money, blah blah blah. The first year, there was a massive commercial strike for six months. The second year, there was a de facto writers’ and actors‘ strike. And then there was 911 and a big giant advertising recession. It’s been a tough time. And it‘s been five times the amount of work I thought it would be — five times, without fear of contradiction. I honestly think you can’t count on what you could count on before. The business is a lot tougher. If I had it to do over again, maybe I wouldn‘t do it. I mean, I’m glad I did it now. But I couldn‘t do it again. I don’t have the energy.”
Although he has been reluctant to comment on it up to now, he is referring to what amounts to an open secret within the hermetic film community: In January of this year, Golin was diagnosed with bone cancer, one of the most corrosive and resilient of all cancers. Yet after eight months of intensive treatment, including a grueling, intensely painful surgery, he seems to have put the worst of it behind him.
“I was diagnosed in January, and I had chemo and radiation through June,” says Golin. “Then I had surgery in August — they actually removed my shoulder blade and replaced it with titanium. When they do that, they cut a lot and take out a lot of bone and whatnot. I‘ll never be able to raise my arm over my head — I can almost raise it straight, but not quite. Then I had to have two more rounds of chemo, and now I’m done. Everything with the surgery went according to plan, so they‘re optimistic. But who knows? I’ve learned a lot about everything having to do with this, and I wouldn‘t wish it on my worst enemy. But everybody’s been really sweet. That‘s the thing about Hollywood. When you’re doing well, everybody‘s a bunch of assholes, and when you’re doing shitty, everybody‘s really nice.”
In assessing a life lived in the trenches, Golin cites as role models inveterate lifers such as David Brown and Saul Zaentz, or his friends Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner at Working Title, or Ed Pressman, “who is really the grandfather of it all. He’s probably not that much older than I am, but he‘s somebody you really have to admire. He’s done it for a long time.
”The biggest thing that any producer has is tenacity,“ Golin says. ”Because literally, every day, there‘s a thousand people telling you why it isn’t happening, there‘s a thousand bad words. Call an agent, they don’t get it — they don‘t like the script, they’re not giving it to their client, their client doesn‘t like it, the client lost it, it went to the wrong address, every goddamn thing. You have to keep at it. I think if you really, really want to be a producer, you just have to hang in there. You can never quit. Once you fixate on that, you’re ahead of every other idiot in Hollywood. David Brown is 78 years old, and he‘s still doing it. That’s genius. That‘s what I want to do. There’s no retirement. They‘ll put you out to pasture eventually; nobody will take your phone calls, because all your friends will be dead, or you’ll be dead. But this is what you do.“