The Confessions of Mike De Luca

Coral Von Zumwalt

‘A lot of therapy’ and self-examination. That’s how the brilliant “Social Network” producer describes his journey back from an infamous era of hard-partying, hedonism and that Harley.

He was the hippest of the hip, the baddest of the bad. When Michael De Luca was named president of production at New Line Cinema in 1993 at the mind-boggling age of 27, he became as famous for his style as his substance. Tales of late-night carousing with the likes of Courtney Love mingled with reports of wild adventures on a Harley. His unconventional image — black T-shirt, boots and a single hooped earring — merged with accounts of being evicted from his favorite restaurant, Chaya Brasserie, following a brawl.

Then, when he was caught in flagrante delicto at the home of agent Arnold Rifkin, De Luca went from being a source of industry speculation to fodder for the tabloids. It was the beginning of the end. A warning from his boss of bosses, Time Warner’s Gerald Levin, preceded a string of flops, and finally, eight years after being named president, he was fired by his mentor, New Line chairman Bob Shaye.

The bad-boy era was over.

Sitting with him recently over breakfast at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, it’s hard to reconcile that De Luca with the De Luca of today. At 45, fuller framed but with the same soulful eyes and surprising sensitivity that have made him widely liked — not to mention an Oscar nomination for The Social Network — De Luca has a gentleness, even a sweetness, that contrasts starkly with his youthful reputation. Indeed, his biggest concern today is that he might be late for lunch with the man who dumped him, Shaye.

He does nothing to excuse his past. “I fall into that cliché of the nerd who comes to Hollywood and remakes himself,” he says. “What I didn’t realize at the time was how unhappy it all made me. What you were seeing with the scandalous behavior was not someone having a great time but someone who, in a weird way, was re-creating the loneliness thrust on him as a child.”

The loneliness has gone, but De Luca’s best qualities remain — like his modesty regarding Social, whose success he repeatedly attributes to its creative team and fellow producers Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti and Cean Chaffin.

Sony Pictures co-chairman Amy Pascal jokes about his reticence. “There were several producers, and he said, ‘I want everybody else to get the credit; you can take me out,’ ” she says. “Who else would do that? He is the most generous, open, loving and sincere person.”

De Luca is skeptical about praise like this. “I hear it, and I kind of think it’s true,” he says. “But a big part of me just doesn’t believe it.”

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Growing up the way he did, it’s easy to understand why.

“I was a bookish kid, not really athletic,” De Luca recalls of his youth in Canarsie, a working-class section of Brooklyn. “My mom was very affectionate but also very loud. My whole house was very loud. My father screamed, my mother screamed — everybody screamed.”

With an Italian-Catholic dad and Jewish immigrant mom, De Luca’s family was anything but harmonious.

“My father was a Depression-era kid, so a little withholding on the emotional validation,” he says. His mother was a German Jew who had survived the Holocaust — thanks to her father obtaining fake papers, though De Luca has only a vague awareness of what happened. (She died in 2004.) “I feel guilty that I never got the story, but it was my choice to detach, and part of detaching was not asking questions,” he says.

With a much older sister, Debbie, De Luca felt alienated and alone. He had few friends, was slight for his age and was trapped in the middle of his parents’ tempestuous relationship — especially on nights when his father, a Con Edison electrician, returned home after the late shift.

“My dad would have bouts of rage and would express them like an angry adolescent, yelling and screaming,” De Luca recalls, admitting he’s inherited aspects of his father’s temper. “My mom was the same. It was tough because some of the fights would happen between midnight and 6 a.m., and I’d wake up and suddenly be in between them.”

He found refuge at the local library.

“I read giant books there because I wanted to be out of my house for a long time,” he says. “I read Les Miserables, A Tale of Two Cities and all those classics. I would go for 1,000-page books because it would take hours to get through them.”

While falling in love with everything from classics to comics, he also discovered film. He remembers at age 6 being overwhelmed by King Kong and by the movies his father took him to see at Radio City Music Hall, a veritable palace compared to the family’s second-story walk-up.

“The movies were so healing for me because I had such an isolated, lonely childhood,” he says. “Going to the movies and having the lights go down, you disappear. If you have esteem issues, suddenly you’re in a void where nobody can see you. You are just by yourself in that darkness, and your loneliness is cured. It was great to escape from a place where I felt like an alien.”

During one such escape, he saw the film that transformed him: Star Wars. Then, while reading the sci-fi movie magazine Starlog, he discovered that director George Lucas had attended film school. It was the first time he had heard of such a place, and he immediately decided to go. Having skipped eighth grade — leaving him even more isolated socially — he was accepted by New York University at age 17.

Unlike NYU’s most famous alumnus, Martin Scorsese, film school wasn’t critical to his formation. Far more so was his first job.

De Luca had dreamed of being an intern on Saturday Night Live, but the NBC show was on hiatus when he found out New Line had an opening. He applied for the internship and was hired.

It was 1985. New Line was a fledgling independent run by Shaye, an intellectual and businessman who had combined his deep love of art film with an awareness of the commercial power of genre. Based in New York, New Line was small enough that someone as determined as De Luca could make his mark.

Initially, he spent three days a week there, but soon this grew into a full-time occupation. Taken under the wing of executive Janet Grillo (later married to director David O. Russell), De Luca was offered a job as a data-entry clerk and script reader before he even graduated.

By the time of his graduation, he was four credits short of what he needed — something he conveniently neglected to tell his parents, whom he took to the ceremony anyway. (He received his degree a few years later.)

If Grillo and fellow executive Sara Risher gave De Luca his start, it was Shaye who most influenced him.

“We had many parallel interests,” Shaye says. “I knew he was very interested in comics and fantasy, as I am, but he had a more profound relationship to them than I did because I come from a generation before his. He was an avid reader, he loved movies, and in his own way, he struck me as a bit of a maverick.”

Shaye’s first memory of De Luca is of a handsome young man — though not the especially good-looking, hip executive he would become — with whom he’d chat by the water cooler. De Luca’s recollection is more distinct: “He loved my script coverage, and we just started talking about Lawrence of Arabia and 2001: A Space Odyssey. We had great, long conversations about all the movies we liked. It’s always easy for me to bond with someone over that. He is also a really sensitive guy: principled, passionate, a little mercurial but honest.”

De Luca bonded with Shaye and the somewhat offbeat crowd that flourished under him. “I had been anti-social before, but not by choice,” he says. “New Line was its own little world. That’s where I picked up the habit of hanging out with people after work.”

When De Luca relocated to Los Angeles in 1989, shortly before the company moved there, he started hanging out even more, valued for his knowledge of pop culture, his affinity for talent and his script judgment.

“He was a brilliantly instinctive film executive,” then-colleague Mark Ordesky says. “He was a genuine student of cinema; he had a command of popular culture and a great facility for human relationships.”

Soon, De Luca was promoted to an executive job — and then up the ladder, until Shaye and business partner Michael Lynne felt he was the man they needed to connect with younger audiences.

After De Luca’s elevation to president, his success was astonishing. Projects he’d pushed for, often despite his superiors’ hesitation — including Rush Hour, Boogie Nights and Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery — became giant hits. During his first year as head of production, New Line basked in The Mask and Dumb & Dumber; during his second year, it had Seven and Mortal Kombat. De Luca became that rarest of executives, one with a pulse for mass culture who also cherished such cutting-edge filmmakers as Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson and Spike Jonze.

“I like new talent,” he says. “It keeps the industry fresh.”

But the higher De Luca rose professionally, the lower he sank personally. In some ways, his career growth left him trapped in an emotional adolescence. A brief relationship with fellow executive Lynn Harris turned into a five-month marriage that floundered, he says, “mostly because of me not being ready.”

Deeper issues surfaced. “For someone who’d had no attention for so long, the success was intoxicating,” he reflects. “Bob would always caution against ‘smoking the Hollywood crack pipe.’ ” But De Luca did so nonetheless.

His late-night partying became notorious; dates with the likes of Julianne Moore led to meetings being rescheduled from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. De Luca became the poster boy for trouble. “It started with drinking,” he says, “but by the time I had finished with everything, I had run the gamut of substance abuse.”

Unlike many of his colleagues, the worse he behaved, the worse he felt: “A lot of people just have a good time, and there’s no baggage attached to it. But I’m a very bad hedonist. Living that way kept me isolated and alone. It wasn’t conducive to having the relationships that I was really craving but didn’t know it at the time. That was holding me back from being happy.”

Then the Rifkin incident occurred, when the mega-agent kicked De Luca out of his house after guests observed him in a sexual situation at the bottom of the garden. De Luca expresses only remorse.

“I had a very late adolescence, and I wish it wasn’t in the public eye,” he says. “But if you cause things that get you bad attention, tough. You have to own it all. I learned in a very public setting what works and doesn’t work for a healthy lifestyle.”

Despite the public fallout, De Luca kept his job. Indeed, to outsiders, his outrageousness seemed to fit a company with a reputation for being dysfunctional.

What truly changed De Luca’s professional life was his approach to his bosses. The arguments he had often waged in defense of projects he cared for became his regular way of doing business. “I regret it, but at the time, there was a lot of attitude on my part of, ‘How dare you argue with me?’ ” he says.

“As he started to enjoy real success, it sort of got to him,” Shaye agrees. “Near the end of his term, he and I had a pretty consistent lack of communication and eventually a falling out. Part of it had to do with a personal attitude that just didn’t coordinate with mine or the company’s.”

When hits were followed by such expensive flops as The Island of Dr. Moreau and Warren Beatty’s Town & Country, De Luca knew his time was up.

“We all saw the iceberg,” he says of Town & Country. “But if you don’t stop the train before a certain point, it’s inexorable. And then you try to fix it, but its fate is written. I think I even wrote in a letter to Warren, ‘It’s the kind of movie people lose their jobs over.’”

Three months before De Luca actually did, the New York Post trumpeted the news. “The Post was on me for years,” he says without evident bitterness. “Ever since the Rifkin incident, Page Six couldn’t wait for me to do something fun.”

But he never mentioned it to his bosses. “I do this weird thing that I probably picked up from my dad: I just fold in on myself,” he says. “I didn’t go to them, confront them; I just didn’t care.”

Then, in January 2001, De Luca was summoned to meet with Lynne and Shaye and told he was out.

“It was awkward,” he recalls. “Bob said, ‘This is my fault.’ I said, ‘It’s not your fault; I get it.’ I just tried to end it as quickly as possible. Then Bob said a funny thing. He said: ‘I’m relieved. I thought you were going to throw a chair through a window!’ ”

De Luca winces at the thought. “We got into a lot of father-son issues that didn’t need to be there,” he says. “I feel horrible about it now.”

New Line offered him a production deal, but De Luca knew it was time to move on. Still, he was devastated. Tears spring to his eyes as he remembers those days. “It was 16 years of my life,” he says. “I’m always setting up surrogate families and surrogate homes because I found my original home so lacking. Being a bachelor for so long — I’m choking up now — I invested a lot of that longing in work because I wasn’t pulling it off in relationships.”

Alone at home, De Luca immersed himself in a monastic life. “I just kind of retreated to my house, tried to think about what I wanted to do,” he says. Although he’d repeatedly been offered other jobs, his innate insecurity kicked in. “I wasn’t sure if I would ever be employable again,” he adds. “I thought getting fired was the atom bomb going off.”

Then DreamWorks came calling.
 

HIS FAVORITE FILMS
King Kong (1933)
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
The Godfather Part II (1974)
Raging Bull (1980)

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“Originally, [DreamWorks partner Jeffrey Katzenberg] was talking to me about a satellite producer deal,” De Luca recalls. “They were talking about: ‘Hey, those movies you did at New Line, the niche stuff or the genre stuff, we don’t do that here. Come and complement what we do.’ And then that turned into a pitch for [former production chief] Bob Cooper’s job.”

Conversations with Katzenberg and David Geffen were followed by a meeting with Steven Spielberg’s right-hand man, Walter Parkes. But De Luca never sat down with Spielberg himself until the final days of negotiations, when he was invited to the set of Minority Report.

“I just went and hung out, and it was thrilling, and we talked about movies,” he says. “But it was a formality because he’d delegated the hiring to Jeffrey and Walter.”

Contrary to previous reports, De Luca says things went well for a year and a half. But the parties never jelled; De Luca’s and Parkes’ tastes proved too divergent. “They put him in the role of gatekeeper, and we just didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of material,” he explains.

After 18 months, both sides clung to the belief that the situation would improve. “There was a fail-safe mechanism built into my contract,” De Luca says. “After a year and a half, we could
opt out. But things were still hopeful enough where we both said, ‘Let’s continue.’ ”

Then they soured. The movies weren’t working, and a pitch De Luca had set up for Transformers got the thumbs down from his colleagues. “I kept saying, ‘This could be a tentpole movie,’ ” he continues. “But it wasn’t really taken seriously until it got in front of Steven, after I left.”

It had been three years since he joined DreamWorks. Now he was dying to move on. “I thought I really should produce,” he says.

When Pascal offered him the chance, he jumped.

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It’s late morning, and we are in De Luca’s office at Sony — as cool, calm and corporate as his New Line base was chaotic. It seems ironic this space once belonged to Peter Guber, that most flamboyant of former executives whose braggadocio seems the antithesis of De Luca’s humble manner.

Reaching this point has taken “a lot of therapy,” he acknowledges — therapy he embarked on almost by accident during the late 1990s.

“I was dating a girl, I cheated, they found out, and I began it almost as a way to pacify the situation,” he says. After two or three years with the same therapist, he switched to cognitive behavioral therapy. “The theory is, you can change the way you think, and it will change the way you behave. That’s been the case. But it’s been hard to turn that ship around — it takes real effort.”

He adds: “I wasn’t able to enjoy what I built professionally until I got my personal house in order. That’s been a recent development; that’s really been from age 41 on.”

The effort has paid off: Four years ago, he met Angelique Madrid, an actress and contestant on the first season of ABC’s The Bachelor. Initially, she wasn’t interested, but “we struck up a friendship that eventually developed into something more,” De Luca says. They married shortly after the birth of their daughter, Skylar, now almost 3.

“She’s very open, very grounded, spiritual, fiery,” he says of his wife. “She doesn’t take my more truculent qualities: temper or willfulness or self-pitying. She doesn’t put up with it. That alchemy worked.”

Now the alchemy is working for De Luca on every level, professionally as well as personally.

In September, one of his most ambitious projects to date, Moneyball, will open. The producer has spent seven years on the baseball drama — adapted from Michael Lewis’ book about the Oakland Athletics and their 2002 season under GM Billy Beane — first with director David Frankel, then with Steven Soderbergh, until Pascal shut the film down in June 2009, a week before it was to start production, uneasy with Soderbergh’s changes to the script.

It has taken every ounce of De Luca’s skill to resurrect the movie with a screenplay combining the talents of writer Aaron Sorkin and Oscar winner Steven Zaillian, among others, under Capote helmer Bennett Miller. If all goes well, it will add to the luster he has acquired through Social.

Despite his disclaimers, he’s deeply attached to the latter. Reaching behind him, he takes out the original Social script, in bright-red pages with the name of Sony executive Elizabeth Cantillon stamped all over them, a protection against piracy.

“I kept the first draft,” he says. “It was one of the most breathtaking first drafts I ever read, and it was pretty much shot as is.”

He leafs through the screenplay, pausing on several pages of notes by Sony’s legal department, defining the sources for each scene in case Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg decided to sue.

Regarding the first scene, the annotations state, “Erica Albright is a fictional character.” Much of the story line is backed by Zuckerberg’s personal blog, the notes add, which implied that “his heart had been broken by a woman.” Further, the notes say, “We are in possession of these blogs.”

Whatever lawsuit De Luca might have feared never materialized — now an Oscar may instead. But in some ways, this seems incidental to the things that matter most in De Luca’s life: his family and its well-being.

He shows me a picture of his wife and daughter, and his emotion
is palpable.

“I want it all to work out for them so badly,” he says softly. “I don’t want my daughter to have to struggle. I want her to end up in a place that’s so much better than what I went through. My entire life is about maintaining her happiness, maintaining her protection, maintaining her journey.”

He pauses. “If you just take a few steps toward the light, you get a lot of light back.”           

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