Who Said Making Movies Was Easy?

De Line Pictures/Album/Newscom
Fishnet Fury: Christina Aguilera (center) stars in her first film, written and directed by Steven Antin, who was inspired by modern-day burlesque act the Pussycat Dolls.

Inside the world of divas, fights and drama that produced Screen Gems’ dazzling Burlesque spectacular

The fight scenes, by all accounts, were spectacular. The only problem: They weren’t in the script.

In what could be considered a plot twist, the sparks on the set of Burlesque flew not between the two divas starring in the film, Cher and Christina Aguilera, but between the two intense men running the show: Clint Culpepper, the high-voltage president of Sony Pictures’ Screen Gems unit, and Steven Antin, a rookie feature director who got his first big gig on one of the most expensive films in Screen Gems history.

Antin also happened to be Culpepper’s longtime boyfriend.

Now, as the filmmakers rush to finish in time for the Nov. 24 release date, Sony executives say they are relieved that Burlesque scored record highs for the entire studio with a test audience last month in Arizona. After all the over-the-top fighting and on-set drama, after all the stress endured by the cast and crew, after a worrisome early cut that led the ending to be reshot, after Cher decided to exercise her big-star prerogative and work on her scenes with her own editor — it’s fair to say that all the creative tension and battling may have led to something that will very likely please the legions of women the studio is targeting.

The man responsible for much of the on-set Sturm und Drang is Culpepper. A huge and private personality, he often has been depicted by associates as a genre-film version of one of Hollywood’s most notorious wielders of heavy-handed power: Harvey Weinstein. But Culpepper has not become an Oscar magnet like Weinstein. In an article about Screen Gems last year, the New York Times called him “king of the schlockbuster,” citing such high-grossing, if not exactly critically acclaimed, titles as Obsessed and the Resident Evil series.

But being a king of any kind is an achievement in these challenging times. Since he took charge of Screen Gems in 1998, Culpepper has performed brilliantly with low-cost genre movies: horror, sci-fi, urban and broad comedy. Screen Gems’ most recent hit is Easy A, which cost $7.5 million and has grossed more than $57 million. This year, the unit’s six films have taken in more than $580 million at the box office. For Sony, it has become an increasingly important profit center.

Given the 54-year-old Culpepper’s success, it’s not surprising that Sony was willing to let him lay a big wager outside his wheelhouse. The gamble was not only in giving a complicated, risky project to a director with such a scant résumé (Culpepper often takes newcomers under his wing) but in bringing his personal life into the workplace — a touchy situation for even the calmest pro.

“Clint is totally on the set, he totally edits, he is involved in music selection, he is looking over the director’s shoulder,” a Culpepper associate says. “People have a choice to work with him or not work with him. It’s not like a secret who he is. … Every agent should be advising their clients about how hands-on he is. You’re not judged on being a good person; you’re judged on success.”

Even if you’re working with your boyfriend of 20 years.

Antin, 52, is a one-time actor with family ties in Hollywood; his sister Robin founded the Pussycat Dolls in 1995, and Steve had directed a couple of their popular videos. Culpepper has used first-time directors before: Sylvain White (Stomp the Yard) and Nelson McCormick (Prom Night), among others. That’s to be expected in a unit that makes low-budget features. But this was one of the biggest budgets and broadest-themed movies of Culpepper’s career, and he was working with big stars on unfamiliar turf.

Sony Pictures spokesman Steve Elzer says Culpepper through the years gained confidence in Antin’s ability to execute a picture on the scale of Burlesque. Indeed, few people would have had such intimate experience in this world.

“No one knew the world we set out to capture on film more thoroughly than Steve, and no one knew what Steve was capable of delivering more than Clint,” Elzer says. “Over the years, Clint had seen extraordinary talent as Steve took on a variety of projects. With a video camera and limited resources, Steve was one of the most visual and creative artists Clint had ever met.”

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But some involved with the project say the close relationship between Culpepper and Antin led to what one called “jaw-dropping” clashes on the highly charged set. Says a longtime Culpepper associate: “Did things [get heated] because you’re more comfortable yelling at your significant other than a stranger? Yeah. That’s human nature.”

And the pressure was on. “You leap into a gigantic musical, and you have to prove that it’s not a vanity project because your boyfriend of 20 years wrote and directed it,” says one source who worked on the production. “That’s a big, classy commitment. And there was a lot of conflict. If you ask any crew member, they would go, ‘Wow, was that crazy.’ … It was amazing, it was breathtaking, it was fun, it was wild.”

In many ways, Burlesque is an old-fashioned confection: Aguilera, in her first acting job, plays the little girl with the big voice who gets a job waiting tables at a fading club run by a retired dancer (Cher, in her first starring role since 1999’s Tea With Mussolini). The idea, says a source on the project, was to make a film that would be “pure, sexy fun.”

But Culpepper, in hands-on exec mode, and Antin, in creative mode, engaged in high-decibel fights “over every single thing: script pages, the way something was being shot, whether we needed extra shots,” one crew member says. Antin sometimes would storm out, and Culpepper would just keep going. Despite rumors that the fighting on at least one occasion devolved into shoving, a source close to Culpepper says that’s untrue. In the midst of one fight, the person says, Culpepper poured an iced tea over Antin’s head, and he recoiled backward and fell into a rack of clothes.

An insider says the drama between the 
two men was so intense at times that some crew members started keeping notes. A producer with ties to Sony marvels that no cell-phone-recorded footage has made its way onto the Internet.

The pressure mounted as the picture ran behind schedule and over budget. Burlesque started out at about $50 million — at the high end of Screen Gems’ usual range — and soared above $60 million, according to sources. Sony is adamant that the film cost $55 million.

The good news was that Culpepper and Antin fought primarily with each other.

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”It was never directed at anybody on the cast and crew,” one insider says. But the atmosphere on the set took a toll. Although Cher coolly looked after herself, a source says she did at one point say, “Clint, I would like a calmer set.” (Her manager, Risa Shapiro, denies that Cher made such a request. “Was it un-calm sometimes? Yes,” she says. “Was it fun most of the time? Yes.”)

The experience was more trying for Aguilera.

“Christina had a hard time,” a source says. “She was tired. They were working 12-, 15-hour days. She’d never worked that hard before. … She was really focused.”

Says another observer: “She was a little chilly, but take after take after take, dancing over and over for hours, she never complained. … She gave 100 percent.”

That’s to Aguilera’s credit, considering that she must have had a lot on her mind. Her latest album had been poorly received; a 20-city summer concert tour had been canceled; and by fall, her marriage was disintegrating.

On the set, a source close to Aguilera says she usually withdrew to her trailer when the fighting between Culpepper and Antin became intense. But she was still caught in the crossfire. One day, Antin and costume designer Michael Kaplan had her change outfits again and again as they argued about the best look for a scene. When Antin made a call, Kaplan went over his head and got Culpepper to back him. At that point, says a source, Antin went into “hysterics.”

The fighting was too much for Aguilera, according to several sources. Tearfully, she turned to her longtime manager, Irving Azoff, who called Culpepper. “Dude, she came from an abused childhood,” he said. “You can’t yell like this.” (Aguilera is estranged from her father and has said he was abusive.)

Aguilera responded to queries about Burlesque in an e-mail. “Working on my first feature film was a new experience, and it wasn’t easy,” she said. “Since I was in almost every scene, the hours were grueling and stressful. In the end, I have to say I would do it all over again. I am so proud of the final product and the work we all did. If Clint and Steven asked me to work with them again, there wouldn’t even be a pause, the answer would be yes.”

Despite his success and big personality, Culpepper flies below the radar. He declined to be interviewed for this article — as did Antin — and if you Google him, you will find virtually no information. No profiles or interviews. You will not find that he was a Disney intern long ago. You will not read that he is an accountant by training who at one time worked on Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Peter Schlessel, who began working with Culpepper at Sony in 1994, says that’s deliberate.

“We were trained to do the work, deliver the money,” he says. “Everything else should take care of itself.”

Culpepper and Schlessel started at Sony’s home entertainment division; Culpepper began working the film-festival circuit, primarily looking for straight-to-video movies to acquire. He and Schlessel were so successful that in 1997, Sony allowed them to set up the Screen Gems unit.

Schlessel, who went on to become Sony’s president of worldwide affairs before leaving the company this year to become president of GK Films, says Culpepper has a stunning track record in an industry where consistent success is usually an elusive dream.

“He probably bats about 80 percent,” he says. “I’d like to see anybody else in town have that success ratio. And ultimately, isn’t that what executives should be valued on — their profitability?”

He probably poses the question just that way because others sometimes focus on Culpepper’s more negative traits. They invariably describe him as smart and passionate but also foul-mouthed and combative.

“Clint is a power person,” a top Hollywood executive says. “He gets off on conflict. … He fights with everyone.”

Producer Josh Donen, who is working on the Screen Gems 3D horror movie Priest — which cost even more than Burlesque — calls Culpepper “a force of nature. He gets done what he wants to get done. I’m aware, he’s aware, that’s not everybody’s cup of tea. 
But that’s irrelevant.”

Azoff calls him artist-friendly, saying: “Clint’s probably the most passionate guy in town who does what he does. Christina would not hesitate to make another picture with Clint.”

Elzer also says the studio has complete confidence in Culpepper: “No one is more consistently successful in this business than Clint, and we support him and Screen Gems completely. Burlesque is precisely the kind of motion picture we want the label to champion.”

Some observers were surprised that producer Donald De Line, who is busily working on Green Lantern and Yogi Bear for Warner Bros., would agree to take on Burlesque. For years he had avoided working at Sony because he didn’t want to risk his friendship with studio chief Amy Pascal. But a friend says De Line agreed out of affection for Culpepper and Antin.

“I guess they were looking for someone to sort of play Judge Judy,” the observer adds archly, “though I’m not sure he was able to do so.”

Given the stakes and Culpepper’s style, it’s hardly surprising that he just about jumped into Antin’s director’s chair himself. But Schlessel insists that Culpepper did not hire Antin simply to do his boyfriend a favor. “I would put my hand on a Bible about that,” he says.

Antin started writing the script that became Burlesque four years ago, with advice from Culpepper and De Line. He has long-standing connections to the world of burlesque through his sister’s Pussycat Dolls, and his own work with her on Dolls-related activities through the years.

Overall, the Antin clan has done well in Hollywood. Steven’s mother, Brenda, is a high-end interior designer with an antique shop on Beverly Boulevard. His brother, Jonathan, is a celebrity hairdresser whose fame spread after he appeared on the Bravo reality shows Blow Out and Shear Genius.

About 30 years ago, Steve was an exceptionally handsome young man who wanted to be an actor. By the time he was 20, he had scored a few minor roles, appearing as Jessie in Rick Springfield’s 1981 video for “Jessie’s Girl.”

One night, he went to a party at the home of the rising mogul David Geffen. At the time, Antin was “blond and pretty but … spoiled, vain and arrogant,” Tom King wrote in his book about Geffen, The Operator. “He thought of himself as the next James Dean.” Antin annoyed Geffen that night by making fun of other gay guests and disparaging the canary-yellow furniture that Geffen’s ex, actress Marlo Thomas, had left behind when she moved out. But when Antin returned a few days later to fetch a forgotten pair of sunglasses, Geffen took another look. According to King, Geffen “soon fell as hard for Antin as he had for Cher and Marlo.”

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Soon the two were living together. Geffen showered Antin with gifts, surprising him with a new Jeep Wrangler after Antin admired one on the street and presenting him with a golden retriever when he said he wanted a dog. But the relationship was tumultuous. There was a significant age gap, and Antin — again, according to King — was not especially mature. He was late for dates, didn’t care for the dog properly and exasperated Geffen to the point that he urged Antin to try therapy or est. the then-fashionable self-actualization program. After a year, the relationship buckled.

The breakup was so bitter that it became the stuff of Hollywood legend, with rumors circulating that Geffen had Antin’s Jeep torched. According to King’s book, Antin and Geffen laughed at those stories. Antin said the Jeep had simply been stolen.

Antin continued to get small roles including preppie jock Troy Perkins in The Goonies (1985) and a frat boy involved in a rape in Jodie Foster’s The Accused (1988). In the late ’90s, he had a recurring role as Detective Nick Savino on ABC’s NYPD Blue. As time passed, he focused more on writing and working behind the scenes.

In 2008, Antin was credited as co-developer and executive producer of Pussycat Dolls Present: Girlicious, a competition series that ran for a season on the CW. According to a high-level source on the show, Antin came along with his sister Robin as “part of the package.” Steve and other members of the Antin family were present on the set from time to time, and the exec recalls that there usually were loud conflicts.

“Once, Jonathan was doing a cameo on the show, giving the girls makeovers, and Jonathan and Robin were screaming at each other, and Steve was trying to be the peacemaker,” he says. “[But] Steve is a combative person, too. The whole Antin family is combative. … They’re a reality show.”

During the tumultuous filming of Burlesque, a source says Culpepper, the exec, and Antin, the director, were working, to some degree, at cross purposes.

“Steve rightfully wanted to get a lot of coverage to shoot those dance sequences,” the source says. “He realized he had a lot to lose or gain and was obviously meticulous. [But] he was falling behind.”

The shoot stretched to an exceptionally long 70 days 
(more typical for a film would be 40 days — but Sony says it allotted 
69 days, in keeping with 60-plus-day shoots for complicated musicals like Dreamgirls and Chicago). One source on the film says Antin shot perhaps a million feet of film. Tension ratcheted up.

“Steve’s a little slow,” the source says. “Clint was trying to bring in the movie on budget, on time. The screaming was, ‘Let’s move on!’ ”

Another source says Culpepper felt Antin was taking liberties that a first-time director normally wouldn’t take because of their relationship. By the time it was done, Antin had moved out of Culpepper’s house.

While Culpepper pressured Antin, he was more defferential to Cher, who nervously agreed to return to the screen two months into shooting with a nudge from Geffen.

A source says the actress found it demanding to return to a set, particularly one as challenging as Burlesque.

“She really cares,” another source involved with the production says. “She studies everything she does. She is who she is for a reason. She’s obsessive and detailed and professional to a fault.”

Despite her enthusiastic tweets about Burlesque, Cher for a time was said to be so unhappy with the film that it wasn’t clear she would agree to publicize it.

“She’d go on The View and [The Daily Show With] Jon Stewart if things went her way, and if things didn’t go her way, she’d be hard to reach,” a production source says. “It became clear that if Cher’s not satisfied with the way she’s portrayed, she’s not going to sell it.” (She is on the cover of December’s Vanity Fair and is planning to do Live With Regis and Kelly.)

With the release date just weeks away, the studio also became concerned that Burlesque wasn’t working. A new ending was shot, and the film was recut. The original editor, Virginia Katz, had cut Dreamgirls — seemingly the perfect preparation for editing Burlesque. But as the studio was aware, she was engaged to work on the next Twilight film and departed with no final cut only weeks before the release.

Culpepper started reshaping the film with Christopher Rouse, who had been called upon to salvage troubled 2002 film The Bourne Identity and won an Oscar for The Bourne Ultimatum in 2008. A source familiar with events says Culpepper was largely overseeing the cutting, though Antin was present.

“Clint has a lot of opinions and a lot of auteurship, and he knows what works and doesn’t work,” an insider says.

One of Cher’s main concerns, naturally, was her appearance. She asked for, and got, some reshoots. (“Culpepper is in love with Cher,” says a source close to  the production.) And her influence extended further than that. She worked on her scenes with editor Peter Honess (The Fast and the Furious, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) to ensure that she looked her best in every one. That prompted one veteran executive not associated with the film to joke that this could be the new Hollywood perk: “I need my own trailer, and I need my own editor.”

Although Cher wasn’t shy about exercising her clout, a member of the crew says she behaved warmly on the set — with the noblesse oblige befitting a queen.

“Cher gave almost everybody a wrap gift,” he says fondly. “Christina kind of didn’t.” (They got black hoodies.) The insider adds: “There’s a thoughtful sense of otherness with Cher. She knows that lots of people are responsible for making her successful.”

Sony has plunged into its marketing campaign with gusto: Burlesque posters and billboards have proliferated across Los Angeles with giant, brightly lipsticked images of Cher and Aguilera. (Industry observers were struck by the unusual size of Antin’s credit. “Usually, you only get that kind of credit if you’re Steven Spielberg,” one exec says.)

But Sony executives have ignored the sniping and focused instead on those test scores from the Arizona screening a few weeks ago. The numbers were good, but strong scores don’t necessarily translate to box-office success, and a source says anxiety is still high within Screen Gems. Early tracking shows the film getting some traction with women, especially young ones, though the competition will be tough. Burlesque opens five days after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I and opening-night foes will be Disney’s animated fable Tangled and the romantic comedy Love and Other Drugs, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway. Obviously Harry Potter will be a behemoth, the buzz on Tangled is strong, and Love and Other Drugs will be competing with Burlesque for the date-night crowd.

Of course, all of the behind-the scenes drama and angst will be forgotten if Burlesque high-kicks its way into box-office success. And on Thanksgiving weekend, when the movie opens, it will be clear whether Sony has reason to be thankful.         

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