Producer Mike Medavoy: 'Black Swan' Is Darren Aronofsky's Movie
The legendary producer behind 'Shutter Island' and critical fave 'Swan,' talks to THR about bringing the right people together -- and giving them room to work.
Mike Medavoy participated in a THR roundable of producers. Subscribers can read the full roundtable here.
Mike Medavoy sits in his Culver City office, on the phone with a senior executive at the Weinstein Co.
They’re discussing a passion project that Medavoy developed for years, Shanghai. Set in the city of his birth, where his parents fled the Holocaust, it’s being turned into a movie by the Weinsteins — but without Medavoy’s participation because he sold it to them more than a decade ago.
Clearly, word has gotten out that he’s unenthusiastic about the film. Then he tells the Weinstein rep, presumably about the redoubtable Harvey: “You know, if he’s pissed off at me, he should pick up the f---ing phone and tell me that. You say people are losing money on it? Well, that’s not my problem.”
He puts down the phone, unperturbed. “Well,” he says with a sly smile, “now we know where everybody is.”
Where Medavoy is, is at a high point in his career. With a box-office smash in Shutter Island and a multiple-Golden Globe nominee in Black Swan, the man who started in the mailroom at Universal, went on to become Steven Spielberg’s agent, rose to be a key executive at Orion, United Artists and TriStar then branched out with his own financing-production company — the appropriately named Phoenix Pictures — has risen again.
He is modest about his role and the stamp he has put on his 314 films (as an executive and producer), which span from Apocalypse Now, Rocky, Annie Hall and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (on which he was an executive) to Swan. “In every case, I’ve had a different relationship to the film and the people involved,” he says.
Not long ago, Medavoy was hanging out with a group of fellow producers, most of whom were too young to work in the business during the ’70s. But when talk turned to the best eras of Hollywood filmmaking, the younger crowd looked back longingly to a time Medavoy knows too well.
“They all said, almost in unison, that the best movies were all made in the ’70s,” Medavoy recalls, looking relaxed and youthful in faded jeans and a baggy black shirt. “And I said, ‘When we were in the ’70s, making these movies, I thought of the ’40s as the era I was interested in — a combination of ’40s movies and the New European movies coming out at the time.”
Despite working during this blossoming of American film — which he saw undone, he has written, by “filmmaking by committee” and corporate takeovers during the 1980s — Medavoy doesn’t rail against the forces of history. He’s old-school in his tastes and, in many ways, resists easy nostalgia.
Looking over his producing track record, the one thing that’s clear about Medavoy’s career is that it rarely falls into any obvious patterns — he doesn’t seem attracted to a certain genre or scale of film.
“A lot of people say I tend to go for the adult, intelligent films,” he says. “Is Black Swan an ‘adult, intelligent film’?” He makes the phrase sound dubious. “I guess.”
He sits back and shrugs it off. He has seen so much and knows so many people whose careers have gone up and down — including his, with a failed financing effort for Phoenix, a highly public divorce and now his rebound — that little seems to bother him.
His anteroom and office are lined with original movie posters of his triumphs, as well as photos of various friends and associates: Jane Fonda, Terry Gilliam, California Gov. Jerry Brown. He also has pictures of his family: two sons and his much-liked wife, Irena. Then there are his memories of fleeing the Chinese Revolution for Chile when he was almost 7 and remaining there until he was 16. During those years, he wrote in his 2002 memoir You’re Only as Good as Your Next One, “I grew up knowing America only through its movies.”
Just what Medavoy does as a moviemaker differs on each film. “I don’t like sitting around the set,” he says flatly. He tries to be as involved as he can without cramping the director’s style. “Unless I see something really glaring in dailies, which I look at religiously.”
Swan began with a script titled The Understudy, set in the New York theater world. It was brought to Medavoy about a decade ago by a then-associate who suggested Darren Aronofsky to direct. It was Aronofsky’s idea to switch the setting to ballet.
Medavoy connected the relevant players and OK’d various developments — script rewrites, for instance — but says, “Let there be no doubt, this is Aronofsky’s movie.” He adds: “A lot of the time, the most important thing I do is get the right people together. Then I let the foot off the gas a bit so they can do the best work they know how to do.”
Does that mean they could have made Black Swan without him? For one brief moment, a smile crosses Medavoy’s face. “Never.”